After graduating from Border Guard training, Elliot, Luke, and Serene had taken their chances with assignments and had decided to boldly go out into the unknown. Their mission: discovery. When Elliot said as such to Luke and Serene, they had looked baffled, and Elliot suddenly remembered that wasn’t the right genre for what they were doing. Truthfully, the three of them (and Golden) ended up on the coast to treat with marine mermaids. This was, in theory, because Elliot had a knack for building rapport with the various magical beings in the Borderlands. Really though, it seemed like the three of them were being sent out to the coast to stop the mermaids from wrecking ships sailing out of Port End.
The diplomatic vessel they’d been assigned for the duration of their mission was a single masted sloop, according to the captain of the mission. Captain Laslo Ashbrand was a man about twice Elliot’s age. As far as Elliot could tell, the most noteworthy things about him were the massive mutton chops on either side of his face. Still, he hadn’t yet proved his incompetence, and he seemed to respect Commander Woodsinger. Elliot was giving him a chance, at the fervent request of both Luke and Serene. That, and Commander Woodsinger had explicitly asked him to “get over his authority issues” and “solve the real problem, Schafer.”
They’d set sail sometime the previous afternoon, and were just reaching the area of issue in the sea. There were small rocky islands dotting all along the horizon. Elliot was very keenly looking at the horizon, since one of the sailors had taken pity on him and told him that staring at the horizon helped with sea sickness. The sea sprayed around them as the ship dove into the dips between the waves. Elliot’s stomach lurched again and he stared even harder at the horizon.
At least he could stand to be above deck. Last they’d heard from Serene, she was still puking below deck. Serene has gotten better over the years, but she still seemed embarrassed that Golden and Luke’s “maidenly constitutions” could handle the choppy sea and she couldn’t.
Luke was standing next to Elliot, close enough that Elliot could feel the heat of him over the chill of the ocean breeze. He looked unfairly good out on the ocean, like the gold of his skin and hair was meant to be paired with the blue expanse of the water. Elliot mostly looked like a ragamuffin these days, from the salt air that inevitably turned his hair into a snarled mess.
Elliot could feel Luke staring at the side of his face. Luke had been looking at him like that more and more frequently over the past couple of weeks, and it made Elliot’s skin crawl to be so closely watched. It always seemed like Luke was about to say something, and the anticipation of whatever Luke was going to say was worse than almost anything he could ever say. Still, Elliot was dreading the moment when Luke inevitably decided that he was better off without Elliot and broke up with him before he got too attached.
Shadows flashed over the deck and the crew started yelling about something flying over the ship. Elliot managed to tear his eyes from the horizon long enough to see the pink bellies of some kind of small bird. One of the birds dived down, and Elliot realized that he’d only thought they were small because they were flying so far overhead. As the creature dipped closer to the surface of the water, Elliot also realized that they weren’t birds at all.
“Oh my god,” Elliot said, despite the fact that no one was listening. “I can’t believe I never considered the possibility of actual dragons.”
All the sailors were yelling and running around with weapons loose. One or two of them jumped overboard in a panic. Luke drew his sword, and Elliot was briefly distracted from the current situation by the way the muscles in his arms looked. Elliot may not like the idea of weapons and fighting, but there were some benefits to being around people who did.
He was brought back into the moment as the deck of the ship rocked underneath their feet, buffeted by the wind from the dragon’s wings. Elliot stumbled forward, but Luke grabbed his arm to steady him. As the dragon came closer to the deck of the ship, a couple of the men with crossbows fired at the dragon, but the wooden bolts shattered on the scales of its pink underbelly.
The deck of the ship tilted under the dragon’s weight. Poor Serene, Elliot thought to himself hysterically. From below, the dragon was all smooth pink scales, but now that it was mostly at eye level, Elliot could see that it was covered in bright red scales that spiked out from its body menacingly. When it spoke, it’s voice rumbled out from its chest.
“I’m sorry to do this, but I need to see your entire array of cargo.” The dragon smiled, and its teeth were each about the size of Elliot’s finger. “If you don’t cooperate, there will be...consequences.”
The crew looked at Elliot and then back at the dragon. Tension simmered in heady undercurrents, and so Elliot stepped forward and said, “Wait, are you the one that’s been wrecking ships?”
The dragon glanced around and did a double take when it saw Elliot.
“Oh wow,” said the dragon in a very different tone of voice. “Hello.”
“Hi,” Elliot said. “Are you the one who’s been mucking with the ships?”
