Chapter 1: The Forbidden Room
Angel reared up and snatched his hand faster than he could react. The world went grey and fuzzy, the kind that meant he couldn’t breathe. He tried to focus on how quickly it passed, but this time, he could’ve taken five good breaths.
Before he could panic, they appeared in a hospital room. On the bed before him lay the woman he remembered, shrunken and pale. Her hair, once a lustrous bronze, had faded to the color of dry wheat.
“This is what you pine for?” Angel asked, incredulous.
He looked at her like the alien she’d become. “Yes!”
Angel shrugged, in the way that was familiar, yet bittersweet. “Last chance to change your mind.”
The bed was by the window. Somehow, that made it even more sad. They stood where the second bed would be, if she had a roommate. She didn't; perhaps because there weren't any other female coma patients, or because her roommate had just passed away. She looked lonely, which didn't make sense, but that was the impression that stuck with him.
He didn't notice that he was fully clothed, either. Well, he was wearing jeans and shoes, anyway. He still wore his nightshirt over them.
Angel's claws reached for her “human shell”, as she’d called it.
He remembered her words, then, from what felt like years ago: “If she does not die, I do not live!”
Angel paused, inches from touching the shoulder that once belonged to her.
The faltering beep of the heart monitor suddenly flattened into one long, shrill death note.
Angel cocked one brow ridge at him. "Have you changed your mind?"
“She… she's supposed to die, to become… you,” he choked.
“So she has. Her heart has stopped. What happens next is up to you.” She watched him, raptorial gaze impassive.
He listened to flatline, weighing the risks, as long as he could stand it--which was all of three seconds. In the end, he couldn't stand to lose the last shred of her humanity. He didn't want to be left alone with this unfeeling beast. He ground out one reluctant word: "Yes!"
Her right paw touched the thinly covered shoulder, eyes glowing green. The green glow vanished instantly in a grey mist. The heartbeat didn’t start again, like he thought it would. Her dragon eyes went wide as her paw disappeared inside the bony shoulder of her former vessel.
Slowly, inexorably, her roughly human-sized body was sucked backwards, into the body on the bed. Her paw disappeared, then her foreleg up to the elbow. An invisible force tugged her wings up and inside the unmoving chest. Her legs were magnetized to the limbs on the mattress. The blankets and gown were no impediment to the merging of bodies.
Avi tried to step in, to intervene, but something held him back.
“Let me go Ga--”
He couldn't finish, of course. Angelic Restrictions closed his throat before he could utter the Archangel's name.
The bodies on the bed arched up off the mattress as the two creatures fused into one, in agonizing slow motion, though the human face was still as death. The bed jangled discordantly, echoing his tightly-strung nerves.
“If you touch them, they die--along with a sizable chunk of the town,” Gabriel said, praying that the boy would heed the command, if not the words.
Avi stopped straining at his invisible bonds, though he’d begun openly weeping.
"Can you hear me now?" he asked, surprised.
Avi nodded jerkily, focused on his Angel, instead of the Archangel behind him.
“Help her,” Avi whispered, without much hope.
Her spine was bowed in a portrait of agony. Angel slowly sank into her former body, face frozen in a horrified mask. Neither aspect of Angel made a sound, which was eerie. Both faces now wore the same lurid blend of shock, horror, and the stillness of a coma.
“There is no reason to intervene.”
“She's in pain, isn't she?” His voice was thick with the emotions that his Angels couldn’t express.
“Yes, but she will not remember.”
Avi huffed what might have been a laugh.“Thanks for that. Never thought I'd thank you for doing that, but--”
“I will not have to.”
“What?” He almost turned toward the Archangel, but he was riveted on the macabre tableau before his eyes. She said he'd never see her again, and regret was mixed with the fear on his face. What have I done? he agonized.
“She is in a coma so deep that not even this will wake her. The only one who would remember…” Gabriel trailed off, uncertain how to address the fading dragon in the room.
Though Gabriel didn’t finish, he knew what he was going to say. The cold Angel was dying. If he’d known this would happen… He still would have done it, and the knowledge wrung more tears from him. He cried for both woman and dragon.
“I'm glad she won't remember this. Don't wipe my memory, either. I mean it. I want to remember what this cost us.” He sniffed, but left the tears where they were.
“She will remember nothing.”
The body on the bed convulsed twice, as though she were having a seizure.
“Do you have to make it sound so ominous?”
There was no reply. He turned, but he didn't see Gabriel. “Of course. Never one for the messy bits.”
Gabriel stared back at him, mildly curious why he could be heard, but not seen. He didn't dispute the assumption that he always left, because he was often forced to. This once, he was allowed to witness the consequences of his actions. If it hurt Avi to see the transformation, it tore Gabriel to shreds. He'd seen his friend broken thrice now, once at his own hands, and it didn't sit well with him. I hope His master plan is worth all of this, he thought with uncharacteristic venom. It was monumentally difficult to trust their Father in this.
While Avi's head was turned, translucent wings shot out from the awkwardly curved spine. A sinuous shape briefly appeared under the sheet, as wings and tail lowered the unconscious woman gently to the bed, wings folding into her back. Gabriel Saw the tail pop, slide up into her newly hollow tailbone. Her heels slid down the mattress, the grippy bottoms of her socks scraping the sheet with the slow-motion collapse.
Avriel turned in time to see her slump back to the mattress, one being again. He rushed the two steps to her side, and Gabriel let him. The process was complete. His punishment would begin in earnest, soon.
Avi touched her face, afraid she would be cold, despite the steady beep on the monitor. She looked as dead as she had been, moments ago. He was relieved to find it warm to the touch.
Her eyes fluttered open after a few seconds of contact. Her eyes stared at nothing, bleary and cloudy.
A new alarm sounded, loud and screechy. Her face contorted at the intrusion, but the movement was sluggish.
He stared down at her in wonder. “That didn't wake you up, but a touch on the cheek did?” He chuckled tightly. “I don't think I'll ever understand you.” He impulsively kissed hoer forehead, lingered there because it was skin. Real, proper skin. Not an energy field, or scales. Human skin that felt familiar, yet unfamiliar. Tears trickled down to join the rest in his beard, then became a torrent as he collapsed to the bed, clutching her to his chest and rocking as best he could, with all the tubes and cords.
A nurse came in response to the alarm, saw him rocking and crying.
“So she's finally gone, then? Her sister will be sad, but she was here so long--”
Avi registered the fact that he had company, turned around. His face was tear-stained, but radiant.
The nurse hustled over to other side of the bed, saw Angel’s open eyes. She turned off the alarm with a smile. “Well, I'll be. She pulled through, after all!” She gave Avi a speculating look. “Maybe she was just waiting for her prince to wake her up.”
The woman on the bed shoved at Avi weakly. He reacted like she'd punched him. “Sorry, sorry, are you okay? Too much?”
She was blushing, and refused to look at him. One hand reached up to touch the tubes in her mouth and nose, eyes still not quite focused. Avi stopped her hand, held it as long as she let him.
She took her hand back, signed at the nurse for water. Her hand didn't quite touch her chin, with the tubes in the way, but he knew what she was trying to say.
The nurse, on the other hand, didn't understand. She glanced over from the computer, but it didn’t register that Angel was using sign language.
Avi chuckled. “You can't have water yet. You've got a tube in your throat.” He ruffled her hair playfully. She didn’t have earflaps anymore, and her hair was a bit greasy, but he was so happy to see her whole again that he didn’t care.
Her eyes widened. The shadows under her eyes appeared deeper, the blush brighter.
“Not kid,” she scolded vaguely, and without much heat. Her index finger wobbled on the gastric tube. She frowned at it, cross-eyed, as though wondering why she couldn’t put her finger under her nose. Her knuckles were pink from scraping both tubes, because it hadn’t quite registered that they were there.
He tried not to laugh at her expression. "I know. I was just... never mind, we'll figure it out later." To the nurse, he asked "When are they going to take the tubes out?"
“I have to consult her doctor first, make sure her airway is stable.” The nurse left to page the doctor on call.
Then he was alone with Angel for the first time in months. It dawned on them at about the same time. Both felt awkward, though for different reasons. Neither knew where to look, or what to say.
“So…” He said, at length. “This is where you've been the whole time... I'm sorry, Angel. I'd have come sooner, if I could've.”
The pale woman in the bed, whose blush had yet to fade, looked confused. “Beautiful word for woman you met today,” she signed. Her wide eyes weren't quite focused yet. It gave her wan face a fragile, otherworldly look that was almost beautiful.
He blanched. "Aw man, not again!" He groaned and stared up at the ceiling for a long moment. His Adam’s apple bobbed once.
He searched her face, looking for some sign of recognition. He cupped her face gently. "Please tell me you know who I am," he begged.
She paled under the blush, eyes misted. Her eyes veered away. She scoffed as best she could with tubes. Immediately, she struggled to avoid coughing. Between the angle of her head, and the sound she tried to make, her throat objected. His hands jerked back, unsure how to help her.
“Everyone knows you.” Her hands trembled with the effort of signing. He sat gingerly on the edge of her bed, plucked one frail hand from the air. He turned it over, and there was the tattoo, in the flesh, for the first time. He traced the curve of the bass clef with one long, tapered finger. She shivered, tried to pull away.
“I know it's you,” he said, looking into those achingly familiar eyes, “even if you don't know it yet.”
She turned her head as far away as she could with tubing, which wasn’t far. She slid her small hand from his grasp to sign. “I should know you believe soul same,” she signed.
It took him a minute to decipher the awkward, halting signs. Angel had taught him the sign for “soul” only because he asked her to. Is she trying to say “soul mate”? He stopped, thought a while.
“I don't know if I do. We weren't exactly given a choice in the matter.”
She creaked back to look at him; the pillow squeaked faintly. Her face was puzzled yet mocking. “Everyone pick life they want. Nobody make me do things I don't want.” Her face contorted on the word “make”. “All my life, people try.” Her hands slapped together with emphasis on the word "all". Her knuckles had gone a darker shade of pink from signing around the ridged tubing, but she hadn’t noticed yet.
Oh boy, this isn't going to go down well, he thought.
“I don't know if it helps, but your soul is your own. As for everything else…” His eyes were full of apology as he pinched his own arm, hard. Her arm twitched, and she glared at him.
“Coincidence,” she fingerspelled.
“Okay, fine. I'll turn around, and you pinch something. I'll tell you what it was.”
He turned around on the side of the bed, arms crossed. She thought for a moment, then pinched his back.
“Ow! That's not what I meant!”
He turned back and saw her eyes alight with mischief. Hope sparked to life in his heart. He took a couple of steps away and waited again, back turned.
She pinched her own breast, feeling puckish.
He whirled around, shocked, clasping one of his well-developed pecs.
She blushed. Then it hit her that he was telling the truth. Eyes wide, she signed “You felt that?” Her middle finger audibly scraped the thin hospital gown when she signed “feel”. He tried not to notice when she had to push the shoulder back up.
He nodded, watching her face.
If her mouth hadn't been occupied by a tube, and the tape didn't limit its mobility, he got the impression she would be scowling. Her jaw tried to jut out, but it triggered a coughing fit. With a tube down her throat.
Avi lunged for the call button. He didn't have time to cringe. The nurse heard the horrible, gagging sound as she was coming in, thereby making the call button redundant.
“Sounds like the order came in none too soon,” she said calmly. She gently removed the tape, helped by Angel’s valiant attempts to stop coughing. Her cheeks quivered, breath wheezed in a husky “hoo” sound, eyes watering (which helped loosen the adhesive slightly).
“He said if you have trouble again, we'll try a mask, or nasal cannula. You've been intubated too many times already, and he's worried about tracheal collapse. Are you sure you want this out now, or do you want to wait? I can tape it better if you want to wait.”
Angel signed “out” so forcefully she nearly smacked the nurse. She adjusted the O2 monitor on her finger without seeming to notice.
She turned to Avi. “I'm guessing she wants it out?”
“Emphatically,” he said dryly.
“I know what do. Say when,” she signed. Avi translated for the nurse.
“Okay, that's the last of the tape. Let me unhook you first. Good. On three?”
Angel couldn't nod, so she signed “yes”.
“I know that one,” the nurse said. She counted to three, and Angel blew as hard as she could. It didn't sound like much. The nurse chanted “blow, blow, blow!” and a paltry stream of air hissed through the hose end.
“If you can't blow it out, I'll have to leave it in,” the nurse warned.
Angel inhaled another shaky breath through the nostril that didn’t have a tube down it, swallowed visibly, and blew for all she was worth, curling forward with the monumental effort.
The tubes made a sickening sound when they came out, sort of like stepping in sopping wet mud. Angel coughed when it was out, nearly retching. The nurse had removed both tubes at once, so her nose was running into her lap.
“Breathe,” the nurse coaxed. “You have to show me you can breathe on your own.”
Avi rubbed her bare back, trying to help however he could. The awful sounds she was making tore at his heart, because in a way, he'd done this to her.
She gasped, shuddered, with the effort to draw her first breath; drool hanging from her lower lip, and snot dangling from her nose. Her chest convulsed at the sensation of unfettered intake.
He worried she'd never be able to breathe on her own. He stroked her braided hair, tangled all to Hell and back, murmured encouragement.
Much to his surprise, she squeezed her eyes shut and lay back, effectively dislodging his hand.
She lay there, eschewing his help, struggling for that first oh-so-important draught of air. Her wide nostrils flared, despite the gunk from the NG tube, and her chest quaked, but by dammit, she did it! Slowly, much too slow for his comfort, the quaking stilled; gasps and gulps became regular breaths. In through the nose (which he wiped for her), out through the mouth. The exhales nearly broke his heart. “Hoo-oo-ooo,” with fits and starts. Sometimes he could hear a cough trying to sneak in, but she fought it off.
His own words came back to him: she was a real scrapper. You'd have liked her.
The nurse monitored her oxygen through the entire ordeal. When she was breathing in a ragged, regular pattern, she had Angel blow her nose thoroughly. Then she slipped the nasal cannula under her nose.
Angel grimaced, but it was far preferable to the tube!
Her eyes opened at last. No longer a murky grey, they were a clear, steady slate.
“Thank you,” she signed to the nurse.
“I know that one, too. You're welcome. Would you like anything for pain?”
Angel made a face and shook her head. Even the small movement made her wince and clutch her throat.
“Don’t want talk now,” she signed with shaky hands.
“No rush, Angel. Whenever you feel up to it.”
Knowing the nurse wouldn't understand, she scowled as she signed words that pierced the joy of seeing her breathing evenly:
“Can you not call me Angel? We not sweethearts. You don’t know me.”
Not looking at the other woman, he signed back “That’s what I call you. Angel your nickname. You not remember?”
He still hadn’t been taught to make faces when signing, so she merely agreed with what she read as a statement, not a question.
“Correct”, she signed with a weary tap of her fists, index fingers extended.
He dropped into the chair by her bed, deflated. He almost didn’t see her hands moving.
“You not need say ‘call me’ and ‘nickname’. Same sign.”
His jaw jutted forward. His hands slashed through the air with more force than they ever had: “You tell me you don’t remember last 7 months, and before I can really understand, you’re correcting my sign language?” His fingernail nicked his chin when he signed “really”, but the minor discomfort of his nail, and the brief snag in his beard, registered more on her face than his.
The nurse misunderstood when she reached for her chin. “I’ll bring you something for your throat.”
“No pain meds,” she signed quickly.
He translated, but his voice lacked emotion. “She doesn’t want anything for pain.”
“No, of course not. It’s just to soothe the irritation.”
“Cepacol?” she fingerspelled.
Avi couldn’t pronounce it, but he spelled it aloud when Angel signed it again, more slowly.
“Something like that, yes.”
“I know that one, too,” the nurse chuckled. She left to get the spray, and they were alone again. No Gabriel, no nurse, just… them
Chapter 2: Reacquaintance
Neither of them spoke until the nurse had come with the spray and left again. Avi stared at his steepled hands, spoke to them because he couldn’t look at the distaste on her face.
If he’d looked up just then, he wouldn’t see what he mistook for distaste. He’d have seen the same tortured expression his Angel had worn when she watched him. He didn’t, speaking instead to things that hadn’t changed in years.
“I just lost my dragon, and now I don’t even get my Angel in return. He said you wouldn’t remember anything, but that wasn’t what I thought he meant. I thought he was talking about the pain…”
She tried to interrupt, to ask what he was talking about, but he wouldn’t look up.
“Why…” she tried to say. Her voice, the one he knew so well, sounded like it did the day Menolly was born; torn and ragged.
It broke him.
Those lean, guitar man hands covered the face she knew so well, and he wept into them as though the world had just ended.
Angel, though she didn’t remember being his Angel, knew this man as well as anyone on the outside could, without being obsessive. It broke her heart to see him weep so openly. She’d broken down when he almost cried in their “On My Way Home” documentary!
“Oh for the love of God, come here if you’re going to cry,” she rasped.
He was too far gone to hear her. He was, however, close enough for her to hook a finger in his sleeve and pull him toward her. More accurately, she snagged his sleeve by pure luck, and let gravity pull her arm to her side. It caught him off-guard and he fell half over her, catching himself on the bed rail beside her left hip.
She used the proximity to grab his beard.
“If you’re going to break my heart, at least let me give you a hug while you do so,” she growled.
Their faces were inches apart. Her eyes were a deep green, and tears shimmered on her lower lids. It had been so long since he’d seen those eyes, even longer since they’d held any kind of emotion besides irritation.
She was his Angel again, even if she didn’t remember it. She got her wish. He hugged her to him as tightly as he dared, tears falling anew on her bare shoulder. Her gown wasn’t fastened in the back, and it had slipped again, but neither noticed.
“Angel”, as she’d been dubbed, was torn in many different directions. She felt vulnerable, which is why she’d lashed out. There was, of course, the love that had made her the perfect vessel. She was understandably confused.
She didn’t know why this man, who didn’t know she existed, was in her hospital room (and how had that happened?), calling her sweet names and crying all over her. She wanted to relax and enjoy the feel of his body pressed to hers, but all of the unknowns were pressing down on her equally hard. She was being pulled in several directions by forces she didn’t understand, which made her grouchy. She did not give over control of her life--or anything else--easily. Being told it had already been done, without any consent she recalled, put her on edge.
So she clung to the only thing she could see and touch, tears wetting the front of his nightshirt.
Another nurse came in to take her vitals, after a while. They didn’t spring apart like two guilty teenagers. They’d been through too much in their relatively short lives. Avi sat up on the side of her bed with a sigh of regret that was echoed in the dry throat of the woman on the bed.
“Water?” she signed again, faint hope lighting her eyes.
This nurse didn’t know sign language either.
“She wants to know if she can have water yet,” he translated.
The man slipped a new blood pressure cuff around her arm before telling them that he could check her chart. Angel made a face that said she didn’t think he’d say yes. Then the thermometer was under her tongue, and she had to behave.
He flipped down the keyboard to log her vitals and check her chart. “Hmm, looks like they already have you on clear liquids. You’ve been here a while, so maybe they want to get some broth down and see how it goes.”
He looked to her for a reply. He got an unenthusiastic “fine” that Avi had to translate.
When the nurse left, he asked if she disliked broth.
“Hospital soup... okay. Have to like. Home soup... sometimes,” she signed.
“Why are you signing again?” he asked, more concerned than irritated. Her ex would have been irritated, had he even bothered to learn the language.
She made the sign for “pain” in front of her throat.
“But… you were talking before,” he objected.
“Because you wouldn’t look me. Had to say something. My heart break for you.” Her hands were still shaking, but she managed to give off a maternal scolding vibe. It might’ve had something to do with the Look she was firing at him, or the jab of her finger in his chest when she signed “you”.
His eyes misted, but he didn’t cry again. “Your heart was breaking for me?”
She nodded jerkily, then signed “yes”.
“This is gonna sound nuts, but that gives me... hope. Before…” He picked up her hand, needing that little bit of human contact. “I don’t know if you’ll believe anything that’s happened the past 7 months, but when you lost your memory the first time, you got all… cold, distant.” His eyes, with their faint sheen, met hers. “I’m just happy to see you feeling things again.”
Her short, spiky lashes swept down. She gently removed her hand to sign slowly, working through her thoughts. “When I feel a lot emotion, I… stop. Hard say with hands.” She looked out the window. “Hurts too much. Have to stop feeling everything. Only way I can… live. Don’t know how… what do with big emotion.” Then she made a sign he’d never learned.
“I don’t know that last sign,” he admitted. “You never taught me.”
Her head swung around, wobbled to a stop. “I taught you sign language?” Her hands shook more than they had been. Her eyebrows were nearly in her hairline.
“Yes, you did. Maybe you shouldn’t talk so much.” He captured the square palms with their gnarled fingers in his triangular, tapered hands, laced their fingers together. “You need to save your strength. After you’ve eaten, you can tell me what the last thing you remember was.”
She looked down at their awkwardly intertwined hands, which he was wagging side to side lazily. She’d drawn those fingers more times than she could remember, and here they were, making her insides go squiggly without doing anything remotely intimate. What was she supposed to do?
She’d felt like her whole life had been spent waiting for something; some big... thing that she was supposed to do. Was this it?
She pulled a face, staring at their joined hands. I swore I’d never devote my life to a man again, she thought viciously. I just got my independence. Not even for him would I have given it up. Except… I must have, right? We share pain, so there’s some sort of Thing binding us together... She didn’t believe in Fate. To believe in something that big, she’d have to accept that everything that had happened in her turbulent life had been planned. She loved God too much to blame Him for all of that crap. She preferred to blame the people involved, not the Being who Created them.
Her thoughts were so focused, so intent, that her Bonded heard them all.
:It’s not Fate, my Angel. Just a bunch of marks on our bones.:
Her head snapped up, and if she hadn’t been lying against a pillow, it would have flopped backward. She really needed to learn not to make sudden movements. Her eyes briefly rolled back from dizziness, but as he’d said, she was a scrapper.
Her wide eyes warred between bright green and brighter aqua, making them a swirl of color that was almost familiar. It seemed that her human eyes hadn’t followed the draconic pattern. If they had, she’d be trying to heal while sad, with that combination of blue and green.
She was picturing slashes on her femurs, and the warding Castiel gave the Winchesters, wrapped up in one confused tangle. If she hadn’t been so vulnerable, weak, and horrified, he wouldn’t have seen the images. He knew she could block him if she wanted. At least his Angel could.
“They don’t look like that, silly dragon.”
A shadow crossed her eyes when he called her that. Someone else calls her that, he thought. Which means she was a dragon before she was a dragon. Interesting.
She made a face at him. :Stop rootin’ round in my head, dude. It’s rude.:
He grinned down at her. Her heart skipped a beat, but he wouldn’t know that. :I’m not. You’re just thinking very loudly. If you’d like, I can show you what’s on our bones.:
She looked horrified. An image of flesh peeling away from bone flitted across their minds, and was just as quickly squelched. He turned a bit green.
:Not like that, geez! I meant I can show you the symbol, not the actual Marks!:
:Sorry. The sign you didn’t know, the one that for some reason, I didn’t teach you, was ‘autism’. I can be very… literal, sometimes.:
He unlaced the fingers of one hand, cupped it within his; fingers to wrist, wrist to fingers, like a hand yin/yang. :I guess that makes sense. You can be pretty black and white sometimes: He lightly circled the wrist he’d freed with thumb and forefinger. Before she could stop him, or scold him, or whatever her reaction might have been, he brought the frail limb to his lips. He laid them on the tattoo that, in a way, started it all.
A shock zipped through her body at the contrast of the slightly prickly hair, and the warm lips, on her chilled, highly sensitized wrist. Her breath, which she'd fought so hard to regain, shuddered out of her body in an unsteady wheeze.
It wasn’t just her pupils that shrank to pinpoints. Apparently, pain wasn’t the only thing they shared.
Chapter 3: Menolly
The cafeteria lady came in with her broth then, breaking the spell.
Angel waved at the short, older woman with a bright smile. She tried not to notice the way her skin brushed his moustache as it left his grasp.
“Girl, it is so good to see you awake!” She set the broth on the table, which was off to the side, and hugged Angel as best she could with Avi still holding her other hand.
“I’ll be sure to tell Dan you’re doing better. He was awfully worried, you know.”
Angel smiled, but this one didn’t reach her eyes. “Please,” she signed.
The woman, whose name tag read Sue, looked to Avi, then Angel. Angel rubbed her throat to show that it was sore.
“Oh yeah, tube. Sorry, I forgot. D’you know what she said?” she asked him
“She said ‘please’,” he translated.
“Oh yeah, will do. Now, you’d better eat all of this by the time they come for the tray, you hear?”
Angel smiled weakly and nodded. Her hand shook when she reached for the wheeled table. Sue was quick to swing the little table into position, but the lever gave her a bit of trouble. Avi helped her, which required letting go of her other hand. Together, they got the tray where she could eat without straining too much.
She would have fed herself, but the spoon shook so badly that there was nothing left in it by the time it got where it needed to go.
Avi firmly removed it from her iron grip, rusty as it was. “You’ve been in a coma for months. Maybe take it a little slow, huh?”
He filled the spoon and set it to her lips. Her eyes sparked with ire, but she opened her mouth and took the spoon with a loud clack of metal on teeth.
Or what teeth she had. He noted with some shock that she was missing several of her teeth.
“Well, looks like he’s got it covered. I’ll see you tonight, ‘kay?”
Angel waved goodbye to Sue, glaring mutinously at her Bonded. She was daring him to comment on her infirmity.
:You told me once that this body couldn’t do what we needed,: he said as Sue left.
:There are many things I cannot do. If you plan on sticking around, ye may’s well know that.:
He spooned another mouthful, outwardly calm. :Lay it on me.:
So she did. She listed off every health condition, acronym, allergy, and missing organ she could think of. She was testing him. Only one other man had passed this test, and that was her best friend. She’d thrown everything at Dan, trying to scare him off before he got too close; just like she was doing now.
She’d learned early on how unlovable she was, how lucky she was to have her ex for as long as she had. So, instead of staying with someone for years and years, only to find out that they were extremely incompatible, she laid her faults at their feet right from the beginning. Better to know right off the bat, rather than waste her life with someone who was just going to wear her down, bit by bit.
The fact that her best friend hadn’t run away, or used her faults against her, made her appreciate him immensely. If certain real world problems hadn’t kept them apart, she might even have dated him. There was no attraction, mind you. She was just grateful to find someone who appreciated her as she was, no strings attached. He didn’t want anything out of her, he just wanted to keep company, take care of her needs when he could. Plus he had a beard.
Now, here was another man who wanted into her life. But this time, she was attracted to him. Not just the outside, either. She liked everything she’d seen, inside and out. In fact, the reason she was so close to her best friend was because he was very much like Avriel, in so many ways.
To be completely honest, she was terrified.
:Why are you scared?: he asked. He hadn’t “heard” anything but bits and pieces, and none of them made sense. The undertone of anxiety and fear colored what she had told him. Every obstacle she’d thrown at him was hurled with the force of a frightened animal.
She looked out the window. He set another mouthful of broth at her lips. They briefly compressed, but she needed the nourishment, and she knew it. The brief pause left a drop of broth on her lower lip. She sucked her lip in and held it there. If she’d had enough teeth, he would’ve said she was biting it. She clearly didn’t want to tell him why she was afraid.
Meanwhile, he was suppressing a bodily reaction to seeing the dusky droplet perched there, catching the afternoon sunlight and refracting it. Even though it was gone, the image remained.
She reached for the spoon, which brought him out of the minor trance. He fed her while they both thought about things they’d rather not.
:I meant what I said about strong emotions, you know. I don’t know how to deal with them. I’m afraid of letting myself feel them, because they might... stop. As much as I don’t know how to handle emotions, I really don’t know what to do when they… change.:
The broth finished, he moved the table out of the way and took her hands in his again. There was a pressure building in the back of his head, and he was fairly certain it wasn’t Angel. He had to break the news to her now, before Menolly built up a full head of steam.
Her face twisted. :Of course there is.:
“Whatever else you believe, there is something not even you can deny. Well, someone, really.”
Esther appeared in the hospital room, disheveled, half awake, and thoroughly confused, holding an almost six month old baby who was flailing for all she was worth toward her mother. Kapa looked equally surprised, from his perch on his aunt’s shoulders.
Avi let go of her hands, stood, and took the visibly upset infant from his sister. “Sorry, I didn’t know she could do that. Do you want to stay, or, uh, try the visitor’s lounge..?”
Menolly calmed when she was in her father’s arms, but she was still waving her chubby arms for Mama. Esther looked around, and nothing looked familiar. She glanced out the window and saw something her brother had missed: a very great lake.
“We’re not in Portugal anymore,” she said on a weak chuckle. Kapa flapped to the window for a peek. Angel watched him, eyes as wide as they could physically be.
“Minnesota,” he said, trying to restrain his daughter.
Esther sat in the other chair, waved him toward Angel. “You’d better let her at her mom, or she’s likely to fall on the bed.”
A choked sound behind him made his shoulders hunch. He turned slowly, afraid to see the expression on her face.
It was a mixture of disbelief, and a pain/hope blend that was so intense, it hurt to look at. She looked at her daughter with such longing that he brought her the baby immediately.
Menolly would have thrown herself bodily at her mother, but her father was strong enough to enforce restraint. “No, sweetness, be gentle. Mama’s hurt.”
He was watching the baby, to make sure she didn’t hurt her mother, so he missed the intensified emotion that contorted her face. Esther didn’t.
Menolly didn’t understand the words, but she did get the caution he was subconsciously projecting. She patted her mama’s cheek, looking back at her daddy to see if she was doing good. He smiled and kissed her rosy cheek.
“I think you have some explaining to do,” Angel rumbled.
“Oh no! You sound almost as bad as the day Menolly was born! What happened?” Esther rushed to the other side of the bed. She couldn’t get very close, with the table in the way, but Angel was feeling suddenly crowded, so that was a good thing. Kapa had inherited his mother’s distaste of strong emotions, so he remained on the windowsill.
“She was intubated.” He tried very hard to keep the meaning of his words out of his head, so the baby wouldn’t pick up on it.
Menolly was busy patting her mother anywhere she could reach, trying to stand on her lap but bouncing and wobbling unsteadily. “Mum mum mum mum,” she babbled.
Angel openly, quietly wept, torn between happiness and sorrow. She knew this child couldn’t be hers, but oh, how she wanted her to be! She loved this baby instantly, no matter whose she was, besides his.
And her eyes showed that love in a startling way.
The Kaplan siblings gasped. Menolly just smiled and babbled.
Avi whispered for his sister to take a picture. Angel heard, but she didn’t care. She’d ask for a copy later, for her scrapbook.
“Can you look at the camera?” Esther asked, her voice trembling ever so slightly.
Angel looked up, eyes glowing a bright pink where the whites should be. Esther took a few photos, then handed the phone to her brother. He held his daughter one-armed, which he’d gotten very good at, and looked at the photo evidence. He nodded to his sister, handed the phone back, and signed “wait”.
Angel missed it, having returned her gaze to the amazing little girl in front of her. “What is with you, sugarplum? You’re all… sparkly. Wait, blink again?”
Menolly was just so thrilled that Mama was talking to her sweetly, even if it sounded funny, and she looked funny, that she blinked, nice and slow. She didn’t know the word for it, but her mother pictured the action, quite without thinking about it.
Angel looked up at him, then. “Why are her skin and eyes like that?”
Avi sat on the edge of the bed, which made the baby happy, and took one of the thin hands atop the knit blanket. “She got those from her mother.”
Confusion crossed her face, along with fear. She held the baby a little tighter with the other hand. “I thought you said I was her mother,” she rasped.
“You are, my little dragon.” He raised her hand to his lips and kissed the back of it. He valiantly tried to ignore the shiver that rippled through both of them.
Esther remembered, then, that she had pictures of Angel on her phone.
“Actually, so do I. I forgot about that day in the desert,” Avi said. He let go of her hand to pull up the image. When he found it, he turned the phone so she could see.
“Oh, you were so tiny in this photo!” she cooed. “But… what’s she propped up with?”
The Kaplans’ eyes met briefly.
“She’s nursing. From you,” he said with quiet intensity.
She scowled and thrust the phone back at him. “I don’t like jokes,” she nearly snarled. Her raspy voice matched the emotion running beneath it.
Esther showed her one from Christmas. “Here, maybe we should start smaller. You’re there, perched on the back of his neck, see?”
Angel squinted valiantly, but she didn’t have her glasses. Esther checked the drawers and cabinets. Avi checked the little table by her bed. He found them in the top drawer, under the phone.
“Okay, now look. There’s your tail, around my neck, and your wing is poking out.”
She squinted again, then scowled. “All I see is a necklace and somebody’s hat.”
Esther took her phone, swiped over a few photos to find the one she’d snuck, one of the times Angel had to stretch.
“There. Tell me you can’t see your wings fanned out. That’s your head, right there. Those horns are clearly visible,” she asserted.
Angel didn’t have to squint. Even she couldn’t deny the tiny dragon on the back of his head. “She’s a very pretty dragon, but in case you haven’t noticed, I’m not nearly that small.”
Avi already had the picture Kevin sent him of their mock fight in the dining room queued up. “You started small, just like any newborn. Here’s what you looked like a couple of weeks later.” He didn’t tell her what to look for, this time.
Her head tilted, brow curled. “What am I looking at here? It looks like you’re wrestling an alligator, but… an alligator puma..? I know, that sounds weird, but I can’t tell what’s going on here.”
He swiped to the one where her jaw was open over his head.
“Wow, you survived that?”
He snorted. “As you probably would've said, ‘I would have been a poor Guardian if I’d wounded my Bonded human’. Besides, the pain thing goes both ways.” That wasn’t the case when the photo was taken, but that was irrelevant.
“‘Bonded’? Is that like Imprinting in Anne McCaffrey’s books?” She remembered the mating flights and flushed, but she valiantly ignored it in the face of the mystery at hand. She absently rubbed her aching throat.
“Mm, sort of. There’s telepathy, sure, but I can’t remember if they share pain too, or just… thoughts.” He trailed off awkwardly, having also just recalled the mating flights. “You do blink, though. Apparently, so does Menolly.” He tweaked his daughter’s nose affectionately. “Hey, wait. That’s where you got the name, isn’t it? I knew it sounded familiar!”
Angel chuckled, but it sounded more like shifting gravel. “Why am I not surprised you’ve read her books?” So how do I know this isn’t just some fantasy he came up with? she wondered. It all sounds too good to be true.
He took the phone away, picked up her limp hand, and kissed the inside of her wrist. It was… awkward, experiencing that electric sensation in front of his sister. He’d forgotten about the effect he had on her sensitive wrists. :No fantasy can conjure babies and dragons out of thin air,: he pointed out. :This is real.:
Her pupils had returned to normal by the time he raised his head. :Then how do you explain her? I had a hysterectomy, if you’ll recall.:
He huffed an almost-laugh. :Yeah, that was one helluva surprise. I guess when you got turned into a dragon, He gave you a dragon’s uterus? Never really got a chance to ask.:
Avi used her old trick, looking up at the ceiling. Her eyes followed reflexively, then widened when she realized what he was saying.
Esther cleared her throat politely, holding out her phone with the most recent photo queued up. He held out Angel’s hand, by the wrist he still retained a light hold on. Esther put the phone into Angel’s trembling hand.
Her human eyes grew almost as big as her dragon eyes. Nerveless fingers dropped the phone on her knee. She unconsciously reached toward her face. Avi let go of her hand.
“It’s only strong emotions, but I think it’s like Pern dragons, sort of.”
Menolly joined in the game, patting her mother’s face again.
“Did they do that before? When we were… talking?” She didn’t want to say “arguing” in front of his sister or daughter.
He made a sound that might have been a laugh. “How would I know? I was too busy crying.”
Angel scowled at him.
Esther asked why he was crying. “They were happy tears, right?”
Angel’s jaw jutted out, but that prompted another coughing fit. She blindly groped for the tissues, which were thrust in her hand by one of the Kaplans. She tried not to look at the colors that stained the thin paper. She knew how flimsy they were, so she had a wad of them ready to swallow up the evidence. She knew Avi well enough to know two things: first, coughing made him cringe. It was probably out of sympathy, which meant that she’d do everything she could to spare him the grisly sight. The second thing she knew was how sensitive he could be. If he saw the debris from long intubation, he would feel bad.
So Angel did what she’d always done, whether or not she remembered. She spared him whenever possible. She asked for the waste basket, so she could throw the tissues away in such a manner that the contents were hidden. She took another wad of tissue to do the same with the even more disgusting contents of her nose, disposed of likewise.
Trying to make light of it, she said “Trust me, you do not want to know what was in there.” Having just blown her nose, she thereby distracted him from the possibility that she’d coughed anything substantial up.
“Hand wipes?” she asked, sounding worse than before.
Esther was closer to the table, so she handed them over.
“I can’t wait ‘til I can take a proper shower,” Angel grumbled. “I feel like roadkill.” She put the cannula back in her nostrils and absently flattened her hair, which Menolly was only too happy to help her with. It had been braided at one point, but her ordeal wrecked them.
“Thanks, sweetness,” she rattled.
“Speaking of the baby, why did she teleport? Was she hungry? Wet? Do we know?” Avi asked Esther.
“Not a clue. She seems fine, so it was probably the usual: she woke up, neither of you were there, and she freaked. Kapa brought her to me, since your door was locked.” She aimed a Look at him that said she’d need an explanation later. “Maybe she could tell you were further away than usual, ‘cause she didn’t do this before.”
Angel was blushing when she told them she had a pretty good idea what the issue was. The Kaplans looked at mother and child, and it became pretty obvious what was on her mind.
“I hope you’ve got a bottle, ‘cause these haven’t worked in over a decade.”
Avi was almost as bright pink as she was, but he soldiered on. “We don’t know that. Angel sort of… merged with you, and she was nursing, so maybe..?”
Her brow puckered. “What do you mean she merged with me? Am I Angel, or is someone else?”
Pain flickered through his eyes, which he tried to hide before the baby caught a whiff of it. “It’s complicated. Angel was… she was an astral projection of you, but then she got turned into a dragon--which, come to think of it, is probably how you wound up so small, at first. They didn’t have anything solid to work with, in the beginning.” He was staring at the wall over her head, lost in thought. The image of this woman, this partial stranger, arched in pain, dying or dead, flashed through his head. He visibly shook off the image, so he could continue.
“Anyway, she touched your shoulder. I thought she was just going to, I don’t know, absorb your memories or something. But then she fell back, into your body.” His eyes skipped down her body in the bed, as if he could see where his Angel had gone. He lingered a few moments on her feet, belatedly realizing what he’d just done.
He skipped directly to her face, afraid of looking like a lecher. He had to look away almost immediately, because his theory was correct.
His daughter was sprawled under the thin sheet, and one of Angel’s shoulders was bare above it.
Chapter 4: Baby Food
"Angel" couldn't believe her bleary eyes when she woke from what was apparently a long coma. At first, she hadn't seen enough to know what was going on around her. She felt a touch on her cheek, saw a vague bearded face shape in front of her, but the shriek of the alarm drowned out everything except the ringing in her ears. Then the bearded someone kissed her forehead. She thought it was her best friend. She tried to hug him when he broke down, but one arm had an IV drip, and the other was hindered by his body pressing against hers. Some sort of medication made everything fuzzy around the edges.
Then the nurse came in. She pushed who she thought was Dan away, to ask for water. But when he pulled away, and she saw who'd been hugging, kissing, and crying all over her, she forgot about the weird pressure in her throat. She looked away, embarrassed and confused.
She reached toward her face, and he held her hand longer than she was comfortable with. She gently removed it to sign for water. Whatever was going on in her throat was unpleasant.
He told her that she had tubes in, and it made sense, but she was still pleasantly numb to everything. Everything except Avi Kaplan, sitting on the hospital bed she'd barely registered yet. He cupped her face with those long, guitar man hands, and she didn't know what to do. She wanted to weep, but she was still pretty heavily drugged. This was too much to bear, too huge to process. Why was he here? What was that look in his eyes? Who did he think she was?
Now, looking at the child he said was theirs, she still wasn't sure any of her questions had been answered. At least she’s not a newborn. I don’t have to worry about embrasure, she thought absently.
Still looking out the window, he asked what embrasure was, where his sister wouldn’t hear. There was a long pause.
:Mouth positioning,: she said. Her mental voice sounded pained. :If either lip is tucked under, it… hurts. She knows the drill, so at least there’s only emotional scarring.:
He wanted to look, badly. Even with a magnificent red dragon hatchling in the window, it couldn’t offer as beautiful a view as a mother feeding her child, but this mother didn’t remember creating said child. She saw him as a virtual stranger. He didn’t want to cause her any more discomfort than what was already facing her.
:If it makes a difference, there are heart sensors everywhere. It’s not a pretty sight. In fact, I think somebody is going to come in soon, ‘cause she knocked one loose:
The tendon in his neck tensed. :Heart sensors?:
She sighed, and not internally. :Long-term coma patient, remember?: She didn’t elaborate. She didn’t want him thinking about death at the moment. :How long was it, anyway?:
:I don’t know, honestly. You said not to find you--the dragon you said not to come here. She’s almost six months old, though, so I hope it was less than that; otherwise, we’re going to have a problem.:
She was right about a nurse coming to check on her. It was the female nurse, whose face pinched up when she saw what her patient was doing.
“You shouldn’t nurse so soon after,” she scolded. “You’ve barely got enough in your system for yourself, let alone a baby.”
Esther told her that she’d tried to get the baby to take a bottle. “Once she knew her mom was awake, she wouldn’t take it.”
The nurse’s brow knitted an entire blanket. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but… how old is that baby? I think we’d have noticed if she’d given birth while she was here.”
“It was just before she went under,” Esther ad-libbed. They didn’t know when she’d gone into a coma, so it was a rather large gamble.
One wide fist propped on an ample hip. “Then why haven’t I seen you three here before?”
“He was on tour, and I’m their manager,” Esther dug in deeper. “We were told she wasn’t getting any worse. They assured us she was getting the best care possible. She wouldn’t have wanted us to disappoint the fans, right?”
