The green-scaled dragon crawled down a large log in her enclosure. Her wings were still undeveloped, which meant that she was more like a large lizard than the majestic beasts that Blake had read about in storybooks.
But that didn’t matter to him. She was small and weak and still immature, but Blake couldn’t have loved her any more. Just watching her crawl across the dirt and grass on her tiny little claws, or hide for cover in the bushes, it reminded him that this tiny little creature was alive.
Just the sight of the five dragons exploring their new home brought a smile to his lips. It still felt strange to him to smile, but he was slowly getting more comfortable with it. Here… Here it felt comforting. For someone who had been so unused to feelings of warmth and kindness, spending time with the dragons was like food to a starving man.
“Well, it looks like someone’s enjoying himself!”
Blake’s ears perked up and he turned to see a familiar face amble up to him, giving him a lazy wave. As usual, Reed Rivers wore a cool smile on her face, carrying an air of relaxation around her that made Blake feel calm just by her presence. The scent of apples wafted towards him.
“Oh, hey Reed,” Blake said, waving back to her. She reached his side and leaned over the railing, staring at the enclosure with a bright-eyed grin.
“How’s your day been, Blake?” Reed asked, reaching out and brushing her fingers across the menagerie cage.
“It’s been… nice,” Blake said, not sure how to respond to that. He was still trying to get used to balancing his life at the moment. Between everything that had happened in Estval and the sudden birth of five new dragons that were his responsibility, his school life had gotten a lot more hectic. But it was worth it. If it meant he could spend his time watching over his babies, he was more than willing to sacrifice a little sleep.
“You know you’re smiling, right?” Reed asked, narrowing her eyes into a teasing smile and tilting her head to the side. Blake gasped and clamped his hand over his mouth, which elicited a chuckle from the older girl. “You don’t have to hide it, you know!” She laughed, reaching out and patting him on the shoulder. Her fingers tickled against him like feathers. “I like you most when you’re smiling.”
Blake felt his face heat up. He pulled away from her and turned back to look at his dragons again, flustered by the girl’s teasing. “Cut it out, Reed,” he groaned. Stuff like that was embarrassing.
“I’m just happy that you’re feeling happy,” Reed said, leaning over the railing and resting her chin in her hands. For a short while they watched the dragons playing in their enclosure together, before Reed suggested something else.
“Want to get a little closer to them?” She asked, turning to Blake. Her smile had taken a mischievous quality.
“Professor Salamandra said that we aren’t allowed to go into any of the Menagerie enclosures,” Blake said, glancing at the large metal bars of the cage.
Reed huffed, rolling her eyes and crossing her arms in front of her chest. “Well, look who’s all goody-goody all of a sudden.”
“Hey!” Blake scowled.
“I’m just saying, while it’s great that you’re happy now, it still feels like you’ve lost a bit of your edge,” she said, her voice dripping with exasperation. But the coy smile and the twinkle in her eyes reassured him that she was just teasing him. “Who cares about what the professor wants? They’re your dragons, you should be allowed to spend as much time up close with them as you like!”
“Aren’t you just saying that because you want to get up close to them yourself?” Blake asked. He could see through Reed’s ulterior motives like reading a book.
She smirked and gave him a wink.
Blake sighed and glanced at the cage. He met the green dragon’s eye, the tiny creature tilting her head to the side. He had to admit that he did want to spend a little more close time with his dragons. He understood the professor’s warnings, but still, Reed was right, he loved the little things and wanted to spend as much time with them as he could.
When he’d asked Professor Salamandra to help him take care of his children, he had been relieved that she would give them a place to stay, and all the food they needed to grow. It was quite roomy, but he still wished that he could come and go as he pleased. He wanted to spend time with them up close, time not separated by the bars of a cage.
“…Yeah, I suppose you’re right,” he admitted. He looked around to make sure there wasn’t anyone else around the menagerie. “But just for a second!” He quickly clarified.
Reed’s face lit up like the sun. With a snap of her fingers, the air behind them warped and twisted into a portal in space. She held her hand out to him. “That’s more than enough!” She agreed, nodding her head eagerly.
Blake followed her into the portal, the flow of space around him still as disorienting as it had always been. While he never liked being portaled by Reed, he found it a lot more tolerable these days than it had been. But as much as he could stand it now, he was still grateful to be back on solid ground after only a couple of seconds.
At least he could get through it without throwing up now.
“You feeling okay?” Reed asked, glancing his way.
“I’m fine,” Blake assured her, wiping the sweat from his forehead. “You portals aren’t as rough on me as they used to be.”
