Dinner with the Family
We ended up cooking a few pizzas, a family-size lasagna, a small basket of chicken strips, and some kind of casserole Mick whipped up using an old Glyche recipe. It didn't look like much, but it tasted pretty good.
We sat around the central counter in my kitchen, eating and talking. It was a strange feeling to be sharing a meal with so many people in my own home, though I'd be lying if I wasn't still distracted. Meryli was the last to arrive. She yawned as she entered the kitchen.
“Good morning!” Mick said, grinning at her. “Have a nice nap?”
“Yeah, I did. Must be more tired than I thought.” Shaking her head, she grabbed a plate and took a seat next to mine.
“I'm amazed you can just doze off here.” Casey's cheeks darkened as Mick looked at her curiously. “I mean, Mick and Bethany are nice, but it's still a Glyche facility. I've lost count of how many horror movies I've seen in production that used Glyche facilities as their main setting.
“The Glyche I can deal with.” Meryli said, pausing a moment to wipe pizza sauce from the corner of her mouth, “Ghosts, not so much, which is why I was so glad you told me about Bethany back in Iniagusville, Jimmy. I'll take Glyche over ghosts any day of the week.”
“You believe in ghosts?” Terry said, surprise in his tone.
“Nope. They still scare the heck outta me, though.”
Arc snorted and promptly choked on his pizza. Mick gave our young friend an over-enthusiastic whack on the back, dislodging the offending hunk of pizza and firing it from his throat. The pizza fragment flew across the room and smacked One square in the face with enough force to send his plush body flying from the counter and into the wall, where he promptly fell into my sink
Everyone had a good laugh as I retrieved the Dreamer and brought him back to his plate. He had already eaten a few slices of pizza, though how he was eating when his mouth was just thread was still a mystery to me.
“What are you going to do now?” Casey asked Meryli, vocalizing something I had been wandering myself
Meryli sighed. “Well, my garage is trashed. I ain't too broke up about it; there never was much business anyways, not in a farming community. Seeing as that place was my garage and my home, though, I guess I'll have to find myself a new place to live.”
“You're more than welcome to take a room here.” I said, drawing a sharp glance from both Arc and Terry.
“Really? That's real swell of you Jimmy, but ...” She sighed and said, “Nah, I don't wanna be imposing on ya'll.”
“You aren't imposing.” I told her. “I've got tons of space, and it would be handy to have a tekker around to help fix up the mansion, especially now that we're working on the second floor. Besides, the dragon wouldn't have destroyed your garage if it weren't for us.”
I couldn't help but notice the blush at the sides of her smile as she said, “Well, if you really want me around, I guess I can't say no. Thanks, Jimbo. Er, Jim.”
As the rest of us continued eating, Casey asked, “Speaking the dragon, how long do you think it'll take for Yaevin to complete its scan?”
Mick wiped his mouth on a paper towel. “A day or two to be sure; the dragon may be hiding in the mountains, which will take some time to fully analyze because of their high crystallic content. Don't worry; if it's there, we'll find it.”
No one really wanted to talk (or hear) about the dragon anymore, so conversation turned to more casual topics. As Terry and Arc argued about their favorite slamm teams, I found my gaze wandering Meryli's way a few times.
She was quite pretty, seemed friendly enough, and reminded me of Uncle Ann: the bushy red hair, the freckle-covered face and shoulders, the smile on her face that looked to always be there. It was more than that, however; seeing her pitch an engine at the dragon without a shred of fear made the resemblance all the stronger.
I considered trying to turn the conversation toward her, or to talk to her directly, but a feeling of guilt came over me every time I got up the courage to do so. I eventually stopped trying; she was coming to live in the mansion, after all. There's be plenty of time for us to become better friends, perhaps even intimate. As though reading my thoughts, Meryli turned to me and caught me staring. I blushed and quickly looked away, though not quickly enough to miss the smile she gave me.
Once the leftover food and dishes were squared away, I led the group to the west wing, as there were more rooms with furniture on that side. One by one, I bid my friends goodnight.
I started to head to my own bed when I realized that I actually wasn't that tired. I suppose it comes as no surprise that I ended up standing on my bridge, leaning against the remaining railing and staring up at the stars.
