Chapter 14: Cramming 101
If Lao Shi had ever been a person of rebellion and spontaneity, that man had perished long ago. His days were all but certain, predetermined by decades of routine. His teas of choice and their preparations, the narrow selection of robes he rotated through, the soap operas he never missed, none had deviated the slightest since the turn of the century.
The new storefront in Chicago exemplified this static attitude; even calling it "new" felt dishonest. The place replicated the electronics store abandoned in New York to an eerie degree, though the merchandise now focused on Chinese dynastic antiques. Dealing in 8-tracks, VHS tapes, and boob tube televisions had apparently proven too modern for the man.
Regardless of how they got there, the ancient pottery and woodwork created a soothing atmosphere. Violet haze lazily wafted among them to gather against the ceiling. Shallow ash-filled plates were scattered around the room with wiry sticks planted in their gray sand, tendrils of smoke drifting from their lit ends to join the cloud above. It created the illusion of fog, of being lost in the misty morning of a deep, dark wood. The air was hot and heavy with the scents of smoke and lavender, like slumbering beneath a thick, smothering blanket
Only here in this pure, enveloping calm could one look within and find inner peace.
It wasn't working.
Jake sighed from his cross-legged seat. His chin plopped down over his knuckles. "I can't breathe, G."
"Good," said the small man stepping by, another smoldering plate in his hands. "That means it is working."
"Uh-huh." The paw not supporting Jake's cheek raised his phone back to his ear. "Does that answer your question?"
Detective Carson's voice was flat. "No progress, I take it?"
"More like negative progress. What the…ugh, can I help you?" he hissed, shrinking away from Lao Shi's cold, wet hands. The man had taken to spreading an assortment of oils and ointments over the scales on his back.
"Do not worry about grandpa," the man answered from behind, out of view. His fingers slid and pressed along Jake's spine, applying the chilly concoctions. The sensation brought images of sunbathing and playing at the beach, but the pungent odors quickly dispelled those thoughts. "Direct your focus inward. Think only of centering yourself. But if you wish to help, putting away the phone would not hurt."
"Hey, I'm multitasking."
"And you're certain this has never happened before? To you or any other dragons?"
"One hundred percent. Not counting when I first got my powers, this is way off the charts for 'normal dragon stuff'."
Lao Shi spat from the side, "Nonsense. Many dragons have difficulty controlling their abilities in times of great stress or danger. It is perfectly natural. We only need to discover the source of your imbalance—"
"Three days, gramps?" Jake turned to face him. "A few seconds or minutes, sure, but you're telling me you've known dragons that got stuck like this for three straight days?"
His hands paused over Jake's hide. He said nothing. Quietly, he collected his ointments and slipped through a curtained doorway
Jake turned forward again, eyes drifting to his angular legs crossed on the floor. "Sorry, detective. You'll just have to handle things on your own a little longer. We'll let you know if we figure anything out."
"Not good enough."
"Give me a sec." Jake leaned away from the phone. "You hear that, gramps? You're not trying hard enough."
Lao Shi reappeared carrying a narrow wooden box. He spat something in Mandarin. "Try harder?" he huffed, setting the box down by Jake. "Well by all means, have her come and take over. I'm sure she has much priceless wisdom to offer!"
"Oh, you did it now, detective. He's being sarcastic. That's never a good sign."
"Save the wit, Jake. Our department is in complete chaos. The LA DMC is gone, the other three main branches are on lockdown, and without the dragons we have no public presence. All projects are suspended and we can't process any new claims between humans and magical creatures. For all intents and purposes, we're crippled."
"Yo, I get it, but what are we supposed to do?" A glint of light caught Jake's eye. He gawked at the alarming array of thin needles stacked in Lao Shi's open box. Just looking at them made his skin prickle. "Nope! Nuh-uh, no way you're stickin' those things in me."
Eyes narrowed, Lao Shi huffed and snapped the box shut.
"Get back out there!" countered Carson. "Hiding means admitting defeat to the People and their cause! We need to show everyone strength, conviction. We need a leader, Jake."
"Hey, feel free to step up if you're so eager. I won't stop you."
"Let me clarify—we need a dragon. I'm far from qualified."
Jake sighed. He knew that he couldn't do that. He knew that Carson knew he couldn't do that. Pictures and videos of his public transformation had burned across the internet like wildfire. Once the American Dragon's identity was revealed, it had taken the media all of a few hours to deduce those of the others. Family records, rough ages and locations, yes, guessing the names and faces of the other dragons had proven depressingly easy. Sun and Natalya were still safe, but even that was likely just a matter of time.
The People hadn't needed to expose him after all. Jake was perfectly capable of doing that on his own.
He watched his grandfather dig through a cardboard box, trading the case of needles for a cloth bag with round, clinking contents. "Everyone knows who we are now, detective. If I send the others back out on duty, they'll be sitting ducks. I'm not gonna make them do that."
"I'm not asking for the others."
"I…," Jake grit his teeth, "…I'm not sure yet. It might not be safe."
Carson didn't answer right away. "Well hurry it up. Word on the Hill is that President Danvers might meet the People's demands."
Jake sat up straighter. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"All or none. Self-identification of magical creatures may not remain voluntary for long."
"But he can't do that! That ain't what we agreed to!"
"Deals change, Jake. Welcome to politics. One way or another, someone is going to have to take control of the situation, and soon. I'd prefer it be us."
The call ended. Jake lowered the phone and glared at the screen. As with any time his temper had peaked in the last few days, the red hue of his dragon vision intensified. Darker shades, burgundies and maroons, licked at the periphery. It spilled heat across his forehead, jaw clenching until his teeth ached.
