Willow firmly stared Wilson down—or, up? Uh, into submission—until he set both paws down. His tail lashed impatiently. Having his full attention was a strangely triumphant feeling, like she’d talked a particularly large, ornery dog into obeying her.
“How can we only sit here and continue discussing this when you might be in danger from me at any moment? I can’t, in good conscience, let you do this!” He whispered dramatically.
“Oh, but I’m so heartless you expect me to, what, stand here and watch you kill yourself?” It was sort of ironic, that he’d give up right when she’d decided to start caring. Whatever. “Animals have instincts. Self-preservation. You can spare me another minute.”
He looked doubtful, but he held his tongue and didn’t get up to leave. Good. Maybe he would think about this rationally. She had an inkling he actually had some degree of intelligence under there, when he wasn’t nuttier than a fruitcake or scared witless. Which, given his current attitude, she wouldn’t be surprised if he were both of those things right now. She could relate, but at least she could stay practical.
She wished she was smarter, in that moment. She could usually scrape by on half-* solutions and sheer force of will, but she wasn’t going to brute him into a better solution this time… probably.
“So, what if you were trainable?” She blurted, and watched with irritation and amusement as he recoiled in disgust. It wasn’t that bad of an idea. Better than his! “Y’know, like a giant dog or something? Sure, you’ve been rude as *, but what’s really the worst you’ve done when you’ve gone feral, play fetch a little rough? You already said you’d tell me anything, it’s only a step further,” she coaxed. An attack dragon; ha, no one would ever mess with her again! She’d have to make him breathe fire on command first. Oh, she could almost feel it now. She’d need to devise some kind of cool whistle signal, and really big doggie treats…
“Ugh, Willow,” Wilson frowned, practically writhing in displeasure. “How could you even conceive of something so—that’s just—rrrr,” he took a breath, and appeared to gather himself. “I’m no animal handler, but there might be some merit to that, in theory. If you could even upkeep something my size, and supposing I were to differ enough from the actual canines here that I would not simply attack you on sight. But in practice, I’d rather keep what little dignity I have left, thank you.”
Oh, really, he couldn’t have his fruitcake and eat it, too—insist they treat him like an animal and a human all at once. He sounded so pretentious, it was funny. She puffed out her chest and flipped her hair. “Sure, indeed, all that proper society out here you gotta impress,” she mocked his words from their argument the night before.
He gave her pathetic puppy eyes, which really only proved her point. “I said I was sorry,” he mumbled.
“Hmmm, did you really? Or did the dragon?” She asked, quirking an eyebrow.
“…It’s still not a better idea,” he pouted. “It’d be too easy for you to make a fatal mistake, and then it’d all be for nothing. We can’t exactly test it out; we don’t have more than one shot at this.”
She bit her lip. “You said we did, earlier,” she argued. “The touchstone, right?”
He lied back down, sighing heavily like an old dog. Thinking, she hoped. “Let’s try to avoid anything that drastic,” he suggested hypocritically.
“Hmm. Move your paw back over here, I’m tired,” she ordered. He conceded, and she leaned back against it, staring up into the sky and his big dumb face. It was quiet, for a moment. It all seemed deceptively normal, talking about how to train dragons and whether or not she should come back from the dead. Maybe she was picking up this detachment from reality off him. Everything was somehow his fault, after all.
“Well, if we can’t make you safer first, maybe we can make me more dangerous! I mean, I took you out before,” she bragged. Give her an enormous whip to crack, like a lion tamer. But that’d probably hurt his delicate little pride, too. Unless he was into it. Maybe she shouldn’t go there. “Uh, like a knight in shining armor, you know? We could build a wicked fort, or some kind of siege weapon or something. It’d be like a really cool, weird fairytale.” As if this wasn’t one already.
He started to scratch his ear with a hind paw, then caught himself and hastily used the forepaw Willow wasn’t touching instead. “I don’t think anything short of somehow turning you into a commensurate monster would do it,” he mused.
Willow gasped. “Can we do that? Is that a thing? Holy *, dude, that’s perfect.”
He tipped his muzzle to stare down at her incredulously. “How could you want to be a dragon? It’s perfectly awful,” he moaned.
“Oh, shut up,” she smacked his scales. “If you weren’t such a dork, you’d know you’ve got it made. All that fire! Never being cold or small or helpless? Hello? I kind of lied earlier. Dragons are still awesome, you’re just the exception. I’d trade with you in a heartbeat, and I wouldn’t be so whiny about it, either!”
