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Dragon Choices

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"Absolutely not."

F'ury scowled at Tony, who just inspected his goblet of wine. Over the turns, he'd developed a sort of immunity to F'ury's glares out of pure self-defense. "Who said you get any say in it?"

"I'm not going to be an actor in your little play. The answer is no." He and F'ury were the only ones in the meeting room, which saved Tony the problem of fending off the other queen riders. He might have technically been "one of them", but he drew the line at girlish bonding. His hair did not need cutting, gossip wasn't of interest and he was barred from assisting in the Lower Caverns. That, as far as Tony was concerned, was that. The only one who seemed to have any respect for him was Maria, and he was pretty sure that she only pretended she did because her dragon liked him.

"The Weyr needs a leader it can count on, and yer gonna help me do that whether you like it or not." F'ury's single eye was alight with determination as he rose to his feet. It had worked as an intimidation tactic when Tony had been a scrawny, still-growing teenager, but ten years working with him had taken off the edge.

"Caimareth will be the one to fly for the next Weyrwoman; he's the best dragon Benden has. There's no possible way you could object to S'teve as Weyrleader. No." Not to mention that Tony had been very careful to keep Marroth away from Benden when she was close to mating for five turns and counting. He wasn't about to ruin a good friendship because F'ury was being a controlling prick.

If he squinted, Tony could almost see new grey appear in the Weyrleader's hair, one strand at a time. Adding to it was one of his favorite pastimes.

F'ury wasn't about to give up his plan that easily. He leaned over the table, shoulders tense with anger. "I thought you and S'teve were friends."

I like Caimareth, Marroth admitted cheerfully from where she was sunning on the ledge of their weyr. He's pretty. And very big. Her tone made it clear exactly what part of the bronze dragon she was referring to.

You're not helping. "Which is exactly why I'm saying no. He's with Master Guardsman Sharon , and I'm not going to mess with that." Tony leaned back in his chair and propped his boots on the table. "What's this about anyway? I know you've been trying to get rid of me for turns, but Benden Weyrwoman? That reeks of more desperation than usual."

There was a long moment when Tony could have sworn he heard one of F'ury's molars crack. He definitely looked like he was grinding his teeth, lips drawn back into an ugly snarl. "Do you know," he began, leaning over the conference table menacingly, "who's most likely to rise to mate next over at Benden? Pawsth. And you know who's caught her last three times? Liagoth."

Surprise kept the name from sinking in right away, but when it did Tony's boots slapped down on the floor. "Liagoth is a blue. H'ank's blue. 'Watch whers are just like small ugly dragons' H'ank's blue. How is that even possible?"

"Shards if I know, but I'll let Thread have us all before I let some jumped-up blue rider become Weyrleader!" F'ury jabbed a finger at Tony. "Marroth's the only gold I got who might rise before Pawsth. Yer going to Benden."

H'ank would possibly be only a little better than no Weyrleader at all. Tony liked him well enough, but the man was definitely not made for that sort of stress. But... "Did you ask Jessica to stay on? Why is she retiring?"

"What kind of bastard do you take me for?" F'ury's fingers drummed against the table. "'Course I did. She's pregnant. Wants to focus on the kid, and she don't want to try doin' that, flying Fall and bein' Weyrwoman."

Well, that explained that. A dragon rider getting pregnant and not miscarrying was rare enough to warrant stepping down from her duties. She wouldn't even be able to go between until after the birth. "So..." Tony raised an eyebrow sarcastically. "You think I'd be a better Weyrwoman than H'ank would be Weyrleader?"

"I think S'teve's got a better chance at keeping you from doin' something stupid than Jan does H'ank." Leather gloves scraped the wooden table as F'ury's knuckles ground into it in irritation. "Anyway, I had Cinkth ask yer over-sized green, and she's okay with it."

Marroth!

What? she asked lightly, without a shred of guilt. You like S'teve, and F'ury is right. You should listen to him.

Tony felt ganged up on, but he had to admit that they had a point. Not that he liked it, but he was honest enough to admit to it. He knocked back the rest of his wine, barely even tasting it before he slammed the goblet to the table and stood. "I hate you so much."

"It's mutual." F'ury's glare didn't change at all, but Tony could hear the smugness oozing in his voice. "Now go pack yer damn metal suit. I want you at Benden before the sun goes down."

***

Benden Weyr was strange. It was almost as old as Fort, so the walls and floors were worn smooth from centuries of use, its doorways cut into solid stone with the precision the ancients were known for. In that much, it was like home, but Tony didn't recognize any of the faces in the Lower Caverns, and no one could tell him where to put the smithing tools he'd brought along other than one of the storage caverns. He'd been at Fort for ten turns. It had taken him most of that time to set up a decent smithy and workshop, and starting from scratch again wasn't an idea he liked at all.

His flight armor at least had a stand, so he could keep it in his weyr. Hundreds of tiny plates of metal, burnished red and gold with a coating to help keep off the rust and attached to the thinnest leather he could buy. Five turns since he'd come up with the idea and F'ury had never agreed to have it made for everyone else in the Weyr, not even just the queen riders. Maybe whoever won the Weyrleadership at Benden would be interested in it.

Tony hooked the gauntlets onto their holders and tried not to think that it might be him.

In general, the weyr he'd chosen wasn't much—a bathing room, a sleeping chamber and the stone couch Marroth would probably only sleep on in bad weather. Its walls were rougher than most of the Weyr, where the ancient's stone cutting tools had started to run out, but time had worn away all but the most dramatic edges. Tony had never felt the need to have more, since the possessions he most cared for were generally in the smithy. Smaller was better, as far as he was concerned. It would give him more leverage when he started bargaining for his workshop if he'd picked a modest living space.

Tony! Caimareth's deep bass tickled the back of Tony's head like a feather. Caimareth had a deeper voice than most dragons, so deep it almost tickled. Tony had to fight the urge to scratch the back of his skull every time he heard it. Why didn't you tell us you're visiting? The bronze dragon sounded wounded, like Tony done him some sort of personal injury.

Because I'm not visiting. I'm here to stay. Where's S'teve?