The atmosphere erupted with a squall of clattering chimes.
Jake turned on his grandfather a short distance away and the handfuls of bells gripped between his fingers. "How is that supposed to be relaxing?!"
Lao Shi ignored him. He danced about, chanting some mantra utterly drowned in the cacophony of rings and tolls. It was a chorus of constant, earsplitting torment.
"Oh it ain't relaxing!" another voice yelled from the staircase across the room. A mass of folding gray fur casually descended the steps. "It's so terrible that when it's over, everything else feels waaay better by comparison!"
Fu Dog reached the ground floor and sidestepped Lao Shi, a newspaper under his arm and not a care in the world. The rancorous ringing didn't faze him in the slightest. That's how the Shar Pei had been since Jake had reunited with him at his grandfather's new shop in Chicago, blissful and cheery. According to Lao Shi, a good long nap was all he'd needed to recover from the tranquilizers. And if his current attitude was any indication, it had been a great nap. Ample rest, a brush with death, just more of his typical joviality, who could say the real reason for his bright demeanor?
Jake appreciated it all the same. Fu's high spirits had been one of the only things keeping him afloat the last few days.
"Bravo! Encore!" Fu cheered as Lao Shi finished his ritual, paws smacking in thumping claps. "Performance of a lifetime, Lao, really. Nothing'll ever top it, especially on account of me being deaf and all now."
Jake sagged in the relative silence, "Anything, Fu?"
"Nada, no new leads. Sorry kid. Thought you might like this, though." Fu unfolded the newspaper and held it out for him. "Take a gander at that. You're still makin' the front page! Talk about a hit sensation, am I right?"
Jake's own face sneered back at him. A black and white picture of his dragon form dominated the page, a hospital entrance just visible in the background. He towered proudly with a claw aimed at the camera, expression menacing and his maw open mid-sentence. Rose's arms were just visible clinging over his shoulders, but the rest of her was hidden from sight.
Over the portrait blared huge, thick letters: I'M COMING FOR YOU!
"Great," trilled Jake. He flung the paper over his shoulder. "That's great."
"Hey, I know how it looks but I kinda like it!" Fu started hopping side to side, his paws raised and jabbing out in quick strikes. "It's about time we got a little payback. Let 'em know what's comin'! We let them get scared, shakin' in their boots, and then BAM! Give 'em the old one-two, smack 'em around a little, show 'em who's boss!"
"And who, exactly, is giving them this beat down?"
"Who do you think? I'm a dog, kid. But save some hits for me! Ooh, I can already taste it. Sweet, sweet revenge…"
"For Fred and Underdown?"
Fu paused. "Oh, yeah, sure," he said hurriedly, muttering shortly after, "among other things…"
Head shaking, Jake turned as Lao Shi approached with hands folded in his sleeves. "What now, G? Hypnosis? Dream charms?"
His grandfather sat across from him, eyes closed and expressionless. There was no tension in his forehead, no thinning or curving of his mouth, the only wrinkling in his cheeks that of age. He could have been a statue of wax. Even for one so calm and collected, the mask was too controlled. The neutrality was unnerving.
Jake hummed with a sad smirk, "All out of tricks?"
Lao Shi breathed deeply. "Patience. If we just give it more time—"
"C'mon, G. We both know what's really going on."
His grandfather said nothing.
Fu looked between them, one eyebrow perked. "Oh, yeah, of course. Definitely, we definitely know. But, uh, maybe we should explain it. You know," he coughed, "just to make sure we're all on the same page. About the thing…that we all definitely know about, that thing."
"It's too early to jump to—"
"I'm turning full dragon," Jake told Fu. "Just like Fred."
Lao Shi's words were choked off. He fell silent, head drooping slightly.
"At first we thought me losing control was because of my dragon chi, that it got messed up somehow with all that business in Underdown. That's why we've been doing all these tests and experiments, but everything keeps coming back stone cold normal. And they're right. We can't figure out why my dragon half is out of whack because it isn't—the human half is." Jake nodded to his grandfather. "Ain't that right, G?"
"But that doesn't add up," said Fu. "You're still walkin' and talkin' just fine. How's it that the other dragons went off the rails like that, but not you?"
Jake shook his head. "Still workin' on that part…but I think it has something to do with that freaky soul-stealing machine. The last thing I remember was seeing it suck that purple junk out of me. Things get kinda fuzzy after that. When I woke up still being me, we just assumed it didn't work. But…what if it did, somehow? It doesn't explain why it's taking so long…"
"I…may have a theory."
Jake and Fu watched as Lao Shi rose and crossed the room. He reached a shelf and plucked one of several ornaments from it. Returning, Jake could see in his hands a small disk with a raised edge and a miniature stack of rocks in its center. Up through the column bubbled a tiny trickle of water. It dripped down the rocks and collected in a shallow puddle filling the rest of the disk.
Lao Shi held the paperweight out to them. "Our dragon chi is concentrated in a core. When we choose to use it, we do not release the entire core but rather the energy contained within it. Like this fountain and its basin, our core creates and replenishes that energy to fill our bodies. Without the core, that energy has nothing to replace it and quickly fades.
"I do not know this for certain, but our human souls may be much the same. They serve as the sources of our spiritual energy. Were that source to be lost," he clicked an unseen switch under the disk and ended the small cascade, "then so too would be the fountain of our humanity. Because our human selves are so much stronger than our chi, that pool of energy might be able to last longer on its own—"
"But not forever," said Jake.
The lifeless fountain lowered in Lao Shi's hands. "No."
"Well how much time are we talkin' here?" asked Fu. "Weeks, months, years, what? Gimme somethin' to work with."
