Authors: Jamie Brindle
Tags: #F/F romance, fantasy
And there it was.
It was if fate had put the article there for her to stumble on.
She stared down at the headlines, howling up at her in lurid red lettering.
"I TOOK A HUMAN LOVER ... AND IT BROKE UP MY MARRIAGE!"
For an awful, impossible moment, she felt that it really was an accusation. She half expected to see a photograph of herself, staring guiltily from the glossy print.
But no. When she forced herself to breathe, when she looked again, she realised that the story was nothing to do with her. Of course it wasn't.
It was just an account of some slutty scum-wurm. They probably had only done it to sell the story. Who knew? Maybe they hadn't done it all. Probably they had just made it up.
Yes. That was right. It was just a silly story. Not real at all.
And why did she even care? After all, it wasn't like she was remotely attracted to ...
She had just been too soft. That was all. She had just felt ... bad. After all, the poor little creatures were like children, really. Their lives only bloomed for a few short moments and then they were old. A moment later, they were gone. She was just soft. That was her problem. She had always been too soft.
She let the thought trail off. Something began to harden in her.
This had gone on long enough. It was just weakness, silly weakness. After all, where would that logic lead? Would she start balking at squishing the annoying little sheep that were always wandering into her cave? Maybe it would be birds next. Where would it end? Would she be unable to squash a fly without being paralysed with guilt?
It had to end, and she would end it now.
She would go back to her cavern straight away, she would open the storage cupboard, and she would pull out the little ...
She forced herself to think it, to be honest with herself.
She would pull out the strange little human creature she had spared, and she would ...
She would deal with it.
As soon as she had decided that, she felt much better, much lighter, as if a load had physically lifted from her mind.
And if she felt a little sick inside, what did that matter? She must have worked too hard during her Bums, Tums, Wings, and Things class. Or maybe it was the Flapping class, afterwards. She always did that. Pushed herself too hard and overdid things. It was definitely not to do with the fact that she was going to get rid of her little pet.
What sort of a dragon kept a human pet? Really, it was a bit of an odd thing to do. Certainly, people did it. Or at least, you heard stories. And if any of the other girls she lived with had found the little creature, they would have laughed and smiled and made jokes about it.
But deep down, she knew they would have been puzzled. It would have changed their opinion of her, and not for the better.
No, she would not keep on with such foolishness. The human would have to go.
When she got home, her cave was cold and empty. Good. The other girls were out. She had worried on her way back about what she would do if the others were in—should she wait until they had gone to bed before sneaking out and tackling the problem? Or would it be better to pretend to fetch something from the back cupboard, and "discover" the little human intruder there?
But it was much better this way, much less risk.
Forcing herself to move with a purpose she did not feel, she made her way to the back of the cavern. Now she stood outside the disused storage cupboard and she paused, listening.
What if she opened the door and the human was ready for her? Maybe it would be waiting to escape? Yes, she was sure that would be the case. In a way, that could only be good, couldn't it? The human would dart out, desperate for freedom, crazed with the urge to escape, probably swinging some kind of silly weapon improvised from bucket handles or something ... And then she, Tina, would have to fight back. Easy. She wouldn't even have to think about it. It would be self-defence.
OK, she told herself, you can do this.
She felt a tingling in the back of her throat as the adrenaline surging through her reached her ignition threshold, and her (rather puny) pilot light sprung up. She puffed her cheeks experimentally and a small tendril of flame rolled out of her mouth as the inflammable compound stored in her parotid glands sprayed out reflexively.
Right. Now or never.
She flicked the catch on the cupboard door, and flung it wide.
She took a deep breath, staring furiously at the darkness, ready for the little human to come screaming out at her.
There was silence.
No human emerged, screaming or otherwise.
The cupboard was empty.
The human had escaped.
Tina sank back down, the fire in the back of her throat going out, emotions warring within her. No human ... that was good, wasn't it? After all, it meant she didn't have to worry anymore. She was free. She had almost become a nervous wreck, and what for?
And yet ... why did she feel so empty? Why did she feel so cold, so disappointed?
She turned mournfully, suddenly understanding that this turn of events heralded the complete collapse of her diet. Already her mouth was watering. Bugger it. She would have a blow-out. She knew a great fast-food cattle outlet that did home deliveries. She wouldn't even have to leave her cave. She would just sprawl on her hoard and eat her junky food and read the rest of her magazine and things wouldn't be so bad and ...
And something caught her eye as she turned.
Something very small, very delicate, very still, poking out of the darkness in the cupboard, just protruding into the light. It was ... It looked like ...
She peered closer.
It was a hand. A human hand. It lay prone, pale and still, and so tiny and delicate it made Tina's heart ache.
Hardly daring to breathe, she pushed the door gently with her snout, and it swung fully open, allowing a greater slice of light to fall into the cupboard. The hand grew an arm, and the arm a shoulder, and the shoulder became buried under a great mass of dark, dishevelled hair, and ...
And the human hadn't escaped after all.
The human had died there.
That was her first thought. It was dead. It was dead, and she had killed it.
Of course. How could she have been so stupid? What water had there been in the cupboard, what food? She had been so caught up in her own worrying, she hadn't stopped to consider the unbending biological mathematics of keeping a pet, any pet. How long had it been since she had shut it away in the cupboard? Two days, nearly three. How long was that in human time?
But then—or was she imagining it?—no! The chest was moving! Only slightly, but it was moving!
That meant the creature was breathing! It was still alive!
She did not know why this knowledge filled her with such joy. Simple, unthinking joy. There was no logic to it—her life was complicated by it; and yet, there it was: joy.
She moved forward and gently, more gently that she could have imagined possible, she nuzzled at the creature with her snout. The figure stirred and turned, rolling onto its back.
