Standing in front of a narrow, crumbling brick duplex, repeatedly pressing the call button with his tail, a tiny blue dragon named Necco hopped lightly from foot to foot. Clutched close to his chest he held a Kit Kat in his talons, a cheap plastic knife in the other.
“Come on, come on, Knives, you have got to let me in,” he whimpered, nervously looking around at the surrounding buildings and alleys. Humans seeing him didn't merit any concern; Knives had some sort of misdirection spell around the place keeping it hidden from view. Börek would see right through that though, and the idea of running into him on the street made Necco's heart hammer with panic. He couldn’t be sure that Börek wouldn’t ignore his strict pastry diet, just to get rid of a tiny junk food-loving dragon, namely him.
It wasn't Necco's fault their hoard types overlapped. It wasn’t as if he’d ever even taken anything from Börek’s hoard — okay, maybe there was that one time, but he hadn't done it since, and what really counted were his intentions, anyway, right?
Finally, a high-pitched voice with a heavy Russian accent answered, fuzzed-out through the call box.
“If is Necco, I hope you have got something sharp on hand, because I am still mad. Very mad,” she shouted.
“Y-yes. I found a very rare and special plastic knife without serrations on the ground at the zoo. Please, please let me in! Börek is gonna find me!” Necco cried, twisting around to look over his shoulder again.
“Your own fault for competing in his territory. You could have started hoarding forks like I told you to!”
“Forks haven’t got nearly the same variety of flavors and textures. Not to mention the amazingly, well-designed wrappers — I mean really, have you ever seen anything so attractive in your entire life as a Kit Kat? How can anyone resist? Not to mention the extensive ingredient lists — often including helpful calorific information and your daily nutritional values. Plus, there’s also that tricky expiration date, which is why I always have a reason to share my hoard with you.” He could go on all day about the virtues of junk food, but it was about as interesting to her as knives were to him.
“Fine, fine,” Knives grumbled. “You have Kit Kat? Knife?”
“Yes, now please — please, open the door!” The door beside Necco gave a distinct click.
He balanced on one foot, having shifted his finds to his right talons, and yanked the handle with his left, slipping through the door moments before it slammed shut again behind him. Above him he heard the familiar clatter of knives clanging against each other, a handful of them strung together by a shoelace hanging from a hook on the ceiling, point down. Unable to suppress a shudder, he quickly scurried into the knife-strewn foyer, though it did little to dispel his unease.
Knives' immense and terrifying hoard dominated the entire hallway, and the ancient door to her study on his left, stood permanently propped open by piles silvery blades. Knives didn't want hatchlings running around, so no one else lived in the building except Camembert upstairs — though, Necco thought, whilst he sniffed politely, and caught the odor of some absolutely foul dairy rind from above, his cheesy hoard would likely leave a strong stench well after he'd been gone for several years.
Knives fluttered down to meet him, her delicate pink feathers fluffing up irritably as she settled at the top of a heap of choice silverware — knives only, of course. Knives inspected Necco, looking down on him, disdainful. Their relationship stood on shaky ground from its inception, and he couldn't afford to aggravate her, but some days he wished she'd acknowledge him as a dragon of refined tastes and intellect, instead of a decidedly inferior insect.
He clambered into the room, trying not to slice his scales to ribbons, jumping from hilt to handle. Unlike her, he didn't have wings to rescue him, should he misstep.
“You're going to start losing track of them if it grows much bigger,” he said, dropping the plastic knife at her feet. He clutched the Kit Kat tightly. Necco really didn't want to share it, and he'd already given her a knife earlier that week. Their deal meant that she let him store part of his hoard in the refrigerator here, and in turn he paid his dues in knives and candy.
“Won't lose track,” Knives dismissed. “I do what I want.”
“If you say so.”
“I'm not the one who is running from giant, silver, pastry-hoarding dragon.”
