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Footless Halls of Air

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Some kind of hard, lumpy object in the couch, possibly a metal bar, was digging into Lily’s ribs. That was a shame, because, apart from that, she was the most comfortable she had ever been in her life and she definitely didn’t want to move. Every tendon and ligament felt as if it had been completely slackened, run right off the spool, and warm shivers were still chasing each other across her skin. Best of all, her cheek was resting on a very nice stomach, much nicer than the scratchy synthetic fabric of the couch cushion under her bare breasts, and okay, maybe she did want to move, but really just the minimum required—perhaps there was a blanket in their general vicinity Then she shifted her weight and a second later she felt the surface that her face was squashed against tighten as someone’s abdominal muscles contracted.

“Get off me,” that someone said, somewhere above her, and the voice sounded so upset that Lily wrenched her mind out of its cocoon of warm, happy hormones to lift her head in alarm. She found herself looking into the dark, glittering eyes of Lieutenant Kay Woolmer, flight instructor at the Royal School of Dragon-riders.

They were nice-looking eyes, but just at this moment they looked murderous. Lily jerked upright and stared around her, trying to kick her brain back into gear so she could figure out what she’d done wrong. She was in a room she was fairly certain she’d never seen before, with some battered-looking couches against the walls and a sink and counter unit in one corner. A few plastic containers with the remains of what looked like a person’s lunch sat on a chipped laminate table in the middle of the room.

“Where—” she began, as Lieutenant Woolmer wiggled her hips to re-fasten her trousers, which had been shoved down around her thighs. Unlike Lily, she was still wearing her shirt and bra.

“You’re in the Instructor’s Lounge,” Woolmer said.

Lily wasn't allowed in the Instructor’s Lounge. She wasn't even sure that she knew where it was, but she had a memory of bursting through an unmarked door, desperate, because—because her teacher had been inside and Lily needed to be closer to her—faces turning toward her, a microwave humming, a spoon clattering onto the floor...

She groaned and buried her face in her hands. “Were there people here?”

Woolmer ignored her and leaned toward the end-table of the couch to retrieve a radio that had been left within reach. “Woolmer to Roost-Six,” she said, “Can I get a status update for dragons Metzia and Delphineis?” She listened for a few moments, humming agreement to whatever the other person was saying, while Lily just gaped at her until a raised eyebrow alerted her to fact that she was acting weird. Or anyway, weirder.

“You know my dragon!” Lily blurted, since that was honestly topmost in her mind at that second.

Woolmer looked at her as if she were crazy. “I teach you Formation Flight three times a week,” she pointed out, and that was when it really hit Lily that she had slept with one of her instructors. She had broken into the lounge where her strictest teacher was relaxing with her co-workers, probably eating a yogurt cup and complaining about marking exams, and then Lily had pulled off her clothes and, if her memory served her, tried to rub herself all over the older woman.

The fact that they’d both been in the grip of dragon-lust didn't make that sequence of events any less mortifying.

“So, um, did your dragon and my dragon just, um...uh—”

“They’ve finished mating and they’re sleeping now,” Woolmer said. “I called down to the Roosts as soon as I realized what had happened. The corpsman said they were splashing around the Watering Stage this morning when the play turned serious without warning.”

Lily had a vague memory of Woolmer speaking into the radio a little after they’d started. Of course she’d called the Roosts to check on their dragons, because she was a responsible dragon-rider, even while being driven out of her mind by dragon-lust. Lily cast her mind out to Delphineis, a more purposeful inquiry than the general check-in that she did automatically upon waking. Delph was indeed asleep, but Lily got a sense of being very warm and pleased with herself.

Well, at least someone was happy.

Woolmer seemed to have reached the limits of her patience with Lily sitting around with her mouth open. “Will you hurry up and get dressed?” she snapped, tossing her shirt at her. Lily meekly started to turn the sleeves right way out, but she soon realized there was going to be a problem.

“What are you doing?” Woolmer asked suspiciously as Lily held one arm stiffly extended and reached awkwardly across herself to tug the shirt up toward her shoulder.

“Did something to the wrist, I think,” Lily mumbled. She knew exactly what she'd done of course. Even after she’d got her hands on Lieutenant Woolmer she’d been absolutely useless, flailing and desperate, unable to summon the coordination to get what she wanted, until Woolmer, seeing her obvious distress, had taken both wrists and pressed them above her head, climbing over her and letting her whole body push Lily into the polyester cushions of the couch. She remembered pushing back against the sensation, reveling in it. She didn’t remember any pain, but that was hardly surprising given what was fizzing in her brain at that moment.

She winced as Woolmer—now fully dressed and one hundred percent buttoned up—swooped down upon the wrist, but to her surprise the instructor’s firm hands didn't move Lily’s arm any way that hurt.

“It’s probably just a sprain,” Woolmer said after a moment’s inspection. “But you should swing by the Infirmary to get it checked out.”

“I’m not going to the Infirmary with a sex injury!” Lily blurted before she could think about the words coming out of her mouth.

Woolmer’s face hardened. “This wasn’t sex,” she said, so fiercely that Lily instantly blushed and said, “No, of course not, I mean—”

“Just ice it, I don’t care.” Woolmer strode for the door. Before she disappeared she looked over her shoulder and added, “Oh, and next time? Try to find me before your brain turns to mush, instead of making us into a spectacle in front of all my co-workers.”

Walking down the hallway afterward was agonizing. Some people obviously knew what had happened, and Lily could feel their stares. But mostly it was all just the way she’d seen it that morning as she was hurrying out of the dining room to her first class. Nothing had changed. In fact, according to the clock on the bell-tower, she had ten minutes to get to small arms practice.

Well, screw that. Lily cut across the back field between the dormitories and the harness shop, and took the steep little path that led down to the Roosts. Normally when her mind was in this kind of turmoil, she’d find a way to take Delph flying—a habit that was responsible for her garnering more warnings for after-curfew flying than any cadet in her year—but of course the big lug was still snoozing away her afterglow. When Lily reached her pen, she had her nose buried in her own wing-joint, not even a twitch of her spiky tail when Lily ran a palm over her scaly flank. There would be no adrenaline-bursting dives and barrel-rolls to help Lily blank her mind; still, she got some comfort from leaning against her dragon’s sturdy side, feeling the thrum of muscle and hidden flame, that incredible reserve of power that, because of their bond, also got to belong in some mysterious way to Lily.

Even on days like this one, when her dragon had just been responsible for what was probably the most humiliating experience of Lily’s life, she knew she had to be the luckiest person alive.

It was probably morbid curiosity that made her finally leave Delph’s warm presence and climb the stairs to the catwalk above Metzia’s pen. Lieutenant Woolmer’s dragon was one of the fierce, narrow-winged breeds that brought to mind the rocky cliffs and skerries of a desolate pirate coast. He was a phenomenal diver, and the rumour around the school was that he could pull from terminal velocity to horizontal flight in ten metres. Lily had spent a possibly abnormal amount of time watching him and Lieutenant Woolmer at exercise, and she could admit that the one thing in this situation for which she was not going to fault Delphineis was her taste.

That charitable thought lasted until she looked down into the pen and recoiled, ducking her head and curling up so that she would be at least partially hidden by the catwalk railing. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Of course Woolmer would be checking on her dragon just like Lily had.

Her instructor had changed out of her uniform into a pair of faded looking jeans and a t-shirt, and a wet patch from her hair showed that she’d taken a shower. She didn’t look up, so she probably hadn’t noticed Lily. She was briskly raking out the bottom of the pen, and she had fifteen kilo bag of sand ready to spread when she finished—normally the corpsman’s job, but given what she knew about Lieutenant Woolmer, Lily wasn’t surprised to see her doing it herself.

What was surprising was that Metzia was awake. He was moving a little, lifting his feet when she wanted to get under him with the rake, but though his pen was spacious enough that he could have easily have gotten out of her way entirely, he was crowding into the exact corner where she was working. Woolmer didn’t get impatient with him; in fact, when he thumped his forehead insistently against her sternum, she let go of the rake and held him there, her arm looped under his jaw. Metzia made a noise that Lily didn’t know how to interpret, and, shifting his head, he opened his jaws and closed them delicately again. The crescent of his teeth spanned Woolmer’s collarbone and most of her throat, nothing only the fragile, golden skin between their razor edge and the crucial artery underneath.

Lily hardly dared to breathe. Woolmer was standing absolutely still, her palm still resting on Metzia’s neck, her eyes closed. The gesture was evidently one of trust, maybe even comfort, but Lily had no idea what it meant. Was Metzia in distress? But why? Was Woolmer in distress, and hiding it, and had Metzia felt it through the bond?

“Lily! There you—”

In a split-second Lily had sprung to her feet, grabbed the arm of her best friend, and hustled her backward off the cat-walk. “Marcia, ssh.

Marcia raised an eyebrow, and Lily explained:

“Woolmer’s down there. She’s—” Lily searched for the words. “Kind of pissed off at me.” Even though that didn’t come close to describing what Lily had just seen—what she was increasingly wishing she hadn’t witnessed.

“Oh yeah, I heard about that. In the Instructors Lounge, right?”

“That was less than an hour ago!”

Marcia shrugged, unrepentant. Gossip had a life of its own, and at the School of Dragon-riders it ran on wings swifter than a racing Bog-haunter. And Marcia Cottier prided herself on knowing it all.

Marcia came from an old dragon-rider family, and was probably on track for a military career, unlike Lily, who would be perfectly happy doing coastal patrols and rescuing stranded fishermen for the rest of her life. Marcia’s own dragon, Gyre, was still a year or two away from the possibility of breeding, but she’d told Lily that when she was growing her parents had always spoken frankly in front of her about the realities of the job. In any case, she hadn’t let the impending possibility of dragon-lust prevent her from dating freely at the school, leaving a trail of broken hearts through the male student population without worrying too much that one day she might have to sleep with one of them while not in her right mind. Lily’s family all had normal jobs like accounting and teaching highschool, and Marcia was often amused when she failed to grasp some nuance of the Dragon Corps, like when she got mixed up between the dragons’ internal hierarchies and the human ranks and addressed someone by the wrong honorific.

But Marcia could also be surprisingly sensitive, and Lily was reminded just why she was her best friend when they left the roost and immediately turned onto one of the little footpaths that led up the headland. As soon as the buildings were out of sight behind the curving slope, Marcia said, “Okay, but really, how are you?”

“I, um, might have sprained my wrist,” Lily mumbled. She kept her eyes trained on her feet, but she could still hear the snort of laughter that Marcia was too surprised to keep back.

“Oh, wow. But I mean, Woolmer—was she nice to you? Even if she was mad about doing it in the Instructor’s Lounge?”

“Yeah.” The word nice brought back memories of warm skin and soft noises that made Lily’s face start to heat. “Yes of course. I just felt kind of stupid after, you know? I mean, she’s a teacher. And she’s such an amazing rider.”

The corner of Marcia’s mouth twitched, almost like she wanted to smile, and Lily realized that it had kind of sounded as if she had some kind of crush. But her friend just said firmly, “All that means is that she understands what’s going on and isn’t going to judge you for anything that happens. And hey,” Marcia added, when Lily still looked unconvinced. “Now you’ve finally had sex!”

“It wasn’t really sex,” Lily said, even though she kind of thought it was. They’d been touching each other and there had been orgasms, that was good enough for her. But Lieutenant Woolmer’s insistence that it wasn’t was deeply unsettling. Because, maybe she’d meant it wasn’t sex the way rape wasn’t sex—not that Lily was using that word, she couldn’t, she’d lose her mind, but—Woolmer obviously hadn’t been very happy about it, once the dragon-lust was over.

“They’re probably going to debrief you about it anyway,” Marcia said, nodding wisely. “Because of the student teacher thing.”

“Great,” Lily muttered. They had reached the top of the headland, a clear view of the shining water and distant arc of islands that sheltered the bay. Near the horizon she saw the worm-like speck of a dragon against the sky, and she turned her back quickly, hoping Marcia wouldn’t notice. If it was Lieutenant Woolmer taking Metzia out for practice dives, Lily would probably be able to recognize them, and she would probably have some kind of reaction that she didn’t want her friend to see.

If they debriefed Lily they were definitely going to debrief Woolmer too, and the instructor was almost certain to rat Lily out about the wrist injury. She took a quick look at her watch. She’d blown off small arms, but at the start of her senior year she’d signed up to do evening coaching for the junior cadets, and she wasn’t about to miss that. If she grabbed supper first, that left her about an hour.

Lily sighed. “I have to go to the infirmary.”

 

 

Chapter Text

The infirmarer’s face brightened when she saw Lily walk into the school clinic. “You got the message, then,” she said.

Lily froze. She had a story ready about getting her arm caught in the harness during aerial practice—she was a not infrequent visitor to the clinic, so it was easy to come up with something plausible—but that had sounded as if she might already be busted.

“The school counselor and the breeding specialist need to have a meeting with you before they decide to move your dragons in together,” the infirmerar explained.

“Right,” Lily said. She knew the school had a counselor, of course, but she’d always thought of the service as being for people with very serious problems, like traumatic injuries or bond dysfunction or even that nightmare possibility which no rider liked to think about, dragon-grief. But okay, she could see how maybe a first-time mating, especially one that had come out of the blue, might be something they’d want to keep their eye on. Lily wasn’t sure herself that she was dealing with it in the most well-balanced way, so probably talking to someone would be a good thing.

Talk about getting physically intimate with someone in a way that might or might not have been sex. Yeah, this was going to be horrific.

The counselor’s office was just down the hall from the clinic, one of those dim, wood-paneled offices that reminded you just how old the school buildings were. Lily perched on a sagging upholstered chair while Dr. Carmack phoned the breeding specialist, a civilian woman whom Lily knew only from the seminar that all senior students were required to attend. The counselor’s smile was warm and bland. Lily squirmed as she recalled that Dr. Carmack, though he no longer went into the field, still held a rank high enough to ground any officer he deemed unfit for duty. She picked at a thread of the upholstery, then folded her hands on her knees, trying to look well-adjusted.

“Right then,” said the breeding specialist, sliding into the chair opposite Lily. She reached around the armful of paper she held clutched to her chest, and extended her hand to shake. “Delphineis’s rider, is that right? Beautiful Bog-haunter. Class three I would say. Congratulations.”

Despite herself, Lily felt a flush of pleasure. The thought had crossed her mind, though only in the most fleeting way, that Woolmer’s problem might with Delph, and her not being good enough for Metzia—but the idea was not only disloyal, it made no sense. Delphineis was perfect. Any issues had to be about Lily’s own immaturity and awkwardness.

“And with Metzia,” the specialist continued happily. “We’ve been—” Dr. Carmack gave her a look and she held her hands up and mimed zipping her mouth closed.

Thinking back afterward, Lily could not be sure whether the meeting was short or long—her body having decided that it was a situation for high alert, her heart had started to pound, and she found sometimes that she had missed whole sentences that she didn’t dare ask to have repeated. Dr. Carmack was making a visible effort to restrain the breeding specialist from launching into a lyrical ode to the two dragons’ genetic potential until Lily had stated convincingly and multiple times that she was comfortable with continued matings and knew whom to speak to if her comfort level ever changed. At last she saw the counselor look down at his notes and make what looked like a tick-mark with his pencil. She breathed a covert sigh of relief.

“Are you aware of the practice of penning a courting couple together?” he asked.

Lily nodded, and the specialist burst in, eager to finally have her say. “Most dragons require numerous mating attempts before they can conceive,” she said. “If Metzia and Delphineis are penned together, these will happen in a spontaneous, natural way. It’s been shown to to increase the success of conception by eighteen percent.”

“Great,” Lily said, her mind stuttering on that ominous word, spontaneous. “As long as my teachers know I might be, uh. Missing classes. Though maybe Lieutenant Woolmer’s schedule is more—”

“We’ve already had our interview with the lieutenant,” Dr. Carmack said. “She’s also submitted the paperwork to transfer you into another section of Formation Flight, so there can be no perception of conflict.”

“Of course. Great,” Lily repeated. Woolmer was obviously fine with this. Probably it wasn’t the first time Metzia had mated. Probably she knew all the right things to do. Lily focused on smiling at Dr. Carmack, while the specialist beamed at them and exclaimed:

“Now keep your fingers crossed, and I know we’re going to get some beautiful eggs!”

#

Delphineis finally woke from her nap while Lily was coaching—a task ten times harder with a sprained wrist and no dragon of her own to help her demonstrate the techniques.

“You need to lean forward even more,” she repeated to the young cadet, who was resting all his weight on his dragon’s seventh cervical vertebra. The dragon shifted uncomfortably and swiveled her head to shoot him a reproachful look. “No, even more. You’ll feel off-balance, that’s just the way the saddle is constructed. Your dragon will help you with that if you let her.”

Let’s go flying, Delphineis said in Lily’d mind, sounding chirpy and not at all as if she’d just woken from a four-hour nap in the middle of the day.

I’ll radio a corpsman to bring you to me, Lily sent back. She had the students down at the beach for ground practice—the sand was good for soft landings. But Delphineis didn’t seem to hear her.

We need to go look for things.

Things? Are you hungry? It wasn’t unusual for Delphineis to want to go hunting for an evening snack, even with the size of the meals she got in the Roosts.

No. Yes, but that’s not it. Need—shiny things. Comfortable things. Warm things. Just, things, come on Lily, let’s go.

“Ugh,” Lily said, unintentionally vocalizing, and then hastily, to the worried cadet, “No, no, that’s much better. Relax your legs a little more.” And to Delph, more firmly, You can wait twenty minutes. I’ll be there when I can.

#

When she got to the Roosts, Delphineis and Metzia had already been moved to their new pen, and because that was the kind of day Lily was having, Woolmer was there, probably assuring herself that their sand was spread evenly. She’d changed back into the uniform jodhpurs that hugged her legs in a much more flattering way than they’d ever done for Lily, and the corresponding uniform shirt with the sleeves rolled up above her elbows. Lily could see the down of hair on her forearms, and the veins and tendons of her battered hands, and the swell of fabric over her chest, and then she wrenched her eyes over toward the dragons, because surely, surely thoughts like that were a symptom of something happening.

There was no sign of mating activity to explain her suddenly vivid appreciation of her former instructor’s body. Delphineis’s attention was so fixated on Lily that she was practically dancing on her talons to get away, while Metzia was lying with his belly in the sand, contemplating an arrangement of boulders in the corner, which Lily assumed he’d fetched from the beach. They seemed very precisely placed to absorb the heat of the sun coming through the windows. The whole arrangement looked like just the kind of place a dragon would like to curl up, the equivalent of a comfy nest, but Lily couldn’t remember Woolmer’s dragon having anything like it in his old pen, and it didn’t exactly look as if he was making use of it now. In fact...

“Did Metzia make that for you?” Lily asked Delphineis, amused.

“Metzia’s lost his mind,” Lieutenant Woolmer muttered, but since Lily didn’t dare look at her and risk another flood of attraction, she couldn’t tell whether she was actually irritated or just joking about it.

We have to go now, Delph said grumpily. Lily glimpsed smaller, glittery stones of different colours arranged between the boulders, and realized what kind of “things” her dragon wanted them to go out and look for. Gifts for Metzia, so that she wouldn’t feel embarrassed or outdone. It was adorable, and Lily decided not to point out the fact that in a couple of weeks, if Delphineis managed to conceive, she wouldn’t even remember all this romantic anguish and Metzia would go back to being just another dragon in her roost.

In a couple of weeks, Lily would be just another student with some awkward but unimportant memories. As far as she was concerned, that day couldn’t come soon enough.

Woolmer was gone when Lily and Delphineis returned to the pen. Delph had yo-yoed from needing to look for rocks on every little island in the whole bay, without even giving Lily time to dismount and stretch her legs on each one, to being suddenly consumed by the need to get back and see Metzia. Then, as they were skimming along the approach of the silvery tidal flats, she declared abruptly, This is trash, and opened her claws to let her lovingly chosen medium-sized boulder splash down into the muddy sand.

“What? No! It’s perfect,” Lily said, slightly panicked. The sun had set, though there was still a pale glow over the horizon to see by, and despite everything that had happened today she still had studying to do before she went to bed. “Come on, pick it up. Metzia’s going to love it.”

Delphineis circled with slow, grudging wing-flaps, clearly wanting to be cajoled, and so Lily set herself to the task of cajoling her. But once Delph had rinsed off her offering and flown it back to the Roosts, she had another crisis of nerves and, throwing it in a corner of the pen, went to the opposite end to sulk. Metzia’s worried chirp was met by sullen silence.

This courting business was evidently difficult. Lily supposed she was lucky she and Woolmer only had to deal with the professionally-required physical intimacy and not the feelings.

Fortunately, there was no tack to remove—Lily hadn’t wanted to bother with tightening all the straps for a simple evening jaunt, andshe doubted that Delphineis would have let her touch her anyway. Lily went back to her room, pried off her riding boots and lay on her bed with a textbook on flight-path regulatory frameworks propped against her sternum. It seemed harder than usual to concentrate, and Lily wondered whether it was the bond that was making her mind wander so often to a certain pair of dark, angry eyes. She gave up and switched off her lamp, but that was no better. She kept thinking about the meeting in the counselor’s office, wondering whether she’d said the right things, and about that stomach-dropping moment when she’d still been half-naked and Lieutenant Woolmer had turned on her in fury. 

She looked at her clock, and groaned when she saw it was after eleven. There was one generally fool-proof way to put herself to sleep, and after wrestling with herself for a moment, she adjusted her legs and slid a hand down under her waistband—switching it quickly for the other hand when her wrist twinged in warning. It felt a little weird to do this, given the mix of feelings churning through her, but maybe it was like staying on your dragon during a particularly steep dive; maybe you just had to commit to what was happening, let yourself fall into it unreservedly.

Lily felt tears prickling in her eyes, unable to get at what she wanted, not sure even what it was she needed, but at that very moment strong fingers wrapped around her wrists, and when she peeked upward, the face she saw was studying her with careful focus—seeing her, figuring her out. Lily drew a breath, but she couldn’t seem get enough oxygen. An involuntary noise, almost a whine, gathered in the back of her throat. Then she was being settled on her back on the narrow, lumpy couch, and deft fingers were working at the fly of her trousers.

Hold still. I’m going to take care of you.

Lily held herself still, trembling, and the fingers left trails of fire everywhere they touched her, up her thighs and her ass and behind the joint of her wing. She was thrumming, that peculiar, gravelly sound that could only come from her immense rib-cage—

Wait. Lily left her hand where it was, but she opened her eyes in the dim room and cast her mind toward Delph. As soon as she paid attention, it was obvious. Delphineis and Metzia were making up after their little tiff. In fact they were past making up and seemed to be deep into amorous territory.

The feelings coming through the bond were heady, and Lily was strongly tempted to leave her hand where it was, to finish getting herself off now and figure out what to do about it afterward, but she forced herself to throw back her blanket and sit up. The dragon-lust had started. If she didn’t find Woolmer while she was still capable of complete sentences, the other woman would be beyond pissed off.

No one had told Lily how to find Lieutenant Woolmer’s room, but even as Lily panicked about that, she realized that she sort of knew which way to go, in the same way she’d known how to find the Instructor’s Lounge earlier that afternoon. If she didn’t think about it too much, her feet would just carry her in a certain direction, across the quad and around the back of the harness shop, where she could see there was a stairway up and a long wooden porch on the second floor, with a row of doors that must be the quarters for junior staff. Lily knew she had to go to the second door from the end.

She stood at the bottom of the stairs, looking up, as a long minute ticked past. The dragon-lust was still in its early stage. At this moment she could walk away, at least for now, at least for the next ten minutes or half an hour. And then she could let herself get worked into a state that would draw Woolmer’s deserved contempt and alert half the school to her loss of control.

She closed her eyes and put her hand on the wooden railing.

Chapter Text

“It’s almost midnight,” was the first thing Lieutenant Woolmer said when she opened the door to Lily’s knock. Her expression was accusing, and Lily became conscious that she was standing there in the pajama pants and thin t-shirt she usually wore to bed, her bare arms covered in goosebumps and her bare feet dirty and embedded with grit and tiny stones, and it hadn’t even occurred to her there was anything strange about her appearance. Woolmer had specifically told her not to be conspicuous—she was lucky no one taking an evening stroll had seen her.

“Sorry,” she said, as Woolmer stepped backward to let her in.

At least she didn’t seem to have been asleep. A plate scattered with crumbs sat in front of the chair on the table, and the bed was not only still made, it was covered, like almost every other horizontal surface in the room, with piles of books and papers. There wasn’t going to be room for them in the sliver of available space between the books and the wall. The dragon-lust must have been further along than Lily thought, because she couldn’t force her scattered brain to solve this dismaying problem. Maybe they could move the pillow onto the floor? Why was this all so difficult?

“Do you want a glass of water?” Woolmer asked.

Why wasn’t the other woman kissing her? Lily wondered. She knew that she’d come here so they could kiss, but now it seemed like Woolmer wanted her to solve this other problem about the water first.

Well... Woolmer was was probably the kind of person who cared about things like hydration. And the dragon-lust was definitely making Lily overheat. She nodded, and Woolmer took a glass off a shelf and went into the little en suite bathroom. Lily stood in the middle of the room, wondering if she was allowed to move any of these piles of paper so she could sit down. “Um—Woolmer?” she called out.