“Well, then we’d just have the same problem, but in reverse,” he huffed. “Except I’d have either fled or burned immediately, so we wouldn’t be having this discussion…”
He trailed off, probably trying to calculate the chances of an alternate dimension or something else ridiculous. Willow rubbed her eyes. Her head was starting to hurt, along with just about every other fiber of her being. *, she was beat.
“As bizarre and tragic a notion it is, it’s an unexpectedly elegant solution. Strange that the best conclusion we’ve come to yet would be to surrender to the wild together. I don’t think it’s possible, anyhow; I only found the one gem like it. I don’t know how long it would take us to happen upon another, if one even exists.”
Ha. What a waste. She glared down her nose at a clump of dirt. She’d have kicked it, if her legs weren’t so worn out. “Well, if we can’t turn me into a dragon, I guess we just have to turn you into a human,” she mused. “Do you think losing the gem would do it?”
The paw beside her tensed. “We have no way of knowing, but that’s a logical hypothesis. I can’t think of anything else that would make more sense, supposing this condition can be reversed at all. But lacking surgical tools, how would you suggest we test it?”
“Well *, that’s a li’l extreme.” What a drama queen. “Have you tried purging?”
“Y’know, ralphing. Tossing your cookies.” Oh, his face was hilarious. Who’d have thought a dragon could be so expressive? “Jazz up the carpet. Shout at your shoes. Un-eat.”
“Ughh, please stop,” he groaned, averting his eyes and flapping his ears. “At least get off of me before trying to make me ill.”
That was probably a solid suggestion, but it wasn’t as cold here, out of the wind. “You get you off me,” she groused lazily.
To her surprise, the paw under her actually did begin to shift away. She only barely caught her balance. “Sorry,” Wilson apologized. “It’s probably worth trying again, though—I was sick just before turning,” he muttered. “Perhaps…”
So that was why he’d run off so suddenly. Huh. Why hadn’t he just told her what was wrong right away? He’d certainly lost his shyness now that things were desperate.
At least he had the decency to turn and step away first, though with the * awful racket he was making, she didn’t think it made much difference. It took him a moment to successfully gag himself with his clumsy claws. It was pretty gross, like some kind of inept cat trying to hork up a hairball the size of a man. She was glad to be out of the splash zone, at least, and it was interesting when it caught on fire. She wouldn’t mind being sick, herself, if that was an option.
If her wrist weren’t so messed up, she’d have slow clapped. He probably wouldn’t have appreciated it anyway.
“Ow,” he rasped, after much effort and not much result. He arched his spine and crooked his neck to nip at his own chest scales. She had a brief vision of the dragon wearing a really big doggie cone. “Argh, it’s still there. It’s worse, I swear.”
Of course. That would have been too easy. “Are you sure you couldn’t just wait this one out?” She asked, biting back her disappointed frustration and breathing through her mouth.
He was distracted, surveying his own mess distastefully. Either checking for the stupid dragon rock, or maybe just watching the fire smolder. She could go for brainlessly staring at a fire for a while, herself. Thinking was too hard. “As sure as I can be,” he rumbled. “If only I could just-” He manipulated his neck and wrists, trying to jam his paw back into his mouth and struggling with the angle. He growled irritably. What was he trying to do—reach down his throat and tear it out with his own claws? He might be at the end of his rope, but that was just plain stupid.
“Wilson, that’s stupid,” she shared. “That’s never going to work. Your arms are thicker around than I am tall.”
He stopped and stared at her, wide-eyed, like he knew he’d been caught being stupid. “What are you saying?” He asked warily, almost defensively.
What was she saying?
Well, she was a lot smaller. It wasn’t like he could even pick up something small enough for a human to swallow without choking to death— without even noticing at all—not with those claws, not without tweezers. But she probably could, even with one hand tied in a dumb makeshift sling.
An immensely horrible idea was starting to take shape. Something so ludicrous and brutal it might actually work.
“…What do you think I’m saying?”
He looked like a really big, really weird, white winged deer caught in the headlights. “No. I don’t know. I don’t like it. Next idea? Maybe, uh, another kind of stone might counteract—maybe we could devise a machine that would—uh…”
“I could get that gem,” Willow started slowly. Like the fable about the mouse that pulled a thorn out of a lion’s paw, but infinitely weirder. It wasn’t like she’d have to do much, it’d be quick. Easy. In and out. She could do anything, for just a couple seconds. She wasn’t scared of anything, right? Maybe it was time to put her money where her mouth was. Or his. She’d already been halfway there, anyway.