Caimareth went silent for a heartbeat, then footsteps sounded just past Tony's door. "S'teve is right here. What's this Caimareth says about you staying?" The bronze rider strode in without even bothering to knock, his familiar blue riding leathers so well cared-for that they barely made any noise at all as he moved. "Did you finally drive F'ury over the edge and get yourself banished?"

"I wish it were that easy. He's playing games, and I get to be his main piece." Tony grinned at his friend, letting his eyes wander down him. As usual, S'teve didn't notice. There was no disguising the easy, dragon-born grace he moved with, and the frustration of being able to look but never touch made Tony grimace.

You could touch if Caimareth flew me, Marroth commented, seemingly idly, but the spaded tip of her tail twitched where it poked back into the weyr through the entrance to the outside ledge. S'teve would like it, and I wouldn't mind sharing you with S'teve. Much.

You just want to be flown by Caimareth, Tony accused fondly, disguising the conversation by reaching for a wineskin and two goblets. Sometimes, he thought he might have impressed a very large green by mistake. None of the other golds he knew were quite so blatantly sexual.

Well, he is very pretty, and he lets me have the big wherries when we hunt together.

Tony sent her a mental chuckle and turned back to S'teve with the goblets. The conversation had only taken a few seconds, but S'teve had noticed anyway, blond eyebrows raised silently as he accepted his wine.

"She's just being her usual, indulgent self," Tony answered the silent question. "She likes F'ury's plan."

"Which is?" S'teve asked, swirling his wine, but not tasting it yet. He looked around the weyr, which was already half-decorated with Tony's things. What remained was still packed in bags that lay around like multi-hued gems of the Weaver's craft. Smithcraft, especially the intricate work Tony liked to do, brought in more than enough extra marks to make a weyr comfortable. "Does it have anything to do with Jessica stepping down as Weyrwoman?"

"Got it in one." Tony sighed and knocked back half the goblet, ignoring S'teve's frown. After arguing with F'ury, he needed the fortification it provided. "He's trying to stack the deck against Pawsth taking the position, and Marroth's the one he picked."

Annoyance sharpened the bronze rider's expression. "Jan would make a perfectly good Weyrwoman—"

"And H'ank?"

That brought S'teve up short. He grimaced guiltily, glancing at Marroth's twitching tail like she tattled on him. "You heard about that, huh?" He didn't bother waiting for an answer, grabbing a chair from beside the small table that came with the weyr and swinging a leg over it to sit backwards. "I'm sure Liagoth would be willing to sit out of the flight. Even H'ank knows he shouldn't take the spot."

"If it were that easy, I wouldn't be here. F'ury probably hates the idea of me as a Weyrwoman almost as much as he does H'ank as Weyrleader." Tony shrugged. "I'd pay good marks to know how he got L'uke to agree to the transfer. He says I don't follow orders."

"You don't follow orders."

"That's completely beside the point." Tony took the other chair, watching S'teve fidget. Since they'd met while providing backup for Ista turns before, he felt like he'd become proficient at reading S'teve's body language. The man didn't even try to hide it, which helped, but for Tony, it was mostly just practice. Watching S'teve's body had become a very pleasant hobby. Just then, everything from the set of his shoulders to the way he gripped his cup said that he was upset. "What else is going on? How did a blue even catch a gold?"

S'teve finally sipped his wine, looking at the goblet in surprise, as if Tony would ever have offered him an inferior vintage. "No one knows. Liagoth wasn't even at Benden—he was helping clear mud from the slides in High Reaches about a turn ago." Tony nodded, remembering. There'd been earth tremors up and down the whole mountain range. A lot of people had died that spring. "She went between to him as soon as she'd finished blooding her kill. Since then, Jan and H'ank have been weyrmates, and Liagoth catches Pawsth every time. None of the bronzes even try. They just say they don't want to."

"Has anyone asked Pawsth?" Tony's vision was already blurring as his thoughts darted from dragon to dragon, looking for the familiar mind of Jan's partner. "It sounds like she planned it out."

With his mind elsewhere, Steve's voice was distant, but Tony could still hear his snort. "Dragons don't plan like that."

Tony? Pawsth's sweet soprano was surprised, and more than a bit preoccupied. Maybe she was eating. I thought you were at Fort!

"You don't know dragons well do you?" Everyone does. I've been transferred. I have a question for you, sweetheart.

Faintly, he heard S'teve mutter that he hated it when Tony did that, but the weyr was far behind him. Ask away, handsome, ask away.

What's going on between you and Liagoth? I—

HE'S MINE.

Tony reeled as the shout bounced through his head, setting his ears to ringing. Hands shook his shoulder worriedly, but Tony shrugged them off, clinging to his chair. I know, I know, he thought as loudly as he could to get through her anger. I just want to know why. I'm curious.

Oh. as quickly as the fury had sparked, it was gone, replaced with contrition that made his skull feel like it was stuffed with taffy. I'm sorry, darling. I didn't mean to yell. People keep saying that he's just a blue, and I should choose a bronze or even a brown. I don't want a bronze or a brown. I want Liagoth.

He's a very fine dragon, Tony agreed, and carefully kept his thoughts away from the mess of the Weyrleadership. I'd just like to know why you like him so much.

Pawsth actually purred. He's sweet and kind and warm and comfortable and he gives me wherries.

He snapped back to himself, twisting in his seat to look at his dragon. Marroth had twisted around so her head lay inside the weyr, faceted eyes gently swirling with a happy blue color. She looked as innocent as something with a head the size of his entire body could.

"Tony?" S'teve shook his shoulder again, blue eyes worried. They were the same exact shade as Marroth's. Knowing his dragon, that was probably deliberate. "You talked to Pawsth? What's wrong?"

It was only early spring, but with S'teve's bulk so close, Tony definitely felt overheated. He drained the rest of his wine. Metal clanked against wood as he dropped the goblet to the table. "I think I need something stronger to drink."

***

They were twenty turns into a Pass, with the Red Star nearing its closest point to Pern. Thread fell thick and often, with only the extreme cold in the depths of winter to turn the Thread to dust and give the Weyrs respite. Dragons and men were exhausted, with at least a third of the fighters at any given time either injured or on light duty as they recovered.