“Probably because we’re just the best of friends now, wouldn’t you agree?” Reed grinned, elbowing him in the side.
“…Yeah, that’s gotta be it,” Blake dryly replied. “I don’t think so.”
Reed let out an exaggerated sigh and she swooned, pressing her palm to her forehead and clutching her chest. “Oh! How cruel! To think my kindness would be spurned so readily!” She crouched down and picked up one of the dragons, the sky blue one with feathered wings, and cuddled it to her cheek. “Oh, you poor dears! To be born with such a cold father!”
“Please don’t badmouth me to my dragons,” Blake requested. Reed wasn’t that bad a person when you got to know her, but her teasing nature could be a little hard to deal with.
She responded by sticking her tongue out at him.
“I’m just teasing, Blake,” she laughed, cradling the small dragon in her arms and standing back up. “I think you’ve really come a long way, actually. Compared to how you used to be, all mean and grouchy.”
She wore an exaggerated scowl on her face. Blake was not amused, and let her know with a scowl of his own.
“Yes, exactly, just like that,” she laughed. “But still, I think it’s great. Like I said, I like you most when you’re smiling.”
Blake wasn’t sure how he was supposed to respond to THAT. “Enough teasing,” he said. “I want to check on-“
Before he could even finish his sentence, he felt something rub up against his leg. He glanced down to see the green dragon he’d watched before, the first of his children he’d held in his hands. Her scales sparkled like emeralds in the sun, with tiny flecks of gold mixed in with them. He lifted the small thing up and looked her in the eyes. They were so warm and soft, and they looked at him with recognition.
A small sound that was a mix of a coo and a growl came from her mouth, and she leaned her long neck close to rub her scaly crest against his chin. She was so warm, it was like holding a fireball in his arms.
“She really loves you, you know,” Reed said, walking closer to him. She gently rocked the dragon she was carrying. “They all do.” She glanced towards the other side of the enclosure, where two more of the dragons were crawling closer, staring curiously at them. The red one and the scaly brown one approached, eyes glittering in the sun. The black one was still in hiding.
Blake felt himself flush as she brought attention to the dragons’ affection. “It-It is natural,” he scoffed, playing it off as best as he could while still holding the tiny creature close to his chest. “They are my children, after all.”
“You’re quite a lucky man, to be loved by so many dragons,” Reed smiled. “…So, you don’t mind if I have one?”
“Eh?! Stingy!” Reed huffed, hugging the blue dragon closer. “Well, I’m not giving her back! She’s my adorable little snow baby and you can’t have her!”
Blake rolled his eyes. Had this been a few weeks ago, he probably would have lashed out violently at her, even though he knew she wasn’t serious. But right now, knowing she was joking, he just let out an exasperated sigh. “Reed…”
“Come on, you can’t deny it’s meant to be!” Reed held up the tiny dragon and showed it to him. “You can’t say no to this face!”
The dragon tilted her head to the side and blinked. Blake patted her gently on the head. If he was being honest, he was glad that he could share his dragons with Reed. Having someone else who loved and treasured them almost as much as he did made raising them feel a lot easier. She was practically the only person he was talking to now.
But that was that, and this was this.
“I’m not giving away my kids,” Blake said adamantly.
“Come on! I’ll give you an apple pie if you let me raise her like my own!” Reed offered.
“You think I’d trade my dragon for an apple pie?”
“Fine, two apple pies!” She pitched next, her face clearly resisting the urge to split with laughter.
“Well, aren’t you two having fun?” Blake and Reed flinched, pulling away from each other. Blake felt his veins turn to ice.
Blake and Reed turned to greet the approaching professor, trying very hard to keep their composure.
Dressed in overalls and a ragged shirt with a bag of feed slung over her shoulder, Drana Salamandra did not resemble the professor that she was. Her long black hair was tied back in a ponytail for ease, and the look in her blue eyes as she smiled at the two of them was not the sort of look a professor should be giving their students.
Blake felt like she was looking at him like she wanted to eat him up. It sent another shiver down his spine.
“Um… professor…” Blake tried to come up with an excuse, maybe pin the whole thing on Reed, but he felt his words dying in his throat as Professor Salamandra approached, her smile not wavering an inch. She stood in front of the two of them, and tilted her head to the side.
“Ms. Rivers, what was it that I said to you the last time I caught you portaling your way into my menagerie?” Professor Salamandra asked.
Blake’s head shot to look at Reed in surprise. She had done this before?! …Wait. It was Reed fucking Rivers. Of course she had.