"I do not know. Any guess would be just that, but…we may be able to slow the process."
Jake's ears perked. "Slow? How?"
Lao Shi gestured again to the fountain. "Your pool is now fixed. If we cannot refill the water then we must let it evaporate, not spill. You must conserve your spirit. The less effort it takes to suppress your dragon chi, the longer you may maintain your humanity. Stay calm, exercise patience, and under no circumstances can you assume your human form."
"And in the meantime," said Fu, "we find out what the People did with your soul and get it back, along with the others."
Lao Shi nodded. "We must work quickly. Time is of the essence. We still have yet to find any solid information, but perhaps if we…young one? Jake? Are you listening?"
Jake shook free of his thoughts. "Keep cool, no going human, got it." He climbed to his feet and stretched life into his locked limbs. "Great vacation guys. Torture, smog, really a five-star joint you got here, but I think it's time for me to head out."
Lao Shi set his small fountain aside, eyes closed in thought. "I don't know, Jake. Are you certain this is wise? With the rest of us in hiding, the whole country will have their eyes on you."
"I'm with him," chimed Fu Dog. "At least take me with you! You know, havin' another set of eyes to watch your back, gettin' the old dream team back together? Plus, I can't take any more of the old man's cooking, Jake. Look, my fur's fallin' out by the handful! You gotta save me, I'm beggin' ya!"
Jake shook his head. "Sorry, Fu, but there's nowhere for you to stay. Underdown's trashed, remember? Besides," he jerked a thumb behind at the store's entrance, ''gramps is gonna need your help here keeping those vultures away. Let me worry about taking care of the People, y'all just focus on staying safe. Especially you, G. The way things are going…we can't afford to lose you."
"You have a plan?" asked Lao Shi.
Jake made for the exit. "Still workin' on that."
His grandfather's voice cut through the mist and incense, catching him just before he could leave. "We will get through this, grandson. Together. I swear to you we will."
Jake grinned at his claws around the doorknob. He could hear the fierce scowl in his grandfather's voice. "I guess we will," he hummed, "one way or another."
He slipped through the door in a rush. Instantly, reporters flocked.
Jake barely reacted to the onslaught of flashes and shouts as he stepped onto the icy, salt strewn street. Hands and microphones shoved rudely close, but he craned his head skyward, focused on the blue above. The air here cinched his scales tight. His breath fogged before his eyes, like his own smoke billowing over a frozen lake.
Expensive cameras and less precious limbs reeled back as he extended his wings. Good, they were learning.
Jake took to the sky. He cleared the stories-high townhomes and set his heading, his destination beyond the dawning horizon.
"Sir, you really can't—"
"It's this way, right? I'm pretty sure it's this way."
"If you could just wait for—"
Jake turned at the voice, maintaining his stride. "Oh, hey detective! Did you get my text?"
Carson appeared from a hallway intersecting Jake's, striding after him as swiftly as she could without breaking into an outright run. Her arms swung wide as her lunging steps, one hand gripping folders and the other balled in a fist. "Do you know how many people I've had to stop from trying to incapacitate you?!"
"Heh, I'd like to see 'em try." Jake winked at a suited, well-built man stepping aside for them, a frustrated grimace ruining the guard's forced passivity. "I could probably take six of them, maybe seven if I really tried."
"That's not the point!" They turned a corner and came into patches of stinging light from the passing windows. "You could have at least given me some warning ahead of time!"
"Yeah, that's what the text was for."
"Three minutes ago! Oh thank goodness—never thought I'd say that—professor! If you wouldn't mind helping?"
Their group, the two of them and the few secretaries and agents trailing behind them, passed into a larger room with sturdy staircases and walls lined with portraits. A tour group was a short distance away happily listening to their guide. They immediately abandoned the exuberant presentation, however, as Jake and the others entered, their faces lighting up and turning to one another with shouts of thrilled wonder. Despite the guide's attempts to corral them, the tourists lurched forward with phones raised high. One arm in particular flung up, though its tweed jacket and accompanying waft of flopping hair stood it apart from the rest.
Rotwood pushed through the last of the crowd and tripped to catch up to them, wheezing. He mopped at his forehead, sweating even more than usual. "Madam Secretary…wait, please! Ah…you walk so fast!"
Neither Carson nor the others slowed. "Help me explain to the American Dragon how unprofessional this behavior is!"
"Yes, yes…unprofessional and such…" Rotwood erected from his stooped gasping, adjusting his monocle as they walked. He cleared his throat and found his typical giddy smile. "Ah, but still the same pleasure as always to see you, Mr. Lo—oh! My tongue! American Dragon, yes, that's what I said of course—"
"Relax, Prof," said Jake. "My name's all over the news, you're fine."
"Well, that's a relief! I'm not one for all the secrets and whispering. Gives me ulcers, you see. Oh, but look at you Mr. Long! You seem to be doing well, quite well indeed! Gained an inch or so if I'm not mistaken, yes?"
Jake kept his eyes forward. "Four and a half."
Carson pushed some steps in front and about-faced, blocking the double doors ahead. "I'm glad that you've had a change of heart," she murmured, expression severe despite her low voice, "but there are procedures for this, customs to follow. We can't go barging in whenever we damn well please!"
"Really? From what you told me over the phone, this feels like the perfect time for some barging." She mirrored his sidestep. "It'll be quick, I promise. In and out, five minutes tops." He groaned as she blocked him again, "Fine, fine! What's it gonna take for you to let me in there?"
