The dress chafes. She would have much preferred her working clothes which were a good plain fabric instead of this heavily embroidered creation, but needs must, and Dragonriders arrived earlier in the day on Search and need to be entertained. The Lord of the Hold wants to show her and the rest of his kept women off, and she knows that depending on how the evening goes, she might end up in one of their beds. She's not even sorry about that, they've both proven to be quite attractive, even if they do ride browns and not bronzes - it is a lesser Hold after all and not worthy of more attention than that. No woman from this remote cliff has been chosen on Search in decades or more and they all know it's just a formality and a chance to rest for the night and enjoy a hot meal.
One is tall, lanky, and pale, with blond hair and brown eyes. It's a striking combination, but he also looks to be no older than eighteen, which is younger than she'd prefer. The other one is a bit older, a few years older than she is, herself, she'd wager. He's shorter but well built and has a calm but determined way about him that appeals to her. His hair is brown, but light and his eyes are paler but she can't make out the color in the candlelight. He makes polite conversation, but spends most of the meal watching the people around him, as if he's actually looking for someone and taking the Search seriously.
The thought makes her laugh with amusement and she hides it behind her glass of wine. The Lord is making all the conversation because he loves to hear himself talk but she gets the impression that the younger one is more interested in one of the kitchen maids serving stew and the older one is just good at pretending to pay attention.
About the time that his eyes find hers across the room, she hears a soft voice in the back of her mind which stops her breath for a moment in surprise.
That one, she hears, clear as a bell. She can tell she didn't hear it with her ears and resists the temptation to whip her head around to see who spoke. The older rider is looking at her directly now, and she's keenly aware that he's watching her as she finishes her food. After dinner and the music, he finds her in the crowd that's leaving the banquet hall and she allows herself to be nudged into a more private alcove. Spending the night with him would be a lovely change from the noblemen that reside here, and she's reaching out to finger the laces at the throat of his tunic when he stops her hand.
"That is not what I'm here for," he says and his voice is rough and deep.
"Really?" she asks with a tilt of her head and a slow secret smile that hasn't failed her yet.
He grins, and crowds her until her back is against the wall. "Really. You know why we visit the Holds?"
"On Search," she supplies obediently.
"Have you ever thought of being a rider?"
She drops all pretense of seduction. "I'm sorry?" The question doesn't make any sense. She's not some fresh young girl, she's nineteen or twenty turns to the best of her reckoning, and mistresses are hardly respectable enough besides.
"We Search for a new rider for a queen egg. Teneth seems to think you a likely candidate. Would you like to come back to the Weyr with us and find out?"
"Women like me don't become Dragonriders. Besides, aren't I a bit old for the position?"
"It's not unheard of. And if you Impress a queen, no one at the Weyr will care what your past is like." His hand is still on her arm, firm but he's being careful not to bruise her.
It probably isn't the right thing to do, and she knows she has no real chance of actually Impressing. The idea of a change is attractive though, as is he, and she finds herself nodding her head. "Alright. Why not?"
The dragon is immense. Logically, she knows that browns are smaller than bronzes and blues and greens are smaller yet. The last time a bronze came this way was at Threadfall, and from that distance she had no concept of scale. The fearlessness she was attempting to project falters for just a moment when she thinks how much larger a gold dragon would be.
All will be well, says a voice in her head, the same from last night and this time she doesn't stop herself from jumping.
C'lint narrows his eyes at her. "Did you hear that?"
She searches his face, but can't tell if he's upset or pleased. "I did. Only... I didn't hear it, did I?"
His mouth tips up in a grin. "No, not as such. Teneth may be right about you."
Of course I am, the voice - the dragon, she realizes, sounds put out with his rider, and C'lint reaches up to scratch along his eye ridge. The huge eye turned towards them changes color, lighten, and she gets a sense of adoration. "Of course you are," C'lint mumbles affectionately back, and she feels a bit like she's intruding on a private moment.
"Have you ever been between?" he asks when he turns back to her.
"No. I've never been aboard a dragon at all."