Börek wasn't actually all that big, as far as dragons went. It was, rather, that Necco and Knives were small, but that wasn't the point he wanted to argue. “If you hadn't told Börek, he wouldn't even be suspicious!”
“No helping it. Only way to get pretty cake knife. He not give up otherwise.”
“You are so easy,” Necco grumbled, offhand, peeling the Kit Kat wrapper just so, ensuring that the wrapper stayed mostly intact. He sighed, watching ecstatically as the chocolate appeared, and took a deep whiff.
Maybe hoarding would be easier for him if he could change his vice to wrappers — he had enough saved up already that he doubted most of the other dragons would even notice the shift — but he'd shed enough skins in his day to realize you didn't just switch your hoard predilection on some vague notion of making your life simpler. Necco had imprinted on junk food like Coca-Cola, Slim Jims, various ice creams, and Oreos, among many others, no getting around it. A dragon liked what they liked.
“Are you sure you want this?” he asked, absently. “I've heard Camembert might have a nice little cheese knife hidden somewhere upstairs. Cheese is pretty tasty.”
“Cammy-bear has no knives anymore, just wire cheese-slicer I gave in trade. They say Börek has big refrigerator, plenty of room for Necco’s body,” she said, narrowing her eyes at him.
“Whoa, no—no need to worry. Here,” he said, breaking off a piece, which split unevenly, taking most of one side of the chocolate from the bar next to it. He groaned, hating when that happened.
“Of course,” she said, and held her talons out for the chocolate. She stuffed it into her mouth without any of the ceremony Necco would’ve used, gnawing on it in an indelicate manner with her back teeth. “You seen Victor lately?”
Necco knew her former mate from when they were hatchlings, as Victor and Necco’s mothers had nested close together. Growing up three times the size of Knives and Necco put together—though they didn’t meet Knives, until much later—Victor also had a sunny, silly humor about him, his personality almost the polar opposite of Knives'.
Now that he thought about it, Necco missed him and their first days starting out building their hoards. They’d scrounged mainly from video stores, both of them finding treasures beyond compare in the filthy, cramped, strip mall shops.
“No. His uncle Ladle told me a few weeks ago that he moved his stuff to an abandoned hangar outside Detroit. He's been at loose ends since his favorite Blockbuster closed down,” Necco said, wondering why she asked, fairly certain she broke it off with him for irreconcilable differences.
Knives sighed. “I wonder if he ever manage to gather all VHS copies of Lion King* in Midwest.”
“Not sure, but if they're out there, he'll find them and break them.” Victor hoarded all types of broken VHS tapes to Necco's knowledge, but he claimed that that particular film was valuable. Apparently, humans liked it enough to have new ones made, so he would always have a new copy to break again later. Necco didn't really understand the logic, but as long as it made Victor happy, he could hoard as he liked.
“Truly a dedicated dragon,” she said, as if still fond of him, like she hadn't chased him out the house while violently flinging knives.
“Why do you ask?”
“None of you business, but friend has hatchling who's glommed onto hoarding cassette tapes of language instruction, is looking for nice dragon with a complimentary hoard,” she explained, her tail lashing around behind her.
“Ah,” Necco said, wincing inside, because even though his hatchling days lay far behind him, he still struggled to maintain his hoard and keep it safe. Nor was he in any position to look for a mate, even if he’d wanted one. Knives had no deeper sympathy for his things, and had to be bribed almost daily not to toss them to the curb.
“Look, Necco, if you're going to stay in this territory, think you should go talk to Börek. You need set some ground rules. Like say, if pastry in foil or plastic wrapper, is fair game for you, and if fresh made, you won't touch. You live lot longer, I promise.”
“Are you going to come with me, then — so we have a witness?” Necco asked, trying to circumspectly convince her to accompany him, and avoid begging.
“Can't, too busy today. Have appointment with medieval arms dealer.”
“Running heist with Rhomphaia. He found poorly-guarded bladed weapons collection in Belgium. Can't cancel plane tickets, so sorry.”
“Thursday?” he begged outright this time.