The instructor reappeared with the full water glass. “You’re not going to call me that this whole time, are you?” she demanded.

“Lieutenant?” Lily offered timidly.

“My name is Kay,” Woolmer said. “For Heaven’s sake, I think you licked me this afternoon, I’m going to call you Lily unless you specifically ask me not to.”

“Oh,” Lily said, her face warming partly with gratification, and partly from the memory Kay’s words were bringing back. “Kay,” she murmured.

Kay still didn’t look as if the dragon-lust was affecting her. She was standing on the other side of the room, looking at Lily with what seemed like wary scrutiny. Lily supposed there must be some subtle difference in their bonds, like maybe she was extra sensitive to Delphineis and that had caused the effects to start out of synch. No one had ever told her about anything like that, but then, most of what Lily knew about the mating process came from whispers with other students, in some corner of the roosts where the instructors wouldn’t hear them, and often rendered incomprehensible by giggling.

The polite thing to do, she decided, would be to sit on the bed and drink her water until Kay indicated her readiness to begin. She tried to choose her place carefully, but there was a crinkling noise that made her think she had probably sat on some papers. She froze. Kay didn’t appear to notice.

This was nice actually, just to watch her moving around tidying the small room, drinking up small details like the angle her neck made as she stooped, and the shape of her wrist, and knowing that really soon Lily was going to be allowed to touch all of it. She could tell through the bond that down in the roosts Metzia had just dug his claws in behind Delphineis’s wings. It felt good, and Lily luxuriated in the want that was welling up in her, an inexorable tide.

Kay had to reach around where Lily was sitting to gather up the papers, and Lily might have leaned a bit so that they would have to brush against each other, but it wasn’t as if she was trying to put one over Kay—this was like a game, and she giggled when Kay twitched and shot her a look. She was trying hard to look innocent, or mischievous, or anything that might be more attractive than staring in slack-jawed longing at the other woman’s mouth, and she absolutely did not touch the adorable little fold that she could see between Kay’s eyebrows, even though she really, really wanted to.

“Shit,” Kay muttered, and a moment later she leaned forward to fit her mouth over Lily’s.

Finally.

Lily’s hands rose up to slide under the hem of Kay’s loose uniform shirt, feeling the expanse of smooth skin above her hips. It felt like there was an electric current flowing through her, making her insides shivery, but also as if the air she was moving through was warm and sticky, like melted caramel.

“Lie down,” Kay told her. Lily was only too happy, but as she went she also wriggled a bit against Kay’s grip on her upper arms, because she felt as if something nice might happen if she did. Kay said sternly, “I’m not going to wrestle with you tonight.” Lily stuck her lower lip out, trying a pout, and Kay snapped, “I’m not going to injure you again!”

That made Lily smile. Even if Kay’s dragon-lust had started out slow, the obvious intensity of the other woman’s emotions made it clear it was already in full effect. Lily herself felt perfectly even-keeled, free from the shames and insecurities that had been dogging her all afternoon.

“I didn’t tell the Infirmary about my wrist,” she confessed, riding this wave of newfound serenity. “I thought you would tell on me, but you didn’t.”

“I wouldn’t,” Kay said. She was still obviously in the grips of that off-kilter emotional intensity, because she said it as if it were really important, the most important thing in the world. Lily stretched up a bit so she could stroke Kay’s face, trying to soothe her. She wanted to tell her that she didn’t have to try so hard, that sprains weren’t really serious, that she’d once flown for a week with a half-healed collarbone without anyone finding out, and sort of regretted it afterward. She wanted to tell Kay all kinds of things about herself, and know everything in return. The feeling was so immense that it actually had the effect of silencing her, as if it pressed the words right out of her.

“It’s your choice what medical treatment you choose to get,” Kay said—snippy, beautiful. “Even if your choice is manifestly stupid.”

That sounded like affection to Lily, and she grinned so hard that her face started to hurt. Her neck was hurting too, now that she thought of it—it was awkward looking at Kay from this angle, over her chin. “Come here?” she suggested, a little plaintively.

Because Kay was maddeningly contrary, she did the exact opposite of that and sat back on the foot of the bed. One of Lily’s legs was slung over her thighs, and she was rubbing her thumb over the knee, through the pajama pants. “I’m going to go down on you,” Kay said. “Is that okay?”

For a moment, Lily was so focused on the little smile on Kay’s face, and the fact that it had to be directed at her, that she almost missed the sense of her words. “Wow. Really?”

“If it’s okay,” Kay repeated.

Lily nodded, her eyes wide.

“Scoot up the bed a little,” Kay said.

“Yeah, of course. Like this?”

Kay was pulling down the waistband of her pants, exactly like she had in the fantasy Lily had been using earlier. Lily had a vague sense that in other circumstances she would have been self-conscious about someone else seeing this part of her body, or panicking that maybe she looked weird or abnormal down there, but there just wasn’t room in her right now for those kinds of feelings. She had to sit up and start touching Kay again, trying to find a way to loosen the neck of that infuriating uniform shirt, but Kay put a firm hand on her sternum and pushed her back.

“I mean it,” she said. “We’re being careful this time.”

She braced one elbow on the mattress and wrapped her other hand around Lily’s hip. Her hair was still in the ponytail that she wore all day, but Lily had managed to pull a fair bit of it out of the elastic as they were kissing, and the first thing she felt was the ends brushing against the inside of her thighs. Lily closed her eyes and prayed not to pass out.

As in everything else in life, from reading a weather map to keeping her saddle through a death-defying dive, Kay clearly knew what she was doing, but she didn’t start right away with the places which Lily had, with years of experience, determined to be the most efficient way to get herself off. In fact, Lily was pretty sure that this was going to take longer than it usually did, if she got there at all—but in that moment, that just seemed even more perfect. It was confirmation that what Kay was doing to her was completely different from any other experience she’d ever had, something so amazing that her thoughts kept breaking up whenever she tried to understand it.

She couldn’t help squeezing her knees slightly against Kay’s shoulders, not hard, just enough to prove to herself how open she was at that moment, and how solid and perfect Kay was. Kay made a muffled noise that was either pleased or annoyed, and actually moved one of her arms to under Lily’s leg, pressing it up so she was spread even wider. Lily almost reached for her then, but she remembered in time how adamant Kay had been that she keep her hands to herself, and she managed to twist them into the sheet instead.

I’m doing exactly what she told me to, Lily thought, and that was when she came, muscles clenching. When it seemed to be over, she opened her eyes, and another, unexpected aftershock pulsed through her as she saw intense black eyes looking back at her. Kay’s face was flushed, her lips parted. She looked really turned on, and Lily couldn’t help reaching for her, now that she was allowed, trying to wrap herself in the other woman, to be touching her in as many places as possible. She felt more than heard Kay chuckle, and a firm press of lips against Lily’s sweat-damp temple.

“You okay?” Kay murmured.

Lily struggled to take stock. Remembering how serious Kay was about checking on the dragons, and figuring that was probably what she was getting at, she cast a quick feeler out toward Delphineis just to make sure things were going well at the roosts.

Oh. Delphineis was asleep.

Despite the orgasm Lily had just had, she still wanted to touch Kay, to lick her mouth and feel that faint tremor in her muscles, but she could tell now that that was just her base level of attraction and not the dragon-lust, which had probably already run its course for the past several minutes.

“How’s Metzia?” she asked, with faint hope. They had been so out of synch starting. Maybe Kay was still affected enough that she would want to continue. But at the question, Kay seemed to stiffen, her whole body tensing, and Lily’s stomach knotted. There was no longer any trace of arousal in the other woman. Lily couldn’t avoid the cold fact that they were finished, and she remembered that it was after sex that Kay became angry and short-tempered.

Idiot, she chided herself. She’s wasn’t asking if you wanted another round. She was asking if you’re okay so she can safely kick you out and get some sleep tonight, or if you somehow sprained something else like a clumsy kid who can’t even figure out how to do sex properly.

“I’m good,” Lily said, and was surprised to hear her voice come out hoarse, almost a croak. The mattress shifted. Kay pulled herself free and sat up.

“I’m going to have a shower,” she announced.

“Okay.” Lily could get out of here while Kay was in the washroom. So far this mating attempt had consisted almost entirely of positive interactions, and Lily figured she could only jeopardize that if she hung around. But Kay didn’t stand up right away.

“Dr. Carmack did speak to you, right?” she said.

“Yeah, right before supper.” Something had sounded off about the way Kay asked the question, and Lily tried to think what she could be driving at. “He explained everything to me. You can’t teach me Formation Flight, and our dragons are moving in together so they can make beautiful eggs.”

Lily was already doodling little ovals in her notebook, and that evening she’d watched the cadet-candidates trooping down for crèche-duty with more attention than she’d ever paid to the usually noisy and irritating lower-classmen, trying to decide whether any of them were good enough to ride one of Delphineis’s babies. Kay didn’t seem to be immune either, judging from the dreamy look that passed over her face at that moment. She even swayed forward a little, and Lily’s heart surged with trepidation.

Kay squeezed Lily’s ankle.

“Get some sleep,” she said as she stood up, sternly, like she would hear about it if Lily was dozing off in the seminar tomorrow morning.

“Right. Sure,” Lily said, and watched the bathroom door close behind her.

 

Chapter Text

Lily dragged herself to the cafeteria at the regular time the next morning for breakfast. She was no more sleep-deprived than she used to be last year when she’d stupidly gone to so many dorm-room parties while she and Delph were assigned dawn patrol, and she knew that two coffees would be enough to get her through the morning. Still, she couldn’t help her resentment when a well-rested, impeccably dressed Marcia sat down across from her, her face glowing and wind-burned from an early-morning flight.

“I didn’t see you out this morning,” Marcia commented, attacking her mountain of scrambled eggs.

“Delph’s sleeping in,” Lily said, faintly bitter.

Marcia raised an eyebrow. “Last night—”

“I’m not telling you stuff,” Lily said. “It’s weird.” Worse, it was distracting, but Lily refused to let that be a problem. She didn’t care that she wasn’t going to see Kay—Lieutenant Woolmer, that is, in Formation Flight anymore. She wasn’t even wondering whether Delphineis and Metzia were going to try to mate again today. She slopped some more milk over her boiled oatmeal and stirred it energetically.

“You should date someone,” Marcia said. When Lily nearly dropped her spoon, she added quickly, “Not right this second! But like, afterward, when Delph has had her clutch, you should find someone nice and go out with them. One of the girls in our year. Or guys, if you want. It would be fun, and make you feel better.”

“I feel fine.”

She could feel Marcia’s critical eyes on her as she shoveled more oatmeal into her mouth with pointed relish. “Okay, I have an idea,” Marcia said. “Let’s go to the records room and look up Lieutenant Woolmer.”

Lily gave her a squinty, sideways look. They knew they could get into the records room without being detected—they’d done it a couple of years ago, mostly for the thrill, but they hadn’t been able to think of anything to do there except look up their own boring files. But they were senior students now—they didn’t have to come up with dumb pranks to make themselves feel cool.

Marcia lifted her hands. “What? You like her. Shut up, I know you do. Reading her file is the normal kind of stalking that people do of someone they like.”

“I—” Don’t like Lieutenant Woolmer would have been a lie. Lily thought about how happy and taken care of she had felt the night before. She wanted to believe it had only been dragon-lust, but she knew better. “I have a Regulations seminar this morning,” she finished weakly.

“You’re recovering from a mating. You should probably still be in bed anyway. It’s an iron-clad excuse.”

And Lily kind of hated their regulations classes anyway, with its tedious memorizing of sections and amendments. Marcia knows what she’s doing, Lily thought—how I’m supposed to feel about this. Lily could do worse than go along with her schemes until she could get it figured out herself.

 #

Marcia still had the key to the records room, so getting in presented no difficulties worse than strolling nonchalantly down the hallway of the administration wing and choosing a quiet moment to slip through a certain nondescript wooden door. Inside, they could hear big fans turning in the ceiling above them, chasing away the salt-air humidity. Instead of groping for the light-switch hidden between the metal shelving units, Marcia turned on the heavy-duty flashlight that they’d borrowed from Gyre’s crash kit.

M is on the third level,” she said. All rider records, whether students, teachers, or other officers, were filed under the name of the dragon. They found the cardboard archive box with Metzia written on it in thick black marker, and sat cross-legged on the landing of the stairs to open it. Lily stifled a sneeze from the paper dust that floated in the flashlight’s beam.

“Okay, physical exams, teaching evaluations, mission reports,” Marcia said, flipping expertly through the colour-coded forms. “Boring. Let’s get back to the student records.”

Lily picked up one of the pages that Marcia had set aside, a standard incident report filled out in a familiar painstakingly neat hand that Lily had seen on her evaluations from Formation Flight. Metzia had noticed something off about the ship, so I informed our patrol leader, who stated that, based on such evidence, we could not—

“Hey, did you know this?” Marcia demanded, just as Lily was turning over the page.

“Know what?”

“That Metzia was a foundling?”

“A what?” Lily dropped the incident report and craned over Marcia’s shoulder. Her friend was holding a sheaf of pages covered in dense type, including what looked like a few weather maps.

“Woolmer found the egg on a cliff on an island out past Cape Bellot. She’d taken her parents’ fishing boat out, and a storm blew up and smashed it to pieces. The coastal patrol found her and the hatchling a week later. It was a huge search and rescue operation.” Marcia was flipping through the report, skimming. “I remember this—the air-force got called in to help, and we had to put off our holidays because Mom had to be out flying up and down the coast in the pouring rain. I was twelve. It made me so mad.” Marcia read further. “Huh. Woolmer wasn’t even a student. Lucky her.”

Lily remembered the battery of tests she’d had to go through, just to qualify to go down to the dragon crèche and see whether some hatchling might want to bond with her. All those nights lying awake agonizing over whether she was good enough, whether she’d wash out of the program. But of course, if you arrived at the school with a dragon-bond already formed, there was nothing anyone would say about it. A bond was sacred. On the other hand...

“She was so dehydrated they had to put her on a drip for twenty-four hours,” Lily said, reading further.

“Ha,” Marcia said dismissively. “That’s practically standard for Woolmer going on patrol. All the junior officers complain that she stays out twice as long as she’s supposed to.”

Marcia was only exaggerating a little; Lieutenant Woolmer was notoriously tough as nails and impervious to physical discomfort. She’d probably spent that week on the island snaring sea-birds to feed her hatchling and building herself a luxurious cabin out of driftwood and somehow crafting herself a flute so she could play Metzia poignant lullabies while a gorgeous sunset painted the sea vivid colours, and never even doubted for a moment that she’d be rescued. That was the kind of terrifyingly competent their Formation Flight instructor was.

But Lily couldn’t keep out an image of a terrified teenager, alone and shivering, unable to get dry or to take care of the voracious young life that was suddenly dependent on her, convinced that she was going die before anyone could find her.

“Looks like Metzia had a lot of behaviour issues,” Marcia said. Whatever she was reading made her wince. “Ouch. Well, that’s not surprising, given—”

“Stop,” Lily said. Suddenly, she didn’t want to be doing this anymore “We found stuff out, that’s pretty cool. But I don’t want Kay—Woolmer, to think I was—” She floundered, but it was impossible to confess to the tide of protectiveness that was flowing over her—Marcia would never understand it. “I need to check on Delphineis!” she blurted. “ Right now. Because, if there’s another incident, you know...”

It was probably the most embarrassing excuse she could have come up with, but as Marcia herself had said at breakfast, it was pretty ironclad. Her friend gave her a smirk that suggested that Lily would still be putting up with teasing about this when they were both old ladies, but she shut the file and said, “All right. You go get it on with your badass castaway flight instructor. I’ve got a student ombudsman meeting anyway. Maybe I’ll see you at lunch?”

When Lily got to the Roosts, Delphineis was alone in her pen, which meant that Kay—Lily was giving up on her effort to switch back to formal address, at least in the privacy of her mind—must have taken Metzia for her morning flight just as usual. Lily dithered for a long time while Delph tugged impatiently at her harness, and finally flew in what she guess was the opposite direction of the other woman’s usual route. There was no point courting embarrassment.

It wasn’t as if they wouldn’t be seeing each other again soon.

Fat, warm raindrops were falling on the sea, lifting faint wisps of fog as Delph’s wings skimmed above the chilly waves.

 #

The rest of the day was uneventful, with Lily present, if not entirely focused, for classes and coaching duties. Delphineis was definitely increasingly broody, and did not appreciate being dragged out for flight drills in the rain. When Lily took her afternoon snack down to eat in their pen, she had the dubious pleasure of assisting the breeding specialist draw blood for the pregnancy test—for a creature who had once picked a fight with a twelve-foot long shark, Delphineis was surprisingly shy of needles.

“How quickly do you get results?” Lily asked, offhand, as if she didn’t care much about the answer.

“Oh, it’s very hard to pick up this early,” the specialist said, capping the tube and scribbling a number on it in black marker. “That’s why we test so often. Just keep doing what you’re doing, you know, and nature will take its course.”

Metzia chirruped at Lily as she was eating her sandwich, and even though Kay wasn’t there to give permission, she decided she could stretch protocol enough to give him a bit of the filling the way she did for Delphineis. He took the tomato and lunch-meat from her palm with a delicacy that sent shivers down her spine, as if he didn’t even need a bond to intuit her intentions. He was wonderfully well-behaved—certainly no sign of whatever issues Marcia had read about in the file.

The two dragons lounged among the rocks that had been Metzia’s courting gift, and Delphineis scratched delicately around the base of her mate’s wings, hunting for the scale-mites, though Lily would bet that Kay dosed her dragon so conscientiously that there were none to be found. Despite the drowsy warmth that came from finally being in dry clothes after a wet afternoon, Lily felt a prickle at the back of her brain, and it dawned on her belatedly that Delphineis’s grooming must be the beginning of courting behaviour.

Not again, she thought, although at that moment exasperation was only one feeling in a confusing mix. It was an hour before supper, and Lily still didn’t know Kay’s schedule or where she might be right now—she felt a dim resentment, because even if she thought Kay was amazing, that didn’t stop her from realizing the other woman could have made things less difficult for them if she chose.

If Lily waited a little, of course, that homing instinct would kick in, but that brought its own complications. Better to start now so that even if she had to search the entire school she could be sure of arriving in good order, and then Kay could find them somewhere private. She tried the Instructors’ Lounge first; to her surprise, the door was slightly ajar, but when she peered through, the lights were off and there was no one inside.

“Are you looking for someone?” a man’s voice said behind her.

Lily jumped and looked around. It was one of the instructors for the junior cadets, someone she didn’t know. He was looking at her as if maybe he already recognized Lily, and without meaning to she felt her shoulders lift protectively. “Is Lieutenant Woolmer around, sir?” she asked, cursing herself for not moving along more briskly.

The guy smirked. “You know, for you I think she might be,” he said. He reached for one of the radios that were hanging along the wall of the lounge.

“No, don’t!” Lily reached out instinctively to grab it from him. “I can call her. Let me. What’s the channel?”

He handed it over and went to the couch against the wall—the one that Lily had crawled onto naked yesterday afternoon, and now she really wished she could remember whether he’d been there—and put his feet up on the armrest. Lily couldn’t figure out what this guy’s deal was—he hadn’t actually done anything she could point to as offensive, even had she felt comfortable calling out an instructor, but her skin was crawling. Was he a friend of Kay’s, trying to act protective? Was he an ex, or worse, current boyfriend? What if Marcia’s efficient gossip network had missed something?

 

He wasn’t leaving, and with him was present Lily had no idea what to say when Kay answered the radio. But her mumbled, “It’s Lily,” was apparently enough, because immediately Kay said, “What, again?” The crackling effect of the radio made it impossible to read her tone.

“I’m early,” Lily said quickly. “I mean—they’re preening each other. I wanted to let you know in case, um...”

“Yes, that’s good,” Kay said. There was a pause, while Lily glanced over at the guy on the couch, and then a crackle that may or may not have been a sigh. “Meet you in my room in five.”

 

Chapter Text

A curtain of rain was falling from the overhang of the porch outside Kay’s room, and the line of elms behind the harness shop were bending in the wind. It had become a real storm now. The school would be battening down its hatches. The emergency crews were on standby, the sentinels in the radar hut were brewing fresh coffee to keep themselves alert.

Kay was standing in her open doorway, her raincoat unzipped over a t-shirt and pajama pants. When Lily saw her she felt the tension ebb out of her for the first time all day.

“How do you feel?” Kay said, as she stepped back to let Lily in. “I was going to make tea—if you want it, I mean.”

“Sure. Great.” Lily hung up her own dripping jacket and started to laugh, unable to stop even when Kay gave her an odd look. With an effort, Lily pinched her lips together, noticing as she did so that she was light-headed, as if she wasn’t getting quite enough air with each breath.

The bed had been cleared off this time—it must have been laundry day, because the sheets looked crisp and fresh. In the filtered window-light, the room felt hushed. The radio was on, turned down to a whispery crackle, barely audible above the rain. Probably Kay had been listening for news of her friends who were flying out there this afternoon. Lily went over to where Kay was standing up from plugging her kettle into a floorboard wall socket and buried her face in the rich smells of her hair and scalp. Kay reached behind her and squeezed the back of Lily’s skull with strong fingers, but there was a slight hesitation in her voice when she said, “Oh. So you are—?”

“I like you,” Lily mumbled, because she could—she was allowed to, here.

“Yeah?” Kay turned her head and let Lily kiss her. Her lips were dry, a little rough. “No tea then.”

“Yes, tea,” Lily insisted, because she hadn’t been lying when she agreed to it—Even if it would be torture waiting for the tea to steep, and then sitting there sipping it like this was some social call, she wanted that kind of being together too, and the casual friendship that it implied.

Being around Kay made her greedy, like she wanted everything.

“Yeah, I don’t think so,” Kay said, as Lily’s hands started roaming toward the elastic waistband of the pajama bottoms. “Lie down on the bed.”

“Yes. I mean, no.” Lily pulled her head away and tried to get some oxygen. “Let me go down on you this time?” She’d been thinking about it. She was pretty sure she’d never even gotten to see Kay come yet, and if the breeding specialist found out that Delphineis was pregnant she would lose that chance forever.

“Oh don’t worry, you don’t have to do that,” Kay said, reaching for the top of Lily’s jodhpurs, but Lily, who had made up her mind, wriggled from her grasp as soon as the button was loose, and slipped around to kneel up on the mattress. She tried to push Kay’s hands away when the older woman grabbed her hips, but became distracted before she could complete the gesture.

“Oh wow,” she stuttered, her face heating as she looked down. “Your hands.” Now that she’d read the report about Kay smashing her parents’ boat in a storm, it seemed obvious that the hatches of pale lines over her fingers and palms were the kind pf scars that you got from working on a fishing craft, gutting herring and wading through the slime of scales and viscera. But Lily couldn't let on that she’d read that; she knew without even having to think about it that that would ruin everything.

“Misspent youth,” Kay said—easily, as if she were used to deflecting questions about her past. Gently, she pushed their joined hands up to brush them against the underside of Lily’s breast. “Let me touch you?”

Lily shook her head. She was going to do this. Now, while Kay was turned on by the dragon-lust, and there was less chance she’d get bored or frustrated when Lily fumbled figuring out what to do. Still psyching herself up, she pushed up Kay’s shirt a little and pressed a kiss to the skin between her hip and lower ribcage. Then she took a deep breath and moved lower.

The smell and taste weren’t off-putting—far from it—but they were so intense that Lily’s head was quickly swimming again. She could feel little twitches in Kay’s thighs when she hit a sensitive spot—if she concentrated she could hear the other woman’s increasingly ragged breathing, shading into what could only be described as a whine coming from deep in her throat. Lily had been worried whether she could even do this, but it didn’t feel as if any time had passed before she felt all of Kay’s muscles contracting—shit, Lily thought, through a vague haze of lust, thinking of how disappointed she always felt when an orgasm came too fast—but there were more coming, and it was at least another minute before Lily lifted herself with watery muscles, to rest her cheek in the curve of Kay’s hipbone. She could tell by the the shivers going through her own body that she’d also come at some point, though she couldn’t have pinned down when.

“Okay?” she said. Kay had said the same thing to her last night when they’d done it the other way around. Though Kay’s reply was half gasping for breath, half incoherent laughter, it sounded undeniably in the affirmative.

“I always thought I’d be good at that,” Lily lied boldly.

“Yes,” Kay said, tugging on her shoulder to pull her up the bed. “Your mouth is magical.”

Lily’s ears were still ringing, so it took her a few seconds to register that she could hear the bell in the tower tolling through the windowpanes, the signal for a ship in danger. She didn’t even have the muscle strength to tense up at that moment, and Kay, for her part, just mumbled, “Delphineis won’t be on the call-board, don’t worry.”

“She won’t?”

Kay snorted. “Do you think our dragons are in any fit state to go on a search and rescue operation right now?”

