Authors: Jamie Brindle
Tags: #F/F romance, fantasy
"Is that a promise?" asked Tina, cautiously. "I mean, if I lift the cup up, you're not going to suddenly decide that you are here, after all?"
"I can't make promises," replied the voice. "I'm not here, after all. But I can say I'm pretty certain about it."
Tina thought about this for a moment.
"OK," she said, and lifted the cup into the air.
The human was crouched beneath. It looked very small and slender. Tina peered at it, marvelling at the way the black hair had clumped together in sodden tails. Its clothes were soaking, and they stuck to the delicate creature in odd ways, outlining and emphasising the curves of the flesh beneath. Tina felt a stab of pity. It was so tiny, so vulnerable. It must have been freezing.
Tina licked her lips, waiting for the screaming to begin again, ready to slam the cup down once more at the first hint of noise. But the human was quiet. It kept its head down, buried in its soaking cloak, and did not look up.
"Are you still not there?" asked Tina, when the silence had become uncomfortably long.
"I'm not sure," said the little human. "I think so. It's difficult to tell."
Poor little thing. No wonder if it's having problems thinking properly. It's been half starved, half-drowned, and now it's probably scared senseless about what I'm going to do to it.
"It's OK," she said, trying to sound reassuring. "I'm not going to eat you or anything. I'm on a diet, actually."
The human's head twitched. Slowly, very slowly, the neck bent backwards, until at last those two strange eyes were regarding Tina carefully. They were a wonder, those eyes. So tiny, so dark and so white at the same time. They ... sparkled, somehow.
"You're on a diet," the human repeated flatly. It didn't sound like a question. Tina had the sudden strong urge to justify herself.
"Well, I'm not doing anything drastic, obviously," she gave a little laugh that she meant to be ironic and waved vaguely at her belly with a wing. "Slow and steady, like they say. Don't try and do too much at once. Just cut down on a few naughty things. Less carbs, more exercise. I'm taking classes," she added, a note of defiance in her voice.
Tina shook herself inwardly. What are you scared of? You're worried that this human is going to laugh at your diet? Tina, you really are a silly girl!
But it was strange. For some reason, she found that it did matter to her what the human thought. How absurd! And yet, there it was.
The human snorted, and lowered its head back down slowly into the folds of its sodden cloak.
"Diets," it said morosely. "How I hate diets. Loathsome things. They always start off OK. In the beginning it's easy. But those last few pounds ..."
The human looked up again, shaking its head despairingly, and trailed off. Then it shrugged its shoulders, and for the first time a hint of a smile was there, a fleeting flash of white teeth, a glimmering in those dark eyes.
"I don't think you need to worry about losing weight, though," said the human.
"Really?" said Tina, genuinely touched. "From the front I look OK, I just hate it when I catch a glimpse of myself in profile. I feel so fat. And my tail is just ... it's a disgrace, really. Nothing near what a dragon should look like."
Tina realised she was hunching her shoulders, and forced herself to relax.
The human rolled those exquisite dark eyes.
"Here we go again," it said. "Another example. Another casualty."
"What?" said Tina. "What do you mean?"
"Well, who says?" asked the human. It drummed its fingers quickly on its chest, agitated. "Who says what a dragon should look like? I mean, you're a dragon, aren't you?"
"Exactly. And what do you look like?"
"Um ... me?" hazarded Tina.
"Correct, yes, you look like you. You are you, and you are a dragon: ergo, a dragon looks like you."
Tina, who only had a vague idea what ergo meant, but who liked the overall direction the argument was taking, nodded enthusiastically. Then she sagged.
"But in the magazines ..."
"Aha!" exclaimed the human. "Now we come to the heart of things! Listen, you don't need to worry about what anyone else thinks you should look like! As long as you're happy with how you feel, what's the problem?"
The human had risen to its feet, and actually come a few steps forward, all previous terror forgotten, an earnest look in its eyes.
"Well ..." began Tina uncertainly, then she froze.
From the cavern mouth, a clanging noise indicated that the front gate was being opened.
The human paused, head tilted curiously to one side.
