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Children and Dragons

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Children, Sybil had decided, were perhaps only half a step removed from swamp dragons in terms of their complexity of care.

It was true that a single misstep in dragon rearing could result in singed eyebrows or an abrupt decrease in functional limbs, but children were endlessly more creative (and a good well more vindictive) in their methods of making your errors known.

Hers, for instance, was currently plopped down on his bum in the center of the foyer, screaming bloody murder over the indignity of wearing a fluffy hat. Particularly in combination with the three yards of scarf, the knitted jumper, and the sensibly fur-lined boots, all overlaid with a healthy crust of jacket. Young Sam had tolerated all of the other layers admirably, allowing her to wrestle him into them with only the occasional muttered toddler curse or slippery little break for the freedom of the front door. The hat, apparently, was simply a bridge too far. His little eyes had narrowed, his little lip had pooched out, and the little voice had risen three octaves into a decidedly big banshee wail.

To be fair, his father threw similar tantrums when it came to discussions of any headgear more ornate than a bog-standard Watchman's helmet, so he came by it honestly. But she'd won that particular wrestling match more than once, too.

“No rush, darling,” she said, setting the hat aside and leaning casually against the doorframe as she wound her own homemade scarf around her neck and left the excess to trail along the hem of her coat. “Only, I do hope the snow doesn’t stop while we wait.”

The wail cut off like a turned faucet. Young Sam’s watery eyes strayed to the windows, to Sybil’s face, then back and forth several times as he weighed his options. It was, after all, the first real snow of the year, and she’d been promising him a good romp through it all day, provided he wrapped up warmly... Young Sam eyed her with the universally calculating measure inherent in toddlers. That, too, was like dragons. Show any fear, any weakness, any iota of uncertainty, and you were done for. Sybil smiled and looked steadily back. Young Sam huffed and slumped grudgingly to his feet.

Clever little buggers, children and dragons both.

Eventually, Sybil opened the door, and a properly hatted Young Sam waddled out into the frost as fast as his woolly cocoon would let him. He'd been too small to be cognizant of much in the way of weather last year, apart from one particularly fussy evening when Sam had stood in the kitchen threshold to let Young Sam stare out at the snow globe blizzard falling on the other side of the doorway as a last-ditch effort at distraction. For a blissfully quiet moment, the teething tears had dried, replaced by eyes wide with wonderment and grabby little hands grasping for the nearest unwary snowflakes. The whole house sighed with the relief of blessed silence and the evening had plunged into the hushed dream of a snowy night. There had been...something...about that evening. It had been the first good snow of that year, too, but the memory had seared itself into Sybil’s heart for other reasons. An unquantifiable warmth uncurled in Sybil's chest with the sight of them: her Sams, quiet and peaceful and silhouetted against the wavering white canvas of snow like a hazy iconagraph. A split-second of real peace amid the rising and falling chaos that buoyed their lives along. Another moment more, and they would all be in breathless motion once more. But for that brief, precious moment, all was calm.

This year, though, it seemed that the first snow was destined for anything but quiet. Young Sam had discovered his legs and was fully intent on putting them to use. He giggled at every crunch of snow underfoot, he bounced and gamboled and sprinted for the sheer joy of it, and he kept his head tipped back to gawk at the falling snow nearly all the while. Sybil trailed him about the yard as his interest ricocheted from the taste of the snowflakes on his tongue to the collection of little animal tracks hatched on the ground. While he seemed thoroughly capable of sussing out the basics of wintery entertainments, Sybil took great joy in showing him the intricacies of snow angels and snowmen and winging snowballs at the backsides of the stone dragons atop the gates.

After half an hour had passed, Sybil began eying the gates. No matter how well she bundled the lad up, the biting cold made her a tinge uneasy. She’d promised herself long ago that she would never be one of those mothers, whose children spent most of their lives swaddled in bubble wrap. If, for no other reason, because she suspected it would be a lost cause for the product of a woman whose third-greatest joy in life was raising sentient explosive devices and a man who spent most of his energy making people angry enough to murder him. If her little lad grew up to be anything like either of them, no amount of bubble wrap and no number of woolly layers would keep him out of trouble for long. Best to do her limited fretting now, she supposed, before he was big enough to try anything more ambitious than rejecting fuzzy hats.

It was nearing six o'clock now and Sybil could make out a wiry shadow proceeding steadily up the walk to the house. She'd thought it might work out that way. Sam's evening arrival at home was more reliable than clockwork these days—even more so since the business at Koom Valley—and if Young Sam had burned through all that boundless toddler energy charging about in the snow by the time his father was home to put him to bed, then so much the better.

Young Sam paused half-way through a rapt inspection of a set of rabbit tracks to squint into the gathering twilight. He let out a squeal and barreled across the lawn with all the grace of the rubber balls he liked to bounce down the grand staircase. His hat bobbled off mid-gallop, happily and—Sybil suspected—intentionally abandoned in pursuit of more pleasant company.

Sam met him half-way, swooping him up before his final bound could send him sprawling face-first into the ice. Sybil made out a soft "Hello, lad!" before anything else was drowned out by Young Sam's launch into excitable babbling as he settled into the crook of his father's arm. The boy had yet to master too many actual words outside of the obligatory "Ma," "Da," and "biscuit*," but every day, that was proving to be less and less of an obstacle to his determination to chatter away anyway. Fortunately, Sybil had met many a nobleman with similar vocabularies. Her skill in smiling and making the right encouraging noises in the appropriate places was good, so it all worked out.

She grinned at the pretty little tableau. It was a peace of a different sort this year. The quiet was gone, replaced with the steady murmur of father and son babbling about everything and nothing, but the scene was much the same. Young Sam propped against Sam's chest in utter contentment as he reached lazily for fistfuls of falling sky, both faces lit with fading blue twilight. Sam looked down at the boy with the dreamy sort of quiet awe that rolled over his face when he thought no one was looking. That familiar warmth unfurled again as Sybil crunched down the lawn to join them. Kisses and “hello, dear”s were exchanged over Young Sam’s head, and Sam’s free arm took up comfortable residence around her waist as they began the sedate meander back to the house.

“Missing something, is he?” Sam said as Sybil reached over to tuck the errant hat back over Young Sam’s ears. There was a half-hearted growl of disapproval that soon faded back into toddler monologue.

“No,” Sybil said. If she looked in a mirror, she suspected she’d be wearing the same mask of contentment Sam did.  How could she not? “No, I’d say he has everything he needs.”


(*Commonly pronounced "bith-cut," with much greater attention to the hopeful reverence of possession than to enunciation.)