Since Delph and Metzia were still going at it at the other end of the bond, Lily supposed Kay had a point. She closed her eyes, feeling the weirdly simmering lethargy of the dragon-lust, and idly imagining the terror of the mariners, whoever and wherever they were, the cutting cold of the salt spray, magically removed from her by this quiet room. She rubbed her knuckles over Kay’s ribs. “You hungry?” she asked idly. “I think we missed supper.”

“They’ll put some extra plates in the refrigerator for the night-watch.” Kay stretched, the small of her back lifting off the mattress. Lily took advantage of the movement to press her face against the side of Kay’s left breast. The thin cotton t-shirt was damp with sweat. Lily slid her palm under it. “Wonder if they’ll cancel classes tomorrow,” Kay said, rubbing her ankle against Lily’s shin. “Nobody’s going to be able to focus. I mean, I know I won’t be able to.”

“Mm,” Lily murmured, propping herself up on one elbow. “You’re going to be distracted all day thinking about my magical mouth,”

The change that came over Kay’s face was slow and awful, like watching some precious, fragile object topple from a table beyond your reach, and Lily was already frozen in fear before she snapped, “What is wrong with you?”

“I didn’t—I’m sorry,” Lily stammered. Now that her brain had started working again, she could hear how entitled and egotistical that had sounded, as if she was a creepy student who imagined she had a relationship with her teacher. “I know that’s all just the dragon-lust. It’s just, you don’t seem to dislike me—you’ve been awesome, really—really professional—”

Nothing she said was doing anything to alter Kay’s expression, and another eternity seemed to pass with her appalled eyes burning into Lily. Lily’s stomach felt as if she was plummeting from a cliff without knowing when the bottom was going to hit. Desperate, she rolled over to the side of the bed and started groping for her shoes on the floor, an action that at least hid her face. “I should go, right?” she said. “Delph and Metzia are practically finished. I’ll go.”

“Do,” Kay said. When Lily looked up she was pressing her fingers into her eyes. She didn’t even look angry, just miserable.

Lily yanked her trousers closed and fled.

Outside, Lily’s loose hair was instantly glued to her neck by torrents of rain. She scraped it off her skin with one hand, hunting through her pockets for an elastic with the other. The bell was still tolling, its sound modulated by the gusts of wind.

What is wrong with you? The last traces of dragon-lust curdled like spoiled food in the pit of Lily’s stomach. Kay’s anger had been extreme, Lily knew, disproportionate to her own flippant remark—but that thought couldn’t make her feel better, because reasonable or unreasonable, Kay’s reaction showed how strong her revulsion was against the idea of Lily being attached to her.

What was wrong with her? Everything, it seemed, because even with the evidence of Kay’s feelings about her, her obvious lack of interest, Lily still felt a shamed yearning for her.

By sheer instinct, she headed toward the call-board, the huge slate panel in the entrance hall where the emergency posts were updated during any crisis. It was a useless instinct, but the sound of the bell exerted a pull at the level of muscle memory, a reflex built through years of lessons and drills. She walked as if in a fog, apologizing to the people that bumped into her as they hurried to their own muster stations. And then she was standing, blinking rainwater from her eyes as she looked up at it, and she felt ready to cry at the blessed, unhoped for reprieve. There was Delphineis’s name in white on black, and by some accident or miracle, she had been put on sweep duty.

#

“What are you doing here?” Marcia hissed when Lily appeared beside her in the locker room and started to pull on her gloves and thermal gear. “Wasn’t Delph taken out of the rota?”

Lily shook her head. She needed to fly. She needed something that would erase the image of Lieutenant Woolmer’s face looking at her with contempt; and if a clerical error somewhere meant she got to fly around the cliff-tops or haul on drag chains for however many hours, then Delphineis was just going to have to suck it up and not see her sweetie-pie for a little while. Lily needed a break.

I hate you, Delphineis grumbled in her mind, after Lily had jabbed her in the sensitive place behind her jaw to wake her up. Metzia, equally drowsy and confused, could have easily flown into a temper from being interrupted so soon after a mating, but though baffled and alarmed, he backed away from them with his usual good manners. Kay was probably getting an earful from him through their bond. She was probably on her way down here right now to drag Lily ignominiously out of her saddle, but Lily couldn’t do anything about that, and didn’t let herself worry about it. Instead she projected a sunny unconcern through the dragon-bond that she knew would drive Delphineis crazy.

She kept guarded the vindictive satisfaction that she would have been ashamed for Delphineis to hear, the voice that said, For once, my feelings are going to be the ones that count.

“Wait,” the wing-leader said as she saw Lily and Delphineis lumber out of the Roosts. “Isn’t your dragon mating right now? You can’t go out. I’m going to need a replacement.”

“No time!” Lily said through a smile that was mostly gritted teeth, and put her boot in the stirrup.

The gusts of wind at the launching place blew away any word lower than a shout, but they already had their coordinates, a foundering passenger vessel thirty klicks up the coast. Training ensured that she and Delphineis took up their position without need for discussion, three wingspans behind Marcia’s dragon Gyre.

There was a band of clear yellow sky where the iron-grey sea met the horizon, but the rain was driving into Lily’s eyes, and within a few minutes of their flight, she was flying blind.

 

Chapter Text

Most of the local shipping had looked at the weather forecast and stayed snug in harbour, so except for a few hours when Lily and Delphineis had to help haul a packet-boat off some rocks and tow it into a more sheltered bay, they spent most of the next evening grid-flying over the Flight School’s sector—grueling work, but uneventful. The fatigue finally helped Lily reach that stage where there was nothing in her mind but aching muscles and cold-numbed fingers, and she was even looking forward to returning to the school and having a sound sleep in her own warm bed, when she saw the flag signal, Repair to mobile command six.

That put paid to any prospect of rest. Delphineis tilted to follow their wing-leader to the new coordinates on the headland. A dozen or more dragons had already arrived, and the churned up mud of landing place splashed Delphineis’s belly and Lily’s boot. The downpour was so thick that Lily could hardly see the structure, more tent that real building, that served as headquarters for the Coastal Patrol’s more far-flung activities.

At least you’ll be inside it, Delphineis grumbled, shaking rainwater off the ruff of spikes that protected her neck. The grumbling had little bite left to it, and Lily knew she was forgiven Lily for dragging her dragon away from Metzia—Delphineis's biggest grievance now was that they weren't flying anymore. Strong winds always got her keyed up, and Lily foresaw a difficult time getting her settled in her pen again whenever they did get home.

Inside the tent was chaotic, but Lily found herself an out of the way place to wait for their orders. A few moments later, Marcia sidled up beside her, her face blotchy pink after the cold outside.

“That’s Commander Jost in charge,” Marcia said, pointing to an officer who was leaning over a technician’s shoulder to look at a bank of screens—radar, weather, communications. Lily didn’t recognize any of the people here except the members of her squadron, so the rescue, whatever it was, must involve one of the other Patrol Centres on the coast. It wasn’t unusual for the Flight School to be asked to send reinforcements for a big operation.

Lots of strange dragons here, Delphineis confirmed outside. Rude ones.

Hush, Lily sent back, on edge.

“A big passenger ship has gone off course,” said Marcia, whose strange ability to start soaking up information must have started the moment she stepped into the tent. “They’re talking to her captain on the radio, but it’s hard to get an exact position. They want us here as extra power in case it founders.”

At that moment Commander Jost tapped the radar screen and said, “What’s that?”

“Courier dragon arriving, sir,” said the technician.

“The hell it is. We haven’t got lights on the landing place yet. Will he even be able to see us?”

Several people scrambled to their feet to deal with this new problem, but at that moment a sentinel’s shout sounded above the din of the tent’s rippling canvas. The courier dragon was already landing without the benefit of lights, and it seemed, landing safely. The radio woman beckoned the commander over—more news from the ship’s captain—and he began to give brusque instructions on how the mariners should trim their sails so the dragons, when they arrived, would be able to take it in tow.

It was chance that Lily happened to be looking at the entrance when the courier rider ducked inside. Even swathed in rain-gear and streaming with rainwater, Lily recognized that silhouette, and her breath caught in dismay. Since it was impossible that Metzia didn't know about her truancy, she’d assumed that the fact she didn’t see Kay right away meant she’d gotten away with her stunt. She hadn’t wasted further thought on what she would do if she hadn’t.

Lieutenant Woolmer didn’t glance in Lily’s direction, but waited very correctly until Commander Jost had straightened from the radio mouthpiece, his face lined with strain. Kay handed him a thin packet of documents. “The Flight School signal codes,” she said blandly.

Lily cut her eyes away. Commander Jost was looking at Kay suspiciously—of course he already had the signal codes, and it was possible that he also recognized Lieutenant Woolmer and knew her reputation for trying to insert herself into extra patrols. But he didn’t have the time to yell at her right now; he tossed the packet over to his radio woman.

“We’ve got a position,” the radar tech announced. A relieved murmur rose from the other officers, and the commander said:

“Great. Scramble the rescue squad, and give the captain our ETA.”

But a woman who must have been the meteorologist said sharply, “Are those the coordinates?”, pointing at the screen. The tech nodded confirmation.

“But—” She moved her finger in a crescent shape around the luminous symbol that showed the ship’s position. “Are you seeing all of this?” Lily wasn’t sure what data was being displayed on the screen, nor would she have felt confident in her ability to interpret it if she had, but whatever the meteorologist was pointing at, the computer showed it as a jagged red shape. The crowd around the screen tensed palpably.

“We can’t fly in that,” Commander Jost said. He chewed his lip. “What’s the cloud ceiling?”

The technician slid out of the way to let the meteorologist take his chair. Her fingers flew over her keyboard. “At five kilometres you’d be above it.”

“That’s outside flight regulations,” Marcia said aloud. Heads swiveled in her direction, but not even an audience of senior officers could make Marcia self-conscious.

Commander Jost looked at his second in command, who admitted, “A dragon could do it. But we would be—significantly worried for the rider’s safety.”

“It will need to be an unmanned flight,” Jost said. His eyes travelled around the tent. “Woolmer,” he said. His tone left no doubt that he did know her, at least by reputation. “Can Metzia drop the tow-cables on his own?”

Kay’s face looked fixed, and even Lily felt herself blanch in sympathy. Nobody liked unmanned flights. Even if the bond made it possible for a rider to communicate with their a dragon from the ground, they just felt wrong. But all she said was, “I’ll get out there and prep him, sir.”

“You’ve got fifteen minutes.”

Although she was tempted, Lily didn’t plan to follow Kay out of the tent to the landing place. She remembered the other time she’d seen Kay and Metzia alone in their pen, after the first mating, the almost unbearable intensity of their emotions, and she knew that Kay wouldn’t look kindly on Lily for witnessing such a scene. But as Kay lifted the flap to duck outside, she hesitated, and her eyes went to Lily for the first time since she’d arrived. Her head jerked, nearly imperceptibly, though from the corner of her eye Lily saw Marcia stiffen slightly.

Lily stood there gulping, her heart pounding, until she thought the noise of the tent had returned to its previous level, and then, ignoring Marcia’s narrow-eyed glare, she slipped outside into the rain. She had to run to catch up to Kay on the muddy path. The other woman barely turned her head as she said, “You’re going to need to keep Delphineis calm.”

“Yeah. Yeah, I’ll try.” Lily slipped on the wet rocks caught herself. Ahead of them, the dragons in the picket line lifted their heads at the sound of approaching humans.

“It isn’t going to be easy,” Kay continued. “Metzia threw a tantrum even though you were only taking Delphineis a little distance down the coast.”

Then why didn’t you stop me right away? Lily hadn’t realized until the thought crossed her mind that that had been most of the point of taking Delphineis out on the sweeps to begin with, for Kay to stop her, to prove... something. The realization made her queasy.

Technicians clad in raincoats were swarming around them. Kay didn’t get out of their way completely, but she moved to stand in front of Metzia, holding the dragon’s head against her breastbone. Her lips moved continuously as the techs attached oxygen sensors and GPS emitters to his harness. Metzia was trying to crane his neck around—he clearly wanted to get back to Delphineis, whom he’d expended to much effort to join, but Kay yanked him around, fearless of his dagger teeth, and snapped something to make him focus. Lily couldn’t be sure, but she thought she caught the words, Be smart. Finally, Kay stepped back and waved the signal for them to clear the launch area, and a moment later the huge down-wash of air from Metzia’s wings kicked up a spray of rain and mud that spattered the humans to their chins.

“I’m sorry, Lily said quietly. If she hadn’t selfishly let her emotions get the better of her and rushed off the way she had, Metzia would be safe in the Roosts, and Kay would be dry and cozy in her room.

Kay didn’t answer. Her body was rigid with tension, and Lily thought it was possible she hadn’t heard.

#

Inside the tent, Metzia was a greenish streak on the radar operator’s screen. Lily had taken care to place herself outside Kay’s field of view, but her eyes were as riveted on the screen as if it were her own dragon they were watching. Marcia, tactfully silent, brought her a mug of coffee.

“Can you steer him to approach from the west?” the meteorologist said suddenly to Kay, who turned her head, alarmed.

“What? Why?”

“There’s a downdraft between him and the ship. Very strong—looks like katabatic flow.”

“He’ll be fine,” Kay said tightly, turning her face away from the meteorologist, who looked flabbergasted by the dismissive response.

“No. He won’t,” the woman snapped. “Metzia’s going to come out of the cloud ceiling directly under the flow, and it will smash him into the water like hitting concrete.”

Kay’s face paled, but she didn’t reply—probably communicating desperately with her dragon, trying to guide him away the trap. The radar technician shot her increasingly worried looks as Metzia’s track on the screen never deviated.

“He’s not turning,” Lily said aloud, almost despite herself.

“No,” Kay said shortly. “He won’t,” and the way she said made it finally clear that the refusal wasn't coming from her. Metzia was holding stubborning to his course.

Behavioural issues, Lily thought, as the stunned silence in the command tent was broken up by Commander Jost’s furious cursing. “Send out a second rescue squad for the dragon,” he said to his second, who hurried outside, shouting orders. “Goddamned mess,” he muttered, looking back at the screen.

“I need to be on that squad,” Kay said. “Sir.”

Commander Jost looked incredulous. “You need to stay here and control your dragon,” he snapped.

Kay stood her ground. “Give me a radio headset, you can pass commands to me while I’m in the air.”

“We’re not risking Metzia seeing you on another dragon.”

Kay’s face went from pale to bright red. It was true that murderous jealousy was an innate personality trait of most dragons; on the other hand, you were expected to train your dragon out of it if you ever wanted to be promoted past lieutenant. Was this yet another of the issues Marcia had read about in Metzia’s file?

“Delphineis can take her,” Lily said quickly, steeling herself against the eyes that now turned in her direction. “They’re mates, Metzia won’t mind.”

The commander’s face turned thunderous. “You brought mating dragons into the field?” he said. Lily had the fleeting thought that this incident was going to look very bad for both of their careers, but all that mattered was that after a moment of what looked like intense inner struggle with his feelings, Commander Jost nodded. Kay was already bolting out of the tent. Lily followed at her heels, already sending orders to Delphineis to get ready for flight.

“I don’t have a double saddle,” she realized as they neared the picket line.

Without saying a word, Kay boosted herself up to settle on the bare scales behind the main saddle. Delphineis didn’t grumble, but she twitched a little to feel the weight in an unaccustomed place. Lily followed Kay up, and there was some movement of arms and legs as they adjusted. Kay’s hand snaked across Lily’s stomach to dig her fingers, into her hip, a kind of parody of the embrace they’d shared that afternoon. There were no straps for Kay to hang on to.

“You good?” Lily checked. Kay made an impatient sound in her ear, so she gave Delphineis the signal to follow the rest of the squad into the air.

The route that could safely be taken by manned dragon-flight took a much wider circle than the way Metzia had gone, and the winds began to buffet them as soon as they were over the water. Lily leaned forward to reduce her profile, until she was nearly lying along Delph’s neck. She focused on the pressure of Kay’s arm. Like an idiot, Lily had decided she didn’t need a radio headset if Kay was going to have one, and now she found it difficult to decipher the other woman’s shouted instructions above the rushing air. In most cases, however, a shift in that arm’s pressure told her what to do, and she found she’d communicated the change of bearing to Delphineis before it even passed the threshold of her own understanding.

She didn’t know what Kay was hearing through the headset, and she didn’t try to guess. It was better not to think to much, to do only what needed to be done each moment. But subconsciously she must have gathered something, because she felt no shock when a rift in the clouds finally opened a view on the struggling passenger ship, the foamy water washing across its foredeck—only sickening horror as they finally saw the broken body of a dragon fluttering weakly on the gigantic swell.

 

Chapter Text

Back at the Roosts, Metzia’s leg and wing were splinted and he was sedated. Delphineis was nearly beside herself when he was brought into their pen, and Lily had to hold her very firmly, flooding her mind with reminders that any action that jostled her mate could hurt him terribly. At last Delph was convinced to settle for lying closely pressed against his side, her long neck draped over his uninjured shoulder. She rumbled suspiciously at Kay, who recoiled, stricken. Lily ached for her—if it had been her dragon injured, she would have been desperate for contact, and she felt sure Metzia would have wanted to give it to her, had he been conscious. But Kay didn’t protest. With only a slight, bitter twist to her mouth, she backed away retreated out into the corridor.

Lily allowed herself the reassurance of rubbing Delphineis’s nose, feeling the warmth of her scales with her trembling palm—the rescue had been very touch-and-go, and Lily had been far from certain they would make it out in one piece—before she trotted after Kay. The older woman hadn’t gotten far. She was half supporting herself against the wall, shaking, but when she saw Lily approach, she stiffened and started walking again.

“What happened?” Lily demanded. “Why wouldn’t Metzia listen to you?”

Kay’s stride didn’t slacken.

“Has he done that before?”

Kay stopped and looked around. It was now about two o’clock in the morning, and they were in an empty wing of the Roosts, surrounded by rows of silent dragon pens. It occurred to Lily that Kay hadn’t outpaced her, even though she probably could have. She had been leading them here specifically so they could have this conversation unheard.

They were here for a discussion. Dread pooled in Lily’s stomach, and she was suddenly aware that she was still wearing her cold, wet clothes, and that goose-pimples were forming where she’d pushed back her sleeves.

Kay rubbed her face and sighed. “Metzia can’t hear me,” she said. “He wasn’t being disobedient. I couldn’t pass on the meteorologist’s warning.”

Lily blinked at her. “He can’t?”

“We have no dragon-bond.”

“What?” Lily said again, because whatever she’d been expecting, it wasn’t that. “What do you mean? Wait, how do you—”

“He understands verbal commands,” Kay said, grimly. “I told him how to find the ship. Usually his judgment of risk is excellent, but he—he must have—” Her voice started to break up. There was no way of knowing what Metzia had been trying to do before the wind had flung him, ragdoll-like, onto the surface of the sea.

“But—I saw him comforting you.” Lily’s face turned red as she admitted to what she’d witnessed, Metzia closing his teeth over Kay’s neck after the first time he and Delphineis mated.

“We care about each other. I’m still his.

“O-kay,” Lily said slowly, because that was undeniable. She’d never seen a dragon and his rider who belonged to each other more than Kay and Metzia. But most people would have argued that Kay had no right to be a dragon-rider without a full bond—before she’d gotten to know them, Lily would probably have felt that way herself. “Does Commander Jost know?” she asked.

Kay shook her head. “No one. Better they think that Metzia is difficult, or that I’m insubordinate, than that they take him away from me.”

Lily thought about how Kay had found Metzia, abandoned on a rocky island, spending the first week of his life convinced that both of them were going to die. They hadn’t bonded—and maybe later Lily was going to wonder about the why and how of that—but something had formed there that Kay was ready to die to protect. “All right,” she said, still slowly. “But—now you’re telling me?”

“You deserve to know,” Kay said dully.

That made no sense to Lily, who couldn’t remember that Kay had ever acted as if she owed Lily anything. Sure they had slept together a handful of times, but that didn’t make them girlfriends. To the contrary, Lily knew that the dragon-lust made Kay deeply uncomfortable. She thought about the rigid emotional control Kay had held onto in the command tent, and guessed that her flight instructor must loathe a thing that took away from that control.

Lily frowned. “So, when you feel the dragon-lust, is it just a feeling without the, uh, sense of what Delph and Metzia are doing?” Lily found that weirdly dissociative, but maybe it wouldn’t be a bad thing not having access to all of Delph’s strange, dragonish fantasies.

Kay looked even more sick and miserable than she had before. “No,” she said. “I don’t—there are no feelings.”

Realization was creeping at the edge of Lily’s awareness, just beyond her grasp. “So—but then what do you—”

Kay shook her head again, her eyes staring past Lily, and said, “You show up. And I can tell it’s affecting you. So that’s how I know that it’s started.”

Lily stared at her. Kay’s eyes continued to drilling into the wall of masonry opposite them. And then finally, about fifty years too late, understanding hit Lily in a nauseating rush.

There was a small, utilitarian washroom at the end of the row of pens. Lily probably chipped the wall tiles slamming the door open. She curled over the toilet for a long time before she accepted that she wasn't going to throw up—the queasy horror was in her brain, not her body.
Her stupid, stupid body that she had shoved upon a woman who was not remotely attracted to her, not even under the influence of hormones, because she didn’t feel dragon-lust.

“Please don’t tell,” Kay said. She was standing in the washroom doorway, her big, scarred hands that Lily had admired so much twisting in front of her. Her eyes were wide with fear, a naked emotion that Lily should never be allowed to witness, and it dawned on her anew that she now had this huge, horrible, coercive power over her former instructor—she’d had it since the beginning, even if she hadn’t realized it, and like an idiot, she’d used it. She’d made Kay go down on her, and she’d touched and rubbed her to make her come, and she’d wanted—so many other things, things that made her sick now that she thought about them.

Kay was saying, “I promise, I’ll do whatever you want, whatever you say,” and Lily was certain that she would.

Lily had to fix this; but the most urgent thing that needed doing, to calm and comfort her distraught flight instructor, was exactly the thing that Lily was the wrong person to do. Pull yourself together, she thought, and got to her feet. Kay’s eye’s widened as Lily swayed momentarily, dizzy from standing so fast. “I’m okay,” she said quickly, then added, “And I’m not going to tell, I promise.” She wanted to promise a lot more, but she knew she had to be sure first, one hundred percent sure, that that was a promise she’d be able to keep.

“Thank you,” Kay said, very quiet.

“I think I just adrenaline-crashed,” Lily said, as if that would explain why she’d been retching over the toilet-bowl. “I’m going to go—” She plucked at the wet clothes that were still plastered against her skin. “Shower.”

“Right.” Kay stepped out of her way and Lily hurried past her. She was careful not to look back, even though she felt the other woman’s eyes on her back all the way down the hallway.

Delph, how’s Metzia? she called out—and was aware all over again that Kay couldn’t ask this question, however desperately she might want the information.

Delphineis’s response was an incoherent jumble of anxiety and distress. Metzia’s splint was ugly and frightening. He wouldn’t wake up.

He has to sleep to get better, Lily told her. Don’t—harass him, all right? When he wakes up, just let him be quiet. None of your games. It was the only silver lining of this awful situation, that Metzia’s injury would buy them some time when they didn’t have to worry about their dragons trying to mate.

Delphineis assured Lily that she was going to take the best possible care of her mate, and personally ensure that he lacked for no comfort as he recovered, and also that he never did anything so stupid as to go out flying in a storm again. While not entirely reassuring, Lily figured the tirade was the best she was likely to get.

She checked a clock. She had time for four or five hours of sleep before the rest of the school started to wake up, and then she could get to work problem-solving.

#

The school only had a small biology lab—most important analyses were sent to one of the big institutes in the capital—and from the door, Lily could see past the lab-benches to the cluttered office of the breeding specialist.

“Miss Haworth?” the specialist called out, seeing her hovering in the doorway. “Come on in. I would have thought you’d sleep in this morning. Everything going all right with your Bog-haunter?”

“Delph’s great,” Lily said, winding past the styrofoam coolers and empty brown glass bottles heaped on the floor. “I mean, she’s worried about Metzia, but he’ll be fine, so she’ll be fine. I just wanted to ask—the test you did, has it come back...?”

“Negative,” the specialist said.

“Oh. And you’ll be doing another? I mean, they, uh, did it again right before the search and rescue mission. They’re quite—active.”

“Getting impatient for your eggs, huh?” the specialist said.

Lily arranged her face into a pleading expression, and the woman gave an exaggerated sigh.

“Yes, all right! I can run it at the same time as another batch I’m analyzing tonight. But don’t pin your hopes on it, all right?”

Lily nodded and left. If she couldn’t depend on Delphineis’s imminent quickening to put an end to this situation, she would have to find another way. Delphineis and Metzia could probably be separated. It wouldn’t be easy, judging by Metzia’s earlier determination to get to Delphineis—there was a risk of him acting up again, and Lily did wonder how much more trouble Kay’s dragon could make before they kicked him out of the school entirely. Still, she remembered Dr. Carmack’s repeated insistence that the mating would would only proceed as long as Lily was comfortable with it—surely that meant that it was a viable option. Lily was deeply uncomfortable with having sex with a person who didn’t want her, who might even be afraid of her. But she would have to come up with an explanation that wasn’t that, an explanation which, ideally, would deflect any attention away from Kay and Metzia’s dragon-bond or lack thereof.