"Tact. I see that look, but for once would you please pay attention to the optics?" Carson rubbed the wrinkles from her jacket with the unburdened hand, then combed her tight curls into place. She glanced over her shoulder at the doors. "This is politics, not whack-a-mole. Bull-headed aggression won't work. The only chance we have of winning is if we work together, got it?"
Jake frowned from her to the doors and back. He breathed deeply. "Deal. What's the plan?"
Carson pulled a stack of notecards from her jacket.
Jake accepted them cross-eyed. "When…?"
"Three minutes, plenty of time." She tapped the cards as Jake flipped through the stack. "These are your talking points. This will work best if you're the one talking, he's too comfortable dealing with me. You present our case, I'll back you up, and we just might be able to pull this off."
"Sounds good. Just give me a sec to read—"
Carson turned about, gave her jacket one last tug, and knocked twice.
Within seconds the door swung open. She entered first and Jake, panicking, followed with the rest of the group. He tore through the cards, eyes jolting back and forth as he whined like a rusted hinge.
They filed into the room beyond. To Jake's distracted mind, it felt like swimming into a fishbowl, the walls curving around in a rough circle with light spilling into the room through several broad windows. A single sprawling rug replaced the floor of pebbles, a myriad of chairs and couches filling in for bubbling treasure chests and plastic seaweed, but the occupants themselves were dead ringers for a school of mindless minnows. They hovered about, glossy-eyed and mouths sagging or plainly agape.
The rosy-cheeked center of the group was different, the diver in the bowl, a man among the meek. He stood and smiled eagerly. "There they are, welcome! Come in, come in!"
Carson led them to the imposing desk ahead. Staffers stepped aside, giving their group ample room to fill. Carson halted before the desk and stood straight. "Thank you, Mr. President. My apologies for not giving you advanced notice of our arrival."
"Nonsense, no trouble at all!" laughed President Danvers, stepping around the desk to vigorously shake her hand. "I'm sure it was simple miscommunication between our schedulers, happens all the time. And American Dragon," he gripped Jake's paw in both hands, "how wonderful to see you well! I can't tell you what a relief it is to see you, what with recent events. Weren't you just in the hospital? How are you feeling?"
Like ripping that stupid smile off your face. Jake bit down and willed the unexpected anger away. "Just a little sore," he lied. "Nothing I can't handle."
"That's what I like to hear. Though things must be difficult, now, with your face known to the public. Speaking of, feel free to take your human form if that would be more comfortable."
His neck itched. "No, thanks. I'm good. Besides, we won't be here long."
"Right to the point, that's what I like about you." Danvers stepped back and hopped on top of his desk, legs hanging over the edge. "Well then," he slouched and folded his hands, "what can this old geezer do for you?"
Carson held his gaze, now at eye level with him sitting. "Mr. President, it's come to our attention that you intend to make reporting of magic compulsory. The Department of Magical Creatures would like to strongly advocate that you reconsider."
"Ah." Danvers chewed on his lip, his head bobbing in place. "That's quite the insider information you have there, Heather. I don't suppose you'd tell me how you came across it if I asked?"
"I don't believe that's relevant, sir."
"I guess not. Well, I'll do you the courtesy of confirming your source, whoever they are. That said, you clearly seem passionate about this and I'd hate for you to have come all this way for nothing. Go ahead," he waved to them, "let's hear it."
Carson elbowed Jake.
Eyes rising from his cards, he found her watching him expectantly. "Right!" He snapped to attention and cleared his throat. "Sorry if this is kinda rough, Mr. President. I'm not the best at making speeches or explaining things. Basically, we think exposing all magical creatures is just a terrible idea. Things are pretty dangerous out there for us right now, and it's only getting worse. And…uh…"
Right, he looked back to his cards—dang, Carson's handwriting was cleaner than a typewriter. "For example, reported cases of harassment of magical creatures have risen three hundred percent," he read. "Threatened violence has risen two hundred and fifty percent, assault fifty percent—"
Carson plucked a card out and laid it on top.
"—and most of these gains have been within the last week. Current projections show—"
"Yes, yes," Danvers rolled his hand in the air, "I think we get the picture."
"There's also the Los Angeles incident," added Carson. "Property damage, interruption of city functions, assaulting a federal agent—"
"She's talking about me," said Jake. "I gave as good as I got, though, so we can call that part even."
"—all in the name of retaliating against magical creatures," she persisted. "Our point, Mr. President, is that there is no worse time to be forcing these creatures to reveal themselves."
Danvers nodded with a thoughtful look, thumb and finger rubbing over his chin. "What about those who have already self-identified? Haven't your efforts improved things for them?"
"At first, sure," said Jake. "Protecting magical habitats, bringing creatures into human society, yeah, things were going great. But now humans are turning on us and we're way outnumbered. For the creatures that still have them, their identities might be the only things left still protecting them. Unless we fix how the public sees us, exposing creatures will only put them in more danger."
"And how would you propose we do that?"
Jake scowled. "Find the People. They're the ones stirring up all this business between humans and magical creatures. People—not the People, you know what I mean—are getting tricked into thinking they're some kind of heroes, like they're exposing some huge conspiracy or something. So all we have to do is find the People, take them down, and show everyone just how messed up they really are!"
Danvers hummed and nodded. He watched the floor for a moment, pensive. "And you agree, Madam Secretary?"
Carson held her hands behind her back. "Absolutely, Mr. President. We're dealing with an intelligent and well-funded criminal organization. Their immediate capture should be our first and only priority."
The room fell quiet and they waited. Staff and guests watched in silence as Danvers collected his thoughts atop the desk. Crude and improvised as they were, Jake's arguments must have had some effect on the man. He'd never seen Danvers go so long without injecting some quip or lighthearted remark. That charisma was as essential as his red tie and chestnut hair. He seemed an altogether different person without it.