“Why do you ask?” The dragon’s voice took on a purring quality and a portentous shiver crawled down Elliot’s spine.
“We’ve been sent to investigate these shipwrecks. The Border Guard would prefer not to use force to solve this issue, and I’m qualified to make negotiations on behalf of the Commander.”
This was not, strictly speaking, true. However, Elliot figured that if he could solve the ship sinking problem with no bloodshed, then Commander Woodsinger would back him. Most likely.
After a short conversation with the dragon, whose named turned out to be Zeopid, Elliot determined that the dragons’ main issue is that a group of ranchers had cleared the red maple forest just north of Port End, leaving the dragons in dire need of red things. The red, they explained, was important to how they made their nests and found mates. Since they didn’t have the forest anymore, they’ve been forced to pillage ships as they pass for their red cargo.
“Say,” said Zeopid. “You’re awfully red yourself.”
“Thank you,” Elliot responded absentmindedly. “So you say that you just want red things?”
“Well,” she said, looking Elliot up and down. “That’s more or less correct.”
Beside Elliot, Luke stiffened. Elliot could tell that he was about to say something stupid and heroic-sounding, so he cut in with, “Shall we head back to shore to formalize an arrangement? To write a treaty?”
Zeopid smiled. “Of course. See you on the shore, red one.”
Zeopid took flight, launching herself off the deck and causing the whole boat to rock violently from side to side. Not even Luke could keep Elliot from falling straight on his ass. She circled above them endlessly as the ship turned around and sailed back to shore.
Upon reaching the shore, the first order of business for the Border Guard was to set up camp outside of town. A small storm had blown in from the sea, and so tents sprouted out of the ground like mushrooms. People hurried in and out of them like little ants, everyone carrying something with great urgency.
The negotiations tent was the biggest one that they had, and someone had had the foresight to roll up the sides of the tent so that the dragons could fit at least part of their bodies inside the tent. Serene, looking pale and sweaty from their brief nautical adventure, joined Elliot and Luke. She smiled wanly at them and said, “While I did enjoy our adventure at sea, I admit that I’m glad to be back on land. For Golden’s sake more than anything.”
Luke punched her in the shoulder gently, and her smile became less wan. Elliot rolled his eyes. Jocks.
The table in the middle of the tent was covered in maps and documents. Important town representatives wearing brightly colored robes and tunics arrived and took up seats around it. Captain Ashbrand also sat at the table, and his dull burgundy Border Guard uniform made him look like a sparrow among the canaries. There was a cracking sound, like sails being filled with wind, and a dull series of thuds that Elliot felt through the soles of his feet. He glanced behind him and saw the dragon retinue had arrived on the shore. The majority of them headed towards the nearby woods, while one of the medium sized dragons walked over to the negotiation tent.
It stuck its head through the gap in the tent wall and introduced itself as Zerdos. Zerdos explained that he was the designated representative of the dragon contingent. He said it with a polite and politic smile that somehow hid all his teeth. He apologized profusely for being the only dragon in the meeting, and thanked the rest of the representatives for their understanding. Captain Ashbrand accepted this with very little fuss, and negotiations between the dragons and the town commence.
Zerdos, despite his apologies at the beginnings of the treaty talks, was a shark when it came time to discuss terms. He rejected even reasonable concessions from the town. Politely, of course. In fact, his rejections were so polite that it took Elliot a few hours to realize that the dragons had no intentions of actually signing this treaty without some major finagling on the town’s side. He glanced around, but Serene hadn’t seemed to notice yet. Elliot was almost impressed despite himself.
By the time late afternoon came around, they had a whole sheaf of notes regarding terms, but nothing that had been actually agreed upon. In the last hour or so, the rest of the negotiators had realized something was up and were starting to frown as they talked. Elliot mentally shrugged. It was unlikely that they’d have written the full treaty in one day anyway. They called the negotiations for the evening, and everyone headed off to their separate camps. As the Border Guard was leaving the negotiation tent, Elliot ducked away from the rest of them and headed towards the forest where the dragons had set up camp.
“Elliot, where are you going?” Luke asked.
Elliot turned and, walking backwards, said, “I’m going to talk to the rest of the dragons and see if I can’t learn something that might help us in negotiations tomorrow.”
Luke scuffed his shoe in the dirt. “Okay. Hurry back, because there’s something I wanted to talk to you about.”
Elliot’s heart briefly seized. He smiled around his suddenly numb mouth. “Of course.”