She looked to Angel for confirmation, praying she’d go along with her story.
“Heaven forbid,” she scoffed. Her gravelly voice lent the statement more doom than it merited. “Poor Kirstie doesn’t even take time off when she’s sick.” She hadn’t directly answered the question, but the nurse didn’t notice.
Esther released the breath she’d been holding, slowly.
So did her brother, who the nurse couldn’t see, because he’d gone to stare out the window, one hand absently resting on his son’s back. Being so close, yet unable to watch his child and… What was Angel to him, now? Not a Guardian, surely. She’d told him point-blank that she couldn’t protect him in her human body. She couldn't protect them! He worried himself halfway to an ulcer, until the word “bloodwork” filtered into his thoughts.
“I’m sure everything will come back fine. I had plenty of fat stores to use up while I was out,” Angel said dryly. :Plus whatever your Angel had in her system,: she added for his benefit.
His head dropped to the cold window. :You are my Angel,: he rumbled. Dozens of emotions colored the short sentence.
The sheets shifted behind him. The sound barely registered. Her words, however, burrowed into his heart. :Can ye not growl directly into my brain when I’ve got a baby latched on? That’s not exactly a sensation I like to associate with nursing, y’know.:
He turned his head, just enough to see between the nurse and Esther. There it was, the faintest tinge of violet around her irises. She closed her eyes until it passed, but he’d seen it, all the same.
Avi stood slowly, palms braced on the windowsill, a grin fighting to break free. He dare not turn around, for fear one or all of the women in the room would misinterpret his expression. Kapa was also looking out the window, pointedly ignoring the whole family drama.
Esther was trying to find out what Angel needed to do, or have done, before she was well enough to be discharged.
“Is there going to be physical therapy, a special diet..?” She didn’t want to say, just yet, that they were on a timetable. They would be back on tour in roughly two months, and she knew her brother wouldn’t leave her behind; not when they were traveling overseas again.
“Our first concern is her stomach. She has a lot of digestive issues, so we need to be sure that’s on board. Then the doctor might start her on OT, until she can get up and walk on her own. We’ve been doing passive exercises while she was in the coma, so she may not have as far to go. I would say we’d work on her core, but if she just had a baby before she went under, they might forego that part. Really, how fast she gets better is up to her.”
She looked at the baby pointedly. “I don’t know how much that’s going to set her back, honestly. How do you feel? Any discomfort? Lightheadedness? Tingling anywhere?”
Angel chuckled. “Nothing you wouldn’t expect after being in a coma. Believe me, there’s plenty of motivation to get better. Long’s they put me on a multivitamin, I don’t think she’ll be a problem. Four months is when you start weaning, anyway, so she should be almost weaned by now. Six months they nurse what, once or twice a day? It’s been a while...”
The nurse seemed to soften, if only a little. “She was only four weeks old when you came in? Poor thing, no wonder she latched right on. You’re lucky she didn’t get nipple confusion.”
He heard a tight chuckle. “Yeah, my eldest had that. Got all bunged up and had to pump.”
Esther proudly declared that they’d listened to her, and gotten the right nipples for the bottle. This earned her points with both the nurse and Angel.
"Well, I don't know what the doctor will say, but this once, I'll allow it. Mostly because I don't think the other patients would like the fuss she'd make if we took her off." She aimed her index finger at Avi, who still wasn't looking, admonished him to have baby food with them by her next feeding, or else.
He nodded at the window.
"I'll go," Esther offered.
When the nurse left, she asked Avi for his wallet. "She didn't exactly wait for me to grab my purse when she pulled her little vanishing act."
“And it’s not like I can teleport across an ocean yet,” Kapa said. “I think they only reason I got in your hotel room was she… helped.” He hated to admit that his (currently) human sister had to help him with his first teleportation.
Avi reached into his back pocket for his wallet, still oblivious to his wardrobe change. Angel looked away, very aware of how tight his pants were. It's a wonder he managed to reproduce at all, with those jeans, she thought at the blank television.
He almost dropped his debit card. Esther didn't ask questions, other than the direction of the nearest grocery store.
"Closest things you can walk to easily are the Whole Foods and a gas station. The options aren't great for baby food, I'm afraid," Angel apologized. "It would've been nice if she'd teleported while you were in the car, aside from, y'know, being in a hospital room. Ugh, sorry, I haven't had coffee in... months..."
Avi didn't know how to tell her that she couldn't have coffee, until he remembered that his mother said that human digestion was different from dragon digestion. If his mom could eat sweets as a human, why couldn't Angel have coffee?
Esther opted to try Whole Foods, despite Angel's objections about the price. It was more likely to have baby food than a gas station or gift shop.
Chapter 5: Family Ties
When Esther was gone, he perched on the chair next to the bed, unsure where to look. He knew what it looked like when Angel nursed as a dragon, but he'd never witnessed the miracle while she was human... sort of. She said that Menolly would be weaned soon, and he didn't know if the dragon uterus was inside of her, so these few precious weeks could be his last chance...
But, being the honorable man that he was, he couldn't ask. This woman knew him, from afar, but she didn't remember that he knew her. If it bothered her to have him fluff her hair, or hold her hand, how could he possibly ask for something so very intimate?
:You ask, silly bass.:
His head whipped around. Her eyes were slightly yellow round the edges, but that was the only evidence of her disquiet.
:It might surprise you to know that I never got to experience the joys of motherhood fully. I suppose that's why they took me... wherever, for dragon crafting. You have a point. This might never happen again.:
The hand that wasn't cradling their child lifted toward his face, fell to the sheet, along with her gaze. He snatched it up, set it against his skin, and closed his eyes, holding her trembling hand in place. Her thumb stroked tears from his cheek, while they trickled down her own. Had his eyes been open, he'd have seen the faint pink tint to the whites of her eyes.
She slipped her hand from his and tugged on his beard. :If you're wantin' to see anything, she's almost done, so you might want to open your eyes.:
By the time they drifted open, she'd dropped the gown around her waist. She couldn't look him in the eye, so she looked at their baby.
Menolly's hair was the same color her eldest child's was, when he was born. Her son's hair had lightened more than hers had, by now. Her tiny nose was slightly different, but that made sense, given their different fathers. She had his lashes, which was a blessing, and her hairline. Her jawline could have been from either of them.
That was because Angel had a similar facial structure to her Bonded, thanks to a familial resemblance in their respective mothers. She knew that it was merely due to their Germanic heritage, though it had been startling to discover one day. The only differences in their faces were the nose shapes (but not their length), lashes, and minor differences in hairline, eyes, and lips. There wasn't really any way to know which parent she'd inherited certain traits from, so Angel focused on those little differences.
While she was examining the baby, he was taking in the miracle of a mother giving her baby sustenance. The tiny lashes against pale lavender cheeks that worked to draw out the milk, the little hand on her mother's breast, the pale bronze head bent over her...
One lean hand reached toward his daughter's cheek, and stopped. Angel caught the motion, looked up. She shook her head, smiling.
:Go ahead. I don't bite... unless you ask nicely.: Her lips twisted with amusement, eyes sparkling merrily, before she realized what she said and ducked her head.
Avi chuckled tightly. He let her off the hook, for the moment. His index finger lightly stroked his daughter's cheek, full of emotions he couldn't begin to label.
A hazy pink light filtered through the baby's lashes, with a faint violet glow over her face. He Felt the baby's unadulterated joy, but Angel was blocking him; with or without knowing it. If her downcast gaze hadn't given her away, he'd never know what effect seeing his finger so close to her bosom was having on her insides.
He knew better than to take advantage of her exposed body. On some level, she likely knew that, and trusted him. That made him feel warm inside, that she trusted a man she'd only just met--as far as she knew, anyway.
With that said, he couldn't resist placing a kiss on his daughter's hair. It was a fleeting thing, nowhere near her mother, but he felt a sharp jab to the loins from her direction.
"Sorry," he said.
She slapped his cheek lightly. It wasn't enough for her to feel through the link, but it startled him.
:Don't mind me, and don't apologize. If you want to show your child affection, I don't care where she is, you go right ahead.:
A smile spread slowly across his face. There was a hitch in her breathing, but he didn't think to attribute it to something as simple as a smile. It wouldn't occur to someone so humble that a facial expression could make a person's stomach go wobbly.
He tapped her cheek with his fingers, less of a slap than hers was. "Ours, silly dragon. She's ours, not just mine."
For some reason, her face went all stark and hollow again, and she looked away.
His brows curled. "What's wrong?"
She took her time answering. He let her, because none of her thoughts were coherent enough for a reply.
:Remember what I said about big emotions, 'kay? It'll... it'll take a while to get used to this.: She looked up when she felt his emotional response. It was... sad? Upset? Offended? She couldn't untangle it. The last thing she wanted was to make him feel... whatever that was.
:I've said it wrong, haven't I?: Her hand reached toward his face again, stopped, again. He caught it before it could touch the sheet, held it where they both wanted it to be.
"I don't care where we are, if you want to touch my face, go right ahead," he said with a smile hovering round his moustache. Her lips twisted, but she didn't quite return the smile.
She suppressed the impish urge to ask if that only applied to his face, because she was a prude... normally.
"So, what's with the face? Are you sad? Mad? Anxious?" he asked.
:Sad and anxious, and also happy.: She stared at his chin, unable to meet his gaze point-blank. :So happy it hurts, and I'm scared. This kind of happy never lasts...: Her eyes welled with big, fat tears. If she wasn't on an IV drip, he'd worry that she'd get dehydrated, with all the crying they'd been doing. Her hand slipped down, tangled in the hair over his shoulder.
Menolly caught wind of her sadness. She started to whimper, curled up in her mother's lap. Angel couldn't bear it any more than he could. She picked up their daughter, put her over her shoulder, and made vague soothing noises as best she could, with her ravaged throat. She patted her small back, in its pink onesie, swaying a little.
And while she held that tiny life they’d created together, he felt her pain keenly. She couldn't hold it in any more than she could stop her heart from beating. She wanted what was in this room so much that the fear of losing it was ripping her to atoms.
Avi gathered his girls to his chest and rocked them, part and parcel. He set his mouth on the top of her head and pressed it into the thick, tangled hair, as though imprinting his mark on her. He was crying, she was crying, Menolly was crying. It was a wonder that no one came in to ask what was going on.
No one asked questions, but that doesn't mean that no one came into the room. A deep voice, choked with emotion, said "Well, I guess I don't have to braid her hair today."
Chapter 6: Daniel
Angel squirmed out of his grasp and pushed at his chest, simultaneously. He lifted the front of her hospital gown as best he could while she was wriggling. He wasn't exactly possessive, but she wouldn't want anyone seeing her half-naked with a man. He was trying to protect her reputation.
"Where have you been, ye great big pain in the arse? Come here!"
Avi turned toward the newcomer, who immediately blanched when he saw who'd been holding Angel and weeping.
"Daniel, don't stand there gawking, come here and give me a hug. I've been out for five whole months without hugs."
He sarcastically pointed out that she seemed to be getting enough hugs when he walked in.
"Yes, yes, we'll get to that. Don't make me ask again, 'cause my throat hurts like hell," she growled. She held out her arms imperiously, just like her daughter was wont to do. The child in question stared at the giant bear of a man uncertainly.
The hulking giant walked to the other side of the bed, moved the table, all with surprising grace for someone his size. Avi felt like a Munchkin again, just being near him. The big man saw the baby then, and his face fell.
Angel was having none of his nonsense. She lunged up and grabbed a handful of beard, yanked him down to her level. She planted a firm kiss on his surprised mouth, then pulled him into a one-armed hug.
That kiss didn't only surprise Daniel. Avi didn't know what to do, say, or even think. He thought she was single. What was he supposed to do now?
Angel let Dan go after a bit, but she didn't release his beard. "I take it you're the one who's been braiding my hair?"
He looked at Avi. She tugged his beard. "We'll get to that. Was it you that's been braiding my hair?"
"Yes, dear," he said, acutely uncomfortable.
She let go of his beard. "Good, 'cause they're horribly knotted. Think you can return the favor again?"
"Sorry, what do you mean, 'return the favor'?" Avi asked.
Angel turned toward him, her back to Daniel. She was still leaning on the pillows, but her... whoever he was should be able to work with her hair that way.
"When he was in hospital, I braided his hair. Kept it from getting tangled to Hell and back. Speaking of which, what'd you do, watch YouTube videos to learn how to braid?"
The big man chuckled, unwinding her braids. "You know me so well. Besides, I've got more than enough hair to practice with."
She smiled, head tilted back a bit. She looked at her Bonded that way, down her cheeks. It was somehow sultry, that expression of hers. "The hair is one of the things I like about Danny boy. That includes the beard. Then there's the deep voice. He can sing too, did you know? He's a big ol' nerd with a big ol' heart, and he seems to be happy most of the time. He likes me as I am, flaws and all."
Avi didn't know why she was telling him these things, with that look on her face. She stared him down, while the brush untangled the snarls in her thick, faded bronze mane, waiting for him to say something.
When he didn't, she yanked the rug out from under his feet. "Daniel, dearest, why do I like you so much?" She looked up at him briefly, then down at her Bonded.
Daniel knew what she was about. It pained him to say the words, but he loved her enough to give her this much, at least.
"She loves me because I'm so much like you," he said. He met Avi's gaze squarely for a moment. She reached up blindly and patted his face. The big man bent down and let her do it. Love shone on his face plainly, but not a flicker of rose tinted his Bonded dragon's gaze.
She waited for that fact to sink in. One brow raised. :Do you see it now? This was my life, when whoever it was took me away. I settled for someone who has your personality, your acceptance of others, even the long hair and beard. Someone, more importantly, who was in my league.
:I was lonely, and I knew...: Her eyes dropped to her lap. :I knew I'd never talk to you, let alone meet you in person. So I took what he offered. But I always held him at arm's length, because something was missing. I like being with him, but there's no... spark.:
Her eyes lifted as far as his chest. It was as far as she dared, while baring her soul. :He knows, you know. He knew, early on, that if you and I met, and... hit it off, he didn't stand a chance. He's slowly dying inside, but he'll let me go. He loves me enough to want me to be happy. And knowing that is killing me, bit by bit.: Her lap was limned in a blue halo of misery. The baby, within the azure haze, was patting her face, trying to cheer her up, and it wasn't working.
It should have felt good, knowing he wouldn't have to fight for her, but it didn't. Watching the big man brush her hair, long past the point he needed to, broke his great big heart.
"Well, there's one thing you can do that I can't," he said, attempting levity. "I hope you'll still come to visit, 'cause I can't braid for the life of me."
Dan set the brush down, stayed silent for a long time while he parted her hair. "She's awake now. She doesn't need me anymore." His voice was thick with suppressed tears.
Angel snatched his beard faster than either man could follow. "Don't you dare say that!" Dan was shocked to see the blazing blue of her eyes. "No matter what he says, far's I know we just met! Esther's here, too. Do you really want to leave me alone with people I've only known from the internet, just like that? Don't you dare abandon me! I still need you, 'kay?"
She turned back round, absently patted the baby in an attempt to reassure her. Dan was stunned, but eventually, her words sank in. For the moment, at least, she still needed him.
"As you wish."
Two more tears fell on the pink onesie.
Chapter 7: Logistics
Dan couldn’t stay long. He got a call, and Angel’s face fell. She knew he had to leave, which was one of the reasons they’d never dated seriously. His job was just about 24 hours a day, which didn’t leave much time for her.
Sometime during the braiding, the baby fell asleep. Before Dan left, he convinced her to put her in the car seat. She resisted the persuasion of both men, until her best friend pointed out the logic of it.
“If you use up all your energy holding her when she’s asleep, you won’t have any when she’s awake.”
She hung her head, nodded at the tiny feet in her lap. She saw the sense of it even more clearly when she couldn’t lift Menolly into the car seat. Dan gave her an “I told you so” look on his way out the door. He knew Avi would help her, and he did.
“Is that how to get you to do something you don’t want to?” he asked, surprised and abashed at not thinking of it himself. “Tell you why it needs to be done?”
She reclined against the pillows with a heavy sigh. “I don’t know whether to thank or throttle him for giving away the secret,” she chuckled ruefully. “Yes, logic will usually work on me. More often than not, my reactions are in direct correlation to how much information I have to work with.” She snorted. “That’s the thing about me: I never outgrew the ‘why’ phase.”
Angel dropped off to sleep shortly after. She’d done exactly what Dan warned her about, and used all of her energy.
Avi clutched her hand, worried she might not wake this time. The steady rise and fall of her chest, the blips on the monitors, kept the fear at bay. He watched their daughter for any signs of distress, but she slept peacefully.
He spent the rest of the time alone thinking. Thinking, and texting. It was nighttime in Portugal, but it was afternoon on this side of the pond. He texted his parents, who were understandably confused and concerned. Not so confused that his father didn’t ask what he was going to do about his girlfriend, however.
I did tell you this might happen, his dad pointed out. The text blurred on the screen for a moment.
He looked at his sleeping angel dragons, as he saw them. Didn’t he owe it to Menolly to at least try to make things work with her mother? Angel didn’t know they’d shared a bed until she’d grown too large to fit. She didn’t know about the monsters she’d fought to keep him alive. There was no Geas forcing her to tolerate him (that he knew of), to spend every moment of every day in his presence. In a way, it was a fresh start. Odd, that they should only truly meet after having fourteen children together…
He scrubbed his face, torn between laughing and crying.
I'll tell my gf when we return to CA.
Tell her what? His dad asked.
That I’m going to try to make this work.
How? This was from his mother, in the group text. She thinks Angel is a dragon.
He thought for a while, but no answers came to mind.
I’ll ask the kids if there’s anything they can think of. Maybe there’s some dragon mind trick to make her forget that part?
THAT is an angel trick. He could almost hear the ice in his mother’s text.
Well, I can’t think of anything, can you? I’m not going to pick a fight with her just to break up. It’s not her fault.
His dad suggested they table the issue for now. You have until you return home to think of something. Ask your sister for ideas.
That’s not a lot of time, but I’ll try. Thanks for… I don’t know, being yourselves. I love you guys.
His eyes were burning when he put his phone away. He’d shed too many tears today. He blinked at the ceiling, absently stroking the leathery hand he still held. A cafeteria lady came in to get the tray, though it wasn’t Sue. He nodded a greeting, lost in thought as he was. He barely acknowledged the nurse that came to take her vitals, though he kept the man in his periphery. Without Angel’s dragon form, they were equally vulnerable. Every person that entered her room while she was there was subjected to discreet scrutiny.
Good, boy. Don’t drop your guard for a moment, Samandriel thought. We can only watch over you for so long. Soon, you’ll have to fend for yourselves.
He typed the numbers into the computer, walked from the room, and left his temporary host sitting in the break room.
Chapter 8: Nature vs Nurture
Angel woke slowly, reluctantly. She didn’t know how long had passed, but there was a jar of baby food on the rolling table, and Esther was napping in the convertible recliner. Avi was where he’d been when she dozed off, head to chest. He hadn’t let go of her hand, even in slumber.
She looked in the car seat, head still lounging on the pillow, and a pair of bright blue eyes stared back at her. It wasn’t a dream, then.
Not wanting to disturb either Kaplan, she gently removed her hand from his lax grip and lifted the baby from the carrier. There didn’t seem to be a spoon, but she could use her fingers if it came down to it. She had trouble holding a spoon right now, anyway.
The problem was, she also couldn’t get the jar open. She didn’t want to wake anyone, but the baby was hungry. Liquids didn’t keep a six month old baby satiated for long.
Fortunately, a nurse came in with something for her to drink. She pulled a face when she saw the bone broth packet, but vowed to drink it, and the glass of water, as long as the nurse opened the packet, and the jar. He gave her a Look, but she couldn’t even open the packet. She tried.
The nurse mixed the bone broth while she scooped a spoonful of carrot baby food out with her finger. He didn’t leave until she took a hearty swallow of the nasty stuff.
Angel alternated sips of broth with globs of baby food. Menolly thought it a wonderful game. When her mother forgot to take a sip, she’d turn her head from the food until Mama took her medicine.
“You’re one smart cookie, you know that?” Angel whispered.
Menolly beamed up at her, happily slurping her food, now that it was her turn. Angel impulsively kissed her button nose. She knew Esther had woken up enough to be recording on her phone, but she didn’t care. She was in heaven. She didn’t know whether she was taking photos, videos, or both, nor how long she aimed her phone at them. She registered the act, then dismissed everything from her mind except her daughter’s cherubic face.
Hmm, she kind of is a cherub, when you think about it. Not literally, but the lay impression of cherubim is baby angels, and she’s Angel’s baby. Whoever, or whatever Angel is…
:I keep telling you that you’re Angel,: a weary voice said in her head.
:Well, I still don’t understand how. Remember what Dan taught you, boyo. If I don’t understand something, I’ll pick it apart until I do. It’s not necessarily that I don’t believe you...:
He stirred in the chair, then; a slow stretch that did things to her insides before he opened red, bleary eyes. A different pang caught her heart at the sight of him.
“I gather you’d like to hear the story, then.”
She nodded, Menolly sucking on her index finger. He stuck a finger in the jar and fed their daughter a few bites, despite her attempts to turn her head. Angel dutifully sipped her broth when it was her “turn”, to expedite the process.
When the baby was full, he told her what they knew. The parts that Esther didn’t know were added via telepathy. She asked questions in whichever medium he was using to communicate, making a fuss over the baby throughout the conversation.
She pointed out, when she sensed a bit of frustration, that she didn’t want the baby to catch the drift of conversation. She was distracting the baby as much as she could, which made so much sense he felt silly for not thinking of it.
Esther, of course, took occasional photos. She couldn’t take video without recording classified information, but it was a moment they were sure to want to remember.
When they’d relayed what they knew, the Kaplans waited for her to fill in the blanks.
Angel looked up, met their eyes one at a time. “Sorry, but last thing I remember is going to sleep,” she signed.
“That’s it? No angel in your bedroom? The living room?” he asked.
“No.” Her hands still trembled. The broth helped, as did the spray, but there had been something down her throat for five months, and little in the way of nutrition. When the doctor was in earlier, he told her that she would be coughing up “lovely colors”, as she put it, for a couple of days. The pain and hoarseness, he said, would likely last one to two weeks.
“My luck, 2 weeks,” she signed. “Usually how my body works.”
“Well, at least you have sign language, and a partner who understands it,” the nice man said, clapping Avi on the back.
He didn’t hear Kapa snort, but he did see the blush on her cheeks, her inability to look at Avi. He’d seen Daniel braiding her hair once or twice while she was unconscious, and decided he didn’t want to get into the middle of this domestic situation. He’d left soon after, leaving the little family to piece together what they could of the last couple of years.
Kapaneus spoke into the silence, told them that his siblings were waking up.
“Ooh, there are more of you?” Angel asked, eyes alight. They hadn’t left the others out of the story, but it hadn’t registered that he was one of the hatchlings they’d mentioned. “Are they all as beautiful as you? Oh, don’t make that face! I keep telling my cat that boys can be pretty.”
She gazed at him wistfully, but she’d gotten a standoffish vibe from him. She was afraid to ask if she could inspect him more closely. After all, he was the first dragon she’d seen, to her knowledge.
She wouldn’t ask, but Avi did.
“Here, son, let your mother get a good look at you.” He was waving Kapa over to the bed, so he missed the dumbfounded look on her face.
“Wait, you’re my son? How… You said they were eggs. I thought… Wow, really?” She was so surprised she forgot to save her poor, ravaged throat. Her eyes sparkled with wonder so pure that even her son couldn’t deny her.
In fact, it inspired him to show off a bit. His aunt could have walked closer, but what fun was that? Besides, she was tired. Wouldn’t he be a good Bonded dragon if he made it unnecessary for her to get up at all?
He stood straighter, wings stretched high for a moment that she would never forget. His wing patterns were so gloriously vivid! He leapt high, nary a scratch on his aunt’s shoulder, flapped once and glided the short distance to his mother. His neat takeoff startled a “nice!” out of her. His landing, however, took her aback. She flinched when he got close, so he didn’t land where he could have. His quick mind did the math, and landing on a nervous person’s shoulder could be disastrous. Instead, he landed on her knee, next to his sister.
She immediately cooed and reached tentatively toward him with her free hand. “I’m sorry kiddo, my depth perception isn’t very good. You did quite well, don’t mind me.”
She watched him for any sign of displeasure, and started with his tail. She wasn’t confident enough to touch the delicate frill at the end, but she also didn’t want to go right for his head. She had enough experience with animals that weren’t sentient to know that you never made sudden moves or obstructed their field of vision, at least not the first time you were introduced. She could only imagine what it might do for a sentient creature.
His tail twitched. She was too timid; it tickled. To her credit, she didn’t shy away. She smoothed a hand up his tail, with more skin contact to avoid tickling. Up over his haunches, keeping a wary eye on him. She didn’t seem frightened of him; more scared of offending him, he thought. She was respectful of his person, though he could see that Look in her eye. He’d seen it before. She just wanted to pick him up and hug the daylights out of him. His respect went up a notch when she didn’t. She made happy noises, smiled a lot. He didn’t know what to do with a mother who saw him as a beautiful creature, rather than a soldier who never seemed to be up to snuff.
He really didn’t know what to do when she cupped his chin and planted a kiss on his tiny brow. She didn’t linger, and it wasn’t a loud smack like she did with the baby, but he’d never known affection from his mother. Even his aunt had never dared kiss his forehead, though she was affectionate in other ways.
“You look so confused,” she chuckled in that raspy voice of hers. “Surely this isn’t the first time somebody’s kissed your forehead. Heck, I’ve seen several pictures of you dad kissing people’s cheeks. Doesn’t he..?” Her brow furrowed about three rows of wheat when Avi clearly hadn’t thought of kissing his son’s cheek.
There was an awkward silence for several seconds. “I am a soldier, Mother. Nothing more. You made that pretty clear from day one.”
Angel’s eyes sprouted tears immediately. “Please tell me this was after I took a blow to the head! Why would I say something so horrid?”
Kapa snorted a laugh that startled even him. “Yeah, we showed up after that.”
She landed another kiss on his forehead, louder this time. More emphatic. “You put that nonsense down to the brain damage, okay? Sure, you protect your… aunt, but if that’s all you do, you’ll go bonkers.”
He scowled and backed off of her knee. “You taught us vigilance. You said if we blink, we fail. ‘Never forget your duty,’ that’s your number one lesson. You’ve gone soft.” He turned his back on her and leapt for his aunt’s shoulder.
Two tears fell behind him, one hand stretched toward him. “You can be both,” she croaked.
Menolly patted her arm with sticky fingers, sensing her distress. She plopped a kiss on the rosy waves, but her heart was aching. Did all of her children see her as a… dictator?
Kapa vanished, then. Bubbles had a new trick, apparently. Since he couldn’t come to her, she tried to Pull him to her, the same way Menolly had. Luckily for him, it worked. Fortunately for his parents, he was able to tell his aunt what had happened.
“I guess we know how you’re getting your luggage,” Esther said dryly.
“Don’t you mean our luggage?” Avi asked.
She shook her head. “It’s going to look weird enough with you ‘missing the flight’. If I’m not there, people might ask questions.”
“Couldn’t you say he’s si--” Angel clutched her throat, took a sip of water, and tried again. She couldn’t say “sick”, because he wasn’t.
She couldn’t lie. She didn’t know why, because they’d forgotten that part.
Esther caught the gist of what she was trying to say, and yes, that was going to be the story. “Even being his sister, I’m still the manager.” She shrugged. “I go where they go. Sorry.”
Kapaneus and Maisie appeared in the room while their mother was trying to figure out why she couldn’t speak. Maisie was better at teleporting to people, while Whiskers was place-oriented, so she’d gone. Maisie struggled with the suitcase one-handed, because the other had to touch Kapa to bring him with. He had the diaper bag in his paws, which he promptly deposited on the floor beside the chair. He wrapped his forelegs and tail around his aunt’s neck, and Bubbles Pulled them to her.
Maisie saw her mother in the bed, and clearly wanted to stay. Her mother wanted her to stay equally as badly, but she blew her daughter a kiss and gently ordered her to go back to whoever she was supposed to protect. “I’ll see you soon, ‘kay?” She waggled her fingers goodbye.
Maisie didn’t know what to do with affection from her mother any more than her brother did. She blushed, waved, and vanished.
“So they protect the other band members? Is that what you said?” She was still looking at the spot her children had occupied.
“And Esther, yes.”
She smiled. “That’s nice. Probably why they chose me, huh?”
“Sorry, I don’t follow.”
She looked up at him, half of a smile left over from seeing her adorable blue daughter. “Well, I’m trusting my children to them. If I didn’t like all of you guys, that’d be a problem, wouldn’t it?”
It was obvious that he hadn’t thought of that aspect of things. She laughed, and though the sound was rough (because she kept forgetting to sign, or use telepathy), he was glad of it. He’d heard her laugh more this day than in the entirety of their acquaintance.
She caught that tendril of thought, and cocked her head. “Was I a terrible tyrant?”
His face went gaunt, just thinking about the day Angel became a stranger. “Not always. It’s like… when you hit your head, you lost that last bit of humanity.” He spoke to the window, seeing little. “Before that… You were struggling with dysphoria, and I was too blind to see it.”
He looked at her, then. “Maybe I was, too. When we met, you looked like this.” His hand traced the side of her face. The heart monitor quietly spiked behind them, but he didn’t Feel it through the link.
“Then you were taken away, and I was left with an egg. When you hatched, you were as small as a house cat. It wasn’t until you were my size again that I remembered this part of you.” His hand rested at her nape, fanning the pulse that now beat. Her reaction was the same, that shiver and slow blink that he couldn’t feel all those months ago.
“You were like this in my memory, but you were trapped in a dragon body in real life. I think it made us both a little crazy.” His thumb continued to drive the breath from her in shallow pants.
“I don’t know what was going on in your head, even after the Bonding. You kept me locked out. Out of everything, maybe. Maybe if you pushed hard enough, you could forget… and then you did, and it was worse.” His voice grew rough and deep. It plucked her heartstrings with vicious precision.
She saw where this could go, as she did those months ago. The difference was, she could choose another path, and she did. Before he could get it in his head to go kissing her with their child on her lap, she leaned into him. She ducked her head under his and held him with her free arm, as best she could with an IV and O2 monitor. Menolly threw herself at his stomach, arms wide. The baby didn’t understand why Daddy was sad, but if Mama thought a hug would help, well, she could hug him, too.
This was new, and it felt… right. The Angel he knew, the one he’d been putting on a pedestal this entire time, hadn’t hugged him. She’d padded his world with the oblivion of memory alteration, forced him to sleep. Yes, he'd hugged her from time to time, but she’d never initiated an embrace. This Angel responded with normal, human comfort. No fancy words, just a hug.
His long arms tucked them more securely against his chest. He kissed one blonde head, then scrunched to kiss the other. He tilted to lean against the mattress, knowing she needed her rest. She switched arms, holding the baby with the arm that had the IV, draping the arm with the blood pressure cuff over his side.
They lay there on the narrow hospital bed, Menolly between them, the picture of a happy family. Even the blood pressure cuff forcing her arm straight didn’t disturb them for long. Avi noted how low the reading was. Not dangerously low, but any cardiologist would’ve been happy with it.
They fell asleep that way.
Chapter 9: Unsatisfying Answers
She woke first, having had the most rest of the three of them. Each time she opened her eyes, she felt the need to pinch herself. His long, feathery lashes rested against cheeks that were far too hollow. There was just enough light to see the freckles that she’d drawn a few times, and never gotten right. They begged to be kissed, but she didn’t dare. He knew her, sort of, but she didn’t know if he was as wonderful as he seemed to be. No one was perfect. Not even him.
She kept wondering what the catch was. Nothing worth having was easy, so what would she have to do, to… what, keep him? She wrinkled her nose. He wasn’t hers, no matter what it looked like. She was his Guardian, and their children were more of the same. She didn’t know how she was supposed to protect him now, when she couldn’t even walk down a snowy street without fear of falling on her arse.
Ach! Can I not even look at a beautiful man without picking everything apart? She mentally shook herself, snuggled a tiny bit closer. Nothing worth having was easy, and this felt awfully easy. She inhaled deeply, relishing the moment because she didn’t know how many more moments like this she would have. She impulsively pressed her lips to his shirt. He was asleep, but she would remember the experience. Mercy, they were right! He’s got muscles under there!
A chuckle vibrated against her lips. She burrowed her skull into his chest, mortified.
“And who, precisely, are ‘they’?” he asked. She wanted to slap the grin she could hear without seeing it, right off his face.
“Anyone who’s gotten to hug you. It’s damned near legendary by now,” she growled into his shirt.
Her breath was warm through his nightshirt. He shivered, which she felt through the skin on her forehead. She thought briefly about doing it on purpose, but that was playing with fire. She was old and wise. One did not tempt a dragon with empty promises.
Not that I’m terribly tempting, she thought with a scowl.
“I’d prove you wrong if I could,” he rumbled. She couldn’t be sure where the warmth below the belt originated, because they both Felt it. She hoped it wasn’t coming from him, because there was still a sleeping infant between them.
That, at least, he could do something about. He pushed up slowly, to avoid waking her. He eased her into the car seat, buckled her in, and set it on the chair by the bed. If she’d been a normal baby, he would’ve set her on the floor, but his dad was right. She didn’t lean hard enough to fall over.
Instead of lying back down, he sat facing her on the mattress.
“Can I ask you something? It’s been bugging me for months.”
She stared at her hands, folded loosely in her lap. “I don’t know that I’m the right person to ask,” she demurred.
“You’re the only one who would know. I’ve asked before, but… I don’t think you told me everything.” He lifted her chin with one hand, so she could see the conflict in his eyes. “Please.”
As always, all it took was that word, from him, asked in earnest. She nodded wearily.
“Why did you do it?”
Her brow puckered. “I’m afraid you’re going to have to be more specific.”
“Why did you… You said you knew you’d come back, but… you died for me!”
Her hand flew up in a reflexive gesture he knew well, before he finished the last sentence. She didn’t even seem to notice. Did he ask her if she just cast a spell, or let it pass?
They might need magic later, so he let it pass. For now.
“I don’t remember dying. I’m told that’s normal,” she said dryly.
He blew out a puff of frustration. “You said he came to you, told you they needed you, and that’s all you needed to know. I don’t understand why you would literally die to protect me.”
“Oh, is that all?” she growled. It triggered a small coughing fit. He handed her tissues and waited for it to pass.
When he said nothing more, she looked out the window to gather her thoughts. “Did I tell you that I don’t contribute anything significant to society? I don’t work, can’t even keep a volunteer gig. People don’t really… get me. So I sit in my apartment, with my cat, and try to find ways to pass my ‘life sentence’. I got the message after a while: no early release for good behavior.
“So I draw, write, crochet, but everything is… average. There are better artists, and worse ones.” Her head lolled his way for a moment. “Average, by definition. Same with everything I do. I’m not great, not horrible. Stuck in the doldrums of mediocrity, wondering why I’m supposed to stick around.
“Well, apparently someone came along and told me why. If that was an angel, I’d be sold--emphasis on ‘if’, of course.”
He laughed. “Yeah, you said you had silver and holy water by the bed, and salt at all the windows and doors.”
Her head swung around again. “Well, if nothing else convinced me, that’d do it. No one knows about that, except a few of my friends you wouldn’t have met.”
He plucked her hands from the blanket and held them so she couldn’t turn away again. “But that still doesn’t tell me why you’d die... for me.”
She was confused. Then her brow cleared when she heard what he didn’t say.
“You don’t think your life is worth the sacrifice.” He couldn’t deny it, nor could he look her in the eye. He stared at their joined hands instead.
“Why did it have to be yours? I don’t… It’s not a straight exchange, a life for a life. Why would He… I couldn’t accept that kind of ‘gift’.” Here, he did look up. “You were living a half life. No one man is worth that.”
She slipped her hands from his, cupped his face tenderly. “Whether or not you believe it, you are. And besides, it’s not just you. The kids protect the rest of the band.” She tried a smile, and only partially succeeded. “Stow the ego for a bit, would ya?”
He didn’t succeed any better at smiling, but he tried.
“He sent dragons to protect y’all, right? Well, who was most likely to embrace such a gift?” She waggled his head side to side, hands buried halfway in his hair. The O2 monitor snagged a bit, but neither noticed. “That’d be you, in case it wasn’t as obvious as the freckles on your nose.”
That startled a genuine smile out of him.
He tapped the end of her nose. “That still doesn’t tell me why you think so little of your own life, that you would throw it at the feet of the first angel to come calling. Especially when you didn’t know you’d get your body back.”
She snorted, hands dropped to his chest. “This old thing? Nah, I was better off without these shackles.”
He covered her smaller hands with his longer ones. “Sweetheart, I’ve seen you without it, and you were not better off.” Her hands clenched under his. As usual, he hadn’t noticed the endearment.
“I’d much rather be a dragon,” she snarled with surprising heat.
He set his lips briefly against her forehead. “You merged with your dragon half, so maybe you still can be a dragon. Maybe you’re like me, like my mother.”
“What?” He’d forgotten to mention that part.
He grinned down into her startled face. “We are the last known dragon family. I’m a dragon on Mom’s side. She says I can Shift someday, if I practice enough.”
She wrinkled her nose. “So you’re saying I’ll have OT and shapeshifting practice to do?”
He kissed the tip of her nose. “Yes ma’am, and no skimping, either. If you want to be a dragon again, it’s going to take just as much work as they’ll put you through here, maybe more.”
“Eh, nothing worth having is easy.”
Avi groaned long and loud, set his forehead against hers. “I swear, you and my mom are gonna be the death of me with that expression.”
Angel laughed, but it was a tight chuckle. He didn’t seem to think twice about dropping kisses on her nose, or her head, but every one rattled her nerves. It was hard to hold him at arm’s length long enough to get to know him, when he was rarely actually at arm’s length.
“You know, the harder you push, the harder I’ll push back.”
Shards, I don’t even have privacy in my own head, she grumbled.
:You’ll figure out how to block me. You did before.:
:Oh sure, say that in my head and rub it in why don’tcha?:
He laughed. :I’m not apologizing this time. You’ve had a huge barrier up since day one. I’m enjoying this while I can. It’s nice to know what’s going on in this complicated brain of yours, once in a while.: He flattened the braids against her skull. :If you won’t open up, how am I supposed to know what to do? What not to do? Even being psychic doesn’t help if you shut me out again.: A light splatter of tears hit her fists.
The last word hit her in the gut. Apparently, she’d been pushing him away--the thing she was trying to do now--the whole time they’d known each other. It only made things worse. How, then, did she retain a sense of self, in a relationship where they were Bound clear down to their bones? She valued her independence above most other things.
:You don’t have to be so strong all the time, you know.:
“Yes, I do. It’s the only way I know to survive.”
He saw the grim determination in her eyes. He’d seen it countless times, that iron will. It was the one constant throughout her evolution. He also saw the bleak void behind it. She said that happiness never lasted long. She seemed to expect everything good in her life to vanish into that void, leave her more empty than before.
That’s why she fought so hard. If she never found happiness, she never had to watch it get taken away.
:The more I want something, the less chance it works out,: she agreed. :So I just… stop expecting good things to happen. If they do, I don’t take it for granted.:
:You keep waiting for that other shoe,: he realized. She nodded, the hair on their foreheads meshing into one calico patch.
:You’ve got some pretty giant shoes to fill,: she said. The words “when you leave” hovered between them, unsaid but heard nonetheless.
Before he could think about it too much, or give her any warning, he tilted her head back and kissed the daylights out of her. The moment his lips met hers, time seemed to stand still. The shocks of the previous kisses were magnified twofold. It wasn’t lips to skin; it was far more potent than that. It nearly robbed him of breath, and all he’d done was press his mouth to hers!
Neither of them were breathing very well. Only one of them was on a monitor, tangled in his shirt though it was. One of the nurses poked his head in to see why she was having trouble breathing, and very quickly ducked back out.
She was content to keep on as they were. He tried to persuade her to open her mouth, but she wouldn’t. He tasted broth on her lips, and something faintly unpleasant, but barely noticed.
He let go of her long enough to ask her to let him in. She rumbled a distant chuckle, lips pressed firmly together. :Not a chance. I know what’s been fermenting in here, and you don’t want any.:
He’d forgotten about the tubes, and the bone broth. He settled for learning the contours of her face with his lips. Lavender light lit her lashes where they lay on her cheeks. She shifted on the bed, craving what was currently impossible. Her hands restlessly knotted and unknotted fistfuls of his nightshirt. The relatively chaste kisses wreaked havoc on them, their personal reactions amplified by the Bond bouncing it back and forth between them. He felt his own arousal, combined with hers, and she was in the same boat.
If she hadn’t been in hospital, all of their good intentions could have gone out the window. Fortunately for their honor, she was in no shape to be doing what they wanted to do. It would take time to get used to the amplification that a telepathic bond created, and they had lots of it.
Chapter 10: What Could Be
Someone from Occupational Therapy came in shortly after, to put her through a few paces. They wanted her arms and legs to be able to hold her upright before they let her walk the halls.
“So how long ‘til I get the catheter out?” she asked, voice even more ragged from the exercises. She'd always said that OT and PT were tasks that sounded simple enough, until you had to do them.
“You already know the answer to that. Not until you can use the bathroom on your own.”
Angel frowned. “Yes, but that doesn't tell me in days, just milestones. When am I going to be up and about?”
The man shrugged. “Get used to hearing us say ‘when you're ready’, ‘cause that's the answer.”
She groaned and flopped back against the pillows.
“Look, you're not going to undo 5 months of inactivity in a day. We did what we could to stave off atrophy, but it's still not going to be quick, or easy. Just be patient, follow doctor's orders, and you'll get there.”
When he left, she was too tired to change her daughter's diaper, so she had to let Avi do it.
“You'd think it'd be a good thing, but it's just another reminder of my limits,” she growled.
"I'm sure she'll make plenty of dirty diapers when you're all healed up. No rush, right?"
He exaggerated the process to try and make her feel better. It was only successful because he was so darned adorable, but she wouldn't say so.