“That… it was an admirable thing, to want to spend so much time with such wonderful baby dragons?” Reed offered.
Blake couldn’t help but be awed by the way Reed smoothly put a smile on her face, in spite of the intimidating aura radiating from the professor. Did she feel no fear at all?
Speaking of the intimidating aura in question, Professor Salamandra’s smile somehow got even more cold and icy, and Blake felt a desperate urge to run. Having stood at death’s door not even a month prior, it stunned him that he could be so much more terrified right now.
And then, with a sigh, Professor Salamandra snapped the tension, scratching the back of her head. “Well, so long as you’re here, you might as well help me, then.” She turned her blue eyes towards Blake, and he felt a great swell of warmth in his chest. None of the coldness he had felt from her before remained. “They are your babies, after all, Blake, it would be lovely if you helped take care of them.”
Blake nodded, and couldn’t help the smile that began to creep to his lips. He couldn’t understand it. The entire term he had taken Professor Salamandra’s class, he hadn’t really felt that strongly about her. But ever since his dragon eggs had hatched and she’d reached out to him to help take care of them, she’d become his favorite professor. He felt… drawn to her, somehow. There was a sense of nostalgia and familiarity when talking to her that he’d never felt until now.
It reminded him of being with his mother. Not that he could remember much of his mother, or that Professor Salamandra remembered her, it was just that being around her…
It felt like home.
“We’d be happy to!” Reed cried. Her eyes were bright and shiny, reflecting how Blake himself felt. He nodded, and added his own quiet “yeah”.
Professor Salamandra smiled, clapping her hands together. “Lovely! Blake, Reed, I’m glad to have your help!” The casual way she addressed the two of them was another thing that made Blake feel comfortable around her, she didn’t seem like a professor when she talked to them like that.
Professor Salamandra unlatched her bag and reached inside, pulling out some thin strips of raw meat. “Dragons are carnivorous, just so you both know,” she explained. “Normally, they would hunt their own food, but they’re a little too young. Until they can fly on their own, it’s necessary for them to be fed like this.”
Professor Salamandra turned to Blake, and offered the strip of meat to the green dragon in his arms.
“Coooruo!” The dragon chirped, opening her mouth. Blake caught a glimpse of her thin fangs as she snatched up the food, gulping it down her throat and letting out a pleased gurgle.
“She’s a hungry one,” Professor Salamandra laughed, reaching up and scratching her fingers along the dragon’s small neck. “Lucky thing, too, that means you can help out!”
She reached into her bag and took out another piece of meat, handing it to Blake. “Would you like to try next?” She asked.
Blake took the meat from her and dangled it over the green dragon’s mouth. The dragon craned her mouth and snatched up the meat, causing Blake to gasp. The feeling of her lips and teeth against his fingers tickled! The dragon gulped down the meat again, letting out another satisfied coo.
“How was it?” Professor Salamandra asked, grinning.
“Wow, it… can I do it again?” Blake asked hopefully.
“Sure, a little more couldn’t hurt,” Professor Salamandra laughed, handing him another sliver of meat. “We want these little guys to grow big and strong, after all, so there’s no harm.”
Blake was overjoyed, feeding his cute dragon more pieces of meat. He did it twice more before Reed interrupted.
“Aww! Blake, you’re so lucky! I want to feed a dragon too!” She pouted, holding the blue dragon a little closer and giving her an envious look. “Professor, can I try? Pleeeeeeeaase?”
Professor Salamandra raised her eyebrow and shook her head. “I’m sorry, Reed, but I don’t think that would be a good idea,” she said.
“What? Why not?” Blake asked, confused. He didn’t have that much of a problem with Reed helping feed his dragons, he considered it a nice little reward for her bringing him here.
Professor Salamandra sighed, and shrugged her shoulders. “Well, I suppose a demonstration is in order,” she said. “Here, Reed,” she handed a few strips of meat to Reed, taking the blue dragon from her hands as she did, “try feeding that to the brown one over there.”
She nodded her head to the brown dragon watching the three of them cautiously from the bushes.
Reed blinked, and shrugged her shoulders. Sparing a glance at the blue dragon for a second, she walked over to the other one and crouched down in front of it, holding the sliver of meat out to him. The dragon crawled closer, craning his neck out and sniffing at the food being offered. But then he lashed out, and bit Reed’s finger instead!
“Ow!” Reed gasped, pulling her hand back in surprise. The food slipped from her fingers and landed in the grass, where the brown dragon snatched it up, hissing at her and scurrying away. Reed stood up and walked back to the two of them. She was still smiling, but Blake could feel the frustration coming off of her.