Danvers slid from the top of his desk. "I understand. Thank you, both, for bringing this to me. You've helped me make sense of all this. After all, this is a term-defining problem. We've got to be unified, thorough, and precise with our response."
Jake's maw pulled back in a satisfied, if surprised, grin. "No prob, Mr. President. Just doing our jobs. Ain't that right?"
He turned to the side and his brow furrowed. "Carson?"
The president still held her attention. Her nose wrinkled with her overt scowl. "You're still going to do it."
Danvers rounded the desk back to his seat. "I don't have to," he grunted, easing down into the plush chair. "Congress is already drafting the bill. I do intend to support it, however."
Jake rounded back on him. "What?! But you just said—"
"You were always going to go through with it." Carson shook her head and huffed, "Your mind was made up long before we got here. What exactly was all this, Mr. President? Professional courtesy? Pity?"
"Don't be so dramatic," he frowned. "This is a perfect example of how our stations are meant to function. You've given me your counsel, now I'm using it to make decisions for the good of the country."
Jake screwed his face up. "Yo, either your mind is going or your hearing is, 'cause this is in no way good."
"I agree that, in the short term, exposure places some magical creatures at risk. But the reality is that you, American Dragon, cannot protect the country's creatures on your own, and the government can only protect its own citizens. The unnaturalized are, and will remain, helpless."
"Absurd," said Carter. "The Department of Magical Creatures—"
"—is just as impotent!" Danvers scoffed. "Professor Rotwood," he gestured to the man thus far observing from the periphery, "how many projects is your department currently approving?"
"Oh! Ah, well…that is a difficult question, you see…"
"Come now, professor, speak up if you would."
Eyes scanning his audience, Rotwood stepped closer and produced a handkerchief to dab at his forehead. "Currently…none, Mr. President. Due to security concerns, the department has temporarily suspended all projects."
"So all research and development, which was a core aspect of our agreement, is not taking place. And by your own reports, you are overwhelmed with case work," Danvers added with a flippant wave at Carson. "Meanwhile, a giant hole opens up smack dab in the middle of the country's second largest metropolitan area. Buildings collapsing, people in the hospital, citizens scared and rioting, all because you neglected to mention an entire city of magical creatures hidden underground! What's next, New York sliding into the ocean? Volcanoes in Denver?"
"The People were the ones that blew it up!" argued Jake. "How about you blame them instead of making up all these random stories?"
"I do, and I condemn their actions," Danvers assured, "but at least their intention was to reveal the truth. Trust goes both ways, American Dragon. We respected your wishes, gave your department plenty of secrecy and control, and where has that gotten us? Worse off than where we started, that's where. Well, I say it's time we get more aggressive, and that means collecting all the information we can. If mandatory registration is what it takes to do that then so be it."
Jake stepped forward, planted his paws on the desk, and stared him down. "I get what you think you're doin', but this is exactly what the People want. You're playin' right into their hands!"
Danvers shook his head and sighed, "Look, son. It's the fourth down and we're losing ground. We can't keep running the same plays and expect to make a comeback. We've got to—"
"Three hundred to one." Carson joined Jake at his side and continued in a low, level voice. "Your electorate? Three hundred humans to every magical creature. We all know exactly who you're appealing to with this. Don't pretend like it's anything different."
She spun and stomped out of the office.
Rotwood gaped after her, looked about uncertainly, then adjusted his monocle and followed suit.
"Dang." Jake watched until both were out of sight, then turned back to Danvers. "That probably didn't sound so…angsty, in her head."
"She meant every word, believe me." Hinges squealed softly as Danvers leaned back in his chair. "Just like her mentor, but that's the risk you take with hiring the feisty ones. And as much as I'd like to deny her insults, she's not entirely wrong. Far from right, though."
"Say what you want, she's easily the smartest one here. And y'all can pass whatever laws you want, but believe this." Jake pointed a claw at his rosy-cheeked facade. "The second you start goin' after innocent magical creatures, laws or not, you're gonna have to answer to me."
Danvers chuckled. "Careful, there. Some people might take that as a threat!"
Jake turned to the doors. "They'd be right. Peace, Mr. President."
"Please, call me Jeff," he called from behind. "That is, if I can call you Jake?"
The metal knob in Jake's grip crumpled like tissue paper.
"No, you can't." He snapped the door shut behind. The wood cracked with splintering sounds.
It took some jogging for Jake to find his way out of the White House, this time managing not to come across any tours or curious faces. Rotwood had been right earlier, Carson was fast. With such a brief head start, she'd managed to escape the building and was half-way across the spacious gardens by the time Jake met sunlight. Though Rotwood was back to panting beside her, she held her head high in the afternoon air.
Jake flapped over the ground. "Yo, detective!" He landed, falling into a pace matching hers. "What was that about? I thought I had dibs on being the hot head."
Her stride was unwavering. "I draw the line at lengthy sports metaphors."
"He does it that often, huh?"
"Unfortunately, but that's beside the point. Nothing we said was going to change his mind. No sense wasting time arguing with a rock."
"It's all good," shrugged Jake. "I'll send the word out and warn everyone what's coming. Those fools can holler all they want, but that doesn't mean we have to listen. Magical creatures are pretty good at hiding, remember?"
"We need to do better," said Carson, unable to keep the growl from her tone. "They shouldn't be in that position in the first place, citizens or not. And don't forget, Jake, we work at the pleasure of the president. What you're suggesting is conspiracy."
"Then y'all stay out of it. Don't worry, I'll take the fall. If anyone asks, this'll just be the American Dragon going rogue, no big deal."