"So... everyone else is in Portugal, huh?"
"Mm hmm." His mouth was occupied by a tiny fist, which he was pretending to chew. She wished her phone were handy, so she could remember how his beard curled around those tiny fingers. She was tempted to try to draw it later.
He angled his buttocks toward her without a word, so she couldn't be blamed for missing the phone sticking out of the rear pocket. He had to prompt her via telepathy before she caught on.
"Oh! Right! Uh..."
She gingerly poked two fingers into the tight pocket and slid the phone out. He didn't seem outwardly disturbed by the process, but she knew better.
He told her how to unlock the phone, where the camera was, all while nibbling on chubby baby fingers.
Her hands shook so badly, she couldn't be sure any of the photos would turn out. She called the technique "spray and pray": take lots of pictures and hope something worked. She also recorded video footage as a backup. She could never be sure how long anything would last, so she documented every precious memory. Some of the photos had been lost before the digital age, but these would be hers forever.
As long as he remembers to send them to me, that is.
He glanced at her, his expression unreadable. :Or you could send them now. You've got my phone, and you know your email, or however you want them sent.:
She sat straighter. :As you say, it's your phone. I would never presume...:
:What?: He sat the baby in his lap and faced her. :You think it would be weird for me to have your email? Your phone number?: He clapped Menolly's feet together to emphasize how silly that sounded. He was holding their child in his lap. :Most people exchange phone numbers before...: Suddenly shy, he stared at their daughter's downy head.
The absurdity of it struck her, then. Neither of them felt comfortable talking about anything intimate, yet the evidence of past intimacy sat drooling on her father's arm.
She couldn't help but giggle.
He hadn't caught the drift of her thoughts. He looked up, confused and adorable. His hair hadn't been brushed since he was yanked out of bed. Dark shadows emphasized the red, puffy eyes that blinked down at her. The worst part was, he had the temerity to look wonderful, despite the carrot puree in his beard.
Her eyes watered with mirth. She clutched her tender ribcage with one arm while the other was occupied by the blood pressure cuff. She knew she was supposed to be quiet and still for it, but the giggles had her in their clutches.
This, of course, resulted in a higher reading, which meant a visit from the nurse.
"As long as you're up, you may as well drink some more broth. It's good to see you happy." She clapped Avi on the back as she left, having concluded that he was to thank for her patient's good humor.
When she left, he asked what was so funny.
"Everything," she signed. Laughter might be the best medicine for most things, but not a sore throat. "You have food in your beard, BTW." She didn't think "BTW" was proper sign language, but she was tired.
He nabbed a tissue and dabbed at his beard blindly. A glob of orange nestled firmly under his chin, where he couldn't find it without a mirror.
Angel plucked it from his hand, shaking her head and smiling. She was an old hand at removing food from a man's beard. She gently teased it out of the depths, having learned not to grab and pull. It took several tissues, but she got most of it out.
The nurse brought her broth while she was occupied, and left with a maternal smile.
"Most gone. You need wash face," she signed.
Her gentle touch had an effect on him. It wasn't a sensual caress, yet his heart stuttered. Wives dabbed at their husband's faces every day without a thought. They did the same for their children, as Angel was doing now. She wiped their daughter's face and hands with a baby wipe, and quite naturally swabbed his hands where Menolly had "shared" some of her food. She left the nail beds to him. A wet wipe wasn't up to the task.
:Can you find a change of clothes for her after you wash up?: She was blotting the orange stains on the pink footed onesie, but it was a lost cause.
When he didn't respond, or move, she looked up. While she couldn't quite read his face, or untangle the feelings wafting along the link, they made her nervous. He looked like a man who was peeking through a window into a life he wanted.
Chapter 11: Truth is Stranger Than Fiction, Even in Fiction
We get down to the nitty gritty of what happened, and it's not exactly a comfortable topic.
When he came back from washing his face and hands, he helped her get the baby changed into a purple dinosaur onesie. The baby dropped off to sleep shortly after, which Angel thought was odd. She slept more than a baby her age ought to.
“Well, she did teleport, with 2 other people, across an entire ocean,” he pointed out.
“Oh yeah, I keep forgetting she can do that…” They put her back in the car seat, but Angel couldn’t bear to have her further than the foot of the bed. It was like if she stopped being able to see the baby, she’d… cease to exist, or something.
“Can I ask you something?” Angel sounded reluctant to ask, which made him nervous. She was staring at their daughter, face pinched.
“You never really explained how the kids were made. You said she’d just given birth, but Menolly is nearly 6 months old. Does that mean she laid 2 clutches in 6 months? That’s both confusing, and really not good for the body.”
“Yeah, Gwinn wasn’t too happy about the second… clutch?”
“That’s what a group of eggs is called, yes.”
She waited for answers. He shifted on the edge of the bed, unsure how to approach the subject.
“I’m confused because she--okay, I” (when he gave her a Look) “was an astral projection. I don’t know how that… works. And then sh--I was a dragon? I know you love dragons, but I didn’t think you liked them like that…”
“Okay, then explain things so I understand.” She waited some more, while he visibly struggled. “The less I understand something, the more I worry at it, like a… dragon with a bone.”
“To be honest, I don’t really understand the first time, either.” Realizing how it sounded, he blushed, unable to look at her. “You said something about having a… field of energy, that only tightened up enough to feel solid where it needed to.”
“Energy conservation, makes sense.”
“Somehow, you could feel things, even though you didn’t feel like… anything, to me. I mean, your hair, your skin, your teeth…” He broke off, blushing harder. He addressed the wall over her head. “It all felt the same. Not hard, or soft, hot or cold.” His eyes fused to the plug on the wall, the blush equally fused to his face.
“Did I tell you what energy it was using? ‘Cause if it used what I think it did, that’d explain how I’d feel things, but you wouldn’t,” she said to the wall by the window. She was every bit as uncomfortable with the conversation as he was.
“Your soul,” he choked.
She nodded at the wall. “Thought so.” She steeled herself enough to look at him, and touch his hand to get his attention. “That meant that you were touching my soul;” she gripped his hand for emphasis, “hardened and refined into solid form. Of course I’d feel things! Not the same way I do now, but… I dunno, viscerally? Maybe it wouldn’t register as skin contact, but… Maybe more like a telepathic connection? I really don’t know. But it would’ve been far deeper than the skin.”
His eyes widened in shock, haunted by the knowledge of what she’d been living with. Her stubborn refusal to let the memories back in made a bit more sense.
She let go of his hand, looked away. “I don’t know how the rest would’ve gone, but I think I’m glad I don’t remember that part. I’m not sure anything could compete with that. ‘S not a comparison I’d want to be making forever.”
There was a long, uncomfortable pause, filled with thoughts they didn’t want to share. But they did, anyway, because neither could stop it.
“So,” she said at length, “What about when I was a dragon?” The more she knew, the easier it was getting to use personal pronouns.
He was silent so long, with such odd feelings floating her way, she looked at him, brow puckered.
“Whatever it is, it’s best to tell me now, before…” before I get too attached, she thought.
His eyes grew darker, with a guilt she couldn’t read past.
“What’s wrong? Is there another dragon out there that, ah… did the deed? Was it like some arranged marriage situation, except without the marriage part? I mean, if they needed more dragons…”
“I have a girlfriend,” he blurted.
She didn’t react the way he expected. He’d forgotten that the dragon had known, without the clues she’d given at the time. Angel had known the truth when she became a Vessel.
“So the rumors are true. And you feel guilty for cheating on her?”
“That too.” he said, and stopped, perplexed. She wasn’t surprised, or hurt, or… anything. He mentally shook his head and forged on, before he lost his nerve. “Thing is… I thought you were her, that night!” He stared into her eyes, trying to get her to understand, to forgive.
Her brow furrowed. “Did… did you share a bed with the dragon..? ‘Cause that’s the only way I can think of that… happening...”
“Why would you share a bed with a dragon big enough for… that..? Why didn’t she sleep on the floor?”
“Like a dog?” He couldn’t keep the long-buried hurt from his face.
His expression, and the hurt emanating from him, gave her pause. “Did... I say that, or did you?” From what she’d heard already, she was afraid of his answer.
He threw one arm wide in frustration. “I said we should get out, let you stretch your legs. You were cooped up in the house, or a car, or in a crowd. I thought you needed some fresh air.” He stopped, for strength. “Then you woofed.”
Angel winced so hard her chin touched her collarbone. “Yikes.” She touched his hand, where it had landed on his knee. “I’m sorry.”
He turned his hand over, gripped hers tightly, tears shining a bright warning.
“Did we at least have fun? Did I fly?” Her own eyes shone a brighter warning.
He smiled, a single tear breaking free. “Yes, you flew. I was scared witless, but I think the baby liked it.”
“Wait, why would you be scared, but the baby was happy? They can’t see that far at her age. I would’ve been less than a blur in the sky.”
He ruffled her hair with his free hand. “Not if she was riding on your back.”
“What?! You let me fly with a newborn on my back?!”
“Settle down,” he said with a grin. Their reversal of roles was amusing. At the time, it'd been him questioning her. “She was in the carrier thing, here.” He mimed straps, from shoulders to belly button. She didn’t watch his hands past his ribcage, one hand curling in the sheets beside her.
“Well, at least she was somewhat safe. We didn’t go very high, did we? Was I at least a little responsible?” she fretted.
He impulsively kissed her forehead. “Yes, we were safe.” He chuckled ruefully. “Took me a bit to figure that out, though. I, ah… might have... screamed a little…” His head ducked with boyish chagrin.
Angel laughed until a coughing fit took hold. He snatched up the tissues and ice water, which was becoming a reflex by now. She made a face at the contents of the tissue, but he didn’t see what was in them. The doctor said she’d be coughing things up for a while, so he didn’t worry too much.
When she was breathing better, he reassured her that they’d only done a long glide to the car. “Looking back, it seems so fun; but at the time, it felt like we were as high as an airplane.”
“Hindsight is 20/20,” she chuckled. Her voice sounded worse than it had been. He felt bad for making her laugh, then realized what he was thinking.
“Silly bass, laughter heals everything… except a sore throat. But everything else feels better.” She smiled; a soft, almost maternal thing. The artificial light above caught in the crinkles at the corners of her eyes, amplified by her glasses. She kept forgetting to take them off before she dozed, and he was distracted by other things.
“So…” she said, drawing out the word. “You thought a dragon was your girlfriend, but for some reason, the dragon didn’t stop you?”
He shifted on the bed, making the mattress squeak quietly, legs pinched closer together. “She, ah… You, I mean… Said you didn’t feel anything… significant.”
“You said the, ah… opening is bigger than any human’s… parts, so…”
“Oh. I don’t really understand that, but okay.”
“You drew a diagram. If I find it, I can show it to you.”
“Yeah, sure,” she said distantly, without much enthusiasm.
“Like my mother said, you need to know these things if you’re going to be a dragon. Well, she said it to me, since I’m the one you drew the diagrams for, but now it applies to you.” His brow curled briefly. “It’s funny. You drew something for me, but now you don’t remember what it is, so you need it…”
“Wibbly wobbly, timey wimey,” she chuckled weakly.
He heard an odd lack of enthusiasm.
“You do need to know what you’re supposed to look like. You don’t sound very enthusiastic about it, but if you can’t picture it, how will you know if it’s right?”
“No, I know. I do want to be a dragon.” Her voice was strangely dull.
“You don’t sound like you do.” He turned her head to face him. “What’s wrong?”
Her eyes went... hollow. “There’s so much I don’t remember. So much I missed… I never get to experience the good things…” Tears trickled down, over his hand. “I’ve had so many children, but it’s never been the right way; the way every little girl dreams. It’s always been inconvenient timing. There’s never been the storybook type of… I dunno, the proud dad doting on the mom-to-be, talking to the belly bump, cute photos; or really, any sort of positive acknowledgement.” Her arms crossed over her sagging midsection, as though she had a horrible stomach ache. “There was always so much stress, I was high risk, and nobody seemed to care. Some people pretended it wasn’t happening, some were more concerned about the baby, and I never really got to relax, and enjoy the process. Even now, with you, it sounds like it was just… a job. A thing I had to do, whether or not I wanted to.” Her voice was high in her nose, trying to stave off tears.
He gently pried her arms from around the hole in her core; mindful of the sensors, cuff, and IV. She resisted, caught up in the misery of her past, but she hadn’t regained her strength yet. Meanwhile, he’d been wrestling her to the ground at least once a week, when she was a full-grown dragon. It was hardly a contest. He guided her arms around his torso instead, let her weep herself hoarse. His cheek rested on her hair, where a few spots of moisture seeped into her scalp.
When she was spent, drooping backwards, he helped her lay back on the pillows.
“I’m sorry for being a downer all the time,” she started to say.
He planted a quick, firm kiss on her lips. “Quit apologizing. You’ve had it rough. It’s not going to be sunshine and roses right away, I get that now. And hey, maybe there will be a next time, we don’t know.”
She covered his mouth with a hand. “You don’t, but I do. No, listen.” She grabbed his cheek with the other hand, the plastic of the oxygen monitor digging into his cheek. The pain registered dully through the link.
“Even if there’s a uterus in here, it belongs to a dragon. You told me yourself, it doesn’t handle human babies well. Let’s say that…” she blushed, her legs twisted together, but she forged on. “Let’s say things go that direction.” She stared at his chin, unable to talk about intimate things while his eyes pleaded with her over her hand. “I would have to immediately change into a dragon, provided I know how. That’s the only way I can think of, to make sure it’s all eggs. I’d have to stay a dragon.” Here, she glared into his face. “The whole time, I’d have to stay a dragon. There would be no happy family bonding, because you don’t have the time to learn how to Shift; and besides, it’s not the same! Even if you could Shift… I don’t know how to dragon. You don’t know how. We’d be stumbling along, trying to figure things out, and by the time we figured it out, oh look, there’s a bunch of eggs.”
Her hands slipped from his face, to her lap. “I missed the boat. That’s all there is to it.” Three tears landed on her lax fingertips.
He lifted the hand without the monitor, kissed her fingertips. He pressed them to his cheek for a moment. “There’s always C-section, you know. You didn’t have any problems until you went into labor.”
Her shoulders slumped a fraction lower. “I have a weak abdominal wall. Herniated it the first time round. It… It might work, once, but…” a weak shrug concluded her fatalistic assessment.
He lifted her chin, a smile playing about his eyes. “We’ve got fourteen children. I think once is enough, don’t you?”
She laughed, the remainder of the tears streaming down her cheeks. “I guess it does sound silly, doesn’t it? That’s not even counting the ones I had before… whatever happened.”
“Do I want to know how many there are, total?”
She smirked. “Probably not.”
“Well, I’ll need to know eventually,” he said, finger wagging at her.
The laughter fell out of her eyes, as though a gallows door opened up. “Not necessarily.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked, carefully keeping the hurt from his voice.
The old pain was in her gaze. “You keep forgetting that I’m just supposed to protect you.” The plastic oxygen monitor flattened to his chest. “Nobody said we were… I dunno, soul mates, or anything. I’m not… I told you, I can’t get my hopes up. It’s too dangerous. Expect the worst, hope for the best, yeah? That’s how I survive. Besides, you haven’t told me about your girlfriend; how it ended, if it ended. I won’t ask you to do that, if you’re wondering. She was here first.”
There was that almost-laugh again. “We have fourteen kids together, and you won’t ask me to leave my girlfriend. I don’t think I’ll ever understand you.”
Her laugh was self-deprecating.
Chapter 12: Celestial Proposition
Samandriel rushed in, lifted Avi’s shirt, and started slapping on heart sensor pads.
“We need a surrogate heartbeat. She's needed in conference. Don't worry, we won't be disturbed.”
I'm already disturbed, he thought.
“Why do you need my heartbeat? Is hers going to stop?!”
“Suspended animation. No time to explain.” He yanked the cords off her silicon pads with loud snaps and jammed them on his--but not before he saw and heard the flatline. Before the first lead was switched.
Avi snatched up her wrist, but there was no pulse. He glared at the intruder.
Samandriel lifted one eyelid so he could see the misty grey orbs beneath. “See? She’s alive, just frozen. Please, calm your heartbeat so nobody thinks she’s in trouble.”
“How do I know she isn’t in trouble?!”
“Look. Her face will tell you if she is in distress. Feel the Link. She lives.”
It was strange. Her face registered emotions, though her chest lay still. It was mostly disgust or disdain that they saw, which made him wonder what was happening. Those tiny signs of life got his heart rate where it needed to be, though it was a struggle to keep it there.
Angel fell asleep faster than she could register. One minute she was laughing at herself; the next, she was in a familiar place, seemingly made of light and vague shapes. One shape she knew as well as she knew her own hand.
“Gabriel,” she greeted with a nod. She didn’t know the other shape. Neither did she question that she knew everything that had happened in her life thus far. The knowledge was there, should she need it. Had she asked, she might perhaps have been told that her soul was what spoke here, and it carried all of her memories.
“I have a proposition to make,” the unfamiliar angelic shape said. It only had one pair of wings, whereas Gabriel…
He was always hard to “see”. She could never count wing pairs, or See whether he had wings at all. She’d given up, a few celestial years into her training. He was an enigma. The sooner she gave up on trying to define him, the better she actually understood him. Anywhere else, that sentence wouldn’t make sense.
“If you were human, I'd already have said no.”
The unnamed angel glanced at Gabriel, smug to the point of obnoxious.
“Don't look so smug. The only reason I'm withholding my refusal is because, being an angel, I doubt you meant that the way it sounded.” Her arms crossed over her old guardian angel robes. She didn’t notice them, any more than she noticed the return of her memories. Again, you learned to shed all extraneous details in this place.
“That is exactly what he meant.” Gabriel seemed to lean against thin air. There wasn’t precisely air here, just as there was nothing for him to lean on; or even a solid form for him to lean with. It was more of an impression one got.
“I need a vessel,” he said through gritted teeth. She could tell he didn’t want to ask someone who was born mortal for any sort of assistance.
“Aww, did big brother get a shiny new toy?”
He couldn’t argue her statement that Gabriel was his big brother. He had a far larger... presence, in this place. She didn’t see what they really, truly looked like. She never could, but she could Feel their relative energies. Gabriel’s was simply larger. Archangel and Vessel snickered at the decidedly phallic symbolism. Angel regained her composure first, which surprised her.
She echoed her friend’s “posture”, leaning on nothing. “You want one that's stronger than his, more… powerful?” She gagged on the word ‘powerful’. She didn’t bat an eyelash at calling herself “his”.
Gabe beamed proudly. Those who wanted power the least tended to wield it more judiciously. Thoughts were as good as spoken here, it seemed. Either that, or it was the ethereal thread that linked them.
“He’s right, you know. I'd only whip out the big guns to protect Avi, as is my duty.” Her nose inched down, though she wore no glasses to look over.
Gabriel pushed away from the not-wall, bragging. “She'd tear the world apart, if it meant saving his life.” He rather enjoyed having such a powerful vessel. Perhaps it was his boastful nature that caused this jealousy in his brother.
“You exaggerate, Gabriel. I am a rational dragon. Will I do everything possible to keep him alive? Yes. Would I ransack a town to find him? No. I don't need to. I have the Bond; that's what it was designed for.”
“Then swear it,” the angel urged. “Swear to only transform to save your human.”
“Of course not! I'm not stupid. If my own life, or the lives of my children were in danger, I'd be powerless. I would be slain, and he would be left defenseless.”
Gabe crossed his arms over his robe; rightfully smug, to his thinking.
The other angel perked up. Angel couldn't figure out if he was intrigued by her mental agility, or... turned on.
“Not gonna happen. I'm not a broodmare,” she flatly refused. Gabriel gave his brother his best “told you so” face.
“I only need one. You can have the rest,” he tried to persuade her.
The unspoken clarification was that only one would be his. The rest would be… she wasn’t sure. Clones of her? It was deucedly difficult to read the other angel. They wouldn’t be Gabriel’s, because he was kind of Angel's father, since his spark was used to make the dragon. He was also like a twin..? Being in this realm, wherever it was, confused her with its myriad intricacies.
They wouldn’t be Avi’s, either, because he wasn’t in the “room” (unspecified earth-adjacent realm). That didn’t even factor in the conversation they’d already had about potential futures.
“No. I’ve only got maybe one shot at a normal gestation. I’m not using it on the pet project of some angel I don’t know.”
He waved a hand negligently. “I can wait until you get that out of your system.”
She didn’t like the way he referred to human relations. “I’ll take that any day I can. I say again, no.”
“We need some sort of muzzle to keep you in line, child. An angel, plus a… Celestial Archdragon, or Arch Celestial Dragon, or whatever you've deemed yourself...” He made it sound like a childish whim! “...Should yield a stronger vessel than either of you. He was barely able to subdue you, the last time. A hybrid would be able to do so easily, should you step out of line again.”
Her teeth would have gritted, had she been corporeal. “That’s a slippery slope, and you know it. Besides, he’s got the Marks as an anchor. He proved they work. It’s still a no from me.”
He tried another tack. “What about when your human dies?”
“One, he’s not human.” This seemed to be a shock to both angels. “Wait, you didn’t know? I though angels could See True Natures. How--never mind, you can tell me later.
"Two, I’ll just have to align my brain the way The Doctor does. Humans in general will be my muzzle. Just keep me in the Guardian Angel rotation. They have a fresh perspective, because they're mortal. Their continued wide-eyed wonder and optimism will temper my eternal, jaded nature.”
“You’re basing your sanity on a fictional character?” Gabriel asked, when his brother didn’t get the reference.
“It seems like a viable model. Shorter-lived species should notice if I start to tip the wrong way. Mortals are always on the lookout for danger, since they have so few years to live. Plus I’ve got you, who knows the ins and outs of immortality, as a guide. Should I be deemed a hazard to myself and others, I will gladly lay my head down at His feet and let Him sever my head from my body.”
“Is that a promise?” The other angel leapt on her words, a gleam in his eye.
Frustration rolled off of him in almost palpable waves.
“I will give you my word, but not my vow. I cannot lie, as you well know. Should my human fear me, I shall return to Gabriel to reevaluate; see if I need a vacation... or eternal rest. I would rather die than become the Horn of Gabriel, as told in the Bible. Well, certain versions of certain parts of it, anyway. I will not destroy the world I was born in.”
“And what if that is exactly what you are?”
Cold shivered down her astral form.
“Free will,” she said, throwing the words at the angel like a trump card.
Gabriel coughed uncomfortably. She glared his way. “If Dad says go, neither of us have a choice. Now, I’m not saying you’re my, ah…”
“Yeah, there’s no way of saving that sentence. And since when did you get savvy?”
“Classified,” he said grimly. He wasn’t about to lay his punishment on her shoulders. They were friends; perhaps more than friends; more, even, than family. “Point is, we don’t know if you’re a biblical weapon. But,” he said, drawing the word out, “if Dad decides to go that way, neither of us can say no. Me because I don’t have the luxury of free will, and you because we’re stuck like glue.”
“Wow, someone’s been on Earth a while. Seriously, when did that happen? Not that time matters to you, never mind. It’s just weird, seeing you act so… human.”
His brother angel snorted with derision.
“Hey, I didn’t say it was a bad thing. For a Guardian Angel, maybe it’s a good thing. From what I’ve been hearing, most of the problems we had were because he didn’t really understand people. Scoff all ya like, he just gained a skill set you don’t seem to have.”
Brother angel was not happy to be seen as lesser.
“I don’t think we should put up wards,” Avi cautioned.
Samandriel lowered his hands, offended at being questioned. “I was charged with your protection, and that is what I aim to do.”
“What if your wards actually attract things?” he asked, grabbing the nearest arm.
The angel was doubly offended at being touched.
"Listen to me. Evil creatures might know she’s human now, but maybe not where her human body is. You put up giant neon angel barriers, and they’ll know exactly where we are!”
Samandriel blanched; at least, his temporary vessel did. He hadn’t thought of that possibility.
“I’m not saying you should let down your guard. By all means, keep your sword out, and maybe some low-level passive stuff, but not the big bad repelling ones?” He left the details to Samandriel, who knew the specifics of celestial magic better than he did.
The angel thought for what appeared to be a second, but was much longer than that. Time was fluid to a celestial being.
He stood just inside the door, which Avi shut, blade out and ready. He held that posture for the duration of this “conference call” Angel was on.
“We are at an impasse. I will continue to refuse your… proposal,” which took great effort not to spit back at him, “and you will attempt to press your case. I am a Vessel. I do not create custom vessels on demand. Perhaps one of my offspring will decide to host you; once they are fully grown, and not assigned to a humanoid.” She was, as ever, careful with her wording. Mitch wasn’t human, so she wouldn’t give him a loophole.
“Will you swear to this?” he asked without much hope. She’d worn him down.
If he’d been human, she’d swear he rolled his eyes. He didn’t, but that was the impression she was left with, the gesture having taken a form she would recognize.
“It is not my life to offer. All I can do is prepare them for the possibility that they may serve a higher purpose, when they are no longer guarding their Bonded.”
Gabe stepped in, metaphorically. “And that’s all you’ll get from her. She has to get back to her Bonded. Samandriel sends concerns that must be addressed. Farewell, Uriel.”
If Angel had retained a complete memory of that meeting, she would have been far more out of sorts than she was, when she woke from her trance. As usual, she only had an edited portion of events. Anything dangerous or unnecessary was filtered out. Her human brain had limited storage space, while her soul was a celestial version of a technological data cloud: limitless.
She woke to a vaguely familiar nurse, or aid, putting leads on her chest.
“What…” Her voice was unnaturally rough, as though it hadn’t been used in days.
“You died again… sort of.”
“You exaggerate. I told you she was in suspended animation. Every time she communes with the Host, her bodily functions cease.”
“Power saving mode,” Angel growled. She wasn’t angry, per se, but her voice gave that impression. “How long was I out? Why were the leads off?”
Avi took up a lead and gently popped it where it had been on his own chest. He wasn’t a trained nurse, but the angel had done a fair number of them already, and he could see where the remainder went. He took a page from her book, ignoring the reactions bouncing back and forth through the link to get the task done while Samandriel filled her in. When the last lead was off his chest, he dropped his shirt down over the patchwork of chest hair, freckles, and sticky pads. He was not looking forward to removing those later!
“I hope it was worth it,” he grumbled, thinking about the cleanup.
“I don’t think it was,” she rumbled back.
“Now, now, you don’t know that,” Gabriel said.
Avi spun around, but he couldn’t see the Archangel. His brow furrowed a full orchard.
“He’ll stop complaining about you going unchecked, and one of your children might become a vessel, like their mother. I think it was quite a productive little chat.”
Avi looked around, but saw no one else in the room. He dropped on the side of the bed a bit too abruptly for Angel to move her hand in time. He automatically apologized, but his mind was whirling.
“You may as well stop trying to see me, boy. There’s a reason I needed a vessel.”
“Yes, well, he brought up a relevant point, sir,” Samandriel interjected, anxious to leave his vessel before burning the man out.
Gabriel’s mouth twisted at being called “sir”, but he let it pass. “He can tell me. You go, I can see through your vessel’s hands.”
Samandriel looked down, and Avi could’ve sworn he yelped. He spun and ran out of the room, apparently unconcerned with what people would say.
Gabriel waved a hand, and the door gently swung shut. He came to stand on the other side of Angel. Though her Bonded couldn’t see that, he watched her eyes track the Archangel’s movement.
“What is this point that saved us from a lengthy debate?”
“You’re not going to tell me why I can’t see you?” he asked without much hope.
Gabe shrugged. “Some can, some can’t. Maybe after you transform…” Had he seen the mock glare he aimed at Angel, Avi might have bristled.
Angel lifted her arms in a “what?” pose. “How was I supposed to know you didn’t know? You could see all of the other mythical beasties we met.”
He squinted at Avi, and barely made out the irregularities in his skeleton. “To be fair, they are extremely rare, and he hasn’t Shifted yet. I can be forgiven for that oversight. Besides, I doubt you Saw that before she told you!”
“How did you know? You weren’t there for that!”
The Bonded pair spoke simultaneously, both confused.
Gabriel waved negligently. “I can read what I need to know from your memories. That’s not relevant, at the moment. What is relevant is the insight of a… dragon, I suppose. Things are beginning to make more sense. So, what say you?”
Angel saw the subtle change in her friend, how he ducked his head a little. She knew that look quite well! It was the face of someone who’d glimpsed the grand design, seen how their impatience or frustration was unnecessary.
“Ah, well, he(?) was going to put up wards, but if evil things don’t know where she is, that’d just be a beacon… right..?” In the presence of his dragon, and an Archangel, his confidence faltered.
“To paraphrase Kerowynn, it could be an ‘oh shoot me now’ sign, couldn’t it?” Angel wasn’t surprised; in fact, she was abashed that she’d apparently never thought of it first.
Gabriel fluttered the fingers of one hand over her, and an ethereal display manifested in front of him. She could read Celestial, but not fluently, or backwards. Besides, he was skimming too fast for her to catch anything but an odd letter here or there. He mumbled to himself, a frown working its way into the schism of his facial region.
“Looking at your records, he might be correct. The attack in the yard might not have happened if you hadn’t put up active camouflage. Might have been better to rely on passive camouflage and the ‘lookaway field’, as you call it. Those were already in place before it flew near. Hmm, yes, must alter your programming there.”
His fingers flew over the display, and her brain felt… tingly. She didn’t like it, but he was telling her what he was doing, so she wasn’t concerned.
Avriel, on the other hand, was greatly disturbed. “What do you mean, ‘alter her programming’? Don’t change anything! I just got her back where she understands things again!”
Angel seized his hand in a surprisingly strong grip. Since Gabriel was “plugged in” to her core, she could subconsciously tap into his energy. She didn’t know she did it, but a grin tugged one corner of Gabe’s mouth.
“He’s not doing what you think. He’s updating my fighting tactics file! You want him to do that! With what you just told us, we can avoid more danger. Don’t you want that? Isn’t it good to see we’re listening to you?”
She didn’t know that while Gabriel was fiddling with her programming, her eyes were angel blue. He had too many bad memories of those eyes. It was worse because she was siding with Gabriel. She was supposed to be his... His… Guardian.
Angel saw the mental click, the walls slamming into place. It cut her down to the bone; right past the Marks. Tears welled up in her eyes, but she let go of his wrist. He shot to his feet and started pacing. Her eyes dropped to her lap, where moisture collected on the tattoos on the insides of her own wrists.
“I suppose now is the worst time to tell you, but… Decades, maybe centuries from now, some of the children might decide to do what I do. Guardian angels like me, who would be vessels for an angel of their choosing. Others may remain guardian dragons. I made sure they had the choice. They’re safe, for now…”
“May as well tell him the other part now,” Gabriel suggested, withdrawing from her programming center.
She looked up, her eyes a natural, wicked green. She glared at her friend. “I. Said. No. He’ll never lay a finger on me, orders or not!”
Gabe tsked at her. “You know you can’t refuse a direct order.”
“Free will,” she growled through what teeth she had.
He shrugged. “And maybe the Old Man will abide by that. It’s not like he can make me possess you, just to mate with my brother.” He shuddered so hard it was audible.
She smirked, but it wasn’t a pretty thing. “You’ve been in a similar spot before, if I’ve heard right.” She flicked her eyes toward her Bonded, though her head didn't move.
“And on that note, I’m out.” To Avi, not that he could see the transition, he said “If you think of any other helpful advice, let us know.” He didn’t say goodbye, so it took a moment to realize he’d left.
From halfway across the room, one word whispered through the dim room to pierce her heart: “Us?”
She sat there, in a pool of artificial light in an otherwise dark room, pale and thin. The footboard shielded Menolly from his view, so she appeared lost and alone. His heart hardened, because he felt the way she looked.
“My name is my duty,” she murmured slowly. Her voice was heavy with the weight of two worlds. “I can’t change what I am.” She huffed. “Which is funny, considering how much I’ve changed.” Her eyes speared him with a Christmas colored beam of green irises, on a flash of red. “For you, I might add.” She looked away, and the red blinked out. “But maybe you’d rather go back to having an angel you can’t see.” She shrugged, the weight on those wide shoulders almost palpable. “I don’t get to decide what you do or don’t do. Don’t want to, either.” She sniffled. “All I wanted to do was be useful; help someone who deserves it.”
She was so beaten, so defeated, that the word “useful” had been drained of all emotion. She no longer spat it out, like spoiled milk. It broke his heart a little more.
“I’m sure they won’t… they’ll find somewhere to put me, if you want out. They’re not going to waste so many years of training…” She absently rubbed her forearm, though she didn’t seem to notice. She hugged herself, bony shoulders nearly touching, which seemed to release a hidden spring in her spine.
Two flesh-colored wings, vestigial in size, popped out on either side of her vertebrae. They stretched up above her head, but she wasn’t expending the effort to snap them out to full size.
She should have been surprised, or excited. The first time she felt her wings should have been accompanied by emotion of some sort. Instead, she felt even more hollow. Her head dropped to her forearms, legs drawn up to her chest. Tears flooded down her legs, but she paid them no heed. She didn’t wail, or sniffle, she merely let them fall where they would. She wouldn’t burden him with the knowledge that she wept, if he wanted to walk away.
Something tickled one of her new wings. It twitched reflexively, but she didn’t look up.
“I keep forgetting…”
Her head shot up, eyes wide and shimmering with tears that trailed in her wake.
“These are dragon wings.” His fingers skipped lightly over one membrane, and it twitched away again. “Unprotected, raw, but real.”
“And ticklish,” she grumbled.
He chuckled. “Point taken.” He cupped her face; puffy and blotchy, but still very human. It tightened with wariness. He sighed internally.
“I’m sorry. I haven’t exactly had the best experience with angels in the past.”
“Then why is that my name?”
A smile lifted his lips, but didn’t quite reach his eyes. “That was an accident.”
Her brow puckered. He smoothed it with one thumb, his hand tugging the braid on that side further awry. “I could call you by your real name, if you like.”
His thumb had more work to do between her eyebrows. “I don’t know… I don’t feel like… me anymore. Hearing my own name would be… It wouldn’t sound right, I don’t think.”
“No...” he started to say. She dropped her knees and fused her lips to his, kneeling on the bed to be able to reach. Her hands clutched his arms, unable to circle his neck without cords and tubes being pulled out. Her fledgeling wings cast shadows across their faces, warring for dominance in what looked like a kiss, on the outside.
They could feel each other’s emotions, to a point. It was mostly strong emotions, reduced to a whisper by distance and personal white noise. But when there was physical contact, it put a magnifying glass to those same feelings. Lust was a background note in this particular duet. It played second fiddle to frustration, confusion, sadness, and fear. Had it continued unchecked, they might have gotten caught up in the maelstrom of pent-up emotions.
Except they weren’t the only ones being tossed about in the storm.
This one took a toll on the author, so if it stung a little, just know that it wasn't easy to write, either.
Chapter 14: An Angel Out of Water
A high whine quickly built into a hearty bawl, and some very uncharacteristic kicking.
Angel, or whoever she was now, broke away first. Maternal instinct was an unforgiving taskmistress. She unbuckled their daughter and held her tight, still kneeling on the bed. She rolled her shoulders, wincing, until she figured out how to tuck her wings in behind her shoulderblades, so she could lean against the pillows. She rumbled vague soothing noises, but all Menolly wanted was to get inside the hospital gown. She burrowed aimlessly into the thin fabric, whimpering her distress vocally and mentally.
Her flailing pulled the untied gown down with little effort. She was latched on in mere moments, though it felt like forever to her anxious parents.
“Shh, I’m sorry, sweetness. Mama wasn’t upset with you. It’s just life, sugarplum. It’s confusing, and emotional, and I didn’t have it all figured out before…” She choked to a stop, before she could start crying again. She was rocking, perhaps a bit too much, but the baby didn’t seem to mind.
Avriel smoothed a hand across her bare back, trying to soothe both mother and child. She shivered, but she wouldn’t let the violet tint of her eyes push him away again. She murmured nonsense, the rocking slowing to a gentle sway, focused as much on her child as she could, with adult skin to skin contact.
I’ve got to get used to this, she thought. If that’s always a distraction, I’ll never get anything done. Just accept what is, and let go of what isn’t. It didn’t help as much as she liked, but if she could wrap her head round it, maybe she could be more mindful in the moment.
Guess all that therapy is paying off, she thought.
A snort ruffled her tangled braids.
And maybe I should figure out how to think inside thoughts while I’m at it, she growled, giving him disgruntled side eye.
He kissed the corner of her eye. :Never.:
She blew in his face out of the side of her mouth, like he was a stray hair. He kissed her brow. She blew at him and shrugged her ear to her shoulder, as if he were a gnat. He nabbed that ear between his teeth and tugged.
“Ach! What’s a girl supposed to do with you, anyway?” she growled, leaning away as far as she dared.
He tucked them against his chest, bumpy and slightly sticky though it was, arms around her shoulders. The answer that sprang to his mind didn’t make any sense, so he buried it where she couldn’t hear… he hoped.
She pretended not to “hear”, because it really didn’t make any sense at all.
“G’won now, you can’t be comfortable, twisted all round like that. Go wash off, or the glue will just get stuck in your chest hair.”
He slid back, off the bed, without letting go, and turned his legs the right way round. He wouldn’t miss this for the world. They couldn’t be sure when the baby would be fully weaned. Every time she nursed could be the last time. He stretched his long legs out beside her much shorter ones, set his head on top of hers, and just watched.
It unnerved her, but she tried to move past that. Hadn’t she just been saying that this was what she wanted? What she’d missed all those years?
What bothered her was that it was all happening out of order. First came love, sure… for one of them. Then came the baby. Then… what? Maybe love, maybe another baby, maybe both. It might, or might not happen in that order. She didn’t even know if it should happen. Wasn’t she supposed to protect him? How did she reconcile her duty with what she wanted? Did she want a family? Did she deserve one, was a better question. Had she paid her dues yet? Was it even her place to ask?
She always refused to ask for this one thing, though she couldn’t have said why. This big, huge thing, that made life worth living, and she never asked for it.
I suppose I should just enjoy whatever comes my way, whenever it does, try not question it, she thought. Best not be greedy. She leaned into him a little, a sigh barely stirring their daughter’s hair.
He “heard” her inner war, but he didn’t have any more answers than she did. He noticed the part of the nursery rhyme she left out, though: marriage. Did she not want that part? Or was marriage part of the “big, huge thing” she wouldn’t ask for?
Except she’s not the one who asks that part, he thought as quietly as he could. He meant what he told his parents: he was going to try to make this work… whatever this was.
But did that mean marrying her? His father certainly thought so.
“You don’t owe me anything, you know.” She said it so softly, he almost didn’t hear it. “All those kids I have… I’ve never been married.” She idly played with their daughter’s hair, needing something to do with the hand that wasn’t holding the baby.
Reflexively, before he could stop the words, he said “That’s not how I was raised.”
She shrugged into his armpit. “Doesn’t surprise me. It also doesn’t mean I’ll make the same mistake as… other women before me. Marrying ‘for the kids’ sake' rarely ends well.” She inserted a finger in their daughter’s mouth, broke the suction, and switched her to the other side. It was an easy, practiced motion that seemed to require little to no thought. Even if she hadn’t told him, he’d have known that she'd been a mother before she woke up in this bed.
He was torn between respect for the skill, and the realization that she really didn’t care about legalities. She’d done this enough times to become proficient, yet she’d never married their father(s).
Hurt flashed, and was gone, because he was right to question her morals. She didn’t rise to defend herself, except to say that on the contrary, it mattered too much.
He leaned back to look at her, keeping their daughter in his field of vision. “What do you mean, it matters too much?”
She stroked baby-fine hair from Menolly’s face. “Would you trust her life to a man you barely know? When divorce is such a messy process?”
She met his eyes, and there was the void, blacker than ever. “I’ve lost too many children by trusting the wrong people.” Her lower lip quivered, before she ducked her head to try and regain her composure, to prevent it from leaking to their daughter again. To that cherubic face, she spoke.
“It’s not that I don’t trust you, or that I think you’re… bad for her in any way. I just… don’t know how to let go.” Of either of you, she finished, where she thought he couldn’t hear.
He pulled her back to his chest. “Who says you have to let go of anyone?” He pressed his mouth to her knotted hair, hard enough to lose its shape in it.
“History,” she choked.
He tried to lighten the mood. “Sorry, that’s not my name. Guess you don’t have to let go, ever.”
She smiled a little. “Well, you’re going to have to let go when she’s done, or those pads are gonna be tangled in your chest hair, and stickier than her hands. I thought I got it all, punkin. Guess you’re getting a bath after Daddy, huh?” She waggled the finger that Menolly had gotten a firm grip on, which was now ever so slightly tacky to the touch.
His gut clenched, the way she said that word. She didn’t even think about it. It just came out, natural as you please. She had no trouble making him a part of their daughter’s life. It was only her own heart that she guarded so fiercely. He thought for the fifth, sixth, or millionth time, that he would never understand her. It would take an eternity.
But only one of them had an eternity to give… and it wasn’t him.
He kept forgetting that she would outlive him, by more years than he could fathom. He swallowed the knowledge, his throat pinching the bitter pill all the way down.
:You squeeze my shoulders any harder, and my wings are gonna pop out again,: she grumbled. He couldn’t tell if she’d heard any of his thoughts, but he hoped she hadn’t.
“Just do me a favor and wash her where I can see?” Her face, when it tilted up, was more naked and vulnerable in that moment than her torso. She was determined to wring every moment of happiness she could, from what she was given. She didn’t want to miss a thing.
“Of course I will,” he said with a smile. This once, when she was looking up at him, and the only distraction was in his line of sight, he saw the hitch in her breathing when he smiled at her. Her lashes fluttered down, but they couldn’t hide what he saw there. He glanced over at the screen, and he grinned wider. She could pretend to be calm and detached, but her heartbeat and breathing looked like an underwater landscape: irregular peaks and valleys that skipped haphazardly across the line.
:That’s cheating,: she scolded where the baby wouldn’t hear.