“No.” Wilson took a step back. “Ohhh, no. Nooo, that’s not funny.”
Actually, it kind of was. This was a Thing, online. People wrote bad fanfiction about it. She’d never been into it, but maybe she was about to be, in the most literal sense. *. “I’m serious! Look, it’s a li’l nasty, but I think this has a better shot of working than anything else we’ve come up with, and it’d be fast. You know where it is, right?” He obviously did, he wouldn’t stop scratching or bothering the spot. It looked to her like this was doable. “All you’d have to do is take me like a pill. I’d grab it, you’d-” she was running out of idioms for throwing up, but it wasn’t as funny once she was personally invested anyway- “yodel groceries, and viola. If nothing else, we’ll know for sure whether or not it’s the gem’s fault, and we could move on from there.”
She’d never seen anyone’s eyes get that big. Granted, she’d never anyone else with a head that big, either. “What?! That’s mental! That’s what we’re trying to avoid, we can’t just-!” he’d raised his voice, and he cut himself off when he realized he’d started unintelligibly barking. “I thought your first suggestion was unethical and risky, but this—I can’t—ugh, that’s revolting,” he spluttered.
“Yeah? Well, sometimes life’s revolting. Grow up,” Willow scoffed.
“You can’t—that’s not—I don’t think you fully comprehend what you’re suggesting here! Do you have any idea how wrong this could go?? Neither of us know anything about my biology, but even without the unknown factors! You’d end up crushed, or suffocated or drowned, or—or digested, some equally, unimaginably vile—ugh, I can’t believe we’re even talking about this! I’ll have nightmares for life—or, as long as I can dream, anyhow. But this isn’t just a question of nerve! Oh, I never should’ve even—no. I won’t let you do this. You can’t make me.”
Something seemed to snap within her. Probably her patience. She knew he was right, but she wasn’t willing to do this his way, so she needed to convince him before he convinced her. “Well, do you want to be human again, or not? Got any better ideas? And before you tell me we’re back to square one,” she ran over the arguments she could practically see forming on his lips, “Look, whose mind are we really questioning here? Maybe it’s you who don’t get it. Anything we do is going to be risky. If you kill me, you’re not going to care anymore, because you’d be an animal or whatever, and I guess that sucks but neither of us are miserable for long. Right? But if you die, I’m stuck here with one good hand and broken ribs. How long do you think I’ll make it alone? Another week? Three * years until the next idiot comes along? Or maybe Mr. Cigar will come keep me and my regrets company? You’ve been there, is that really better?”
He wouldn’t look at her now, he was too busy tearing up whatever ground his claws came into contact with. But his ears were pointed at her. He was listening.
“Maybe you’d rather take the easy way out, but I’d rather take a chance, and if it comes to it, it’d be better to die trying. I’d pick you over being torn apart by the hounds, alright? At least it’s * original. So I guess I can’t stop you from doing whatever you’re going to do, but for *’s sake don’t do something stupid and tell yourself you did it for me.”
She was shaking. Either that verbal vomit had taken more out of her than she’d expected, or she was just cold. Probably the latter. Stupid winter.
A puff of putrid white fire washed over her, soothing her shivers. “Sorry,” Wilson whispered. He was regarding her with an expression she hadn’t seen often, and definitely not on him. It wasn’t quite the usual fear, like she might be out to get him, or might crumble at any moment; it was genuine respect. “I still think your plan is preposterous, and I still don’t like it, but you present a compelling argument.” He grimaced slightly. “But for all your moral justifications, do you really think it’s even strictly possible?”
Oh, they just had to discuss it all to death first. “How are we ever going to know without trying?” He could have probably been cured already, in all this time they’d wasted dithering, and then they could get on to the next, nicer thing, like food. Or sleeping. Or fire.
“We can’t just—see, what will you do when something goes wrong, call for help? I might not hear you, you might not have enough air—maybe I can regulate that, myself,” he muttered on, pacing. Willow fought the urge to duck when his tail whipped over her head, even though he missed her by a long shot. “Maybe if we tied a rope around—no, you’d strangle—some kind of protection, antacid, goggles, but where would we—oh, but the matter of time, and, suppose it works too well?”
“Hm?” She hadn’t caught nearly all of that, and it probably wasn’t meant for her, anyway, but working too well? He must be really digging for excuses now.
“…if I were to change back prematurely,” he clarified.
She snorted. “*.” That wasn’t a mental image he needed to share. Straight out of some low-budget alien horror show. “Was it fast the first time?”