As I stared at the moon, I couldn't help but wonder; in less than a month, my life had went from boring tedium of self-contemplation to … well, to what it was now: Glyche facilities, Iniagus's prophesy, a whole slew of friends, and the dragon.
The mere thought of the dragon brought to mind an image of the massive creature as it tore through the garage. With a sigh, I kicked off my sandals and sat down on the side of the bridge, letting my feet rest in the stream.
On impulse, I reached into my side pack and pulled out one of the dragon scales I had taken from the princess's room so long ago. About as large as my clenched fist, it looked like something I would have used to shingle the roof of the mansion. I rubbed my thumb against the rough surface idly, my thoughts on the dragon until I heard someone step onto the bridge.
It was Terry, still clad in his armor. Sighing, I patted the bridge planks beside me and said, “Take a load off.”
Terry sat beside me with a little difficulty, keeping his feet well away from the water. “Still awake, sir? You really should get some rest.”
“With Arc's snoring? Not a chance.”
“Thank the Creator! I thought I was the only one hearing it!”
We shared a laugh at Arc's expense before falling once again into silence.
Turning to me, Terry asked, “Would it be too forward of me to ask what you're thinking about?”
I let out a sigh. “What else? The dragon.”
“Oh. I thought-.”
“That I was thinking about Terra?” I sighed, my thoughts briefly on my imagined lover. “I'm sorry for indulging her … my imagination for so long. I can't imagine what you were thinking.”
“Only that you were lonely, sir … and for the record, I don't think she was part of your imagination.”
“I appreciate you saying that.” I said, “But it's okay.”
“No, sir, I don't think it is. Look, maybe she's part of your imagination, or maybe she's real; in either case, you seemed happy when you thought she was real.”
“When I wasn't freaking out at you, Arc, or Mick.” I said. “Besides, Iniagus seems plenty happy. Would you want to stand with him against a dragon?”
“That's a fair point.” He admitted. “Still, there was no harm.”
“Not now.” I said, “But she was appearing while I was awake. What if she appeared while we were dealing with the dragon? Someone could have died, and it'd be my fault. I'd rather be single than end up here alone again, some crackpot in the middle of nowhere who can't tell the difference between his imagination and the real world.”
“That … does make sense.” Terry said. “Still, if there's a chance-”
“If there was a chance, I'm sure she'd be here right now. Even if Meryli couldn't see her, someone could; hell, she could go banging on any console and catch Bethany's attention. There's nothing, because there is nothing. She isn't here. I have to accept that, or I might as well turn in my armband.”
After a long moment of silence, Terry said, “Well, I'm here.”
“Yes, but you're nowhere near as pretty.”
He looked at me as though startled, but smiled when he saw my grin. “That hurts my feelings, sir.”
I chuckled and turned my gaze back to the river. “It's not just Terra that has me thinking, though. Seriously, Terry, is it just me, or does something about this whole dragon thing feel off?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, the dragon just happened to know the one person I knew in Salutier who just happened to have called me with information on the dragon less than half an hour prior to our passing? Was our arrival in Wenapaj really an accident? Why did we lose contact with Bethany for a while there?”
“That does seem rather suspicious.” Terry said. “Do you think Meryli's working with the kidnapper?”
“Did you see what was left of the floater rental station? That was her home. I have a hard time believing she'd be okay with the dragon levelling the place where she lived. Still, how did it know we were heading this way? What if we'd been in Wukice? It could've been days before we made it here.”
“I see your point.” Terry said. “Perhaps it had help on the inside? Someone who clued it in as to where we were?”
“Maybe.” I conceded, “But why show itself at all? The only reason we even have a vague direction is because it attacked us. If it had never appeared at all, we'd still be in the dark.”
Terry tapped a metal-covered finger on the railing. “Maybe it knew Bethany's scans might reveal it.”
“They might.” I agreed, “But how would the dragon even know about Bethany? Even if it was alive back when the Saybaro was built, how would it know the facility's active now? Bethany was in hibernation for over two-thousand years! I mean, who knows about the facility? You and me, of course, Arc, Mick, Casey, King Iniagus, Devon, and Meryli.”
“About that; she didn't seem that surprised about the Glyche facility. It seems a little suspicious to me.
“I told her back before we left Iniagusville to head to Wukice. We bumped into each other.”
“Was it really a coincidence?”
