What a messed up, waste of a day, Natalie thought as she clomped down the dusty gravel road. First she got caught in that awful wreck on the freeway and was late getting out to the client’s ranch. Then the paperwork for the land parcels he wanted to sell weren’t even remotely correct. Then the damn car broke down.
“No, Nat, you should take my Land Rover,” Natalie mimicked and kicked at a small stone. “Last time I do him any favors.” She was the receptionist, not the damn realtor. Hell, she got plenty of interaction with clients just answering the phone. More than she enjoyed in a lot of cases. The idea of dragging people all over town and beyond to show house after house, property after property sounded tedious. And then Allen went and started this thing with the rancher. Now he was talking to developers and builders and-
Gods save her. At least the weather was nice. If this had happened in March, Natalie would be blown like a tumbleweed over the desert, and January was just a bit too nippy for her tastes. February was perfect. The sun was bright and warm, the air just crisp enough to keep her from melting as she hiked along. Luckily, she was closer to the main road than the rancher’s house, because with as irritated as he was with Allen -and thus Natalie- she hadn’t wanted to go back there.
Which of course led to the last nail in her coffin for the day. Her cellphone didn’t work all the way out here, and it was nearly dead from searching for a network.
Face lifting skyward, Natalie stopped for a moment and shut her eyes against the brilliant blue. “I am exactly where I am meant to be,” she said, and then inhaled deeply, slowly, and then exhaled. “Ok. Onward.”
It really was a pretty day, and Natalie loved the desert this time of year. All along the road bright orange and yellow flowers grew. One day she was going to have to look them up and see what they were called, but for now just admiring them was good enough. “See? Positives, Nat. Just an unplanned nature hike. Look at the birds over there. Maybe I should pick some of the flowers? Oh! Maybe there are some cool rocks?”
Natalie paused and glanced around. “Maybe I should stop talking out loud to myself?”
Wait. What was that?
Across the road and on the far side of the wash was a rather unique looking stone. Natalie looked both ways out of habit, then trotted across the road, picked her way down into the shallow wash, and crouched in front of the rock. “Ok, you are cool looking, but do I really want to lug a heavy-ass rock back to that highway service station?”
Damn, but it was really cool though. Natalie’s hands reached for the dark grey surface without her permission, but once her fingers touched, she was hooked. “Ok. But only if you’re not too big.” Dry dirt broke loose and fell easily away to reveal more of the rock, and as the sun struck a curve, it revealed a subtle glitter.
“Oh wow.” Natalie lifted her head to look around again, but there was no one to see her. This had to be something special. Some rare quartz or something, and she could admit to being just greedy enough to want to keep it for herself, even if it was still technically on the rancher’s property. Bad her, but she wasn’t going to sell it. Nope, this baby was getting cleaned up and put in her living room. It wasn’t all that big after all, perhaps the size of an ostrich egg, but more oblong. It would fit on her bookshelf if she moved a few things around on it.
Natalie smiled as she hefted the stone. “I am exactly where I am meant to be.” She giggled and climbed back to her feet, moving toward the road with a much lighter step.
~ | ~
“Geez, woman!” Kendra said as Natalie flung herself into the passenger seat.
“What,” Kendra repeated with a shake of her head. She grinned and put the car in gear. “Why do you have a huge rock?”
Natalie smiled and stroked her hand along the rough length of stone. “This is my consolation prize for a fucked up day.”
“Seat belt, then fondle your rock.” Kendra pulled out onto the highway, and Natalie obeyed the seatbelt command. “So where to, Madame? Home?”
“Nah. Better take me back to the office. I’ve still got the papers Allen needs to get fixed and my car’s there.” Natalie wriggled into a more comfortable slouch as divided highway became a freeway with entrance and exit ramps. “Wanna come by later though? I’m thinking Chinese and liquor.”
“Wow. On a work night?” Kendra laughed. “Damn, girl. It has been a day for you.”
They crested a rise in the freeway and the city spread out in the valley ahead of them. Natalie sighed, and petted the stone a bit more. “Yeah. Mr. Baker’s selling off bits of his land, but I guess whoever Allen had put this together screwed the map up. Baker’s pissed, but since it was me and not Allen there, I got to enjoy his rant about trying to swindle him. Pointing out that I’m just the errand girl didn’t help. Told me I shouldn’t work for snakes then if I didn’t want bit.”