The eyelids fluttered for a moment, and the little human moaned. But then it shuffled and stilled again.
It's too weak. It must be half-starved, it must need water.
Moving quickly, an urgent, desperate energy suddenly powering her, Tina rushed to the kitchen and came back carrying a cup filled with water. She placed it next to the human. It was the smallest one she could find, but it still dwarfed the small creature. It looked like a miniature swimming pool.
Carefully, very gently, Tina reached out and gave the human a prod.
It moaned but did not wake.
I'm too late.
The creature would die. It would surely die, and why that should matter when she had been resolved on killing it anyway was a question she would not even let herself wonder. She blocked the thought as soon as it began to rise.
She felt a wail building up inside her. The human shouldn't die. It just shouldn't.
But if it wouldn't wake up, if it wouldn't drink, then what could she ...?
Her arm moved almost before she willed it, her claws coming carefully together, clamping the human around the chest so delicately that the skin hardly puckered.
It will drown, a traitorous part of her mind screamed. But what choice did she have?
She lifted the human like a rag doll, and dropped it into the cup of water.
There was a small, sad plop.
The human slid beneath the surface of the water and disappeared.
Tina stared anxiously at the water. The seconds ticked away. The ripples widened, slowed, faded.
Come on. Please, please, please ...
The water was still. The creature was dead. It was over.
Tina felt tears pricking suddenly at the back of her eyes...
And then with a bursting, a gasping, an explosion of air, the human surfaced.
Tina grinned, a helpless, foolish grin. It had worked! The human was revived!
It was coughing and choking and—it appeared— being violently sick. But it was alive.
It was so tiny. She peered closer. She had never thought much about human faces before, but they were so expressive. How could so many features be crammed into such a small space? It was strange, alien, not at all like a dragon face, with its beautiful, stern, intelligent curves and scales. No, this human face was squat, flat; ugly, she realised, by dragon standards ... And yet ... And yet, there was something compelling, something uncanny and interesting about those thin red lips, those delicate tufts of hair above those dark eyes, about the sheer mobility of the whole, the way the components were in constant flux, shifting from one form to the next, never staying fixed ...
Tina couldn't quite make out all the minute details. She had to get closer.
Now the human had stopped being sick, though it was still coughing, its mouth contorting strangely into a gaping O, the eyes bulging out obscenely. It was fascinating. Why had she never looked closely at a human face before? They were so odd.
She moved closer still ... and the human's eyes flickered, and Tina realised that the face that she had been observing was observing her back.
Tina had not thought it possible that those eyes could get any bigger, but they did. She could see the whites quite clearly—and how odd that was, to have eyes that were not just white or black or brown, but all three, all at once, one circle within the other!
Then the mouth opened, and a little red tongue came out, and the screaming began.
Tina looked at all the water. It would take time to rectify that. It had soaked the cupboard floor, and was running in little rivulets out into the main cavern. However could she clean it all up? Maybe she would just have to use lots of paper, soak it up. But wasn't that awfully, well, menial? She was a dragon, after all. She thought of what Suzie, her best friend from her college days, would do. Suzie would evaporate it. No question. She'd just open her mouth and zap! A few gouts of flame, a few tendrils of steam, problem solved.
But Suzie was cool. That was the difficulty. It would work for Suzie, no question. But if awkward, klutzy Tina tried it ...
Stop it! Cleaning up the water is not the real problem! The real problem is ...
Tina licked her lips and stared at the upside-down cup that had she had used so recently to successfully revive the human, and reflected on how versatile an object it was.
Refreshing drinks container, human-size pool, and now ... a neat little way to stop a human screaming.
Except it hadn't stopped the screaming, of course. It had just made the screaming a bit more muffled. And, what was worse, it seemed to Tina a profoundly, well, un-dragonish thing to do.
Certainly not something Suzie would have done to stop a human screaming. It was effete, somehow, a little pathetic. If she had really wanted the thing to be quiet, why hadn't she just squished it?
But then, if she had wanted it dead, why had she gone to such trouble to revive it?
Tina sighed. The more she thought about it, the more confused she felt.
It would be so much easier to think if the bloody creature would stop shouting!
Maybe she could reason with it? That didn't feel quite right, either, but she had to do something, after all, the girls would be back soon ...
Tina crouched down towards the glass and very carefully tilted it so that a little gap appeared at one edge. At once, the muffled screaming stopped.
"Hello?" said Tina, tentatively.
There was silence.
Tina was struggling to remember what she knew about humans. They were intelligent, weren't they? She remembered the ones she had seen in the zoo had lived in simple little communities. They even showed rudimentary traces of culture. She remembered a clever pet human she had seen on Krathnor's Got Talent that had even been able to read books and jump through hoops. And looking back to those few, terrifying moments when she had first found the humans trespassing in her cave, hadn't they shouted things to each other? If that was true, then this one must be able to speak!
Emboldened by her line of thought, Tina tried again, more confidently.
"Human?" she said. "Little human under the cup? Can you hear me?"
There was a pause.
Then came a reply, in a small but surprisingly deep voice.
This was not an answer Tina had been expecting, and she found herself wrong-footed for a few moments, until she mustered the wherewith to counter with, "I think you are."
There was more silence.
"Prove it," came the little voice at last.
Encouraged that obfuscation was at least a step up from screaming, Tina began to feel she was getting into her stride.
"I think I could do that," said Tina. "If I wanted to, I mean. But I'm worried that if I do that, you'll start screaming again."
"No I won't," replied the voice, instantly. "I'm not here. No one's here. If I were here, that would mean that I was not safely at home having a rather unpleasant nightmare. And as I am fairly certain that that is where I actually am, it is reasonably safe to assume that I will not start screaming again, as I am not, as has previously been established, actually here."