"Well, you're in for a treat then. It's cold though. Here," he pulls a heavy cloak out of his pack and hands it to her. Then before she can get it on, he scrambles up to the dragon's back and tugs her up behind him. Only once she's settled in does he flip the cloak over her shoulders and tuck it in around her legs and arms.
"Now, you just hold onto me, tight as you can. We'll be back to the Weyr in no time." He might be laughing at her disconcerted expression, maybe just a little bit. She'll decide later if she's willing to forgive him. He signals to his companion, a young man who's name is apparently R'tol, and they're up and away.
It is her first ride on the back of a dragon, and it's a glorious thing. The Hold grows small in her vision and she feels herself relax just a bit to be rid of them. C'lint is a warm, solid presence in front of her, and she breathes in the musky smell of leather combined with man, combined with something spicy and sweet she can only imagine is the dragon himself. Because no one can see her face buried against his shoulder, she lets herself smile.
They arrive back at the Weyr just in time - dragons are trumpeting calls and there's a fierce commotion of people running to and fro.
"Sounds like the Hatching is about to begin," C'lint comments, maybe to Teneth, maybe to no one at all. There's no response from his dragon, who rises back to the sky just as soon as they're safely on the ground.
"Where does he go?" she asked before she could stop herself.
"Either to hunt or to the Hatching grounds, but I'm betting on the later."
They're jostled around like a cork in a bath and she latches a hand on his arm in self-defense. "Is it always like this in the Weyr?" She'd known they were larger than a small Hold, but hadn't expected quite this much chaos.
"No. Only at Hatchings. Half the people you see are here for the week, to view the event and support their candidate. Everyone comes out for the spectacle and the party. But we don't have much time, we need to get you changed."
He takes her down hallway after hallway, until the find a small bathing chamber that's unoccupied. After finding and shoving a bundle of cloth into her hands, he leaves her long enough for her to wash off the dust and grime of traveling and the night before. She wants to take longer, really soak herself and get rid of all her memories along with the top layer of her skin, but from his mood there's no time for that today.
The clothes turn out to be a drying cloth and a long white shift - she wrinkles her nose slightly because white isn't her best color. It's a beautifully woven fabric though and she feels it sing along her skin as she tugs it over her head. Her hair hangs in heavy waves down her back but it won't take it long to dry out on the Hatching sands if what she's been told is true.
Steeling herself as best she knows how, she walks through the door.
The Hatching sands are hot and burn the soles of her feet. There are twelve girls arrayed around the single golden egg that's rocking and swaying in the center. She can tell which of the girls are Weyr-bred as opposed to Holder - the former stand straight and eager, eyes shining at the chance for a dragon of their own, while the later shake, confused and uncertain as to what is happening and fearful of the great creatures that flock around the bowl. For her part, she stands firm but disinterested, ready for this part to be over so she can move on and figure out what her place will be in this new home.
There's commotion in the other ring, as dragons hatch and Impress - it's loud and violent, maybe even disturbing. The naked adoration she sees on the young men's faces as they reach out to touch their new dragons is a foreign thing to her and she finds that intensity of emotion unsettling, both in herself and watching it in others.
A loud cracking noise, followed by a high keening sound draws her attention back to the queen egg. A wedge-shaped head emerges from broken shell and huge swirling eyes cast around at the girls arrayed before her. Natasha isn't sure what she was expecting, but the baby dragons aren't the majestic, graceful creatures their adult counterparts are. They're awkward, gangly, and seem weak and ill-put together as they stumble almost blindly around the sand. The queen in particular seems confused or distressed as three of the girls - ones Natasha had identified as Weyr-born - impatiently close in on her. She seems to take it as a threat and flails wildly at them. The Holder girls squeak or scream and back further away, as the queen knocks an approaching girl with long black hair to the ground hard enough she doesn't immediately rise.
"Idiots," Natasha hisses under her breath, and steps forward, slowly, calling out to the dragon softly with gently coaxing nonsense words. As if it hears her voice (perhaps it does) the dragon turns it's head and looks directly at her.