Tony loved it. There was a rush to fighting Thread that couldn't be found anywhere else. It was just himself, Marroth and the old enemy up there in the sky. Queens flew low to compensate for their lesser maneuverability, but that didn't take away the thrill.

I still think you look silly in that, Marroth commented, the hot air from her sigh making his latest designs flutter where he'd weighed them down. You have me. What do you need armor for?

Leather creaked as he adjusted the traps on his helmet. There were places where it was dangerously exposed to Thread, but he hadn't figured out how to compensate for that yet. Maybe small, sliding metal plates... "We've had this conversation before—it's the same reason you need my flamethrower." Marroth growled sulkily at the reminder that she couldn't breathe fire like other colors. "This way, you don't have to worry that I'll be hit in the throat before you can skip between."

You don't trust me.

"I trust you. It's Thread I don't trust." He fixed the last strap and slid the helmet on, snapping the faceplate into place. "Come on. Leg up, then we've got to pick up the rest of our gear."

Marroth's eyes rolled yellow with a mix of annoyance and awareness of the approaching Threadfall, but she lifted her forearm obediently. The red-dyed harness straps groaned but held as Tony climbed to the spot between her last two neck ridges, just in front of her shoulders. The armor was as light as he could make it, but it still added a good forty pounds to his weight. Still, it had saved his life—or at least limbs—often enough that he wouldn't fight without it.

Maybe if he made a good enough show of it, whoever was Weyrleader of Benden next would agree to let him at least outfit the other queen riders with it.

He must have been louder than he'd thought, because Marroth turned her head to give him a distinctly cheeky look. S'teve would let you outfit the whole Weyr if you asked, and maybe smiled a little.

You know better than that. Metal and leather fumbled under his gauntleted hands as he strapped himself in. You're really too happy about this whole thing.

One of us needs to be. Her wings snapped open as she took the lazy dragon's route and tipped off the edge of her ledge, gliding down towards the Weyrbowl. The other three queens had already gathered—less Jessica's Lejewth, but that was expected with her condition.

Tony! all three of the queens cried at once, making him glad his faceplate hid his wince. Popularity wasn't as fun as he used to think.

What are you wearing? the smallest gold, Werdth asked, craning her neck around. She was a dusky color, nearly as dark as a bronze , but there was no denying the shining undertones to her hide. Don't you trust Marroth to skip?

I told you so, his own dragon said smugly.

Tony caught the flame thrower cylinders as they were tossed up to him by weyrlings, buckling the extras to his harness. He'd forgotten that the only one he'd flown with in this group was Jan and Pawsth—he didn't even know the names of the other two riders. It felt strange, dealing with unknown riders. He'd been at Fort for so long that he'd gotten used to flying with Maria and the others—Tony wasn't looking forward to learning how they flew. It keeps me pretty, ladies. Don't you think Threadscores take away something?

I think some scoring makes a male look distinguished, Pawsth commented, not even bothering to hide the way she kept her eye on the blue dragons at the far end of the bowl.

Sypedith doesn't have any scars and I like him that way, someone else said, turning her head to practically nuzzle Tony out of his seat. Up on her neck, her rider raised her hand in greeting, obviously trying not to laugh. I'm Hespianth. My rider's MJ. She says hi and that she likes your metal suit. You're really a male?

Sometimes, Tony had to fight the urge to check his masculinity. Gossiping with dragons wasn't all that different from trading beauty secrets with their riders. Good to meet you both. I'm pretty sure I'm male on most days. Don't we have Thread to fly?

L'uke will call signal soon. Pawsth bumped Hespianth with her wing. Do give the male air, won't you dear? He'd already crowded enough by that metal thing of his.

Hespianth mantled her wings and arched her neck, eyes deepening to orange anger. Before the inevitable bickering could start, the Weyrleader's Wing lifted off the ground. His bronze, Gaecth, trumpeted, and suddenly the air was full of dragons darting into formation.

Old hands that they were, Marroth and Pawsth didn't so much as twitch, but Hespianth gave an awkward hop as if she wanted to take wing and Werdth tossed her head. Tony took a minute to double-check his replacement cylinders and flamethrower nozzle while the others took their positions. Only after the rest of the Weyr was up did the queens take wing, settling into place low on the front of the formation. The roar was enormous: two hundred pairs of wings, beating in close proximity inside the walls of the Weyr bowl.

The bowl of Benden itself spread out below, the long-dead volcano that formed it peppered with the rock ledges that marked dragon weyrs. Weyrfolk urged herdbeasts into the safety of stone enclosures while weyrlings sorted out the firestone sacks that the other colors would need for the fight. In the center, the lake glittered in the sun, waves churning as the latest batch of hatchlings were collected up by their riders. It was peaceful, until he lifted his face to see the looming presence of the Red Star overhead.

He could feel every dragon hold its breath as L'uke's fist rose like a vacuum inside his head. Tony gripped his straps so tightly that his gauntlets creaked and tried to focus on their destination—the crags of Benden Hold, scorched bare of greenery. Farther out, the orchards, and even farther the herdbeast shelters. It was a distraction, though not much of one. As much as he loved fighting Thread, he hated this part.

The fist fell.

As one, every fighting dragon winked between. Instantly, the silence turned as real outside as in as the world vanished. Icy cold penetrated through even his armor. It was the only thing he could feel at all. Marroth's wingbeats behind him were gone. Even his own heartbeat was silenced in his chest. He tasted bile as the too-familiar sensation of vertigo spun his head around. Every rider knew what happened if they were trapped between for too long—they didn't come back.

I'm here, Marroth promised, a whisper in his head. We're here together.

At least it was something.

Three coughs and an eternity later, the world returned in blazing color. Tony felt his heartbeat again and almost sagged into his flight straps. Frost flaked off his armor and melted in the cold spring sunshine. Benden Hold spread out below him, just as he'd imagined. The bare tree limbs were touched with green as buds just started to form and the ground was dark and barren. High, fluffy clouds scuttled across the pale sky. It would have been a perfect day for casual flying if not for the silver smear of Thread on the eastern horizon.