Carson stopped mere feet from the end of the grounds. Black iron fencing caged them in a short distance away, and on the other side waited walkways packed with tourists and office workers. Most were bundled in puffy coats and trailing scarves, snowmen missing their carrot noses and top hats. As he watched, some were noticing Jake and shuffling into position like hunters on safari spotting their game.
Jake's vision tunneled with pulsing scarlet.
"Tell me you're joking," said Carson, her voice low. "Maybe some creatures can still hide, but you can't. You would be tracked down by every agency under Danvers's control—and trust me, there's a lot of them."
Jake shrugged. "Based on how far they've gotten with the People, I'm not too worried. Besides, what've I got to lose?"
"A lot. Your education, family, friends—"
"I can't feel my right side."
Carson frowned. "What are you talking about?" She glanced over his body. "As in it's numb? You look fine to me."
"Not this, my human half. It's slipping away, a little bit at a time. The People did something to me at Underdown." Jake raised his right paw, opening and closing the claws. "I think if I tried, I could still get parts of my other body back. My face, left arm, left leg, but the right side feels…empty, like it's just gone. Eventually I'll be like the other dragons that went crazy. I'm on borrowed time, and I don't know how much."
Rotwood stepped closer from the side, adjusting his monocle. "Fascinating," he muttered, striding around Jake, humming with unabashed curiosity. "We should take measurements, samples, formulate exams. Perhaps if we can trend the data, find a pattern and predict the transformation's trajectory—"
"You weren't sure if you were safe." Carson fixed him with a layered look. "That's what you said earlier. Are you?"
"As Fort Knox. And don't worry, I'll get myself to the Isle of Draco before it's too late." He smiled to himself. "At least Fred will have more company…"
"Isle of Draco?" Carson and Rotwood said in unison. They looked at each other.
"Not important," grunted Jake. "Just let me do this, okay? If I'm gonna go down, I'd rather do it being useful instead of just sitting on my tail waiting to go nuts."
Carson glared at him. "Then be useful. Go find the People, keep protecting magical creatures, but don't you dare go around sulking and give up without a fight! You're not a child!"
Jake leaned back. He watched the scornful woman, baffled. "See, I'm the one trying to be all noble and stuff. What's with the 'tude? Aren't you supposed to be, like, comforting me or something?"
Carson slapped her folders against Rotwood's chest and pointed a finger up at Jake. "All this talk of sacrificing yourself isn't noble, it's taking the easy way out. Sorry, Jake, but we don't have the luxury of doing things the easy way."
He folded his arms. Stern as the words were, there was something buried between them that drew his curiosity. "This isn't just about me or the job, is it?" he wondered aloud. "I'd say you just really care about magical creatures, but that's kinda weird for a regular human—yes, prof," he added at Rotwood's approaching comment, "you definitely count as weird. So what's this really all about? Beating Danvers, proving a point?"
"Doing what's right…and proving a point." She raised a hand to shield her eyes from the sunlight. In the shade her look softened, the lines of her scowl fading. "I know that feeling, wanting to give yourself up for someone else's sake. It's tempting because it feels right, especially when it isn't."
Jake nodded, head tilting up. "So that's what this is all about, that time you got demoted for helping some criminal get away. You never did tell me exactly what went down."
"Drug trafficking—several states, multiple substances. I told myself that cracking a high-profile case would help my prospects, but really I was just feeding my ego. I wanted to prove I was the best. So, I stuck my nose in. Turned out I bit off more than I could chew."
"Point being," she simmered, "instead of bringing him in, I let him escape and took the fall. It was pure luck that I wasn't arrested, but the damage was done. My career was shot. And the perp I threw it all away for? Taken in for the same exact thing a week later."
"So what? You did it for a good reason, right?" asked Jake. "You stuck to your principals. That's something to be proud of."
"Whatever good I could have done, whatever potential my future had," she snapped her fingers, "gone. No morals or ideals are reason enough for that, especially pride. If I really wanted to make change, I should have climbed through the system and made it better instead of subverting it. I didn't realize it at the time but what I did was give up, and I refuse to let you make the same mistake. Do you understand, Jake?" Carson leaned closer and jerked a thumb at herself. "You don't get to throw in the towel until I say so."
"Does that count as a sports metaphor?"
"Tell me you understand, Jake."
Harsh though they were, the words had a strange effect on him. A tickling warmth seeped through his chest, and the red still staining his vision receded.
He smiled despite himself, reaching to scratch his neck. "Yes ma'am."
Something sniffed to the side. They both turned to see Rotwood dabbing at his eyes with his sweat-drenched handkerchief.
"Uh…prof?" Jake peered behind him at the watching crowd. "What gives? Allergies acting up or something?"
"Oh, no…I'm fine," he sniffed again, "it's just," he covered his nose and trumpeted, "I didn't realize you were so passionate, Heather! So caring, such raw emotion! It's enough to make a man—ah!"
Carson snared him by his bowtie and dragged him away. He stumbled after her toward the gates, his garbled cries unheard.
Jake grinned. In no way could he have predicted finding she, not only a federal agent but the one who'd dragged him in for interrogation, would become his closest advocate. He realized, selfishly, that he was glad for Carson's troubled past, despite what tolls it had taken on her. Without it, they probably never would have crossed paths. That world might have been a simpler and less perilous place, but it would have been one without the experiences he and the detective had shared.
That might not have been a fair trade for others, but Jake could still appreciate it.
"Yo Spud, you got any extra soap?"
"One bar, comin' in hot!"