So far, coming up with this as yet unknown explanation represented the entirety of Lily’s plan. The hoped for flash of insight still hadn’t come by lunchtime. She’d forgotten to feel hungry, and she had to hurry to get her tray just as the kitchen was closing. Lily recognized a few people from last night’s squad stumbling in, still looking tired and gummy-eyed. She steered toward an empty table—the last thing she wanted to do right now was rehash the events of the rescue—but hesitated when she saw another familiar face. It was the guy who’d given Lily a hard time yesterday when she was looking for Kay. Lily had wondered at the time whether his hostility could possibly have been motivated by friendship.

Making an abrupt decision, she veered over and set her tray on his table. He raised his eyebrow at her—this table wasn’t officially reserved for instructors, but Lily would have never dreamed of sitting there if she hadn’t had this important mission. Without any preamble, she leaned forward and said, “Are you friends with Lieutenant Woolmer?”

“Sure,” he said easily, in a tone that made it impossible to know whether he was speaking seriously or not, and popped a spoonful of yogurt in his mouth.

With growing misgiving, Lily said, “I just wanted to know whether she’s okay.”

He snorted, as if she’d said something amusing. “Yeah, no, I think it’s pretty safe to say she’s not okay. You have met her, right?”

“What do you mean?” Lily said warily.

“Well you students don’t see this kind of thing, you still think being a dragon-rider is all cool and badass, but trust me—Kay Woolmer is a disaster waiting to happen.” He leaned forward. “Or maybe it already happened? You two are bumping uglies, right? Not that that’s any kind of revelation—it was so clear all along that Woolmer hates guys.”

Lily was increasingly certain she wouldn’t be able to look at the untouched food in front of her without wanting to throw up. She stood up. “Sorry to disturb you,” she said. “I was just hoping to talk to one of Kay’s friends.”

He snickered again. “Ha. Good luck finding anyone.”

#

Lily took Marcia’s key and broke into the record room again. She wanted to know about Metzia’s previous matings. Lily would have bet her best riding saddle that Kay had never told a soul about the absence of a dragon-bond, and she wondered what the difference could be with Lily, that had made her break her silence. Maybe there was already a solution that Kay hadn’t wanted to tell her about.

It scared her that the answer might be just that Kay had liked the other riders more than Lily.

But though she pored through Metzia’s file box, there were no mating records, and Lily didn’t have Marcia’s familiarity with the paperwork to know whether none existed or whether for some reason they had been removed. Another blind end, Lily thought; but she was far from finished yet.

Metzia woke in the late afternoon and was moving around. Nobody thought of informing Kay—obviously any rider would know immediately through the bond how their dragon was doing—so after agonizing over the decision, Lily hunted her down in the empty classroom where she was preparing for her next class. She couldn’t stop thinking about what that guy had said, about the possibility that Kay might not have anyone to support her. Lily couldn’t remember seeing any friends around, specifically; she’d just assumed that they existed.

“Thank you,” Kay said, as Lily delivered the news from a safe distance, just inside the door. She looked grateful—at least, she didn’t look as if she was repulsed by Lily and wished she would never speak to her again—but instead of leaving immediately for the Roosts she continued to sort and staple the assignments in front of her, until Lily got self-conscious standing there and crept away.

Lily skipped her next class and went back down to the Roosts to demand whether Delphineis was still giving Kay a hard time.

You stop pulling this possessive shit and you let her see her dragon, Lily raged at her dragon. It was the first time she could remember actually yelling at Delphineis. She had a weird feeling of being outside of herself, almost a different person. Can’t you see Metzia wants her here?

She could sense a weakening in Delphineis’s belligerence. Metzia seemed listless even after waking up, and Delph was worried about him. She had spread one pinion over him, and she barely moved enough to get up for a drink of water.

Of course he wants to see his rider, you idiot, Lily snapped brutally, uncaring of her own dragon’s emotional state.

Lily was able to leave a note in Kay’s mailbox letting her know in guarded language that things were sorted now and Kay should feel free to go to the Roosts whenever she felt like it. It was the first big problem Lily had been able to solve—but instead of filling her with confidence, she only felt more at sea than ever.

 

Chapter Text

The next morning, Lily was taking what she thought of as her shift at the dragons’ pen—she now took pains to avoid turning up while Kay was visiting Metzia, in case she made the other woman uncomfortable. Lily had planned to seize the peaceful moment to give Delphineis’s claws a much-needed trimming, but her dragon was too fidgety to let her complete more than one foot. Delphineis still aspired to the role of devoted nurse to her mate, but Lily judged that by tomorrow she would be restless enough to hear Lily’s proposal that they return to their routine of an early morning flight.

Metzia, though he was obviously distressed by his lack of mobility and irritable from the pain of the healing bone, surprised Lily by giving her a gentle, albeit terrifying, bump with his snout. It gave Lily a flicker of something painfully like hope. Maybe his friendliness meant that he knew she was making an effort to stop hurting his rider, to put Kay’s needs first. Delph had always been fairly oblivious to the nuances of human feeling, but she sensed that Metzia understood more than he let on.

One of these days, Lily wanted to ask Kay to tell her about Metzia. She imagined going to her right now, before Kay’s first class. It would be lovely to watch her eyes soften as she talked about her dragon, to watch her hands move—big, strong hands, with their calluses and scars—maybe Kay would take her shoulders with those hands and kiss her, her mouth moving in that slow, restless rhythm that felt as if it was disassembling Lily piece by piece...

Lily’s chin jerked up from her chest as if she’d been nodding off. Her heart was pounding, and her skin was over-sensitized and prickling with sweat. She could feel a few stray grains of sand that had gotten under her clothes when she’d sat on the floor of the pen to examine Delphineis’s feet.

She took a few deep breaths, pressing her fingers against her eyes until coloured spots flickered on her eyelids. When she felt she could breathe properly, she looked at the dragons.

Delphineis’s eyes were closed and she’d tucked her nose under Metzia’s wing—dreaming, Lily thought, she’s just having a dream—but Metzia’s eyelid was raised just enough that she could see his glittering black eye trained on her. He knew what was happening to her. But Kay, Lily thought, would have no idea. Kay was somewhere reading or working, maybe taking a group of cadets through their drills, or repairing some piece of her dragon’s tack, unaware, safe.

Lily gulped as Metzia blinked at her. Then she backed out of the pen and ran.

#

Lily ended up on the little foot-path to her favourite thinking spot, up on the headland. Gulls and dovekies were wheeling offshore, their wings flickering over the slate-blue wave-tops. The hot sun was quickly licking up the moisture from the rainstorm. Lily sat on a big, flattish stone, and then flopped onto her back to look at the clean blue sky.

She had been doing so well not thinking about her and Kay having sex.

She hadn’t let herself think about it, first because part of her was still scared of what those thoughts would lead to, and second because the memories had been good ones, and now that she knew that it hadn’t been good for Kay, she sensed that they would hurt her.

But by the same token, it was hard not to think about them, because now she was so worried and she didn’t know what to do, and being under the influence of dragon-lust had been the opposite of that: it had been Kay insisting that they were going to be careful of Lily’s wrist injury, and taking away her insecurities about going down on someone for the first time, and hooking her ankle casually over Lily’s leg so that her body was completely surrounded, enfolded in warmth. Now more than ever, Lily wanted someone to be taking care of her, and instead she had to struggle against this huge problem alone; and she was just a student, it was unfair, she couldn’t do it.

But of course, there was nothing unfair about it. It was what she deserved.

Say she couldn’t find a way to prevent Delphineis and Metzia from mating. That just meant she would have to tackle it from the human end. Separating riders wasn’t something that was commonly done—in fact, she knew from stories that reuniting riders whose dragons were mating was considered grounds for medical transport. So probably being separated didn’t feel very good. But—she was ninety percent certain she’d never heard of anyone dying because of it.

She hadn’t been sitting on her rock for very long before Marcia turned up—maybe she’d asked Gyre to pester Delphineis for her whereabouts. She lay down on the rock beside Lily, and after a few minutes she asked, “How’s Woolmer doing?”

Lily shrugged. “I haven’t seen her today.”

Marcia rolled her head to the side and gave Lily a strange look. “Shouldn’t you be—”

“What?”

Marcia examined her another moment and then said, “Never mind. By the way, they aren’t going to take any disciplinary action before Metzia’s better. You’ll probably get a reprimand for taking Delphineis out, but if you can make it coincide with her laying a clutch, your total time grounded won’t even be that different.”

“Great.”

“Metzia will probably get a probation plan to follow.”

Lily wished she could make Marcia stop talking, and because Marcia was great that way, she fell silent without Lily needing to say a word. The two of them sat on the rock looking over the sea while Lily let her heels tap against the side of the rock. “You know lots of people whose dragons have mated, right?” Lily said.

“Oh yeah. Both my brothers, my parents. They describe it like it’s some spiritual communion with their dragons, but you know, I kind of suspect Mom just likes the that she sometimes gets to have freaky sex with a person who isn’t Dad.”

Lily sat up and stared at Marcia.

“What? He understands. They’re devoted to each other. It’s only ever a thing that happens when Hallie’s broody.”

“Right, because it’s not usually—” Lily’s face heated “—an attachment to the other person, not a real one.”

“Oh, people get attached all the time. It’s sex right? There are feelings. But what people say is that those relationships usually don’t last very long, because the intensity of the dragon-lust drops off, and all your expectations are just—” She made a gesture with her hand. “And for lots of people it’s normal never to speak to each other again after their dragons mate. So you see, no matter, what it’s all...” She groped for a word

“Normal,” Lily repeated. Just saying it made her feel more relaxed. “It’s normal.”

Marcia chewed that over. “No,” she said. “It isn’t normal, not for humans to have relationships like this. But—it’s not normal to fly either, right? We’re already doing things with our bodies that humans aren’t meant to do—I mean, you could have died in that storm, several times.”

Marcia’s voice wobbled a little, and Lily reached down and squeezed her ankle, unsure what to say. She still hadn’t really let herself process the terror of that night. Marcia nudged her back gratefully with her toe, then cleared her throat, seeming embarrassed.

“So,” she said. “Have you and Woolmer had a fight?”

“Something like that. Listen—is there a kind of policy manual about how matings are handled? Someplace where it’s all written down, with the procedures to follow and regulations and stuff?”

“Sure. Dr. Carmack must have a whole library of them in his office.”

“I don’t want to ask Dr. Carmack.”

Marcia looked at her thoughtfully. “Are you going to eventually tell me what’s going on between you two?”

“Probably not,” Lily admitted. Her stomach tense. But Marcia only sighed.

“I’ll get the manuals for you,” she said. “Just promise you’ll take a nap or something, okay? You’re starting to look like shit.”

#

“Kay, can we talk?”

Lily had been standing outside the dining hall, under the cabinet of cadet trophies, waiting for Kay to appear. She fell in quickly with the instructor to avoid drawing attention.

Kay actually flinched, a new development, but she said, “Yes, of course. Where…” She looked around.

“Here is good. I mean, I don’t think anyone can hear us but…it’s public?”

Lily had hoped that would make Kay feel more at ease, but the other woman’s shoulders just curled upward more. Lily decided to soldier on with her news.

“I checked the regulations,” she said. “We can ask to be sequestered from each other during the next mating period, no questions asked, but, uh, we would need medical supervision. Both of us. I don’t know whether there’s someone you would trust to…”

No.” Kay looked terrified. “Please don’t. I promise I won’t—listen, the bathroom door in my quarters has a lock. Next time Delphineis and Metzia are mating, you can shut me in there.”

Promise you won’t what? Lily thought. Promise she wouldn’t stop Lily from groping her under her clothes, even if she was gritting her teeth the whole time to get through it?

Lily decided she didn’t want to know. She did, however, point out the obvious. “I can shut you in while I’m lucid, but I’m just going to open the door again when the dragon-lust starts. You’re going to have to be the one to lock me in.”

Kay frowned. “Leaving me with the key.”

“Well—yeah? If you don’t want anyone else to find out, you’ll have to stay in your room anyway.” Lily thought of something. “Oh jeez, what if you need to pee?”

“That’s not—”

Something almost like a smile flickered across Kay’s face, and Lily felt her heart lift for the first time in two days. Then Kay looked at her very intently and said, “I promise that you can trust me. I mean it.”

“Well—yeah,” Lily said confused. What did Kay imagine she could be afraid of? “Obviously you’re not going to let me hurt myself, or let anyone else see me making a fool of myself or anything. You’re like, an instructor. You’re totally responsible.”

There was something a little crooked, a little less than happy, about Kay’s smile, but it was still there, still pointed toward Lily, and she couldn’t help responding to it.

A group of lower classmen went by in a chattering mass and both of them jumped apart almost guiltily. Kay jerked a thumb over her shoulder, breaking the spell. “I have to go,” she said. “Metzia has physiotherapy.”

#

There was one last challenge for Lily to field, an appointment with the school counselor. She had forgotten that this was likely to happen, and she found out in the worst possible way. She’d gone to the beach a little early for her Formation Flight class because she knew Kay would be there supervising the clean-up at the end of her own section and she wanted to see, as surreptitiously as possible, whether Kay was going to visit Metzia afterward. When Lily arrived, Kay was talking with the other instructor, describing a modification she’d made to one of the drills, looking really unfairly relaxed and beautiful with her face glowing from the wind on the hilltop. Then the instructor caught sight of Lily and said, “Hey, you’ve got an appointment with Dr. Carmack,” and handed her the message slip, while Kay’s whole expression turned stiff and wooden.

“Really? I didn’t know he wanted to see me,” Lily said, wincing as she heard her own voice, knowing that she was overselling her surprise no matter how genuine it was. There was no time for self-justification; Kay wouldn’t make eye contact with her, and the other instructor was already shooing her away.

When Lily edged into his office, Dr. Carmack offered her tea which she was too nervous either to drink or to refuse. He asked only the most perfunctory questions about the mating—it turned out he was concerned to know Delphineis’s reaction to Metzia’s injuries. There was emotional spillover for riders, he told Lily, which could be very destabilizing. Had she noticed herself having any mood swings, unexplainable fatigue, or stress?

Lily confessed to some stress.

Although Dr. Carmack had some excellent suggestions of coping activities, Lily drew very little benefit from them. She was wondering what Kay might think she was telling the counselor, and monitoring herself, with unceasing vigilance, for any sign that Delphineis and Metzia had recovered enough to move past the level of sultry dreams.

 

Chapter Text

Lily knocked on the door under the awning of the second-floor porch, then turned a little and gazed out across the hayfield that lay behind the school. She dreaded seeing resignation flash across Kay’s face when she saw her at the door.

They’d had almost a week—not as long as Lily had hoped for, but with the way the dragons were getting on, she knew they were lucky to have made it so long. Metzia was still forbidden to fly for five more weeks—even without a bond, Kay was probably the only rider in the school who could hope to enforce such a restriction on her dragon—but she was making him take daily walks up and down the trunk road that led into the town. It was hard to say who hated these walks more, Metzia, or the motorists and carthorses who also used that road, but Kay was determined that he not set his recovery back by unnecessary loss of muscle tone.

Lily hadn’t noticed any evidence of nervousness in Kay as his and Delphineis’s play returned to levels approaching before the accident—unless you counted a sort of increased steeliness. Lily had tried to do her part by flying Delphineis for long hours over the sea until she felt sure her dragon should be as exhausted as she was. Her efforts didn't seem to have had much effect.

Kay opened the door and stepped back to let her into the room. She looked intent, as if she had a task to concentrate on and wasn’t thinking of anything else until it got done, and this familiar expression settled Lily’s nerves. She sat on the wooden chair and folded her hands on her knees. Kay was scrutinizing her, and Lily was struck afresh by the realization that Kay had no idea how far the dragons had progressed, wouldn’t know until Lily either told her, or unceremoniously jumped on her. How often had she examined Lily like that, trying to guess what indignities would be inflicted on her, how soon, how long they would last, while Lily was too strung out on hormones to notice?

Lily didn’t have a time machine to change the past, but she said quickly, “Metzia and Delph are still preening each other. I’m a bit early, but I brought something to read, so—” She brandished the paperback—she wasn’t going to read any of it, but it made a nice prop.

“Great,” Kay said heartily. “Do you need anything? Are you hungry?”

On the other side of campus, Metzia, who had been nibbling Delphineis’ eyebrow ridges, suddenly thrust his snout under her wing-joint. Delph jumped, and then leaned into him, almost purring.

Lily blinked and saw that Kay’s expression had become faintly alarmed. She cleared her throat. “I think I’d rather—we got everything squared away first,” she said, and winced to hear herself. Get me squared away, she thought. Get me under lock and key before Metzia sticks his nose somewhere more interesting and I lose it completely.

Kay’s mouth tucked up grimly, as if she were thinking along similar lines, and she changed course toward the bathroom. “Here’s the lock,” she said, showing Lily the mechanism—Lily didn’t really pay attention to it beyond noting that it was there, and presumably worked—“And here’s where you’ll... be.”

Lily stared. She hadn’t seen the bathroom before—had never been here long enough to need it—but based on the overall size of the junior officer quarters, she’d expected it to be tiny, and resigned herself to several cramped and uncomfortable hours. She certainly hadn’t expected—this.

Kay had lined the bathtub, not only with her field-issue sleeping bag, but with what looked like every blanket in her living-quarters, and possibly a few extra from the School’s storage closets. There were three pillows.

It was simultaneously the sweetest and most bizarre thing Lily could have imagined Kay doing, and it sent a wave of warmth through her that she was horribly certain was unconnected with their dragons’ activities. Because nest-building wasn’t something riders did under the influence of dragon-lust. It was more like what Metzia had done for Delphineis, arranging comfortable rocks for his mate to bask on in their shared pen. So if Kay had been trying to mimic a person’s behaviour under dragon-lust, and taken a stab at it based on things she’d observed in the Roosts...

Shit, Lily thought. Without even meaning to, she’d stepped toward Kay. Fortunately the instructor didn’t notice anything untoward. Her jaw was a little stiff, and she was looking off to the side. Self-conscious, Lily realized, and felt another wave of terrifying fondness. How to hell was she supposed to get through the next few hours?

With one hand down your pants, clearly, she thought, and discovered that her face was burning. “Can you maybe put some music on out there?” she said, in a voice that was just a little squeaky.

Kay nodded quickly. “Yes. Yes, absolutely”—then hesitated, and added, “But I’ll stay just on the other side of the door, so you can—I mean—”

For a horrifying instant, Lily thought Kay was about to stammer through yet another offer to hand over her body if Lily was feeling frisky. Fortunately Kay seemed to see something in her face because she gathered herself, and ended in a clipped voice, “There are medical implications, so don’t be stupid—and if you bang on the door I will open it, and I will call the infirmary if I think you need it.”

Lily nearly rolled her eyes. She wasn’t going to have medical implications. She had too much self-control for that.

“And here,” Kay said, whisking back out into her room and returning with the water glass that sat beside her bed. “Drink lots. And I’ll just—”

“Lock the door,” Lily said. The words came out harsher than she intended, not a request but a command, and after a moment, Kay said quietly:

“Right. Yes. Good luck.”

Lily waited until she heard that reassuring click before she let herself sit down on the edge of the tub. She had to wrap her fingers tightly around her knees to keep them still. She had started to shake at some point, and didn't remember when.

#

Touching herself was the obvious way to get through this—she even thought that it was what Kay expected her to be doing. But Lily thought maybe she could keep her mind on what Delph and Metzia were doing, on scaly, sinuous limbs and sharp teeth, using those images to get off if she could, and keeping Kay well out of it. So as nice as the blanket nest was, and as much as Lily appreciated the thought behind it, she had to stay as far away from it as the tiny space allowed.

She rested her hips against the sink, her back to the mirror. In the roosts, Delphineis felt the bite of Metzia’s claw-tip digging into the sensitive wing-joint and twisted her neck to snap at him, half play, half delicious violence, striving for dominance before the heat of desire ate up every other feeling in pure need.

Lily head dropped forward—it felt heavier than usual, and her whole viscera felt as if they were being forcefully rearranged inside her. It wasn’t the pleasant, warm kind of arousal that she sometimes felt in her bed at night—not while she was half-stunned by the dragons’ lust and the concussion of their wings—but it was arousal nevertheless, and she thought she could use it. She had to use it.

Some endless number of minutes later she stopped and pressed the heels of her hands against her eyes, squeezing out tears of frustration. It wasn’t working. In fact, her stomach was so tense, her diaphragm was starting to hurt. Lily re-focused.

How are you feeling? Kay said, close to her ear, and curled a hand over Lily’s shoulder.  She rubbed a few firm circles under her clavicle with her thumb, before letting the hand slide lower, over Lily’s breast.  

Yes, that felt better. It was exploitative, but Lily could finish quickly, and later she would think of something extra nice to do for Kay, even if she could never actually bring herself to confess and apologize. Lily let herself sink deeper into the fantasy, imagined rocking almost onto her toes, pressing against Kay’s hand. She’d forgotten to do anything about her bra. That was okay, though. Kay would slide her fingertips under the elastic part.

Are you steady like that? Kay asked. Do you think you can stay standing? Her voice simmered with playful promise as those hands drifted to Lily's hips, her whole body moving down, and Lily looked down into her eyes to see—to see...

Kay’s face, terrified and guilty, as they stood in the Roosts in the early hours of the morning.

Lily hissed. That image wasn't going to help her get through the dragon-lust; worse, thinking of Kay in distress gave her a nearly overpowering urge to check that the other woman was okay, to rattle the doorknob until Kay opened it—and she was still lucid enough to know how that would end.

But now that she’d lost her focus, she could feel what the dragons were doing again, and the dissonance of inhabiting Delphineis’s body at the same time as her own was like acute air sickness, the kind she hadn’t experienced since she was a first-year cadet. She couldn’t remember feeling anything remotely like this during the first three matings.

She had to stop messing around with half-measures. She was going to lie down in that blanket-lined tub, pull the pillows over her head, and bury herself in the fantasy that Kay had made this soft, warm place for her because she loved her, because she wanted always to take care of her, because—Lily gritted her teeth to keep back a keening sound, and clutched her stomach, buffeted by sensations she couldn't even name.

Maybe she’d have a drink of water first. That would be good; it would be what Kay had told her to do. It wasn’t even hard, if Lily focused on it as a very precise sequence of actions: wrap her hand around the chilly curve of glass glass, lift it, position it under the faucet, turn the tap—she hadn’t done it right, though, and water spilled over the side. The slippery glass slid out of her palm, and when she tried to catch it she only knocked it onto the tiled floor. A scimitar-shaped crescent broke off and spun away under the sink.

Numbly, Lily knelt to pick it up, but she lost her balance—this was as bad as being drunk—and had to catch herself with one hand. It was another few seconds before the lancing pain penetrated the fog in her brain, and she lifted her palm to stare at the fragment of glass embedded at the base of her thumb.

A drop of dark red splashed onto the threadbare bathmat.

Bad.

“Lily?” Kay’s voice said, muffled through the door. “Did something break?” For some reason, Lily felt convinced she had been standing just outside the whole time.

“I’m sorry about your bathmat,” she said. Then she realized that hadn’t been loud enough and said it again.

“Don’t worry about the mat,” Kay said, still muffled. “What happened? Did you spill some water?”

Lily looked at the red circle, now bigger than a quarter, and said, “Blood.”

What?

Maybe she should soak it so the stain wouldn’t set? Except that the sink wasn’t big enough so she’d need to use the bathtub, and she didn’t want to undo the nest of blankets. It was important to Kay—she’d worked hard on it.

The door flew open, and Lily’s heart-rate kicked up with frantic adrenaline at the conflicting impulses to fling herself toward the open door and, for some reason that she no longer remember, force herself as far away from it as possible.

Kay didn’t cross the threshold, but her eyes scanned Lily from head to foot, and she said, “You look chalky.”

That was strange, because Lily could tell she was sweating and she thought she ought to be flushed. She had to convince Kay it was okay though, or else Kay would call the Infirmery and they would take Metzia away from her. She had to—

She blinked and was looking up at Kay’s face. She thought that she must have fainted, and gasped, “Don’t call!”

“That’s the third time you’ve said that in five minutes,” Kay said. “You need to calm down.” There was amusement co-mixed with the strain in her voice. Lily hadn’t fainted then, she’d only lost a bit of time, not enough to be detected. And Kay wouldn’t force her to get medical attention, she remembered that from the time she’d sprained her wrist. Respecting bodily autonomy was unsurprisingly a mania for the other woman.

“I’m fine,” Lily repeated. She actually felt much better than she remembered feeling, and after a moment of puzzling over it, she figured out why. She was no longer in the bathroom but in Kay’s bedroom, lying on her bed, and her head was resting on the other woman’s knee.

That put her face very close to an area she didn't even dare think about. “Bathtub!” Lily said, starting to flail. The bathtub was where Kay wanted her to be. Kay snatched her hands away the moment Lily started struggling, but when the movement turned into an uncontrolled fall toward the floor she changed her mind and hauled Lily back to safety with one hand on her shoulder and her hip.

“I don’t think you should try to stand again.”

From Kay, that was an opinion, never a command, but she was so obviously right that Lily gave in anyway. Her head felt clearer now—even that small amount of contact with Kay’s leg, from her cheek through the denim, was something she could cling to.