The dragons had created divots in the earth around some of the trees. There were mounds of sandy clay heaped around the forest in ways that seemed very intentional. A few of the dragons noticed Elliot and began whispering. One of them nudged Zerdos, and he turned and said, “Ah. Was there something else the Border Guard needed this evening?”
“No. I’m just here because I’ve never really met a dragon before and I want to ask some questions.” Elliot smiled in a way that he hoped was charming.
Zerdos wavered a bit, and glanced over to Zeopid, who was in the largest earthen divot. She nodded, and Zerdos said, “Sure. What do you want to know?”
Gleefully, Elliot spent the evening in the dragon bowers, learning more about dragon culture and figuring out the basics of the dragon language. Zerdos was much more open and engaged outside of negotiations. A couple of other dragons seemed really interested in his hair. A few of them kept tapping at it gently with their claws. It was kind of interesting to see how well the dragons could control their strength despite being so large.
All the while, Zeopid looked on indulgently from where she reclined in a divot carved from the earth. From what Elliot could tell, Zeopid was the closest thing to a formal leader that the dragons had. She was certainly the largest of the dragons present, and the rest of them seemed to be subtly deferring to her. Elliot filed the information away in the back of his head.
When Elliot started yawning every other minute, he decided to call it quits for the night. He thanked all the dragons, and headed back towards the Border Guard camp and the tent he was sharing with Luke.
Luke was already asleep when Elliot returned, but he seemed restless. Elliot peeled off his shirt and settled down next to Luke. He worried for a brief moment that Luke was angry at him, but Luke stirred and sleepily wrapped his arm around Elliot. Elliot curled into Luke and pressed his nose right into the crook of Luke’s neck. The smell of him was familiar and comforting, and Elliot fell asleep almost instantly.
The negotiations continued the next day without much success. Whatever social capital Elliot had gained last night by speaking with the dragons had evaporated in the heat of negotiations. Elliot compensated for his disappointment by becoming even more aggressively cheerful. Zerdos matched Elliot’s levels of cheer, and their combined false cheerfulness seemed to grate on everyone else in the tent. Captain Ashbrand became visibly frustrated. Even Luke and Serene seemed more sour than usual.
At the midday break, Zerdos approached Elliot.
“Um. Hello, red human. Zeopid sent me to request your presence in her bower,” Zerdos said.
Elliot shrugged and followed Zerdos to the dragon camp. It was in a bit of a tizzy when they arrived, all the dragons clustering around the divot that Zeopid had claimed. Zeopid herself was laying belly down in the dirt, and she turned her head towards him as he walked into the camp.
“Hello, red human. I find that one of the scales in my back has come loose and is causing me some discomfort. Would you be so kind as to remove it for me?”
She knelt down and spread one of her wings out as an invitation. Elliot could see the loose scale where it was crookedly hanging on to Zeopid’s back. He climbed up delicately, and wiggled the scale until popped free. The underside of it was strangely smooth, especially because the outside of the scale was rough like tree bark, if trees were red.
Elliot climbed off of her back holding the scale. Some of the dragons were whispering to each other just outside of his hearing. Before he could get closer to figure out what, exactly, they were saying, Zeopid said smoothly, “Thanks for your assistance, red human.”
“Not a problem. Here you go.” Elliot held out the scale to her.
“No, no,” Zeopid said. “You keep it.”
The dragons whispers became louder, but Elliot wasn’t really good at the dragon language yet, so he couldn’t understand what they were saying.
When it came time for negotiations to reconvene, Elliot and Zerdos began to walk back to the negotiation tent together when Zeopid rose to her feet and joined them. The three of them made their way through the trees and up to the tent, and Elliot took his place between Serene and Luke against one of the remaining tent walls.
Negotiations proceeded much more easily after the break. As Elliot had noticed the night before, Zerdos deferred to Zeopid, and Zeopid was nearly agreeable as they discuss potential treaty terms. Things that yesterday the dragons were ardently against, they were fine with now. Zeopid glanced over at Elliot and winked at him, so he smiled back. They couldn’t sign the final treaty without the commander’s presence, but they wrote down all the terms that would be in the final treaty: the townspeople would leave a large section of the forest for the dragons and their nests, and the dragons would offer some of the guano off the hard to reach coastal islands to help make up for the lost farmland. It was honestly a perfect solution.