“He what?” Kendra laughed. “Gods, that’s the worst. Think Allen’s really trying to screw him?”
Natalie lifted a hand in a dismissive wave. “Nah. Allen’s ambitious, but he’s not that big a dick. So. Chinese?”
“Wish I could, babe. Rain check?”
“Ahh,” Natalie said with a wider smile and reached over to poke her friend in the ribs.
“Hey! No poking the driver. You know the rules.”
Natalie poked her again just to do it and giggled. “Seeing your little sports fanatic again tonight?”
“Yeah.” It was adorable how Kendra would blush every time her new girlfriend came up. “I’m being dragged to some Irish pub she likes for the game.”
“She knows that you’re not into sports, right?” Natalie asked. Kendra had a bad habit of letting her lovers lead until she got bored of putting up with their activities.
“Yes, Mom. She knows. And she isn’t terribly into gaming, but she snuggles good on the couch while I swear at the fuckboys that think they know how to shoot.”
Natalie laughed, and between the two of them trading topics, the ride back to the office passed fast enough for taking over an hour. She unbuckled the seat belt, then leaned over to wrap an arm around Kendra’s neck and pull her into a hug. “Thanks, I owe you one, and gas money.”
“Buy me Thai tomorrow instead of Chinese and we’ll call it even.”
“Deal.” Natalie gathered up her bag, the stone, and climbed out of the car. “See ya then.” She closed the car door, and waved as Kendra pulled away. “And now to deal with Allen,” she sighed. One stop at her own car to put the stone on the floorboard, and then into the office to deal with her boss.
Allen was frantic and made Natalie repeat everything at least four times, five when it came to the whole ‘swindling’ thing. She ended up stuck late, fielding calls with the developer’s assistant. Mary was a nice lady, but she got to go home on time, and Natalie was left with a boss that didn’t want to accept that most everyone else had closed up shop and gone home for the day. Nope, no callbacks yet. No, Mary said Mr. Jamesen was in the field and wouldn’t be back to the office ‘til late if at all. Yes, she has your cell number and knows that even one in the morning is fine to call you back about this.
Natalie dropped in behind her steering wheel and heaved an exhausted sigh. “I should call in tomorrow and really freak him out.” She took a few breaths, then started the car. “Ok, rock. Home we go.”
~ | ~
Liquor didn’t happen that night -though fast food did- and Thai with Kendra didn’t happen the next night. It was Friday before Natalie finally got to flop down onto her couch and really relax. What a week. Mr. Baker was dealt with, Allen was calm and suave again, and Natalie herself had three whole days off thanks to President’s Day. She turned off her cell phone since the only people she wanted to talk to had the home number, and then debated getting up to cook something.
“What do you think, rock?” she said, head rolling to the side to look at the stone on her bookshelf. “It’s not healthy, but I could miss a meal. Wouldn’t kill me, and I could totally make up for the lack tomorrow.” Oh, but she did have those Girl Scout cookies in the freezer.
“I’m a grown up.”
Natalie ended up throwing a potato into the microwave, and doctoring it up with sour cream and bacon bits before hitting the cookies. Once the dishes were in the sink, she went back to pick out a movie. “Wash, dry, away, goddamn, Nat,” she muttered, and went back to the kitchen to wash her plate and fork while the previews ran.
“Wanna watch the flick with me?” Natalie asked out loud and picked up the stone. “I really shouldn’t talk to a rock, should I?” She paused. “I really shouldn’t ask a rock questions.” Grinning, she dropped to the couch, and grabbed the remote before swinging her feet up and getting comfortable.
Natalie didn’t recall falling asleep, but the television was on screensaver mode, and the pillow under her mouth was a bit damp. Gross. And it was-
Three in the morning. Gods.
“Time for bed,” she slurred, and went to push herself up. A strange crackling sound drew her attention to the stone. “Shit.” Natalie sat up fully and lifted the stone from the sofa cushion and into her lap. “How the hell did I break you?” Maybe it was her body heat, because she knew she hadn’t laid on the dang thing. A small flake was plucked from the sofa, a frown marring her brow. “Damn.” And it was still making those crackling sounds.