Knives narrowed her eyes at him. “Why you no ask Eliot. She's as big and strong as Börek and she not care about who gets what, long as you treat her 'babies' well. Bring Kitten Chow and any ads you find for free kittens and she listen to sob story.”
“But—but I'm allergic to cats.”
Knives considered that for a moment. “Don't tell her.”
Like most dragons, Necco had the ability to temporarily take on a human form. This came in useful when trying to get around in densely human-populated areas, carrying large objects like, say, a bag of pet food. Dragons had a bad reputation among humankind, not entirely for unfounded reasons, which included theft and eating people they didn't like. Truly, it would be best if he went unnoticed to avoid panic — and, around this neighborhood, gunfire.
If only he had enough mass to take on a form which looked more like an adult human, rather than that of a seven-year-old child. It insulted his pride as a grown dragon to have to fend off well-meaning people asking where his mother ran off to, and why was he not in school, and could they help him carry that? He learned to run and hide and take to the trees, whenever possible.
Part of their concern seemed to come from the fact that the clothes he'd scrounged for the purpose of blending in with them, looked old and shabby; not surprising, for he'd acquired them from a used clothing dumpster, one of the ones which said something like Percentage of Proceeds go to Boy Scout Troop #2084.
The sort of items that ended up there were usually full of holes and unusually thorough stains, but were easy to borrow. Not a clothes hoarding dragon, Necco didn't know how to look for quality, or what things matched. As such, he took his chances.
Ignoring the odd looks he got, he hurried down the street, continuing on to a red brick row house, not unlike the one Knives lived in. Surrounded on all sides by trees, it had some years ago been converted for use as an animal shelter. Necco hefted the bag of kibble Knives instructed him to bring and, seeing no alternative, tried the front door.
It didn't budge.
Necco whimpered, clinging to the handle. Why would they lock out potential rescues? He definitely needed rescuing! He looked around anxiously, but didn't spot a doorbell, or a closed sign, for that matter. Sometimes, he forgot about human customs like hours of operation, but ten o'clock in the morning on a Wednesday had to be plenty late enough for any reasonable place to be open.
Then he noticed a faded yellow sign tacked above the rusty mailbox by the door. When he backed up a little, he read, spelled out in blocky, black plastic letters:
Eliot & Mabel's
Cat and Kitten Rescue
Cats of ALL Types Taken:
Domestic, Wild, Large,
Drop-off In Back
In back had to be down and behind the narrow, slightly overgrown asphalt strip on the right side of the building. He hefted the bag onto his narrow shoulders and took it there, passing through an invisible magical field on the way, something which most non-dragons wouldn't notice.
The magical field turned out to be disguising several extremely large pens, each holding a rather large cat. These included a lazing tiger; an anxious, pacing cheetah; and an enormous, black, disgruntled-looking creature, which he suspected was the Jólaköttur**. Humans without a good bit of magic in their blood would see nothing but a shed and more trees.
“Eliot? Mabel? Anybody home?” Necco called out, feeling a little more confident now that he could see other living creatures. As he approached, a tall, dark-skinned, heavyset woman with reddish curls on her head, peeked out the door, a broad smile on her face. Two kittens clung to her shoulders, sedately. She seemed to see straight through him, and noticing that he didn’t have a kitten with him, her smile dropped.
“I know you," she drawled. "Necco is it? Is there something you need? Please tell me you did not just walk down Shaw Boulevard looking like that,” she said, shifting from her disguise to reveal her true form.
As a dragon, Eliot had a lovely gold-green mottled hide, her body thick and round, polished red horns decorating the ridge along the back of her head, while a prominent ridge of red plates ornamented her spine. She had always seemed nice enough, if a bit aggressive about protecting small cats, though he hadn't interacted with her much.
Necco threw off his own disguise, which required the removal of his physical components, his aptitude at illusions poor at best. He stomped on the tattered remains of his jeans and t-shirt as they fell down, now much too big on him.
