A rainstorm struck that night.
Water splashed violently through the leaves, drenching everything into a wretched, sodden mess.
Ero huddled with Anastasia in a burrow that the dragon had dug out. Ze was incredibly swift at digging. This was how Ana had broken into the dark cage to save the calf, by burrowing and using dragon fire to melt the cage base.
The calf was warm despite the torrential downpour outside, as Ana practically radiated with dragon heat. He wanted to talk to zir about the milk bottle, the Valley, the Valve dragons, anything. But Anastasia was quiet tonight.
Ero didn’t want to push his luck, either. Ana had clearly been upset about the milk bottle’s appearance, even more so than Ero had.
Anastasia wanted to keep a lookout for any other intruders. But ze refused to say any more about the milk bottle.
“You have so many secrets,” Ero mumbled, feeling more than a little miffed.
Ana had only responded, “I’m sorry, but I’m sure there are plenty of things you don’t want to share, either.”
Ero had pulled himself up to his full height, which still wasn’t very tall. “You can ask me anything and I’ll answer.”
The dragon shot him a bemused glance, but didn’t bother asking. Zir refusal to even inquire about his life, hurt Ero even more than zir unwillingness to share much about zirself.
Now, as they sheltered from the battering rain outside, Ero nudged Anastasia again, “Tell me a story.”
The dragon was wary when ze replied, “What do you want to hear?”
“Anything! It’s so boring to wait out the rain with nothing else to do,” Ero protested.
Ana snorted. “I know you’re trying to pry information out of me. It won’t work.”
Ero butted his companion lightly with his head. “I promise I’m not. I just want to have more fun while I’m sitting here.”
The dragon rolled zir eyes. But ze made up a story to humor him. Ze told a tale of castles, knights, dragons, and monarchs.
“And then the dragon defeated the knight and saved the day. The end,” Ana finished.
Ero giggled and vibrated against the warmth of his friend’s scales. “You’re an awful storyteller. So matter of fact and direct, no spice or sauce to it.” When the dragon chortled, the calf said, “It’s nice to see that you’re not good at everything, though.”
Ana was silent, and Ero thought he had said something wrong.
He was about to ask when Anastasia spoke up again. “Does it bother you? That I’m — good at so much?” There was an uncertainty in zir voice that Ero was not used to hearing from the confident dragon.
Ero pondered for a moment, listening to the incessant rainstorm, and even to the rumble of thunder outside.
For a calf, he had little fear of thunder, as he knew the chances of being struck by lightning were slim. His mother had taught him how to avoid danger zones, too.
“No,” Ero began. “But sometimes I feel like I can’t match you.”
“Hmm, who said you needed to match me? We’re not rivals, and we’re not even the same species,” ze said.
The calf chuckled, casting an embarrassed glance at the dragon. Zir body was a glowing amber, just like it was when they had first met. “We’re not the same species, yes, but I can’t help but feel self-conscious sometimes,” Ero admitted. “You can fly, breathe fire, you’re strong and well respected by your clan — ”
The dragon snickered loudly. “Well respected by my clan? How would you know that? Neither Lance nor Demiel — the two blue dragons you saw at the Valve — were respectful to me.”
“Well,” Ero said, treading carefully, “Demiel and Lance were jerks. But I still get the sense that your fellow dragons respect you.” He paused. “Otherwise, how could you just resign and quit the Valve?”
Anastasia went still at those words, and zir body temperature seemed to drop by a few degrees.
Ero cleared his throat. “I did think more deeply about everything, you know? I’m eleven, not a newborn.”
Animal shifters lived much longer than non-shifter animals did, so an eleven-year-old calf shifter was still a calf, not a bull.
Ero continued, “If you had stayed a little longer at the Valve, you could just ask to resign, and then the dragons would let you go free. They might even allow you to take me back home.”
Anastasia was still tense and silent.
Ero sighed. “You don’t have to hide so much from me, you know? I’m not as dumb as you think.”
“I never thought you were dumb,” the dragon retorted.