Natalie sighed in disappointment, but stood to hurry into the kitchen. Maybe it was breaking, but she could at least keep the shards all in one spot. Tea towel grabbed, she placed the stone on it on the kitchen counter, sliding it back so nothing would roll to the floor. More than ready for bed, Natalie began to turn away when the stone wobbled. Her hand hung where it reached toward the light switch. “It’s three, and I’m half asleep.” But then the rock wobbled again, that crackling sound getting louder.
Natalie turned back to it and crouched so her chin rested on her wrists. She glared at it hard from counter level. “You are not an egg,” she ordered. “I did not steal some weird bird egg, and you’re totally a rock.”
The rock wobbled in response, and an uneven fissure appeared just left of the middle. Natalie stared, slowly shaking her head in disbelief. “You are not an egg,” she whispered, but then a whole piece tapped outward, and what could only be described as little clawed fingers slipped through the crack, grasped the edge and broke it inward. “Oh shit, you’re an egg!” She straightened, heart pounding. Just what the hell had she found? “If you’re a velociraptor, I’m going to scream.”
The snout that appeared next to those tiny golden claws made a squeal bubble up in Natalie’s throat. She bit her lip and shoved her fists against her mouth, eyes wide. “Oh god, oh god, oh shit, oh holy gods!”
A small, blue, definitely reptilian head shoved free, little mouth opening to reveal tiny teeth and a slightly forked tongue. The… creature squeaked, but then its head pulled back in, and more of the shell was pushed out. Natalie shifted her weight from foot to foot, a squeak of her own escaping. “Oh my god. What are you?” Should she call animal control? Should she call the Smithsonian? “Oh holy shit.”
Natalie bounced and rocked side to side while muttering curses and low words of unbelieving shock, but no matter how she denied it, the animal that finally worked its way from the egg she had thought was a really pretty rock looked a lot like a dragon. A baby dragon, with nubby horns framing its wide-eyed face. It even had wings.
“Oh my god,” Natalie moaned from behind her hands.
Bright, inquisitive gold eyes blinked up at her, and the- oh gods, it really was a baby dragon! It made a soft chirruping sound, eyes locked on hers, and it crawled forward on the counter on unsteady limbs with claws clicking against the faux granite. Natalie thrust her hands forward to catch it before it could fall, and the tiny claws prickled against her hands and wrist as it clung and squeaked. It was surprisingly light for how heavy the stone- the egg had been. Hell, Natalie had held heavier skeins of yarn.
“You’re really a dragon. Oh my god…”
What the hell was she going to do with a dragon? Animal control? Hah! This was not a Disney movie. People were not going to think this was just a weird dog.
“Oh gods. They’ll dissect you.” Natalie pulled the little dragon up to her chest. It wasn’t much bigger than a kitten, warm. Alive. Damn cute too. Big gold eyes blinked up at her, and her heart melted at the little chirping squeaks. “Please just tell me you aren’t going to sneeze fire or something?”
The dragon blinked. The dragon squeaked. Its little gold claws curled into the fabric of her shirt while membrane-thin wings spread a little and fluttered before resettling.
Natalie was done. “Ok. Bedtime. My brain is officially past fried. If you’re still real in the sunlight, then I’ll figure you out.” But where to put it? Not like she could just let a baby dragon roam around the apartment. It might eat something dangerous, and then what? Take it to the emergency vet? Yeah, that would be insane.
With a head shake, Natalie took the dragon into the bathroom. She cleared out the tub, slung the curtain one-handed over the rail so it wouldn’t be able to climb it to get out, then grabbed a couple spare towels. “Ok, you.” The dragon was lowered into the bathtub and tucked lightly under the edge of a towel. “Stay here and sleep.” Luckily, it did seem to be a bit sleepy, and Natalie felt that melting sensation in her chest again. It was weird and strange and impossible, but it was just a baby animal. She rubbed a finger over its head, nudged the towel up a little more, and sighed as its eyes shut and stayed shut.
Natalie stood carefully, unhooked her bra, and fell onto her bed to sleep as long as her new pet would let her.
~ | ~
The knock at the door startled Natalie so badly that she yelped, and the dragon squeaked and dashed under the sofa. “No, damnit, I just got you out of there. Shit,” she cursed, but hurried to the door to see who it was. Not only had she woken with the dragon still there and real, but it was in her bed, snuggled in against her neck. All morning she had been trying to dragon-proof her apartment to keep it safe, but it seemed to really like the couch.