“No, but…” His brow furrowed. “You’re right; if it’s too slow, how would we know if it was working at all? But if it prevented my condition from worsening in the meanwhile…” he finally fell silent, settling back down near her and spacing off in her general direction. She stared back, though she couldn’t help quickly checking over her shoulder just to be sure he wasn’t looking at something behind her. It was still just muddy, icy snow and dead grass under a disproportionately sunny sky.
“Alright, alright, I can’t believe it, but you’ve convinced me,” he declared seemingly out of the blue. The sudden noise startled her, and his words were doubly surprising. Really? Well, whoever said brute strength was the best way to convince anyone, anyway? Ha!
“Now then—you should hold your breath, keep your eyes closed as you can, and I’ll give you about two minutes, I suppose, er, unless you can signal me otherwise. Best case scenario, any… any harm you may come to is minimal and reversible…” he trailed off again, and the way he crouched and stared with such a woeful face, he was a little like a gargoyle. Willow stared back defiantly, trying to ready herself, steady her breathing and keep her knees from knocking. Okay, she wasn’t a wimp or anything, but the suspense was maddening. Who wouldn’t be at least a little daunted? At least if she died or whatever, she’d go out like a * meme, and while it might not be as pleasant as some other options she’d faced this week, it’d be * legendary. Not to mention her whole big * speech. Right.
But he hadn’t snapped her up, he was just sitting there like a big worried rock. With teeth and stuff. “Well?”
“…I don’t want to,” he pouted.
“Oh, for crying out loud. You know you’ve got the better end of this deal, right?” Being a dragon and all. Letting someone else work out your problems. Not waiting for your only friend left to eat you alive. At least she was awake now. Adrenaline was sure a * of a drug.
“Well—either way, it’s a cruelly, uniquely compromising situation; it’s not something people should ever have to even consider doing to each other.”
What else was new? She bit the inside of her cheek and rocked on her heels. “Imagine it’s something else,” she suggested, mostly to herself. Like going down into the storm drain for the Frisbee. Not at all like being in his mouth (again), or like being trapped inside a living thing. *, he wasn’t making this any less weird for her. That would have been too easy.
“Right.” He took a few deep breaths, swallowed hard, and set his head on the ground in front of her, lying still but for his unhappily squirming tail. She watched with somewhat detached apprehension as his maw split open, a toothy dark cavern just smaller than she could stand up straight in. Ugh, his breath hadn’t improved. He was going to owe her forever for this one.
She briefly considered kicking off her shoes, before deciding this was gross enough without adding soggy socks to the experience. She didn’t have any other reason to procrastinate, without looking like an equal coward. She could do this. It was still just dorky Wilson. No, that made it weird. He was… nobody, an inanimate object. Sure. With that in mind, she squared her shoulders, tucked her lighter into her shirt and stooped to step in.
Her shoe immediately lost purchase on his slimy, rubbery tongue, and she barely caught herself by grabbing for an upper fang. Ugh, *, it was gritty. Alright, falling and braining herself on his teeth would be beyond pathetic. Gingerly, she sat and scooted forwards, trying not to think about the saliva soaking through her skirt and leggings, or the total darkness just past that weird pink dangling thing, or about what she was doing at all.
Abruptly, everything shifted and she fell back flat on his tongue with a wet smack. Uhhhgh. He must have been sitting up. This was fine. She’d been this far before, but this time it was her idea, so that… uh, didn’t really make it any better, it just meant she was stupid, too. No, worse. Stupider.
Then, everything grew dark as the roof of his mouth came down to meet her. *, she was totally helpless, *, wait, *, this was wrong-! In her blind panic, she scrabbled for anything to hold onto, but everything was slick, she was sliding—then, she was abruptly pushed the other way. He sounded like he was gagging.
Everything calmed around her, including her racing heartbeat. A mournful groan emitted from somewhere below, the vibration rattling her bones. It hurt her wrist and made her bite her tongue. He was probably trying to talk without actually spitting her out. Trying to chicken out again, huh? She crossed her arms tightly and tried to manage a deep breath. “Don’t be such a * pansy,” she scolded both of them.
She forced herself to hold still this time, as she tipped the other way almost vertically. For a moment, she felt wedged on the precipice. She wasn’t stuck, was she? She wasn’t sure what either of them would do—but then she was rapidly descending. She couldn’t budge at all, the breath was squeezed from her lungs. Sparks danced behind her eyelids from the immense pressure on her ribs, but she had no breath to scream with, nowhere to move—then her ankles buckled under her as she splashed down. She pushed herself up on her hand and knees and fought to inhale, choking and coughing painfully. Her eyes watered, her sinuses burned. She could taste it. She was nearly sick, herself. She’d never felt uncomfortably hot before, but the pocket of air was thick with rancid humidity, and the juices stung like hot peppers.