“This is why I didn’t want you to feed them,” Professor Salamandra said, setting the blue dragon down and taking out some meat, walking over to the brown dragon and crouching down to feed it. The dragon accepted the meat from her gladly, and Blake saw Reed’s eye twitch.
“Well, that’s no fair, why didn’t he bite you?” Reed asked, crossing her arms. She was still smiling, but it seemed a little duller than the smiles Blake usually saw from her.
“Dragons aren’t pets, Reed,” Professor Salamandra said, calling the two of them over as she finished feeding the brown and red dragons. “They won’t accept food from just anyone. They’ll only let a human feed them if they deeply trust that human, like Blake.”
“That’s no fun,” Reed sniffed. “I want to feed one, too! Hey, so why do they trust you, anyway? I was right there when they hatched!”
Professor Salamandra smiled proudly, holding her hand over her chest. “Well, clearly, it’s because I have the heart of a dragon inside me even if I look like this, that’s why.”
Blake looked at Reed. Reed looked back at Blake.
“Reed, don’t ever become a woman like this,” Blake warned her, patting her on the shoulder.
“You’re right, perhaps I’ve taken my obsession with dragons a little too far,” Reed said, nodding in agreement. “I don’t want people thinking I’m a crazy person.”
“Oi. Who do you kids think you are, treating your professor like this?” Professor Salamandra dryly asked.
Reed sighed, and shrugged her shoulders, winking at the professor. “Sorry Miss! But you’re right, I guess these little guys don’t trust me enough to feed them just yet.”
She knelt down and ran her hand along the blue one’s smooth scales as she crawled up to them. “But don’t worry, these guys will grow to adore me soon enough.”
Professor Salamandra sighed, glancing at Blake. “I thought getting bitten by a particularly aggressive dragon would convince her, but I guess not.” As she spoke, she was looking through the bushes.
“What about the last one?” Blake asked, thinking of the black dragon. The other four were gathered around them in various states of curiosity and cautiousness, but as usual the last of them was nowhere to be seen.
“Venomark Duskhorns are very cautious as a survival instinct,” Professor Salamandra explained. “They like blending in with the dark grasses in swamps and jungles, so they seldom come out when they sense other predators.” She had an apologetic look on her face. “I’m sorry Blake, I know you’re trying to get closer to all your dragons, but some of them are friendlier than others.”
There were bite marks on Reed’s finger to prove it, too.
“Professor, I’m surprised you know so much about dragons,” Reed said. Blake recognized the cheery tone in her voice, she always brightened up when the conversation shifted in that direction. “I mean, they’ve been extinct for over a hundred years, there aren’t many people who would know so much about them! And you described the habits of young Venomark Duskhorns so well, it’s like you’ve actually seen them before!”
“It’s my job, of course,” Professor Salamandra boasted, holding her hand over her chest and puffing herself up with a prideful smile. “I’ve spent my life learning all there is to know about every sort of species in the sky, and magical animals and dragons are some of my favorites! If you ever feel like talking dragons, just drop by and I’ll be glad to impart some wisdom!”
Reed lit up like a light orica. “Wow, Professor Salamandra! I think you just became my new favorite professor here!”
Blake would have been surprised by how positive Reed was, considering the fact that her last favorite professor had turned out to be a lunatic who’d tried to murder them both only a few weeks ago. Blake had been shaken for days after what had happened, after all, but he had come to realize that Reed was just built differently. She’d taken it in stride with a smile on her face, and hadn’t mentioned Rio Saleigh since.
“I’m touched you think so, Reed,” Professor Salamandra smiled, holding her hand over her heart. “That really means a lot. And I have to say, I’ve always admired how knowledgeable you are about dragons. You know almost as much as me!”
Reed’s smile froze on her face, and Blake realized the professor may have just made a big mistake.
“Oh? I’m quite sure I’m the foremost dragon expert here,” Reed said, tilting her head to the side in confusion. “You’re quite intelligent, professor, I’ll give you that! But I’ve been reading about dragons since I was in a crib!”
“And I think that’s great, really,” the professor said, sounding a little more petty than Blake thought a professor should. “But Reed, bright as you are, you’re still just a student. You can’t come close to my years of experience, I hope you understand.”
The two were exchanging smiles the way mages exchanged fireballs. Blake suddenly felt like he should make a quick exit before he got dragged into this.
“If I was in your position,” Professor Salamandra continued, “I think it might be best for you to spend less time worrying about dragons, and some more time making friends.”
Blake couldn’t believe what he was hearing. What sort of teacher would say something like that?!