A white oval torpedoed over the divider between stalls and pegged Jake squarely in the temple. "Ah! The heck, man?!"
The other boy's laugh echoed through the hisses and sprays of running showers. "Your reflexes are getting sloppy, dude! Gotta be ready for anything at all times!"
"We're in the bathroom!"
"Exactly! Studies show two-thirds of all ER visits are for bathroom-related injuries!"
Jake glared down in the cramped space, puffs of steam clouding what little he could see. His wings smacked against the walls as he squatted down. He groped around the tiled floor, trying very hard not to think about the last time someone had scrubbed the grimy squares, until his knuckles knocked the frictionless missile, spinning it into the neighboring stall like a curling stone.
Cursing, Jake grunted and reached further out. His face pressed against the wall, water spraying over his shoulder. All he felt was more wet tile. He reached further…then in the other direction…maybe more—there!
Claws snared around his prize, which in turn squealed in shock.
"Crap, my bad!" shouted Jake, retracting from the soft, fleshy limb. More shrieking came from beyond the divider. "I was just looking for—!"
A stall door slammed open followed by the slaps of sandals sprinting over tile. By the time Jake squeezed his way to standing and peered out of his cubicle, the stain-ridden bathroom held only drifting steam and a front door slowly swaying closed.
Spud groaned loudly in his stall. "How can anyone expect us to have a nice, relaxing shower with people screaming all the time! It's just inconsiderate. I'm gonna say something to David."
Jake killed the water. He waited for the parts he'd managed to clean to finish dripping, watching drops fall from the calcified shower head. Bathing was supposed to be soothing. Now the activity was growing more pointless by the day. He couldn't even properly wash himself and what little comfort the ritual used to give was long gone. Now it was a chore, just another reminder of the little pieces of life slipping away from him.
And that was just the start. Wrapping the now scandalously small towel around his waist, Jake slouched before a cracked mirror and worked a comb through his hair. It was getting harder to reach all the way behind his head and neck. Then he got to work on his teeth. Each fang demanded prolonged, individual attention, and he had to dole out more toothpaste halfway through. Bothering with deodorant felt silly given how it barely stuck to his scales, but it was probably better than nothing. And as for the razor, he hadn't touched it in days. That part he didn't mind.
"Yeah, it's too late to drop classes without it going on my transcript. Pretty harsh, if you ask me." Spud held the door open for Jake to crouch through the frame. They walked through the hall, Spud slightly ahead and narrating over his shoulder, "You shoulda heard all the excuses it took to make time for my finals."
Another boy was just leaving the laundry room ahead—until he spotted Jake. Then he flung backwards into the room, feet skidding and his basket of clothes clattering loudly to the floor.
Jake ignored the room as they passed, a paw keeping the two ends of his towel in place. The slim knot he'd managed felt about as secure as greased spaghetti. Then again, he didn't really need it in the first place. "Wait, so you're actually cool with dropping some classes? What happened to keeping your options open, fighting the 'corporate machine' or whatever?"
"I kinda stopped caring, but in a good way. That gig with the wizards, all the engineering and material science stuff, it just felt right. I think I'm gonna focus on that and see what happens." Spud led them into their dorm room and promptly whipped his towel off. "And as for feeding into the oppressive system of unstoppable capitalism, I think I've come to terms with it."
Jake pulled the door shut with his tail and tossed his own towel toiletries on his bunk. "Well I'm glad you got that figured out," he said to the rumbling pipes overhead, gaze averted. "If you happen to find any more epiphanies lying around, I'm happy to take one off your hands."
A drawer thunked closed out of sight. "No can do, bud. You gotta figure that out on your own. Do some soul searching, figure out your desires, really feel where the currents of the universe are flowing, you know?"
"Not one bit."
"What about that humanities class? You put way more effort into reading all those boring books than any of your other credits, do something with that."
"Last time I checked, the world wasn't hurting for magical librarians."
A knocking on their door drew Jake's attention. He glanced over his shoulder—Spud was struggling to pull a shirt over his head, but his boxers were on. Close enough.
He turned, a cautious maneuver in the ever-shrinking room, and cracked open the door. "Oh," he swung it the rest of the way, "hey David."
Several feet separated Jake from the RA backed against the opposite wall. He ogled at Jake as if, well, facing down an overgrown dragon, an envelope forgotten in his hands. The already awkward silence didn't seem to bother him.
Spud's head, now fully through the shirt, poked beneath Jake's arm. "Dude. I think you actually scared him to death. See, no breathing. Guess we'll have to tell his family…wait, did he have a family?"
"What? No, of course not!" he blurted. "Being scared, I mean. I'm not scared—or dead! Just, uh…didn't recognize you, that's all. I'm used to you being—"
David's mouth shut. "Yeah," he nodded, "that too."
Spud returned to the room. "Pretty sure he's scared."
Jake sidestepped to block his roommate from view. "Ignore him. What's going on?"
David shrugged a little too overtly. "Not much, working out rooms and schedules for the winter semester right now. Speaking of, the school asked me to drop this off for you. And before you say anything," he added, holding the letter out at arm's length like his feet were glued to the floor, "I'm just the messenger. Swear on my life, this had nothing to do with me."
Jake took the envelope. Whatever the papers within said, the message was clear enough from the bright red letters stamped on the front. "Eviction notice? Say what?"
Spud's head popped out again, more forcefully this time. Now he wore his beanie and a scowl. "What?! That's totally unfair! Since when can they just kick us out of our dorms?"
"It's actually pretty common," said David, back to hugging the far wall. "Breaking any rules of conduct multiple times will do it. Usually it's possession of banned substances, disrupting quiet hours, that kind of stuff."