Natalie peeked out and sighed when she saw Kendra.
“Wow. You look frazzled,” Kendra said, then gasped when Natalie grabbed her wrist and dragged her inside, quickly closing the door. “Damn.”
“Sorry.” Natalie looked around the floor, but a shuffling noise from the sofa told her the dragon was still in there.
Kendra had heard it too, her eyes locked on the couch and a bit wide. “Is there a rat in your couch?”
“No.” Natalie heaved a sigh, scrubbed her hands over her face, and then crossed to kneel on the floor beside the sofa. “I’m swearing you to secrecy.” Her cheek rested on the carpet as she tried to see where the dragon might be.
“Oh….kay… What’s going on, Nat?” Kendra put her purse on the floor, and crawled over to lay her head on the floor next to Natalie’s. “What’s in the couch?” she whispered.
Kendra laughed. She sat up and laughed. “Does it breathe fire?”
“Not yet.” Natalie turned her head to look up at her friend and grinned. “And I know you think I’m kidding, but I’m dead serious. There is a baby dragon in my couch, and the last time it got in there, it took me half an hour to get it out.”
“Mmhm. And where’d you get a baby dragon? I didn’t know you even spoke Romanian.”
Natalie smirked at her friend, then turned back to the couch. She tapped her fingers on the floor, then wiggled them under the edge. The dragon’s claws were sharp, but so far it hadn’t even scratched her accidentally. Sure enough, after a few moments of silently wriggling her fingers along the edge of the couch a little gold-clawed hand appeared.
“Don’t be loud,” Natalie sing-songed. “If you startle it again, I’ll never get it out.”
“Nat.” Kendra edged back. “This is the best prank ever. I might even be willing to admit I’m about to freak out a little.”
“Shh.” Natalie clicked her tongue and wiggled her fingers farther from the reaching claw. Two other limbs and a snout appeared. Off to the side, Kendra squeaked, and that caught the dragon’s attention. It poked its whole head out from under the couch and looked at the other woman.
“Oh my god,” Kendra whispered. “How are you doing this?”
“It’s not a prank.” Natalie made kissy noises at the dragon. “Come here, baby.” The dragon looked at her and crawled out a little more, then all the way. Delicate wings unfollowed and ruffled, and Kendra squealed.
“No fucking way.”
The dragon tensed, but Natalie cupped her hands around it and sat up, holding it to her chest. “So do you remember that rock I found?”
Kendra’s eyes were wide and she shook her head slowly side to side. “No. Fucking. Way. Oh my god, Nat.”
“You can’t keep a dragon.” Kendra stared, her eyes almost bugging out.
“Well, I can’t just toss it outside. It’d die. Look how little it is.” Natalie held the dragon out just a little toward Kendra, snickering as her friend leaned back, then scooted closer.
“This is insane.”
“Ain’t it though?” Natalie replied, and pulled the dragon back to her chest. It took a little wiggling, but she got to her feet and onto the couch. The dragon burrowed into her cleavage and sighed. It was impossible not to smile at it and pet its little horned head. “So, yeah. I have a dragon, and I’m keeping it.”
Kendra eyed her for a few seconds, then stood just long enough to flop onto the couch too. “Ok. What’s it eat? What’s it drink? What if it gets sick? Holy hell, Nat, how did it even get here? I mean… Ok, it’s not like there are dragons roaming the skies over Vegas. Oh…” She turned wide eyes to Natalie. “Area 51.”
“What?” Natalie asked with a laugh.
“No, come on. Look, it has to be from somewhere. Maybe it’s a genetic experiment or something.” Kendra waggled her eyebrows and pointed a finger at the dragon. “Dino DNA, Nat.”
“Oh yeah, no, that makes sense. Mix up lizards and bats and- yeah. I mean, I’m no geneticist, but~” Natalie gave her friend a flat look. “Come off it.”
“Oh yeah, cuz government genetic experiments are so much more outlandish than it being a real dragon? You come off it.” Kendra carefully reached out, and while the little dragon did stare at her, it didn’t move away or avoid the gentle touch of a finger. “Oh. It’s warm.”