“Is this okay?” she checked, feeling pitiful.

“Yes.” Lily was smart enough to know that Kay would lie to make her feel better, but the other woman’s determination, and her lack of anger, were their own kind of comfort. “I only wanted you to lie down because you were dizzy,” Kay said. “Nothing is going to happen, and you can get up whenever you feel ready.”

“Soon,” Lily promised, focusing on breathing evenly. As long as she hadn’t done anything unforgivable yet, she could put off berating herself for the lack of self-control that had gotten her out of the bathroom.

“Oh hey, no, sweetie,” Kay said gently. “You don’t want to do that in front of me, I promise you. Give me your hands.”

Lily saw that she'd pressed the knuckle of her thumb through her pants against her own crotch. She felt a hot humiliation when she realized it, even though she was already uncertain why something that felt so necessary was forbidden. But because she wanted to do whatever Kay said, she let the other woman fold both hands between hers, the uninjured one and the one that she now noticed had gauze wrapped across the palm. The pressure over Lily’s knuckles felt perfect—the unrelieved arousal made her feel as if she was going to die.

“Should I not say anything?” Kay asked, sounding guilty.

Lily moved her head against her knee in an approximation of a shake, then realized that wasn’t what she’d meant to convey. “Keep talking,” she said, because she had to have something to focus on other than trying to guess whether she'd just unconsciously ground her pelvis against the bed.

Kay started some kind of soothing litany again, but that wasn’t making Lily any less aroused, so she shook her head again and croaked, “Metzia. Tell me...”

“What do you want to know?” Kay said, and Lily couldn’t quite grasp why her voice should suddenly sound so stiff.

“When he hatched,” Lily clarified. “Was he cute? Delph had the cutest little fangs over her lip, they—” She broke off, riding out another wash of sickening pleasure-vertigo that made the room spin. By the time she grew aware of herself again, she thought Kay might have already been talking for a while.

“—wasn’t a crèche hatchling actually. I found him on an island out past Cape Bellot.”

“I know,” Lily murmured. The silence that followed sounded like surprise, so she tried to clarify, “I read your file. Just that part. Nothing else.”

“Okay. Ssh, don’t worry about it,” Kay said, squeezing her hands gently. “So, the eggshells of feral dragons are speckled brown, unlike the human-controlled breeds, and he was—hm, just a little smaller than a Bog-haunter, I think.”

“Like Delph.”

“Exactly. And I was prying apart the shell—I mean, normally you’d let a hatchling get himself out, that’s important for their development, but there was a risk in this specific case that he could drown in the shell, because—well, never mind actually, that’s not the important part of the story. He wanted to crawl inside my shirt, except that wasn’t dry or warm for him either because, um—you see, I was a little under pressure at the time—”

Lily wanted to snort at what she knew was a colossal understatement, but a wave of nausea at that moment prevented her.

“—so I just said, Can you be a little patient sweetheart? I mean, anything could have come out of my mouth just then, I was babbling. And he held his head to the side and chirped at me, and just curled up quietly against me. He still chirps like that, you know?”

Lily couldn’t feel the bed under her anymore, but she tried to nod.

“He’s always understood me when I talk to him. I thought that was what the bond was. I mean, we used to see dragon-riders flying over our boats all the time, when I was out working the long-lines, and I assumed that me talking to Metzia was the same thing.”

Lily was sinking into the dragon-lust, and no matter how she clung to the words coming from Kay’s mouth, it wasn’t enough. “Can you...?” she said, lifting her damp face, questing, almost blind, in the direction of that mouth. There was a moment of silence, when she thought she imagined Kay's face lowering toward her. Then she heard:

“You know you don’t want that sweetheart.”

Kay sounded so quiet and hurt that Lily, not quite able to parse the words, could only understand that she’d been given some terribly sad and irrevocable news—a death perhaps. Maybe she was going to die. She subsided under the weight of it, not trying to see or hear anymore as Kay said, “This will be over soon, I promise.”

She was glad Kay was holding her hands. It was the only good thing left in her world, and in a little while it was the only thing left at all.

 

Chapter Text

Lily opened her eyes to an expanse of cotton sheet printed with yellow flowers a few centimeters from her nose. She was on her side (to keep her airway clear, she thought), and the arm underneath her was growing numb, so she started flexing her fingers as she gathered other details. The curtains were drawn, and a lamp was lit. It was sometime in the middle of the night. When she moved her head, she saw a shape huddled over the desk, back bent, head pillowed on folded arms.

Kay was sleeping. The dragon-lust must be over.

Lily hadn’t made a sound, but a moment later Kay drew in a sharp breath and sat up. Her eyes, when they met Lily’s, were almost guilty, as if she felt caught out here in her own room. Her first words were entirely predictable: “Are you all right?”

Lily felt sticky with dried sweat, and wrung out like a dirty dishcloth, but it was an exhaustion like the day after the flu, when you know that you’re already getting better. She nodded.
“I’m sorry I put you in my bed,” Kay said, “I didn’t know where else...”

Kay clearly expected that her own kindnesses, not leaving Lily on the bathroom floor, and monitoring her vitals in case she went into shock, were going to make Lily call her a tease or demand extra things from her. “It’s fine,” Lily said, quickly. “I’m sorry you had to sleep in your chair, your spine must hurt.”

Her eyes searched Kay for signs of damage, physical or emotional, but the other woman had her game face on. She’d accomplished all her mission objectives: keeping Lily out of the infirmary, and concealing her and Metzia’s unusual connection from the school administration. Kay was more than capable of ignoring everything else

As for Lily’s own objectives, they seemed to have gotten through the dragon-lust without her pressuring Kay into sex, or anything more than—really, really intense hand-holding. Okay then. Lily still worried about what she might have said while she wasn’t in her right mind, things that could have made Kay uncomfortable, but thanks to Kay’s professionalism she’d achieved the minimum standard of human decency. Meanwhile, Kay hobbled stiffly into the bathroom and reappeared with a mug of water—reminding Lily that she’d have to find a way to replace the smashed water glass. “Let me look at your hands,” Kay said.

Lily had obeyed before she could even think about it. “What—?”

“Just checking if they’re bruised,” Kay said. “It felt like they might be—but no, you’re fine.”

Oh no. Had she bruised Kay’s hands by holding them so tightly? She didn’t dare ask—she didn’t know how she’d apologize if she had.

“You want to sleep some more?” Kay asked.

“No, I’ll go.” Lily threw off the covers, only remembering afterward to check that she had all her clothes. They were in place, albeit rumpled. “I have to—” What would sound good to Kay? “—run down to the Roosts and make sure the dragons weren’t too rough.” No, shit, what was wrong with her? “With Metzia’s wing, I mean.” Now she’d made it sound as if her dragon was a worse thug than she was. But Kay only frowned.

“Wouldn’t you know from Delphineis if anything had happened?”

Lily started putting on her shoes. She’d really hoped that she would get smoother at these quick exits. “With the amount of hormones that were just pumping through them, I doubt if Metzia would even know if he'd hurt himself.”

“All right,” Kay said calmly. She reached for something hanging beside the door—a jacket, Lily realized; it seemed she’d unwittingly talked her into going to the Roosts too.

Lily wished her brain wasn’t so fuzzy. She got dizzy on the stairs, and Kay put a hand around her upper arm, before Lily realized what was happening and pulled away. Kay had already spent too much time tonight being forced to touch her. Kay didn’t draw attention to the incident, but as they were crossing the hayfield she said suddenly, “So—the way we handled things. Was that okay with you?”

Lily realized that from Kay’s perspective she might really have something to worry about—Lily had just spent hours being stupidly vocal about her misery, then bolted out of Kay’s room as soon as she could get her shoes on, and at no point had she verbally reassured Kay that she would stick to their deal, as awful as it had been for both of them.

“Totally okay,” she said. It would take more than a fever and some embarrassment for her to consider betraying Kay and Metzia’s secret.

Delphineis was still awake in the pen—and thrilled that Lily had walked down here with Metzia’s human to see her. Moonlight is romaaantic, she crooned, almost knocking Lily over as she rubbed her head against her shoulder.

You’re such a stew of hormones, Lily told her, laughing. I can’t wait to see what happens when you actually clutch.

Not just hormones, Delphineis said stubbornly, even though Lily wasn’t sure her dragon knew the human word. Metzia is special. And a moment later Lily’s mind was flooded with a complicated, loving portrait of her dragon’s mate. He was fearless. He was smart, his mind racing along in ways Delphineis couldn’t always follow. He made her feel good.

I know someone like that, Lily thought, feeling the now-familiar ache. Kay had had to partially wake Metzia up to check on his wing, and she was busy soothing him back to sleep, no longer paying them any attention. Lily ought to slip away now, let Kay end the night with her dragon, feeling safe and loved, no reminders of the degrading things she’d had to do in order to hang onto him.

Delphineis made a concerned noise and bumped Lily gently.

You’re special too, Lily told her dragon. She meant it. No matter who else came into their lives, Lily was inexpressibly lucky to be bonded to her.

Best, Delphineis agreed, stretching out with a kind of purr as Lily’s fingernails scratched her eyebrow ridges, and Lily sighed and let herself lean on her dragon for a while longer.

#

“Thivierge has a concussion,” Marcia told her as she sat down at the breakfast table. “Oh also, congratulations on making things up with your hot instructor.”

“What—”

“Your dragon is not quiet about her love, Lily. Gyre says that—”

Lily had her hands very firmly over her ears for whatever the end of that sentence was. When she lowered them, Marcia was talking around a mouthful of scrambled eggs.

“—like he got it the night of the storm, but they didn’t realize what the symptoms were until today.”

Thivierge’s concussion, right. He was their wing-leader, the one who’d tried to send Lily back when he realized Delph was mated. He and his dragon had gotten an iron cable to the face while they were towing the ship, but he’d climbed back into the saddle right after, and Lily hadn’t suspected it was serious. The truth was, she’d been avoiding him. Colin Thivierge was the one who’d had to submit the report on her reckless behaviour the night Metzia broke his wing. Lily certainly didn’t blame him for it, but she still felt lingering shame when she saw him—something she should work on moving past.

“Sounds as if he’ll be in bed with the curtains drawn for a while,” Marcia said.

He was certainly looking pale when they hovered inside the door of the infirmary room, but he smiled weakly at them.

“I’m not sure it helps anyway, keeping my eyes shut,” he said. “Mostly I’ve been trying to get Windthrift not to move around too much down in the Roosts. As long as she’s just breathing, I feel okay.”

“What’s wrong with Windthrift?” Marcia asked, but even before he could answer, Lily had an ominous feeling.

“Is it like your senses are getting mixed up with your dragon’s?” she asked. “Like you’re experiencing what she is?”

“I guess you could describe it like that,” Thivierge said. “It’s weird as heck—I’ll try to move a body part, and it turns out it’s not even my limb. I’m dizzy all the time. I don’t think they’ll be letting me fly like this.”

He looked, immediately, as if he wished he hadn’t said it. The specter of a catastrophic and permanent grounding sat between them like a kind of persistent, heavy fog, killing further conversation until the infirmerar came over to check Thivierge’s temperature.

“It’s definitely a sensory disorder caused by head trauma,” the infirmerar said when Lily questioned her. “You would have trouble distinguishing inputs from your own body from that of your dragon. Vertigo, right-left confusion, autotopagnosia—if you experience any of those you need to report it immediately.” And she looked at Lily sharply.

Lily shook her head, because she wasn’t even sure what that last word meant, and she didn’t plan to confess that she had experienced the other symptoms, but only while she and Kay had been segregating themselves from each other during their dragons’ mating.

“I see a half-dozen cases like this every year,” the Infirmerar said. “It’s a shame we don’t have any better treatments available, but it’s difficult to do research on bond dysfunctions.”

#

Lily debated whether this was really something she needed to tell Kay or if she was just inventing excuses to see her. Then she decided she was overthinking things. They had a secret to keep up. It wouldn’t be a bad thing if people thought, as Marcia seemed to, that they were getting on well. Lily found Kay leaving physiotherapy with Metzia, and haltingly explained the similarity of the symptoms. She picked her words carefully, aware that she was describing something for which Kay’s experience could provide no analogy.

“I think during mating, the feedback through the dragon-bond becomes so intense, it can hurt you. And so when the humans—that is, having something to focus on—” Her face felt hot; there was no way Kay couldn’t see it. “It’s like a counter-agent.”

“But we found out that it doesn’t have to be sex,” Kay said. Her hand went up to rub Metzia’s nose in what looked like a gesture to reassure herself.

Lily remembered feeling more turned on than she ever had in her life, thought of her weird reaction to Kay pinning her hands, and lied firmly, “No. Not-sex worked fine.”

“Well good.” Kay smiled. “I was starting to worry about the treatment you were going to suggest. I mean, I heard Thivierge isn’t a bad wing-leader, but—”

“Oh my God, no. I wasn’t—” Kay was laughing at her, Lily realized. Oh hell. Well at least if she was going to come off as a sex-obsessed teenager, Kay didn’t seem to hate her for it. “Okay stop. I really just wanted to tell you why I was in the infirmary, anyway. I didn’t want you to hear about it and think there was anything wrong.” Or that Lily was changing her mind.

Kay sobered, as if she’d heard what Lily hadn’t said, and Lily cursed the minefield that this conversation had become. But then Kay turned to Metzia and said, “Sweetheart, do you mind nipping back to the Roosts alone? I’ve got to talk to Lily about human things.”

Metzia swung his huge, spiky head toward her, and Kay said sharply, “And stay off that wing! I’ll know if you fly.”

Metzia set off down the path. His body, so perfectly adapted to flight, moved on land in a series of bony lurches, but he kept both wings, the healthy one and the one with its brace, tucked along his back. Lily watched him go, impressed and unfortunately turned on by Kay’s casual display of command. She would have gotten in so much trouble if she’d asked Delphineis to go somewhere alone, even supposing that it worked.

“The probation hearing is in three days,” Kay said once Metzia was out of earshot, and it was like a flood of ice over Lily’s attraction. “We’ve talked about it, just to get him ready, but I only learned the exact date this morning.”

“I’m so sorry—” Lily started, but Kay cut her off with an impatient gesture.

“You’re right, we should tell each other these things.” Trust among conspirators, Lily thought, and nodded. “You don’t worry about it either,” Kay said. “This isn’t the first one of these that I’ve dealt with.”

#

Delphineis and Metzia mated again the afternoon before the hearing. Lily was starting to wonder wearily whether the dragons’ insatiable love-making was ever going to end. This time, Kay sat propped against the wall with a book, and told Lily to lie down whatever way felt most comfortable. It helped to remove visual stimulus, so Lily ended up with her face mashed against Kay’s hip and her arm stretched across to grip her opposite knee—a safe way to keep track of her hands, to keep them from roaming. Kay kept a palm flattened over her nape and turned her pages one-handed.

When they finished it was only early evening, so Lily took a shower and then went and found Marcia, who listened with increasing impatience to her incoherent moanings.

“Maybe I’m forgetting,” Marcia said, “But I feel like I must have said this to you a million times already: it is not weird to like the person you’re having sex with. It is not weird to like Lieutenant Woolmer.”

“What if it is a bit weird, though?” Lily said. “Um, the sex, I mean.”

“Good weird or bad weird?”

The obvious answer was bad, very bad even, but Lily was conscience-stricken before she opened her mouth. She wasn’t really impatient for Delph and Metzia to finish their mating. Every awkward and agonizing hour in Kay’s presence was precious, and she was too selfish to be ready to give them up. Before she could decide how much of that to say, she heard a harsh buzzing sound.

“Are you carrying around a radio?” Marcia demanded.

“The mating stuff—Delph’s been erratic—” Plus Kay carried one, and Lily had picked up the habit. She finally found the talk button. “Haworth here.”

She knew that Marcia’s eyes were on her, and that was almost the only reason she didn’t start hyperventilating as soon as the staticky voice of the corpsman on the other end began to coalesce into words. Marcia seemed to guess at something, though. She looked more and more alarmed.

“What’s going on?” she demanded, as Lily tossed the radio aside and started to throw on her jacket. “Is Delph okay?” Her eyes had the unfocused look that meant she was asking Gyre whether he’d seen anything down in the Roosts. In another minute the story would be all over the school anyway.

“She’s gone,” Lily said. “She broke out of their pen, and Metzia’s gone too.”

 

Chapter Text

Three different department heads and the School director, a wiry, grey-haired woman whom Lily had only ever heard called The Colonel, were inspecting their dragons’ pen, pinching their lips at the basking rocks that had been Metzia’s courting gift, and talking quietly into their radios.

“The hatch doesn’t look forced,” said the head of the upper school, looking at the wooden panel which allowed the occupants to launch directly out over the headland.

Kay cleared her throat. Unlike Lily, who was still wearing pajamas that smelled, to her nose at least, of the combined warmth of their bodies, the flight instructor had thrown on jodhpurs and a uniform shirt before racing down here. “If you bump it hard enough, you can unseat the latch,” she said. “If you’re a dragon, I mean. I couldn’t do it.”

Eyes turned toward her. The Colonel looked impassive, and it occurred to Lily that this was probably the same jury that would have overseen Metzia’s probationary hearing tomorrow. The head of the upper school raised an eyebrow. “But your dragon has done it before?”

“No. I told him not to.”

“They mated just an hour ago,” Lily said, too anxious to keep silent. “They chose the moment to go when there would be the most confusion over the bond so we wouldn’t detect it. Either of us, I mean. It would have been impossible to detect.”

“Hm. Well, Metzia is undoubtedly very intelligent, though I wouldn’t have thought it of your Bog-haunter, Miss Haworth.”

Kay’s face was as stiff as a burial mask, but as the inspection continued, she inched over toward Lily. “What’s going on?” she said in a low voice. Of course she would assume that Lily, with her bond to Delphineis, would have news that she didn’t. But Lily shook her head. Despite frantic calls from her rider, Delphineis had things closed down pretty tightly, and whatever Lily was getting were mostly unconscious. She knew the dragons were flying, because Delph really liked watching Metzia fly. She liked it so much that Lily could feel the edges of dragon-lust again. It was a hell of a time to indulge your baser instincts, Lily thought bitterly.

“She freaked out about the disciplinary hearing,” she told Kay, after a quick glance to make sure no one was listening. “She thinks she’s keeping him safe.”

“Why would she be freaked out? Were you freaked out? I told you not to be.”

“Right, thanks,” Lily said. “No big deal I guess, you’re only running the risk of being kicked out of the school and me never seeing you again.”

“What?” Kay said, looking rather blank; but Lily’s stupid crush had already caused them enough problems, and she didn’t feel like talking about it right now.

“Delph is super hormonal right now—” she began, but Kay had recovered and talked right over her.

“Why would you even tell her?” she demanded. “I told you I wasn’t telling Metzia. You couldn’t resist blabbing my business to everybody?”

“To my dragon,” Lily whispered, mortified. The truth was, she hadn’t even meant to do that, but Delphineis had become suspicious about Lily’s low spirits and badgered her until she slipped up. And now Lily wanted to do anything to make Kay stop looking so miserable and betrayed. “You wouldn’t understand,” she snapped.

Kay’s face drained of colour, and Lily, coming to her senses, shot a horrified look at the teachers. The head of the upper school was speaking into her radio, probably organizing search parties, but the Colonel was looking at them. Lily closed her mouth and took a couple of breaths. She’d never been this far away from Delphineis before, physically, and it really sucked, but she knew that Kay was the last person she should take it out on.

Kay turned to the Colonel and said, “I’d like to engage a boat in the town to help in the search.” Only the faintest tremor suggested her distress.

“Actually, you will be confined to School property,” the Colonel said. “I can’t authorize you to leave while you and your dragon are the subject of an ongoing investigation.”

“What?”

Lily’s outburst drew those cold eyes in her direction, and she cursed herself again for breaking her resolve to keep quiet. “Metzia is behaving as a rogue dragon,” the Colonel said, “And his rider has consistently demonstrated an inability, or unwillingness, to rein him in. If she cares to gain back the confidence of her superiors by helping to recover him, she will have to do it from here. This isn’t a civilian outfit, Miss Haworth, where everyone can do as they like.”

Lily lowered her eyes. “Yes ma’am.”

“You, on the other hand, will report to launching place D in fifteen minutes. Let’s get this wrapped up as quickly as possible.”

That didn’t give Lily much time to get dressed, so she saluted and gratefully fled the abandoned pen and its reminders of her missing dragon. She didn’t quite start running when she got outside, but she might have speed-walked. Then they emerged from the roosts and Kay turned abruptly in the opposite direction, toward the road leading into town. Lily wasted precious seconds staring before she opened her mouth to yell after her, re-considered, and hurried, stumbling, to catch up.

“What are you doing?” she hissed. Now would be a really good time to speak up, she told Delphineis, but as before, her dragon didn’t seem to be paying attention.

“Metzia’s smarter than they think,” Kay said without slackening her stride. “He’s more than capable of evading pursuit, if your idiotic lizard doesn’t lead him into another hare-brained scheme.”

“But he’ll come back soon anyway,” Lily said, already out of breath from Kay’s unforgiving pace. “Why make things worse for yourself? You know he won’t leave you behind, he can’t.”

“How do I know that?” Kay snapped.

Lily was so taken aback that she almost stopped walking. She remembered Kay’s We still belong to each other, the fierceness that wouldn’t admit even the shadow of a doubt. Lily had thought that certainty was Kay’s unshakable bedrock.

It just figured that she and Delphineis had yet again managed to make a painful situation even worse for Kay.

Kay had pulled ahead again. They were nearly at the main entrance of the school grounds, with its old-fashioned wrought-iron gates that closed when dusk fell, about an hour from now. Kay must be gambling that the Colonel trusted her parole enough not to have called down to alert the porter. Either that, or the soon to be former lieutenant was itching for a confrontation.

“Wait,” Lily said, out of breath. “I need to arrange something for the search party. They’re expecting me in ten minutes.” In her panic she grabbed Kay’s sleeve. Kay tugged, and when that didn’t dislodge her took hold of Lily’s hand to pry her off. Without meaning to, Lily’s hand went limp in her grasp, and for a moment everything stopped, even breathing. Kay seemed to realize what was happening because she froze, her eyes wide, as Lily’s face heated with embarrassment

Way to make her take you seriously, she chastised herself.

“Do whatever you have to,” Kay said, apparently deciding that Lily’s arousal should not be acknowledged even enough to warrant letting go of Lily’s hand. “If you find Metzia before I do—” Some complicated emotion worked across her face and she finished, “Try talking to him. You know he understands you, even if he doesn’t listen.”

“No I mean—” Lily huffed in frustration. “You need me with you to talk to Delphineis, once she starts talking to me again. I have to go with you. But I need Marcia to run interference for me with the search party, or else this will be over before we can get anywhere.”

Kay scowled and shifted her grip to haul Lily around to the side of a building, out of sight of the entrance. “Lily,” she said, enunciating her words, “I’m going to be kicked out after this.” She didn’t look angry anymore—she said it almost gently, and that combined with the manhandling was almost enough to distract Lily. “You haven’t crossed any lines yet, and you should keep it that way.”

“It was my dragon who put him up to it,” Lily insisted.

A tiny smile actually flitted across Kay’s face. She pulled her hand back, though Lily felt a brief pressure before she let go, almost furtive, as if Kay didn’t want to be caught offering the reassuring gesture. “I know it isn’t something I can fully understand,” Kay said, still very gentle, “How close you feel with the bond. But I'm pretty confident stating that Delphineis is her own entity, and you don’t have to take responsibility for her actions.”

“I don’t want you to hate Delphineis either,” Lily said, miserable. “I want to fix this.”

Kay began to look impatient. “Maybe it can’t be fixed,” she said. “Maybe this is who Metzia and I are.”

“That’s not what I meant!” she said. “I meant our careers obviously don’t matter compared to making sure our dragons are safe—that both of them are safe. So just stop—treating me like I’m still some student who doesn’t get it!”

Kay didn’t reply immediately. Lily followed her pointed gaze and discovered that she was rubbing her wrist. She whipped her hands behind her back. But after another narrow-eyed moment, Kay said, “Fine. How long will it take to arrange this—interference?”

Lily suppressed a sigh of relief. “Ten minutes to find Marcia and explain it to her. I promise.”

#

It took them less than five, because Marcia was already looking for Lily and caught up to them inside the entrance of the upper classmen dormitory. She took one look at Lily’s face and hustled then into a blind stairwell.

“What’s going on?” Marcia demanded.

Assuming that Marcia had already found out most of it, Lily jumped straight ahead to, “Kay—I mean, Lieutenant Woolmer thinks she can find them if we can get a boat. But I’ve been assigned a search party, and I need you to go take my place.”

“Delph’s going to come back for you anyway,” Marcia said. “If you screw around like this, you’re going to get expelled.”

“We've got ten minutes, Marcia!” Lily insisted, even as Kay muttered, “That’s what I told her.” Lily wheeled on her and snapped, “You go outside and wait for us.”

Kay turned a unique shade of murderous red before she stomped away.

“Yeah, I can see she’s a real prize,” Marcia said, glaring at her shoulder-blades. Lily sighed.