Reed gasped, holding her hand over her mouth in wide-eyed disbelief that looked entirely fake to Blake’s eyes. “How rude! I have friends! Elly and I are thicker than thieves!” She turned to Blake and laughed, throwing her arm around his shoulder in a tight side hug. “And Blake and I are the best of friends now, too!”
“I don’t really consider you a friend,” Blake confessed. Something about Reed’s jovial mood made him feel like torturing her a little. He couldn’t help but find it darkly hilarious that she had been dethroned from her (self-proclaimed) title of “Sky’s Greatest Dragon Expert”.
Reed let out a horrified gasp, her jaw dropping open. She swooned, sinking to her knees with a sigh. “Oh! The pain!” She moaned. “My heart is tearing itself out of my chest!”
She turned to the blue dragon and waggled her finger at her. “Now, listen sweetie. Don’t grow up to be a mean ol’ fussy like your daddy, okay? You be a good girl and treat people nicely, understood? Here, here’s a treat, there’s a good girl.” She offered the dragon one of her little meat strips, even knowing what had happened last time.
Blake rolled his eyes. “Come on Reed, don’t you think that’s a little-“
Then something happened which really caught his attention. The tiny blue dragon reached out, and snatched the piece of meat from Reed’s fingers. He gasped in disbelief, and so did Professor Salamandra. But the one who was the most surprised was Reed, her look of fake sadness sliding off and being replaced by genuine awe. She turned to Blake, her eyes wide.
“She… She ate it!” Reed gushed, quickly holding out another piece for the dragon. The small thing ate that one as well, then the next, and soon Reed was out of feed entirely.
“Kuoooruu…” The dragon yawned, crawling up into Reed’s lap and nestling herself there.
Blake looked to Professor Salamandra, wondering if what she’d said about dragons not being fed had just been a joke, but the look of shock on her face told her she hadn’t expected this at all. “Professor,” he asked, “I thought dragons didn’t accept food from strangers?”
“They… They don’t,” Professor Salamandra said, shaking her head. “Not this young, not ever, unless…”
The professor’s face twisted in contemplation. Reed looked up at her expectantly, her smile filled with cautious optimism.
A light dawned in the professor’s eyes, and she cleared her throat. “Tell me, Reed, have you… bonded with this dragon?”
Reed blinked. “Yes? We’re bonding right now, what are you- Ooooooh!” Realization flashed across Reed’s face, and Blake found himself the only one not sure what was going on.
“What are you guys talking about? What’s this ‘bonded’ stuff?!” Blake asked, a little more frantically than he probably should have. He couldn’t help it, if it was something that involved his dragons, it was going to worry him. That’s just how he was.
“A Soulbond, or just ‘bonding’, is a bond that’s formed between a dragon and another person, usually a human,” Professor Salamandra explained. “It’s a sort of… psychic link that the two possess, almost like the human imprints on the dragon. Blake, you’ve formed a bond with all of your dragons, of course, because they’re yours. But it looks like Reed… may have bonded with that one herself, and now she’s attached to her.”
Reed sprung up off the ground, her greatest wish confirmed. She spun, holding the small blue dragon tightly in her arms. “Oh! Yes, it’s just perfect, just perfect! A Soulbond! That means you’re mine! Oh, my sweet snowflake cutie, my little sky blue darling, this is the best news ever!” She kissed the sleek feathered dragon on her little tiny head.
Blake wans’t sure he liked the sound of that. Reed had… what was it? ‘Soulbonded’? With one of his dragon children? But… they were his. And Reed, well…
“Reed…” Blake said reaching out to the little blue dragon he suddenly saw slipping away from him. Reed froze in place and turned to him, and the smile she wore quashed any doubts Blake might have had.
“Oh, Blake! This is wonderful!” She gushed, running over to him. A million colors were flashing in her eyes. “I promise, I promise, I’m going to take such good care of your little baby, trust me! We can raise her together, wouldn’t that just be swell? Oh, please say you’re okay with the fact that we bonded, please say you are!”
Reed gave him such a pleading and hopeful expression it was easy to forget that, of the two of them, she was the older student. The little dragon in her arms looked up and stared at him with eyes so blue they sparkled like the crystal lakes of the Conda Isles. Her gaze was almost as pleading as Reed’s.
Blake couldn’t do it. There was too much joy in those two sets of eyes, how could he crush it? He sighed in resignation and hung his head, nodding reluctantly.
Reed let out a whoop of joy and threw herself onto him, hugging him tightly enough he began to have second thoughts. I really hope I don’t end up regretting this…