“Yeah. And surprisingly snuggly.” Natalie snickered, and told Kendra the previous night’s whole adventure, about waking with the dragon in bed cuddled to her neck, and then chasing it around the apartment all morning in an effort to make the place safe for it.
“So you think it was your body heat that hatched it?” Kendra asked.
Natalie shrugged. “Maybe? The way I found the rock- I mean egg, it was barely poking out of the dirt next to a wash. If it was carried down by the rains, or uncovered by the last good rain we had, then-”
“We’re talking last summer,” Kendra interrupted, and shook her head. “Heat alone wouldn’t make it hatch then. Weird. Maybe hearing a heartbeat? Actually being touched?”
“Yeah.” Natalie gently dragged her fingers down the dragon’s back, feeling its chest expand rhythmically against her other hand. It was sleeping again, all curled up like a perfect little artist’s rendering. “Honestly, I think we could guess forever about where it came from, how it got where I found it, and why it finally hatched, but it’s not going to change anything. I think I’m already attached, and I can’t imagine handing it over to some authority to live in a lab for the rest of its life.”
“No, that’d be cruel as hell.” Kendra sighed again. “Well, girl. If you’re going to keep a baby dragon, you better get a litter box, some toys, and find out what it eats.” She paused, head tipping a little closer to the dragon. “Think it’s a boy or a girl?”
Natalie blinked, mouth opening a little, but then she shrugged. “Dude, do you know how to sex a dragon?”
Kendra straightened, her own hands coming up to ward off the very notion, and Natalie laughed again. “Ah hah. Nope. I leave that in your capable hands, babe.” Once Kendra had resettled herself in the corner of the sofa, she asked, “What about a name though? It needs a name.”
“Does, doesn’t it?” Natalie shook her head. “Well. Want to see if it’ll sleep in my backpack and come with me to grab pet supplies? We can think of names while we’re out.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t miss it. And you still owe me Thai.”
~ | ~
“Indi!” Natalie called out as she opened her front door. The last few weeks had been interesting to say the least, but it was really nice coming home to someone. “Indigo~” she sang.
The little dragon chirped, drawing Natalie’s attention to the large cat bed she’d bought her. “Three soda cans, huh? I need to cut back, and you, pretty baby, need to stay out of the recycling bin.”
Natalie dropped her purse and keys on the couch, and kicked off her shoes on her way to the kitchen. She was hungry, and no doubt Indigo was too. It took a bit of trial and error to figure out what the dragon would eat, and she ended up setting out the dog and cat food the dragon wouldn’t touch for the neighborhood strays. There was now a bright orange tom relaxing in the bushes just downstairs. Natalie was debating whether her checking account could handle the cost of a live capture cage and neutering for him, but that could wait. The hamburger meat was thawed, and since Indigo didn’t like cold, raw meat, she had left it alone. “Mmm… Taco night.”
A chirp and clatter signaled Indigo’s arrival on the countertop. She knew better than to get too close, but Natalie didn’t actually know if the heat would hurt her. So far there had been no fires and flying was limited to when the dragon really wanted up on something.
“Dinner shortly, oh wing-ed one. Let’s go find a movie.” Natalie put Indigo down by her bed, spotted her keys already relocated to their new home, and grinned. The three cans were lined up neatly, there was an assortment of change, and the dragon had found a belt buckle that was completely unfamiliar to Natalie. She shook her head and went to find a DVD to watch while she ate. “Be good, and we’ll test out the new harness and go for a walk later tonight.”
When the timer beeped, Natalie quickly dropped the chosen disc in and poked the player closed, then with one last glance at Indigo, moved to go back to the stove.
Was that a nickel Indigo was chewing on? Yes, it was definitely a nickel. “Don’t swallow that. Please?” The dragon chirred, tiny teeth clicking on the coin as she gnawed away at it.
~ | ~
“Oh, is it time for walkies?” Natalie asked as Indigo landed on her shoulder and dropped the harness into her lap. “Let me finish this page.” She reached up, fingers absently rubbing the little dragon’s head as she read the last bit of her current chapter. The Nook was then set aside, and Natalie tapped her thigh. “Ok. Come here.” Indigo scramble-slid down her chest, wings arching up and away from her body so Natalie could connect the harness around her.