“Never mind that. Here, have this,” he said, handing off the bag. “Knives said you might help me with something.”
Eliot took it, and laughed. “Oh Knives! I'll never forget that time some confused human brought her here, after the poor dear got hit by lightning flying in the rain. Are you still her tenant?”
“Only of her refrigerator. Ice cream sandwiches don't do so well in July without one,” he grumbled. “I usually sleep at the herpetarium. It's quiet there at night and Gordon — you know Gordon, of course; everyone knows Gordon — he doesn't mind me hanging out by his tank as long as I don't touch anything that's his.”
“I thought you hoarded candy.”
“Oh, yeah, not just candy though, any pre-packaged, processed food that has lots of salt, fat, and sugar,” he said, excited just thinking about it.
“That's a broad category. A bit dependent on them, too.” By them, of course, she meant humans, and their truly prodigious ability to invent and mass-produce objects and consumables of many types and varying, decreasing degrees of nutritional value.
Some dragons didn't fully approve of hoards that were “unnatural”, whatever that meant — technically anything part of the physical world had to be natural, to his mind, no matter how bizarre. Naturalists, however, were generally as ancient as the mountains and rivers they called home, and surrounded themselves with things like fish and stars and grains of sand, things as common as air and just about as scarce.
He did feel sorry for dragons who imprinted on items that quickly went out of style with the humans that made them, like laser discs and poodle skirts, which became hard to find or replace, but he didn't disparage them for it, either.
“Yeah, that's kind of my problem. You know Börek, right?”
“Of course, he's running that patisserie a few blocks down. A lovely fellow — handsome, too. I hear that mate of his, Waterford, hoards cake platters. Another complementary nesting pair in our neighborhood, that's three now, I think? It's so cute.”
“Yeah, cute,” he said dryly. It would be even more adorable when Börek baked him into some weird cake.
She blinked her heavy-lidded eyes at him, and then she seemed to comprehend the extent of Necco's fool problem.
“Wait— pastries? Don't tell me you've been building your hoard from Börek's. Oh, that is unforgivable,” she growled, descending upon him.
He held up his arms, defensively. “No, no, wait. Not exactly. Well, what I mean to say is...”
She shook her head in disapproval. “I think I understand. And what is it that you want me to do about it? If you need advice, I think you should go across the river, maybe find one of those restaurants with a playground. You gotta start a real hoard, Necco, instead of stashing it in twenty different places, or borrowing from someone else. Dragons do not abide thieves or parasites — your mother must’ve told you that much.”
“Don't you think I could talk to him though? Negotiate, maybe? It was Knives' idea. I don't want to move, I kind of like it around here.”
Eliot sighed, and scratched the horned ridge on her snout, obviously considering whether to help him, then plucked a playing kitten off of the ground. Placing it on her back, she made a humming noise, not dismissing him, perhaps considering some more. He watched her play with the fat little furball for almost ten minutes, before she seemed to remember him standing there.
“I do suppose you brought a gift," she said, at last regarding him seriously. "I'll arbitrate on one condition: you have to help me out here at the shelter, for one full cycle of the moon."
“But I —,” Necco could already feel his eyes itching. Still, he knew he had little other choice. “Okay! I'll do it.”
They arrived at Börek's Patisserie at mid-afternoon during a lull in business. Börek immediately went to lock the front door. He flipped the Open sign to Closed and pulled the shade on the window, enabling his guests to discard their disguises. Necco took a seat at one of the cafe tables, while Eliot crouched on the floor beside it, a kitten still perched on her head.
The smell of delicious pastries filled the shop, and Necco had a difficult time not drooling on the floor. There were displays of strawberry tarts, spiral-topped cupcakes, glazed doughnuts, cinnamon muffins, meringue-loaded pies, chocolate tortes, tiny crème filled puff pastries, tiramisu, baklava and more, all fresh and ready to eat.