He tried not to think about how one missed Thread would wither the whole orchard and ruin the fields beyond it. That's what the ground crews were for.

Marroth's place at the back of the four dragon formation gave her plenty of room to maneuver. Tony guided Marroth to settle high on Werdth's right side, where he'd be in place to cover her haunches if Thread got through. It also let Marroth ride the updraft caused by her passage, which made helped compensate for the extra forty pounds of armor. He could feel her exasperation with his worry—needless, in Marroth's opinion—but she still took the position without a fuss.

I know what I'm doing, Marroth reminded him, backwinging slightly to stay in her position. I've done this before you know.

I know, love. Is everyone flying well? It was a check he'd gotten used to performing, at F'ury's request. It was amazing how many dragons would try to keep in the air when they were at less than their best. Marroth was quick to tell Tony how she was doing, but others weren't so open with their own riders. The riders were just as bad about themselves, but their dragons would take care of that. No one tattled as fast as a dragon with an ill rider.

Affirmatives came from every dragon, with L'uke's Gaecth adding that his rider appreciated the check.

We are well, Caimareth chimed in cheerfully from his place at the head of his Wing. It is a fine day for fighting, and S'teve thinks your armor looks very useful. You've added to it and now it doesn't look like a scrap heap. The bronze's voice paused, then a feeling of acute embarrassment washed through Tony's head. Oh, I wasn't supposed to relay that last part.

The faceplate of the armor kept Tony from laughing too obviously. I'll pretend you didn't.

Thank you—oh, Thread!

The first flame appeared from the upper levels, and there was no time for talking any more. Even with ten wings of dragons between the Thread and them, there was plenty of mopping up for the queens to do. Pawsth darted easily after the clumps that escaped the upper levels, but MJ's Hespianth hesitated before diving so her rider could sear the Thread. She was too young to have developed the reflexes she needed yet, but it would come. Werdth was as smooth as Pawsth in chasing after Thread. Tony gripped his flamethrower and leaned into Marroth's neck as they rose, reaching out to her mind with his own—

And then they flew.

It was like sex, like Impression, like falling in love—all the best things in the world. Tony and Marroth twisted and wrapped around each other's mind until there was only one shared between them. Their wing beats were strong, cupping the air as they darted and twisted to catch even the smallest filaments, the flamethrower charring them to black ash. Below, ground crews with flamethrowers took care of the few Threads that escaped the dragons, tiny figures with tinier bursts of flame even at low altitude. Soot stained their armor and hide, smearing greasily every place they touched. Other dragons were background noise with their calls and shouts and screams as Thread occasionally met its mark. Humans were even less than that, a breath of sound in ears that were wholly given over elsewhere.

A line of Thread dropped from overhead, skimming over the back of their metal-clad hands harmlessly before scoring a line of fire over their shoulder. They squealed in pain, instinct flicking them between. Combined as they were there wasn't any cold to feel, but the Tony part went still, all too aware of the void on all sides. The Thread froze and crumbled away into the darkness. Not soon enough, between flickered away and they were back in the fight again.

When the Fall was finally over, Tony didn't quite realize it until Marroth's mind gently nudged him. Untangling himself from her felt like peeling off wet wherhide, uncomfortable and a little bit clingy, but eventually he was able to blink without seeing the world fractured by dragon eyes. Coming back to himself was always strange—he couldn't shake the sensation that he was missing a tail. Muscles he'd somehow forgotten about ached. They'd have just enough time for wounds to heal before the next Fall.

The first thing he did was check those around him. The Queen's Wing was intact, but every dragon he touched radiated profound grief. Who did we lose?

Marroth replied slowly, sounding as worn out as he felt. Only two deaths. Trafaleth and Vreth.

The surge of relief—not anyone I know—was immediately followed by guilt. Deaths weren't uncommon when Fall was thick and coming every few days, but that wasn't an adequate excuse.

He didn't have to ask if Marroth felt the same. The wand of the flamethrower clicked back into its holder as Tony relaxed into the fighting straps. Take us back to the Weyr. Exhaustion dragged at him so deeply that he couldn't even work up his usual fear of between.

Home, she corrected, just before they flickered between.

***

Everyone but Tony had a Threadscore of some type, but that was normal—his armor usually kept him safe enough and even he was laced with scars here and there. S'teve had gotten a nasty score on his shoulder, but the total of injuries was only thirty pairs grounded from the next fight. With that and only two deaths, it had been an unusually clean Fall.

Tony tried to keep that in mind as he urged Marroth to eat. Deaths affected the entire Weyr, and with Fall coming every few sevendays it felt like they were always mourning someone. Just one? You flew hard. You deserve it.

She rested her chin against the bluish grass, looking up at him pitifully. I'm not hungry, she insisted, even though he could feel the hunger gnawing at her.

The waters of the lake splashed up the shore, trailing along the edge of one limp wing. The Threadscore on her shoulder was covered by numbweed salve, the paler green of it not quite masking the faint ooze of dark green ichor. Just beyond the lake, a wild herd was foraging for itself, well aware of the predator on the other side but not yet panicked. He'd hoped that wild game might tempt her better than the beasts kept at the Weyr. It wouldn't hurt her to go hungry for a few days, but Tony had never been able to stop worrying when it happened. Every dragon in the Weyr would forget soon enough, but the interim was painful. Thank Faranth for draconic short memory.

I heard that! Marroth glared at him, then curled into herself a bit tighter. I don't want to forget them. They were our Weyrmates and we barely knew them, but I don't want to forget.

If she remembered every dragon that died in Fall, she'd never eat. This time, Tony remembered not to think that thought too loudly. He rubbed a hand over her cheek. I'll remember for both of us.

In spite of her annoyance, the gold leaned into his hand, hide warm and soft under his palm. You always do.

Her color was deepening and growing more luminescent every day, a sure sign of impending fertility. Pawsth wasn't nearly as dark as Marroth yet. Tony hoped he had at least enough time to find a stand-in for the flight. There was an off-chance that Caimareth wouldn't catch her, but Tony wasn't going to take that risk. Dragon-born passion could make up for a lot while the flight was on, but it would never help with waking up next to someone you'd never been interested in on your own. Tony had found that out too many times already.