"Who's that?" it asked, a hint of caution creeping back into its voice.
"Those are my flatmates," said Tina. She sighed. "They are definitely not on a diet."
There was a pause.
"You haven't got any of those magazines that made you feel fat, have you?" asked the human hopefully. "Maybe we could convince them ..."
Tina shook her head.
What should she do?
"I think," she said slowly, "that the safest thing for you to be right now would be a tea-bag."
She just had time to fill the cup up with water again before her flatmates found her.
"Kate?" repeated Tina uncertainly. "Isn't that a bit of a ... of, well, a dragonish name? I thought you humans were called things like Nacrathorn or ... or Butrex the Wise, odd names like that ..."
She trailed off. Kate was looking at her with those strange, piercing eyes.
"What are you saying?" she replied flatly. "Are you saying that just because I wasn't born with wings and a tail, that I have to have some stupid human name that you have to have a degree in ancient languages to be able to pronounce?"
Tina smiled and looked away, leaning back on the grass and staring at the blue sky overhead. They were alone in a meadow, far out from the hustle and bustle of the town, and Tina found she was enjoying the little human's company more than she would have thought possible. It was only yesterday that she had spirited her out of the storage cupboard and past her flatmates, but it seemed to her that they had known one another much longer. Maybe it was something to do with their short life spans, Tina wondered, then pushed the thought away quickly. She didn't want to think about that.
Anyway, this feeling of getting to know one another quickly was why it had come as a shock when she had suddenly realised they did not know one another's names.
"No, I'm not saying that," Tina said softly. "I'm not a ... a speciesist or anything. It's just, well, the humans you read about in books, or the ones in the zoo—"
"All have those awful old-fashioned names." Kate paused, and looked sheepish. "Actually, Kate isn't the name I was born with. I changed it when I was eighteen, when I left home."
"Really?" asked Tina, rolling to face the little human again. "What name were you born with?"
Kate paused, then mumbled in a very small voice.
"What?" asked Tina.
"Smeelor, Tamer of Worlds."
Tina blinked, snorted a laugh, tried to call it back, realised it was pointless, and collapsed into fits of helpless giggling.
"Hey! Don't be mean! I mean, after all, what sort of a name is Tina?"
Tina looked at her flatly. Kate sighed.
"Fine," she said. "I admit it. There's nothing wrong with Tina. It's a perfectly good name."
They both laid back down, and were silent for a few moments. Tina could feel the warmth of the small human body next to her flank. It felt good, somehow. Comfortable.
"Where is your home?" asked Tina, suddenly struck by the thought.
Kate shrugged, a little too quickly. "Haven't got one. Not anymore. Not sure I ever really had one, if I'm honest. I grew up in a town, oh, miles away."
She waved one arm vaguely, then let it drop back to the grass by her side.
"I never really fit in there, if I'm honest," Kate said, turning on her side, and looking up at Tina. "My family, they were an uncivilised bunch. I mean, I was adopted, actually. They looked after me OK, they were never cruel or anything."
"What was the problem, then?" asked Tina
"They were all obsessed with bloody questing," Kate said, shaking her head. "I mean, not that there's anything wrong with it. That's fine if it's what you're into. But I thought, there must be more to life, you know? But no, it was always, 'Smeelor, why can't you be more like your brother Kantrex and slay some big giant beasty?' , 'Smeelor, we're all going to reclaim the Jewel of Minimaz from the Dread Snake of Zah', 'Smeelor, have you finished forging that magic sword yet?'"
Kate shook her head sadly.
"Of course, I just wanted to go into advertising."
"'Go into advertising?'" Tina said, feeling wrong-footed. "But you told me the other day that you hated the way the magazines make normal people feel about their bodies."
"I do, that's the whole point!" exclaimed Kate. "I mean, that's why! I want to make a difference! Change the way things are done, stop people feeling that they have to live up to someone else's idea of what it means to be ... well, whatever it is they are ... That was why I came here, why I ended up in your cave ... "
Kate trailed off, and Tina looked at her sceptically.
