On the surface, the farmland around Ero’s barn was perfectly fine and untarnished. Fields of crops, blooming trees, delicious grass.
But appearances were deceiving.
Before the calf-shifter and the dragon had even touched the ground, a tall, athletic young woman in her twenties, with short black hair and defiant bangs emerged from the barn.
“Mildred?” Ero gawked.
The young woman, Mildred, laughed and opened her arms. “Welcome home, baby Ero.”
The boy whispered quickly to Ana, “She’s my cousin. She rarely visits so I don’t know what’s going on.”
Ana gave him a faint nod, and Ero hopped off reluctantly. He went over to his cousin and let her fold him into her embrace. Mildred fluffed his hair and chuckled. “Oh, how you’ve grown.”
The calf-shifter winced and said, “What did you come here for?” He paused. “And where are my parents?”
His cousin halted for a second, before ruffling his hair again, as if trying to soothe — or distract — him. “Why can’t I visit for pleasure? Does it have to be for a specific purpose?”
Ero heaved a deep breath. “Where are my parents?” he repeated.
Before Mildred could reply, Ana cut in, “Ero, they’re coming out of the barn.”
A middle-aged couple stepped out through the building doors, both in human form. But the woman, Lucille, was frowning, while her husband, Mateo, looked like he wanted to be anywhere but here.
Ero released himself from his cousin’s arms and ran to his parents. “Mom? Dad? What’s going on?” He glanced back at Anastasia, but zir face was unreadable.
His parents were not looking at the dragon, however. Lucille said, “Mildred, stop faffing about. We still have serious business to do.”
“Er, yes, ma’am,” Mildred replied. It would have been funny to see this buff, sporty girl submit so easily to her shorter and less muscular aunt. But Ero wasn’t laughing today.
“What on earth is going on?” Ero cried out.
His father spoke first. “I’m sorry, son, but we’ll have to move. There has been…a blight at our farm.” He grimaced. “Your mother and I were nearly poisoned by pesticides.”
Lucille tutted. “And it’s the dragons’ fault.”
Anastasia grunted with disapproval but did not correct her.
Mildred spread her hands. “Dear cousin, while you were gone, a lot of things happened. Your parents were distraught that you didn’t come back home that night, especially when someone sent a bird to say that you were caught in a ghostly prison in the Valley.
“But the messenger added that if your parents were willing to do a small favor for them, they could keep you alive until they could get a dragon agent to save you.” Mildred shot Anastasia a pointed glance, then averted her gaze, as though the dragon’s aura was too intimidating to her.
The humid morning air seemed to grow heavier on his skin. Ero asked, “And what small favor was that?”
His mother growled as she responded, “They wanted a bottle of milk from me, because cow-shifter milk is more fortifying than the milk of regular cows.”
Ero was stunned. He was only eleven, but even he knew that cows couldn’t produce milk if they had not had calves in a long time.
It had always been astonishing to him why cows in particular (and sometimes goats) were picked on for their milk but other animals were not. The boy turned his gaze to his cousin, already guessing the rest of the story.
Mildred took over at this point. “So auntie called me up for a favor. I asked her why she couldn’t have uncle give her another calf, but of course, she wasn’t happy with my reply. I guess she only wants one child.”
The young woman gave her cousin a cheeky grin, and went on, “Luckily for you, I had given birth to my own calf just a few months ago, so I can still make milk. Normally, I don’t like being used like a dairy cow for human or other species’ consumption. But we love you and don’t want any harm done to you.”
Underneath his cousin’s cheer and confidence, he could sense her unease. He felt ashamed, too. He thought about how little contact they had, that he didn’t even know she had a new calf. Thankfully, his mother did.
But he had to ask, “Then what about the blight?”
His dad spoke up this time. His voice was grim but at least he wasn’t avoiding his son’s eyes. “Well, it turns out that they specifically wanted your mother’s milk, not Mildred’s, so they were upset. They told us a dragon agent had already rescued you but had flown away somewhere. Yet, they thought you’d still get back home sooner or later since, in their words, their agent was ‘not heartless.’
“Nevertheless, they said that they had no use for Mildred’s bottle of milk, so they would deliver it back to us. Except we still haven’t gotten back the bottle. And then a couple of dragons flew over and sprinkled the farm with pesticides! How petty. Good thing Mildred caught them in the act before your mother and I could feed. And not much hay is left to eat in the barn, so we’ll have to find a new place. I’m sorry, son.”
Ero slowly turned to face Anastasia, who had been silent. To zir credit, ze met his gaze without flinching. Ze nodded and said, “Yes, I had anticipated that this could happen. And no, it’s not your fault. When I found out about their practices, including some others, I didn’t want to stay with the Valve dragons anymore. I don’t believe in exploiting other species for our own gain. And I’m sorry to say that their exploitation of cows is already one of the milder cases. Many other species have it even worse.”
Ero sucked in a breath. “What happens to other species?”
Anastasia looked away. “You don’t want to know. But just think about how humans treat animals, and how humans also treat each other. I had thought that, despite our fire and explosive fighting, the Valve dragons would never do something so deliberately damaging and exploitative. So I had to leave them.” Zir eyes looked weary, even sad.
Sharp steps resounded as Lucille strode up to the dragon. She furrowed her brows. “Are you sure that you’ve never been a party to these ‘human-like exploitations of other species and of each other’?”
Anastasia closed zir eyes for a moment, and when ze opened them, ze was melancholy and pensive. “I confess that I was once party to it, as I was ignorant back then and had no idea how other creatures would feel.”
Lucille sneered while folding her arms over her chest. “You expect me to believe that dragons, out of all creatures, care about anybody other than themselves?” Her husband nudged her, but Lucille wouldn’t budge.
The dragon sighed. “You can believe what you want, but this is the truth.” Ze quivered zir wings a bit. “Ero, give your cousin Mildred back her milk.”
The calf-shifter was startled. “But I don’t have it with me.”
The dragon frowned at him. “Sure you do. I asked you to put it in your pocket, remember?”
Ero reached down into his empty pants pockets. He groaned. When they were in the forest and he had shifted into human form, Ana had advised him to put the bottle in his pockets. But he was reluctant to keep the milk, since it didn’t seem like a friendly gift. Ana hadn’t paid further mind to it, as ze had needed to hunt for breakfast before their trip to the barn.
Anastasia exhaled. “Fine. I’m sure your cousin isn’t in urgent need of it. But— ” Ze gazed around at all three of Ero’s family members. The dragon had a look of resignation. “If you really want proof of my sincerity, I will shift to my human form.”
Ero held his breath at zir announcement.
Ana’s transformation was more gradual and graceful than Ero’s hasty shift last night. The amber-red dragon morphed into liquid flame. And when the smoke cleared, they saw — a boy. A stunningly beautiful boy, with luscious black hair and dark brown eyes.
Ero felt shy all of a sudden, though he also hoped that Ana would hug him and protect him. Then he wondered with some shame whether he had mistaken the dragon as transfemme when ze was actually transmasc.