Explanations didn't help; Marroth would never understand.

Eat for Caimareth, he tried, careful to keep his mental tone light. If you're weak from hunger, someone else might catch you. Or the flight will be short.

Deep, speculative interest tinted Marroth's emotions. I hadn't thought of that, she admitted. Do you think it would be a long flight?

Very long, Tony promised, lying almost blatantly. Dragon mating was as varied as human—there was never any telling how it would turn out until the actual event. But only if you're strong.

Well... Lust tempted where actual physical needs didn't. Tony wasn't sure how much of that was a reflection of him, or if he was a reflection of her. It was two mirrors, with their reflections stretching on into infinity. Maybe one? And I'll call Caimareth to share.

Don't—

Too late! Pure, cheerful wickedness laced her tone, but she relaxed and lifted her wings to the green-hued late afternoon sky. You'll keep S'teve company while we hunt, won't you? Of course you will. And there they are!

The bronze appeared in the air dangerously low over them, clutching his rider carefully in his front claws. He didn't even land before depositing S'teve on the lakeshore roughly enough that he fell on his rump. Thank you for inviting us.

Marroth gave a happy squeal and took to the air, raising a stiff breeze that left the humans covered in a fine layer of dust. Together the two dragons soared up to a suitable hunting altitude. I want a big one!

"Yes, thank you," S'teve muttered, rolling his eyes up at Tony ruefully. He was dressed in only a fresh pair of flying pants and his blond hair was still damp from a bath. As a consequence, the dirt had turned him grey from head to toe. Bandages covered his injured shoulder, the pale smear of numbweed peeking out from under them against his tanned skin. "Was this your idea, or did she do it?"

"Guess." Tony scrubbed some of the grit from his hair. He wasn't nearly as covered as S'teve, but by the time he got back to the Weyr it would be caked on him. The lake was temptingly convenient, but no. Ideas that good always had a way of turning out badly. "She's better at ignoring me than F'ury on a bad day."

S'teve didn't seem to have any of the same compunctions Tony did. He started working off his boots in what, to Tony, seemed like an obvious prelude to nudity. "At least there's the lake. By the time they're done, we might even be dry."

Tony felt several dragons short of a Wing. "Lake?" he repeated slowly, rolling the word on his tongue as if it were unfamiliar. "As in, swim? That lake?"

"Do you see any other way to clean up?" S'teve lifted an eyebrow that was crusted with dirt.

"It's not that bad."

"Tony. You're grey." S'teve stood and bent over to shake his head. A fine sifting of dust surrounded him. "And so am I. It's not that cold." He grinned through it like it was an old joke and reached for his belt.

Tony reached for his wineskin, but found that he hadn't brought one. Clearly, that was a grave oversight. This was either a nightmare, or a daydream. The trouble was that they tended to become the same thing after a while. "Say that again after your dragon has to fish a rider-shaped ice chunk out of the water. I'm sure Master Guardsman Sharon will appreciate having to thaw out her lover."

"We're not lovers." S'teve stripped off his leather flying pants as easily as if he hadn't just broken all of Tony's preconceptions, including the one that he might have darker body hair. He shook the trousers, snapping them sharply to loosen the dirt. "She has a whole garrison to manage and I have Caimareth. It never works out for long in any case."

I could have told you that, Caimareth butted into Tony's head. If you'd asked me. The world briefly overlaid itself with a vision of his own Marroth bent over a herdbeast, gorging herself. Then his usual sight snapped back into place, leaving only the faint feeling that he should be able to see behind himself.

It's rude to ask a dragon about their rider, he reminded the bronze. S'teve had spread his trousers over a bush and was testing the water. No matter what Tony tried, his eyes kept sliding along smooth, tanned skin that did not vanish into the water quickly enough. "I thought Caimareth likes Sharon."

I like you more.

You're not helping.

"He does. We just work better as friends." S'teve was visible shivering, ripples going up and down his skin. It didn't stop him from wading deeper. The water was clear enough that it didn't do much more than blur details. In spite of the cool spring breeze coming off the mountains, Tony found himself sweating. Self-restraint was not something he'd ever practiced. "Are you going to rinse off or not?"

You should, Marroth butted in. He could still feel her eating—Caimareth had given her a young bullock. Or I'll pick you up and drop you into the water and you'll have to go between in wet clothes and then you'll catch a cold and S'teve will have to mate with you while you're all sniffly.

Tony rested his face in his hands and hoped S'teve would be too preoccupied to notice. With any other dragon he might risked calling their bluff, but he knew Marroth would do it. You're lucky I love you.

I love you too. Now, be a good rider and get undressed for the nice man.

The casual nudity of the Weyr had never been a problem for Tony before, but as he pulled off his tunic, he was too aware of S'teve's eyes on him. Even worse was the happy hum of both dragons in the back of his head. They were perfectly fine with his discomfort.

At least the water was going to be cold. He needed it.

***

Hunger pangs so sharp they felt like a fresh wound woke Tony from a sound sleep three days after Fall. He sat up in bed sharply, gasping and clutching his stomach. Pure, incandescent need clawed at him from the inside out.

He knew these feelings. They'd done this before, but he hadn't expected it so soon. Marroth should have been good for at least another sevenday. He hadn't even had time to find a stand-in yet.

Of course it was nearly midnight when Marroth woke up starving and craving far more interesting things than just meat. Tony had always been a nighttime person; his dragon was no different. What it meant, however, was that half the Weyr was asleep. Not even a mating queen was enough to drag some of the bronzes from their couches.

Tony scrambled from his bed, dashing for the hallway without bothering to do more than throw on a robe as he ran. Marroth would be in no mood to fly him down to the feeding grounds and he had to be there. Queens had been lost between in a mating frenzy.