“She thinks I’m telling you—something else,” she said.

Marcia crossed her arms. “So what are you going to tell me?”

“Marcia—I owe her.” Lily lost both her nerve and her ability to hold eye contact, and looked away at a stack of dusty floor tiles someone had stored under the stairs, but she managed to stammer out the rest of it. “She doesn’t think so, but I do. A lot.”

“She makes you upset, and she doesn’t give a shit about you,” Marcia pointed out.

“Well I’m not asking to be put first in front of her own dragon!” Lily waved her hands. “They can try to expel me if they want. I’m not going to regret this.”

She felt sure she didn’t have a hope of convincing Marcia, with her family of dragon-riders and her career plotted out ten years in advance. But Marcia looked at her intensely for another second and then stamped her foot, as if she were five years old, and said, “I hate this!”

“I know,” Lily said. She would never reach the end of the list of people she had to apologize to.

"And right before dark, for heaven's sake." Marcia chewed her lip. “Take a radio with you. Use one of the footpaths into the village, don’t take the main road. Does she have the money to rent a boat?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, here.” Marcia shoved a few bills at her. “Now you owe me, do you understand? You owe me to come back safe.”

#

Lily had never thought about how one went about getting a boat, but Kay went straight to a shack of weathered grey wood that looked as if it ought to be used to store nets and other gear, but proved, when the door opened to her knock, to be a snug house with glimpses of a wood stove and someone’s kitchen. The smells of supper, onions and herring, permeated the warm interior. A change came over Kay's voice as she spoke with the whiskery grey fisherman, a kind of thickening of her accent. She must work hard to hide that, Lily thought, and was reminded that fishermen’s daughters didn’t often end up at the Royal School of Dragon-riders. At the end of it, no money was exchanged, only a handshake.

“You ever sailed before?” Kay asked Lily as they walked down the creaking wooden dock. The sun's disc touched the rim of the sea, making them squint.

“I could manage the tiller.” She’d done that once for a ship in distress when its regular helmsman broke his arm, but the sails were always furled for a vessel in tow. If Kay put her in charge of the sheets, she was sure she’d end up pulling the wrong rope and capsizing them.

“Back you go, then.” Kay gave the little boat a shove before leaping from the dock to the bow-deck and ducking into her place under the boom. “Set her two points off that headland for now. We’ll do a broad tack.”

The sail filled, tipping the hull down toward the waves, and a bit of cold water lapped the toes of Lily’s boots.

“Are you okay?” Kay said.

“Yes, I’ve got it.”

“No, I mean—” Kay cut herself off with a noisy sigh. “Hell of a time to ask you.”

She’d meant in general, Lily realized, touched. But since she had no idea, didn’t dare let herself pause to take stock, she countered, “Are you okay?”

For a moment, Kay’s face darkened, but suddenly she laughed. “I actually feel good,” she said. “That’s stupid, isn’t it? I was angry before—after everything that I tried to do, to have it come to an end like this.”

Lily figured everything she’d tried to do probably meant going down on that overly-intense student and petting her hair for two hours.

“Now there’s nothing left to be scared of,” Kay said.

Lily said, “It doesn’t sound stupid to me,” as she nudged their bow a little closer to the wind.

Chapter Text

Every student had the sky’s calendar drummed into head in their head the first year at School, and Lily barely needed a minute’s calculation to work out that a gibbous moon would rise shortly after ten o’clock, giving them light to sail by. She watched the beacons blaze to life across the water one by one, tiny and yellow on the dark headlands, while the western horizon deepened to blue, but she was so used to looking at the lights from the air that it took a moment to perform the mental exercise of seeing from the water-level, figuring out where she and Kay were and how far they’d gone.

From time to time Kay spoke up, asking her to alter course. Each time Lily obeyed instantly. Apart from that, there was little talking.

The giddy rush of getting to do something, of being in a boat with Kay—which Lily could admitwas awfully like the set-up for one of her fantasies—began to fade as fatigue caught up to her. The moon, initially so bright and promising, began to cover over with clouds, and in the lengthening silence, other voices crept out of Lily’s sub-conscious to worry at the edges of her mind.

She needs you. She acknowledged as much.

She didn’t ask you to come with her, not in so many words.

Even if you help her, it’s just going to make her hate you more

It wasn’t until the last pale stone cube of School buildings slipped behind the curving shoreline that it occurred to Lily there might be something unusual about her emotional state. She groped a ways along the bond and confirmed it: Delphineis was upset, the emotion bleeding over into her rider. Though she was still keeping things locked down, Lily sensed an undercurrent of anxiety, almost panic. By reflex, she blasted out a concerned inquiry, but whatever was happening hadn’t made Delphineis any less vigilant about keeping any clues from her rider, and the obstruction on the other end just tightened.

“Whoa!” Kay exclaimed, lunging into the stern and wrenching the tiller straight just before the flapping sails threatened to slam the boom across from port to starboard. She opened her mouth to berate Lily, then halted, expression worried. Lily agonized a moment more. Her connection with Delphineis was the whole reason she was here, but she didn’t think sharing this information would accomplish anything but increasing Kay’s worries. There was too much that could be going wrong out there—a merchantman could have mistaken them for ferals and fired on them, or they could have gotten entangled in a gill net while diving for fish, or Metzia, who’d been cleared for flight by only a handful of days, might have re-injured himself. It wasn’t as if she and Kay could do anything more than they were already doing.

She shook her head and watched Kay’s face turn blank. The other woman had kept hold of the mainsheet, and in order to grab the tiller she’d basically had to pin Lily’s thighs with her body. Lily kept her back straight, hardly daring to breathe— she could smell the skin at the nape of Kay’s neck, and her worst fear was to make Kay think, even for a second, that their dragons might be mating—until Kay made a final adjustment to their course and said, “Come on, hold that.”

 

Lily was able to pretend that their hands didn’t brush as Kay handed off the tiller.

A soft drizzle began to fall, numbing Lily’s fingers. After several islands had loomed out of the darkness only to drop astern without Kay giving any signal, the older woman said abruptly, “Aren’t you getting anything?”

“Not directions,” Lily said, distressed to hear a wobble in her own voice.

“Well, this is the island.The one where—you know.”

Lily nodded. The one where Kay had found Metzia’s egg.

"Take it slowly up the beach, if you can.”

 

The boat was heavy, but with a lot of effort they dragged it past the line of driftwood that marked high-water—Lily remembered Kay shaking hands with the boat’s owner and knew that there was some longstanding trust there that must be respected. They unhooked the bow and stern lanterns, and Kay started walking toward the highest part of the island. She was already calling out, “Metzia!”, having apparently given up any hope of Delphineis revealing herself to Lily

“Me-tzia!” Kay yelled, stopping on a patch of bare granite to hold her lantern over her head, and Lily echoed her in her mind. Delphineis.

She got back a sense of misery and confusion that was so strong it felt like she was drowning; but it was here. Lily was suddenly as certain as if she’d had Delphineis in front of her, her hot, metallic breath snuffling from her nostrils. She knew it even before she felt the muffled concussion of wings in the air above and Metzia dropped onto the ground beside them.

#

The dragons had found a cave so tiny that Metzia could not turn around once he got inside, and had to back out again to let the two concerned humans get to Delphineis. Lily had been rehearsing how she would reprimand Delph all through those painful hours in the boat. Now she just wrapped her arms as far as they would go around the idiot beast’s neck, pressing her lips to the rough scales.

“Will she let me touch her?” Kay asked.

Lily pulled Delphineis’s head close to her chest and opened the bond as wide as she could get it, trying to get a feel for what her dragon was feeling. “Yeah,” she said, “We’ll hold still for you.” She could sense Kay moving around, but she closed her own eyes, breathing with the rhythm of Delph’s gigantic lungs, until Kay squeezed back out from between the dragon’s legs and the rock wall and said:

“Well, she’s clutching.”

“What?” Lily blinked away a rain-drop that had trickled into her eye. Kay was grinning, and almost involuntarily Lily started to smile too, as relief and exhaustion started to catch up to her. “No. That’s not possible. I asked the breeding specialist yesterday.”

Kay expression dimmed a fraction, and Lily realized it hadn’t escaped her that Lily had some reason to check obsessively whether her dragon was pregnant. “Three out of four tests is a false negative,” Kay said mildly. “Usually the nest-building behaviour is your big clue.”

What the hell, Delph? Lily demanded. Her mind was swimming with images. Eggs. Little dragons. Delphineis a mom. You couldn’t give us hint? Her dragon made a grumbling noise against her chest. There hadn’t been time to build a nest. She’d been worried about Metzia’s injury. And she didn’t feel well.

“This cave isn’t big enough,” Kay said. “She going to have to stand.” Lily knew enough now to recognize that that expressionless tone meant she was stressed, and she thought guiltily of all the bad memories that must be surfacing: Metzia’s hatching, or the night Commander Jost had ordered him on a solo flight. Hell, it was even raining. But this situation was, fortunately, something they were trained in. Lily had delivered eggs before as part of her senior Reproductive Biology class, so the challenge was familiar—in fact, it was the most manageable aspect of this mess.

“All right, you big diva,” she said, slapping Delphineis’s side, vocalizing so that Kay wouldn’t be left out. “You couldn’t do this the ordinary way, could you? Come out a little ways so you can turn around, and maybe we can still do this out of the rain.”

Metzia stuck his head inside, and she flapped her hands at him.

“No! It’s too crowded in here as it is.”

“Right,” Kay said. The smile she’d had when she announced Delphineis was clutching had all but disappeared. “I’ll go down to the boat and get the emergency kits,” she said.

Lily hadn’t meant that Kay should leave, and a little of her self-confidence ebbed just watching her goes. But as Kay ducked out under the gloomy drizzle, Metzia pulled his head out of the cave entrance and swung around to follow her. Through the rain, Lily thought she saw him close his teeth gently around Kay’s shoulder, covering most of her upper torso. It was something Lily had only ever seen him do once, in the aftermath of his and Delphineis’s first mating. This time Kay pushed him off impatiently, heedless of his teeth, and stomped toward the shore.

Most of Lily’s own worries had dissipated with Delphineis clutching—nothing bad had happened to the dragons, everything else could be sorted out—but Kay was still facing the complete ruin of her life. The best outcome Kay could hope for now was that she would be stripped of her rank and turned out of the school along with Metzia, faced with the choice of running up huge debts to keep her dragon fed or looking for an employer to hire them, probably one of the less reputable enterprises that wouldn’t balk at her lack of references. Worst case, if the lack of bond came to light, the school would have legal grounds to keep Metzia—they could try to induce a late bond with another rider, and if that didn’t work, which it usually didn’t, they could still use him for breeding.

Lily couldn’t blame Kay for wanting time to herself.

Despite Lily’s hand-wringing admonishments, Delphineis had already laid her first egg before Kay appeared again at the mouth of the cave, jacket streaming with water and the emergency kit—blankets, food, and first aid supplies—bundled in her arms. After that it went pretty quickly, and Lily was glad there were two of them: they had seven eggs arranged on the dry earthen floor where she was pretty certain Delphineis wouldn’t roll onto them by mistake.

“She’d got enough instinct to take care of them,” Kay said when Lily fretted about this—which no doubt would have been the case if Metzia had been the mother instead of Delph. “We can put our blankets down to sleep in between them and her,” Kay added, looking as if she wanted to roll her eyes. It was past midnight already, and the rain had tapered off. The tired mother had nodded off while the last egg was being delivered. Metzia had gotten his forequarters back inside enough to give his progeny a thorough inspection, and then retreated again to find a comfortable place on the damp rocks outside. Lily realized that they could sleep, now, and then tomorrow—no. For now, she wasn’t going to think about anything except for sleep.

“Hey, what did you do with your jacket?” Kay murmured, a few moments after they’d switched off the lanterns.

Lily remembered stripping it off and kicking it into the corner sometime around egg number three. Of course Kay would remember something like that. She crawled over, not wanting to disturb the other woman with the light if she was close to nodding off, located the jacket by feel and shook it out flat so that it could dry overnight. But despite her best efforts she got disoriented coming back and narrowly avoided kneeing Kay in the stomach.

“Sorry,” Lily said once she’d settled back in. She’d practically groped Kay’s ass in the darkness.

“No worries.” Kay pulled the blankets around some more to get them just so. She sounded unworried too, and it struck Lily suddenly that Kay no longer had anything to fear from her. No more dragon-lust. No more former student stinking of sex pheromones as she sniveled against her knee.

Lily felt a painful pressure in the sinuses behind her eyes that she knew was tears waiting to be shed. She hadn’t realized until that moment that she’d been waiting for Kay to press her hand against the back of her neck, that steady, reassuring pressure. Something that would obviously be unnecessary from now on. The darkness of the cave felt bigger suddenly, more scary.

“Are you warm enough?” Kay asked. She sounded much less sleepy all of a sudden.

“’m good,” Lily said, and made all of her muscles un-tense, one at a time. It was about a quarter of an hour later that she was rewarded by the sound of a faint, breathy snore. She recognized it, even though Kay had never fallen asleep in front of her.

There was really nothing to do in the total darkness of the cave except think things through, but Lily had a feeling she still wasn’t connecting all the dots yet. Kay had been nothing but cheerful competence as they delivered the eggs, but Metzia had done the mouth-and-teeth thing before she went down to the boat, something Lily had only ever seen him do when his rider was extremely upset. Another insight wormed its way into her consciousness: now that Kay was reunited with her dragon, she didn’t have to go back to the school. Metzia was cleared to fly, and he was fast. Lily wasn’t very sure about the logistics of going on the run with a giant flying reptile, but if anyone would be able to figure it out, it was Kay.

She rolled onto her side, pushing blindly through the layers of rough wool until she felt the resistance of a solid shoulder and stopped, breathing quietly. Touching, for a few more hours, if only through the layers of blankets and clothes.

 

Chapter Text

Lily woke up starving in the silvery light that trickled past Delph’s gently-breathing flank. She sent severe thoughts toward her complaining stomach. They hadn’t packed any food except whatever might be in the boat’s emergency kit, and Kay would need that for wherever she was going. Lily would have to deal with her hunger until the Colonel and her search parties came to pick her up.

It had been easy to forget, in the excitement of last night, that pursuit was looming over them, scant hours away.

She turned her head to the side. Kay was lying mostly on her front, her arms and legs tucked close against her body. Looking at her face, muffled up to the nose by the wool blanket, Lily felt a tenderness so intense that after a few seconds it became physically painful, and she had to wiggle out of her blanket (tucking it carefully back around the other woman as she went) and start toward the entrance. But when she reached the eggs, she did allow herself to stoop and touch each of them gently, feeling their perfect roundness and the slightly rough texture of their shells.

Even in this trainwreck of a situation, there was still beauty.

She was kneeling there when Delphineis’s eyelid cracked open. Her dragon made a sleepy grunt, and shuffled backwards out of the cave to let Lily pass. The sun hadn’t yet breached the horizon, and a few faint stars were visible to the west. Metzia, fast asleep, was almost indistinguishable from the other big rocks. Lily and Delphineis stood on the hillside, looking down at the sea.

So what was the big plan? Lily murmured, rubbing her forehead again Delph’s scaly side. Also among the things that neither she nor Kay had thought of in their haste were saddles and other tack, so she’d be flying home bareback today, something she hadn’t tried since the days when Delph had been considerably smaller. What was the next step after you and Metzia ditched us?

Delph didn’t answer, but Lily had the feeling this silence wasn’t sullenness or embarrassment. The school is a bad place, she said at last. Metzia says his rider was afraid there.

Lily nodded, still scritching Delph’s wing-joint with her finger-tips. Kay's fear must have been relentless. As a student, Lily had never thought of Kay as anything other than a strict instructor with a dashing reputation, but now that she knew what had been going on, the signs seemed obvious.

They had to be careful all the time. It’s better for her to leave.

You don’t think it would have been nice to let her in on the plan?

She wouldn’t listen to him, Delph said. I don’t know why, he’s very smart.

There was an obvious answer to that: that Kay hadn’t so much refused to listen as her dragon had been unable to communicate with her, since they couldn’t speak through their bond. But whether Metzia had concealed that aspect of the situation from his mate, or whether Delph has concluded, like Lily, that Metzia would have had no difficulty making Kay understand him whatever form their bond took, she didn't know.

Anyway, she’s here now, Delph said, So it worked out. She and Metzia can live on a secret island and dive and fly and eat fish like they’re meant to do.

Lily had a feeling it was going to be more complicated than that, but she couldn't deny that Delph had captured the essentials. Obviously Kay would make it work. So—what about us, then? she asked, hesitating as she remember how besotted Delph had been these past weeks. But as intense as dragon attachments were, they followed a trajectory distinct from human romances. Before the eggs had been laid, Metzia had risked a dangerous storm to reach his mate—but now, instead of bursting out with a declaration that she would follow him to the ends of the earth, Delphineis thought for a moment before asking:

Are you afraid at the School?

That was complicated. Lily knew she was going to be in a world of trouble when she got back—but she had her dragon, and no one was going to try to take her from her. No, she said.

Then I’d like to go back, please. I don’t want to hatch my eggs in a dirty cave.

Wild dragons do it, Lily said, unable to resist teasing. Delph snorted. A moment later Lily heard the scrape of pebbles and turned to see Kay blinking in the entrance of the cave, one boot half laced and the other foot bare.

Marcia had said that without dragon-lust, the intensity of Lily’s feelings for Kay would start to fall off. As she wrenched her eyes away from the wrinkly skin of Kay’s toes, Lily began to suspect that Marcia was full of shit.

“Going to check on the boat,” Kay said gruffly, pulling on the other boot.

“What’s on your arm?” Lily asked, before she could really consider the question. There was a fresh bandage that Lily had missed seeing in yesterday evening's lantern light. The only time Kay could have gotten it was the few minutes when she’d been down with the boat fetching the blankets, and the messy wrapping job looked as if it had been done quickly in the dark and rain. “Did you fall on the rocks?”

Kay walked over to Metzia and rubbed his neck as if she hadn't heard Lily. He stirred but didn’t wake. It flashed upon Lily how the injury must have happened, as she remembered how Kay had shoved Metzia away last night, careless of his teeth. She lost a moment cursing her big mouth before she realized Kay had kept walking and kicked her brain into gear enough to say, “Oh hey, I’ll come with you.”

It might be that Lily lacked all semblance of tact, but she decided that if Kay needed space, she could have it later. Kay was leaving her.

The sailboat sat on the cobble beach where they’d left it, but the tarpaulin cover had leaked and a half-foot of greenish rainwater stood in the bottom of the hull. Kay found a couple of bailers, and without speaking they both started emptying it out. As she clambered over the ropes and tackle, Lily thought about the prospect of sailing it back to the school alone—even supposing they didn’t just come scoop her up into custody for this infraction—and decided that she would arrange for her or someone else to fly the boat’s owner out to the island so he could bring it back himself.After all, Kay wouldn’t be around to take care of it.

 

“Hey,” Kay said.

Lily looked over at her. Kay’s jodhpurs were soaked to her knees, and her hair was an unholy mess of tangles. She was smiling.

“Congratulations, Mom,” Kay said with a smirk.

Lily thought of the eggs, Delph’s and Metzia’s together, and without letting herself think too much, she leaned in and kissed Kay.

It felt unexpectedly strange. They’d already been naked together more than once, and a part of Lily had maybe wanted to reclaim the warmth of those never to be repeated moments. But Kay’s lips were chilled from the sea air, and both of them were shivering with cold under their layers of damp, gritty clothes. The kiss felt rough, and desperate, like something barnacle-covered that you could scrape against and come away bloody.

Kay didn’t move at first, and then Lily felt fingers digging into her shoulders and abruptly Kay was looking at her from arm’s length. Her eyes went from Lily’s face, to up the hill where their dragons were basking in the thin dawn light. Lily's stomach dropped and she said quickly, “No—no, they aren’t—that was me”—the confession she should have made weeks ago, now given up in a fit of impulsiveness.

“What?” Kay’s expression had gone from worried to confused.

“I know you’re not attracted to me,” Lily said. She felt light-headed. “Like, at all. I just wanted you to know that I think you’re amazing.” Kay’s expression didn’t change, and Lily fidgeted. “I guess I should have used my words, huh?”

“You what?” Kay didn’t look any more enlightened, and Lily felt a thread of annoyance.

“I like you,” she said sharply. “I helped you sneak out of the school, didn’t I?”

“Okay,” Kay said. Her gentle voice was back. “But we’ve found Metzia now—and I told you in the first place that I didn’t blame you for what your dragon did. You don’t owe me anything anymore. You never did.”

“I wouldn’t kiss you because I owe you,” Lily said. The kiss had been pure selfishness, and she’d done it knowing that she was going to feel horrible about it for the rest of her life. “If I wanted to give you something,” she said bitterly, “I would give you something you actually wanted.”

Kay looked at her with her mouth open for a moment, and then she said, “Oh shit,” and, putting her hands over her face, she sat down with a thump on the gunwale of the sailboat.

“Sorry,” Lily said—sincerely, though she couldn’t make her voice sound anything but sullen.

“You like me,” Kay said, still sounding as if this was the strangest thing she’d ever heard. “Do you even like girls? I mean, before all this happened.”

“Yes,” Lily said stung. Just because she was inexperienced didn’t mean she was incapable of noticing. Belatedly, she said in a smaller voice, “Um, do you?”

“Not since I came to the School,” Kay said. “With either. For obvious reasons.”

Lily knew from reading Kay’s file that she’d been seventeen, old enough to have had a few boyfriends or girlfriends. But the moment she’d stepped through the doors, her relationship with Metzia would have become an embattled citadel, unable to admit outsiders.

“Metzia’s other mates...” Lily began—the intrusive, inappropriate question that for weeks she had kept herself from asking. She expected to be told to mind her own business, but Kay said shortly:

“Metzia tends to rebuff suitors.”

Lily stared at her until the other woman started to blush. “Seriously?”

“Yes, seriously. It’s pissed off a lot of people, and not just the Breeding Specialist either—one of my year-mates seemed to take the lack of interest as a personal offense to him.”

“Oh yeah, I might have met him,” Lily said, remembering jerk who’d described Kay as a disaster waiting to happen. “But Metzia went for Delph, huh?”

“Don’t be smug. I’m sure Delphineis is very charming, but dragon tastes are impossible to understand and, quite frankly bizarre.”

Kay spoke sharply, but she was also avoiding Lily’s gaze, and Lily’s stomach suddenly knotted as the full implications of what they were discussing sunk in. “You must have been horrified,” she mumbled.

Kay’s silence was all the confirmation she needed.

“I’m sorry that ever happened to you,” Lily said. Her throat hurt, but she was determined not to cry about this. “You should have—it shouldn’t—”

She risked a glance up, and was surprised to see Kay’s mouth hanging open. “Lily, this isn’t about me,” she said. “I wasn’t forced into anything.”

“I don’t understand,” Lily said. They’d just been talking about all the awful things Kay had had to do in order to hang onto Metzia.

Kay rubbed the bridge of her nose. “It’s as if I went into a bar in the town and found you drunk,” she said. “You were under the influence and I wasn’t. It’s gross, that’s what it is.”

Lily had never actually considered what they did in this light, and for a moment all she could manage was a not very reassuring, “Oh.”

Kay jumped to her feet and started tidying furiously, shoving the bailers and the spare oar back under the benches of the sailboat. “You usually seemed lucid, during it,” she said without turning around, “And so I’d pretend to myself... and it wasn’t until that night when we tried doing the mating without the sex that I realized just how little choice you had. I could have made you do anything and you would have thought you enjoyed it.” She kicked the centreboard of the boat, making the hull resound.

“I suppose the whole thing was bit messed up,” Lily said at last. “I thought you were just going along with the sex because I wouldn’t take no for an answer—you wouldn’t have been able to stop me without telling me what was going on, Kay, not when I was in that state. It’s absolutely not your fault.”

But Kay shook her head. “I knew Metzia was interested in Delphineis,” she said. “You know how you do your morning flight every day at quarter to seven? Metzia and I were usually gone by six-thirty, but he’d started dragging around in the mornings, sleeping in. I thought he was coming down with something, and then one day I noticed you and Delphineis out on the launching place. Metzia was watching her. I could tell right away.” She picked up an already-neat coil of rope, shook it out, and began to loop it again around her elbow. “If I’d spoken up then, they probably could have been segregated. On the grounds that you’re a student, if nothing else.”

There must have been something wrong with Lily, because despite all the grief it had caused, part of her rebelled against the suggestion that she would never have gotten to know Kay this way. She managed to stifle the emotion and say quietly, “Why didn’t you?”

Kay flinched. “In class—” she began, and then cut herself off, biting her lip angrily. “I don’t mean—you were my student, I wasn’t—”

“It’s okay,” Lily soothed.

Kay shook her head, but she went on. “All the students love flying. No one would even be at the School if they didn’t feel that way. And even the assholes love their dragons, that’s nothing special. But what was different about you was you were trying so hard to be good—not for marks, or for your career eventually, but just to be a good dragon-rider, good to your dragon and good at what you did.”

Lily felt her face warm, but Kay wasn’t finished.

“It should have just pissed me off,” she said. “But actually it was like a kind of fire, something I needed to get close to, because I wasn’t ever going to be good for Metzia that way,.”