Ero leaned into Anastasia, partly because he was getting cold, but mostly because he just wanted to. “At first, I thought you agreed to flee the Valve with me because you wanted to make sure they didn’t separate us, that maybe you wanted me around, too.”
His voice trembled a bit at those last words. The calf stared off into the distance. “Then I thought maybe you just didn’t want me to see how you look like as a human, though I’m sure that you look just as awesome in your human form as in your dragon’s.”
“It has nothing to do with beauty,” Ana said, but ze seemed to be less tense now.
Ero sighed and pushed the soil around with his hooves, as he often did when he was nervous. “Yeah, but whatever the reason for why you don’t like to shift into your human morph, it would still be a big risk to fly away and anger the other dragons.” Ero took a deep breath before he said the next part, “Except they won’t really be angry, will they? There are no dragons coming after us.”
It took a moment before Ana spoke up. “Very good. You are smarter than you seem.” The dragon’s voice was haunting yet melodic, and the sound echoed in the calf’s ears.
Ero exhaled. He was more confident now that he had gotten zir confirmation. “It was when the strange human gave me that bottle of milk, and you got mad, that really made me think. The human looked like a young woman, with a kindly face, despite her odd comment that I might come to harm if I made any noise.
“I did think she couldn’t be an ordinary human, since there’s no way a human mortal could just charge into a dense forest and know my exact location. She’s a shifter, isn’t she? I don’t think she’s a dragon, but is she a dragon ally?”
Beside him, Anastasia seemed to crumple a little, perhaps from exhaustion, or resignation. “Her name is Melia. She’s a horse shifter.”
Ero nodded. “No wonder I didn’t feel any threat from her like I usually do with carnivore shifters.” He laughed. “Present company excluded.” Anastasia huffed but sounded amused. He relaxed and stretched his hooves on the soil around him, which felt softer now. Even the rain outside was lighter than before, less aggressive, and less raging.
“So I’m guessing that Melia,” Ero began, “was sent by your dragon folk, maybe even flown here by a dragon herself. But they chose her partly because she’s an ally, but also because they wanted to reassure you, with a benign horse-shifter who couldn’t hurt a dragon like you, that they give you peace and wish you well, even if they don’t quite understand why you left.”
Ero added, “That milk bottle was a peace offering, wasn’t it? The milk wasn’t a prank, but rather a gift. I haven’t drunk my mom’s milk for years now, but this was still their attempt at friendliness.”
Anastasia let out a deep breath. “You’re partly right.”
“Oh?” Ero said, dismayed.
Anastasia laughed. “It was clever of you to figure this much out already. I have truly underestimated you. Yes, you’re right that the dragons wouldn’t want to kidnap or kill me. We don’t always get along, but they don’t generally bear me any ill will…” Ze trailed off.
“They wouldn’t be glad that we ran off,” Ana stated, “but the other dragons and I were never close, and they do have other dragons to take on their rescue missions. Yet…” The dragon groaned. “There is so much more to this story, and I really don’t want to tell you. I promise that this isn’t your fault, though, so don’t take it personally.”
The rain outside had lightened substantially by now, and soon, it was no more than a drizzle.
Ero urged his companion to come back out with him. He wasn’t fond of raindrops, but he also wanted to stretch his legs. Anastasia grunted but made no objections otherwise.
The calf enjoyed the fresher open air up here. The smell of the grass and leaves, newly doused with moisture, was much more pleasant than the smell of dank soil in their lair.
Ero said, “I know you don’t like being in your human morph, but I feel like being in mine now. It’s been too long.” With that, Ero’s calf body blurred and blended, like a smooth churning of milk, until he was replaced by a human boy with light brown hair and grey eyes.
He knew he was adorable, even if Anastasia looked taken aback by his sudden transformation. Then Ero said, “Since we’re not in any real danger, I want you to fly me back to see my parents.” He smiled and showed his dimples, even in the dim moonlight. “Just a brief visit, then we can go wherever we want together.”
Anastasia frowned deeply at him, but said, “All right. You deserve that much.” Ze clenched zir jaw. “I may not get along well with your mother, though. Especially when she sees my human morph.”
When, not if, Ero thought, and his heart leapt with excitement and apprehension.