:I’ll take any advantage, trying to get a read on you,: he chuckled. He was unrepentant.
She picked Menolly up to burp her, glaring out the side of her eye at him. There wasn’t a hint of red to be seen. He just smirked down at her.
When they’d gotten a couple of tiny burps out of her, he went to fetch the baby bath one of the kids must have dropped off while they were sleeping. Angel thought about fixing her gown, but she was horribly smudged with all sorts of things. She hadn’t noticed that the last diaper change wasn’t quite fast enough, so there were wet spots on the gown itself, and possibly dried on her skin. There was also a bit of carrot puree that had soaked through near her belly button, though she’d no idea how or when it happened. Then there was the residue from the tiny fist on her bosom…
“Could you also fill that pink basin with warm water, and soap up a washcloth for me?”
He glanced over, and she was studiously looking at the baby, though her color was high. She still had the hospital gown around her waist.
“Maybe also see if there’s a clean shirt in the closet..?” she asked the tiny feet she was clapping together.
His Adam’s apple bobbed more than a middle school Halloween party. “Sure,” he wheezed.
He found everything she needed, but took his time bringing them to her. His composure was hard-won, and tenuous at best.
The basin he set on the movable tray table. He didn’t quite know what to do with the little tub. In the end, he turned on another light, set the bath on the floor, and sat next to it.
It’s a minor miracle that either girl got clean. She was watching his long, lean hands wash the chubby, splashing baby they’d apparently created together. He kept sneaking peeks at her absent-minded ablutions. She wasn’t looking where she was washing, which made it uncomfortably sensual. Having a woman watch you while she bathed was… distracting.
The only respite he got was when she asked the floor near his knee to close the curtain, so she could wash where she was sitting.
“It won’t be as clean as I’d like, with a catheter, but anything is better than feeling yucky.”
The floor probably agreed with her. He snagged the curtain from where he sat on the floor, one hand on the baby, and yanked it past his face as well as he could. She tugged from the bed, and between them, they got her enough privacy to finish her bath.
As he dried their daughter and put her in a ruffly blue concoction, he tried to ignore the quiet trickles of water on the other side of the curtain. Menolly took advantage of his distraction to drop the now chilly washcloth in his lap.
“What’s wrong? I’m done, can I help? Wait, no, forgot the gown. Are you okay?”
A gown was passed around the curtain, the arm bouncing with laughter. “I’ll take that as a yes. I’m dressed as far as I can on my own. I need help snapping the sleeve on the IV si--” she broke off, valiantly struggling to keep a straight face, and also not look directly at the wet spot.
“Here, hand her to me. Once you snap these, you can, ah, shower and change into dry clothes. Shards, I want a shower so badly…”
He handed her a clean, powdery smelling child, buttoned the snaps, and shuffled away to find clean clothes. It was debatable whose cheeks were redder.
Chapter 15: Tell Me No Lies
Angel gargled vigorously with mouthwash while he was in the shower. Her tongue tasted like a bottle that had fallen behind the crib, and then forgotten about for two weeks.
Then the nurse came in with more bone broth.
“Aw come on, I just got my breath to stop smelling like vulture burps!”
“If you're going to insist on breastfeeding, we're going to insist you replace those calories.” He looked down his nose at her. It was odd, seeing him without the angelic aura around his body, but he seemed to have recovered from being a temporary vessel--to the detriment of her taste buds...
“I've had like five of them already!”
“Four. This will make it five.”
Angel grumbled, whacking the bone broth powder against her other hand to settle it to the bottom, and ripping the package open in one clean tear.
“See? It's helping already. You couldn't open that this afternoon.”
Angel scowled, dumping the nasty stuff into the hot water with ill grace. “I bet I could even make it to the bathroom on my own.”
The nurse shook his head. “You'll have to wait to be evaluated in the morning. I saw you after OT, remember.”
Her scowl deepened. The taste of the fortified bone meal didn't help her mood. “Can I at least go back to regular broth? It tastes a helluva lot better than this stuff.”
Angel had to remember not to hunch her shoulders too much. She didn't want to scare the nurse into calling Roswell, or something. He wasn’t hosting Samandriel at the moment, so she had to avoid scaring the oh so normal human.
Best not start thinking like that, she thought. Protective, not scornful...
“You chugged that like a champ. Here's the mouthwash. Wouldn't want your man to be tasting it on the back end, eh?”
She swished with far more aggression than was strictly necessary. “He's n--” She clutched her throat, unable to finish the word. Again.
“Sorry, I shouldn't tease you like that. More throat spray?”
Angel nodded, without noticing. She was so lost in thought that she barely registered the throat spray, or the change of her sheets. She heard his promise to change the fitted sheet in the morning, but she wasn’t really listening. She kept trying to say that one word, and it wouldn’t happen.
The nurse was, blessedly, able to keep a straight face, though his patient looked like a cat trying to lick peanut butter off the roof of their mouth.
:Hey, ah… Is it normal for my voice to stop working suddenly?: she finally asked. :Should we change my name to Ariel?:
Avriel dropped his forehead to the shower wall. It was hard enough, knowing what he knew; how little she wore, and how close she was. He didn't need her in his brain while he was naked.
:Angelic Restrictions will do that sometimes.:
Confusion wafted into the steam around him.
:Why would Heaven prevent me from saying “not”? Or “sick”, for that matter?:
:Oh, that.: He'd forgotten to tell her she couldn't lie, because it was so ingrained in his mind.
:Yes, that. I don't like having my words edited.:
He scrubbed the last of the shampoo out of his hair. He'd learned that the hard way: never have shampoo in your hair while using telepathy in the shower. His eyes tended to suffer for it.
He braced himself for her reaction before dropping the bombshell:
:You couldn't say that I'm sick, because I'm not. That would be a lie.:
There was a long pause, filled with faint echoes that made him think she might be talking to the baby, to keep her cool.
A thought occurred to him, then.
:Just out of curiosity, what were you talking about just now? I can't imagine why you wouldn't be able to say “not”. When does that word become a lie?:
She didn't answer. Her mind was a confused tangle that she probably couldn't even sort out, herself, so he left it... for the moment.
When he came out of the bathroom, he brought up something else that confused him. “While we’re on the subject of the strange, how did I wind up here in my nightshirt, and jeans? I was in my pajamas when she ‘ported us.”
“That's a nightshirt?”
“I wear it with shorts… The ones I was wearing under my jeans. How did she..? I didn’t feel… I don’t know how that happened.”
“Well, you did need your wallet,” she pointed out. “If I was as hyper-rational as everyone says, I must’ve known you might, and… Actually yeah, how did she put pants on you, without you seeing, and teleport across an ocean?” Her face was adorably puzzled. It took great effort not to kiss her wrinkled forehead. “Unless she nabbed the pants with one hand, and… I dunno, they materialized with you the way they’re designed to be worn..? Could it be that easy for her--I mean, me?”
“It did take longer than usual,” he remembered. “I put it down to the distance.”
She shook her head. “In the books, blinking took the same amount of time, unless you were timing it. Since I doubt she--I went forward or back in time, maybe she had to manipulate your… uh… atoms? I don’t know, man. It’s late, and all this quantum physics hurts my head.”
He started moving the recliner, which took effort, so he thought at her instead. :You’re basing your calculations off of books, you know. We don’t know whether or not distance changes anything.:
“We also don’t know that Misty doesn’t know a real dragon, to get the details from. Sure, we’re rare, but were we always? Those books are older than I am. Maybe she met one before she wrote the books.” She shrugged, absently lifting the gown back up. “All I know is, my brain is tapped. She’s drifting off too, so maybe we should all go to bed, and tackle it in the morning. No, there’s a thing to turn that into a bed. Yeah. No? Other side. There! Now you don’t have to sleep sitting halfway up.”
He didn’t ask how she knew so much about the recliner beds in a hospital, because he wasn’t sure he could handle any more tragedy tonight. She’d obviously spent days, maybe weeks, by someone’s bedside, and his heart needed a break.
He found a spare blanket and stretched out on the narrow bed, with a pillow from the closet next to hers. Angel angled the bed back, but not flat, bent the leg portion, and stretched her legs out under the baby.
“You want me to put her in the car seat for you?”
She gently tugged Menolly up, onto her chest, rested her hands on the tiny back. She shook her head, a rose-tinted smile lighting her face. “She’s been cooped up too much. Let her stretch out for the night.”
His smile was equally fond. “She has a bassinet at home, you know.”
Her gut twisted at the words “at home”, but she refused to acknowledge it, or let it diminish her momentary joy. “It’ll be easier to feed her in the middle of the night this way.”
He couldn’t know whether or not she was sleeping through the night, because the dragon wouldn’t have thought it pertinent information. He had to take her word for it that the baby might wake up, because she rarely cried. He’d never been disturbed in the middle of the night, even when she was a newborn.
Besides, it gave her time to bond with their daughter. He saw right through the flimsy excuse.
:It’s not an excuse, you know. Co-sleeping has proven benefits. Something about my heartbeat and breathing regulating hers, I don’t remember.:
His smile grew. :I should know better than to question your methods, by now. You’ve always got some reason, or fact, that makes me feel silly for not thinking of it first.:
Her “voice” grew serious. :On the contrary, you should question everything. Keep me grounded, ‘kay? I don’t… I don’t think anything can kill me, if I… went rogue. Make sure I remember why, and how, and everything in between. You have to, because I can’t remember. I think I know why I keep losing my memory, too.:
His head snapped up. He asked what she knew, but she’d already fallen asleep. Jet-lagged, in a room he’d dimmed before lying down, with two sleeping people, he didn’t stand a chance. Despite the answers dangling in front of his face, her inability to tell him rendered them moot. He fell into a heavy slumber, not long after she did.
When he woke, she was just getting back in bed.
“Does your nurse know you were out of bed?” he asked. His voice was rougher than usual, his body stiff, having just woken from ten hours in one position.
“I should hope so! She had to take the catheter out before I could go to the bathroom.”
His eyes were fuzzy and confused. “Why didn’t you just leave it in, take it out after?”
She pleated the blanket at her waist, staring into the crisp folds. “What I had to do didn’t require a catheter.”
When his brain caught up to her words, he decided it was as good a time as any to sit up. That, of course, triggered his own need to use the bathroom.
“You might want to use the one down the hall,” she warned.
He nodded at the floor. He didn’t change out of his pajamas, since this set came with pants. He just slipped on his shoes and went out to find the guest restroom.
By the time he got back, she was feeding the baby mushy peas. She wore a bib over her nightgown, but he still worried about soiling it.
She set her chin on her half-clothed shoulder when he said as much. “She already needs to change out of her nightgown, so why put her in a day outfit before potentially getting it messy?”
He shook his head at the floor. “There you go again,” he chuckled.
“But if you hadn’t asked, you wouldn’t have learned anything,” she pointed out, spooning another mouthful into a very happy baby. “If it’s your turn, you’ll know to feed her before putting on clean clothes. You know the old adage: the only stupid question is the one you don’t ask. Something like that, yeah? Maybe I’ll remember once the coffee kicks in.” She made a face at him in between bites. “It’s decaf, so I don’t have high hopes.”
“Why--oh right, nursing.”
She wrinkled her nose at their daughter, touched it to her green-smeared one. “The things I do for you, kiddo…”
The baby giggled and patted her cheeks, thereby smearing them with green goo.
“Thanks for that,” she said dryly. She made a game of it, rubbing her cheeks clean on the bib and blowing raspberries in the baby’s neck folds. Menolly squealed happily, kicking her little legs in her mama’s ribs.
“I will avenge thee!” he mock-roared, wrapping his arms around them and blowing loud, prickly raspberries on Angel’s neck, though she tried to duck out of it.
“Aiee! Help! He’ll huff, and puff, and blooow me down! Save meee!” Angel dramatically swayed out of his grasp, pretending to swoon on top of the baby. She didn’t put any weight on her, of course. It was all theater, and Menolly was loving every minute of it.
Someone chuckled in the doorway, and the adults froze mid-combat.
Chapter 16: Meet the Parents... Again
“See, honey? You didn’t need to help him avenge anyone.”
Angel yelped and buried her head firmly in the blanket to the side of the baby. She was a frightful mess, and she knew it.
“Mom! Dad! Why didn’t you tell me you guys were coming?”
“Because you’d have told us not to.”
:He’s not wrong…:
:Yeah, but a little warning would’ve been nice,: he grumbled where they wouldn’t hear. She heartily agreed. He tied the gown behind her neck, hoping the solid food would hold Menolly until his parents left.
:Thanks. No help for the rest, though.:
And so the elder Kaplans’ first impression of Angel as a human was greasy hair, clumsily rebraided this morning; a thin film of pea puree on her face, splotches of it on her nice, clean gown, and a baby patting more on her hands in a silent demand for more.
Shelly heartily approved.
Afraid to speak, lest she expose her missing teeth, Angel focused on her daughter as much as she could. She heard the hugs, his parents telling him not to worry if baby food got on their clothes. She felt their approach toward the bed, and her shoulders hunched. She had to concentrate very hard to keep her wings tucked in, because her instinct was to mantle over the baby. She had nothing to fear from these lovely people, and yet her eyes took on a nervous ochre tint.
Shelly subtly put a hand on her husband’s arm to stop him from getting too close. She hadn’t forgotten that this was still a dragon. She knew that posture from personal experience, what it meant. She couldn’t see the yellow glow because of the sunlight, but it wouldn’t have surprised her to see it.
“Hello,” she said, projecting a calm aura to soothe the frazzled dragoness on the bed. “I don’t think we’ve properly met.”
The younger blonde looked up, her face puzzled. “Have we not?” She looked to Avi for confirmation.
“It was after you hit your head, yes.”
She visibly shuddered, and the skin on her back rippled briefly. She kept her wings in, which raised Shelly’s respect another notch.
“I’m sorry you had to see me like that,” she said to the spoon in her hand. She dipped it in the jar, only to find it empty of excuses to avoid eye contact. “I’ve heard what she was like… what I was like.” She set the jar and spoon on the tray, and got to work cleaning her daughter’s face as best she could.
Into the heavy silence, Mike quietly observed “I see you two are getting along better.”
The bony shoulders drooped another notch, but she didn’t say anything. Without conscious thought, Avi rubbed her back. She felt crowded, though his parents were a good two paces away. He could feel her shoulderblades shifting restlessly.
The old urge to fly away was still there, it seemed.
He gripped the shoulder nearest to him. “It’ll be a long road, but yes. We’re getting to know each other better, now that she’s got… well, most of her memories back.”
“Not all of them?” Shelly asked. She remembered how those lost memories had bothered her son before.
“The human mind has finite capacity for knowledge,” Angel intoned in an odd, hollow voice that also seemed to echo from far away. It wasn’t Gabriel’s voice, he knew that. “Periodic memory wipes will be necessary over the centuries. You wouldn’t like what would happen without them.”
He ducked down to look at her eyes for clues, but they weren’t any help. It was… disconcerting to look into those emotionless orbs. They weren’t precisely Spellcasting Grey, or Angel Blue, as he thought of them. They were mirrored, like a cat’s eyes in a flash of light. They were every color in the spectrum, and no color at all.
It hurt his head to try to pierce through the mirror, so he turned away. He shrugged at his parents, as confused by this new facet of his dragon as they were. His mother shrugged back.
“Remember for me, Avriel.”
She went as limp as a doll, so quickly he almost didn’t keep her from falling on the baby.
He’d just laid her head on the pillows when her eyes blinked open. Her brow crinkled. “How did I… What happened?”
“Whatever it was, the baby doesn’t seem concerned,” Shelly said.
They looked at Menolly, and sure enough, she was sitting in her car seat, calm as you please. Maybe more calm than normal, but they couldn’t be sure what that meant.
“Is anyone going to tell me what happened?” She asked the room in general, but she was looking at her Bonded for answers.
He took his time working it out. “I don’t know exactly what it was, but something was talking through you. It said I was supposed to remember everything you forget, I think.”
“It also said you have to forget things, over the centuries. Don’t suppose anyone’s going to explain that part to us?” Mike asked.
“I don’t think we can, no.” Her eyes flicked to Avi’s for courage. “But you already know that dragons live for a long time. I wasn’t born a dragon, so I don’t have the right… brain? Humans weren’t meant to live much beyond a hundred years old.” Her gaze dropped to her lap. “Besides, my brain was already damaged before I got turned into a dragon. You take a brain that can’t remember what it had for lunch yesterday, make it work beyond the normal operating parameters of a healthy brain… Things were bound to slip through the cracks.” She blew out a breath, almost a laugh. “Maybe it’s like turning a device off, and back on--except it’s a brain.”
“Well, at least this time, it only lasted a couple of seconds.” He forgot, for a moment, who was in the room with them. Long enough to press a firm kiss to her temple.
While he’d forgotten, Angel had not.
Neither of them had noticed that Shelly was sneaking photos of the three of them surreptitiously. She angled the phone so the baby couldn’t be seen beyond the car seat. She was creating false memories, in a way. The way it was shot, this could have been the day the baby was born. People were bound to ask to see photos, later in Menolly’s life. She may want to see them, herself.
The way her son doted over the girl lent credence to the images. She just wished Angel would look a little happier. Oh well, maybe they’ll see an exhausted new mother, she thought. When he kissed her temple, Shelly was quick on the draw. Anything they could put in an album later would be useful.
Mike cleared his throat, clearly uncomfortable. “There is something that will last longer than a few seconds, son. Something we spoke about before you went on tour?”
Avi’s shoulders tensed. He straightened, reluctantly faced his father. “I still haven’t told her, you know. I don’t know how.”
Angel thought he meant her. Her shoulders tightened, as though a weight was about to land on them.
“You said I had until I got home. What happened to that, anyway? Not that I mind, but why are you guys here?”
His parents exchanged a look that meant something to them, but left the younger pair in the dark.
“You didn’t think I’d do the right thing, did you?” he asked, hurt in his voice. Angel’s hand, oxygen monitor and all, snaked out and gripped his, in mute support.
“It’s not that,” his dad said, a bit too quickly.
“We just thought you might need a little help to do it, that’s all,” his mom soothed.
Angel squeezed his hand, offering what aid she could. He squeezed back.
“We talked about it, your father and I. We could only think of one way to solve the problem.”
The Bonded pair braced for the worst, though neither of them could think of a worst case scenario.
“You said you were going to try to make this work, which meant letting your girlfriend down easily,” Mike began.
“But she didn’t know that a dragon could turn into a human,” Shelly continued.
“Mom, no! You didn’t!”
She ducked her head. "I did."
Chapter 17: A Decent Proposal
All right, y'all wanted a happy ending. Here's the beginning of a happy ending.
“It was the only thing we could come up with. It was that, or have her memory erased, and I won’t have that on my conscience. Not if I could prevent it.” Shelly stood tall and proud, which, if you knew her well, was a clear indication that she’d Shifted recently.
Angel might not remember what Shifting did to his mother’s lifespan, but Avi did. The knowledge haunted his eyes, and was reflected in hers.
:I’ll trust you not to make my sacrifice meaningless, my son.:
His chin dropped to his chest. :Yes, ma’am.:
She stepped forward to hug her boy. He hung on to his mother as tightly as he dared, a few tears dotting her shirt.
Angel tentatively touched his back, and even the baby waved her arms at him. Shelly surprised her by dropping a hand down his back, to grip her fingers with surprising strength. It was the younger woman’s hand that cracked, but she wouldn’t let on.
Avi flexed his hand against his mother’s shoulder, trying to ease the ache whose cause took a moment to sink in. He drew back enough to tell his mother to kindly not break his dragon.
Shelly let go, and they all chuckled.
“I’ve heard of an ice breaker, but I didn’t know it could be literal,” she said. “Gracious, your hands are cold!”
Angel sniffled a laugh. “Yeah, ‘cold hands, warm heart’ is what they say. Been hearing it my whole life.” She picked up the baby and snuggled her close. “May you never inherit Mama’s circulation, huh? Hmm, let’s see…” She pressed one chubby hand to her lips. “Nope, warm as a summer day.” She gave it a loud kiss, which made the baby gurgle happily.
That’s definitely a keeper! Shelly took several photos, heart melting when her son checked the tiny “feetsies” for warmth. His beard tickled the sensitive baby toes so much, she giggled until she got the hiccups.
She might have become upset by them, except the adults all thought it was the cutest thing they’d seen all day. She beamed up at the grown-ups, hiccuping merrily for a whole minute. When there wasn’t another one to be heard, she got a tiny frown line between her brows.
“All gone,” Angel chirped, keeping her voice as light as it was when there were hiccups. She didn’t want to teach her to do things for attention. She made a fuss over Menolly for another full minute, as a sort of reward for not faking hiccups, but also to show her that they loved her, even without the funny noises.
“Okay, you’ve had enough fun. Gramma’s turn,” Shelly decreed.
There was a strange reluctance to hand her over, but she did relinquish her hold on the baby. Shelly flashed her son a questioning look.
:Past trauma. I’ll explain later… what I know, anyway.:
She nodded at the baby, making faces at her, to try to counter her mother’s anxiety.
“So,” Mike said, drawing out the word to get their attention. “Back to the matter at hand…”
It was arguable who reached for whose hand first. They tensed at the same time.
“Does she know, then?”
Shelly blew raspberries into the baby’s tummy. “All she knows is that the mother of your child can become human.” She looked him square in the eye. “I didn’t do the heavy lifting, no.”
“You don’t have--” Angel started to say.
Avriel pivoted on his heel and clapped a hand over her mouth. “Don’t say that. I heard you the first time.” He squeezed the hand he still held, just shy of the point of pain. “You’re wrong.” He dropped his hand from her face and sat on the bed, facing her. The white imprint his fingers left gave him momentary guilt that faded as fast as his mark did.
He took up her other hand, flipped both so her tattoos showed. Her eyes sparked a warning he recklessly ignored. She saw his intent, fought him every inch of the way. But she hadn’t regained her strength. What little she had, she’d given to the baby.
“Don’t,” she begged, her voice husky from their silent battle.
He kissed each wrist in turn; her silent, futile rage burning at him from the inside, warring with the passion she couldn’t fight, any more than she could fight him.
“I have to try.” His eyes pleaded with her, asking for something she didn’t want to give.
Tears spilled from angry Christmas colored eyes. “Of course you do. There’s just one big, huge problem. You. Don’t. Know. Me. I don’t know you. That’s not a very good place to start.”
His jaw set, more determined than she’d seen him, with her current memories. “I know enough.”
Her teeth ground together, almost audibly. “No, you don’t! You've got this… this idealized image of me, from when I was literally an angel--or part of one. You don't see the skin covered in scars, the teeth I don't have, the curves that shouldn't be there.” She yanked one hand free to hold up fingers that had been twisted and stunted by years of being crammed against drawing paper, and wrapped around pencils. “You don't see me!” The weathered, crooked hand shoved weakly at his chest.
“You're wrong.” He covered her hand, trapped it against his heart. Her head jerked back warily. “I saw you from the beginning. The outside wasn't what I liked, it was your… well, for lack of a better word, your soul.”
“Would this be the same soul that was pushing you away, marching along like a military general? The soul you shoved back into this body, because it was too alien?” She gripped a fistful of his shirt, shaking him for emphasis.
“That wasn't you!”
“Wasn't it? How do you know?” She leaned closer, nearly nose to nose with him.
“The way you reacted to Kapa’s training. How you are with the baby. The willingness to give up your own life for another. The strength that's been constant throughout, the stubbornness-- which may be an issue in the future. You're too damned stubborn to accept what's happened, or that you might actually deserve it. I've seen your soul, and it's beautiful.”
Her shock at hearing him swear only gave her momentary pause. “If you knew what it took for me to become strong, and independent, you'd know why it's so hard to give it up.”
“So tell me.”
She sat there, hands gone lax, longer than he liked. “To make a long story short, I've found that I'm… prone to becoming codependent on another human being, when given the opportunity. To be told that I'm literally bound to someone…”
She snatched her hands back, clapped them together, wrists up; as though the tattoos were handcuffs. He winced. “It's a bit of a setback, to say the least. How do I keep me separate from you? You never did say, the last time I asked. Got any ideas?” She glared at him, her wrists now “bound” in front of her chest.
“You love me.” He covered her hands with his own, over her madly beating heart. “Try to deny it!”
Anger briefly flashed, before she slumped in defeat, her chin resting on his knuckles. “You know I can’t do that.” Two tears splashed onto the skin of his outer wrists.
She was so thoroughly beaten that she forgot to hold her wings in. They snapped out, one of them glancing off the IV bag. She winced, but didn’t cry out. She set her forehead on his knuckles, the nape of her neck exposed.
The symbolism wasn’t lost on him. His teeth ground together, at war with himself.
“Would it really be that bad, married to me?”
His words, the pain behind them, snapped her out of her bubble of misery faster than a bucket of cold water. Her head whipped up with supernatural speed; a remnant of her contact with Gabriel. Her hands flipped around to grip his, right where they were against her bosom. “Of course not! It’s not you I’m worried about!”
“And since she can’t lie, can we get on with this? I don’t know how much longer your mother can keep the baby quiet.” Mike was doing admirably well, dealing with his first glimpse of a dragon half-Shifted. His voice barely trembled.
The younger parents’ heads turned toward their daughter simultaneously. In this one tiny, adorable thing, they were united. They wore matching expressions of apology. Both yearned to hold her, and make it all better.
Mike made shooing motions. “Hurry up, would you?”
They even laughed the same way. “Not exactly romantic, is it?” he chuckled.
She sighed. “It never is.”
His face set in an unrecognizable mask. “Hell with that.”
While she was still reeling with shock that he’d sworn, again, he hauled her to his chest by their clasped hands and kissed her senseless. Everything, everyone else, faded into the background.
And this time, she let him in. That first contact sent a jolt clear down to her toes, and she was distantly certain the readings on the monitor would have a nurse bolting in at any minute. But those thoughts were far, far away, in a body she’d left behind. She was also faintly positive she’d just exploded into atoms that didn’t know how to be a person anymore.
They remembered what they were supposed to look like, when someone tapped on their shoulders. Two souls plopped back into their respective bodies quite abruptly. It took awhile for eyes to focus again, brains to click into gear. They were too stunned to even be embarrassed.
Until the world slid into focus again, and Mike was standing there trying to frown at them, and only half succeeding. Then they wore matching blushes.
Still in a daze, Avriel slid off the bed, onto one knee, keeping hold of her hands. He said her name--her real name--as though it were the sweetest sound he’d ever heard. “Would you do me the honor of being my wife?”
A small box was pressed into his shoulderblade, where Angel couldn’t see it. He let go of one hand and reached behind him to take it. To her, it would have seemed like he took it from a back pocket.
Her eyes, large and not quite focused yet, widened further when he flicked the box open with his thumb and held it out. It didn’t matter what the ring looked like. The fact that he had one at all spoke louder than a hundred choirs.
She couldn’t have said a word if her life depended on it. Shock, and the aftereffects of the kiss, rendered her mute.
Fortunately, she didn’t have to use her voice. She nodded, once, eyes filled to the brim. :As you wish,: she said, a wealth of emotion that couldn’t be conveyed with mere vocal cords singing accompaniment.
He let go of her hand long enough to take the ring out of the box and slide it over her fragile, slightly crooked finger. She smiled, even as tears left gilded tracks down her cheeks.
He stood to give her one quick, solid kiss to seal the deal. It was all he dared, with the company in the room.
Chapter 18: Holy Matrimony
“Now that that’s settled, should I fetch the Chaplain?” Mike asked.
Shelly saw the objections forming already. “I hate to point this out, but your daughter is already six months old. As the old cliche goes, ‘what will people say?’ You do have a career to think about,” she gently chided.
“What?” both parents asked.
“I’m never doing this again,” she said to their joined hands. Her words meant more to Avi than they did to his parents. They hit him with the force of a full-grown dragon.
“I’ll have it done properly, or not at all. Something small, preferably outdoors, or in a quaint little church. I do mean small . No more than twenty people.”
This sent his mother into a tizzy that confused the baby. “Our family alone has more than twenty people in it, not including yours! Who are we supposed to leave out?”
A wave of faces flitted across her mind, probably from his brain. She wasn’t thrilled with that level of sharing; particularly when it drowned her in a flood of information. Angel’s face sagged with fear and resignation. Fear of a large wedding, and the endless possibilities for codependency. She was resigned to being uncomfortable on her wedding day. She knew how important family was, to them.
“I don’t do well with crowds,” she protested weakly. She sounded like a lost child who’d been plunked in the middle of a crowded, unfamiliar city. She wasn’t overly fond of cities either, but she wasn’t going to tell them that.
“That’s going to be a problem, given his career,” Mike pointed out.
Angel shook her head, a hint of steel in her jaw. “Backstage is claustrophobic, but quiet. If dragons really have extrasensory perception, I won’t have to go where the crowds are, unless there’s a problem. At that point, fight or flight overrides social anxiety. You don’t have to worry about me being able to do my job .”
Mike had the grace to blush at her inference.
Shelly bristled, having so recently taken dragon form, but she maintained outward calm for the baby’s sake. Her eyes didn’t spark red, being too far removed from angelic bloodlines, but Angel was dragon enough to get the drift. Later, she would wonder if it was subconscious recognition of pheromones, or some sort of electrical energy thing; but in the moment, she was a younger dragon in the presence of an angry elder dragon. If she’d been fully Shifted, her earflaps, crests, and wings would have hugged her scales in submission. All she had were wings, which tucked in close to her shoulders. It was itchy where the ties were, but she didn’t acknowledge the discomfort.
The downside to losing her memories was, she had none of her hard-won confidence. She was once again the lonely fangirl who didn’t know her own power. She could crush the elder dragon with a flick of her talons, not that she would. But she could, and she didn’t know it. She did not yet believe that she could do more than make it to the bathroom and back on her own, so she gave in without another whimper.
It took great effort for Avriel to let her face this trial on her own. He wanted so badly to sweep her to his chest, shield her from the world, but he knew it would do more damage than good. She needed to be strong enough to face horrors that were so bad, the Angel he knew didn’t think he should remember them.
But, being himself, and having just proposed to her, he squeezed her hands in silent support. Being the stubborn angel-dragon that she was, she didn’t cling or weep. She returned the pressure, with no more or less strength than he gave her.
“May I propose a compromise, pardon the pun?” Mike asked, sensing the disturbance, without fully understanding its nuance.
Angel shrugged, wings rustling listlessly. She rolled her shoulders absently, trying to ease the itch of raw skin on rough fabric.
Avi sat next to his new fiancee and nodded for his father to continue.
“We can do both. The Chaplain can marry you now, so the dates match up better, and we can have whoever you want do the ceremony, since it’s more of a celebration than legalities, if that makes sense.”
She drooped further, but didn’t object. She’d go along with whatever he wanted. Not because she had to, but because she could see the logic of it. Not only did it look better on paper, but it gave them time to plan whatever fairytale wedding they imagined their son would have.
:It’s not just my wedding,: he objected.
:This may surprise you, but I gave up on the idea of marriage years ago. The extent of my wishes have already been given. Somewhere beautiful, open, ancient. An old church on a mountaintop, or a beach somewhere warm, I don’t really care. We could get married out in the sage and stone, and that’d be just fine.:
The way she said “fine” wasn’t the modern usage. It felt more like “fine linen”, or “fine dining”. The more he thought about a wedding at home, among the sequoias perhaps, the more wistful he grew. He’d always wanted to film a music video there, but it was too personal for him to bring the whole band into what he affectionately thought of as his woods. He didn’t own them, but it felt like they owned a part of him.
The fact that she knew this affirmed his decision. There was a… chime? When she said the last sentence, it just felt… right; for both of them, he could tell.
“All right, you two. I may not be able to hear what you’re saying, but that doesn’t make it any less rude. Have you come to a decision?”
His cheek twitched to have his mother echo his own word. He nudged Angel’s mind, a wordless query. She mentally shrugged. :I said I’d go along with you on it. I can see the logic, even if I don’t like it on an emotional level.:
“We’ll do what’s best, even if it isn’t what we wanted.” He watched his Bonded out of the corner of his eye, squeezed her hands once.
Esther walked through the door with a middle-aged woman, which stunned everyone except Shelly. Even she was surprised, however, to see the rest of the band file in after, hatchlings on their shoulders.
“Sorry, but they insisted,” she said. To the Chaplain, it would seem she meant the band members, but the little family in the hospital room knew who she meant: their children.
The three hatchlings who hadn’t seen Angel, and the three humans who’d never seen Angel as anything other than a dragon, gawked with varying degrees of subtlety.
The Chaplain, having entered first, saw none of it. She strode in, shook the engaged couple’s hands (which meant letting go with one, though neither wanted to relinquish their hold on the other).
“I’ve been apprised of the situation by your sister, mister Kaplan. I’ll not lecture the two of you on propriety, since you obviously see that your children need a unified parental structure.”
They managed to keep straight faces, though some of the band could not. “Yes ma’am,” they chimed in unison.
“While we’re at it, would you object to having your youngest child baptized, or would you prefer your own officiant for that?”
Wide blue eyes, bluer than he’d ever seen, met equally wide hazel eyes. They both sent a wordless question across, then smiled.
“We don’t know yet,” he said.
The byplay caused more than a few smiles behind the pastor. They were all friends here, and it was clear that something good was about to happen.
“Mom? Dad? Any input?”
“With respect, I’d rather our church handle that part,” Mike said.
“Fair enough. Shall we begin?”
:I don’t suppose you’ve got more rings in your pockets, do you?:
:I’ve had your sister pick up a pair, yes.:
He swallowed visibly, but took Angel’s other hand and nodded.
“Can you stand?”
Angel swung her legs out from behind Avi, jaw set and wings tucked in. She was a bit sore, because she’d never yanked them up into her back so fast in her life, but when the door opened, there was no choice.
Just as there was no choice, for her, but to stand, sore and tired, for her own wedding. If she leaned against the bed, well, she couldn’t be blamed. She would’ve felt horribly exposed and vulnerable, but Esther brought her a lovely white shawl that, she whispered, could double as a nursing shield later. For now, it covered the horrid hospital gown that, thank God, had been changed recently. There was no hope for her hair, or any of the rest.
The Chaplain, to her credit, had a ceremony prepared for such an occasion. She spoke of unity in all things, and praised their choice in the oddest way:
“For you to wed in the most extreme of sickness, you have already passed the first test of any relationship. When you say ‘in sickness and in health’, you can be confident that it is true.”
No one could argue her logic. Their eyes were red-rimmed, their cheeks sunken. His hair was damp, hers oily. He was in pajamas, she in her hospital gown. No trace of makeup or artifice disguised them from each other.
It was the most pure version of themselves, the Chaplain asserted. They could move forward knowing that it wasn’t the makeup, or the hairstyle, or the clothes, that the other person loved.
They thought they’d run out of tears, but they were wrong. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room among the adults, and most of the hatchlings had a shine in their eyes. Menolly beamed up at everyone.
Gabriel, hidden even from his friend, wept openly, and without shame. Samandriel didn’t chastise or tease him for it. He was more interested in the proceedings than his brother’s reaction to them.
Esther’s hands were steady when she gave them their rings, but theirs were not. His long, gentle hands trembled as they slid the engraved silver band over her knuckle. She had to close her hand to keep it on, as thin as she’d become. Her own fingers, leathery and worn, somehow managed to look graceful slipping on the wider, matching ring with two fingers. Her index finger, ring finger, and pinkie hovered over the procession like guardian angels--even though the bulky oxygen monitor covered one of them.
When the ring was on, those tiny fingers flicked in a gesture he knew quite well. He still didn’t know whether she did it consciously, but they definitely needed a Bubble of Silence when they were declared man and wife. He doubted either of them would’ve remembered to cast any sort of spell when they sealed it with a kiss.
Whether it was the emotion of the moment, or some sort of supernatural reaction to a religious rite, that kiss carried more import than either of them were prepared for. She didn’t remember her tie to the spiritual realm, so it caught her unawares. If they’d been asked to describe it, neither could have done so. Angel was a writer, but all she could’ve said was that it wasn’t physical in the least. She barely felt his lips on hers. It was more intimate than anything she’d experienced in her long years.
It wouldn’t frighten her until much later.
Chapter 19: Painful Goodbyes
Congratulations broke out, which eventually snapped them out of their temporary spiritual union. The baby was passed around, which Angel kept a wary eye on. Shelly made a mental note to ask her son about it again, when they had a moment to themselves.
Esther told her brother, when she hugged him, that she bought him some more time with his girlfriend. “I told her the baby was sick, too,” she murmured.
“Thanks,” he said into her shoulder.
“What are sisters for?” she chuckled, not as quietly. The others could reasonably assume she was referring to the wedding arrangements.
Angel was overwhelmed, meeting the entire band, and the rest of her children. She couldn’t go far without unplugging her IV, which would alert the nurse, so she had to stay by the bed and let them come to her. With so many tall people, it was often hard to keep an eye on the baby. She tried very hard to trust the impression she’d gotten of these people. They wouldn’t take her away, she repeated in her head.
:No, they wouldn’t. Relax, I can see her from here. Scott is making the cutest faces at her.:
Angel really wanted to see, but Kevin was just too tall. He seemed to be more familiar with her than the others, which was odd, to her.
"I'm happy to see you back to yourself. You know, even if you can't remember anything, you just look... I don't know, more at peace? Take good care of him for me, 'kay?" He hugged her like he'd known her for years, his eyes suspiciously moist.
She was trying to listen to him, but it was hard not to look around him to see what Scott was doing.
Avi heard her wish, and pulled out his phone. It stayed in his hand until the nurse came in to take her vitals. Knowing he would show her the photos later, she was able to focus on Kevin better.
“Okay, you’ve had your fun,” the nurse said. She had to say it twice, because Angel couldn’t see her come in. The Bubble of Silence needed to be taken down before anyone could hear that they were being shooed out.
The band took their time saying goodbye, trickling out more slowly than the nurse wanted. She scowled as sternly as she could while holding the thermometer under Angel’s tongue, but it was all for show. She saw the new rings on her patient’s hand when she reached up to hold her own thermometer.
Dan was understandably confused by the people filing out of Angel’s room. He knew who they were, of course. Having been exposed to Angel and her unique dragon eyes, he could see the hatchlings on their shoulders. He didn’t know they were her children, but they were the first dragons he’d ever seen. He was forgiven by most of them for gawking like a country bumpkin.
Angel and Menolly were both beyond overstimulated, by the time the room emptied of everyone except Dan and the Kaplans. Angel was glad of the relative respite, pun intended.
Dan hugged Angel, questions brimming almost visibly. He caught sight of the rings, when her arms lowered from the hug. His broad face tightened with suppressed pain.
“These are Avi's parents, and that’s his sister Esther,” Angel said, awkwardly gesturing to the elder couple and their daughter, behind him. He nodded at each, shook their hands, in turn. When he plucked at one of her braids, his thick fingers shook so bad that it was hard to separate the plaits.
“They didn’t make you do this, did they?” he asked near her ear, while unraveling her hair--and her fragile composure.
“Sort of,” she murmured back. “It’s all happening so fast. I’m nervous, maybe even scared. Promise you’ll keep coming back?”
“You know I can’t promise, but I’ll try.” In a normal voice, he bemoaned the state of her hair as he brushed it. “Aren’t they letting you in the bathroom yet?”
She forced a laugh. The roughness was more pronounced, from all the talking she’d been doing. “Yeah, but it’s only been a day. It’ll be awhile before they let me in the shower.”
The nurse entered the numbers in the computer, and told her OT should be in within the hour. Angel didn't groan, or complain. She merely nodded, temporarily foiling Dan's unsteady weaving. The nurse left with a fond smile on her face, none the wiser.
Kapa told his family that his siblings took the band home. He wouldn’t say that they’d teleported, in front of Dan, but it was understood. Angel was sad that she wouldn't get to properly meet the rest of her children, but she knew that the band was probably jetlagged.
The Kaplans caught up on personal things while Dan braided her hair. When she was neat and tidy, Esther handed Dan the baby. She didn’t know he was anything more than a friend. She was a proud aunt showing off her niece.
Daniel’s eyes met Angel’s, over her daughter’s head. She knew what he was thinking: This could’ve been their future, had she not become a Vessel on that fateful night.
But if she hadn’t volunteered, she could never have borne him a child.
Avi understood their haunted eyes, though no one else did. His family pretended not to notice when the baby fell asleep in Dan’s arms, and Angel teared up.
Then his phone rang. He sighed heavily and handed the sleeping child to her father. He hugged Angel one last time. She held him extra tight, asked him, again, to return tomorrow. “You know how scary new things are,” she whimpered into his thick neck. Her arms trembled on his broad shoulders.
He didn’t answer her, but he did answer his phone. He waved an apology, and darted out the door before talking to the person on the other end.
Angel was painfully certain she would never see her best friend again.
Chapter 20: Them Bones, Them Bones, Them Dragon Bones
Angel flopped back against the pillows, gasping for air. Her face was flushed, braids awry, and the monitor looked like a Martian landscape. The ties at her nape had come undone again. For a solid minute, her labored breathing was the only sound in the room. He let her rest that long.
“Ready for round two?” Avriel asked.
Angel groaned and rolled her head toward the window. It was all she had the energy for.
“Don't worry, you can do it lying down.”
Esther snickered behind him.
Avi blushed, unable to look at any of his family members. “That's not what I meant! I was talking about Shifting…”
Angel chuckled wearily.
“You may as well know that you won't transform today, okay?”
Angel was too tired to argue that she’d already figured the wings out.
“First, we meditate. If you're lucky, you'll See the notches and hinges on your bones. That's the first step. You can't stretch muscles and joints, if you don't know you have them.” He was repeating the same words his mother had said when she taught him.
“The muscles I know of are too tired to stretch, anyway.”
“That's why I thought now would be a good time to practice. Your body is exhausted, so maybe your mind can focus better. Does that make sense?”
“Yeah, sort of.”
“I can show you what to feel for, how to center yourself. Your body knows what it can do. It's your mind that you’ve got to convince. You figured one part out by accident. The rest might not be so easy.”
He patted her shoulder, self-conscious in front of his family.
