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The Hatchling Job

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K'Laus pushes his way through a crowd of sobbing teenage girls, shoving one of them impatiently out of the way into the arms of an anxious green rider when she doesn't move fast enough. The hatching grounds are in an uproar, the caverns echoing with a babble of voices and the dragons' reflection of their riders' distress adding more chaos despite the attempts from the Weyrleader and Weyrwoman to keep order. As a bronze rider himself, K'Laus knows he's not helping by pushing through the crowd like this, let alone with the rage he can feel building inside him, but he needs to see for himself.

And it's true. There is nothing but a hollow in the warm volcanic sand, surrounded by riders who are doing their best to control their agitation, fury, and fear to avoid upsetting their dragons.

K'Laus stares at the empty sand. The worst part is, he's pretty sure he already knows who did this, a crime unthinkable even in this time when Thread has not been seen on Pern in a generation.

He tells himself he's wrong. Dorian couldn't. He wouldn't. There was no way that even Dorian would be audacious enough, stupid enough, to steal a queen egg directly off the hatching grounds. Not with queen eggs so vanishingly rare, not when the good of everyone in the Hold depends on it ...

And then K'Laus thinks of something he hasn't thought of in years, when they were just boys, laboring in the kitchens together, and Dorian used to look up at the flight of dragons lifting off overhead -- the way Dorian's eyes would always go to the queen, soaring long and golden in the lead, and he'd say, I'm going to Impress a queen one day, Kolaus. It didn't seem matter how many times anyone pointed out to him that you can't do that, Dorian, you're a boy, queens only accept female riders.

And K'Laus stares at the empty spot in the gravel, and thinks, of course he would. Of course he did.

He's chased Dorian all over half the Holds and most of the Weyrs on Pern, but now he feels extra urgency beating at him, tingling up his spine. Because if the Weyrwoman catches Dorian before K'Laus does, for doing this, nothing will save him.

K'Laus? The voice of his bronze, Ayeth, reaches him. K'Laus, could you come to the fireheights?

Not now. K'Laus is already making plans as he strides from the hatching grounds. Dorian wouldn't hole up in the Weyr itself, he's too smart for that. Or, no, maybe he would do that, assuming they'd expend their energy elsewhere, as Dorian laughs at them from the kitchens or any of the innumerable hiding places they both found when they were kitchen drudges together ...

Ayeth, we must prepare for a journey.

Hunt soon, Ayeth agrees. Fireheights now?

There's no arguing with a dragon when it gets stubborn. At least Ayeth doesn't seem upset like the other riders' dragons. In fact, Ayeth is suspiciously calm, although maybe it's just that he's used to casually rolling with K'Laus's rages.

K'Laus stomps up to the fireheights and storms through agitated dragons (no one else would dare be up here with the dragons riled up like this, except maybe the Weyrwoman and Weyrleader, but he really doesn't care). "Ayeth --" he begins at the sight of his dragon, but then Ayeth's long bronze body uncoils to reveal ...

Dorian. Lord Dorian, technically, bastard son of a deposed and murdered Lord Holder. Dorian, blond braid falling over his shoulder, looking at K'Laus with wide, mildly panicked eyes.

Dorian, who is holding a golden baby queen in his arms.

And apparently being aided and abetted by K'Laus's dragon. All K'Laus can do is stare at them. He's not sure which of them to yell at first. Ayeth has always been annoyingly fond of Dorian (all the dragons like Dorian, for some inexplicable reason; K'Laus suspects him of slipping them treats) but this is -- this is --

He's speechless. Utterly speechless.

"She's hungry," Dorian says, a little bit helplessly, and that tone combined with his "wherry chick staring at a hunting dragon" expression has always done things to K'Laus, even back when he was Kolaus and he somehow kept risking his hide helping Dorian get out of boyish scrapes that were completely, entirely Dorian's fault.

But this ... this is more than a boyish scrape. This is the sort of thing that's literally going to get them -- well, not killed, in K'Laus's case, because of Ayeth, but the Weyrwoman and Weyrleader will certainly find ways to make him wish he was dead, and as for Dorian ...

"Are you ..." K'Laus begins, finding his voice at last. "Did you ... did you Impress her, Dorian?"

It's impossible. Queens never take male riders ... never. The baby queen should be frantically questing about for a woman or girl, anyone she can bond with. But she's not. She's squirming in Dorian's arms, her jaws smeared with blood from the haunch of a dead herdbeast in front of them ... but not in the frantic way of a prisoner; rather, it's the uncomfortable wriggling of a hatchling in the throes of its first hunger.

Anyway, the thought dawns on K'Laus slowly and reluctantly and with incredible frustration, because he doesn't want to give Dorian even this much credit right now (the utter idiot), but Dorian would never hurt a dragon, especially a baby dragon.

"I didn't have a choice," Dorian says, still with that wide-eyed look of shocked innocence that twists up K'Laus in the same way that it always has. "She was calling, I could hear her -- all over the Weyr, I could hear her, and I couldn't just not do something about it."

So he stole an egg -- a hatching queen egg, no less -- from the middle of the most closely guarded part of the Weyr, with all the prospective queen-rider candidates in attendance. Of course he did. K'Laus manages not to ask what Dorian was even doing in the Weyr in the first place, after being exiled years ago, because he knows the answer is probably "stealing something" and he doesn't want details.

But -- the queen -- Dorian heard the queen, all over the Weyr, he said --

I gave her part of my dinner, Ayeth says, in the way of a dragon who has just made a great sacrifice. But she's too little to eat it.

It occurs to K'Laus that the dragons' agitation is not just because of their riders' worry, but also due to the young queen's distress. And Dorian is still giving him that look, like K'Laus can fix it, just like when he was the bigger of the two boys and the one who knew his way around the Weyr, while Dorian was an exiled Lord Holder's bastard with hands so soft they used to bleed when he'd scrub pots.

K'Laus is in motion before he knows it, drawing his knife. Dorian's eyes widen slightly at that, but K'Laus ignores it and crouches in front of him. "The meat has to be cut up. She'll choke otherwise. You'll need to hand-feed her."

He slices chunks off the herdbeast and hands them to Dorian, who feeds them down the young queen's eager gullet.

None for me? Ayeth asks plaintively, dipping his huge head over K'Laus's shoulder, his mind and his great whirling eyes full of memories of K'Laus placing dripping slices of meat between his small jaws when he was this queen's small size.

"Audacious reptile," K'Laus murmurs, and he takes the time to place a piece in Ayeth's mouth, where it's caught with a deft flick of the huge tongue, before handing Dorian more to feed the young queen.

He's going to be in so much trouble. So much trouble.

But right now he doesn't even care; he's too captivated by the delicate beauty of the queen's golden scales (a few shades darker than Dorian's golden hair), and even more, by the soft wonder on Dorian's face, watching her.

"So you're going to be D'rian now," he says gruffly, trying to break himself out of that spell.

"What? Oh, no," Dorian says, glancing up, "queen riders don't change their names, you know that."

"That's because queen riders are all women, Dorian."

"Not anymore," Dorian says, preening. Then he yelps as the queen bites at his fingers, wordlessly demanding to know why the feeding has stopped.

"I see you've found someone even higher-maintenance than you are," K'Laus says, amused in spite of himself.

"Just give me another piece of your meat, K'Laus."

K'Laus decides to pretend he didn't hear that, but he slices steadily at the herdbeast haunch, passing an occasional slice up to Ayeth -- but most of the pieces, he passes from his callused hands into Dorian's long and lovely fingers, hands that are still as long and graceful as when they were boys, beautiful hands with a music all their own, feeding the baby queen together, one piece at a time.