That evening, gathered around the cook fire, Captain Ashbrand remarked on the strange change in behavior of the dragons. Luke and Elliot sat next to each other on a blanket Luke had laid out by the fire. The ground was still a little bit wet from the previous day’s rain, but the warmth from the fire and the warmth of sitting pressed up against Luke counteracted the damp chill of the evening.
Elliot looked up to listen more properly to Captain Ashbrand.
“It’s like they’ve completely flipped their opinions,” Captain Ashbrand continued in a tone of complete bafflement.
Elliot suddenly remembered the dragon scale tucked into his belt pouch and pulled it out. The smooth underside caught the light of the fire with a slight gleam. Luke frowned, eyebrows pinching.
Captain Ashbrand noticed the scale and said, “Where’d you get that?”
“Zeopid asked me to help her with a loose scale during the lunch break, and she said I could keep the scale afterwards.”
Serene leaned forward interestedly. “Do you think that this scale removal has anything to do with their change in behavior?”
Elliot shrugged. “Possibly.”
Captain Ashbrand laughed and said, “Luck for us then, that you put the dragons in a better mood.”
“Yeah.” Elliot flexed his hand thoughtfully. “It’s lucky that I’m good with my hands.”
He added a discreet eyebrow waggle to Luke to make sure that his subtle innuendo wasn’t missed. From the disgusted groans of the other Border Guards around him, it seems like they didn’t miss the innuendo either. Luke blushed, his ears, cheeks, and neck turning scarlet.
Serene cut into the conversation and said, “It’s not very gentlemanly to talk about your private matters in public, no matter how skilled in them you may be.”
Luke blushed so hard that the tips of his ears turned purple. One of the other soldiers patted him on the shoulder encouragingly.
“Come on, Schafer. Have some dignity,” Captain Ashbrand said grumpily, smile fading as quickly as it had appeared.
“Why?” said Elliot. “It’s not like I’d use it very often if I had it.”
Serene rolled her eyes and said, “I’m going to bed now.”
Elliot leered at her. “Tell Golden hello for me.”
Serene made an unimpressed face and ducked into the tent she shared with Golden.
“I’m going to bed too,” said Luke, standing abruptly and walking away.
Elliot felt a twinge of regret for embarrassing Luke. He sat by the fire for about another half hour, feeling much colder without Luke pressed up against him, before he finally gave in and went to their tent himself. Luke was curled up with his wings wrapped around himself. He didn’t move when Elliot opened the flap of the tent and laid down next to Luke.
“I’m sorry I embarrassed you just now,” Elliot said. He stroked a hand down Luke’s back, fingers skating over the place where feathers met skin. Luke shivered, and turned towards Elliot. Elliot pressed his hand flat against the center of Luke’s chest.
“I’m used to it,” Luke said.
Elliot frowned and kissed him gently. “Still. I’m sorry about it. Let me make it up to you.”
“Elliot, I--” Luke stopped as Elliot stroked his hand lower.
“Nevermind,” Luke said breathily. “I’ll tell you later.”
The Commander arrived the next morning in a flurry of activity. She dismounted her horse and walked across camp straight into the negotiation tent. Elliot, who had been walking there himself, seized the opportunity provided by the Commander’s arrival to take a break from the negotiations. He was trying to be better about the whole boyfriend thing lately, especially because Luke had been acting more withdrawn than usual, even before the dragons.
The two of them spent an entire day on the beach. Elliot had even packed them a picnic lunch so they wouldn’t have to go back to camp until dinnertime. It was a little too cold to frolic in the waves like Elliot might have wanted to, but Luke seemed to enjoy the opportunity to be out away from people for the day. Elliot remembered Rachel calling Luke shy, and he smiled when he saw the peaceful look on Luke’s face as they stood on the end of the jetty, salt spray misting their faces.
There was an undercurrent of something else, though. Luke kept looking over at Elliot with a very strange expression on his face. Elliot kept rubbing his hands over his face to make sure that he didn’t have seaweed or something stuck to his face.
The day drifted towards afternoon, and so Elliot and Luke made their way back to camp. Elliot was sitting by the fire with Luke and rather enjoying the sensation of being tucked under one of Luke’s arms when Commander Woodsinger walked over. She stood right next to the blanket that Elliot and Luke were sitting on and crossed her arms.
“Private Schafer, would you care to tell me why the dragons requested you today by asking for ‘the cute red one’?”
Luke stiffened and Elliot shrugged, feeling Luke’s arm shift with his shoulders.
Captain Woodsinger pinched the bridge of her nose. “Why is it that your approach to diplomacy somehow always involves seduction?”