She stayed like that for a second after catching her breath, unable to move or think coherently past her raw horror and disgust. Pansy, the word came to her, but it held no meaning. Get a grip!
Fire. She needed fire, and now. She leaned back to free her good hand, fumbling for her lighter. The flame seemed to leap a foot higher than normal for a glorious instant before returning to normal. Oh, something normal. Something good. She’d never needed anything as badly as she needed to be held by the flames. She closed her eyes and held it close, letting it lick her cheek.
Everything shifted a little, and she focused on keeping her lighter aloft as she slid down the slope a little. “Are you alright? Can you hear me?” A voice thundered from all around.
*, she could hear him. He knew where she was, and maybe he could even feel her pitiful floundering, but he—he wasn’t here, he could never comprehend how awful—this was the real monster, mindless and merciless and disgusting, not the bumbling creature out there—but it was all him. She was alone, but completely surrounded. She didn’t like that. She couldn’t connect this with him. Pretend it’s something else. It wasn’t real. She was just voice chatting with someone half-deaf and obnoxiously loud over a horror game. “I’ve been better!” She yelled hoarsely.
The rock. She needed the rock to get out, and that was all that mattered. She tore her eyes away from her speck of light to peer beyond into the dimly gleaming surroundings. The flesh walls felt nearly against her on all sides, but the folds and creases disguised their true size, so when she reached out to steady herself to stand, her hand slipped in and she was momentarily enveloped in darkness. She jerked back—her lighter was still lit—and the motion made her slip backwards. She sloshed clumsily without an arm to catch herself with. “*, *, *,” she shrieked, flailing to right herself, or at least keep her head above the muck. Finally, shaking legs splayed, she managed to unsteadily stand.
She slicked her bangs out of her face and uselessly wiped her stinging eyes with her good wrist, still holding her lighter. *. Her vision was a little weird around the edges, but she did her best to ignore it and scan for the telltale sparkle from that * red rock.
…this was * insane. The surface wasn’t smooth, it was too dark—she could walk right past the * thing without ever noticing. She could be down here forever. Stupid! She kicked the wall rashly. It lurched around her. “Ow!” Wilson squawked. “What? Do you need for me to get you out?”
Oh, yeah. Horrible as this was, she didn’t mean to hurt him. He wasn’t trying to be so awful. She sort of mindlessly patted the wall as an apology, then felt weird about it. “Uh! NOT YET,” she hollered back up at him.
Wait, what was that up there? Some kind of abnormality in the uniform, smooth pink; it looked almost greenish by comparison. She reached up with her lighter in an attempt to illuminate it better. What the *? “I think I see something, but I can’t reach!” She shouted. Maybe she could—
She was thrown forwards, rolling through the shallower liquid. She spat vehemently, multiple times. Eeuugh. “THANKS FOR THE WARNING, *,” she protested.
“Is that better? Er, sorry,” he offered, sounding a bit strained.
She was much closer now, at least. Everything was sideways. She awkwardly shuffled closer, the top of her head brushing the sagging meat above. From here, she could see it looked irritated; the space around the ulcer was red and inflamed. That looked really * painful. “Can you get me any closer?”
This time, she was ready. He rocked, and she slid almost gracefully up to it. She tried to look through the milky, almost head-sized bubble for the rock. She couldn’t see anything, but this had to be what he’d been complaining about. “Can you feel this?” She pushed on it.
The tightened space and a surprised snarl affirmed her suspicions. “Alright, then this is going to hurt like *.” She tucked her lighter away again, and balancing as well as she could by gripping the sleek muscle, she stomped with all her might. She felt her heel pierce the pocket, and she dove wildly, grasping for anything small and hard. Her aching head swam with the following, booming roar. Her horrid little world buckled and twisted and heaved, until her blistering, broken little form was forcefully dumped back onto solid ground. The brightness and cold were stark and shocking, and her ears hadn’t stopped buzzing. Her fists were clenched numbingly tight, but when she managed to release her white fingers, something solid shone at her dazzlingly. She held it up to the sunlight and giggled deliriously. She’d actually done it. She was a * miracle worker.
She turned to announce her victory just in time to run as Wilson’s eyes rolled back in his skull and he toppled towards her in a dead faint.