“It takes time, and practice. For you, it may go faster, because you have more free time than I do; or it could take longer, because you’re still in recovery. We won’t know until you try.”
“Nothing worth having is easy,” Angel growled.
Shelly laughed. “That’s what I said.”
He lifted her chin gently. She blushed, resisted the urge to pull away. They were married now; she had no reason to shy away from affection. It was an old habit she’d have to break, if they were going to get along. The past two days had shown her that he was as affectionate as he seemed. There would be a lot of little touches like this to get used to.
“You'll need more patience than ever before, Angel. The programming is here.” He tapped her forehead with two fingers. “You just have to find it.”
She couldn't argue with his logic, so she followed the guided meditation he learned from his mother, trying to see her own bones. They sat cross-legged, facing each other. He sat straight and tall, while she had to raise the head of the bed and lean into it. Shelly gave advice here and there, as she saw the need.
Esther went home soon after, to sleep for a week, as she said.
He was right, in that she was too tired to get restless, but she had to work twice as hard to relax. Everything was one big ache.
She was just beginning to get frustrated, when she Saw a tiny latch in her elbow. Her head cocked to one side, though her eyes were closed.
She extended the arm by the window out straight, between Avi and the machinery, so she wouldn’t hit anyone if her hunch was correct. What if I twist and flick my arm like this?
The newlyweds yelped almost simultaneously, and clutched their knuckles. That is to say that Angel tried to, but one arm was now twice as long as the other.
Everyone stared at her arm, with varied reactions: Shelly was proud, and a tad nostalgic. Mike was trying very hard not to be horrified, because she hadn’t locked it in place. It looked crooked, and not right. Avi was stunned, and perhaps a touch jealous. Angel was trying not to panic, because she could feel that it wasn’t supposed to bow the way it was.
Shelly walked round the bed and carefully nudged her daughter-in-law’s elbow into its new slot. Angel immediately relaxed with an audible sigh.
“And that’s why I didn’t try it with the IV arm,” she said, her mouth twisted wryly. “Now that I’ve got that part, how do I undo it? We don’t need a nurse freaking out.”
Shelly gave her a Look. Angel sighed, closed her eyes again. She Looked for the little latch, squinted at it as though that would somehow help her understand how it worked.
Shelly turned her arm sideways, and she Saw how a… diagonal flex..? Might pop it out so she could… She’d used centrifugal force to whip it out, like a cane. How did she… Do I push against the wall--? It was crude, and painful, but she could See that it was working.
Not fast enough, however. The door started to open--
Shelly grabbed her palm and thrust sharply up toward her shoulder. Angel yelped. The nurse’s aide came in to see her mother-in-law holding her wrist in a weird way.
“There, does that feel better?” she asked, quite as if nothing were amiss.
“Yes and no,” Angel said, rubbing her elbow.
“It should feel better soon. Good thing I know a few chiropractor tricks, isn’t it?”
Angel saw what she was doing. She nodded, rubbing her arm appreciatively. She couldn’t lie, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t let people believe the lie of another.
The aide came in to inspect the damage, casting suspicious looks at the amateur chiropractor. He couldn’t find anything wrong with any of the readings, or her arm, now that she was wholly human.
“If your heart is going to work that hard after OT, we may have to take you off of it until you’re in better shape.”
“I’m fine!” Angel protested.
“It was most likely the pain causing stress. You can see, after a minor adjustment, that it’s fine now.” Shelly raised her hands, palm up. “I was just trying to help.”
“You did help,” Angel said. “I feel much better now. Thank you.” She wasn’t lying. Being half-Shifted was extremely uncomfortable. It wasn’t her heart pumping blood to the further extremity that bothered her. It was the feeling of being half in one body, half in another. Being shoved back into the body she was born in was a vast relief, and it showed.
The aide glared at them, but Shelly was right. Her heart rate was back within a normal range, if a tad high, out of worry.
“If you have pain after your next session, let one of us know. I’m not saying you did anything wrong, ma’am, but we’re liable for everything that happens to her while she’s in our care. I’d appreciate it if you’d leave things to the professionals from now on.”
Shelly agreed to his terms, but Angel could sense a fire under the surface. She reached out and squeezed the older woman’s hand in silent support.
“While I’m here, I may as well get you some bone broth.”
Angel groaned. “Can’t I try some solid food? Anything but that!”
The man scowled. “I doubt you want liver, and that’s the only thing that’s got the nutrients you need. Besides, we don’t know how your stomach will handle solid food.”
“What if we made mashed potatoes with bone broth? No, wait, then it’d take longer to get it down. I’d like something solid, though. That broth doesn’t hold me for long.”
“You’re hungry?” he asked. Hunger was usually a good sign of recovery, and she knew it.
“Famished. Can’t I have something small, see if it stays down?” She was begging at this point, but she didn’t care. Her stomach was trying to gnaw its way through her skin.
“I’ll see what the doctor says.”
It was the best she could hope for. She choked down the bone broth when he brought it, hoping it was one of the last she’d have to drink.
When the aide seemed to be done coming and going, Avi smiled at his parents. “Didn’t I tell you she was a scrapper? I didn’t think you’d be able to do it right after OT,” he said to Angel. “I thought you’d get some mental stimulation, get your mind off being tired.”
“Yes, you did say she was tough. Thanks, by the way, for helping your mother.”
Angel blushed, having Mike refer to them as her parents so soon after the rushed wedding. “She did help,” was all she’d say.
“Even so, maybe the practicing should wait until you’re not being monitored anymore?”
“Probably for the best,” she agreed. “We’ve seen that I’ve got the general idea. Should be enough, for now.”
Shelly squeezed her hand once and released it. “You two should come out to the cabin. Maybe if you see how she does it, you’ll figure it out,” she said to her son.
Avi grinned. “First chance we get, you can bet we will!”
Angel wasn’t thrilled about the assumption that she’d agree, even though she would have. She had to remind herself that she was his Guardian, as well as his… wife. That word was going to take some getting used to.
The aide came back with snack options, most of which she couldn’t have. It was a harsh reminder of her limitations--one of which being the missing teeth she’d forgotten about, until now. Her new in-laws didn’t say anything about it, but she felt self-conscious. She resolved to find her partial dentures before they returned the next day.
Chapter 21: The L Word
If either of them had given it much thought, neither of them would have chosen to spend their wedding night in a hospital room. They would have preferred a nice, comfortable bed; perhaps a cozy dinner. It certainly wouldn’t have included needles, tubes, or horrible-smelling drinks. There would have been cake, instead of gluten-free cookies for her, and a guest tray for him.
The should-have-beens weighed more heavily on her than they did him. He trusted his mother and sister to craft the perfect wedding. Esther’s wedding had been lovely, so he had a frame of reference that she did not.
Angel brushed crumbs off of her hospital gown, trying not to feel sad, and failing. She’d taken off the shawl, so she wouldn’t spill the awful bone broth on it, which left her sitting in a slightly soiled hospital gown of pale blue and grey. The ties dangled listlessly down her back, where his hand lightly brushed her shoulderblades. He could sense her disquiet, though the source wasn’t clear. He offered her support without asking what was wrong. If she’d been able to tell him, he would have heard her thoughts directly.
There were only two bright spots in their wedding day: feeding and changing the baby, who was able to stay awake longer than before; and falling asleep as a family. Menolly was tucked in the lee of her mother’s body, facing her father. He was again on the recliner, but they pushed the rail down between them, so they could hold hands around their daughter.
In a day full of bloodwork, bone broth, and doctor consults, that little bit of family life got them through. The doctor was impressed with her progress already, and optimistic that it would only be another week before she could go home.
His parents stayed for a couple of days, but they had to return home. They realized later that they never did say how they got there on such short notice, in the first place.
Things seemed to go well for a while, but he noticed that Angel didn't have the spark that he admired so much. She powered through OT like a champ, grimly determined to get on her feet faster than the doctor recommended.
He managed to draw her out a few times, make her laugh, but something was missing. It took three days for him to realize that she’d changed after they got married.
Whatever it was, it wasn't physical. She still responded the same to his kisses--though she hadn’t initiated a kiss since then, either. Whenever they weren’t taking care of their daughter, things seemed a bit strained between them. He couldn't figure out why.
What might’ve been worse was that Dan looked at him in an odd way that made him wish he could read everyone's mind. He couldn’t tell if the big man was disappointed in him, jealous, or angry. He got the impression he was falling short somewhere, only he didn’t know where he needed improvement.
Angel was glad of the too-brief visits, and not just because she thought he’d left forever. She’d vented to him one day over messenger while her… husband was sleeping (having charged her phone to reconnect with the world, including her family). He’d come to her the moment he was free. He was neither dominant nor possessive while Avi was in the room, he was simply supportive. If one didn’t know how to read a taciturn Minnesotan, they might think he was even friendly toward the younger man.
It bothered the gentle giant that only one of them had admitted their feelings--and only because she couldn't lie about them. In her own words, “He's been doing the proud dad thing, showing us the appropriate amount of affection, but... He's never said, or even thought the ‘L’ word.
“The worst part is, I don't expect him to say it. Not if he doesn't mean it. After all… Don’t get mad, but he still hasn't told his girlfriend, that I know of.”
The last sentence got to him, almost as much as the unrequited love that his love was suffering. He knew her pain intimately, because it tore him into the same size pieces.
She managed to keep the reason behind her pain hidden from her husband; the first bit of wall back in place. She wouldn’t worry him with something he couldn’t do anything about. She also wouldn’t guilt him into saying something he didn’t mean.
She was right that he didn’t know how he felt about her, but she was wrong about his girlfriend. He told her the second night after the wedding, while his wife was sleeping.
He stepped out in the hall, and quickly decided that the family room would be better.
Their greetings were a bit stilted, which was understandable under the circumstances.
“So… Esther says the baby's sick?”
“Yeah, Angel and I are in the hospital with her now.”
“Angel… That's the one that's almost your size, right?”
“Y-yeah. We're pretty worried.” He’d almost forgotten the lie about Angel’s size changes.
“What about the other two?”
He thought quickly. “Whisper is patrolling the halls, Reaper is guarding the outside.”
“They really do care, don't they?”
“It's hard not to. She's… well, anything I say would be biased.”
They both chuckled, but it sounded forced.
“She is adorable.”
There was a long pause, where neither knew what to say.
“So… can they all become human, or is it just her?”
“I don't know. I didn't even know she could, until the baby got sick.”
“I bet that was a shock.” She hesitated before asking, a bit to casually, “what, ah, what does she look like?”
“I know where this is going, and... I'd say you didn't need to be jealous, but…” He sighed, rested his head on the cool window. “I married Angel.”
“You married one of your guardian dragons, the minute you found out she could turn into a woman?”
He couldn’t blame her for her reaction. “A woman who had my baby, so… yeah. It seemed like the right thing to do. Plus there's my career to think of...”
The silence was long, and full of tension.
“I want to be mad, but honestly, when your mom showed me… well, you know… I guess I saw it coming. I know you, how honorable you are. Just… oh, this is going to sound horrible, but… if it doesn't work out, you know I…” She didn't finish, because it did sound horrible.
“Yeah, I know. Thanks, but I kind of feel like I owe it to Menolly to try to make this work.”
“Of course you do.” She sounded exasperated, in a sort of endearing way.
Now, here he was with his new wife, and yet, something wasn’t right. Everything seemed okay on the surface. They were bonding over their daughter, introducing her to the other kids and their Bonded humans whenever they had the time to drop in, but that indefinable something was missing. The shadows he’d seen from day one were still in the back of her eyes, and he didn’t know how to banish them.
Chapter 22: Unspoken
The one word he hasn't said, and she doesn't expect him to say to her.
“The problem isn't that I don't care. You know that better than anyone. The problem, if it could be called one, is that I care too much. I'm afraid to really let him in because if I did, and things… didn't work out... There wouldn't be enough of me left to scrape together into a human being.” Her voice cracked with the effort of keeping her emotions from the sleeping infant.
Dan rubbed her back, trying not to cry, himself.
“For now, I'm hanging back, holding part of myself in reserve; waiting to see how this goes on its own.”
“But if you don't nourish this fragile, growing thing, it'll wither and die.” Dan insisted.
“What do you expect me to do, jump in with both feet, hope he catches a woman he barely knows? And if he doesn't like what he caught, then what? If you knew how many times I've splattered on the windshield of life, you wouldn't ask it of me.”
“I know most of them.”
“Then don’t ask.” She slumped down in the bed, curled slightly toward him.
Avriel returned from the store with more baby supplies shortly after. He Felt her distress, muted though it was, and glanced at Dan. He was also visibly upset, but held his tongue.
"Did I interrupt something..?"
Dan snorted, but didn't answer.
"Just a difference of opinion. Did they have the flavors she likes?"
He wasn't buying it, but he'd go along with it, for the moment. He could always ask her about their conversation later. "All but the peas. That's a pretty popular flavor, so we'll have to wait 'til they get more in stock."
"You could always order a case," she chuckled. "She loves 'em so much, I doubt it'd go to waste."
There was an unexpected pause. Carefully, as though he were tiptoeing past a sleeping dragon, he said "We might not be here by the time it shipped."
"The doctor said I'd only be here another few days, but you can send it to my apartment, can't you?"
He put the jars of food in the diaper bag. There weren't as many as she thought there should be. Her hackles rose, metaphorically speaking. "We'll need to arrange a flight home as soon as you're released. I thought you knew that."
"I did not bloody well know that! You need to tell me things for me to know them!"
He met her eye, though it was difficult. She was still being monitored, and he didn't want a nurse interrupting them. "You're both my Guardian, and my wife. Where did you think we'd live?" His tone was calm, rather than accusatory. She'd shown she could Shift, at least partially, which made her the dominant dragon. Subconsciously, that affected his posture.
She deflated. "I've been so busy getting better, I hadn't thought that far ahead."
"I know we've only been married five days, but... I hoped you'd get used to the idea of living with me by now." He kept as much of the hurt out of his voice as possible. His eyes were suspiciously shiny. "I don't know why you fight me, every step of the way."
"Because she loves you," Dan interrupted.
“That's what I don't understand. If she loves--”
“But you don't love her back.” He said, taking two big, surprisingly aggressive steps forward.
There was a shocked silence, in which Angel glared at Dan, unable to look at Avi. Eventually, she whispered “I don't expect you to. We hardly know each other, after all.”
Avi grew angry, or at least frustrated, because she was right. He liked what he'd seen of her. He hadn't lied on their wedding day. He wanted to keep her for himself, but love? He just didn't know yet. He'd only just met the woman behind the dragon. It made him doubly angry that she refused to even ask him to.
“If you'd let me in, show me who you really are under all that armor…”
“But that armor is part of her. She's the toughest woman I know. You've gotta earn her trust before she'll let you in. But once you're in…” Dan's eyes teared up a little, but he faced his usurper squarely. “She's beautiful, even when she's hurting… like she is now.”
“Tragically beautiful,” Angel snorted.
“It's true. There's so much pain, and it just made you kind.”
“I got that reference,” she chuckled weakly.
Avi looked between the two of them, and saw a quiet rapport that he envied. She didn't even look at Dan, but there was an undeniable lack of tension there.
“If you don't love her, there are plenty of other people who do.” His big, broad shoulders slumped a fraction, but that's all he'd give. “She. Chose. You. It's not every day a dragon gives her heart away, so... so do something with it, dammit!”
Angel knew how rarely he swore. Her gut twisted at the emotions that caused it. She got out of bed and wobbled stubbornly toward her best friend, clinging to the IV pole for balance.
Dan saw that it was still plugged into the wall, so he met her halfway. He brushed Avi aside as easily as you'd swat a fly, just so she wouldn't tug at her IV.
As his wife hugged the giant, Avi saw what could be. He'd glimpsed it several times, but it took extreme, emotional moments for her to show him the unfettered kindness she so easily bestowed on this bear of a man.
:Did it ever occur to you that he had to earn it, too? I've known him for years, love. It took him months to get inside my armor.:
The fact that she'd finally used a term of endearment was tainted by the former lover she was embracing.
If she could've kicked his shin, she would have. Thanks to the Bond, the thought sufficed. His shin ached out of nowhere.
:You're looking at a plant soaking up sunshine, and giving oxygen in return. Put that same plant in a pretty box indoors, where very little light reaches, and see what you get back.:
He didn't quite get her meaning, so she tried again. :I merely reflect the love he's given back at the rest of the world. If none comes in, it's hard for me to release what little I have in reserve, y’know? My cup doesn't runneth over like yours. It needs refilling before I can give it away.:
:Then why don't you ask for it?:
:I SHOULDN’T HAVE TO ASK!: She gripped Dan tighter for a few seconds, to compose herself. Love wasn't the only thing she'd absorbed. She'd also soaked up his frustrations.
:Look, I get it. You don't know me. I don't really know you, either. I don't expect instant lovey dovey marital bliss. But you can't expect it, either. These things take time. Love at first sight is a myth.:
:So were dragons,: he growled.
Her legs instinctively tried to cross when the bass rumbled through her brain. If she hadn't been clinging to a mountain of man, she'd have crumpled. Instead, he lifted her into the bed as easily as if she were a house cat.
“That's enough activity for now. Rest a bit, will ya?” Dan kissed her forehead, just as his phone rang. They both sighed. He had to go back to work.
Chapter 23: Mercurial Dragon
It would take a lifetime to understand his dragon, but a lifetime is what he's got.
"We'll need to arrange shipping of my belongings, wherever they are. My cat..." She trailed off, eyes faintly blue. "Poor guy. He probably thinks I'm dead. We'll need to find where he is; see if it's better to leave him there, or if he'd do better with us."
While she was listing the material things that needed doing, she stared at her hands, wrists down. She wouldn't look at him, or her tattoos, which now made her think of him. She stared at the faint blue light on her hands, mildly fascinated. It would take some getting used to, seeing her emotions in such a tangible way. Still, it might help her understand her own state of mind better.
She glanced up at him, then back down. "If you're a dragon--which wouldn't surprise anyone," she rushed to add, "why don't your eyes glow like mine?"
There was a pause just long enough for her to look up again. She'd forgotten that he liked to wait until someone made eye contact before replying.
"My family is too far removed from our--" He stopped, massaged his neck in irritation. "Ancestor species," he finished, face pinched.
Her head cocked to one side. He wondered if it was a leftover trait from her dragonself. "What ancestor species?"
He made a choking motion with both hands on his own throat. "Can't say. It's against The Rules."
He looked up. She knew by now what that meant.
A lightbulb went off in her head. "Oh, so the rumors are true about dragons and--" Just as his had, her throat closed up. Then she remembered she didn't have to use her voice, which was good, because her throat still ached. :Angels?:
:Yes, your name is your species. Well, sort of. Half species? I don't exactly know how it works. You were born human, made a Vessel, and then Crafted into a dragon, so...:
:And now my brain hurts. I thought the first dragons were theorized to be angel/human crossbreeds.: Her brows were knitting an entire baby blanket.
:I don't know if that makes you more or less of a purebred Celestial Dragon, as you called it. I don't know where the angel powers come from, honestly.:
:Hmm... Maybe Gabriel gave me some of his... essence, or something? Would that make him my dragon father?: Her entire face scrunched up. :This is making my head hurt, and my feelings confused. Can we switch to more concrete planning?:
"So, who do we call to find out where your belongings are?" He asked aloud, winking where the nurse couldn't see, as he came to take her vitals.
"I guess we ask Dan, next time he visits. If he doesn't know, my sister is sure to."
He clearly wasn't thrilled to have to defer to her former lover, but he didn't say as much. He was likely trying to keep the peace as much as possible. She both liked and respected him for it. She wasn't overly fond of verbal conflict, herself. Come to think of it, she also didn't enjoy physical violence. She wondered how the angels got her to do it.
It wasn't that she was afraid to hit someone. She was more afraid of not being able to stop hitting them. She'd crafted an iron chain for her temper over the years, out of necessity. Would she hit them so hard they didn't get up?
:I hate to point this out, but it's your job to make sure things don't get back up.:
She looked up, eyes a faint yellow behind her irises. The green on yellow was the most draconic combination he'd seen yet. :Things, sure, but I don't want to get in the habit of striking first, and asking questions later.: She glanced meaningfully at the nurse's back as he left.
He cupped her face with one hand, the fingers skimming along the braid. "That's what I'm here for," he said with a sad smile.
But not forever, she thought where she hoped he couldn't hear. She must've succeeded, because he looked confused at the change in her eyes. His other hand framed her face, thumbs massaging her temples.
"You're getting better at blocking, I see. What's going on in this complicated brain of yours that makes you so sad, I wonder?"
He saw the violet that filtered into her eyes, which puzzled him even further. He was only touching her face. Was she really that sensitive to touch? He glanced at the monitor, but the readings were normal.
Feeling puckish, she pressed a finger to the crease between his brows. The blue seeped away, as did the purple, without a clue where either came from.
Before he could press her, OT came in to put her through her paces, leaving him none the wiser.
She did everything the woman asked her to, and then some. The occupational therapist kept telling her she could take a break if she needed, but she never did. There was an occasional flicker of orange, but she often closed her eyes so he wouldn't see it. She'd forgotten that he could feel her pain, but he let her. They needed her in peak physical condition as soon as draconically possible. A human body just wouldn't do, on their schedule.
He felt horrible, letting her push herself past the point he would have tapped out; but if he'd stepped in, she would be weaker for it. He would have stopped her, if she'd been in any severe pain, but the therapists were adept at finding her limits. She shook with fatigue, but she never got to the point where he thought she would cause actual damage.
He was just grateful that the baby in his lap never so much as whimpered. It seemed they only shared emotional responses, not physical.
As for himself, the reason he was sitting with the baby was because his body couldn't handle what she was doing. He'd learned on the first day that if he wasn't sitting when they put her through the wringer, he'd be sitting five minutes later; whether or not he wanted to be!
"Your mama's pretty strong, isn't she?" Her head sagged, chest heaved, but her limbs did what was asked of them. She didn't seem to hear him, but he felt a weary trickle of gratitude through the link.
"Strong enough to do a new exercise today, I think."
The groan wasn't anywhere the therapist or baby could hear, but he heard it. He nudged her with his mind, only intending to send positive vibes. What he actually did, without training or encouragement, was share a tiny bit of his own energy stores with her.
Chapter 24: Angel Eyes
Angel-blue eyes flashed a warning at him, but she couldn't scold him until later. She had to listen to the instructions she was being given. Once the therapist left, though, he was fair game.
"That can be dangerous, you know."
"What did I do now?" He hadn't Felt the transfer, so her tone threw him off. He'd been off-kilter since he saw her angel eyes. It was going to take a long time to get used to that.
Her face softened, then hardened again. She wanted to be gentle, but her warning was not to be taken lightly. "You..." Her eyes scanned things he couldn't see, fingers flicked in that familiar gesture that he still wasn't sure she consciously noted. "You shared your own energy--the energy you're using to hold our daughter--with me."
He was doubly shocked. Of course, he hadn't known what he'd done, or that it could be done accidentally. That knowledge warred with the equal surprise of hearing her call Menolly their daughter. Before, she was either his or hers; rarely, if ever, did she use a joint pronoun.
Angel snapped in front of his eyes to get his attention. "Unless you're specifically asked, or I'm somehow on the brink of death, don't ever do that again! Think! If you give too much, you can't walk. That means I've got to carry you, which makes us both vulnerable." That angel blue was back, brighter than before. "If anyone is going to be handing out energy, it'll be me, understand? I've got more to spare than you do."
Her fist was tangled in his beard for emphasis. He gently removed it and patted her knuckles, adjusted the 02 monitor. "You're forgetting that I'm a dragon, too. There might be a day when you get sick, and it's my turn to protect you." He smiled right into those bright eyes, difficult as it was. "That's marriage in a nutshell, sweetheart."
Her lashes fluttered, breathing stuttered. He glanced over her head at the jagged graph that spoke words she would not. When he met her gaze again, there was a faint, telltale pink highlight. Emboldened by both, he set his lips to hers, as light as a whisper.
She held out for three beats of his heart; which was impressive, given what was dancing along the link.
Even if they'd been at home, they wouldn't have been able to do much beyond kissing, because their daughter started tugging on her father's shirt and bouncing.
"Peeeeeeeeea!" she demanded.
They broke apart, laughing. "I told you she'd want peas," Angel chuckled. "I hope you've got some left, or there might be a storm brewin'."
He smiled down at the baby fondly. "I think that's just her word for food. She'll probably eat whatever we've got."
Angel got Menolly's attention and signed "food", eyebrows raised in question. She knew very well that she was hungry; she was trying to reinforce the sign for it.
Menolly nodded so hard she would've fallen, without her father's firm grip. Angel made the sign for "hungry", said the word, and thought it at her, simultaneously.
Big blue eyes blinked up at her when she was plunked in her lap. She rubbed her belly, just like Mama did, and was rewarded with raspberries in her neck. She giggled and squirmed while her Papa got food, a bib, and a spoon.
"Okay, let's see that pretty face so Daddy can feed it, hey?"
Angel was too tired to hold a spoon aloft, but she could use her stomach to brace the baby in the upright position (aided by the hospital bed), and keep an arm around her midsection.
Avi was none the worse for wear, so he did most of the work. Occasionally, he'd put a hand on her little tummy if she leaned too far forward. As he said, marriage was cooperation; one helping the other.
It was hard for her to relinquish control over anything, but when it came to their daughter, she accepted the help without complaint.
"You should probably order lunch when we're done," he reminded her.
"Oh yeah, food," she said with a wry twist of the lips. "Thanks for the reminder."
His eyes twinkled at her over the spoonful of green bean puree. He was being a dutiful husband, and a wonderful father, simultaneously. She didn't know what to do with the feelings that crowded the back of her throat and warmed her core, but they spilled from her in a bright pink light that was difficult to miss.
She closed her eyes, hugged the surge of emotion close. She'd always done that, closing her eyes when she was overwhelmed. It helped shut out the rest of the world, so she could focus better. When it was good things, she focused on them. When it was aggressive stimuli, she worked to tune it out.
He didn't know any of that, of course. What he saw was the purest show of love being squashed, hidden from him until it passed. He had to work equally hard to suppress the irritation he felt at being excluded from something so beautiful.
Her eyes opened, a tiny line between them. He couldn't hide his emotions from her as well as she could hide hers, which made him more irate. Her head cocked slightly to one side, a wordless query pinging across the link.
He shook his head slightly, and pulled one of her tricks. He looked at the baby, so she couldn't see his face anymore.
She snorted and reached for the phone to order lunch. She acquiesced when he curtly pointed out that she hadn't gotten a vegetable, without so much as a flicker of color rising to the fore. She chose a vegetable and placed the phone gently in its cradle. Just as gently, she handed him their daughter so she could use the restroom.
She couldn't read unformed thoughts, so she didn't know what set him off this time. She could, however, take care of basic bodily needs. They teach you to focus on what you can change, release what you can't, when you're in mental health programs. She'd been through her fair share, until she got properly diagnosed, so she had a wealth of coping skills to draw from. Someone who was more or less healthy only had what they learned from their parents. Ironically, she was better equipped to handle emotional stress than he was.
When she'd plugged the IV back in and sat down, she asked if he wanted to tell her what was wrong. He handed her the baby and picked up the spoon, ostensibly ignoring the question. She let him stew until the jar was empty.
"If we're going to make this work, we need to work on our communication." She delivered the movie line with more comedic lilt than the actor did, to draw him out with humor.
He picked up the baby wipes and began to clean their daughter's lunch from her little body. He was still quiet, but she could hear thoughts trying to form, so she allowed it.
"Why do you keep things from me? Good, bad, we're supposed to share everything." He glanced up, as if afraid to see her expression.
She nabbed a wipe to help, deliberately misunderstanding to give herself time to answer. "To an extent, healthy boundaries are necessary; particularly when one party is prone to codependency." She said the words slowly, carefully, afraid to make him angry. Old habits were hard to break.
He threw his wipe away with more force than it required. "That's not what you're doing. You're still shutting me out. I thought once you got your body back, you'd be more..."
"What, normal? Honey, I was never normal."
Her voice, husky and warm, made the endearment sound like the food it resembled: sweet, golden. His knees pressed tightly together under his daughter's legs.
"What brought this on, anyway? What did I do to shut--" He unconsciously thought the answer, which she caught mid-sentence. She laughed. "Seriously? That? Oh sweetie, I was trying to... I dunno, experience it more fully? Like a blind person hearing music better, I guess... Isn't that a good thing?"
The endearments were flowing now. He didn't know what to do with them all. He couldn't think of a reason she was suddenly so relaxed, until Menolly patted his hand. Ah, there's mommy's source of sunshine, he thought.
A little light flickered in his mind. She really meant what she said about giving what she got in return. He'd been the one putting her in a pretty box. Meanwhile, the baby was greeting them with love nearly every second she was awake.
He looked into the steady blue-grey eyes of his Angel. Understanding hovered in the air between them.
"It is a very pretty box," she said, lips twisted with suppressed humor.
Chapter 25: Red Light, Green Light
"I'll say again, I don't expect you to just start spontaneously radiating sunshine. So, instead of covering the same old ground, why don't we take a hike into unknown territory?"
"What?" he asked, a half smile hovering around his lips.
"Well, I keep saying we don't know each other. We're married now, so why don't we get to know each other properly?"
He sat at the end of her bed, baby happily pleating her mother's sheets on her knee between them. "Okay, I'm game. What did you have in mind?"
"We could play Never Have I Ever, or Truth or Dare. Maybe even Red Light Green Light, but... I'd suggest that wait until a certain someone falls asleep."
"I don't think you're up to running anyway," he chuckled.
"No, silly, not that version!" She was blushing, and not meeting his eye. "It's where you talk about things you absolutely love, or loathe, or don't care either way about."
He cupped her chin, lifted it so she had to look at him. "If it's so simple, why are you embarrassed?"
Her lashes swept down, then lifted as far as his nose. Her legs shifted under their daughter. "It usually refers to, ah... more intimate affairs, but it can be anything from music taste to foods," she rushed to add.
His hand dropped from her face. They both watched the baby for a while, uncomfortable silence broken only by the quiet beeping of machinery.
As usual, it was Angel who broke it. "So... how red is a salad?"
He laughed, she laughed, the baby gurgled happily. It broke the tension, and opened a real, honest conversation between them. For perhaps the first time in their relationship, they were getting to know each other. There were no constraints on their time, at least for that day. There were no attacks to interrupt them, no schedule to keep. They had as much time as they needed to properly get acquainted.
They found that their diets were vastly different, but they shared some musical tastes. They both loved the outdoors, and being active. They'd both wanted a family, though the desire arose at different ages. Their familial backgrounds were drastically different, which was what shaped them into the people they were.
She wept when she told him what happened to her children. He told her stories of her dragon children to cheer her up, but they were tainted by the knowledge of what kind of mother she'd been to them.
They talked about their childhoods, being bullied in school. The reasons were different, but the effect was similar. They both struggled with anxiety and self-doubt. She showed him her drawings, paintings, and crochet, which occupied the rest of the evening.
"So you could make her these booties?" he asked, pointing to a cute animal pair she'd made for her cousin's baby.
"If the pattern hasn't been lost, yes." She was quiet for so long, her phone screen went black. She was worrying about her drawings, dragon scarves, and other irreplaceable items, with an overtone of cat anxiety. Not knowing made her nervous. She'd lost so many things throughout the years; so many pets, and friends. She'd led a nomadic life, which went against her very nature. True, it made her more tolerant of change than most autistic people... Which wound up being a job requirement, she thought. It left a bitter taste in her mouth, until she forced herself to look at the perks of what had begun as a job.
She hugged her daughter tight, kissed her neck with a loud smack. Menolly Felt her sadness, so she didn't giggle like she usually did. She did her best to hug mama back, and so did papa.
Her husband leaned forward and pressed his lips to her forehead firmly, offering mute support. This once, the gesture affected him more than it did her. He was remembering the first time he'd done this very thing, though he didn't follow the memory past their embrace.
Angel had one arm around their daughter, the other around her husband, when her sister walked in the door.
Chapter 26: Little Big Sister
"And who's this I see in my sister's hospital bed?"
Angel jumped, handed him the baby, and struggled to be free of the sheets. He helped her untangle, and unplugged her IV from the wall. She moved faster than he'd seen to date, all but throwing herself into a hug.
"Oof! Okay, okay, it's good to see you too. Aww c'mon, don't cry, or you'll get me crying."
Angel did eventually back away, wiping her eyes with the hand that wasn't on the IV pole. "Sorry, I'm a bit emotional lately. I guess finding out you've been in a coma for half a friggin' year will do that."
"Finding you with a guy I don't know makes me a different kind emotional," she prompted.
"Oh yeah..." She blushed and couldn't think of anything to say.
He stepped forward, Menolly perched on his arm, staring at the newcomer. "Avi Kaplan, ma'am. Nice to meet you. We've actually been talking about your family this evening, so it's pretty good timing."
The second he said his name, her sister's eyes popped out. They darted between Angel and her Bonded, pale brows nearly in her hairline.
"Can I ask why you've been talking about our family?" She liked to get straight to the point. It saved time.
He laced his fingers with his angel dragon's, lifted their joined hands where she could see Angel's rings.
"Uh, excuse me? Why am I just now finding out you're married, to him, of all people?!"
He tensed up, taking offense where there was none. Angel patted his hand with her free one.
"Sorry, not like that. I've heard a lot about you--" Angel blushed and looked away. "--But last I heard, she'd never so much as shaken your hand, and do I wanna know whose baby that is?"
Angel lifted the hand that should have had the monitor on it. She realized that about the same time the nurse came in to check on her.
She obediently got back in bed, put the blood pressure cuff and O2 monitor back on. The woman reminded her to order dinner before the kitchen closed. She used the excuse to avoid her sister's questions. This once, she let her husband handle things.
"I had our daughter while she was in the hospital. We were on tour, but as soon as we got stateside, I came back. We were going to get married sooner, but then she went into a coma--"
"And how, exactly, do you have a baby?" Though younger, she was taller than Angel, and she stood straight enough to utilize every inch she had to stare him down.
"In vitro," he said smoothly. It was so close to the truth that Angel could have said it.
"But why, if you had the option, didn't you get married before going through all that?" Her sister was getting increasingly frustrated.
He chuckled and looked at his feet, buying time while his mind whirled. "I'm sure you know how stubborn your sister is."
She scowled. "What's that got to do with anything?"
"She wouldn't marry me, knowing her... limitations, until I proved it was possible." His eyes went all soft and emotional, channeling actual arguments they'd had. "She didn't want me to sacrifice having a family for her."
The younger woman's hard shell cracked a little. She called her elder sister a pet name he'd never heard, walked to the bed, and hugged her tight.
"You're crazy, ya know that? I love you dearly, but you should've said yes the first time."
They all laughed, Angel blushed, and the tension eased away.
"So, do I have you to thank for her coming out of it?"
Angel's blush deepened. "It would seem so."
Her sister looked at the baby then, really looked. She didn't ask to hold an infant so young, but Angel knew that when Menolly was older, she'd be a great aunt. She'd play with her, teach her about the best geeky things, and generally be awesome.
She was so distracted by maternal, sisterly thoughts, she hadn't thought to keep her emotions calm. Most people couldn't see her dragon eyes anyway, so she hadn't deemed it necessary.
Her sister was looking between them, trying to figure out where her niece got the sparkly skin, when she saw the rosy tint to her eyes.
"Oh, right, I guess you'd be able to see that..." She didn't know how to explain it without actually explaining it. "I'd tell you what's up with that, but then I'd have to erase it from your memory. Sorry."
"You'd have to what? Since when can you even do that?"
Angel thought of a bluff that wasn't exactly a lie, and might lead Avi to bail her out. "You know how we have different biodads..."
"Hers wasn't exactly human," he finished for her.
"Bullshit," she scoffed.
Angel shrugged, moved the poles further from her bed, rolled the tension from her neck, and hugged herself until her wings popped out.
"Whoa! When did that become a thing?"
Angel worked them back into her skin before her dinner could arrive. "I found out not long after I woke up. Needless to say, it was a bit of a surprise."
Her sister tentatively touched her back. Angel obligingly wiggled her folded wings beneath the skin for her to feel.
"So the coma was like a cocoon or something?"
Angel laughed. "Maybe." She couldn't remember why she needed to be in a coma, so she couldn't say either way. It wasn't a lie, because she didn't know, and that was her answer.
"I can do more, but it gets the heart rate up, and I'm on a monitor, so..."
Her sister laughed. "Yeah, don't wanna freak out the normies. Dude, that's so cool! I'm actually kinda jealous."
"Speaking of normal people, I hear the dinner cart."
Avi and her sister cocked their heads, but couldn't hear what she did. She held up one finger, and a few seconds later, a tech came in with her tray. She accepted it with a smile far wider than usual.
The tech left, and her sister stared at her with wide eyes. "You're totally a superhero. Can I write a comic about you?"
"As long as you don't expect details, sure. Gotta keep it on the down-low; especially considering who I married."
The spouse in question was grinning behind her back. He liked the enthusiasm emanating from the younger woman. Technically, she was older than him, but also the younger sister. Great, I've got another older sister, he grumbled without heat.
:Two more,: she reminded him. :I'm not sure how I feel about being the eldest sister, married to the youngest man...:
He turned the sound that gurgled from him into a cough.
"You okay, my dude?"
"I don't know."
Chapter 27: Love and Crochet
Her sister stayed for an hour, while she ate dinner and made a fuss over her daughter. She wrote down where Angel's belongings were, and promised to return her cat as soon as they were ready for him. She'd forgotten that her sister was listed as his alternate caregiver.
"When we figure out how we're getting my stuff to California, we'll tackle the whole cat situation," Angel said. She'd begun to droop with fatigue, though she stubbornly refused to admit it. She hadn't seen her sister in forever, and she was damned well going to stay awake for every minute.
Her sister wasn't fooled. "You do that. I'm staying in a hotel in town until you're released, but they don't allow cats, so he'll have to be sent from my place. I'm sure he misses you a lot. On that note, I'm going to let you get some rest. It was nice meeting you, man." She shook Avi's hand, hugged her sister, and left.
Avi let her drift off to sleep with the baby on her chest. Alone with his thoughts, they kept going back to what they'd talked about that day. Most relationships grew over months and years, sharing interests and experiences as they went. Theirs had gone from an uneasy working relationship with a third wheel, to a sort of pet/human interaction when she was a hatchling, to an even more uneasy bodyguard/client thing.
And then the children were born, and things got more complicated. Nothing about their lives together had been easy, or normal. Now she was human, more or less, and they were expected to make it work somehow.
What was I thinking, asking for a human Bonded? I mean, I didn't know that's what would happen, but... At least when she was a dragon, nobody could see her. Well, hardly anyone could see her, but no one would question a dragon living with a human full-time. Now that she's human, I guess it's a good thing we're married, because otherwise, people would assume all sorts of things. Living together with a baby and no rings... People would think the worst.
:And what, precisely, is the worst case scenario there? That we're living in sin?:
He jerked upright. "Sorry, I thought you were asleep."
She half stretched with her lower body. "Mm, sort of drifting."
"I didn't know you could hear any of that. It's just... things are really complicated right now."
She murmured assent.
"And I'm still confused about a lot of things."
She grunted, shifted into a more comfortable position.
"Like you being sad because I don't love you, but also not expecting me to."
She shrugged, eyes still closed to hide the pain at hearing him say that he didn't love her. "There's a difference between loving someone, and being in love with someone. You love family, but you're not in love with them." She waited to see if he would say that he loved her like a friend, but he was too busy processing what she said.
"Look, we've gone over this a dozen times, in a dozen different ways. Why don't we just forget the L word?"
Her eyes snapped open. "I can d--darned well try." Even though the baby was asleep, she didn't want to get in the habit of swearing.
He looked down at his steepled fingers. "If you could, you wouldn't be sad all the time."
"I'm not sad all the time," she retorted.
He gave her a Look.
"Really, I'm not. If I were, I couldn't say that I wasn't. Wow, that sentence hurt my head a little. It's just... bittersweet. It's everything I ever wanted, just... out of order. Well, except the dragon part. As long as I get to be a dragon, I don't care when in the relationship it happens."
Her tired brain latched on to the word "relationship". It was still weird, using that word with him. She idly pondered their ship name, then discarded it because it sounded like the name of some fantasy race. They had bigger concerns at the moment.
She blushed, grumbling about boundaries into the blanket under the baby.
"Do those even exist between a husband and wife?" She could hear the smile she was pointedly not looking at.
"In a healthy marriage, yes. My mother once said 'You have to be able to stand on your own two feet before you get married.' Something like that. The point is, without healthy boundaries, you begin to lean on one another, until you're a pair of tilted flamingos. I've gone down that road once, and I swore it'd never happen again."
"Your mother is a wise woman."
He was silent for so long she was tempted to look at him.
"You don't get along with her, do you?"
Her sigh ruffled their daughter's fine hair. "We... play nice, to keep the peace. There's a lot of history, some of which you know. It's hard to come back from that, but I try to at least remain civil."
"Care to talk about what else is between you two?" He asked, leaning slightly forward.
She shook her head, braids rasping against the pillowcase. "Not while I'm being monitored." Her lips twisted. "Plus it'd just get me riled up, which would upset the baby."
He leaned back. "Best not," he reluctantly agreed.
As though she'd been summoned from slumber, Menolly stirred. Her diaper was wet. Angel made to sit up to take care of it, but her husband plucked the baby from her chest and laid her across the foot of the bed. The diaper bag was sitting there, she noticed with some surprise. She either didn't know, or didn't remember, that she wasn't the only one who could "hear" what Menolly needed. She was also too tired to remember to sign anything.
She lay there, enjoying the novelty of a man who not only offered to help, but seemed to enjoy the task.
He glanced her way, hand firmly on the baby. "You've never had help with your kids?"
"Not from my partner, no. Either inexperienced, or indifferent. I couldn't win--until now, it seems." She smiled across the bed, and was met with one from him.
"I don't think anyone would be surprised that you're a good father," she said, dancing around the topic of his fame, which made him uncomfortable sometimes.