Elliot shrugged again. “What can I say? It’s part of my natural charm.”
After a long pause, Commander Woodsinger said, “You have that?”
“Well, I have enthusiasm and an unwillingness to let things be, which is close enough that I’m going to count it.” Elliot disentangled himself from Luke and stood, stretching out his back. “Besides, it’s not seduction this time around. It’s just some harmless flirting.”
The commander didn’t point out that this statement implied that previous diplomatic efforts had involved seduction, but Elliot could see her thinking it and also potentially asking some higher power for patience. She often made that face around Elliot, but these days it tended to be more fond than not.
“Are you quite certain about that?” Commander Woodsinger said. “The dragon leader Zeopid mentioned something about you accepting a scale from her back as a gesture of courtship.”
Elliot swore vehemently.
“I mean, it definitely helped us get the treaty signed,” continued Commander Woodsinger blandly, “but that seems like something you might want to clear up.”
Elliot jumped up and started walking as calmly as he could over to the dragons’ camp. He figured that no one would make a big deal about it if he acted like nothing was wrong. The dragon scale in his belt pouch bounced against his hip with every other step, and Elliot felt the weight of it more keenly than he had all day.
The dragon camp came to a standstill when Elliot broke through the trees. They had been talking and laughing amongst themselves, but the clearing went quiet as the dragons noticed Elliot among them.
“Zeopid, may I speak to you for a moment?” Elliot said.
Zeopid glanced around at the other dragons, and they melted silently into the trees.
Elliot reached into his belt pouch and drew out the scale.
“If you’re interested in me, I’m flattered, but I have a boyfriend.” He hefted the scale in his hand. “I think...this means something more to you than it does to me.”
Zeopid met his eyes steadily. “Yes, probably.”
Elliot held the scale out to her, and she took it delicately from him. “Sorry for any misunderstandings. I hope you won’t let this affect the treaty negotiations.”
Zeopid waved a clawed paw. “No, no. The terms have been set, and they’re good for everyone. You’re a skilled negotiator.”
“Still,” she continued, smiling with all her teeth, “you can’t blame me for trying.”
“No,” Elliot replied, “I suppose not.”
They stood in silence for a few minutes before Elliot said, “I’m still interested in being your friend, but for now I think I need to go back to my boyfriend.”
Zeopid laughed. “Have fun, red one.”
Elliot smiled. “You too.”
Amid the scattered celebrations that came after the treaty was signed and the dragons departed, Elliot pulled Luke away from the camp and along the cliffs looking over the water.
Elliot fiddled with the hem of his tunic a little, and then glanced up at Luke. “Look. I understand that I’ve been a shit boyfriend, and I totally understand if you’re going to break up with me--
“--but I want to make sure that we stay friends no matter what.” Elliot took a quick breath that was shakier than he wanted it to be. “I’ve never really thought that I’d be good at the whole dating thing anyway, and I always thought that this was too good to be true--”
“--and that eventually I’d fuck up so much that you’d realize I was too much work and break up with me--”
Luke grabbed Elliot’s shoulders. “Elliot! I’ve been trying to tell you that I love you!”
Elliot stopped. “Oh.”
Elliot glanced out at the water, then back at Luke. He said, “Why didn’t you just say so?”
Luke crossed his arms, then uncrossed them, then crossed them again. “Sometimes it’s hard for me to tell you things. Even though we’ve been dating for a couple of months, I’m always afraid you’re going to shoot me down.”
“Please let me finish,” Luke said sharply. This surprised Elliot enough that his mouth snapped shut.
Luke shifted his weight and continued, “I guess I just got a little insecure when you started flirting with the dragons. Like maybe you weren’t serious about this thing with me after all.”
Elliot stood. “That’s ridiculous!”
“Yes!” Elliot made his way over to Luke. “I may be the worst boyfriend in the world, but you’re stuck with me until you tell me to go.
“And besides--” Here Elliot faltered. “I--I love you too.”
Luke had this dumb expression on his face that Elliot couldn’t help but kiss.
“Of course, you moron.” Elliot paused. When the words wanted to come this time, he didn’t stop them. “I’ll love you for as long as you’ll have me.”
“That’s a big promise,” Luke whispered, tucking a loose piece of hair behind Elliot’s ear.
“Yeah. It is.” Elliot turned his face into the touch, until Luke’s hand brushed against his cheek. They smiled at each other as the sun set behind them, like the perfect fairy tale ending.