Nightly walks had become the routine, but they were also fun and profitable. Most everyone was indoors, and the few people that had seen Natalie seemed to think she was some eccentric with a costumed Chihuahua. Indigo loved being outside, especially as spring stretched into early summer. She had made friends with the tom cat Natalie had managed to catch, neuter, and release back into the apartment complex, and had become adept at finding every vaguely shiny thing people dropped.
Within seconds of stepping off the bottom stair, Indigo already had a quarter in her surprisingly dexterous front paws. So far, Natalie’s dragon was earning her own keep. She didn’t eat that much meat, and experimentation proved that poultry, fish, beef, or pork was all acceptable so long as it was cooked well-done.
“Indi,” Natalie called and gave the lead the lightest tug. When the dragon only looked back at her, then leaned her nose in the opposite direction again, Natalie turned and followed her. “What are we hunting tonight? Ah,” she said after just another two steps. “Another can.” The collection bag was pulled from her shoulder and held open on the ground. Indigo waddled over on her hind legs, old, half-crumpled beer can clutched to her chest. Natalie had had to get a whole new bin for all the cans, though a few carefully chosen and equally carefully cleaned cans were allowed to remain in Indigo’s bed. More often than not of late, the dragon was sleeping in her change bowl on top of the pile. Still, all the cans were great for extra change, which was then given to the little dragon to play in.
“Good dragon.” Gold eyes blinked up at Natalie, and she smiled and scritched just behind one of the main horns. “Let’s see what else we can find.”
~ | ~
“Holy crap, woman.” Kendra plopped to the floor beside Natalie and shook her head. “This is all money Indi found?”
“Yep.” Natalie carefully packed another roll of coins, nose wrinkling in amusement as the little dragon sorted the coins into precise stacks. “I’m hoping I have enough to replace that busted up laptop I’ve been hauling around. And to be really greedy, I’m hoping there’s enough after that to get her a nice solid crystal bowl.”
“You want to get your dragon a crystal bowl?” Kendra laughed and reached out to take a coin wrapper herself. “Why crystal? The aesthetic?”
“Nah. Indi likes the chime better. I had a metal bowl one day, but that only seemed to confuse her. The plastic works, but it’s boring.”
“Should save up and buy a new car. Or house. She’s not going to stay apartment sized forever.”
Natalie tipped her head to the side to watch the little dragon. “I don’t know. She’s only tripled in weight in six months. Which might sound like a lot, but she was only sixty-three grams at four days old.”
Kendra considered, then shrugged. “Yeah, I guess. But still. You’ve got the perfect little metal detector there.” She sat up straight, grinned, and poked a finger at Natalie. “We should go to the beach.”
“The beach is seven hours away.”
Indigo chirped for attention, so Natalie gave her latest stack a glance, and then handed over a dime wrapper.
“You’re kidding me,” Kendra said.
“She’s just putting it next to it,” Natalie said, and sure enough, the dragon laid the wrapper next to the stack, then began a new tower of dimes. “She’s smart. Like. Really smart. I’ve been checking her counts, but she hasn’t missed yet.”
Kendra grinned, picked up two rolls of quarters. “Wanna go halvesies on dinner?” She flashed a smile at Indigo. “Carne Asada~” Gold eyes flashed in interest, and both women laughed.
“Roberto’s it is.” Natalie leaned over sideways to grab her phone. “You get to go pick it up though. We’ll stay here and wrap more coins.
Kendra wasn’t gone all that long, but by the time she returned, Indigo had grown sleepy and claimed a coin pile as her napping spot. Even the rich scent of steak didn’t wake her. The women ate and chatted, then wrapped more change while watching a movie.
It was fairly late, and Kendra had gone home some time ago when Indigo finally appeared with her harness in hand. Natalie tipped her head at the odd chirp. “Ya know, that almost sounded like you’re trying to say ‘walkies’.” Indigo chirped again, and it definitely sounded close to the word. “Well, ok then. Rule one for talking dragons; no telling mama’s secrets. You know. If I ever get any.”
Indigo blinked, head tipping and wings lifting. She chirped once more, and Natalie chuckled as she clipped the harness on. “Ok, baby. Let’s go for walkies. We gotta make up for dinner.” Not that it would take long. Kendra might have the right idea about saving up for a house. “What do you think of a place in the suburbs, Indi?”