"Just good?" he asked, brows raised. His eyes were pointed at the baby, but angled slightly her way.
"I dunno yet, do I? Besides, you did take her adragonback."
He started to point out that it was at her insistence, until he saw the mirth in her half-lidded eyes. "And just who was this dragon, hmm?" he teased back.
One dark brow and bare shoulder cocked up saucily. "Marriage is fifty-fifty," she said, paraphrasing what he'd said about feeding the baby.
"If my hands weren't full, young lady, I'd put you over my knee, and--"
"You say that like it's a bad thing." Her eyelashes batted at him coyly, until she realized what she'd just said, and to whom. Her head burrowed under the covers, mortified.
His laughter didn't help any.
"Is this a weird time to wish I had my crochet bag?" she asked, voice muffled by the blanket. "Clearly, I need something to do, instead of teasing you. It doesn't end well."
He laughed again. "If you're serious, I could see if Scott and Mitch are together."
Her head popped out, brows knitted.
"I forgot, you might not know that the kids can teleport."
"So, what, if they're together, it frees up a... dragon to get them? Good to know, but I can ask whoever's been paying for the storage unit."
"Relying on the kids too heavily could give us away." She blushed when she referred to their children, but forged on.
"Good point, as usual."
Her head tilted at an awkward angle, lying down as she was. "Am I so wise as a dragon?"
"Angel too. You have a knack for pointing out the most logical solutions."
"Huh..." That was all she could think of to say, and the last thing she said before dropping off to sleep for real.
Chapter 28: Dragon of Leisure
You could measure her recovery by how restless she grew. As her dragonself said, she was not a dragon of leisure.
"I just want to get out, stretch my legs, y'know?"
"Yeah, I get that. You'll be running circles around the car in no time, don't worry."
Her head cocked to the side. "Why would I run round the car..?"
He laughed at a memory her soul remembered, but she did not. "Because I wouldn't drive fast enough with the baby in the backseat."
She snorted. "Either you're telling me I can run faster than a car, or you're saying you drive slow."
He flushed. "I didn't want to speed through the frickin' desert with a baby on board!"
She stretched as best she could, trying to alleviate the restlessness. "I didn't think a car could drive on sand. Wait, why were we in the desert? I'm sorry, you're gonna have to catch me up on a lot here."
He gently dislodged their daughter's fist from his beard. "It was the only place we could think of where you could stretch your legs, but still keep an eye on us."
Her legs bicycled under the sheets a bit. "Makes sense, I s'pose."
He chuckled. "You 's'pose'? When did you go Minnesotan on me?"
"Hah! I've been Minnesotan longer than I've known of your existence. It just doesn't come out very often; probably because I've lived in a few different states in life, so it's just one of many accents warrin' aboot in m'head."
"Was one of those states in England?"
"Pfft. Naw, I'm just an anglophile, and part Irish to boot. Sometimes it just pops in for a syllable or two. And sometimes the South sneaks in, or the West coast." She shrugged and held it in a makeshift stretch. "I've been everywhere, man. Breathe the mountain... man air." Her eyes twinkled with mischief, even as a blush gently tinted her cheeks.
Avi found he liked this side of her. The imp who played with words, even if they made her uncomfortable.
"I miss the mountain air, man. Or fresh air, in general. Hey, d'you think we'll have time for a wee hike before we leave forever?" Her eyes pleaded with him, hands clasped at her breast. It did something to his heart, but he couldn't give her what she wanted.
"If you were full strength, I'd say yes," he said, reluctant to break her heart. "Besides, I'm sure we'll come back at some point. We always have Minnesota in the tour schedule."
Her face fell before he finished speaking. She was used to disappointment, had become adept at hearing it before it was said. "You'll go to the Cities, sure, but not here. And sure, there's hiking there somewhere, I've heard, but... it's not here." She almost said it wasn't home, but home had changed so many times over the years, the word ceased to mean anything anymore.
His heart broke a little. She was right, they might never return to the home she'd known for... he didn't know how many years. They couldn't risk being attacked on the trail, with her at half strength. He'd become protective of her, ever since he laid eyes on her frail body, lying in a coma. Even knowing she could probably Shift, they couldn't know how fast, or how effectively. They would need every day in relative safety to get her back up to snuff. None of the kids were here to watch over them while they took a leisure stroll through the wilds of Minnesota, and she'd already said she wouldn't ask them for anything but an emergency.
She sat, slumped, in her little island of tangled sheets, and there was little he could do to console her.
"You haven't met the redwoods yet," he tried. "It's not what you're used to, but maybe that's a good thing? Maybe it's an adventure, just waiting for you to be strong enough for it."
Her shoulders hunched a little, the dragon in her taking offense at the implication of weakness that the human in her knew to be there. He thought he saw a flash of angel blue in her eye, but it was hard to tell at this angle.
Always one to try to find the silver lining, Angel murmured "I s'pose 'tis poetic to return to the land of my birth, eh?"
He perked up, having given up on keeping Menolly out of his hair. "You were born in California? I didn't know that. I guess, aside from what you've told me, I don't know a whole lot about your life, before..."
Her wings rustled beneath her skin, in a mimicry of the shrug he knew so well. Her spine rolled with it, the same as it used to. She was becoming more the Angel he knew, with every passing day. For some reason, that made him nervous.
"I don't remember it, you know. Too young. Didn't seem important to mention, 'til now."
It was sad, what a lack of fresh air did to her. She was getting stronger every day, but also wilting under the artificial lights.
Piercing blue eyes, calm and detached, met his unexpectedly. "What d'ye expect from a dragon? Don't you do better out in the woods? Doesn't it recharge your bat'ries, as well? Must be a dragon thing." A faint puzzled expression ghosted across her face. "If so, was I a dragon before I was a dragon? Or is that merely a coincidence? Was it a requirement? I have so many questions..."
She was an odd one, for sure. One moment she was sad, the next a wan fey. What would she be in the next moment? The warm, maternal Angel, or the conflicted mass of emotion? He never knew what to expect. He couldn't decide whether it was exciting or terrifying.
She would be the laughing, unconsciously sexy minx, it seemed. "You're thinkin' of a dragon again, and tryin' to put 'er in a human box. It won't work, ye know." Her eyes twinkled a mischievous green.
Light as a feather, she hopped from the bed and nabbed her IV pole. "Unplug me, will ye? I'm for a walk."
"Won't that alert the nurse if you're unplugged?"
"Ach, they'll see me walkin' the halls and know what's up."
Full of reservations, he reached for the plug, juggling their daughter, when OT came in.
"Well, looks like I got here just in time."
Instead of the groans she usually met them with, she merely sat back on the side of the bed, legs crossed. "It's not a walk, but it'll do."
"Getting restless, are we?"
"Yessir, I most certainly am! I'd love a bit of fresh air, but this'll do, I s'pose."
"Nice to have someone who's happy to see me. Let's see how long that lasts," the man challenged.
"Yes, let's." Her eyes, still green, sparked an answering challenge. Just see if you can break me today!
Chapter 29: Foundation
The occupational therapist did not break her that day, not that they ever truly had. She did everything he asked, without complaint. Sure, she shook with fatigue, but never so much that she couldn't continue. Not as much as the day before, or the day before that.
He surprised her by letting her have the walk she was gunning for when he entered her room. He monitored her gait, how tightly she gripped the pole (which wasn't very tight at all). He let her walk laps until she cried uncle--which she never did. There were a prescribed number of laps one had to do before being considered healthy, at least in his mind. When she was first cleared for walking, she could only manage three. Now, he had to stop her at ten--and that was after her exercises! She didn't have a spring in her step, but he didn't expect it. She'd been out for a long time.
In short, as far as he was concerned, there was nothing more he need do. She was healthy enough for discharge. She'd still be on light duty for a couple of weeks, but she was capable of daily tasks around the house, from his professional opinion.
"The doctor will have to see you first, of course, to make sure your labs are okay, but I think this is goodbye, young lady."
His patient didn't seem happy to hear it.
"You were just telling me how restless you were. Don't you want to leave?"
Sad blue eyes glanced up from the blanket over her lap. "The hospital, yes. The state... not so much."
Her husband smoothed a hand over her back. "We'll come back, I promise."
She slumped further into the pillows, forcing the man to remove his hand. The occupational therapist left them to work through whatever was going on. That wasn't in his job description.
The doctor looked at her labs the next day and declared her fit for discharge. He gave her the spiel about sticking to light housework for a couple of weeks, then moderate. He warned her against the hiking she missed so much, for at least a month.
"You've got to rebuild all that muscle you lost, and do it gently. No weight lifting beyond--"
"15 pounds, I know."
He gave her a Look. "If you'd been out longer, I'd have said five. If we didn't have the technology to lessen atrophy, I'd say five. The only reason I'm allowing fifteen is because of the relatively short duration, and your daughter, who probably weighs more than that. Speaking of whom, I don't want you carrying her everywhere. She's going to keep growing no matter what, so I want you sitting when you hold her.
"We still don't know what put you in that coma. Remember that, young lady. I don't want to see you here again, out cold for another six months. That's an awful lot of milestones to miss. Take it easy; for your daughter's sake, if not your own."
Angel knew she wouldn't be in a coma again, but she smiled and nodded for his sake. Modern medicine wouldn't understand her situation, so she'd take it into her own hands as soon as she left the hospital. She read his instructions as "don't Shift for a couple of weeks, until you know your heart can handle it, and your muscles will hold."
When the doctor left, another took his place. He had a similar message to give her.
"He's right, you know. And wrong. You know you won't be in hospital ever again, right?"
Angel cocked her head at Gabriel. Not at the contractions, for she wouldn't remember that he hadn't used them before, but the actual words themselves. "Then what was he right about? Exercising caution?"
Gabriel's essence seemed to nod. "At first, yes. This is the foundation you'll build the rest of your very long life upon. Oh, don't go all depressed on me. You knew what you signed up for, even if you don't remember." He pushed away from the wall and wafted closer. "We need you to strengthen this human body, because it is the basis for the dragon body. Don't go jumping into dragon form all at once, unless you have to. Take it slow, figure out how it works. Otherwise, you'll get sloppy. Maybe you don't lock that elbow under pressure, and something knocks it out from under you. Practice piece by piece, until it becomes second nature. Instinct.
"And don't get all hung up on social media. If you've got time to scan that, you've got time to scan your bones. Shed as many of your human shackles as you can. Focus on the job, 'kay?"
There, she did make a face. "Since when do angels say "'kay"?
His essence grew stormy where the face should be. He vanished without answering.
Avi waved a hand in front of her face. The room snapped into focus, and she looked at him.
"More or less, why?"
"Your eyes went angel blue, and you just... zoned out. Is everything okay?"
Her lips twisted, hand flicked. "Just getting an angelic reinforcement to doctor's orders."
He didn't know whether to thank Gabriel or not. He hadn't heard a word that was said, which always made him nervous.
"Well, your sister dropped off some clothes last night, just in case. I was asking if you wanted to take a look, see if they'll fit. If not, I'll need to take a cab... somewhere, to find you something to wear out of here. They won't wait too long to discharge you, so we need to know pretty quickly."
She blinked a few times, and her eyes returned to normal... Or as normal as they ever got. There was a faint tint of yellow behind the grey, but that didn't worry him too much. They would be leaving the home she'd known for years, to go to a land she didn't remember. The clothes were just a reminder of the change.
Angel took the bag he offered, let the nurse know she was going to the bathroom, and unplugged her IV.
He started to tell her she didn't need to change in the bathroom. They were married, after all. Then it dawned on him that he'd never seen her naked, so he let her go.
The sports bra was a little loose. Even though she was nursing, she'd lost a lot of weight. Angel looked down at her body reluctantly as she tried on the underwear. The bed sores were healing well, her muscles more defined than when she woke up. Her body always had responded well to exercise.
She pressed a hand to her belly self-consciously. It still drooped below her waistline, despite months of near starvation, but there was a lot less of it than before she went all Snow White. White... Yeah, there goes my tan, too. At least my thighs are smaller. I can't see any dimples-- She abruptly stopped analyzing what she saw in words, having just remembered that it might not stay in her head. She whipped the shorts up and over her hips, which had also thinned and hollowed out, and immediately had to cinch the drawstring. Smart, little big sis. Drawstring is the safest bet when you don't know for sure. It held the baggy underwear up, as an added bonus. The shirt was a bit too big, but that was far better than the opposite; particularly when you had to work around an IV and O2 monitor.
Having ascertained that nothing needed to be purchased, she took everything off and put the hospital gown back on. Then she emptied her bladder, just in case. She never knew what mothers meant by "just in case", but as a mother, she did it out of instinct.
When she'd washed her hands and come back out, a nurse was waiting to take out her IV.
Chapter 30: A Change WIll Do You Good
Avi had to look away when the IV was removed. He knew there would be blood, and it pained him to even think about. He'd done this to her, however inadvertently. Come to think of it, he'd never seen his Angel bleed.
But now she was, even if it was only a drop. All because he couldn't stand having an emotionless dragon watching over him out of habit, bound by their Marks. Because she didn't have a choice.
This Angel chose to stay with him. More than that, she married him. That was still strange. The weight of the ring had grown comfortable, but the concept was... well, comfortable was the last word he'd have used.
:Amen to that. I dunno if I'll ever get used to that. No offense intended, I'd just given up on the whole matrimony thing.:
Ignoring her words for the moment, or the fact that she'd picked up on thoughts he hadn't quite put into coherent sentences, he asked her if it hurt.
:Nah, it's a bit of a sting, and then relief. Then the aggravation of a band-aid. Now, I'm free.: She was trying for levity, but there was a lingering sadness behind her nonchalance.
She wasn't listening to the nurse's instructions, because they were pretty much what she'd expected. She'd been through the wringer before. It was no different this time. He, on the other hand, had little idea what to expect, so he paid close attention. She sighed internally. He was going to hover for the next two weeks, she could just feel it.
"Okay, you can get dressed now. We'll have a wheelchair waiting when you're done."
Angel snorted. "Dunno why. I can walk home from here." She'd forgotten that home was no longer home.
The nurse made That Face. "The doctor doesn't want you straining yourself. We can arrange a cab to take you home."
Angel made a worse face, because Avi was already pulling out his phone. He asked the nurse for the number for the cab company, but she assured him that they would take care of it.
She left, assured that even if her patient wouldn't behave, her husband would make sure she followed doctor's orders.
Angel snatched up the clothes again and stalked into the bathroom. She was irritated, mostly because she shouldn't be. He was just looking out for her. It was sweet, but it was equally frustrating. She whipped the gown off, snaps squealing for mercy. Up went the underwear, quickly followed by the shorts and their handy cinch. She tied it with a bit more force than necessary, but quickly relented and tied it more calmly. She was building a foundation. Damaging her vessel would only set her back, and they couldn't afford that.
Over her head went the bra that did nothing save hide her nipples, and the baggy shirt. Her hair was a wreck, but she'd fix that when she got home. But... is home still home? Did they rent my apartment out to someone else?
She dropped to her heels, then her knees, there on the cold hospital floor, and wept. They were tears of sadness, of loss, and strangely, of... relief. She didn't have to worry about where she lived, or what she owned. She was a Guardian now. He could handle the day-to-day minutiae, so she could focus on her... career..? She had been all but ordered to craft herself into the best dragon she could be. Better than she thought she could do, no. She had to be the best.
The only one of her kind.
That thought added loneliness to the mix of emotions tumbling through her weakened body. She tilted sideways, to lie on the cool floor, but a warm body interrupted her fall. Long arms held her close, let her weep into his flannel.
:You're not alone,: he kept saying. :I'm here.:
But not forever, her heart wept.
And that time, he heard it.
Some time later, a deep voice boomed in the confines of the bathroom. "Do I want to know why you two are in here crying, and I'm stuck out here with a baby that's doin' the same?"
Angel immediately lunged up toward the baby, as did her father. Dan stepped back, out of the bathroom. "There's not enough room in there for that. Come on, at least sit somewhere comfortable while ya do that."
The young parents got clumsily to their feet in the tiny room and shuffled out, like two children who'd been caught doing something naughty. Dan pointed at the narrow bed, only handing the baby to her when they were both sitting down. They folded around her in a protective, loving shield, murmuring apologies. Dan sat in the chair and rubbed Angel's back and side in a half hug.
"I'm sorry, sweetness. Mama's just sad about leaving. You're okay."
A salty drop of sad landed in the corner of her eye. She turned to press her lips to his scruffy cheek, pouring her grief into the simple gesture. "I'm sorry to you, too. I don't want to leave, you know that."
Dan sniffled. "Sure you do."
She looked at her little family, her forehead pressed to his jaw. "I want to be where they are. I just wish they were here. You know how much I love Minnesota." She kissed his cheek again. "I'll miss you lots. Don't stop talking to me, 'kay? I still need my best friend, now more than ever."
Dan wrapped his big arms around her, giving Menolly a little tickle on the way round, in the biggest bear hug he'd given her yet.
"Wow, you've lost a lot of weight! How'd I not notice 'til now?"
She sniffled into his overalls. "You were afraid to hug me properly 'til now? I dunno."
Transport came in then, with a wheelchair that looked far too big for her. Three pairs of eyes dripped with more tears than they thought they had left.
It was Dan who moved first. He went in the closet and got her belongings bag.
Avi handed her the baby so he could gather his things, and the baby's. He'd been cleaning up when he Felt her break down. At first, he let her cry. He thought she'd resent him for butting in. But he could only take so much, and there was nothing else to pack. Now, his forethought was paying off. They could leave sooner.
That sort of made it all the more sad. There was no delay to the goodbyes, no reason to tarry.
"Do we even know where to have the cab take us?" Angel's blue-on-blue eyes stared up at him, all but swimming in the wheelchair, baby on her lap.
"I... don't know. Your sister said your things were in storage, so... I guess the nearest hotel?"
Dan stood straighter. "If it's all the same to you, ma'am, I'll take them out for a bite to eat while they find a place to stay for a few days."
She nodded. "Why don't you pull up around front, and I'll have the front desk cancel the cab. We'll meet you downstairs."
Angel nabbed his hand as he walked past. "Thank you, Danny boy."
"Any time, dragon eyes." He squeezed her hand and walked away. His phone rang, but this once, he let it go to voicemail.
Chapter 31: Lunch With the Boys
Angel, her former lover, her husband, and their child, walk into a restaurant. What could possibly go wrong? Okay, Menolly doesn't walk, but the question remains.
When he was gone, Avi leaned down and murmured "dragon eyes?"
She blushed. "It's because they change color. Not as much as they did when I was younger... and, at the same time, more than they used to." She flicked her eyes toward the transport person, hoping he knew she was referring to the draconic emotions.
:So that's how you were a dragon before you were a dragon. I did wonder.:
Her head tilted curiously.
He shook his head minutely. :I don't remember when I thought that.:
She shrugged as the nurse turned her chair toward the elevator.
When they got to the hospital lobby, they waited in companionable silence for what seemed like a long time, to him. She was used to Dan's lack of speed. She also knew that he was probably returning the phone call that he let go to voicemail when he walked away. He only got so much leeway with his job. With her leaving as soon as her husband could book a flight, she didn't want him to lose that job.
When the rusty old van pulled up, with the colorful bearded man behind the wheel, he thought it oddly fitting. They were both large, sturdy, and surprisingly comforting.
"Do I need to call shotgun?" Angel asked, one brow raised.
He laughed. "No, you don't." He took the baby from her with one arm, reached out to offer her support with the other. She just patted it and climbed into the van on her own.
He buckled the baby into her car seat, now that her mother had released her. He sat beside her, behind Angel, and closed the sliding door.
"I've heard you like barbecue, but I'm afraid we don't have any good restaurants for it around here. What else do you like?" Dan asked.
It was strange, having a virtual stranger know that he liked barbecue, but most of his fans knew that anyway. He shook off the thought, asked about sushi.
Angel laughed. "I knew you'd say that. We've got options there. May I counter that with the observation that they're all a bit quiet for hotel negotiations? We can do sushi for dinner, but why not pick something a bit more homey for lunch? Somewhere they're used to people being on the phone, or it's too busy to care?"
"Not too busy, though," he reminded her. "I don't feel like getting swarmed while we're trying to make a reservation."
Dan pointed out that no matter where they went, they'd risk that. He looked at Angel, and some unknown thing passed between them. "You could always get something from the drive-thru and eat on the beach."
She chuckled. "We can do that with the sushi, dearest. Little Angie's should be safe enough. You like Tex Mex, right?" She half turned toward him.
Suddenly feeling like a child listening to his parents, he belatedly remembered to nod. The van grumbled to life and turned onto the road. The big man made him feel tiny; her easy camaraderie with him left Avi feeling like a third wheel. He got a firsthand glimpse of what her life was like, before she became his Angel.
Menolly patted his arm, smiling and babbling nonsense. He got the gist of what she was trying to do, telepathically. She was telling him that she loved him, no matter who Mama's friend was. She didn't know what was in the past, she only knew what was now. He sort of envied her that.
In a very short time, they were pulling into a busy, touristy area. They found a spot near the restaurant the locals thought best, and as soon as he opened the door, the aromas set his mouth to watering.
Angel smiled with hometown pride. She knew the food was great. She ate there with her out of town friends all the time. Or I used to... The smile faltered, but she firmly plastered it in place as they walked up the outdoor stairs, and into the quaint cowboy themed restaurant. She let it slide off her face on the way to a table near the back. They had to move the table to accommodate the big man, but she and Avi were thin enough to fit on the other side.
This meant that the only place to put the baby was on Dan's side of the table. They didn't think she was up to a high chair, just yet. In all honesty, she might have been, but neither parent was willing to risk it. He was a nervous first-timer, and she couldn't remember when babies were supposed to do what. Besides, Angel had missed so much, she wanted to let her be a baby a little longer.
Fortunately, as long as Menolly was able to see her parents, she was willing to tolerate the giant at her side. She even patted his arm once or twice, if they didn't see her signing at them. Avi suspected it might also have been to get a better feel for Dan, since her extrasensory perception was still dependent on touch.
They ordered an appetizer to nibble on while he tried to find an availability nearby. :I know you'd rather just teleport, so thanks for staying long enough to sort out my belongings.:
She felt him twitch beside her. :Actually, I'd forgotten about that. I've been worrying about the road trip all day, you know. All that open road...:
:We'll be driving, silly. What can catch us in a Uhaul?:
Fear rippled through the link. :I don't know, but it had wings, and it was almost as big as you were.:
She blanched. "Um... So, do we want to see if a Pod can bring my stuff to California? That way, we can take the quick route, and be safer?"
Dan looked up from his menu. "Are you that anxious to be out of here?"
"No, no! I just... don't think I'm up to a road trip yet." She meant that she couldn't promise she could protect them for that long, if at all, but he wouldn't know that.
He softened, as she knew he would. She felt bad, not telling him everything, but it was better if she didn't. He wouldn't be a target. She wanted to leave him with the fewest scars possible.
"So, do we know what we want yet?"
The waiter's words bore more meaning than he knew.
Chapter 32: Targeted Emotions
Is this goodbye forever?
When they'd ordered their food, Angel went to the restroom. Avi started to offer his arm, but she was already out of the booth and through the door. He hadn't noticed that they were right next to the bathrooms.
When she came back, she grumbled about how baggy her clothes were. "The next stop for us is some sort of store, I think. I know you'll have to get back soon, but I can't wear these forever. The drawstring is nice and all, but everything is too big." Only one of them got her meaning, but she was fine with that.
"So you want me to drop you at the mall?" Dan asked.
She shuddered. "Not dressed like this, and not with him. No offense."
Avi, having also cringed, assured her there was no harm done. "Is there somewhere better, d'you think?"
Angel thought for a moment. "I'd rather not go to Walmart, just on principle, so I guess Target is fine for a few essentials."
He touched her arm to get her attention. "You know you don't have to pinch pennies anymore, right?"
Her cheek twitched. "We don't exactly have designer shops here; and besides, I've never had expensive tastes. Give me a geeky t-shirt from the boys' section and some leggings, and I'm fine."
"The boys' section?"
She grinned. "Perks of being short. Certain chain stores don't seem to think girls like Star Wars and Marvel, so I just buy from the section that has them. In that storage unit, I've got men's boxers, men's socks, boots, shirts, and even some boxer briefs. I don't see the need to pay more for things, when nobody can tell they were made for men. Besides, my feet are too big for women's boots."
She was blushing, but as always, food saved the day. The plates and pans, respectively, arrived steaming and/or sizzling. She loved that about this place. The cast iron skillet, combined with the saddles in their plexiglass boxes, and the other paraphernalia, gave it a Western cowboy atmosphere, right there on Lake Superior.
They dug into their food, with little talk interrupting the meal. She had to scold Dan for giving the baby a fingerful of refried beans. She handed the diaper bag with her food around the table, instead. Her heart caught at the sight of the huge paw holding the tiny spoon, so she concentrated on her food, after a few surreptitious photographs.
Avi pressed his leg to hers in silent support. He had a fair idea what she was going through.
When Dan was done feeding the baby, Angel took her in the bathroom for cleanup. Both men objected, but she was the most skilled at handling an infant in a public restroom. She compromised by handing her off as soon as they came back out. She archly pointed out that she wasn't fatigued in the least, and they knew darned well that if she said it, it had to be true.
The baby decided she'd had enough of the strange giant, so she sat on her father's lap for the rest of the meal. Dan took a few photos of the happy family to send her later. He'd edit them with his fancy photography apps, make them look as good as they could--no matter what the images did to his big ol' heart.
When they had eaten their fill and paid the bill, they went across the street to deposit their meager belongings in the hotel that conveniently had an available room for three days. It felt unreal, signing her last name in the register alongside his, but she'd have to get used to it eventually.
Dan, having waited in the car, opened the doors for them. He took great pride in being kind to as many people as he could. She gave him another kiss on the cheek before she got in the front seat. He closed the door gently behind her, then the back door.
He always drove carefully, but this day, he was slower than usual. She knew he was postponing the inevitable, and it hurt. She squeezed his hand when they reached their destination, kissed his cheek for perhaps the last time.
"Thanks, Danny boy, for everything. Don't be a stranger." It wasn't a request, it was an order.
"Yes ma'am," he said, tears in his eyes.
She wiped the eye closest to her, shook the damp finger at him, and demanded he stay right there until he could see straight. She turned to get out of the car, spun back, and planted a goodbye kiss right on his lips.
And then they were gone.
Angel swiped at her eyes quickly; not to keep her husband from seeing, but to save face in public. People might ask why she was crying, and think he was responsible for it.
Chapter 33: The Dragon's New Clothes
Fresh out of the hospital with nothing to wear, Angel does what she must.
Despite her preference for men's T-shirts, she went straight to the women's section. She needed bras, and badly. The question was, what size was she now?
The only way to find that out was to be measured, so they went directly to the fitting rooms. There wasn't much of a wait, but they had to go back into the women's fitting area. Her shirt was too loose for an accurate measurement.
Armed with her new sizes, she marched out into the sea of clothing, and... stopped. She was overwhelmed with the sheer volume of choices at her fingertips. For a moment, her wide eyes glazed over, until it was just a quilt of color.
Then she blinked rapidly, and strode toward the undergarments. She would deal with clothing once she had the proper foundations picked out.
Socks were plucked from the men's section, because women's socks didn't come in the cut she liked. Underwear was chosen more for softness than pattern. Bras were selected for their structure first, color second. She asked him to pay for those purchases while she looked at clothing.
"Why not buy everything at once?"
She stared up at him. Clearly he was missing something. "I need a bra and underwear that fit, before I can try anything else on. Otherwise, there will be bunched up fabric everywhere, and I won't know if it looks okay."
"Oh." He bought the sturdy, utilitarian garments while she browsed the rest of the section.
When he came back, she had three different shirts and a dress over one arm, in a couple of sizes. He asked why she needed more than one size, having just been measured, and she smiled. It seemed there was more he didn't know.
"Different brands have different sizes. Even jeans aren't standardized. You rarely know what size you'll need on the first try."
So he followed in her wake, holding the stack of simple, comfortable articles of clothing she chose. If it had lace, sequins, or extensive embroidery, she put it back. If it didn't pass the touch test, she put it back. She opted more for stylish cuts than embellishments. She'd take a soothing print over a garish pattern. His Angel liked cooler colors, for the most part, though pink did sneak in a couple of times.
When he asked, she said that her skin tone had more yellow than pink, so warm colors made her look jaundiced. She didn't know much about style, but she'd been given a makeup book as a teenager, and that's what it said. She applied that to clothing, since she very rarely wore makeup.
Before they went into the changing rooms, she hit up the boys' section for a few graphic tees. This being Target, she also wound up with a few Pride themed shirts in the pile.
He didn't comment on any of it. He simply tossed them in the cart he decided they needed, and waited to see if they fit okay.
When they got to the changing rooms, they had to divide the stack, because she had too much. He never knew that fitting rooms had a limit on what you could bring in. He sat on a bench with the baby, who'd fallen asleep, and the cart, and waited.
And he waited. He wondered how long it took to try things on. Sure, she had to take the tags off the bra and underwear she planned on wearing, but that shouldn't take this long... Should it? He pinged a query across the link, to see if she needed help.
:Almost done. Can you get another stack ready?:
He sat straighter, pretended to be talking to her via text. :Wait, what? I don't understand. Didn't anything fit?:
:Oh, sure. The T-shirts fit fine, and some of the shorts.:
He took a moment to calm himself. :I thought you were going to show me.:
Surprise and confusion pinged him. :You'll see everything when I wear it. It's quicker this way.:
:Maybe,: he said, a bit put out, :but half the fun of shopping for clothes is seeing how things look.:
A sturdy hand rested on his shoulder. If he hadn't Felt her approach, he would've jumped out of his skin. "We can do a fashion show when we get back, if you like. I just want to get this over with as fast as possible, y'know?"
The eyes that greeted him were weary. He'd forgotten where she'd been this very morning, how taxing this must be for her. "Yes, yes, of course! What did you want to try on next?"
She gestured wearily at the pile that looked insurmountable now. "Just hand me a bunch and I'll work my way through it." When she saw his concern, she hastened to reassure him. "I'm sitting down for most of it, don't worry."
He handed her another batch of hangers, and waited more patiently for her return. That's not to say he didn't fret, but he understood what she was doing now.
He would later realize that she'd gone through that hefty stack, and sorted what would or would not work, in very little time at all. She was focused and concise. If she was on the fence about something, or its fit, she draped it over the door to hand to the attendant. Things were ruled in or out with ruthless efficiency. She didn't like admitting fatigue, so she sped up the process instead.
When she had what she estimated to be a week's worth of clothing, she grimly steered toward the hygiene section. He groaned internally, because he knew how long it took to choose makeup.
What he didn't anticipate was her equal brevity with accessories--none of which were makeup. She bought some hair ties for her braids, head wraps for the stray hairs round her face, razors, and basic hygiene products. She knew what shampoo and conditioner she liked, what soap, and so on. The thing that took the longest was the deodorant, and that's because she was reading labels, since they didn't carry her brand. She was too tired to go anywhere else, but she didn't want to stink, so she powered through. It wouldn't have taken so long, if not for her many sensitivities.
:Are you sure you still have those? You're a Celestial Dragon, remember.:
:Better safe than sorry,: she rumbled. :The kids can't have sugar as dragons. Who knows what's still knocking about in this body, eh?:
Finally, they had all of the essentials they could think of. She gave him her phone, with the cab company dialed up, while they waited in line at the checkout.
"You never know how long the wait will be," she said, "so you should always call before you're fully finished."
Their luck held. A cab pulled up just as they left the store. Angel wilted onto the seat while he belted their daughter in next to her. He sat up front, to direct the driver.
Despite her best efforts, Angel dozed off, on the way to the hotel.
Chapter 34: Hotel Minnesota
Avi would've carried her in, if he didn't also have the bags and baby to deal with. She woke up when he opened the door to get the baby, so he was spared the quandary. She took the bags over his objections, pointed out that the baby and car seat were probably heavier than the clothes and toiletries.
He let her carry the clothing, but she lost the debate about the toiletries, because she'd bought the large pump shampoo and conditioner. He looped the bag over his arm, the baby over the other, and paid the driver.
"Fine, then hand me the key. Let me be a little useful, would you?"
Her words from so long ago came back to him, then. The reason she'd volunteered to be a vessel was so she'd feel useful. Here he was, treating her like an invalid. But she is, at least for now, he reminded himself.
He set the baby down and handed her the key. It was an easy compromise to make. When she reached to take it, he pulled her close. Their hands gripped each end of the key, and it wasn't just her breath that quickened.
"Pretty soon, you'll be strong enough to topple nations," he murmured. "Let me take care of you this once?" He let go of the key and bent to pick up their daughter.
He couldn't be sure whether she growled, or groaned. He also couldn't see the color of her eyes, and not just because she'd purchased a pair of sunglasses. He was already turning toward the doors, so he missed the flash of pink/purple.
It felt weird for her to follow him through the hotel, still in the baggy clothes. She felt like a fraud. She certainly did not feel like Mrs. Kaplan, no matter what the paperwork said.
He didn't experience any strangeness, because she'd been with him for so long. It would've been more disorienting if Angel wasn't nearby. Even the first few moments in the hotel room didn't give him any qualms. They'd toured together twice, and she'd always made herself at home immediately.
This time was different. She set the bags down, and just... stood there; not sure what to do, or where to look.
He put the baby in the middle of the huge bed and caught a whiff of her diaper. He turned to ask Angel to hand him the diaper bag, saw her standing there staring out the window. She looked so vulnerable, so small, he wanted to hold her close and protect her. Since it was supposed to be the other way round, he asked her for the diaper bag, which was closer to her than him.
She snapped to attention. "Yes! Right, here. I should probably--"
"I've got this. Why don't you put something more comfortable on."
She smirked as she handed him the bag. "Are you saying you want me to slip into something more comfortable?" One brow was tilted saucily. "Sorry, I didn't buy any of that stuff."
He blushed and looked away. "You know what I meant."
Her chuckle was a trifle forced. "Yeah, but this stuff isn't uncomfortable. With the new, erm, undergarments, they feel fine. Why dirty something new if we're just going to be sitting around, right?"
He glanced at her around giggling baby legs. "I thought we could take a walk on the beach; or just sit for a while, if you're tired."
Her eyes returned to the window wistfully. "I haven't said hi to the ol' gal for a while..."
"Who's that?" he asked, reluctant to break into her reverie.
She perched at the very edge of the bed, not looking at him. "The Lake, of course. Sailors seem to make everything nautical female, so I call it the Great Lady." She darted a look over her shoulder. "Sort of like the Grey Lady, except she's a Great Lake."
He didn't get to see this side of her very often. She was the fey creature of the wilds again. If he so much as sneezed, he got the impression she'd flit away to another realm.
He was still marveling at this mercurial dragon he'd somehow captured, when she hopped off the bed and darted into the bathroom with one of the bags. The baby had to pat his arm to get his attention back. He hadn't finished fastening her clothes.
He gathered the various sundries together while she changed. He'd purchased a beach towel at Target, though neither of them had swimming clothes. They'd also need an umbrella to shelter the baby, sunscreen, and...
"You can't really wear a bra with this, but I liked how it flows, so..."
Angel trailed off, not sure she was reading his face right. If she didn't know better, she might say he was stunned. Her face puckered anxiously; hands twisted in the loose, knee-length skirt of the simple sun dress she'd chosen for the beach.
It was like Avi truly saw his wife for the first time. No longer encumbered by wires, tubes, or baggy clothing, she stood before him in a delicate creation of pale blue, with tiny white flowers. It hugged her curves, then floated around her thighs in silky waves. It was ruched across her bosom, with a strap around half an inch wide that tied behind her neck.
The bare shoulders were surprisingly wide for her frame, with well-developed muscles between her neck and shoulders. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he thought it made sense for a flighted creature to have strength there. Most of his brain was taking in the willowy arms and toned legs. He didn't see what she meant about her feet, because they looked well proportioned, if a bit long. He didn't think them overly wide. The ample hips and bosom were only heightened by the lines of the dress.
Her skin was so pale from being in a coma, her tattoos stood out in stark contrast. Without her angel robes, or blankets, he finally saw the extent of them. She had ink everywhere that was exposed! They weren't sleeves, or large pieces. They were a collection of small to medium tattoos, expressing various aspects of her personality. The overall effect was striking. He made a mental note to look at them in more detail when she was more comfortable around him.
"I didn't think I'd need a swimsuit, y'know, 'til we got to California..." She spoke into the silence, acutely uncomfortable. She hadn't had a man look at her like that since high school. She'd long forgotten what to do.
He visibly shook himself. "That's okay, the water is probably too cold anyway. I just thought you'd like some fresh air. It's not hiking, but I'm not sure you'll be up to that for a while."
She nodded. "You're probably right. We should put the sunscreen on before we go out, 'cause I dunno about you, but I burn if the sun looks at me wrong."
Chapter 35: The Great Lady
Angel applied her own sunscreen, as best she could. She sat on the chair at the little desk to smooth the cream over her arms and legs, oblivious to his attention. His hands shook on his calves when she ran her hands up under the hem of the dress. Logically, he knew she had to go beyond where it fell, but he had yet to see the thighs she was protecting.
When she dipped below the neckline, a blob of sunscreen splattered from his arm onto his shorts. Even her neck, stretched up to get under her chin, did something to his insides. She dabbed gently across her face, instead of smearing it everywhere. He imagine this is what it would look like if she wore foundation. Without her glasses, she looked oddly vulnerable. The braids made her look younger than she had to be, as did the dress.
Her eyes opened, a soft green, and stared right at him. It caught him unawares. She extended her bottle of sunscreen, higher SPF than his. "Could you get my back?"
His Adam's apple bobbed twice. "Sure." He didn't plan on taking his shirt off, so he didn't need her to return the favor. Part of him considered it, but he wasn't quite confident enough to do it.
She pivoted on the chair and pulled her braids over her shoulders. She held the bottle over one shoulder, unable to look at him. She must've read him wrong. He must be afraid of hurting her. If only everyone's eyes showed their moods...
Avi tried to pretend he was just oiling his dragon's hide, the same as he'd always done. The problem was, her skin was too soft to be dragonhide. Dragons didn't wear dresses, with straps, that he had to work around, and under.
And he'd never seen lavender light bouncing off the wall, however briefly. He tried to pretend he hadn't noticed before she closed her eyes.
But he had.
She tried to pretend that his hands weren't skimming over her skin with just the right amount of pressure. She didn't remember the long months of having lotion applied just so. She hadn't become desensitized to it. This was a fresh memory, vivid and difficult to process. She had to work very hard not to shiver under those lean guitar man hands.
It was over too soon, but also not soon enough. She wished she had her wide-brimmed hat to hide under. He strode toward the baby to hide something else, before she turned around.
He handed her a reusable bag full of beach paraphernalia, hooked the diaper bag over his shoulder before she could object. Then there was nothing to do but take the baby to the beach for the first time, not that she'd know that.
They walked out onto the grassy verge, and it dawned on Angel that she'd forgotten to buy shoes. She was still wearing the slides that her sister had bought her to wear home. Home... I guess that's not here, anymore... Shoes. Shoes, of all things, made her homesick. How weird was that?
He squeezed her arm in mute support. "Do you really need shoes? We can do that tomorrow, if you like. I think those should last until you can get into your things, but I don't mind doing a bit more retail therapy."
She huffed a not-laugh. "I've wanted a good pair of sandals with arch support for years. If you're feeling truly masochistic, we can try the mall."
He took the towel from the bag she held and spread it out. "Why didn't you buy a pair, if you wanted them that long?"
She plopped down with an awkward sort of grace. "The ones I liked were all too expensive." She made the admission to the rocks in front of her. She did her odd, unique Angel shrug. "The ones I have in the storage unit are too thin on the bottom. All style, no substance. But," she sighed, "that's what I could afford. I checked the secondhand stores, of course. That's why it was a long process: you never know what they'll have, or when."
Angel murmured, almost too quietly for him to hear, "Heyla, Lady. Been a while." She stared out at the Lake for a while without moving.
After a while, she sifted through the rocks around her, in what he thought was an aimless, nervous habit. He sat next to her, with the baby in front of them in her car seat, and opened the umbrella. He didn't need to tell her that she could afford good shoes now. She knew that, and it embarrassed her. He followed her lead, and focused on what he could do, instead of worrying about what he couldn't change.
"Nice!" she crowed. "Hey, have you got an empty bottle, or something?"
"What?" He was thrown off-guard, until she showed him a pretty, amber-colored rock.
"It's an agate. Well, a piece of one. I don't usually find chunks this big; 'specially not on this part of the beach. I was just looking for beach glass."
He held the rock up to the sunlight, and found it see-through. He checked the diaper bag, but there wasn't even an empty baby food jar. She was just too efficient.
"Want me to go buy a soda or something?"
She shook her head. "Soda bottles have narrow necks. Gatorade and Powerade bottles work best. Some tea bottles have wide necks, but I don't know what they'll have in the hotel."
He smiled at her braids, for she was already on the hunt for more pretty rocks, or glass. "Okay, I'll go look for something with a wide mouth."
"Try a frog," she joked.
"What?" he laughed.
"It's a book my cousin loved. Never mind."
He kissed her shoulder impulsively, then leapt to his feet to go in search of a container for her rocks. If this small thing made her happy, he would indulge it even more happily. She absently nabbed the handle of the umbrella before it could blow away, showing the baby the pretty things she found.
He walked back to the hotel with a bright smile that never wavered.
Chapter 36: Beach Mama
Do they ever get a break?
When he came back with a sports drink, Angel was standing with the car seat between her legs. It didn't look comfortable, as short as they were, but she managed.
"Angel, honey, what--"
She pivoted, an arm thrust out, to block... something from reaching him. He couldn't see it, but he could hear the rocks moving under its feet.
He dropped to the towel, scooped the baby behind her legs, so she could move more freely. He shielded the car seat with his body, trusting Angel to protect them both. He held Menolly far enough away from Mama that she could move without kicking them, but close enough to be protected.