“Hey.” Lily didn’t mean to cut Kay off, but she couldn’t sit and listen to her talk that way about herself. There were a hundred things that she could have said at that moment, about Metzia and his rider, but she didn't think Kay would listen to it from her, so instead she reached out and kissed her again.

This one lasted a little longer than the first, despite their unstable position, teetering on the narrow gunwale of the sailboat. By the time they stopped the rising sun had turned the waves into a sea of liquid copper.

“You hadn’t had sex before,” Kay said weakly. “You—you’re probably feeling lots of things, it’s all new, and big, and—”

“I don’t just like you because we had sex,” Lily said, with what she considered extreme patience, and leaned forward again.

They were still kissing, despite several near-catastrophes of slipping into the flooded bilges, when their dragons got bored and started zipping over their heads, splashing into the golden shallows to get their attention.

 

Chapter Text

“Shit, wait,” Lily said, using a handful of Kay’s jacket to heave herself free. “We can’t do this.”

Kay looked wild-eyed, her unbrushed hair standing out around her head like a dark halo. She gasped, “Sorry! I thought—I’m sorry.”

“What? No, that was great. But Kay, you’ve got to go.”

“What?”

“The search parties would have started as soon as they had enough light. You should have left ages ago.”

Kay’s eyebrows furrowed. She folded her hands around Lily’s, which were still tangled in her jacket. “It’s over,” she said. “We found the dragons. It doesn’t matter if they find us now, we’d be going back soon anyway.”

Lily’s brain had already raced so far ahead that it took her a minute to rein it in enough process Kay's words. “You’re going back to the School?” she said. It didn’t make sense. Lily had lain awake half the night mapping out possibilities, trying to find a happy ending in all of this. There wasn’t one. But what Kay was saying...

Kay squinted a little in the sunlight. “Yes? I don’t exactly have a choice about it. There are contracts—legal obligations. The same kind you made when you agreed to be a dragon-rider.”

“But you’re going to be in so much trouble. It’s not just the disciplinary action—they’re going to want answers, they’re going to start to dig.”

“I know that.”

The giddy joy that had come from them kissing seemed to have drained completely out of the morning. They sat side by side, both of them with their shoulders stiff. In the rocky channel below the island, Delph was still diving, kicking up silvery sheets of water, while Metzia glided overhead, his wings tracing a wide curve.

Keeping watch.

“The dragons think you could just disappear,” Lily said.

“I’ve got parents, Lily. People it will be hard to see if I’m a fugitive.”

Lily hadn’t even thought about the existence of Kay’s parents. For some reason, imagining them made her feel shaky and small, and for a wild instant she hoped that Kay wasn’t the kind of person who insisted on taking her girlfriend home for dinner. “Okay—we should talk to Marcia,” she said, thinking as she went. “She’s got family connections, you know, maybe even lawyers. I feel like you shouldn’t be going back there without a lawyer.

“You can tell your friend whatever you like when you see her,” Kay said, tersely. “That’s—you have the right, you do what you want.”

Lily’s exasperation welled up, but before she could respond, Kay lifted her head. Something had changed in the angle of Metzia’s wings. A moment later Lily heard Delph along the bond: Six dragons, two points to northwest. Lily, what do we do?

“Okay,” Lily said, her heart pounding in her chest. “We—we keep the focus on Delph and the eggs, and how her broody hormones just made her crazy. I’ll act really concerned, ask them to do tests, blood-work, really stretch things out. Metzia losing his shit was just a spillover effect that will never happen again. That’s plausible, right?”

Kay nodded. Lily couldn't tell whether she actually agreed. The other woman’s eyes were fixed on the horizon where the spiky silhouettes of the School dragons were growing larger.

Delphineis heaved ashore, water streaming from her scales. Lily? she demanded, but Lily shook her head. If there was something else they could do, she didn’t know what it was.

She wanted to take Kay’s hand, to kiss her again, for the reassurance it would give her, but Kay was practically radiating Don’t touch me. Instead Lily straightened her shoulders and tried not to think about how much this next part was going to suck.

#

Ten hours later, Lily lay on her bed in the student dormitory, dressed in warm, dry pajamas, too freaked out to even think about sleeping.

Once at the School, things had started to happen very fast.

The eggs had proved an excellent distraction. Everyone had been delighted with them. Lily hated that they’d been immediately whisked away by the crèche technicians—Delph hated it, which was even worse—but she’d been talking to Delphineis every chance she could without appearing to drift off during the endless stream of interrogations and reprimands, and she’d emphasized again and again how important it was to play their parts right. Delph acted tired and droopy, let the medics draw her blood and peer down her gullet, and didn't even fuss when she was locked into a pen separate from Metzia.

Lily and Kay now had to be supervised visiting their dragons, a development that did more than anything else to convince her that they'd made a catastrophic mistake. And that was the tip of the ice-berg. A teacher had quietly shown up to escort Lily from one meeting to the next throughout the drawn-out afternoon, and she had to assume that Kay was under the same kind of observation.

The most stressful of these meetings had been with the school counselor, Dr. Carmack. This time there had been no note-taking paper in front of him—hoping I’ll lower my guard, Lily glowered inwardly—as he walked her with sympathetic thoroughness through Delphineis’s alleged freak-out over clutching, and how Lily’s dragon had managed to persuade her mate to flee with her—a reaction that was totally unrelated, of course, to that mate's impending probationary hearing.

“Clutching in the wilderness without assistance can be risky,” Dr. Carmack had said, warmly supportive. “You must have felt a lot of anxiety in that situation.”

Lily thought indignantly of all the anxiety Kay had had to go through without a shadow of support—but then reflected on the value of appearing at least slightly traumatized, and said, “Yeah, I was pretty scared”—although with Kay there to help her deliver the eggs, she really hadn’t been.

Dr. Carmack had then asked her some more questions about Lieutenant Woolmer’s behaviour that Lily answered as vaguely as possible, and they’d wrapped up the appointment so that Lily’s escort could take her to the office to call her frantic parents.

For some reason, making that surveilled phone-call to her Mom, sharing absolutely nothing of what was really preying on her mind, was the thing that finally made her sob as desperately as if she'd been through a real trauma.

Despite the importance of keeping a low profile, there was one major thing they’d had to do that couldn’t wait. In Lily’s opinion, it even was worth the risk of both of them giving their escorts the slip at the same time so that they could meet Marcia in her dorm room.

Marcia had listened without speaking. They left out any mention of the implications about dragon-lust and physical intimacy, and Marcia, bless her, didn’t seem to think of it; but Lily could see that Kay found the parts they did share nearly as painful.

“I know someone we can talk to,” Marcia had said when they finished. “I think the law is probably on Woolmer’s side, but we’re just students and a junior officer, we’re going to need a heavyweight in our corner that can make it stick.” She tipped her desk chair back, looking from Lily sitting on her bed to Kay standing, arms crossed, just inside the door. “By the way, a little warning on this complete trash-fire of a situation would have been nice. Just saying.”

“Do you agree to Marcia telling someone?” Lily checked, looking at Kay and waiting until she nodded. “Okay, do it.”

Kay, who had been watching Marcia very intensely throughout the conversation, suddenly blurted, “Thank you.” Both girls stared at her, and she flushed slightly and said. “I have to—that’s probably as long as I can get away with claiming to be taking bathroom break.”

“No problem, get out of here,” Lily said. She lifted a hand to make some kind of reassuring gesture—maybe touch Kay’s arm, or squeeze her hand—but the other woman was gone before she could make contact.

Marcia said, “So this is what you were hiding from me.”

Lily groaned and flopped back onto Marcia’s pillow. “I can’t believe she and Metzia came back,” she said. “This is going so poorly.”

“Don’t tell me you thought she should disappear too,” Marcia said. “That's way harder than you think it is, and I don’t think the people who manage it end up having very nice lives.”

“What if she loses him, though?”

“Well, Metzia is a full-grown, combat class rescue dragon. Assuming he wants to get back to her—”

“He will,” Lily snapped, indignant that she had to explain this again and again. “They’re devoted to each other.”

Marcia raised her hands placatingly. “So, they’ll underestimate that, because they think there’s no bond. Woolmer isn’t really at risk of losing him. This whole song and dance is about—managing the price she’ll have to pay to keep him.”

“Okay,” Lily said. She focused on her breathing for a little, the uncomplicated comfort of Marcia’s mattress after what had admittedly been a terrible night’s sleep on hard rock, and finally added, “Thanks for being okay with all this.”

Marcia shrugged. “I’d pretty much decided she was being abusive to you,” she admitted. “I had an intervention scripted out and everything—I got to use some of the material when you two ran off with the boat, but it wasn't very effective, so...”

“Well—thank you for that too. For, uh, caring enough to notice.”

Marcia smiled. “As shitty as the real situation is, I’m still glad I was wrong.”

Lily had felt better after that. Really, she thought, looking at the plaster ceiling above her bed, Marcia had said all the right things. Lily was honestly almost—well, optimistic was a stretch, but she did almost feel like she wasn’t going to die of terror whenever she thought about Kay and her dragon. But as great as Marcia had been, there was one thing she hadn’t been able to reassure Lily about, because Lily hadn’t told her. With a sigh, she threw back her covers and swung her feet onto the floor.

This was harder without the excuse of dragon-lust.

The School administration still hadn’t decided whether to treat them like criminals, so there was no guard to prevent Lily from walking across the quad and around the back of the harness shop. She still probably would have wimped out if she hadn't seen a glow of light through the curtains of Kay’s window and made herself knock before she could think better of it. Kay let her in without a word and then went immediately to fill the electric kettle, as if this visit was pre-arranged, or maybe something they did regularly, waiting out the insomnia hours with cups of tea. But Lily couldn’t help also noticing that the action gave Kay a reason not to look at her, and maybe that meant...

“Lily?” Kay’s voice was concerned. Lily realized that she was still just standing there, her face twisted up in some weird way, an ache in her sinuses that probably heralded more tears.

“How stupid would I sound if I asked you to hug me?” she said, aiming for joking and landing somewhere nearer pathetic when Kay’s eyebrows lifted and she said:

“Really?”

“Ha, no, sorry, I’ll be—” Lily’s attempt at cover was effectively smothered into the shoulder of Kay’s sweater as two arms wrapped around her back. “...Fine.”

“Your back muscles feel as tight as a fresh-sweated halyard,” Kay said, whatever that meant—was it a good sign, or a bad one, that Kay’s fisherman accent was starting to seep through around Lily? “What’s going on?”

Lily breathed in the comforting smell of seawater, sweat and damp earth. Kay didn’t seem to have changed her clothes since they’d gotten back from the island. “Sorry," she said. "It’s nothing really. You’ve got so much stress about Metzia and stuff, you shouldn’t be worried about this.”

“Lily.” Kay gave her a small shake. “What’s on your mind?

“We kissed this morning,” Lily blurted

Kay looked as if that were the last thing she'd expected Lily to say. Her arms dropped away. Her eyes were wide.

“And then we came back here and you—you haven’t.” Lily couldn't keep up the eye contact. She hadn’t come here to ask for anything, except for how she really kind of had. “I—did you not—”

“Okay, sit down,” Kay said.

Lily was so relieved to be interrupted that she hit the mattress of the bed as if her strings had been cut.

“You kissed me when you thought I was about to vanish from your life and you’d never see me again,” Kay said, sitting at the other end of the bed. “Now that we’ve decided on this, um, other course, there’s probably some things you’re going to want to think about.” Her hands twisted together. “Kissing a person isn’t the same as wanting something.”

“Do you not want something?” Lily said in a small voice, holding herself still with an effort. She come here ready for that answer—or at least, she’d told herself she was ready. And maybe she should be glad that this horrible thing was landing on a day with lots of other horrible things, so that when she finally went to sleep she’d be putting an end once and for all to the worst possible day.

“Oh hey,” Kay said in a strange tone of voice, and a moment later Lily was tugged bodily across the coverlet. “Of course it’s something,” Kay said, her mouth pressing the tip of Lily’s ear. Lily growled with impatience and turned her mouth so they could kiss for real.

Kay kissed her back. That was all she had to think about for now.

“Stay here tonight,” Kay said, eventually. Lily started enthusiastically pushing down the blankets to get underneath while Kay finally stripped off the grimy jacket and sweater that she’d been wearing for over twenty-four hours. As soon as they were lying side by side on the mattress, Kay started laughing. Lily didn’t have any idea what was funny, but it was infectious—a moment later she’d started to cracked up too, pressing her mouth against Kay’s bare shoulder in case the walls were thin enough for Kay’s neighbour to hear. After a few minutes she felt a finger delicately pushing a strand of hair from her temple.

“Is it weird,” Kay said, “In the middle of all of this, to have something good?”

Lily, glowing a little at being called something good, burrowed her hand under the blanket, over the warm skin of Kay stomach. It was probably weird. It was perfect.

 

Chapter Text

Kay whispered, “Are you asleep?” so softly that if Lily hadn’t wanted to hear, it would have been easy to pretend it was only a sigh.

Lily shifted onto her side—there wasn’t a lot of room in the bed—and admitted, “I’m still pretty wound up from today. You?”

“Yeah. The brain isn’t really turning off.” In the darkness, Lily could see the faint glint as Kay blinked toward the ceiling. “Metzia was angry with me. He agreed with you about running for it and now he’s scared. If I can’t make things right for him—”

“You will.” Lily pushed herself up onto one elbow. “I was wrong to tell you to run. You’re making a good decision. And—” Lily chewed her lip a little before saying, “If you can’t make things right, Metzia is a full-grown, combat-class rescue dragon, who’s devoted to you.He’ll never let you be separated for long.”

 

There was skepticism in Kay’s sniff. Lily tried to think how she could explain, again, just how much Kay’s dragon cared about her, but before she could open her mouth a hand curled around her shoulder, tugging her back down to the pillow. “That wasn’t actually what I wanted to talk about right now,” Kay said, when Lily made a protesting sound. A moment later she touched Lily’s thigh, just above the inside of her knee. Lily froze, heart pounding at the deliberate gesture.

“Do you want to?” Kay said after a long moment.

“Do you?” Lily countered. She’d thought about the possibility, when she’d put on her shoes to come here, that they would end up having sex—if she didn’t get her heart broken, if the whole thing didn’t turn out to be an illusion born from of her unbridled optimism, her inability to know when she was supposed to quit. But the simple fact of Kay’s body beside her in the bed was so much realer than even her most intricately involved fantasies, that it felt as if it overwhelmed her faculties, and her brain didn’t seem able to come up with anything at that moment that wasn’t rubbing herself on Kay’s leg in some mortifying display of teenaged lust.

There was also the fact that the last time they’d had sex, Lily hadn’t been in her right mind and Kay had been determined to do whatever it took to hang onto her dragon. Shit, maybe they should just stick to making out for the rest of their lives. At least they hadn’t screwed that up for themselves yet.

Kay’d hand hadn’t moved from that gentle pressure, a few tantalizing inches away from the place where Lily’s body was already warm and aching. “It would help you sleep,” she said, which wasn’t the explicit reassurance Lily had been hoping for, but for some reason drew an embarrassing noise from deep in her throat. She was probably going to have sexual fantasies from now on about being tucked in like a child, and that wasn’t freaking her out nearly as much as it should have.

When Lily didn’t immediately reply, Kay’s started to pull back. “I’m an idiot,” she said. “Of course, you said you didn’t like me for the sex. And even if—I mean, you’ll probably find it’s different, what works for you outside of dragon-lust—”

Lily grabbed Kay’s wrist and blurted, “It’s working.”

“Yeah?” Kay’s voice was wary but pleased, and Lily forgot to feel stupid as those fingers started to move upward again with greater confidence, brushing the fabric of Lily’s pajama pants as they travelled toward the juncture of her legs. Fingers that were callused by ropes and harness leather, and the harsh salt-wind, Lily thought, as she lifted one knee to give Kay more space to work. She was afraid to listen to her breathing. She thought she might be panting.

“It’s working for me too,” Kay whispered, and Lily actually shuddered, swamped with gratitude and desire.

Kay knelt up slightly so she could use her free hand to line up their faces for another kiss without stopping that delicious stroking. For a heady moment Lily imagined Kay putting her hand on the back her neck and shifting them around so she could guide Lily’s head down between her legs—not saying a word, just showing her with the firm gesture what she wanted. Instead, Kay only continued her gentle exploration, skillful but, Lily realized, almost tentative, as if she were waiting at each moment to see whether Lily was going to stop her. It was hot, Lily certainly couldn’t deny that, the dampness already forming, sticky against the inside of her thighs, but it still wasn’t precisely what she needed, and she felt a whine of frustration forming in her throat.

Words, right. But if they were going to talk about this kind of stuff, Lily wanted to be able to see Kay’s face when she answered.

“Kay? Don’t stop unless you want to, but, uh, can I turn on the lamp?”

“Close your eyes a moment,” Kay said, and without taking her fingers away, she reached for the bedside table. The inside of Lily’s eyelids throbbed crimson. When she cautiously opened them, Kay was squinting at her, her hair falling to her bare shoulders, the cotton tank-top she’d worn to bed now adorably rucked up under one arm. Lily felt a stupid smile spreading across her face before she remembered that she’d had a plan with this, something she was supposed to ask.

“Did you like it when I went down on you?” she said.

“Hm?” Kay’s hand stopped moving, but the heel of her palm kept a steady, perfect pressure.

“I just—you seemed to like it, the time that I went down on you. But that was back when you were being nice to me—”

Kay’s mouth twisted, as if she’d tasted something unpleasant, and though she didn’t actually move, her whole body seemed to withdraw, her eyes shuttering. “I was cruel to you all the time,” she said in a quiet voice. “Snapping at you as soon as we finished. Making you feel bad about that first time in the lunch room, as if that was your fault.”

Lily remembered that moment, but the sting of it had faded, and she pointed out, “You were never not nice to me during.”

“Yes, well. That was the part I knew I could do right. Whenever you started being friendly or talking to me, I could see the moment approaching when I was going to mess it all up with my—” Kay didn’t finish the sentence, but she made a gesture toward herself that somehow managed to convey, my everything.

Lily stretched up and kissed Kay’s nose, which made her groan, though apparently in frustration rather than desire. “I’m sorry,” Kay said.

“For what?”

“Ruining the mood with shit like this.” She gave Lily a somewhat crooked smile. “Here. Let me take care of you for a minute, and then I would be completely thrilled if you still wanted to go down on me.” Kay reached for her, but Lily’s hips twitched away, almost a flinch—she wasn’t even sure why, except that something felt off about Kay’s too-bright smile—and Kay jerked her hand back, eyes wide. “Or you can do it now! We don’t always have to do things the way I suggest, I don’t mean to tell you what to do all the time just because, um...”

Lily realized that after what Kay had just shared about her insecurities, she had her own confession to make. If she was serious about this, if she wanted it ever to be more than fumbling under the blankets to bleed off their stress, she had to give it every chance of success, and that included being honest.

“I liked you being in charge,” she said, haltingly. “I trust you.” Kay looked as if she was about to protest, so Lily insisted, “No, I do. So when you were telling me what to do, during sex, I was—really into that.” She meant to wait patiently and see what Kay would say about that, but after a microsecond of silence she got nervous—she’d just confessed to a bizarre sexual kink, Kay had only just come round to the idea of being in a relationship at all, she was going to run away and never come back—so she found herself babbling, “Never mind, that’s kind of weird, you’re probably not into that,” until Kay put a hand on her shoulder. It was a light touch to make Lily stop talking, except that after a second she sort of leaned her weight into it, pressing her down against the mattress. Lily fell quiet as suddenly as if a switch had been thrown.

Kay looked surprised. Lily blushed.

Kay eased her weight back. “I don’t know,” she said, and it was clear she was thinking from the way she was picking her words. “I don’t want to ever make you feel as if you were less than me. Because—because you’re—”

That was so sweet, and so very like Kay, that Lily wormed her arm free just to be able to loop it around her neck and pull her down for another kiss. Kay responded before she remembered that they were having an important conversation.

“Lily, I’m serious, wait.” Lily let go, waiting while Kay closed her eyes and took a few deep breaths. The weight of their bodies together suddenly seemed like the wrong kind of pressure. She scooted herself up to lean her shoulders against the wall and give them space, focusing on watching Kay, on listening to what she had to say.

“If that’s what you need,” Kay said, “I’m not sure I’m the person, Lily. I’ve been shit at being in charge of things ever since this started. I’ve been a total mess, and—you’ve had to take care of me half the time, and I’m incredibly grateful for it, but I know it’s not really, uh—” Her eyes darted to one side as she said in a very small voice, “Sexy.”

“You give me what I need,” Lily protested. Something painful was happening in her chest. “You don’t have to have every detail of your life worked out in order to—” she was almost too tongue-tied to say it, but she managed, “—Look after me.”

Kay seemed understand, because the shadow left her eyes. “Okay,” she said, “You want me to tell you what to do.” Her speculative look affected Lily so strongly that she had trouble making her voice sound natural when she replied:

“Did you have something in mind?”

“So many things,” Kay promised, and grasping her hips she pulled her gently back flat on the mattress and set to work showing her.

#

Marcia’s lawyer relative was at the school the next day. Lily was pulled out of another interminable debrief, this time with people she was pretty sure didn’t even work at the School. An external investigation. The questions were getting more pointed too. They knew something was going on with Kay. Lily was almost relieved to be pulled out of the debrief before she inevitably slipped up.

She was taken to a small, disused office and sat down in in front of a grey-haired woman in a sharp-lapeled jacket that looked vaguely military without being a recognizable uniform.

“I’m Marcia’s second cousin,” she said, handing Lily a card. “I don’t answer to the School administration or to any other authority, and anything you tell me today will be completely confidential.”

Lily, still pulsing with adrenaline, barely looked at the little card-stock rectangle. “Where’s Lieutenant Woolmer?” she demanded. “I’m not talking to you without her present.”

“I’ve already interviewed the lieutenant,” the woman said, which was great news assuming Lily could believe it. She looked up from jotting the date at the top of her writing pad and took in Lily’s pale, clenched face. “Would it set you at ease to have my cousin come and vouch for me?”

“Yes, actually,” Lily said, “That would be great.”

#

Though it wasn’t the top worry on her mind at this moment, Lily had missed nearly two weeks of classes with everything that had happened, and today wasn’t going to be an exception. As soon as she had an hour free, instead of going to her Regulations class, she asked permission to go to the Roosts and visit her dragon. Even with the corpsman detailed to watch them sitting grumpily in the corner, it was the first time that day she’d been able to remotely relax, and in the privacy of the dragon-bond she ended up sharing all the things she hadn’t been able to say on the phone to her mom.

So you’re mates now, Delphineis said. She sounded half pleased, half grossed out by the idea, as if this development was almost unimaginable to her.

Don’t tell the other dragons, Lily cautioned her. Marcia’s aunt had questioned her about the relationship, cutting mercilessly through her evasive answers, and finished by admonishing her that it had a real potential muddy the waters if she ever needed Lily to depose testimony. Lily had been relieved to be able to tell it that it shouldn’t be a problem: Kay had set an alarm and shoved Lily out from under the blankets before dawn, and no one had found out about Lily’s midnight visit.

When does Kay have classes? Delphineis asked. We never see her anymore.

She’s being investigated, Lily said. You know she’ll visit Metzia as often as she can.

Delphineis scraped at the ridge of her back. She’d had an infestation of scale-mites there once, and the scratching had become a bad habit. Doesn’t she teach that Formation Flight class down on the beach anymore, the one where she was always yelling at us?

She only yelled at us because you and Gyre were goofing around, Lily reminded her. Why are you so interested anyway?

Oh, I don’t really care. Delph flicked out a wing. Scratch my shoulder for me?

There might have been a time when Lily would have let herself be deflected, but recent events had taught her wariness, and she questioned Delph until she got the whole story. The School was now so convinced that Metzia was a flight risk that, although Kay couldn’t be denied contact with him, she was forbidden to take him flying. That morning Metzia had patiently borne the indignity of taking his exercise on a tandem halter with a senior instructor’s dragon, but the less patient Delphineis was incensed and wondered whether they might just be better off snatching Kay up the next time she happened to be walking along the shore. They would naturally bring her back once she and Metzia had done some proper diving.

You’ll do no such thing! Lily told her, appalled.

It turned out Metzia had also refused to hear about the plan, and Lily deduced with satisfaction that Delph’s persuasive powers had ebbed now that the dragons were no longer mates. But he’s worried about her, Delphineis told Lily, her wings hunching with second-hand distress. It’s really awful.

Lily was still counting the hours until bedtime when she could sneak back to Kay’s room—the anticipation made a giddy undercurrent to the day, a promise she could hold onto whenever things got bad—but this issue seemed too critical to wait. With Marcia as intermediary, Lily was able to verify that Kay had actually informed her second cousin about the restriction against flying Metzia.

“There’s no ‘obviously’ about it,” she told a long-suffering Marcia. “She gets it in her head she deserves whatever shitty thing is going on, and won’t try to fix it, and the upshot is always that things become a hundred times more complicated for everyone.” Marcia no longer had any reason to complain that Lily wasn’t telling her about her relationship.She’d been getting an earful every time they found themselves alone together. Lily promised herself that if—when this all got sorted out, she would take Marcia into town on their evening off, buy her lots of beer, and let her share the innocuous gossip that the love-lives and military careers of Marcia’s many cousins inexhaustibly furnished.