Marroth's rage roiled in the back of his mind as she spread her wings to glide down to the feeding grounds. The night breeze blew over them, barely cooling the heat that bubbled up inside her. Below humans, puny weak little creatures, scuttled around lighting torches to guide her way. As if she needed it. She could smell the meat milling around, frightened of the bronzes that gathered on the edge of the weyrbowl. She'd give them a better reason to be frightened, she'd—

Pain yanked Tony back into his own mind. Somehow tripped on the smooth stone floor. His knees had been scraped raw by the fall, leaving little smears of bright red blood against the polished rock. He pushed himself back upright and stumbled on, hoping he had the right direction. It was harder to separate from her now than after a Fall, even. Marroth wanted to wrap him up and carry him along, with her in control. He couldn't let that happen—had to keep her from eating, had to keep her from going between

Hands tugged at him and he followed blindly, fighting the pull of Marroth's mind. Her claws tore into a herdbeast, ripping it into chunks without even bothering to use her teeth. Hunger almost doubled him over, but the hands kept pulling him along. Then the cool dimness of the glowbaskets gave way to the sharp points of torches and the silvery glow of the two moons overhead. Satisfaction rippled through him as he felt her sink her teeth into a haunch.

Marroth, no! he yelled, so loudly that other dragons protested sleepily. They didn't matter though. The only thing he could think of was Marroth, and keeping her under control. Blood it! Blood only!

She hissed and mantled her wings, too infuriated to even form a coherent argument. In the dark, her usually blue eyes glowed red. Tony bent his will against hers, fighting with everything he had to keep her from swallowing the meat. Marroth hissed again, but finally bent her head to the herdbeast's throat and began sucking it dry. The bronzes that had woken up gathered around at a respectful distance, eyes whirling orange with their own hungers. There were only four that Tony could feel. Four was good; it was a number he could keep control of, even in a mating flight.

Dead meat thudded to the ground as Marroth finished with the herdbeast. The next one didn't even have time to squeal before the dragon had torn open its throat. She fought him again, reaching for the soft belly with open jaws. He held firm, fighting not to let their teeth—her teeth sink into the meat that steamed so invitingly. Rage at being denied again almost sent him back to his knees, but finally she latched onto the gaping throat again.

Tony could feel riders crowding around him like impatient bronzes, warm bodies blocking the breeze. He shoved at them, trying to win himself room to breathe. It was too much, claustrophobic and cloying. He needed too cool off, to get air on his skin. They would push things, bronzes always did, overeager and demanding but he needed air

"Give him room!" A steady, solid presence made itself known at his back, jolting Tony as he shoved at the others. "You're panicking him! Move!" Tony blinked, realizing faintly that he'd closed his eyes. The other bodies moved away and he could feel their reluctance in their dragons prickling at his edges, but the breeze was back.

S'teve. It was S'teve. That worked—it was good. He trusted S'teve to take care of him.

Marroth screamed and attacked another herdbeast, not even needing a reminder before she began to drain it dry. That was three. She'd fly soon. Marroth never blooded more than four. Soon they'd be in the air, high above the useless humans and far ahead of the even more useless bronzes.

Panic made Tony reel backwards against S'teve. He couldn't do this—he wasn't ready—hadn't picked a stand-in, hadn't even had the courage to talk to S'teve about it. Everything was going to be ruined. S'teve would be disgusted with him and Marroth would be unhappy because Tony would be unhappy, and that would just spiral out to the whole Weyr—

"Tony!" Someone shook him, snapping his head on his neck. "Tony, you're losing it!"

He was. He could feel her ripping into the meat, taking advantage of his slip. Tony locked his will around her, forcing the great golden head to lift up away from the downed animal. It was like prying at a steel bar with his fingers. Slowly she pulled away, growling at him.

And then it didn't matter any more. Like a door being slammed open, the blood she'd drank settled hot and thick in Marroth's stomach. The humans, the terrified meat, even the bronzes— none of it mattered at all. She wanted to fly, high and fast away from everything. Tony felt himself sink deeper into Marroth. Her heat scorched him, racing through his veins as she lifted her wings to the sky in challenge. Riders crowded him, not even held back by S'teve's looming presence, but it that didn't matter either. The only thing that meant anything was the open sky above.

With a last scream of defiance, Marroth flung herself skyward, and the last bit of Tony slipped away with her. Distantly he could feel himself being scooped up by a dragon, but the rest of him was locked away inside Marroth. There was nothing but them and the bronzes far behind. After fighting so long it felt good to stretch their wings. Desire curled through them, but it could wait. Freedom beckoned.

Benden Hold rolled away below, a few lights glittering in its windows. They wheeled, turning neatly over in sheer exuberance as it passed by. Twin moons hung overhead, their light coloring the ground below in shades of gray. Tony often found night flying beautiful and serene in a way daytime flight couldn't match. Now, though, he was too preoccupied to appreciate it. Nothing mattered except the flight itself. Nothing could stop them like this, they were too fast. Even the bronzes had fallen far behind. They flew so high that the air was as thin and sharp as knives, then folded their wings and dove, almost touching the ground before pulling up to repeat the maneuver. Time drifted into meaninglessness, with only the moons and themselves to keep it. There was nothing in all of Pern like flying.

The freedom of flight couldn't hold their attention forever though. The bronzes had used their play to shorten their lead and were close enough that they could identify individuals. One had fallen behind, but that still left three. Caimareth dominated the other two with his size, but they—Ardenth and Eandth—weren't small either. Big, strapping bronzes, all of them, and smart enough to wake up to fly her.

A guilty thrill shivered down them. They were going to have fun.

Marroth/Tony slowed, letting their wings stretch into an easy glide as they came in over the males. Ardenth was sweet enough. He'd caught them once before, and while normally they would be happy to let him try again, they had other plans this time. They fell onto to his back, tangling his wings in their claws long enough to feel the bronze lose lift. The moment they felt his weight dragging at him, they let go, forcing Ardenth to drop like a stone. By the time he righted himself, they'd be too far ahead.

One more to go.

Eandth was no bigger than Ardenth had been, but he was wilier and he'd seen them force the other bronze out. They backwinged just in time to keep from being tangled in his wings, then focused on gaining height. The flight had gone on long enough that they were starting to tire, but there wasn't time to make a mistake. There would only be one chance.