Acceptance, love, belonging - knowing...
MINE, Natasha thinks as she looks at her.
I am Kaneth, and you are mine, too.
Someone pushes a bowl of meat into her hand, and she scrambles as quickly as she can to get it to Kaneth. She's so hungry, hungrier than Natasha has ever been in her life, even in the depths of winter in the remote Hold. She ignores the blood, ignores the other girls and the people cheering all around them. Her world has narrowed to this amazing, beautiful creature that sees her and thinks she's amazing and beautiful, too. She understands now, the look that C'lint and Teneth exchanged. This is the reason for her journey, for her whole life.
I am still hungry, Kaneth complains, and I itch!
There are already three queens in the Weyr, which is a relief to Natasha because she doesn't relish the idea of trying to run the place. All she wants to do is spend time with Kaneth, and luckily that seems to be exactly what they expect. There's a huge amount of work that has to go into feeding and bathing and oiling the rapidly growing dragon and Natasha finds herself doing all of it gladly. C'lint is there to explain things to her, he is the one who comes onto the sands to lead her back into the Weyr, shows her how to feed Kaneth and how to care for her still delicate skin. In the early days he makes himself her near-constant companion as he shows her the workings of the Weyr and her responsibilities therein. As days spin into sevendays spin into months, she learns how to ride, how to go between, and how to fight Thread.
*****One Turn Later*****
After her first solo trip between C'lint finds her perched on the ledge of her rooms, knees drawn up to her chest in an uncharacteristically child-like pose.
"May I join you?" he asks.
She looks up, sees the two mugs of klah he's carrying, and smiles. "Of course."
He sits smoothly, his movements all fluid with no wasted effort. She likes that about him, likes his unconscious grace. Teneth shares it, she's noticed - he flies with a sleek skill none of the other dragons can match, even the greens.
He hands her one of the mugs and she takes a long, warm drink. She doesn't choke on the taste of alcohol, and is grateful for the extra heat that it provides. He knows her well enough now to realize that she doesn't like the cold. She'd admitted to him one late night, shortly after she'd Impressed, that her first trip had reminded her of being five years old, curled on a pallet in the lower hall of the Hold with the other orphans who had no where else to go and not enough blankets to go around. She'd been one of the smallest, and at that age hadn't been able to protect herself against the larger children or able to fight for the few resources they managed to scrounge. For his part, C'lint had looked murderous at the thought of how she'd grown up, and she'd calmed him down with prattle about how it was the past, and over and done with.
Then he'd joked about the common cure for the cold of between was shared body heat and she'd smiled a soft but distant smile and let it pass. She thought then she might like him quite a bit once she got to know him better, but at the time she was appreciating the freedom of her own space that she didn't have to share with whoever decided they fancied her, or who it might be to her benefit to engage.
But the cold of between still disturbs her, and he'd remembered and brought her klah, and for that she's grateful. There's a part of her that hopes he's here to offer her other coping methods as well, because as much as she enjoys this long dance they've been having, enjoys the simple innocence of flirting and just being friends, she also thinks he's attractive, and compelling, and isn't herself dead.
"Kaneth grows well," he remarks, looking not at her but the bowl below them.
"I... yes. She does," Natasha manages, confused by his strange distance. "Is something the matter, C'lint?"
He looks down for a long time, staring into his mug.
"No. No, everything's fine," he raises his head and gives her a smile but it doesn't quite reach his eyes and she doesn't believe it. He realizes the cup in his hand is empty and stands up. When she reaches up a hand he only hesitates for a second before taking it and helping her to her feet.
He lets go of her hand immediately. She waits for him to say something - anything else, but he just turns around and starts to leave.
He stops at the sound of her voice but doesn't look back.
"I have to go to Belden to pick up supplies tomorrow for Orina. Would you be able to join me?"
It feels like the longest moment of her life, before he finally says "yes" and leaves.