 

A message from Marcia’s cousin told them that the flight restriction was one many things she was working on, and they should try not to do anything stupid again. By this point, Lily had to admit that warning wasn’t exactly unearned.

 

Chapter Text

A week passed. At night, Lily lay in her bed, counting the minutes before she could put on her shoes and walk across the dark quad to knock on Kay’s door. After that first time, they’d become more daring, more casual about exposing their bodies in front of each other, more ready to try new things, muffling their laughter because of Kay’s neighbours. But as the days went by, punctuated by the occasional unexpected and adrenaline-charged interview, but empty of any firm news, the sex began to lose its focus. They would make out for a while but then stop without any discussion, and Kay would plug in the kettle for tea which they drank in silence, on opposite ends of the mattress. Once Lily arrived when Kay was already in bed with the light out, and she just lay down beside her, trying unsuccessfully to come up with the right thing to say before the night wore away in fitful bursts of sleep.

Lily thought the tension was going to destroy them. Then she remembered telling Kay that she didn’t only like her because they had sex, and felt ashamed of herself. But she still didn’t know what to do.

She visited Thivierge, who was no longer bedridden from his concussion but still hadn’t been allowed back into the air, managing to distract herself for a while with cheering him up. Then she stopped at Metzia’s pen before her usual visit to Delph, rubbing down his scales under the suspicious eye of the corpsman, lavishing the kind of comforting caressesshe wished she could give to his rider. She was there when Marcia appeared, clattering down from catwalk above the pens.

 

“What happened?” Lily asked. A thump from the pen next door signaled that Delphineis had caught Lily’s alarm. Marcia was too winded her sprint to speak, something Lily had never witnessed before—normally the athletic Marcia could run ten kilometers without breaking a sweat—but even as she gasped for breath she flashed a supplicating look toward the corpsman. Lily had never gotten so much as a sympathetic nod from the man, but after a few seconds of Marcia’s hopeful smile he rolled his eyes and went out into the corridor.

“Has Metzia told Delph?” Marcia asked as soon as he was gone. Lily frowned until she realized what her friend was implying.

“Metzia doesn’t know either,” she said, gritting her teeth; though until recently she’d had just as much trouble remembering that Kay didn’t enjoy a direct line of communication to her dragon. “You know why.”

“Right.” There were another agonizing second before Marcia continued. “Commander Jost is here, from that rescue mission where Metzia broke his wing. Apparently he’s who they’ve been waiting for, and they’re starting a full, formal inquiry right now.”

“Now?”

“About twenty minutes ago, actually.”

Lily put a hand out to touch Metzia’s scaly side and felt it thrumming with tension. “Kay?”

“Sitting outside the conference room waiting to be questioned.”

“What about your cousin? What’s she doing?”

“Joanna’s in there. She says for everyone to stay calm.”

“Yeah, of course.” Lily swallowed, willing the shimmery haze of adrenaline to recede from her eyes. “Calm. Okay. It’s just happening sooner than I expected.”

Marcia hugged her, a quick rough embrace that was somehow exactly the comfort Lily needed, before she had to dash off again. Lily was left standing alone in Metzia’s pen. After a few moments she realized she had folded up against the wall, her head on her knees. She could feel her own dragon on the other side, a big, worried presence.

Delph... Lily began. She meant to say more, but all that came across was an incoherent wail of fear and helplessness.

I understand, Delphinis told Lily. You have to go. You can come visit me later.

No, I can’t. Lily was nearly in tears. She’s probably under some kind of guard, and Marcia’s cousin said we need to keep us secret in case I need to testify. I won’t have any credibility if they know that we’re together.

Metzia reared and flapped his wings so hard that Lily’s ears popped in the confined space. She’d never seen him so agitated. Then there was a series of bangs from Delphineis’s side of the partition, and she saw the edge of the old food hatch, which Lily was pretty certain had the hinges on the opposite side, pop out of its frame, and a moment later she saw Delph’s blunt nose appear through the opening.

Metzia had been teaching Delph his tricks. If that corpsman was anywhere nearby, they were going to get in so much trouble.

Delph snaked her head sideways to look Lily in the eye, a gesture that she’d learned to be effective on humans. You need to let Kay know she’s loved, she said, Because if she stops believing that, she’ll stop fighting.

Lily had a retort ready about taking advice from the dragon whose impulsive decision had dragged them all to a desert island and landed them into this trouble to begin with, but then the memory flashed across her mind of Kay staring at the dark bedroom ceiling, saying, I have to make things right for him.

Kay had fought for a long time to stay with Metzia. A very long time. And Lily had watched the signs of exhaustion and discouragement, the creeping doubt that maybe, if there was a way to make things right, it was a way that didn’t have Kay in it.

Lily could screw things up right now, by making a big, indiscreet, emotional scene. But only Kay was capable of losing their battle once and for all, by quitting before it was even started.

“Delph,” Lily said, speaking aloud and looking across the pen into Metzia’s tawny eyes. “It isn’t me she doubts.”

Despite herself, it gave her a jolt of fear to say something that might offend a dragon with whom she was alone in a pen, who was still somewhat unknown to her, but Metzia’s only reaction was an downward flick of his heavy eyelid, as if pained. “I’m sorry,” Lily whispered, hurting for him. Not even a dragon has the power to change the tangled reflexes of a human mind, and whatever Metzia had done or not done over the years that could have given Kay more confidence, Lily was convinced that it wasn’t a lack of love that had let them down.

Metzia, his wings flattened against his back, twisted his huge body around into a corner of the pen, and Lily wondered for a moment whether she ought to leave him to his feelings. But from his movements it became apparent that he was retrieving some object from the litter that accumulated in his space. Lily waited, hardly daring to let her hopes rise, and as he swung back toward her she held out her cupped hands to take the precious burden held pincer-like between his scaly knuckles.

#

The single guard in the hallway outside the conference room—not a School employee, perhaps one of Commander Jost’s staff—didn’t try to keep Lily from approaching the heavy carved door, and she felt sick when she realized that he was most likely there to keep Kay from leaving. It hardly seemed necessary. Her first glimpse of Kay sitting on a bench against the wall presented such a contrast to the almost glittering intensity that she associated with her former flight instructor that it made Lily’s stomach churn. Kay’s hands lay folded upon her knee and her face was blank, as if she’d retreated into herself from this dim, chilly hallway. At first Lily wasn’t sure that Kay saw her, and then when their eyes met she wasn’t sure what the reaction there meant. Kay’s back stiffened, flattening from tailbone to shoulders against the wall as if she wished she could burrow through it and disappear, but she didn’t look away

“This is from Metzia,” Lily said, holding out the smooth black stone that Kay’s dragon had given her. Unlike the extravagant boulders with which he’d courted Delphineis, this one was small enough to lie in a human palm. As Kay looked at it her mouth began to crumple. “Hey,” Lily said, alarmed; the thought that she might push Kay over the edge into grief was something she’d never imagined, anddespite her awareness that they were under observation she reached out and took Kay’s free hand.

 

The big carved door opened and Marcia’s cousin appeared, looking even more militarily precise than usual. When she saw the two of them, their fingers still laced together, something like an eye-roll almost broke through the impeccable façade; but when Kay rose, blank and sleepwalker-like once more, to go into the conference room and she saw Lily left alone and miserable on the hard bench she said, “All right, come sit at the back. But not a peep out of you.”

Lily slipped gratefully into a chair against the back wall. I’m inside, she told Delph, and got warm approval in response.

The inquiry was being held in the Governor’s Room, a high-ceilinged, under-heated hall furnished in dark wood, in the older part of the School, which Lily had only ever seen briefly at end-of-year award ceremonies. It had probably been chosen less for its ceremonial qualities than because it was the only space that afforded both privacy and sufficient seating for this investigation, but its awful formality made Lily feel as if it were hard to breathe.

The red leather chairs formed a horseshoe shape. Lily saw the Colonel sitting at the apex of the curve, her face cold and a little bored, and beside her the the head of the upper school and other members of Kay’s old probationary committee, as well as some of the nameless interrogators Lily had encountered over the last week. She hadn’t seen Commander Jost since that evening in the mobile command tent, when they watched Metzia fly deeper into the dangerous storm, and she was surprised to see that in these circumstances he had a kind of bland, worried-looking face, and that his uniform shirt was a little wrinkled.

Marcia’s cousin took a seat at the opposite end of the horseshoe, and Kay had a seat inside the curve, somewhat to the side. Was this asymmetric placement intended to soften the implication that she was a criminal required to defend herself? To elicit cooperation, by suggesting possible mercy?

Lily was overthinking this. She was so out of her depth here that she might as well be in the middle of the ocean.

A lot of the discussion had obviously happened before Kay had been allowed into the room. There was another five minutes or so after she sat down in which no one acknowledged her presence—the head of the upper school was missing a form, and a few people made jokes about the annoyance of paperwork—and then without any preamble, one of the external investigators said, “Lieutenant Kay Woolmer, please state whether or not you have a psychic bond to the dragon Metzia Class Three, no breed specified.”

Kay, perched rigidly on her wooden chair, said, “It is not psychic, no.”

The investigator made a note. “Did you misleadingly represent yourself as a dragon-rider to the Registrar of Dragons and to the Admissions Officer of the Royal School of Dragon-riders?”

“I am Metzia’s rider.” Kay glanced toward Marcia’s cousin as she said it, and Lily wondered how carefully the two of them had scripted that response. The interrogator didn’t seem to like it. He drew a sheet of paper from the folder in front of him and said:

“The Act Respecting Dragons gives this legal definition of a dragon-rider. ʻA person with whom dragon forms a unique and exclusive relationship characterized by obedience, communication at a distance, and physiological mirroring.’ Do you now wish to revise your previous answer? Did you misrepresent yourself as a dragon-rider?”

Kay’s eyes burned through the formerly blank mask of her face, but the words that so clearly longed to burst forth, Metzia is mine, stayed behind her lips. They would sound possessive, even unhinged, and she kept her mouth closed even as the interrogator, seeming to take her silence as confirmation, continued at a brisk pace:

“You are asked to confirm the following. While so misrepresenting yourself, you were responsible for the safety of minors. You had access to Type Three strategic information for the Office of Coastal Defense. You drew a salary and benefits under the Collective Agreement for the Coastguard Auxiliaries.”

Marcia’s cousin Joanna was slowly flipping her pen back and forth between her fingers as the voice went on. It looked casual, butsurely the woman must be getting ready to do something? Lily’s own fingers ached from her hands gripping each other in her lap. Just when the litany of charges became unbearable, Joanna said, “Excuse me.”

 

She had a clear voice that rang even in the stuffy air of the conference room, and the interrogator seemed to break off almost without volition.

“That last question is inappropriate. ʻAbusing a member of the Royal Dragon Corps.’ This inquiry has not shown that the dragon Metzia experienced harm either in his upbringing or his adult career. The dragon’s records report excellent health at all yearly exams, he has successfully sired a clutch of eggs, and—”

“The dragon has been classified as rogue, Madame Counselor,” the interrogator said sharply.

“—and has been cited for exemplary performance in three difference rescue operations, which is three times higher than average for his year-mates,” Joanna steamrolled onward.

Commander Jost had been sitting quietly all this time. Now he shifted in his chair and said gruffly, “Coastal Patrol is no place for dragons we can’t communicate with. It puts ships and dragons at risk.”

Lily’s stomach knotted with the memory of how she and Kay had nearly ruined his rescue operation, but she wanted to argue that the blanket rejection was unfair. Metzia was smart and strong, and he and Kay could rescue people—it would just require changes to protocol that no one was willing to contemplate.

“Lieutenant Woolmer and her dragon’s fitness for duty is a separate issue from the validity of their bond,” Joanna said.

“Precious good an un-bonded feral is to anyone,” the Colonel remarked. Her tone wasn’t even vehement. It was almost bland. “We have dozens of bondable candidate unmounted every year, while an excellent dragon is going to waste. This inquiry needs to act quickly to remedy the situation.”

The air in the room seemed to freeze. Lily felt sure that some of the members of the inquiry had been caught off guard by what the Colonel seemed to be suggesting. Did she really think that they could successfully bond Metzia to someone else? While Kay was still alive? Before Joanna could even respond Commander Jost said:

“We don’t have a mandate to recommend Metzia’s re-bonding here.”

Re-bonding?” the Colonel replied, with delicate emphasis.

“No!” Kay jumped to her feet. Joanna’s mouth tightened in displeasure, but evidently couldn’t find a discreet way to make her sit down. “You can’t do that,” she said, gripping the table in front of her with barely leashed violence.

 

The Colonel looked at her calmly. “I would be sorry to have to call you selfish, Lieutenant Woolmer,” she said. “Don’t you think your dragon would be better off with a rider who could give him a full bond?”

Kay didn’t answer right away, and Lily felt sick. Somehow this woman knew how to press Kay exactly where it would hurt her most, on her deepest fear. Lily could see Kay struggling to answer, but she had no idea what she was going to say.

We still belong to each other. I’m still his.

I could never be good for him that way.

Then Kay’s hand tightened a little beside her leg—it was hard to see from the back of the room, but Lily thought there was something small wrapped in her fist—and she said, “No.”

The Colonel’s eyebrow rose.

“Metzia would be better off with me, with the rider he’s chosen,” Kay said. Lily could see that she was trembling ever so slightly. “He thinks so too.”

“You can’t ask him though,” the Colonel pointed out gently.

“He’s shown it,” Kay said. Her voice was firm, but she looked on the point of fainting, and Lily was thankful when Joanna stood up and with a repressive look toward Kay, hefted a stack of papers.

“I have some pertinent documents from legal situations involving unusual dragon-bonds,” she said. “If the inquiry will allow me to present some examples.”

Kay sat down as Joanna’s voice flowed on. Lily couldn’t see her face from the back of the room, but though Kay had kept fighting to the last, she could already read defeat in the curve of her shoulders.

 

Chapter Text

“More of this waiting,” Lily said, handing Kay the glass of water that she’d fetched from the bathroom.

Kay took a sip and then didn’t seem to know what to do with it. She finally put it on a windowsill of the hallway, but then she didn’t know what to do with her hands and stood plucking at her jacket sleeve. She was wearing the old clothes she wore for cleaning Metzia’s pen. Lily really hoped that they’d summoned her as she was on her way back from the Roosts rather than before she’d got there, that along with everything else she wasn’t also thinking that she’d missed her last chance to see Metzia while she was still his rider.

“They’ll come get us when they’ve decided,” Lily said.

“Maybe,” Kay said dully, proving that there were depths of awful out there that Lily wasn’t even able to think of.

They’d had to leave the conference room again while the inquiry deliberated further. Lily burned to think that Kay was being shut out of discussions about her own future, but until Kay spoke it hadn’t occurred to her that this afternoon didn’t have to end in a decision. They could string Kay along, tightening the restrictions on her and Metzia by insidious increments, always feeding her just enough hope that she never dared bolt.

Lily wished they’d never agreed to do this the legal way.

She opened her mouth to suggest that she ask Delphineis how Metzia was doing, then reconsidered whether this might be an unwelcome reminder that Kay couldn’t ask Metzia herself. She’d just changed her mind again—surely Kay would be glad to have news of Metzia, no matter where it came from—but before she could speak, Kay said:

“Why did you want to be a dragon-rider anyway?”

“There was that test,” Lily said. “You know? Did you have it?” Because she remembered suddenly that she’d gone to a big city school, and Kay hadn’t.

“We had it,” Kay said, amused. “But didn’t you want to before?”

Lily shrugged and sat down on the bench again. Incredible as it seemed, they’d only been out here ten minutes. “I wanted to be a famous singer.”

“Like, rock and roll?”

“I was ten. My parents were very relieved at this new direction, believe me. The, you know,” she waved a hand. “The job security.” Her mouth curved ironically.

“Well, good. You make a great dragon-rider, Lily, you know that.”

There was a valedictory note to Kay’s words that Lily didn’t want to have to understand, so she protested desperately, “You haven’t even heard me sing!”

Kay tried to laugh at the joke. Her face sort of convulsed, and it looked so awful that Lily didn’t dare say anything else until finally, about forty-five later, the big carved door creaked on its hinges and Joanna emerged.

Lily was searching her face from the moment she came out, but it was as if the part of her brain that she needed to interpret expressions had been burned to a cinder because she couldn’t figure out what was happening until Joanna smiled and said, “Well, you did it.”

“What?” Kay said, even more in shock than Lily.

“Yeah, you can thank your school director for putting Commander Jost’s back up. He’s very sensitive about ancient prerogatives and whatnot, and the dragon-bond is like a religion for him.”

“But I—” Kay began, and then snapped her mouth shut.

Joanna grinned even more broadly. “What, you think I was dragging all this out just to torture you? He was in Grey Port until last Monday, and I couldn’t get him down any earlier. Everything lined up perfectly. You’re welcome.”

“When you say she did it...” Lily said, since Kay was still struggling to collect herself. What exactly had the inquiry decided? But at that moment a flood of other people came out of the conference room, and she and Kay both found themselves stiffening their backs and straightening their shoulders a little.

Some of the people looked at Kay, the school instructors with warm smiles, the external investigators with bald curiosity as if she were some new kind of creature, this woman with the defective dragon-bond, but before Lily could bristle too much, Commander Jost went up to Kay and said, in a voice that somehow managed to combine exasperation and kindness, “Bond’s been re-entered in the registry. Take care you don’t do anything stupid again.”

Kay’s eyes widened. “May I go down to Metzia now, sir?” she asked, holding herself very straight.

“I think you’d better.” He glanced at Lily. “Take your girlfriend with you, eh? In fact, we might as well all go, and save radioing the corpsman.”

It’s going to be okay, Lily told Delphineis as the cavalcade straggled out into the grassy quad. Let Metzia know it all worked out and Kay is coming to him.

Lily was glad she’d sent the message, because when they got down to the Roosts, although Metzia was obviously bursting with exciting, he didn’t rush any of the corpsmen or senior instructors to get at his rider. He let Kay come to him before he opened his mouth and closed his jaws around the join of her neck and shoulder—something that Lily noticed made Commander Jost and a few of the others twitch with discomfort. But Kay turned a little pink and muttered, “Ew, Metzia, slobber,” under her breath, even as she wrapped her free arm around his scaly neck. Her other hand was still holding the stone he’d given her, which she’d kept in her fist throughout the inquiry, but her knuckles had lost a little of their whitened grip.

In a more business-like voice, that still held a crack of uncertainty, Kay said to the commander, “Are we cleared to fly, sir?”

Commander Jost still looked a little repulsed by this demonstration of affection where there wasn’t even a proper bond, but he restricted himself to saying, “Be careful of that wing, and be back before dark.”

Lily was grinning so hard her face hurt. She lingered as the others were filing out, just to feel Kay’s radiant happiness, but before she could leave again, Kay turned and said, “Aren’t you going to saddle Delph?”

“Um. Aren’t you...” Lily had assumed this was going to be a private celebration. She’d been thinking of taking a pair of binoculars up on the headland to watch them flying, the way she’d occasionally done back when she only knew Lieutenant Woolmer as her hotshot young instructor. Not that they were actually sleeping together that wouldn’t be creepy anymore, right?

Kay rolled her eyes. “Come on, Lily,” she said. “Let’s go flying.”

#

When they landed several hours later on a stretch of deserted gravel, Lily’s hair and clothes were soaked with sea spray. The dragons, who still had nervous energy to burn off, paddled on the rocks and harassed a few territorial seagulls, but Kay, as soon as their feet were on solid ground, pounced on Lily, kissing her as if she would devour her.

It occurred to Lily that they’d had their first kiss in a remarkably similar setting, and that despite everything that had happened since, their future was hardly anymore certain now than it had been then—possibly even less so. But it made her happy, even if a sandy beach would have been altogether more comfortable and convenient than these cobbles for the direction these kisses seemed to be going in.

They’d been through some rough terrain to get here.

“It’s a big mess, though,” Kay said, during a lull. They’d found a stable seat on one of the less uncomfortable boulders, and her arms were wrapped around Lily’s shoulders. “They aren’t happy with us here. You can bet they’re trying to find a way to get rid of us.”

“Well, good.” Lily snuggled a little closer into Kay’s side. She’d managed to wiggle her hand under the bottom of Kay’s riding jacket so she could feel the reassuring lift and fall of her ribs as she breathed. Kay’s nose was mashed against her temple. “That’s something I won’t fight them on, frankly.”

She was surprised at how sincere she felt. Since her teens she’d been on a single path, and it was a good one: the thrill of flying every day, the danger and hard work of keeping boats safe on this dangerous coastline, maybe someday the reward of knowing she’d saved someone’s life. Lily believed in it, perhaps more fiercely because her own family of teachers and accountants had all shaken their heads at her choice. Without that purpose, the future was a big scary unknown.

But even if she got kicked out over this, she didn’t think they were going to be able to make her regret it.

“Hey,” Lily said, since they were apparently discussing serious stuff now. “There’s something I want to do, but I need your permission first.”

The wariness in Kay’s eyes was something that would probably never go away completely, but when she said, “Sure,” you could never have guessed from her easy voice that she had anything to be worried about.

“It’s Thivierge,” Lily said. “My wing-leader. Former wing-leader, I guess? He’s still getting the sensory confusion with his dragon Windthrift, and he’s having a miserable time. The Infirmerar told me that no one knows how to treat symptoms like his. I want to talk to her about what I experienced, you know—but that’s really private, and—”

“Do it,” Kay said. Lily lifted her head, surprised at the firmness in her voice, and she raised her eyebrows. “What? If they’ll listen to you, they might be able to do some good with it. And—it would be stupid to get nervous about the little stuff, after I’ve been so lucky with the big thing.”

At the water’s edge, Delphineis and Metzia had gotten into some kind of wrangle, flapping the huge membranous of their wings at each other in a display of ire, but Delph’s sulking hadn’t yet reached the point where Lily had to intervene. It was funny, she thought, how after everything their dragon’s had ended up with an almost sibling-like relationship. There were worse ways it could have gone.

Kay started to kiss her neck, sliding her thumb under the buttons of her jacket and popping them free so she could nose lower, teeth scraping against the bared skin. Lily shivered as the fresh air infiltrated her clothes.

“Well, shit,” she said, eloquently.

Kay laughed at her and sat up to cast a glance at their surroundings. “Come on,” she said dragging Lily around by the hips, “You can lean back this way,” finding her a more stable position where only a few pointy rocks were digging into her shoulder blades. Kay slithered off the boulder, putting her at a convenient height to start undoing Lily’s fly. “Up with you,” she said, getting one hand under her lower back to protect Lily’s bare skin from the rock as she used the other to tug the waistband down. Her face wore a wild grin: a rough-mannered fisherman’s daughter, with a dragon from the pirate coast.

Lily’s heart was pounding, but she worked to make her voice sound normal as she teased, “I don’t know if this is the most appropriate place, Kay.”

“Nothing about us has ever been appropriate,” Kay said, before her scalding mouth fixed onto the chilly skin of Lily’s thigh; and okay, Lily thought, she sort of had a point.

#

Lily wanted to see her family—she wanted Kay to see them—but while so much was unsettled, she felt some discomfort, whether reasonable or not, about leaving Delphineis quartered at the school while she wasn’t onsite herself. Instead, she set about arranging lodging in the town for as soon as her parents had holidays. “I should have known you’d be the kind of girlfriend who’d try to bring me to family dinner,” Kay grumbled, which started Lily laughing for reasons she was helpless to explain.

Lily had also started looking into how many of her exams and accreditations could be moved up in the calendar year. There was a possibility she might stay, and she even hoped for it sometimes, but if the School threw her out of here tomorrow she needed to be as well-equipped as possible.

It was a similar logic that had her hanging out with Marcia every chance she got, spending days off on long excursions down the coast, listening to music in her room late at night and going back to Kay in the small hours of the morning. She wasn’t getting enough sleep, Kay scolded her, probably heading for burn-out. Lily promised to start taking better care of herself soon, and in the meantime she lay down on their warm blankets and let Kay take care of her for a while.

Somewhere in the middle of this chaotic period, Delphineis’s eggs hatched.

Joanna had met with them one last time and told them that the one thing she couldn’t legally do was get control of the eggs away from the School. Rights to offspring were explicitly covered in the admissions paperwork Lily had signed when she’d begun her studies, and no court in the land would recognize her and Delphineis’s claim.

“Yeah, that’s, uh, fine,” said Lily, who couldn’t think of anything she would be less equipped to handle than being suddenly responsible a dozen hatchlings. “Unless Kay—” Kay probably would know what to do with them, she was super-competent like that. But Kay laughed and didn’t look even slightly wistful. Not that Lily was wistful, exactly. She liked to imagine that some young rider, like she’d been, was going to bond with each of Delph’s babies—whatever form that bond took—that they would have something, someone in their life that was danger and beauty and sacrifice. It was one of the good things the School did, to make that happen for people.

What they did with it after that would be up to them and their dragon.

 

THE END