The bronzes stayed beneath them, watching to see what they would do. They were in control of the flight, and the males knew it. Eandth rose slightly higher, excitement and interest making his tail lash the air behind him. Faint objections hammered in the back of their mind, strange and senseless things from the human half. They could pick Eandth and the objections would vanish.

But they didn't want Eandth.

Vagaries of the wind forced the two males to drift apart, opening a sliver of free air. Seeing their chance, Marroth/Tony dove, tucking in their claws and wings to keep from being entangled as much as possible. Solid, steady Caimareth didn't flinch, but Eandth was worked-up enough that he dodged. It wasn't much, but it was enough to put him behind. He could catch up, but they had no intention of giving him a chance. They twisted in the air, spreading their wings to catch themselves as they tangled their claws in Caimareth's. Surprise at the move made him try to jolt higher—hadn't he ever had a queen catch him before?—but they had him well and truly captured. Just to get the point across, they twined around him, locking them body to body in free fall. And then—

Tony jolted back to himself so suddenly it was like the stop at the end of a short fall. He swayed on his feet, clutching at the body pressed up against his. Marroth wasn't separated from him. She'd never be separated from him completely, but he had enough distance to feel his own reactions to the flight. He'd never had a flight quite that intense before. He could still feel the rising ecstasy as the two dragons remained locked together, the wind in his ears as they fell—

"Tony!" Someone shook him by the shoulders. By his bare shoulders. When had he taken off his robe? "Keep it together. You have— you have to..."

The voice was slow and thick, but it snapped him out of his daze. They were in the bedchamber, the last sounds of everyone else filing out already fading. He blinked upwards, meeting a pair of blue eyes that he'd dreamed about more than once. They were dilated in the glowlight, the blue just a thin band of bright color.

S'teve. S'teve who he'd wanted for so long and had never dared touch. Tony couldn't imagine why, when S'teve was just so perfect. And now he was Tony's, every fingerwidth of him. Thick, firm chest muscle was hard under his palms as his fingertips traced the Threadscores he found there.

He shoved.

S'teve toppled backwards into the bed, his surprised shout lost as Tony kissed him. With the two rutting dragons driving them, S'teve didn't stand a chance of resisting. Sharp, stinging pain from his skinned knees made itself known, a bitter counterpoint to the pulse through his veins.

Rough fabric from S'teve's drawstring pants caught against Tony's skin as they rocked together. The knot was made of some sort of thick, rope-like material that took much too long to loosen. By the time he did, Tony was reaching the end of his dragon-burned patience. He yanked at the pants, barely lucid enough to notice S'teve helping him get rid of them.

Skin slid against sweat-drenched skin. Tony bit back a moan as S'teve's hands gripped his hips. There was a good lubricant somewhere in the weyr. Just then, he couldn't remember where. Trying to pull away to think about it just resulted in S'teve's teeth sinking into his throat.

"Stay," S'teve muttered, his voice a dark rasp. His knees bracketed Tony's hips, squeezing tightly enough to make it clear that Tony wasn't going anywhere. "Next time. This. Now."

Even if Tony had been able to think of a reply, S'teve picked just that moment to line up their arousals. Hot, hard weight dragged against him. It was all Tony could do to keep his eyes open. Actually pulling away became as impossible as walking to the Red Star.

Kisses became short, broken, their mouths sliding together barely long enough to connect. Tony's concentration was shattered, leaving only enough space in his head to process salty skin under his tongue and the roll of the body beneath his. It was impossible to regain when S'teve's thumb found that place right there.

S'teve lost control first, blond head slamming back into the quilts. Liquid warmth spread between them, smoothing the glide of Tony's arousal against him. It only took a few moments for Tony to follow, spilling himself across S'teve's stomach.

His arms trembled and gave way, folding under him and collapsing them both to the bed. There were things he needed to say, but his mind was still somewhere between midair over Benden Hold and the hard body under him. Trying to wrap his tongue around words required too much focus.

S'teve's heartbeat pounded rapidly under his cheek. Tony tried to concentrate on it, using the steady th-thump to ground himself. That proved to be a tactical error. His harsh breathing eased, then slowed as S'teve's heart rate slowed, too. Before he could stop it, exhaustion swept him away.

***

Tony woke up with his face buried in the middle of someone's chest and the same someone's arm tossed over his shoulders. That, on the whole, wasn't very unusual. What was usual was that said Someone was stroking his hair. Sunlight snuck behind his eyelids from the open shutters, and he was positive he hadn't left his it open.

Waking up after a mating flight was a little like waking up from too much drink. Who and Where were always prominent questions, only sometimes followed by When and, on one very memorable occasion, What. The advantage of mating over alcohol, as far as he could tell, was that the hangover was much milder and the sheer smug contentment Marroth radiated afterwards tended to make up even for that. He could almost remember the night before in dim flashes of naked skin and desperation, but details slipped away before he could grab them.

After a flight for Weyrleadership, Where was probably his own bed, though clearly someone had been in recently if the windows were open. That still left Who up for debate.

It would have been nice if there actually had been anything to debate.

Slowly, Tony rolled his eyes upward, past traceries of Thread scarring and a still-bandaged shoulder to a face he could probably map the contours of in his sleep. S'teve's eyes weren't even open yet. If it hadn't been for the steady slide of his fingers along Tony's scalp, Tony never would have guessed he was awake. It was comforting, but it was probably meant to be. S'teve was too nice for his own good. No doubt he'd try to convince Tony that they could pretend it hadn't happened and wouldn't even realize that would hurt even more than a falling out.

He needed to add How to his morning-after check-up. Specifically, How to extract himself from the bed without ruining whatever friendship they had left. He tried to ease away from S'teve casually, but the arm on his shoulders tightened and effectively ruined that idea. A quick check with Marroth showed her deliberately ignoring his difficulties, too busy basking in her own afterglow with Caimareth. There'd be no help from that quarter. "S'teve..."

S'teve's eyes didn't open. "If you're about to apologize, you can save your breath. It's natural. You should know that better than I do."