*****Two Turns Later*****
She feels it when Kaneth awakens from her nap on the cliff. Gnawing, tearing hunger that's as bad or worse as it was at hatching - bad enough the dragon doesn't spare her a thought before launching herself skyward and towards the herd.
C'lint is nearby and sees her stiffen. He ignores the warning hand she throws up and must have called out to Teneth because the brown dragon lands close beside them.
"It's time," he says as he jumps onto Teneth's back and pulls her up in front of him with as little grace as he would afford a sack of grain. Normally she would be annoyed at such rough treatment, but there's a palpable sense of urgency thrumming through all of them. They'd been out overlooking the fields, observing some of the first harvesting. Her head is spinning dangerously, and not from the sudden flight. She'd know that queens rise sometime during their second Turn, but she hadn't expected Kaneth to be ready so soon.
The trip across the Weyr takes seconds. They land on her ledge and C'lint pulls her off into his arms. She has a moment of surprise when Teneth flings himself skyward again, just as soon as they're safely on the ground. He rushes to meet with the growing number of bronzes diving at animals, ripping the blood from their prey. The part of her brain not consumed thinks that they don't have that many bronzes in this Weyr, then remembers the contingent visiting from Telgar. Kaneth wants more than just the blood in her belly but Natasha remembers what she was taught, what she distantly realizes C'lint is whispering in her ear, and pushes back, hard, and insisting she leave the meat and entrails where they are. You don't want to be weighed down, she practically shouts into Kaneth's mind, trying to be understood and believed over powerful instinct. This is all strange and new, and while Natasha has had feelings like this about men before, the raw intensity of what she and Kaneth are feeling would bring a lesser woman to her knees.
C'lint's hand is still wrapped tight around her wrist, and she can feel it burning into her skin. The bronze riders are entering the room behind them and while her focus is on her dragon, she can still hear them arguing with C'lint, trying to make him let go and leave. There's a pang in her chest because of all the men in the Weyr, she would rather it be him, the one who found her, brought her out of her Hold and to Kaneth. He's been the one who's trained her and taught her what it means to be a dragonrider and is one of the very few people she'd willingly call her friend. She's known that he was only a brown rider, that this day would come and she'd be at the mercy of her dragon's instincts and have to choose someone else, but she hadn't expected it to be this soon and honestly hadn't really understood what it would feel like or mean. Her thoughts are too deeply intertwined with Kaneth's and she won't have enough control over herself to keep from being too open, too vulnerable - it will mean too much, with someone who doesn't mean anything at all. Even before with the men at the Hold she'd never let it mean anything.
All is not lost, she hears Teneth whisper across her mind - she can't hear all the dragons, but there are a few besides her own, and Teneth has always been one of them. She finds him on the field, a single dull spot among the shining bronzes and as she realizes what he intends to do she has a moment of fear for him around Kaneth's mania.
C'lint pulls her backwards a step and wraps an arm tightly around her waist. A Telgar rider has his fist up, threatening, and another has a knife in his hand - the potential for violence is about to spiral out of control. They don't want a brown here, it's not his place, she's not his to have, but she finds herself gripping C'lint's arms just as fiercely as he's gripping her and staring the others down with a defiant gaze that in the Hold had cowed most everyone. "I have you," C'lint whispers in her ear, and if she'd been more in her right mind she might wonder if he'd been planning this.
We have thought on it, Teneth offers and she can feel the creeping red violence edging into his thoughts, lust and bloodlust mixing together in his mind.
Kaneth pushes off and takes herself skyward, finally having drunk her fill. The bronzes trumpet and join her as she spirals upward and it's a mad race. At the same time, the other riders are pressing in on them. Kaneth gains ground on the other dragons, and as she banks on a turn she observes those who are trying to catch her. They are impressive, but nothing makes any stand out. Two tangle in midair, having tried to edge out one another and they tumble, losing sky but recovering before they crash into the ground. She feels disdain for their clumsiness and takes to spinning turns as she gains altitude.
There are three that are just a body length behind her - so far they've show themselves to be able fliers and she approves. She thinks idly about trying to rush them and see who can catch her and hold on, but pain echoes through her mind and she hisses and flies faster, knowing it's somehow connected to them.