He dare not look up, knowing what could happen if ichor landed on him. He didn't know if everything bled the acidic substance, but he didn't want to take the chance. Furthermore, he didn't want to expose the baby.
Rocks flew on all sides, it seemed. Long toes danced around them; sometimes on the towel, other times on the rocky beach. She'd kicked off the slides, he saw. He didn't move to tuck them under his body, for fear of getting a scratch for his troubles. They could wash her shoes, if they got splattered, or he'd loan her his own.
Angel didn't show the pain of the rocks digging into her bare feet, but it seemed to know that she was vulnerable without the slides. What it didn't know was, she'd walked this beach countless times. She knew that this section had larger rocks than the ones further down. She wondered if she could lift one of the rocks that was the size of her head, then dismissed it. Adrenaline would only take her so far. No, far wiser to whip the fist-sized ones at it. This also sent the blood spurting away from her family. She didn't consciously remember that it could be toxic, she just didn't want to see them covered in the nasty stuff.
At some point in the fight, she realized what she was doing. She whirled and flung without fear, without fatigue, without thought. She, who was too scared to walk through downtown after dark, was successfully fending off a creature twice her size. She'd forgotten, in the heat of the moment, that she was a dragon; one who'd trained for this very thing.
A grin stretched her mouth, wider than human lips should go. She unhinged her jaw for a moment, and dragon fangs dropped down with an audible click. She tilted her head side to side, the bones popping and stretching. She flicked her hands, without breaking eye contact with the monster in front of her. Claws sprouted as fast as a knuckle crack, and scales rippled over her otherwise human body. With a subtle twitch of her buttocks, her tail slid out behind her.
She thought about trying to go full dragon, for all of a breath, but no. She wasn't full strength yet. This would do, for now. It tried to attack between her Shifting, but learned very quickly that she wasn't vulnerable. It had missed the window for that.
Once her claws came in, it was done for. The knowledge settled into its eyes, right before the life left them.
Angel wasn't thrilled with the knowledge of what came next. Her instincts, the things she'd been relying on, told her that its blood would taint the shore of the Lake she loved so much. Someone's child could stumble across the corpse and get burned, whether or not it could see it.
With a heavy sigh, she let the instincts take over completely. She popped her wings out, slipped out of the dress and underwear in the relative privacy of their shelter. She dropped to her hands, hung her head down to get blood pumping into the cranial cavities, to extend her muzzle. The only reason she went full dragon was to gain the stomach capacity needed to devour something twice the size of her human body. Her brain didn't analyze how she Shifted, so it would be interesting Shifting back. She growled a lot, so he'd think she was still fighting for them.
She bolted the corpse before anyone could see the stain on the rocks, drooled over everything to purify it. She went as fast as draconically possible, in the hope that he wouldn't see what she did. She didn't want him to see her covered in ichor, so she dove into the Lake with a fervent apology. She waved her paws in a pattern she thought would purify the waters around her. Instinct had served her well, so far, so she went with it.
Angel Shifted back, aside from the wings, under the concealment of the Lake. Her husband dared to look up when she stepped onto the beach, having heard no sign of a struggle for a few minutes.
Of course he looks when I'm naked, she thought.
He stood on wobbly legs to shake out the towel for her. He held it out at arm's length for her to dry off.
She thought it was fear that made him shake, and she was partially correct. They'd been attacked on the beach, of all places, a few feet from their hotel. Was that even safe?
The thing that made his hands tremble more was the knowledge that she was naked. She tucked her wings into her spine, within the towel, and that thick piece of fabric was all that stood between them.
As such, her assumption was proven wrong when he held her close, to chafe warmth into her. She thought with some humor that perhaps he needed to take a dip in the Lake, though she wasn't sure she wanted him to.
Angel had wisely waited to release her hair from its scaly cap until her body was halfway out of the water, so it didn't take long to dry off. She nabbed her dress with one of her feet; with its long, nimble toes. The foot swung up so she could reach the garment, without exposing herself. She had to lean on him a little, which didn't seem to help matters any.
She slid the dress up and over her hips, rather than trying to wrestle it up, out of the towel, and back down. She wriggled and shimmied, secretly enjoying what it did to him. Up went the straps. Then she snagged her underwear the same way.
He could've released her, now that she was clothed, but his long arms seemed locked in place. She managed to get her underwear on, despite his "help".
"I'm decent," she said dryly. "You can let me go now."
Avi jerked guiltily. "Right, sorry. Are you okay?"
Angel laughed. "I'm fine, but I think somebody's hungry. I don't know about you, but I'd love a proper shower afterwards. Should we adjourn for the evening? I put my pretties in a shoe while I was waiting."
He looked down, and miraculously, her shoe was still filled with bits of glass and stone.
"I don't know how you do it," he chuckled.
Chapter 37: Bath Time
Angel put the towel in the bag, and carefully dumped her treasures into the folds of fabric. She didn't bother checking her shoes, because she was sort of sure she was immune to the ichor. She slid them back on, wincing as she felt every single place a rock jabbed her soles, before her scales protected them.
Next time, definitely armor up first, she thought.
"I could carry you," he offered. The twinkle in his eye made her think he was joking, but she wasn't quite certain.
"Somebody else needs you more than I do. Just walk close enough to lean on, 'kay?"
He bent to pick up the car seat, but couldn't figure out how to pick it up with the umbrella somehow tied to it.
"Oh yeah, let me get that," she chuckled. The intermediate car seat didn't have a handle in the middle like the newborn one did. The handle on top was too high to anchor the umbrella to, so she'd improvised. She'd buckled the seatbelt through the loop of the umbrella. Now, she unbuckled the baby long enough to remove the umbrella, and clipped it again. Menolly tried to grab her, but she calmly held her in place and stood up.
"We should hurry. She's pretty shaken up."
He picked up the car seat, she took the bag and umbrella. She limped along, putting the umbrella in the bag as she went. He put an arm around her shoulders for stability. They got a curious look from the staff, but no one said anything. She assumed people walked barefoot on the beach often enough for them to guess what happened.
When they got into the room, he set the car seat on the floor for her to check for splatter. She tersely ordered him to strip and carefully check his clothes while she checked the baby. She whipped her dress over her head and fought flailing arms and legs to examine the pretty dress for dark matter.
"I know you're hungry, but Mama has to make sure you won't get burned first."
"Here, why don't you get the bath started? I'm clean, 'cept for a blob on the back of my shirt, but it's in the sink."
"Right, bath. Best be safe, I guess." She got up to run the bath, making arcane gestures as she walked. She wasn't sure if she was warding the room or not, but she was still trusting her instincts. She didn't think to consult him, caught up in the rush to make her family safe.
She plugged the tub, ran warm water, and sat down, while her husband wrestled the baby out of her dress. He figured it would be quicker to hand her the baby while he checked her clothes.
"Wait, why am I doing this, and you're doing that? I'm immune to that stuff, you aren't."
She started to get up, when he came in and handed Menolly to her. "'Cause she's fussy and hungry, and I thought we could get both of you clean faster this way. The sooner we get her clean, the sooner she can be fed."
Angel set the baby on her lap while the tub filled, turned it off when it reached her waist. While she was bent forward turning the taps, the baby used her distraction to latch on.
"That wasn't the plan," she chuckled tightly. "That's okay, sweetling. Mama can multitask."
She couldn't look him in the eye when he bent to hand her the baby soap. It was embarrassing enough nursing fully naked in front of him, but he was also nude.
"Would you like a hand, or..?"
She shrugged. "I've done this before on my own, but you can stay if you like."
He sat for a moment, just watching. Then he picked up her soap, where he'd set it for her, and washed her back. He couldn't wash her front without possibly getting soap in the baby's eyes, but he could at least do this much.
She finished washing their daughter's tiny body before she'd had her fill. She stood up, intending to dry them off and get dressed, but he took it as a sign to soap her legs. She froze while his lean hands wrought havoc on her insides. She locked her legs so he couldn't accidentally touch her somewhere that would cause her to plumb fall over. She didn't want to drop the baby.
"Okay, you can sit."
She made every effort to sit gracefully; or at least not drop to the shallow water like a wet noodle. What saved her was the ability to hold a wet, nursing baby with one arm, so she could use the other for balance.
He gently splashed water over her legs, trying not to splash their daughter in the process.
"Here, stretch out. Yeah, that's easier, thanks."
Angel didn't lean against the back of the tub, she merely laid her legs out to be rinsed like some distant queen. She kept her jewels hidden under Menolly's backside, and her own forearm, acutely uncomfortable.
"Can you give me your arm? You've still got some of that hospital tape on it."
Angel stretched out her arm more out of reflex than active participation.
She winced when he scrubbed at the adhesive, careful as he was. "If you've got any alcohol wipes, those work a lot better." She earned a few minutes' reprieve while he went to look for some. It wasn't quite enough to rebuild her fragile defenses, but she'd survive.
He knew when it hurt, which made it easier not to pull the wrong way, but it still stung more than he liked. He finished with the arm closest to him, but the other was being used. There were still marks from the leads, so he opened a new alcohol wipe and reached for her chest. He tried to be understanding of her stiffness around him, hoped that she would learn she was safe with him. He made no inappropriate advances; he even let her hold her own bosom out of the way, so he could clean the spots on her ribcage where her heart had been monitored for so many months.
When he was finished, he would have pulled away, but a tiny fist closed around his index finger. She hugged it close to herself, thereby pulling his hand closer to her mother's breast.
The moment lasted either too long or too little, depending on who you asked. She finished her meal, but she didn't let go of him when she was lifted for burping. Angel put her over the shoulder near him, to avoid being choked by his forearm.
"I think she'll take some solid food now. She was just shaken up, I think."
He chuckled. "Mm, I think somebody was ready for a nap when it happened. She's fading fast. Here, let me take her so you can finish up."
She didn't have time to argue, and the baby was too slippery to hold onto her. He wrapped her up in a hooded towel, waved one little hand at Mama, and walked out of the bathroom.
Chapter 38: Shower Thoughts
Angel leapt up, yanked the curtain closed, and popped the plug. She didn't wait for the water to drain. She set the spray to the hottest she could comfortably stand, and scrubbed everything she didn't want him to touch. Well, if she were honest, she did want him to. The problem was, she was painfully shy around him. They'd only known each other a few days; or at least she'd only known him that long. Not even two weeks, and they would share a bed tonight.
She'd been too tired to notice when they arrived, but there was definitely only one bed in this room. And why would he ask for two? We're married, after all... Nope, still not used to that.
She reached for the shampoo, only to find none. Shards! She tried to project into the room, still not sure about volume with telepathy. :Hey, can you bring the shampoo and conditioner when she's down for her nap?:
The curtain opened, and the bottles came through. She yelped with surprise, torn between thanking and scolding him. She did neither. She took them and turned back toward the water. She set the conditioner on the edge of the tub, opened the shampoo.
"Can you close the curtain? There's a draft," she asked, trying not to sound sour.
"Sure." He calmly closed the curtain behind himself.
Her back shot ramrod straight, shampoo sitting in a puddle on top of her head, hands frozen halfway between her hair and waist. It was nearly a classic startle reflex.
It wasn't that she'd never shared a shower with a man. She'd done so hundreds of times, but there had been long acquaintance with the men in the past; not that there had been many. It was practical, in that it saved water. Since she'd never been affluent, saving money was always important.
There was no such excuse for this. Even if he'd been poor or middle class, the hotel paid for the water bill.
She was still standing there, shampoo slowly sliding down her hair, when he started to work it in for her. Her hands clenched at her waist. She swallowed several times, to try to regain some modicum of composure. She tried breathing exercises, but they could only do so much.
"You know, it's funny. You used to wash my hair for me all the time, but when I return the favor--" he leaned closer, "when you actually need it, you get all tense."
Angel rolled her shoulders. It wasn't really a shrug. It was more like she was trying to release the tension. "Maybe if I remembered that, it wouldn't be so... awkward."
He gave her more space, and a few moments of silence. "Is that why you've been so... uneasy since we got back?" He massaged her scalp, from her temples to the base of her skull.
"Mm hmm," she rumbled. She hadn't noticed the headache until it began to ebb under his skillful hands. With her head tilted back, the sound was husky, unintentionally sensual.
Avi had to clear his throat before he could speak. "There you go." He nudged her away, into the water, to rinse her hair. He helped with that, as well, but from a safer distance. His intentions were honorable. She'd just gotten out of the hospital. A simple shopping trip wiped her out, and there'd been adhesive everywhere from the various IV sites and sensors. He thought she could use a hand in the shower. Whose hands could be better than her husband's? Yep, still getting used to that...
When the shampoo was washed clean, she stepped back to apply the conditioner. He hadn't moved at all, so she had room to maneuver. He watched to make sure she wasn't overtired, but the conditioner went in without trouble.
She turned around, arms crossed a little too casually over her chest. "If you'll hand me your soap, I can do your back while the conditioner sits."
"Oh. I didn't bring mine. I didn't think... I was just helping you."
Angel scoffed. "Hand me my soap. The least I can do is wash your back. I know darned well how hard it is to get everything on your own." She held out one hand, still covering her nipples with her arms.
"You don't have to--"
"Yes, I do. What have I said about feeling useful? Besides, I'm just returning the favor. And you said the ichor got on the back of your shirt. Gimme." The extended hand flapped imperiously at him.
A slow smile stretched across his face and lit his eyes. A real scrapper, this one. He bent to retrieve the soap, knowing full well she'd get a look at his backside, if she wanted. He dropped the bar in her hand and turned around.
Angel held the soap in one hand, alternating swipes with the bar, and firm strokes with her small hand. She never bothered with a washcloth. It wasted soap and spread germs, in her opinion. The benefit was getting hands-on knowledge of one's skin--or one's partner's skin. She set the bar down when he was sufficiently soaped, and kneaded the ropy muscles of his lean back. She'd dated a guy or two who had back problems, so she knew acupressure fairly well.
It was uncanny, having her work the kinks out of his back the way she'd done as a dragon. There were no talons to be careful of, yet she still used the pads of her fingers to apply pressure.
There was one major difference between those times, and this one. When she'd finished with his back, he made to turn around, but she held him in place. He looked over his shoulder, confused.
"I wasn't done yet," she said with grim determination. There was also a twinkle in her eye that he didn't understand, until soapy hands dipped below his waist. Angel had never ventured south of his hipbones in the past!
She was thorough, almost clinical. He'd seen her wash their daughter's backside the same way, not fifteen minutes ago.
Except she didn't lightly slap the baby's cheeks when she was done.
He spun around, but her head was already tilted back in the spray, rinsing her hair. He might've left it there, but there was a decidedly lavender light peeking through her lashes.
Chapter 39: Shower Sight
"I'm trying to be honorable here, young lady."
A husky chuckle was his only reply. He took a step closer. "That's not helping, y'know."
Her laugh rumbled off the tiles in the shower. "Turn round so you can rinse the soap off. I can't see a thing right now, so it should be safe."
"I know better than that. You've got dragon sense to work from."
She straightened out of the spray, blinking water from her eyes. "I do?"
He sighed. On one hand, he didn't want to give her another tool for mischief, but it also served to protect their lives, so she needed to know.
He took the last step separating them, angled the shower head so it hit his back. It also dribbled water over their faces nonstop. :Yes, you do. Don't try to open your eyes. See what you can--well, "see" without them.: His eyes were open, so he saw her arching away from him.
He shook his head, slinging water droplets in an arc around them. :Come here, I won't bite. It does us no good if you fall over.: He wrapped his arms around her, just below her bosom. Neither of them needed that distraction! :I don't know how you do it, but try to pretend your eyes are open, maybe? Look around. You know what the room looks like, so start there?:
She grumbled about the whole thing, but it was a skill she'd need. She dropped her forehead to his sternum and tried to remember what the bathroom looked like. She imagined the wall behind her, and much to her surprise, an image formed! It was hazy at first, but she could See the knobs and faucet, and where the shampoo sat.
She reached back to touch the shampoo, and it was right where she Saw it!
He saw her touch the bottle. "What are you doing with the shampoo?" he asked warily.
She snorted. "I was just making sure I really Saw it. You should probably wash your hair while you're in here, though."
He put his hand over hers. "In a minute. Look at the rest of the room first. Maybe try to See the baby." He carried her hand to his chest, brought the other up beside it. "Focus."
She found it hard to focus on anything but her hands on his bare chest, with his long fingers atop hers. There was another distraction below the waist, but she'd been actively ignoring it since she noticed its presence.
She tried to fall back into the half trance, to See the room around them. She'd already established the wall behind her, so she Looked in front of her.
Angel staggered backwards, gasping and blinking water out of her eyes. "Note to self," she said, shivering in his arms. "Don't try to look through someone."
He didn't mean to laugh. He immediately apologized, but she waved it off, flapping one hand blindly. "'S'ok, I laugh at myself all the time. If I don't, other people will." She shuddered. "Laughter is far preferable to getting an eyeful of your husband's internal organs!"
She was too shocked to realize what she'd said, but his chest got warm and bubbly when she called him her husband. He let a smile spread across his face, knowing she was too distracted to ask why. He didn't want to argue about something this personal. Not yet.
"I think that's enough for now. Why don't you go ahead and dry off? I won't be long." Full of newlywed joy, he tapped her buttocks before releasing her.
"I'm on the wrong side to get out, silly." Impish green eyes sparkled up at him as she slid past him, along the wall. She lightly circled his ribs for balance, shimmied with perhaps a little too much hip on the way by.
Before she could escape, he scooped her close with a growl. "Y'know, it's awfully hard to be honorable when you do that." He waited a beat to let her make her getaway if she wanted, but she just twinkled up at him for a breath, until his mouth descended on hers.
Coherent thought immediately fled.
He didn't see her nab the bar of soap behind her. When his lips descended on hers, she almost forgot about it, pressed to his chest. After a few moments, or forever, she found enough clarity to move the soap against his lightly furred skin.
It took a few more forever moments for him to notice what she was doing. He only withdrew far enough to object. “You don't have--”
“Yes I do. The only reason I know we've done this before is her.” Her head jerked toward baby in the room outside the bathroom door. “I want to do this right.”
He smiled, the corners of his eyes crinkling in fascinating patterns.
She washed everything, from his face to his toes, her touch gentle but firm. When she said she wanted to do things right, she meant she wanted him very, very clean. He was so clean when she finally stood up, his legs were trembling. He could barely breathe the humid air.
“I trust you can wash your own hair?” she asked, one brow quirked.
Without waiting for a reply, she got out and dried off.
Chapter 40: Senses and Sensibilities
Avi reached for her shampoo without thinking about it. His entire body was still tingling from her ministrations. She didn't shy away like she had before. Her hands were firm, yet soft. She knew where to apply pressure, where to take care.
She didn't touch the bar to his face, choosing instead to soap her hands first, and smooth it over his skin. She seemed to be memorizing every line and angle, a soft smile on her lips. There was a faint rose tint to her eyes that he knew better than to question.
He rinsed his hair and tended to his beard, a dazed grin hovering about his mouth. He didn't know what to make of this new side of Angel. One minute she was wrangling a wet, nursing baby with the skill of a long-time mother; the next, she was bringing every synapse he had to life with deft fingers.
He felt a twinge of jealousy. He hadn't been there for any of her education. She'd had to learn on her own, with parenting. As for the rest... It really didn't do well to dwell on that. He didn't want to know how many men she'd bathed so thoroughly in the past.
:Not so many as you'd think,: a drowsy voice mumbled. :Long-term relationships exist, you know.:
He scrubbed his beard vigorously. :Sounds like you're falling asleep too.: He tried to suppress disappointment. She'd fought off a creature he couldn't even see, plus everything that she'd done afterward. Of course she'd be tired.
A wordless rumble was his answer. He sighed, forehead dropped to the cool tiles. The water ran cold for a few moments, then stopped. He dried off with more force than necessary, more out of frustration than anger. There would be plenty of time for them to explore intimacy later.
He didn't bother putting on clothing, though she had. He curled around her, one arm draped over her hip, near where she'd put the baby. He supposed a blanket on the floor wasn't as comfortable, but he hadn't wanted her to fall off the bed.
What do I do now? he wondered. He couldn't turn on the television, for fear it would disturb his girls.
My girls... His arm tightened over his wife, one finger touching their daughter's chubby calf. The arm under the pillow flexed with the urge to hold her as close as humanly possible. A feeling of peace and contentment settled on him, there in that hotel bed. He was a lucky man. He'd married a woman who was a wonderful mother, an adventurous lover, and a dragon to boot. He well remembered their past liaisons, and he could wait.
They could spend the rest of the evening as a family, and have adult time when the baby was down for the night. The question was, what did he do until then?
Without other options, he got up and retrieved his phone from his pants pocket. He could read an ebook, listen to a podcast with his earbuds in, or scan his social media. Or I could tell my parents that we're out, and arrange for her things to be moved. Being on such a tight timetable, he decided to be responsible, though he did so with a sigh.
They asked how she was doing, of course. He told them she was sleeping, but he left out the reason she was so tired. No need to worry them.
The wedding preparations are going well, his mother wrote. He'd forgotten that they were getting married again, but that's why he let her handle things.
We just need a location. She mentioned the sage and stone. If I'm not mistaken, you seemed to like that idea.
Yeah, it just feels right, y'know?
So, what do you want us to do, rent some tents?
He thought for a moment. I guess we could do that, yeah. Unless you want to have it at the house?
There was a long pause. You know I would love that, his mom wrote, but is that going to be safe? Why don't you ask her what would work best, when she wakes up?
He hated that it had to be a factor at all, but she had a point. They didn't want some creature destroying the family home. His dad agreed, so they moved on to the menu and guest list.
When they'd exhausted things to talk about via text (to avoid waking anyone), they let him go. He had to arrange for a Pod, or professional movers, or even a couple of friends willing to drive a Uhaul cross-country. He didn't want to ask any of his friends to do it, so he looked into professionals. The cost for moving just her belongings was a shock; especially with a wedding to pay for. Pods were much more cost effective, but they'd have to load it themselves.
When he consulted Esther, she thought of something he hadn't. She can have her friends help, and then you can throw a goodbye party. They'll already be in one place, and it's a reward for all their hard work.
That's a good point. I'll have her spread the word when she wakes up.
He said goodbye and set his phone on the nightstand. He tucked his body around his little family again with a sigh that was both happy and relieved. Angel stirred with a vague, questioning grumble.
"Just trying to be productive. It's okay, you can go back to sleep."
A longer rumble accompanied a slow, shivery stretch. "Ngh, I'm up. Just gimme a minute."
He chuckled. "Sure thing."
He thought she'd drift off again, but he was wrong. She woke up by degrees; flexing fingers and toes, curling and stretching her spine in maddening ways.
He had to sit up to keep his composure. The baby was waking up too, so they had to keep it G-rated, for now.
When she finally rolled upright, she asked what she could to to help. The words were a bit slurred, but he understood the question.
"You sure you're awake enough for this?"
"Nope. But, if it needs doing, I'll help."
He leaned over and kissed her temple. Her brow wrinkled a little, but she didn't comment on it. She picked up the baby and plopped her in her lap, leaned against the headboard.
He filled her in on the plan, sure he'd have to repeat it later, but he'd humor her stubbornness for the moment. He was only a little surprised when she leaned toward the nightstand to look for her phone. She didn't remember that it was in the beach bag.
"Here, let me get it." He scooted around the bed, forgetting that he was still naked. He handed her the phone, though her eyes were closed. She must've been using her Dragonsense, because she found it with ease.
"You kinda need to look at the phone to text," he teased.
"I'll open my eyes when you've got pants on," she growled.
Chapter 41: Laundry Day
Avi blushed, even though she wasn't looking. They were married, but it was just as embarrassing for him as it was for her. Maybe they'd get to the point where they didn't bother with clothes around the house (when the kids were asleep), but not today. He lunged for his suitcase to grab his pajama pants.
"We, ah, probably ought to find the laundromat here before we leave. Most of her clothes just got a quick rinse in the bathroom sink, and almost all of mine could stand up on their own." He was rambling, but she didn't mind. The chatter filled the awkward silence, and gave them something to focus on.
"Sure. Why don't you call the front desk and find out, while I'm texting everybody."
"Yeah, I can do that."
She must've been Watching, because when he turned around, her eyes were open. Her fingers flew across the screen with moderate speed, presumably managing multiple chat windows while he inquired about the facilities.
"Did you know there's a pool?" he asked when he hung up.
"No, but it makes sense that there'd be one. Most of the larger hotels have them up here." She didn't look up from her phone, but he didn't expect her to. She was arranging the severance of her entire life here, so he gave her space. He gathered their clothes together, including the tainted ones, and put them in his suitcase. The wet garments he put in the plastic bags from Target. He checked the diaper bag, and found a soiled dress that he tossed in.
"I'm going to get change for the laundry soap machine," he said, heading toward the door.
She bounced up off the bed, baby on her hip, eyes glued to her phone.
"You don't have to come with me, y'know."
She looked up, over her glasses. "I can't See as far as the front desk, so yes, I do."
"Oh, right." He grinned down at them. "You do such a good job protecting us that I forget we need it." He kissed her nose, turned, and swiped the key from the little table. "Guess we'll be needing this."
He took a few steps toward the door before it registered that the sound he heard behind him was the suitcase he'd filled.
"Here, let me get that. I thought we'd come back for that," he chided.
She shrugged, the rolling motion making the baby giggle. "I don't see why we would. May as well do it all in one shot."
He grinned and shook his head. "As you wish."
She spluttered behind his back, but he was already out the door, holding it for them. She tugged once on his beard on the way by, eyes sparking a dangerous blue-grey. He just smiled at her as she stalked down the hall ahead of him.
It hit him, as the desk came into view, that he'd done the same thing Dan had done. What was it about his Angel that turned a potentially painful gesture into an endearment? Was it because it didn't actually hurt? Was it her diminutive stature that lent her an elfin charm?
She asked where they got change for the laundry soap, and the attendant cheerily told her that he could do it right there. Avi suppressed a twinge of jealousy at such an innocent exchange, and handed over the bills he thought they'd need converted.
"There's a change machine in the laundry room if you need more quarters," the younger man said with a smile.
"Of course there is," Angel said. Her answering smile was as tight as her turn toward the aforementioned laundry room. She didn't know how she knew where it was; she assumed they'd been told when they checked in, and she retained the memory.
She was surprisingly efficient with a baby on her hip. She made a game out of bending to put things in the washers, which made her squeal with glee.
He smiled throughout the domestic chore, which was a rarity. He dropped kisses on his girls as he passed them with clothing, or detergent. Menolly giggled, but his wife was stoic. He didn't understand what had happened to change her mood so drastically.
"What should we do while the washers run? There's a little cafe we could hit up before it closes. Sound like a plan?"
She gave him that tight-lipped smile. "If you're hungry, we can do that. Maybe they'll have some applesauce for the little miss." She jiggled the baby on her hip, just enough to make her giggle. He got the feeling she was avoiding eye contact.
She's gone all mysterious again, he thought uneasily. It wasn't easy being married and Bound to a mercurial dragon, but for the moment, he relished the challenge.
The cafe was winding down for the day, but they were more than willing to feed the little family before they closed up. They were told that the restaurant would be open for dinner, or they could order room service.
Angel looked down at the half dressed baby and chuckled. "I think we might opt for room service, since it's laundry day." She felt self-conscious in her pajamas, next to a shirtless Avi. He didn't seem to notice, but she couldn't ignore it.
They got two full meals, despite her protests. She didn't want to draw attention to the reason she wasn't hungry, so she nibbled at her food until he finished his. She wanted to feed the baby the yogurt, but she knew better than to introduce dairy so early. Fortunately, they did indeed have applesauce for her.
When he got up to throw away his trash, she piled her plates in such a way as to hide how little she ate, and followed suit. She felt guilty for wasting food, so she saved the muffin for later. When he asked about it, she said she didn't want to eat too much sugar in one sitting.
"Besides, we don't know if there are muffins in the room service kitchen."
He inclined his head in agreement. As they walked back to the laundry, he slid an arm around her shoulders. She lightly bumped against him all the way down the hall, wondering how she'd handle a man who seemed to want some sort of physical contact whenever they were in public.
Then it clicked. He wants us to look like a happy family unit. She mentally shrugged. At least now I know to expect it, she thought. It costs so little to support his illusion. Maybe I can even pretend with him, and it won't ache so much.
She was in her mind palace again, with its impenetrable walls. He worried, whenever he couldn't hear what she was thinking, and her eyes gave away nothing.
Then her phone rang, for the first of many times that day. Her friends were shocked that she was leaving with such minimal fanfare. They wanted to throw her a going away party. Most of them were willing to help them pack the Pod first, though a couple were too upset to participate.
They couldn't help that day, which she assured them was unnecessary. They had the room for 2 more days. Finding a day that worked best for everyone proved impossible, so she had to split it up between both days. Some would help pack the Pod (which he was arranging while she was handling the human aspect) tomorrow, while others would help the next day. She would say her farewells both evenings, which added to her burden. She couldn't make a clean break; she had to relive the separation the following day.
"Maybe we'll get everything done tomorrow," he said, trying to cheer her up.
"Yeah, maybe..." One of her friends had been almost hurtful in their dismay. She was, among other things, an Empath; had been before her coma. She felt both their pain, and her own at causing it.
"Hey, he'll come around. Don't worry." Avi held her against his side, kissed her temple. Then the dryer beeped, and they were back to work.
The baby had gotten bored shortly after the first round of dryers, so Angel kept her entertained while he checked the clothes.
"Yep, we're good to go. Come on, let's see if there's a movie on TV that'll keep her busy."
She was never one for letting the television entertain her babies, but they'd gone through all of her toys, and she was running out of games.
"If I'd bought a swimsuit, we could do that, instead. Come to think of it, I didn't see one for her, either."
He ducked his head, and not just because he was filling the suitcase. "I keep meaning to buy one, but I don't know what to look for, and you..." He shrugged, reluctant to finish his sentence.
"And I was too much dragon, not enough mom, right?"
He didn't hear any warnings in her words, so he simply nodded. "It wouldn't occur to you."
She squared her shoulders. "Well, it's about time she got her first swimming lesson, don't you think? I've gone in the pool in shorts and a T-shirt before, so I don't see why she can't. Why we can't." She looked down at herself briefly.
He chuckled. "I guess we can. My shorts are clean, and she's got lots of stuff we can sacrifice to the chlorine."
"And I made sure to buy some grunt work clothes," she agreed. "You never know when you might need 'em."
He beamed down at her as they walked out of the humid room. "Let's get this in the room quickly, then. I haven't been swimming in ages!"
"Neither have I."
He started to apologize, until he saw the wry twist to her lips.
When they got back to the hotel room, Angel looked for things for them to wear. There was a plain white onesie for the baby, a blue tank top and matching shorts for her.
"Why don't you wear that white one?" he asked. "It won't get bleached.
She spoke to the clothing in her hands, acutely embarrassed. "Because white shirts and water don't work very well for... mature women."
It took him an adorably long time to catch her meaning.
She changed the baby right there on the bed, but she changed her own clothing in the bathroom. He sighed, but allowed her the privacy. He could be patient. He'd have to be.
Angel tossed her barely worn pajamas on the bedside table and reached for the baby, but he was quicker.
He dropped a kiss on the corner of her eye. "I'm not letting you do all the heavy lifting," he said lightly.
She wanted to be mad, but she couldn't. Hadn't she just been saying she wanted a man who'd help out? She snapped up her phone and took a few photos, before he could object. He just smiled and held his elbow out for her. She shook her head, a fond expression lurking around her eyes.
"I hope there are towels poolside, because ours are still damp."
He didn't know why she had to temper happy moments with earthly concerns, or sarcasm. Did she never let herself enjoy things fully? Then he remembered why she closed her eyes, and got even more confused. She let some things in and held them close, but brushed others off before they could affect her.
The clear waters of the pool offered no answers, and he knew better than to ask her. She might not even realize she was doing it. He rolled the tension from his neck, gently tugged his beard from his daughter's hands.
"Let's see if you take to the water like Mama does," Angel chirped happily.
He hadn't noticed it until she mentioned it, but she'd been calm, serene on the beach before. Was she a water dragon, then?
As though she were answering his unspoken question, she ignored the stairs he was taking their daughter down. She strode to the deep end of the pool, paused at the edge long enough for him to get an eyeful (or for her to brace for the cold water below), and dove in one clean arc. He couldn't see how deep she went, but she didn't come up for air immediately.
The only things holding off panic were the Bond, and her dark clothes against the pale bottom of the pool. He could see where she was, and she wasn't drowning. They were the only ones in the large, echoing room, so he was able to watch her progress toward them.
He backed toward the stairs when she suddenly launched their way. He'd never seen anyone swim so fast underwater!
Angel calculated her route precisely, once she'd figured out her dragon lenses. She seemed to have a larger than average lung capacity, so she simply stayed under while she fiddled with the different "settings" on her eyelids. Her puckish nature kicked in, as well as an urge to test her new body. It didn't feel like the one she'd been born with. It felt better, stronger.
She surged up out of the water inches from her husband, laughing with a joy so light and pure, he didn't recognize it. It was a laugh of freedom: freedom from the chronic aches, pains, and most importantly, the restrictions she once had.
Forgetting, for the moment, her responsibilities as a mother, or a Guardian, Angel flipped around and swam five laps in a row, just because she could. Underwater. Without having to come up for air.
Disclaimer: I've never seen the pool or laundry room of the bigger hotels, so I don't know their amenities. I Googled whether they have pools, but that's all I know. I would assume they have towels in there..?
Chapter 43: Splash
Eventually, Angel came to her senses. She didn't tire, she simply remembered that she wasn't alone.
She waded toward them, head hung sheepishly. "Sorry about that, I--"
"It's okay," he grinned. "You've been cooped up for a long time." To their daughter, he said "I guess that answers the question of what kind of dragon Mommy is, huh?"
She shook her head, droplets sprinkling the surface around her. "So now we need to add the aquatic sub-type to the Celestial Dragon, huh?"
She was confused when the smile dropped off his face. "Celestial Dragon?"
"Yeah," she said slowly, drawing out the word. "What else would you call a dragon that's half angel... somehow... How does that work, anyway?"
His face wavered into a pleasantly neutral expression. "I don't know, and I don't think you did, either." The sigh of relief was purely internal. He was worried she'd started regaining memories, but it made sense that she'd independently come up with the same name she'd given her species the first time.
"One thing I do know," she said, homing in on the baby, "is that this little lady hasn't been further than the stairs. Come on, let's see those legs kick, huh?" She tugged on the leg closest to her and backed up a step, watching to see if he followed her further into the shallow end.
"Yeah, let's see what you can do!" As usual, Menolly brought out the best in both of them. They bobbed and bounced around the shallows, waving the tiny arms and legs until she got the gist of it. Telepathy helped, but she was also a bright child. They didn't expect her to swim yet; the point was to introduce her to water in a positive way.
When she grew tired, Angel tried something that her own mother had done to her. She'd been a bit older, but it was a vital lesson in pool safety. She'd waited until Menolly wouldn't wiggle out of her arms.
"Come here for a sec, lovey." The words were more for Avi than the baby. She lay her down on her back, though she kept trying to sit up.
:Trust me, sweetness. I won't let anything happen to you.:
It took some convincing, and a mental image of what she was trying to do, but she finally lay in her mother's arms, arms and legs held stiffly.
"Relax, sweetie. If you don't, it won't work."
He didn't want to interfere, but even he didn't quite know what she was trying to do. The baby didn't like water in her ears, and she didn't understand what was going on.
"Close your eyes," she cooed. She pictured it, for emphasis. She couldn't close her own eyes, because she couldn't See something as translucent as water yet, and she didn't want to lose her balance.
Slowly, reluctantly, the feathery lashes drifted down.
"Good, now relax." She drew out the last word, removing any excess tension in her arms to coax the baby into doing the same.
Menolly trusted the solid arms beneath her. Gradually, the tension left her little body. She felt light as a feather. It was almost like being back in the womb.
"Okay, you can open your eyes now," Mama said.
Her wispy brows knit an entire farm of concern when she saw her mother's hands up in the air. Then what's holding me up?!
She panicked. She tried to sit up, not yet aware of how water worked. Fortunately, her mother knew that was what she'd do. Her butt came into contact with her father's arms, and she was lifted up to his furry chest.
"You were holding yourself up. You did it!" Mama clapped, a broad grin on her face, and gave her a loud kiss on her cheek. "My mom did that to me when I was a baby, and I remember feeling betrayed. That's why Daddy was ready to catch you."
Menolly didn't understand all the words, because Mama forgot to show her what they meant, but her trust wasn't damaged like Mama's had been. She knew she'd be scared, so she made it safe. She patted her parents' faces, one with each hand.
"So now, if you fall in some water, you know what to do, right? Lie back and relax until one of us can get to you."
Angel didn't know if the lesson would stick, but she did know that her daughter was extraordinary. She threw lots of pictures at the baby, hoping at least some of them made sense. She didn't know why she felt it so important to teach her this one thing. Maybe, deep down, she was afraid she wouldn't be there when her daughter grew up, so she wanted something of herself to stay with her. To have made a positive difference in her life.
"I think that's enough for one day. Maybe we can come back tomorrow, but you look done in." She looked to her Bonded, and said a single word that made him fall a little more in love with her: "Pizza?"
Chapter 44: Peace and Pizza
Angel bit into the piping hot chicken pizza, fairly confident, now, that she wouldn't face consequences later. She wouldn't know right away, but in that moment, it was the best pizza she'd ever eaten.
"I bet that's an improvement over hospital food." He smiled at the sheer bliss on his wife's face.
His only answer was a happy mumble through saucy lips. She was enjoying it so much, she didn't think twice about licking the tomato sauce from her mouth, or her fingers. Her unabashed delight was the sweetest song for his soul. In that moment, seeing his formerly surly dragoness take such joy in something as simple as pizza, his decision was validated. The old Angel had forgotten such "irrelevant" behavior.
He swiped the marinara from the tip of her nose and licked it off her finger. She blushed and reached for a napkin.
"Don't worry about it. We have to wash the chlorine off anyway."
Wide grey eyes stared at him over the napkin for a moment. She bit into the pizza with more subdued energy than before.
He mentally kicked himself for saying anything. She was skittish for the rest of the meal, and her appetite vanished. She wound up having to put half of her pizza in the mini fridge.
Angel was glad of the excuse to put the pizza away. As wonderful as it tasted, she was still fairly full from the creature she'd eaten on the beach.
"She's done in, I think. Should we put her in the porta crib?"
He looked around, and sure enough, there was a portable crib in the corner of the room, near the door that led to the veranda. It was the same color as the curtains, so he hadn't noticed it there.
"Sure. She's had her bath, and she's--" He checked her diaper. "Dry. Do you want me to bring it closer?"
She thought for a moment. "Maybe a little closer, but not so close you'd trip over it going to the bathroom in the middle of the night?"
"Right. Good point. About here, you think?"
She snorted. "It's your side of the bed, you tell me."
He sat on the bed, scooped up the baby, and mentally counted the steps toward the crib. Three steps ought to be enough, he thought.
When he turned around, she was halfway to the bathroom, a fresh nightgown in hand. He stifled a sigh. Patience.
She squealed when he followed her into the shower. She thought he'd leave her alone, but here he was. He must've undressed out there, like they'd done when they came in from the pool. She'd washed the baby in her wet clothes, with her pajamas on the shelf, and he'd given her privacy to change. Now, it seemed, her reprieve was at an end.
"I don't think I've taken this many showers in a long time," she said, her voice higher than usual. She was facing the spray, away from him.
Long arms circled her waist, a beard settled on top of her head. "I don't mind showers with you." He waited to see what she'd do, prepared to dodge an elbow if need be.
She chuckled huskily. "I bet you don't."
He flushed. "Did it ever occur to you that I might enjoy..." He tried to find a way to express his feelings that she wouldn't misconstrue. "Quality time with you? I know you don't need me for much, but I can at least wash your hair, scrub your back." His arms tightened around her ribs for a moment. He kissed the corner of her eye, and let her go long enough to get the soap. He draped her hair over one shoulder so he could wash her back, but it was dry.
"You want to turn around and get your back wet?"
She obliged, her arms crossed over her bosom. He blew out a slow breath. One step at a time. He tilted her head back, into the stream, massaging the water into her hair. She tried to hold her rigid posture, but her balance was off, with her eyes closed. Her wide palms chilled his chest until his body transferred some of its warmth to them.
"Okay, you can turn back around." His voice rumbled through her palms, sending little shivers down her arms.
Angel tried not to make any provocative sounds while he scrubbed her back, but it was difficult. He knew where the most tender spots were, where she held tension. The hot water aided his efforts, easing away the knots in the muscles that had worked so hard today. Though her wings were out of sight, they'd been folded over her chest, which was unnatural. They still ached. She didn't understand how a massage of her human anatomy worked on her dragon musculature; but she ceased to dissect it long before he worked shampoo into the part of her skull where her horns would emerge.
She pivoted whichever way he asked, enjoying the attention. For someone so independent, it was nice to let someone else take the lead once in a while. She wouldn't have objected if he'd washed her entire body, but neither would she ask.
She took her turn at his back and hair with equal attention. It was a joy to get to play with his hair twice in one day. She made a mental note to do all she could to squeeze the pool into their day tomorrow, just so she could wash the chlorine out of it again. His shampoo was more earthy than hers, as was his soap, which didn't surprise her. He had a distinct scent, and now she knew part of its complex aroma.
When she could not, in good conscience, procrastinate any longer, she turned to her own grooming. Painfully shy, she turned away from him to wash her breasts and legs. He was not so restrained. Or perhaps he was simply too tall for his legs not to brush her hips when he soaped them. Either way, it made her insides go all wibbly wobbly. She didn't use her Dragonsense to watch his ablutions.
And then, there was nothing left to wash. No more excuses, nothing to delay the inevitable.
It was time to share the bed. The very thing she'd been avoiding all day.
Chapter 45: Consummate Surprise
He reached around her to turn off the water, dropped a kiss on her shoulder, and opened the shower curtain. They'd grabbed more towels from the pool area, so they didn't have to use damp towels now. He handed her one, though he would have enjoyed drying her off himself. Baby steps. At least she didn't close the curtain between us again.
