“What is it?” Aaliyah’s voice asked. A stick prodded towards me.
“It’s me!” I tried to squawk, twisting and flapping.
“Is it dangerous?” my classmates murmured.
“It’s looking right at you,” the jade dragon said to Aaliyah.
Of course! Because – “It’s me!” I shrieked, willing myself back to humanoid form – and that did it.
With a crackle of magic over my limbs I was suddenly human again. The giant paw snatched off of me in surprise and I scrambled to my feet. “Aaliyah!” I gasped, grabbing at her arm. “It’s me!”
To my horror, she recoiled. Everyone took a jump back. Terrified that I hadn’t de-bloomed properly (or whatever you call it), I looked down at myself and patted myself. I looked fine. “What?” I looked up, then around.
The jade dragon shimmered, then turned into the slender and graceful girl she was. Tall of legs, beautiful and icy, she glared at me. “You bloomed,” she said coldly, as if it was a capital crime.
I looked down at myself, then back at Aaliyah. She looked shocked as well, but in a good way. “You bloomed!” she said, reaching out to tentatively pat me on the shoulder. “Congratulations!” And then she drew me in for a hug.
If the day could have ended there, it would have been blissful. For that moment I was in Aaliyah’s arms, pressed against her chest. I felt her heart beating against mine. We were surrounded by a ring of students who, sure, were looking on. But they weren’t being rude or cruel. I even assumed they were admiring.
Then, yeah, reality struck. Aaliyah drew back. I stepped back as well, not wanting to be the creeper who clung to her. “So – you bloomed?” she asked.
I looked down at myself again. But before I even got the chance to say something, the jade dragon laughed. “Into a crow. God, what a useless thing. Carrion,” and she snorted. Then, gagging, she waved a hand at her mouth. “Ugh,” she made a face as if tasting something disgusting. “I tasted dirt.”
I wanted to punch her. Aaliyah stood bravely beside me – but the other students laughed. The jade dragon turned away and dissolved into her slender and oh so elegant friend group. The other students, guilty of having laughed and not wanting to associate with us much longer, turned away.
With a sigh I turned to Aaliyah, about to give her my usual speech. “Ignore them,” I began before she held up a hand.
“You’ve got to tell the teachers,” she said, her eyes unreadable. Wait- was she sad? “This is going to change everything.”
My stomach fell out. No.
But yes. In a rush of breathlessness, it struck me. I bloomed. I could go on hunts now. I could easily get into the universities with my marks without having to plead that I was an exceptional case. Better yet – I could get a job.
I was no longer just like Aaliyah.
It was a realization that took on its own presence as I sat in Mister Macmillan’s office, then in the nurse’s office. It clung to me like a wet sweater, crushing me into myself. After hearing the words ‘exceptional’ and ‘how did you do it’ over a thousand times, I was finally walking home with Aaliyah.
Then, again, “How did you do it?” Aaliyah looked at me in wonder.
I shook my head. “I just – it happened.” And that was all. I wasn’t stupid enough to tell anyone what had happened. Who ever heard of eating a spirit? Of, of, infusing it up through your arms? That was crazy talk. So I just kept shaking my head. Shamefully, I told Aaliyah what I told all the others. “I was getting attacked by a sprite. I tried to move back, and I tripped and fell weirdly – and I was a bird.” I looked down at my shoes. “And that’s it.”
“Oh,” was all Aaliyah said, softly. She too looked down at her shoes. And that, was that.
We walked in utter silence after that. We parted ways with a wave and a lame “see you tomorrow” that we echoed back at each other. Then, I walked home.