The bronze rider with the knife lunges at C'lint and it connects with Natasha's arm as she moves to protect him. It burns along her skin and she feels Kaneth's rage that she's been injured. C'lint pushes her back even as he advances on the group, without a weapon but determined to hold his ground.
Kaneth misses him until he's virtually on top of her, a streak of color darting around her from somewhere behind the others, who are all looking around, as startled by his appearance as she is.
Which is just the opening he needs. Heedless of what kind of damage the other dragons might do to him, Teneth darts and dives and spins between them to reach her. He doesn't waste what he knows will be his one chance, and instead crashes bodily into her, grabbing hold and locking them together even as they continue upward.
They hear the bronze dragons cry of protest even as the other riders feel them in their minds. She can feel everything that Kaneth is feeling - the joy at being caught, the pleasure of a worthy opponent, desire to have such an impressive mate - all things that echo through her, except it's C'lint and not Teneth she's feeling them for and about. He'd managed to hold off the others, and his orders combined with their dragons' realizations of defeat, are what have chased the strangers from the room. She braced against the wall, shuddering under the force of it when she feels his arms pull her back against him. He's taken a moment to strip off his tunic as he crossed the room and his chest is already bare.
She's running her hands over him even as he's finding the hem of her clothes and undoing fastenings as quickly as he can.
"Is this... are you..." he tries, brain addled by dragon, and she feels herself smile.
"Yes, please yes," she breathes and feels him shudder against her. He rests his forehead against the top of her head for a moment while he continues to try and untangle her from her clothes. It takes too long, but not very long, and then he's lowering her back onto her bed and following her down.
"Tasha," he hisses when her hands brush against him, and she loves the sound of his nickname for her in that broken voice. She can still feel Kaneth and Teneth locked together in free fall and needs to feel C'lint inside of her.
"Please. Now," she doesn't care if it sounds like begging, just how wonderful it feels when he finally slides into her, fits together with her, just like their dragons, just like them.
It's over all too quickly, but even as she feels Kaneth's sleepy satisfaction in her mind, she's got her hands at his shoulders, arms around his back, holding on so tightly she hopes she'll never be able to let go and that he'll never want her to.
The first thing that occurs to her when she wakes up is that it's dawn light coming through her windows, which means she's slept over half a day. The next thing that she notices, is the lack of a warm presence at her side. It's the second thing that makes her sit up and look around.
The breath that was stopped in her chest flows out again when she sees him standing, looking out over the bowl. He's tugged on his pants but little else and is nursing a cup of klah.
"Good morning," she ventures, unable to tell by how he's standing what his mood is just yet. The light's all wrong for her to be able to read him.
He turns and comes back to the bed, handing her the mug which is still mostly full. "The kitchens sent up provisions not too long ago," he explains. His expression still puzzles her.
"What's bothering you?" she asks quietly.
He reaches out and traces her cheek. "What happened was..."
"No." She sets down the mug with a click, pottery on stone, but she doesn't care if it cracks. "You do not get to decide this morning that what we did was wrong. Or damaging, or bad for us." She rises to her knees and crawls over so that they're eye to eye with one another, faces only a few inches apart. "I wanted you. I wanted this. For two years, I've wanted you and I am not letting you go just because you think you might have forced me to do something."
"It's not bad, it's... natural. To become so consumed by your dragon during a mating flight, but-"
"You didn't hear what I said. I didn't want you because of Teneth flying Kaneth. I wanted you for you. Unless-" something icy crept into her heart, "you didn't want to be here."
His laugh was short and bitter. "Oh, believe me. I wanted to be here. But I know how you feel about... intimacy. Sex."
"That I quite enjoy them?" she offers.
If it had been any less serious a conversation, she would have laughed at the look of surprise he gave her. "But, you..."
"I always hated that it was a chore on the best days. Being with you is no chore, C'lint."
A look of hope crosses his face and he lets her tug him back.