"You broke into my cave because you wanted to get into advertising?" she asked.
"Yes! I mean, well, no, not exactly." Kate took a deep breath. "Look, it was difficult enough getting my parents to agree to support me to leave home and come here. I couldn't very well tell them that actually I didn't give a toss about slaying and pillaging and whatnot, that actually, what I really wanted to do was to be the first human editor of Modern Serpent, could I? No, so what I actually said was something along the lines of, 'oh, I really feel like a good bit of dragon-hunting, does anyone know about any good quests coming up?'"
Kate sighed again. "The problem was, there was never the right moment to leave. Actually, I'd already made up my mind to try and hide in your cave. I had this plan—brilliant, obviously—that while the others were busy looting through your hoard, I would hide myself somewhere, wait for them to leave, then throw myself on the mercy of the first reasonable-looking dragon to come along and find me."
She shrugged. "As it happens, things didn't work out so badly."
She smiled up at Tina, and there was such a genuine look of hope there, such trust, that she felt her heart lurch. Suddenly, Tina couldn't hold it in anymore.
"But I nearly killed you!" Tina exclaimed. "I killed your friends, and I nearly killed you! How can you say things didn't work out so badly?"
"They weren't my friends. Actually, they were sort of ... horrible. All they talked about was how they wanted to kill dragons and steal from them. The worst thing was, I had to pretend to be like them. None of them knew my real name."
Kate looked up at her, and there was that expression again. Hope, hope and trust. And ... affection?
"You know my real name," she said softly.
Then she lifted one of her tiny hands and laid it gently on Tina's flank. It felt so soft, so light. It was like being touched by a feather, by a breath of air.
Tina's was aware of her heart. It was beating fast, she could hear it pounding in her ears.
I should go home, Tina thought to herself. Something stirred in her. It felt good, it felt warm ... but it was wrong.
She didn't move. She held herself as still as stone.
Slowly, very slowly, Kate ran her hand over the thick skin of Tina's flank. She was stroking her.
Gently, imperceptibly, Tina's body relaxed.
A cloud scudded in front of the sun, shimmered, and moved on.
The meadow was warm and Kate's small body was warm and they were alone.
A few days later, Tina took Kate into the city.
Tina was not a city dragon herself; she found the towering caverns and wide, thronged streets oppressive at the best of times. But she felt so much more self-conscious with Kate there ...
"It's so dark!" complained Kate. "Can't you take the cover off yet?"
"No!" hissed Tina, a passerby staring curiously at her and at the small, covered cage she held in one hand. "We're nearly there, just be patient ..."
"Fine. But I'm sure you're being over-protective."
It was only for Kate's good. Who knew what a city dragon might make of a human? They might become angry, they might snatch the cage away and force it open and pull Kate out ...
And what would they think of you? A traitor part of her mind asked. Dragons who keep humans as pets are strange. Everyone knows that. They'd hate you, they'd laugh at you ... And that's if they assumed she was just a pet ...
Tina forced the thoughts down.
No, this wasn't about her. This was about keeping Kate safe. Of course it was.
The truth was that she was getting so sick of keeping things secret. She hadn't told her flatmates, of course. They would have been outraged, she was sure. And things had gone so fast over the last week, they had spent so much time together, they had ... done things.
She couldn't keep it secret anymore. She had to tell someone.
And so, she had decided, she would go to Suzie.
After all, Suzie was her best friends from her college days. Suzie had done some pretty crazy things herself back then. Suzie had been wild. Suzie would understand. Actually, it was possible Suzie would respect her more. Tina had an image of her old friend looking awestruck and impressed as she, Tina, pulled the cover off of the cage with a flourish, and revealed Kate, her ... her human ...
But Tina couldn't even complete the thought. Just imagining it made her heart beat faster, made the streets around her feel uncomfortably close.
Before long, Tina was standing outside her old friend's door. She hesitated, uncertain suddenly. Could she really go through with this?
"Are we there yet?" came Kate's voice, muffled through the cover.
"Yes," said Tina, bringing her claw forward and ringing the bell.
There. It was done now. No going back.