Eliot, seeing where Necco's gaze landed — hovering upon a wicker basket of colorful cake pops, wrapped absolutely beautifully in white, polka-dotted cellophane, tied with red ribbons — swatted him on the side of the head with the end of her tail, saving him from himself.
He heard Börek chuckle as he turned to face them, transforming from a mild-looking, bone pale human in chef's attire, into a large, winged dragon. His hide glimmered in a muted silver tone, like the skin of a trout, and a pair of subtly curved horns crowned his head. His broad and triangular face, seemed reminiscent of that of a cat, likely why Eliot found him so attractive.
“Would either of you like tea?” he asked, in an accent Necco couldn't place, his voice velvety and deep.
“Oh that would be lovely,” said Eliot. “Milk, but no sugar.”
“Um, uh, okay,” said Necco, too nervous to make any special requests.
“I'll be right back, then.”
Börek returned quickly, carrying with him a tray which held an expensive-looking silver tea set, and a plate of petit fours. He placed each saucer with a cup and teaspoon in front of either of them, and then settled in beside Eliot.
“When I immigrated here twenty years ago, I never thought I'd be selling pastries as well as hoarding them. Life is strange,” Börek mused. “There are those certain ones I keep to only myself, of course.” He smiled at Necco, warm and polite, as though he didn't think him a light-fingered pest, and murdering him had never crossed his mind.
“W-where were you hatched?” Necco asked, nibbling tentatively at a square of chocolate-covered cake he'd all but snatched from the tray.
“Ah, a barn a few hours out of Istanbul. My mother still has an excellent hoard of printing equipment there. And yourself?”
“Not far from here, in the park by the skating arena. My mother likes hockey paraphernalia.”
“Fascinating. Though I understand the team hosted here isn't particularly successful.”
“There was too much competition up north, and well you know, um, how that goes. Our family line isn't that strong with magic, so it's easier to run — or bike. My father, he hoarded bicycle chains when he was still around.”
“I see, I see,” Börek said, and took a sip of his tea, looking down his snout at him.
The conversation seemed ready to collapse when Eliot finally chimed in, apparently tired of them dancing around the issue.
“We've made this appointment with you to discuss a matter along those lines — you know, competition.” Necco rather admired her directness. “Your hoard seems to be of particular fascination to our little friend here. Would you agree that that is true, Necco?” she prompted as she snatched her rambunctious kitten out of the air, seeing it about to jump onto a cake rack made of crystal, nearby.
“Uh, no. Well, yes, but—but, not all of it. I can't help it. Please don't eat me,” he begged, seeing Börek's golden eyes narrow, his pupils growing larger.
“Not all of it? What precisely do you hoard, might I ask?”
Necco explained, keeping his head pulled in near his chest, clutching his cafe chair's seat, worried. Listening, Börek popped a petit four with raspberry mousse on it into his huge toothy maw.
“Ah, well, I do not see why that's a problem, then. I don't make junk, I make art. You'd do well to remember the distinction, as there is nothing here for you, my friend,” he laughed, after Necco finished.
“I don't understand,” Necco replied, uncertain.
“My pastries are carefully crafted in small batches, not mass-produced. The ingredients are fresh, and the embellishments and garnishes delicately applied by hand, with great attention to detail. Also, I have a lunch menu with award-winning savory pies and pastries. No, no, I won't hear my creations called junk,” he said, with some finality.
“I suppose, when you put it that way,” Necco trailed off, twiddling his two thumb talons together. Dragons were quite good at splitting hairs, especially when it came to defending their right over a particular domain. “Uh, so, can we just chalk that one little incident up to a misunderstanding, then?”
“No. No, I'm afraid not. If I catch you again within a kilometer of this building, your life is forfeit,” Börek informed him. He held his head lowered, on a level with Necco, his huge eyes staring wide at him. This close, Necco realized, Börek could snap him up in one bite.