I stared at Terry for a moment. “Is there something between you and Meryli I should know?”
“What? No! No, sir! I'm just throwing out possibilities.”
It was a lie, of course; I didn't need to see his face to know that. After staring at him for a few more moments, I shook my head and sighed as I rubbed my thumb against smooth groove on the underside of the scale.
“Perhaps,” I said, going for a different tact, “It's not a real dragon.”
“If that's true, that was one hell of a butterfly we had on our tail today.”
I bumped into Terry's shoulder, grinning at him. “I'm serious. You want to consider other possibilities, then answer me this; what looks like a dragon, but isn't actually a dragon? A shapeshifter perhaps?”
“Nah, shapeshifters have to keep a fairly constant mass.”
I thought back to the Genovis facility. “Holograms?”
“Then where did the scales come from?”
I tapped the scale against my hand. “That's a good point.”
“I've heard rumors that draconis-tribe sentients sometimes possess the ability to assume a larger form considered dragon-like.”
“Assuming the rumors aren't just fairy tales, I guess that would be possible.” I considered this for a moment; there was still much that wasn't known about the sentient tribes, especially the somewhat secretive draconis. Vaguely dragon-like in appearance, they looked more like a Longshore tribe than anything; sure, they had the long necks, the sharp claws, and the heavy scale plating covering their arms, legs, and forehead, but the rest of their body was covered with a soft layer of fur. Even the horns were decorative, and commonly carved and embellished with jewels and gold. Not an unattractive species in my opinion, but I'd only seen a few during my travels.
Sighing, I said, “I dunno. Maybe I'm going crazy. This whole thing seems like a pile of coincidences. I mean, what are the odds that the dragon would steal away Sera after her father promised her to either Arc or me?”
“But you said you weren't interested in marrying her. Even if Terra wasn't real, you didn't want to come between Sera and her boyfriend.”
“That's right.” I paused a moment and asked, “Speaking of which, does he know? Has anyone even told him yet?”
“I honestly don't know.” Terry said. “Sera's probably my best friend in the palace, but she barely said a word about the guy. I know he's not Royal Guard, and that they met during last year's tournament, but I never knew his name.”
“I wish we did; he deserves to know.” I paused, my thoughts flicking to Terra. It seemed unfair to compare the hurt I felt to that of someone who legitimately lost his girlfriend.
After a few moments of silence, Terry said, “Look, Jimmy, there's something I've been wanting to tell you.”
“Hmm?” I wasn't really listening; I couldn't help but feel was missing a piece of the puzzle. One lousy piece and the whole situation would fall into view.
“I should have told you ages ago, but after all the excitement in Wukice and the dragon chasing us …” he chuckled and said, “It's been a wild ride.”
“Definitely.” I said, not really listening as I looked at the scale again. It was roughly oval in shape, about the size of my fist, and had a metallic sheen; all of that was in the norm as far as I knew. It was lighter than I expected as well, but then again, I had little experience with dragon scales.
“It's about … well …” He chuckled, rubbing the back of his helmet-covered head. “I'm not really sure how to say this. I'm not sure where to start.”
Something that looked like a dragon, but wasn't a dragon. Why was that sticking in my head so much? I didn't know, but I couldn't shake the feeling that I already had the answer.
“You've been a good friend to me, Jimmy. After everything that we've been through, I think you deserve the truth about me, my dad, and … and my brother.”
I wanted to listen to him, but I was too focused on that nagging feeling in the back of my mind. What had I seen that looked like a dragon that wasn't a dragon? Still, almost reflexively, I said, “Your brother.”
“Yes, my brother. You see …” Terry paused for a moment and said, “Your thumb is blue.”
I blinked, the oddness of Terry's statement wrenching me from my thoughts. “Excuse me?”
He pointed at my hand. “Your thumb; it's blue. Were you drawing earlier?”
“I haven't drawn anything since we got back.” I glanced down at my thumb; it was in fact blue. In fact, it was metallic blue, the same metallic blue as the scale I was holding. I rubbed the edge of the scale against one of the wooden planks of the bridge, and sure enough, it left a metallic blue line.
Almost on impulse, I took the scale in both hands and tried to bend it. The scale of the dragon, an object that according to rumor and legend could deflect all but the strongest arrows and defend against the sharpest blade, snapped in half as though it were a saltine cracker.