When they were dry, their hair damp around their shoulders, he held one hand out to his wife. It wasn't a command, but a request. She swallowed hard, but she did place her hand in his. He backed slowly toward the open door, and she followed where he led. Her steps were wooden, her hair swinging about her hips, but she didn't flit away this time.
He slid his arms around her, pulled her into a kiss. It was a light, patient thing; a test of the waters. Her shoulders were tense, her legs stiff, but her lips returned the pressure, measure for measure. She made no move to deepen the kiss. He knew if they did, his control would slip. He was content to explore her face, for the moment.
Her hands rested on his chest. His began to roam; up to frame her cheeks, and back down, to her hips. His lips plucked gently at hers, offering silent encouragement. Her fingers fluttered against his skin, braving his ribs and shoulders.
He began to sway a little, side to side; a slow sort of dance. Gradually, she relaxed enough to move in counterpoint, their hands exploring with a bit more freedom. She shivered in some places, stiffened in others. She learned where his shivery spots were, and it made her brave.
The real world dropped away when their mouths opened in tandem. Fire and ice tingled along their skin and nerves, respectively. Everything tilted, then righted itself, in a wondrous new configuration. A rhythm took hold, and carried them higher than either had been before.
And then they exploded together. One glorious moment in time that stretched for a brief millennium.
Before they could find solid ground again, shards of pain arced through their bodies. It was worse for him, though they wouldn't find out why until later. They collapsed to the bed, abruptly dropped into their bones without a fare thee well.
They drifted into exhausted slumber before they could analyze what happened.
In the morning, they woke slowly. Her eyes opened first, but only just.
"Morning." His voice was ragged, which puzzled him for a moment; but she was distracting him, so he forgot his confusion.
She didn't intentionally distract him, but it wasn't very often that she found a naked man draped over her in the morning. She had to make sure he was real, didn't she? Yes, that was definitely a beard. Hmm, yes, soft hair. Illusions didn't have texture, or weight. They also didn't have muscles that fascinated her.
Figments didn't kiss the daylights out of her, either. She shifted restlessly beneath him, silently asking for what she couldn't voice.
He wanted to oblige, but when he tried, everything hurt. For ordinary newlyweds, that would have ended things, but they were dragons. One of them was roused beyond patience, and strong enough to flip the other on his back and drive them both over the edge.
Angel sprawled across his chest, but he immediately sucked in a breath of pain. She propped herself up on her elbows, pushed the mass of bronze hair out of a face puckered with concern.
"Don't know. My ribs hurt." He was gasping, so she sat back on her heels to give him air--but he curled in on himself when her weight settled on his pelvis.
Angel combat rolled to the side, off of him entirely, and knelt beside him. "Hold still, 'kay?"
"Gladly," he grunted, trying not to breathe too deeply.
She closed her eyes, and did the last thing in the world she wanted to do: she Looked at his internal organs again.
"I don't know what I'm Looking for, but nothing looks swollen, or--oh! I didn't know you had bass clef hearts on your ribs. That's hardcore."
Another thing that was hardcore was the stream of muttered curses that startled her right out of her trance.
"I only had half of the heart yesterday." Tears gathered in the corners of his eyes. Frustration mingled with pain, and she wished fervently that she could help.
He heard her wish, and though it cost him dearly, he seized the hand closest to him. "You can. I don't know... how you do it, but... your eyes go all... green and glowy... ungh..."
Angel's spine shot straight with surprise. "Well, if that's the case, give me my hand back!"
His hand shuddered open, more than any conscious decision on his part. Every bone in his body was on fire; a pain he thought he'd never feel again.
She closed her eyes, hands extended over his ribs. She Saw the raw Marks now. They looked different from the older ones.
What if I... She pictured little healing nanobots swarming the wounds, soothing the irritated bone cells. At first, nothing happened. Several eternities later, his breathing eased. The joints stopped pulling toward each other, in a futile attempt to curl into the fetal position. The "redness" faded from her Othersight, until healthy bone remained. She couldn't make scar tissue form, but it seemed she could get the body to stop fighting itself and focus on healing.
"I love you." The words feathered into being, on a sigh of relief.
Her eyes spluttered open, flickering an answering pink; but it was hard for her to believe long enough to sustain the happiness of hearing him say the words for the first time.
"You're just saying that because I make ouchies go away."
He laughed, winced reflexively, and then laughed some more. He nabbed her by the forearms and pulled her into a bear hug.
"Nope. I love you, plain and simple." He kissed her once, beaming brightly. "And there's nothing you can do about it."
That startled a laugh out of her. "We'll see how you feel later, but you're wrong. What I can do is get our daughter. She's been awfully patient thus far."
He kissed her soundly and let her go. It was going to be a very good day!
Chapter 46: Moving On
Menolly was willing to eat baby food, having recovered from the previous day's events. They laid out the towels from the first shower, since they were the driest, to keep the mess to a minimum. The adults ordered room service. Neither felt like socializing with strangers, choosing instead to enjoy their time together unfettered.
Angel threw on her nightgown to answer the door. He didn't question it; in fact, he put on some shorts, unsure what the waiter could see from the doorway.
She took the tray from the man with one hand, spun the palm of the other up, onto his forehead. She'd seen it done on Supernatural often enough, she thought it might work on real demons, possessing real people. She prayed it did no harm to the unwilling host, but there was a real chance that the poor man would collapse, and she didn't want the food to clatter to the floor.
Fortunately, her purge worked, and the man survived. She guided his fall to the floor with the knee directly below her palm. He fell in a soundless heap, far enough from the door that she could close it without alerting her Bonded to the danger.
It wouldn't have alerted him, before he got his second set of Marks. He debated how to handle this new ability. Did he keep quiet? Did he let on that he saw what she'd done? If so, how? Should he calmly suggest she tell the front desk that the man fainted? Wait, she can't lie. I'd have to do that. How long would the man be out?
"He's already getting up, dearest. Turns out Supernatural doesn't know everything about Celestial powers."
His head snapped up, but she was setting out their breakfast with no outward sign of distress.
"That's good," he said slowly, waiting to see if she would erase his memory.
She glanced up, head tilted to one side. "I can do that, can I? Huh. I was just bluffing before, but I guess I should've known when my throat didn't lock up."
He pulled a plate of eggs closer. There was a table, but they didn't have a highchair for the baby, so they just ate on the bed. "That was pretty smooth, though."
She blushed at her bagel sandwich. A rolling shrug was his only answer for a while. It was a novelty, this modesty. She'd always been so confident, it nearly bordered on arrogance.
"I ran the simulation in my head, tried to find a way to get the food, not hurt the guy, and expel the demon, without..." She glanced up. "I figure it's my job to make things as normal as possible, y'know? No muss, no fuss."
He smiled at her bent head. "I like this better than having my memory wiped, but honey, we're dragons. Normal isn't exactly in the cards."
She snorted into her coffee. "Fair enough." She wiped the creamer from her nose, making faces at the baby to get her to giggle. "Maybe try to save the funny stuff for when I'm not drinking, though?"
He kissed her nose, where a stray speck of coffee remained. "Yes dear."
Her chest warmed from more than the coffee at those simple words, and for the first time, he didn't need her downcast eyes to tell him so.
"I could get used to this."
She looked up, a faint line between her brows. He pressed his lips to the wrinkle, relishing the reaction it sent down her spine.
"Mm, that could get dangerous."
"What are you on about?" she asked, the first trace of irritation coloring the question.
He grinned a wide, knowing grin. "You don't have any secrets from me anymore, love. That's what it means."
He realized, later that day, that he shouldn't have told her. She was surly, which her friends attributed to the impending move. She apologized several times, but everyone gave her emotional leeway, under the circumstances. There were lots of tears as they packed up the Pod; almost as many as the surreptitious glances at him, and the baby. They gave the Minnesotans the same story they'd given her sister--which is to say, he told them, and she just nodded, or added half-truths.
Dan was there, which caused a few raised eyebrows. The locals thought there would be drama, or tension, but the trio had already been through the wringer together. The men weren't exactly friends, but they'd reached an understanding. Dan saw the change in the newlyweds, the familiarity that hadn't been there before.
He asked her about it, during a brief rest. "I'm guessing that bed got some use last night. You look better for it," he rushed to add. "Did he say the word?"
She shoulder bumped his armpit.
"I'm just looking out for you. I meant what I said, you know. If he doesn't, you know I will."
She gave him a one-armed hug. "Yeah, I know. And yes, he said it, but... it was after... you know. Kinda hard to take it seriously, y'know?"
"Oh ya, don'tcha know."
She bumped him again. "You're not fooling me, Danny boy." She sighed. "I'll miss you, ya great big goof." She meant it, of course. She adored him, and his 'dumb Nort'lander' routine.
He kissed the top of her head. "I know." He pushed away from the wall and grabbed another box, while she aimed a kick at his backside.
"Don't you go Star Warsing me, or I'll kick your butt for real."
He just chuckled, in that easy-going way he had, and kept helping her move on. The going away party that night was sadder for his absence, but he promised to be there the next day, as well. He couldn't promise that he'd be at the final party, but he could give her as much time as possible, before she left forever. Not that he said it that way, of course.
They were too tired to swim that night, but they did share another shower. It was the only intimacy they had the energy for.
The next day wasn't as physically demanding, but the emotional toll was heavier. Her friend was still upset, which had her on edge, which in turn made the baby fussy. They finished before nightfall, including the party. Because it ended so early, Dan was able to stay for it. He tried to be a buffer between Angel and her bitter friend as much as possible, but the damage was done. By the time he drove them to their hotel, she was quiet, withdrawn. He gave her an extra long hug goodbye and ordered her not to be a stranger.
She snuffled into his overalls and nodded, and then he was gone. All of her physical ties to Minnesota had been severed.
The only thing left was to figure out the whole teleportation thing.
Chapter 47: Between
"Okay," she sighed heavily. "Why don't you hold the physical stuff, and I'll grab you guys?"
He laughed. "I don't think you can carry me, but I get your meaning." He held onto the knowledge that she'd done this before with every fiber of his being. It was the only way he stayed so calm.
"First, I need to see where I'm going, don't I? Or do I aim for your mom? Is she home?"
He texted his parents, and they were, indeed, at home.
If this works, we'll be there shortly, he sent.
It will work. She needs to focus on the destination, and relax.
That sounds counter-intuitive, you know.
Don't worry, sweetheart.
He blew out a breath. See you soon.
"Focus on the destination, but also relax? You're right, that sounds... Well, maybe I get what she means? Grab the bags, I'm gonna give it a whirl."
Her words weren't exactly reassuring, but he knew she could do it. She'd done it on multiple occasions before.
Angel thought of Shelly, and relaxed. She wove a picture from memory, but the woman in her mind's eye was wearing clothes she'd never seen.
:That's her,: he assured her. It was strange, Seeing what she Saw. :I've seen that shirt before, even if you haven't.:
She threaded energy around her mother-in-law, in the shape of a Gate. It didn't feel quite right for teleportation, though. Do we walk toward the Gate? she wondered. Do I Pull the Gate toward us? Hmm... No, this doesn't feel right. The rigid form of the Gate dissolved into an oval. She... Pushed her little family toward the woman in the image, as though they were in a cart going through a tunnel. Yes, a tunnel. That makes more sense.
:Yep, that's the grey fuzz, only I can See better now.:
She let the words roll over her, concentrating instead on Pulling them toward their destination. They gave her some measure of confidence, but she couldn't be distracted by them. She had the general idea of how it worked, from the Pern books, though she didn't try to count how many breaths they could've taken. It seemed to take forever, but he would later tell her that it only took three or four good breaths, just like in the books.
Details shimmered into focus, the closer they got. Shelly stood outside the house, cane in hand, dog at her side. Angel had seen photos of the dog, so he didn't distract her. He was further proof that it was working.
The dry air struck her lungs with the force of a sneeze. Her eyes snapped open to make sure they'd arrived, before drinking deep draughts of air. She didn't know what would happen if you tried to breathe the air "between", as the Pernese dragons called it, but she didn't aim to find out any time soon. She wasn't even sure it was air.
"That was both easier, and harder, than it sounded," she wheezed. "You said I did that all the time?" Her head craned to look at Avi, also bent forward, gulping air. He'd released the suitcase handle and dropped the diaper bag, but Angel had retained her hold on their daughter, with the hand that wasn't clutching her knee.
"Yep," he croaked. "Made it look like a stroll in the park, too."
She creaked upright. "Well, it's not. Ufda! I don't wanna do that again for a while!" The way she said the word, it sounded more like "woofda," with the emphasis she gave the first syllable.
A laugh whistled through his lips as he wobbled vertical. "'Ufda'? That's a new one."
Angel snorted. "I haven't needed to whip out the extreme Minnesotan lingo before now, thank you very much! Far's I can tell, it means the same thing as 'wow', in all its connotations." The longer she stood in clean, fresh air, the better she felt.
"I'll try to remember that. Say, Mom, is there anything to eat?"
Angel looked at him with a quirked brow. "We just ate at the going away party. Are you sure you're not feeling her hunger?"
He stopped and thought. "You're right, I don't think it's me." He signed "hungry" at the baby, with his eyebrows raised. Angel had finally mentioned that little trick, when Menolly didn't understand something this morning.
The baby shook her head.
The adults looked to Angel. "What? I feel... oh... No, it's me. Must be teleportation. It uses energy, so I guess it's gotta be replenished..?" She shrugged. "Ya learn something new every day. That's gonna get confusing, trying to figure out who actually needs something."
He laughed, as did his mother. "I'm sure you'll get the hang of it, you just need time." Shelly hadn't known the nature of the Bond prior to the consummation of their marriage, so she didn't think to question their confusion.
"There's some banana bread in the kitchen. That should have enough calories to tide you over 'til dinner."
Angel smiled gratefully. "I haven't had banana bread in ages!"
Shelly beamed. "It's homemade."
Angel lunged for the house. "Sold!" she cheered.
Avi and his mother laughed as she trotted inside. "It's nice to have someone else who appreciates my cooking."
He kissed her forehead. "I might have a slice, after all. Your banana bread is the best."
They sat around the table, eating banana bread with varying degrees of enthusiasm, sipping some nice hot tea to wash it down. Mike cast a few looks at Angel, until his wife murmured something into his ear. Understanding lightened his expression. He even slid the honey her way for a few more calories. She smiled her thanks and saluted him with a bit of honeyed bread.
Though she wasn't human, she was still recovering. When she'd finished the tasty treat, she fell asleep on the sofa when they were supposed to be wedding planning. Her head slid slowly down her husband's torso, until it dropped in his lap.
Shelly lifted her feet, divested of its shoes, onto the cushions, and draped an afghan over her. She took the opportunity to play with the baby, show her the toys she'd bought while her mother was in hospital.
Avi took some photos, both of his mother and daughter, and his sleeping wife. He felt at peace with his life, in that moment.
Chapter 48: Sanctuary
When Angel woke up, she walked toward the door, without bothering to put on shoes. It was eerie, the sudden change from sleeping to walking.
"What's up?" Avi asked.
Her eyes were unfocused, the hazy grey of spellcasting. "I have to Sanctify the grounds, shield it from danger."
The Kaplans looked at each other, uncertain what to do with this fey Angel, who didn't ask permission. It was Shelly, the most familiar with dragons, who gave her consent.
Angel wasn't looking at the trees and scrub bushes, per se. She was seeing a sort of overlay, like the ones in Slime Rancher, or the Sims. She didn't question the compulsion to come out here, or her ability to do what was required. The thing about waking up is, your boundaries and doubts haven't settled into place yet. She acted on faith.
At the door, she turned and traced symbols she didn't consciously know, over the wood. The sigils weren't attached to the structure, which was vulnerable. It was more that she used the lines of the house to frame the shield.
She took three healthy strides out into the yard, lifted one knee high, and stomped a bare footprint into the soil. A wave of power rippled outward, as far as her human spell range extended. Two of the adults inside Felt the shockwave and exchanged a Look.
At the gate, she "carved" more sigils over the wood. Again, if the wood itself were damaged, the protections would remain. They zinged along the fence, forming one layer of the warding.
She didn't know if anyone could see her out there, in the dusk, but she kept her back turned to unhinge her jaw. She needed her dragon fangs to make the drool that was as potent as holy water, and she didn't want them to see her like that.
Seven drops landed in her hands. She spun in a circle, sending the spell component to every corner of the property. Seven more drops were flung up, as high as her dragonself could leap. That would give her room to get airborne, should she need to fend off an aerial attack.
The final droplets of saliva were spread on the bottoms of her feet. Every step she took would Sanctify the ground beneath her; within the circumference of her full sized wingspan, and as deep as the dome was high.
Angel stretched briefly, knowing now that he could see her. She needed to be limber for what came next, but she didn't want to tease him unfairly. She cracked her neck side to side, shook out her arms and legs, bounced once, and launched her body along the perimeter of the property. It would have been easy to give in to the sheer freedom of movement, but she had to be certain that her feet touched the ground with every step. As fast as she ran, her entire foot needed to make contact with the soil, so she couldn't run like an anime character. She could, if need be, but not for this.
When she reached the gate again, she turned her front foot ninety degrees, toward the house. She shoved his alarm to the back of her mind, cupped her shoulders, and yanked them toward each other to pop out her wings. She leapt onto the roof in one clean bound. She allowed a brief moment of pride when her feet touched the shingles with barely a sound. She walked in a deliberate cross pattern on the ridgepole and sides, arms out like a tightrope walker. She hopped down to the ground when she was satisfied with the coverage. Her wings slowed her fall, making her landing just as silent.
Another starting bound, and she was off like a flash. She had to run the length and breadth of the property, to make another giant cross upon the bedrock. When that was finished, she added some arcane--nay, divine symbols to the pattern. This was where the wings came in handy: to keep the sigils accurate. A single stutter in her step would ruin the protection circle.
When she was done, she flew to the middle of the cross and stood a moment, checking her work from the ground. When she was satisfied with what she could See, she sprang straight up, to check the lines from the air.
The design was sound, so she tucked her wings in and dropped like a stone. She stuck the superhero landing, making sure her feet were within the runes. Her hands drove additional energy into the protections, wings splayed out behind her.
Gabriel waited until she was finished to speak. She was grateful for that. His presence nearly startled her off-course. Nearly. Some instinctual part of her recognized him as a friend, instead of a foe, so she was able to relegate him to the background noise of the landscape.
"You know, you really shouldn't wear your wings like that."
She rose in one fluid movement, her hair and clothing settling about her. "Like what?"
He gestured, his form flowing in an arc where an arm might be. "Naked."
Her head cocked to one side. "I didn't see the need for scales, once the dome was in place. Any threat would've come from below."
The head zone shivered, an angelic negative. He touched one wing, and it rippled in the moonlight. Lavender triangles shimmered along the membranes and bones. They elongated, the closer they grew to her feet, until they resembled...
"Feathers? But... I didn't have feathers on the beach."
Gabriel tsked at her. "You're supposed to." He began to pace a circuit around her, inspecting her handiwork while delivering his lecture.
"You see, there's an old adage about your kind. 'Feathers over leathers', they call it."
"Then why didn't I have feathers before? Those were definitely scales, in the photos they showed me." She wiped the soles of her feet on the legs of her leggings, one at a time, barely thinking about the act.
He laughed, which she thought odd. "Not that you'll remember this, but that body was... hmm... incomplete. You were separated from this body.
"Don't feel too bad, though. Dad didn't fill any of us in on the details of Celestial Dragons, so I didn't know how it worked, either. If I had, I might not have volunteered for this little project of his." He spun to present his front to her. He could look at her from any direction, but humans seemed to prefer it when he "faced" them. "You would have, but I'm not so sure I would've.
"The thing he didn't tell me was, you would always have come back. You had to. Like I said, that dragon was incomplete. She needed you, whether or not she'd agree. She was missing more than just feathers; but of course, I'm not allowed to know what else you have that she didn't. All I can tell you is, experimentation is your friend."
He paused, an air of pain coloring his aura. "The reason he didn't tell me that you'd come back to this... vessel, you might call it... is because when you did, you took a part of me with you."
Chapter 49: Gabriel's Bargain
Angel stood there, words coming and going in her brain, for several moments. "So... does that make you my... father, or my blood brother--without the blood, I assume?"
Her lips twisted. She wasn't sure what she was feeling, but it wasn't amusement. "So that's why I have feathers."
"It's also why I sound more... human."
Her brow furrowed a small herb garden. "So... you took something from me, too?"
She got the impression he winced, though she couldn't say how. And then, she knew for certain that he did. It was considerably disconcerting to see what emotions looked like on your own face.
Her knees wobbled, but held firm. "Well," she wheezed, "at least now you have a form that people can comprehend, I suppose."
So that's what disgust looks like on my face.
"Dad thinks it's a win/win." Her feet, or feet that looked like hers would have, if they'd never broken a bone, whispered through the grass as Gabriel resumed his pacing. "He gets the ultimate weapon for good, and His most loyal soldier--next to Michael, of course--gets the ability to deliver His word without frying people's brains. That's the only way to get through to people who can't see me, if you didn't know. Again, not that you'll remember.
"That's the problem with this body: limited storage capacity. To whit..."
An untwisted version of her own hand lashed out, tapped the back of her head with two fingers. Angel jerked upright. Her feet walked toward the house, eyes glowing electric blue. Footprints in the soil behind her faded before they'd fully formed. When she reached the bottom of the porch stairs, the light in her eyes went out. She fell forward on her hands and knees, shaking her head to clear it of the sudden fog of fatigue.
Avriel heard the sound and sprang through the door. Angel wobbled up the few stairs, standing straighter with each one, until she stood before him.
"All done. I think I'd like to go to bed now."
He clasped her elbow lightly to guide her indoors, watching out for her wings as she stepped through the doorway. He tucked one in a little more, to avoid snagging on the knob, and she shivered.
Angel snapped out of her fog when her in-laws half stood, gaping at her.
"What's wrong?" she asked, turning toward the door. A wing clipped a glass of water, which she caught before it could so much as tilt.
She saw the lavender scale feathers in her peripheral, and her legs wavered under her. Avi guided her to the ground, so she didn't bend any of her primaries.
"When did I get feathers?" Her hazy eyes swung from person to person, but no one had answers.
"It must've been while you were outside, setting up the protections. Maybe you... I dunno, remembered you were supposed to have feathers..?" Mike knew the least about dragons, but he did know that she hadn't had feathers the last time he saw her, nor when she left the house. Occam's razor suggested the time frame, but not how she grew feathers.
"If I remembered then, I don't now. I... I really need to lie down."
"Okay, sweetheart. Let's get you to bed. Do you maybe want to put those away before you lie down?" Avi led her to the bedroom, ready to catch her if she fainted.
"I don't know if I can right, now. I just want to rest. I'll worry about my wings in the morning."
"As you wish."
Her step faltered, but she didn't acknowledge his words, otherwise. She crumpled to the bed, her energy spent. She'd done a lot of spellwork tonight, besides being half-Shifted. Gabriel hadn't given her any of his energy when he marched her inside, and she hadn't eaten again, so her body demanded she stop using it for about eight hours, to recharge.
The baby wasn't thrilled with having baby food for dinner. She knew something wasn't right with Mama, and she fussed throughout the meal that her mother slept through. She wouldn't sleep in the crib her grandparents had bought, either. She wasn't happy until she was tucked within her mother's coiled form. Her grandparents were equally unhappy that she refused the crib.
"I'm sure she'll sleep in it tomorrow," Avi said. He tucked the sheet under her tiny chin, which left her mother half uncovered, but he could lend her his body heat if she needed it. She'd been difficult to maneuver under the covers, with the wings, but the men had managed it while Shelly was trying to get the baby to lie in the crib.
"Of course she will," Mike agreed. "We'll see you in the morning." He guided his wife out of the room, to their own bedroom. They talked for quite some time before they drifted off, coming to very few conclusions.
Avriel undressed and slid into bed, unsure how to embrace his wife. Though the feathers were thicker than any he'd ever seen, more closely resembling scales, he was afraid to damage them. It was a warm evening, so she didn't really need body heat, but he had a hard time falling asleep if they weren't close. It was like his subconscious thought that if he wasn't touching her when his eyes were closed, she'd turn back into the cold dragon again.
His arms were long enough to reach her waist, around the wings tucked so carefully behind her back. He was afraid of crushing them in the night, but they seemed fairly solid. All the same, he didn't sleep as well as everyone else in the house. In the end, he wound up turning on his other side, wings to back. It was enough physical contact to relax, and far less worry.
In the morning, she was wrapped around him, the big spoon for once. When his foggy brain registered that fact, his next immediate thought was the baby.
Angel groaned, a sleepy growl. "Please don't move. If you open your eyes, you'll see her. Just... Please stay still, would you? You make a lovely hot water bottle."
When he opened his eyes, he saw their daughter curled in the lee of his body. When did she get there?
"'Bout an hour ago. I had to... use the bathroom, and I didn't want her to fall."
She sounded odd. He wanted to turn to her, hold her, but she held him in place quite firmly. Her words slowly filtered into his sleepy brain.
His head twisted her way. "Why do you need a hot water bottle?"
Her forehead ground into his temple. "Let's just say skipping dinner last night was... unwise."
He patted the arm around his midsection. "Want me to get you some breakfast?"
Suddenly, the warmth at his back vanished. Footsteps thudded down the hall to the bathroom. She hadn't closed the door, so he heard the awful sounds she was making. His stomach twisted along with hers.
"Are you sure it isn't morning sickness?" he heard his mother ask.
Chapter 50: Three Little Words
Avi was awake in a flash.
"Told you... skipped dinner. Always wake up... bit queasy... Doc thought it was reflux. Maybe some crackers... be fine."
He put pillows all around the baby and ran to the bathroom. He knelt beside his Angel, pulling her hair out of her face. His mom was on her other side. He rubbed her back, where he could reach, while she gasped and spit.
"I'm gonna lie back down. Could I get some crackers, or... oatmeal?"
He helped her to her feet, and down the hall. Shelly went to make some oatmeal. She quietly asked Mike to run to the nearest store to get a pregnancy test.
"We're going to have to move the wedding closer, aren't we?" he asked.
"I don't know. Maybe she's right. Maybe it's just reflux. There's only one way to know."
He sighed and scrubbed his face. "I thought we had this talk with him."
Shelly put a hand on his arm until he looked at her. "They're young, in love, and already married. Did you really expect them to wait?"
"Yes! She just got out of the hospital. I thought..." He turned away in frustration and grabbed the keys.
She pulled the oatmeal out of the microwave and gave it a stir. She preferred whole oats, but Angel needed food faster than stovetop oatmeal. She set it on a tray and carried it into the spare bedroom.
"I promise, I'm fine. Once I get food in my stomach, it'll settle down."
Her son was staring at his wife, hands on either side of her face. Angel was sweating, but her eyes were clear. She likely wasn't sick, so it was either her reflux theory, or their suspicions were correct.
Angel stared at her out of the corner of her eye. "Fertilization doesn't occur that fast." Her eyes swung to her husband's. "Especially not for me."
His thumb brushed her temple lightly. "You keep forgetting you're a dragon. Things happen faster for you." He kissed her forehead. "Even if you don't remember, I do. Humor us, will you?"
Her sigh turned into a gurgle.
He reached for the tray, and the oh-so-important nutrition it held. "Here's the oatmeal. Sorry about that." He thanked his mother, who nodded as she checked on the baby, who'd just woken up.
"She's so quiet, even when her diaper is wet."
The young couple exchanged a Look. :Dad knows. May's well tell Mom.:
:Would you mind? My mouth is a bit full right now.:
He kissed her temple. :You know darned well you can use telepathy with her, but sure, I'll tell her.: She just wrinkled her nose at him.
"She doesn't need to cry to get our attention."
Shelly looked up at him, changing mat in hand. "How's that?"
He tapped his forehead. Her eyebrows raised a notch, then settled. "I guess that makes sense," she said to the baby, "considering who your mama is."
"We've been teaching her sign language, though. You know, for when we're in public."
She spoke to the baby, not willing to take her eyes off of a squirmy baby, even for a second. "That makes sense, too. You've got a real gem for a daddy, you know that?" The corners of her eyes crinkled. "I'm not the least bit biased, either."
Avi put a hand on his wife's knee, afraid to put his arm around her shoulders, with the wings still awkwardly folded behind her. "Well, it was her mom who taught me sign language in the first place, and it was her idea to teach the baby. I think she's pretty great, too."
The last bite of food lodged in Angel's throat for a moment. She didn't know how much more lovey dovey talk she could tolerate. It would be one thing if he meant the things he said, but she knew he didn't love her. He'd said so himself.
The hand on her knee tightened. :Things change, you know.:
Her hand shook as she set the bowl aside. She didn't acknowledge the words for a long time. She didn't know how.
He set his temple against hers, watching their daughter. :I said the words. Didn't you hear them?:
Her jaw worked for a few seconds, though she wasn't using her voice. :The timing of it... I thought it was just pillow talk.:
His skull burrowed into hers, the only sign of frustration he'd allow, with his mother in the room. :I don't say those words lightly. When you didn't say them back... Why do you think I resorted to Princess Bride tactics?:
Her temple shoved back a little. :You mean that was on purpose? You were... you were trying to say...:
Avriel turned toward his wife, took her hands in his and, with his mother in the room, said "I love you." He kissed her lightly on the lips, aware of the heightened response they created in each other.
"All right, lovebirds, I think your daughter is hungry. I'm pretty sure you're hungry too, so why don't we move this into the dining room, huh?"
"If you're up to it," he added.
That glint of steel he knew so well settled into Angel's eyes. She reached for the bowl, and he let go of one hand. He retained his grip on the other, all the way down the hall. His other arm was busy trying to figure out how she walked with a baby on her hip so easily. She kept sliding off of his hip, so he wound up having to hold her little butt.
Angel put her bowl in the sink, and would have washed it.
Shelly was not having it. "None of that. Go, sit. I'll make breakfast. Are you up to eating anything else, or was that enough for now?"
Angel shrugged. It was equally fascinating in her human form, with or without the wings. "Couldn't say whether I'm still hungry, or it's her. Maybe make half a serving of whatever you've got? Dunno."
Without waiting for an answer, she shuffled to the table to wait. Her back was hunched, as though fighting the nausea, still. Shelly had a feeling she knew what the test would say, but she'd humor the younger woman's illusions, for the moment.
Halfway through breakfast, Mike returned. He set the bag next to Angel without comment, not knowing if it had been discussed while he was gone. His food was in the warming compartment of the stove, for which he thanked his wife.
Angel had a fair idea what was in the small bag, but she ignored it for as long as she could. Eventually, she could delay no longer. Her bladder demanded relief.
All eyes, except the baby's, followed her as she trudged to the bathroom with the bag; as one headed to a death sentence.
Angel stared at the little stick. It flashed a plus sign almost immediately. She'd never seen it come up so fast!
Anxiety riled up her stomach acid so much that she had to fight to keep her breakfast down. It was one thing to quietly take a test in the comfort of one's home, and then call their partner with the news. It was another thing entirely to have one's in-laws waiting on the verdict with one's partner. She felt like an actress in a play, waiting in the wings for her curtain call.
Her breath hissed through her teeth in shallow pants. Her stomach felt empty, and on fire, at the same time. She didn't know how to go out there and tell everyone the news. A wave of emotions too big to name swept her up, and out of the house. The door slammed behind her, but she barely heard it. Her feet flew across the grass, unprotected against the rocks and twigs.
The pain registered at some point. She launched into the air, but there wasn't a tree to perch in. She swung back toward the house to land on the roof. It was uncomfortably warm, but she didn't care. She leaned against the chimney and wept, though she didn't know why.
When her tears had run dry, she just sat, not thinking about anything. She'd cried herself numb, and now she didn't know what to do.
:You ready to come down and talk?:
Angel heaved a sigh, and stood, leaned against the chimney for a moment. :Yes ma'am.:
She walked to the edge, wings fanned out, and simply stepped off. She'd intended to float down, the same as she'd done before, but her husband had other ideas. He caught her before her feet could touch the ground.
"You could've at least put on shoes," he chided.
Her head drooped against his chest, knees over his arm. "I'm sorry, I just... didn't think."
Angel cringed at the tone in Mike's voice. Avi's hands tightened on her legs and back, in silent support. He knew what this pregnancy meant to her, even if his parents didn't.
So they had to explain everything. Side by side on the couch, they felt like recalcitrant children. She'd been dreading the day his parents found out what happened to her other children, and it was every bit as difficult as she feared. She could face a horde of demons with nary a qualm, but telling her in-laws what Gabriel knew when he Chose her? There were many tears shed, on both sides. There was anger, which she'd feared; but it was on her behalf, which was a surprise.
"Well!" Shelly sniffed. "That won't be a problem, this time!" She patted her daughter-in-law's knee. "Just let them try to take my grandchildren away; see how that goes!"
Angel wiped tears from her eyes, a smile trying to be born. "I knew I liked you," she sniffled.
Shelly pulled her into an awkward diagonal hug, across her son's legs. "I think I like this you, too."
Angel looked between mother and son. "Did... did you not like me as a dragon? I've heard awful things about her--me..."
Shelly snorted. "She thought emotions were irrelevant."
Angel's jaw sagged. She tried to say the last word, but it just wouldn't compute. That, in itself, raised Shelly's opinion of her.
"Speaking of dragons..." Avi hated to bring it up, but it was important. "I'm guessing you won't be able to Shift?"
The women looked to each other for answers, and found none.
"Does that mean... Do I need to learn how?"
The dragonesses exchanged another unhelpful Look.
"I don't suppose it would hurt, this early, to teach you. If you don't catch on pretty quick, though... It's probably not a good idea for me to Shift beyond... what, a week? A month?"
"Why do you need to Shift?" Shelly asked.
"Because he can Feel what I'm doing." Angel thought it was obvious.
Nobody liked her logic, but he'd been trying to Shift for months, with no success. They no longer had the luxury of waiting for him to get it on his own.
"Forgive me for asking," Mike said into the silence, "But why can't you Shift past a certain time? Will it hurt the baby?"
As always, it was Angel who answered the difficult question. "Only if you don't mind having more dragon grandchildren. In the early stages, all fetuses look alike. As they develop, they start to take on more distinct characteristics." She paused and looked at her hands. "I don't know about you, but I'd like to know that I won't have to try and lay a dragon egg as a human."
Shelly's knees, and those of the men, subtly pressed closer together at the thought.
"That's if I don't get stuck in dragon form, of course."
Avi shot to his feet. "Then we'd best get started."
"Now?" three voices asked in unison.
"We can't afford to wait, can we?" he asked.
No one could deny it, so the women got to their feet and followed him outside. Shelly carried her granddaughter. Mike was slower to join them. He wasn't looking forward to seeing his son stretched into unnatural shapes (like her arm had been in the hospital room), or the bizarre flesh-colored wings.
"What do you think we should do first, the arms or the tail?" Angel was asking. He almost turned around and went back inside, but his son needed his support. He didn't want him to think that he wouldn't love him as a dragon, like his wife thought for years.
"If you do the tail before the legs, it'll hit the ground."
"I can see how that might happen. Oh! Maybe the wings? They're pretty easy."
They were far too calm for his liking, but they'd Shifted before.
The younger woman tried explaining to his son, but he didn't understand how he was supposed to pull his own shoulderblades apart. He hugged his torso, but the instinct just wasn't there yet.
And so this angel-dragon of his asked if he trusted her. When he said yes, she took a shoulder in each hand and... The sound his bones made when she pulled them out of their natural alignment was too much. Mike beat a hasty retreat indoors.
I hadn't intended for him to Shift until much later, but this happy ending seemed to require it.
Also, I know that human/dragon Shifter pregnancies are much debated. This is just my take on things. Feel free to have a different opinion.
Chapter 52: Avi Dragon Padawan
Avi's eyes watered instantly. His diminutive wife had to hold him by the shoulders, until he could find his balance with two heavy wings sticking out of his back.
"Arms next, I think. Then you don't have to stand upright. Think you're up for it?" Angel hated putting him through this, but he'd literally asked for it.
He nodded, though it was more of a reflex than a reply.
She popped out the latch in her own elbow, waiting for him to find his before she'd flick out the telescoping bone tubes. His mother had to prompt him to Look for the latch. He still couldn't See it, which frustrated him.
Angel popped her elbow back into place and gently took his arm in hers. She turned his arm the way hers had been, asked him if he could See the latch yet.
He tried. He really did. He had to shake his head, tears splattering the soil at their feet.
"Do you still trust me?"
"Just do it," he said through gritted teeth. It felt like failure to have her pop his elbow latch for him, but the sweet taste of success quickly followed. While he couldn't See the hinges and latches, he caught onto the mechanics of the hollow tubes immediately. He'd played with enough toy lightsabers to get the idea.
"Now try the other side," she coaxed.
"Don't forget to lock it," his mother reminded him.
He found the lock by accident, just turning his arm--no, foreleg--to Look for it. The other arm was just as uncooperative as the first, but he remembered how she'd twisted it just so, and flicked. No, no, it was... a twist, a bump, and a flick.
"Sweetie, you really need to feel what you're doing. If you just mimic what I did, you won't learn how it's done."
He grumbled, but kept Looking. Then Angel had the bright idea to use the Link to show him what she Saw. After all, that was what made her uniquely qualified to teach him.
"Oh! Is that what that is?" He could See how to bump the little latch now. Out it popped. Flick! She held the link long enough for him to See how the latch locked into its new position, before dropping it.
"The legs and tail are more feel than Sight, because they don't need latches."
"They don't? Then how do they stay in place?"
Angel twisted and flicked her arms out into forelegs. "You see how my arms are as long as my legs now?" He nodded. "That's why they needed to grow down. If our legs grew down, we'd be lopsided again. From here, they do the weird honeycomb thing to expand up and out."
"So why do I need to do anything with my legs?"
Her head tilted to the side, to show he'd made a point. "It's more your feet than your legs. I'll warn you, it stings."
She stood on the balls of her feet, and waited for him to do the same. Then she went into a sort of plank position, keeping the toes and balls of her feet planted. She had to remind herself, and him, not to flex their toes. They would be fighting the process if they did.
Their toes cramped, but she urged him to lean into it more. The cramp became heat, and then... snap! Their toes clicked together, from five to three, and popped into the digitigrade alignment.
He collapsed to the ground, wings limp against his back.
"Toldja it hurts," Angel gasped.
"Are you okay?" Shelly asked at the same time. She wanted to go to him, but her hands were occupied with his daughter.
He struggled to his feet again, determined to make the transition on the first try. "Tail?"
Angel nodded. "You basically wiggle your hips until the tail just sort of... drops down by itself. Hey, by the way, how's he going to do this in pants? I didn't think about that."
Shelly tsked at her. "How do you think I Shift with clothes on?"
"You do?" Angel didn't remember that day, of course.
"What happens to the clothes?"
Shelly laughed. "I don't know, it's like the molecules... forget they're supposed to be clothes, until you Shift back? They aren't sentient, so they don't fight you either way. They just sort of... settle back into the form they were in when you Shifted."
"Oh..." She hadn't known that when she Shifted on the beach. That would've saved her some embarrassment!
"Okay, so um... just wiggle until your tail drops."
He kept almost getting it, but shying away. He thought he was going to poop, which Angel thought was hilarious. She reared up on her hind legs and manipulated his hips by hand, right where he was afraid to go.
His tail dropped down, accompanied by a yelp. He spun around, thinking he'd see a pile of feces, but all he saw was his tail.
Angel, back on all fours, laughed until her eyes watered. Shelly knew what had happened, because she'd seen other males have the same issue. It was always the boys who thought they'd soiled their pants.
He wasn't happy being laughed at. Angel shoulder bumped him, a smile lurking around her mouth.
"Let your head hang down, relax. Your neck should pop out."
His head dropped, but he was too tense to relax. Angel sat on her haunches, gently pulled his head toward the grass. She turned it side to side, rolled it in circles, trying to get him to relinquish his iron grip.
She let go with a sigh. "This is what it should feel like." She stood again and let her head loll, her neck getting longer and longer. She showed him, through the link, what she felt. She projected calm at him, for good measure. Almost unconsciously, he relaxed with her.
"Good! Now comes the hard part."
He chuckled into the grass. "None of that was the hard part?"
She laughed. "Maybe it'll be easier for you. I don't know. You have to get more blood pumping into your skull, so your muzzle and horns can pop out. I do it by holding my breath and... it feels like blowing my nose, but nothing comes out?"
Shelly nodded. "That's about right, yes."
He raised his head and tried to look at her, but the world felt weird. His chest was pointing toward the ground, but his head was parallel with it. It was hard to wrap his head around.
Angel held her breath, crossed her eyes for comedic effect, and "blew" into her nasal cavity. He laughed, until it started to deform and warp outward. He had to look away, or he'd never see her the same way again.
"Focus, my son. You saw how she did it. You're almost there!"
He bobbed his head once. He took in a great lungful of air and held his breath. He did what she said, blowing out with his nose closed, and... It was terrifying. His vision blurred, bones shifted. He had to close his eyes against the distortions. If he didn't have Angel in his head, and his mother in his ear, he might never have become a dragon.
The encouragement became elation, so he opened his eyes. The world looked sharper, more detailed, as though he had a high-end camera aimed at it.
"If we were going full scale, pun intended, we'd work on growing, but this is good enough for now." Angel beamed down at him, her eyes a merry blue.
"All right, love. Scales are the easy part. Just give yourself a good shake, like a dog getting out of water. Works both ways, but you've got to think about it. You won't lose your scales if you shake off some water."
A grin stretched his muzzle. He scrunched up his eyes, hunched down, and shook with all the enthusiasm of a puppy. It was adorable. He remembered his mother's trick with the frill, so he gave his head a swift shake to get his hair to stand up and take shape.
Angel checked him head to toe, telling him if he needed to shake a leg or tail to flip some scales out, until she pronounced him a complete dragon.
His eyes opened, and the first thing he saw was his angel-dragon, in her final form.