Tony's mouth snapped shut. If S'teve didn't want an apology, then what did he want? "I could have chosen a stand-in," he tried again. "If I'd been smarter, you wouldn't have had to..." Sleep with him. It shouldn't have been hard to say, but it caught in the back of his throat anyway. "You know. For the Weyrleadership."

Even though S'teve's eyes were closed, he could see the lids twitch as he rolled them in exasperation. "You weren't the only one who could have chosen a stand-in. I didn't sleep with you to become Weyrleader."

"Then because Marroth is more lecherous than a green and couldn't wait a sevenday."

I am awake, you know, his dragon grumbled from the ledge outside.

It's true, Tony shot back, put out that she was curled up with Caimareth while he had to figure out how to get away from S'teve.

"Not because of that, either." S'teve finally opened his eyes. In the morning sunlight his blue irises looked brighter than usual, but there was a definite sense that he was barely restraining himself from glaring. "You really don't get it, do you?"

Of course he doesn't, Caimareth butted in, reminding Tony yet again of how hard it could be to have a private conversation with a dragon metaphorically on his shoulder. Or, as in this case, two dragons. Marroth said that he's being stupid.

"Thank you, members of the audience," Tony muttered, resting his forehead against S'teve's exceptionally well-muscled chest. "Is there anything else you'd like to share? Maybe what I had for dinner last night?"

There was a pause for thought before Caimareth replied. You didn't eat dinner. You were working on your armor and told Marroth that—

S'teve, the wherry bastard, was laughing at him. "That's enough of that. I think I can take it from here." At least he was kind enough to speak aloud.

"Thank you so much for that." Tony could feel his eyelashes dragging against S'teve's chest when he blinked. It was easier just to let his eyes stay shut. Then he didn't have to worry about accidentally meeting S'teve's eyes again. "So what am I not getting?"

"A lot of things." S'teve kept sliding his fingers through Tony's hair, which made it hard to brace himself against what he knew was coming. "For one, I'm not upset that you didn't get a stand-in. So you can forget about that."

"You already said that."

"I meant it."

Which really only meant that he didn't hold Marroth's bad timing against Tony. It was something, at least. "And now you're going to say that we can still be friends." Without looking, Tony knew that S'teve's expression would be one of wary confusion. He pushed on, before S'teve—or one of the dragons—could derail him. "I'm okay with that. Weyrleaders and— Weyrwomen have hated each other before and managed the Weyr. We're already dragonlengths ahead of that." At that moment, at least. Who knew how long it would be before S'teve realized how uncomfortable being technically weyrmated to a man was, when he'd only ever shown attraction to women.

"What? Of course we're still friends—" S'teve let out an annoyed growl and dropped his head back against the bed. He didn't even have a pillow. It bounced his chest under Tony's cheek, making him briefly consider trying to move again. "Alright. This is the way it's going to be. I talk. You listen. And when I'm done you can have your say. Is that good?"

Not really, but Tony could tell that he wasn't going to have much choice. S'teve had been a Wingleader. He was perfectly capable of talking over the top of Tony's objections. "Sure."

"Good. To start, I'm not upset that we slept together. I'm the opposite of upset—"

"You're not even interested in men," Tony blurted out, then silently cursed. He hadn't even made it a whole minute before breaking the rules S'teve had set down. Their friendship was already on loose sand; if he couldn't even follow simple directions, it was only going to collapse faster. He cringed, waiting for S'teve's reply.

S'teve didn't make him wait for long. "Tell that to S'am. He might not stop laughing for a few days, but that would be good for him."

Tony forgot himself and looked up, eyes wide. The new Weyrleader didn't seem as though he was being dishonest, but Tony knew very well that S'teve could win a championship at bald-faced lying. He just had too much personal honor to actually use the ability. "S'am?"

"Yes, S'am." There was definitely an amused tilt to S'teve's mouth. When he turned his head, a shaft of sunlight caught his hair and made it shine golden. It was every trite cliché he'd ever heard, but it fit S'teve without being soppy. Or maybe Tony was just incapable of avoiding cliché when it related to S'teve.

S'am. That was actually worse than Sharon. At least with Sharon, Tony had never stood a chance. Their friendship might not have been what it once had, but Tony would have known where he stood. More importantly, S'teve wouldn't have felt obligated to him.

Something in his expression must have warned S'teve. "And we're not still together, so you can stop worrying about that too. If I wasn't interested in you, I would have asked someone to stand with me, or even just sat out the flight."

"You'll make a good Weyrleader though," Tony protested.

"And so will you."

Even his own thoughts were starting to sound repetitive. S'teve was casually burning down every argument he'd spent five turns constructing.

Because you're acting thick, Marroth insisted, her voice foggy with sleep. Stop it. He likes you and you like him and I don't want to have to come in there. The door is too small and I'm comfortable.

There wasn't much he could say to either of them. Tony finally slipped upward to rest his head against S'teve's shoulder, ignoring the disgusting evidence of their night together as they peeled apart. It looked like neither of then had so much as twitched during the night. "I don't want to mess this up. Not just the leadership—you and me."

"Hey." S'teve's arm slipped over Tony's waist. It wasn't exactly comfortable, with their hips and knees bumping, but Tony shifted until it was at least an ignorable amount of discomfort. "You won't mess up anything. We'll just take it one day at a time and it'll work."

Curled up together the way they were, Tony could almost believe him. Weyrleader and Weyrwoman—or Weyrlord? Whatever it was called, Tony could do it. It was just a matter of taking it step by step and paying attention, which was something he'd learned to do in his father's workshop. It felt a little like lying to himself, but he'd done that before too. "Okay— we can do this." He thought. Hoped. "But we need to do something first." S'teve lifted his eyebrows in question, so Tony pressed on. "The very first thing we need to do is to find a better title than Weyrwoman. F'ury's never going to let that go."

S'teve blinked at him in momentary bewilderment, then chuckled and bent to kiss Tony's forehead. "We'll come up with something," he promised.

"And armor on the queen riders at least."

"We'll discuss it."

Marroth huffed happily, like a warm breeze in the back of his skull. There. Isn't that better?

Tony smiled into S'teve's shoulder. Yeah. It is.