“I must interrupt,” said Eliot. “Your demand is impossible for him to fulfill. Necco is in debt to me, and has agreed to remain in my service for a time. All of our territories overlap extensively, as you well know, and thus his presence within the boundaries of yours will be unavoidable. While I am full of contempt for his actions, I have the right as an Elder to give him sanctuary as long as I see fit.”
Börek didn't seem surprised at her dissent, like he'd had several similar such conversations before. “I see. Go on.”
“This being the case, and provided he does not relapse, he will be under my protection and my jurisdiction.” When she said this, she fixed Necco with her eyes glowing orange at him. His guts felt like they'd turned to solid ice. You didn't mess with Elder dragons, it never paid off in the end. Not as horrific as stumbling across an Ancient, of course, but now he knew Eliot likely had enough power and skill to transmute him into a stone garden ornament, if he put his foot wrong.
Necco gulped, audibly. Knives might’ve saved his life by sending him to Eliot, but at what cost?
“Very well,” Börek sighed. “I will leave him be. But there will be no more incidents, correct?”
“No, no — never!” cried Necco.
“Very good. I expect that we are done here? I need to re-open the shop.”
With a surgical mask tied over his snout, Necco swept the floor of the kitten enclosure, puffs of cat hair swirling at his feet. Every part of his body felt itchy, and he winced as another kitten came up to play with the red tassel of fur at the end of his tail. Hell had another name: The Kitten Room.
“Watch it fluffball,” he said, whipping his tail away. Unfortunately, doing this seemed to excite the kitten more, while also attracting a few of its friends.
“Oh, dear gods.” He couldn't strike them or yell at them; Eliot would know.
“Ay, Necco!” called Eliot's partner, Mabel, an Asiatic dragon with huge fangs. She snaked her long, sinuous, blue-patterned neck over the top edge of the enclosure gate. “We're going to get lunch, can we bring you anything back?” Mabel smiled impishly at him, like he was a cat she wanted to play the string game with.
“Ah, um — could you maybe pick up a two-liter of Mountain Dew and a bag of Lay’s? The barbecue kind?” he asked hopefully.
“Sure! Though you’re only getting the generic store brand,” she said, giggling as she withdrew.
“Fine, fine,” he muttered. It was still junk food, and therefore better than nothing, but he suspected Mabel enjoyed messing with his head. He bit back a disappointed sigh, on the off-chance she might hear him and decide to cut him a break for once.
With several more weeks of work ahead of him, he had to endure her teasing, and didn't have the time to do much hoarding. Certain that his collection of junk food must have been rifled by all manner of thieves, Necco could only wring his talons together and trudge through his day, restless and on edge.
Desperate for a distraction from his misery, Necco stopped sweeping and carefully picked up one of the kittens, a yellow tabby. He looked it in the eyes, and it meowed feebly at him.
"You're not the boss of me," he said to it, though his voice lacked conviction, and he didn't know why.
Necco hated cleaning up their messes, especially the wet ones, yet, somehow, despite the fact they made his nose stop up, and the skin under his scales turn red, the little creatures managed to be adorable. As their antics and personalities became familiar, he'd even grown fond of one or two of them in particular. It took a few days in the big, warm room full of cushions and cat furniture, but he started to have an inkling of what made Eliot enjoy their company so much — even through his itchy, watery eyes.
Of course, he had this fond thought right as he sneezed again, so violently, that it scared the kitten he held. It jumped out of his arms like a spring, and plopped head-first into Necco’s nearby tissue box. When it found its feet, it started stumbling around backwards, frantically, the box stuck on its head.
He stared, dumbstruck for a moment, and then burst out laughing, harder than perhaps he'd ever laughed before.
Catching his breath and wiping his eyes, he caught the panicked kitten, sat down and tried to help it wrest its head from the confines of its cardboard prison. When he let it go, it sat in front of him, washing itself intently, greatly reminding him of Knives who didn't know how to say 'thank you' either.
For once, Necco didn't care. Considering that the alternative meant having an angry and bloodthirsty Börek on his tail, spending all of his free time here wasn't turning out so bad.