"Oh." Spud's head floated beneath Jake's arm. "Well I wasn't informed of that."
Jake squinted at the envelope. "But what'd we do?" he asked, tearing it open and pulling out the papers within. "No one said anything. We followed every rule to the letter!"
"Yeah!" Spud craned his head into Jake's armpit trying to read along. "Everybody loves us, we're model tenants!"
"Actually," David pointedly looked away, "you're not included, Spud."
"Ah…well, that makes more sense."
The form drooped in Jake's paw. "Possession of banned fire hazards and damage to university property," he read.
Spud griped, "Come on, you puke on a bush one time—"
"Multiple complaints of disturbing common areas, creating an uncomfortable environment, threatening the safety of fellow residents…"
Spud nodded. "Okay, yeah. I can see that."
Jake squeezed a strangled squeal from him like a bagpipe.
David squinted. "Wait, that bush went up because you puked on it? That's…kinda rad…"
"Sure, you didn't have to watch him all night—ach!" Spud pulled his head free and shoved his way into the doorway beside Jake. "But don't go changing the subject! No one even told us people were freakin' out. Aren't you supposed to be, like, notifying us about these things ahead of time? Where were the warnings, the strikes? We demand our strikes!"
Uncomfortable excuses were clearly brewing in David's mind, but Jake saved him the effort. "Thanks for sticking up for me, Spud, but it's cool. Like he said, it wasn't his fault."
"You've got some weird definitions, bud, 'cause this is far from cool. It's very un-cool. Like, the most—"
"Thanks, David." Jake stepped back and closed the door.
Their senior raised a limp hand to the closing gap. "Hey, I'm really sorry about—!"
It snapped shut. Jake squeezed by Spud and plopped down onto his buck, the mattress, springs, and metal frame all whining together.
Spud shuffled sideways to his desk and dug through the mess of papers covering it. "Don't worry, I'll take care of this. There's a number in here somewhere for the housing people." A business card appeared in his hand and he grinned. "Ohoh, just you wait. If mama Spud taught me anything, it's how to throw a good, old-fashioned tantrum over the phone. I'm about to destroy some poor secretary's self-esteem!"
"You're wasting your time, Spud." Jake stared through the papers in his paws, the letters blurred and unfocused. "They're right. I shouldn't be here."
"Well duh, no one should have to live in this deathtrap but that's not the point. Try to stay focused."
"Dude, they're terrified of me." And Jake didn't blame them. "We're all dealing with tests and life and stuff, and I'm just making it harder on everyone else. It's my fault they're afraid."
"Uh, so what? You're a student too, just like the rest of us! Kicking you out of your bed right now is some serious sabotage."
"Spud, I can't even fit in the bed anymore. I can barely fit in the room."
The boy kicked the sheets Jake had left sprawled on the floor under the bed. "Semantics. Besides, you already paid for the dorms, the food, the classes, everything! Taking that away is basically the same as stealing from you!"
"From Pandarus," said Jake. "But everyone else living here probably picked this place because it's cheap, and they are the ones paying. If anyone's stealing, it's me."
Spud let out an exasperated sigh. He paced, which amounted to circling in the small space, and scratched his scalp through his beanie. "You're so not helping right now. Oh, I know!" He turned on Jake. "Setting precedent!"
Jake looked up from the papers, one eyebrow raised. "Bless you?"
"You're the American Dragon, right? You need to set an example! If you let them kick you out, then they'll do the same thing with all other magical creatures!"
He shook his head. "Spud…"
"C'mon, where's your dignity? Your pride? It's your responsibility to show them that they can't boss you around, and the same goes for everyone! You're a fighting, flying, fire-breathing—"
Jake was on his feet. Rage swelled within him. Heat boiled deep in his throat and his claws clenched tight, shredding through the eviction papers to dig into his palms. He glowered down at his friend, muscles taught and furious at the suffocating room around them. His friend…was he, though? How could he be? What did he know? Talking, talking, all the time, like he knew everything, everything.
Jake stepped forward. It was like being stuck in a net, his wings dragging along the walls and shoulders digging into the bed's metal bars. He wanted to lash out, rip it all to shreds and be free from the prison. That's all it was, all it had ever been, this tiny, spiteful, empty little room. Why not destroy it? Paper-thin walls, carpet for tinder, it wouldn't take long. It would be so easy.
Spud didn't budge. He stood resolute, the two staring at one another.
Gradually, like watching the tides recede, the tension left Jake. He let out a long breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. With the back of his paw he nudged the boy aside and moved to his desk.
"That's all I am, Spud." He got to work dumping books and materials in his backpack. "A monster."
"Don't say that, dude."
Jake zipped up his bag and slung it over his shoulder. The strap slid snugly over his arm. Dangling there, the bag looked more like a purse. "It's just a bed," he said, crossing the room and opening the door. "Keep an eye on the rest of my stuff, yeah?"
"Fine," he grumbled. "But where're you gonna go?"
Jake thought about that. "Still workin' on it," he shrugged. "No worries. I'm sure there are plenty of couches just waiting for the Am-Drag to crash on."
"Oh, so now you're picky?"
"No, no! It's great, perfect!" Jake stalked around the large, oblong enclosure of bent poles and green fabric. The walls bounced and undulated in the wind, giving the impression that a stray breeze might claim it at any moment. Only his backpack, some blankets, and a few other things tucked inside weighed it down. Grounding it with stakes wasn't an option, unless they wanted to add roof damage and trespassing to Jake's apparently extensive list of infractions.
He leaned down and peaked in through the unzipped front flap. "Why do you even have this thing, Trix? As far as I can remember, camping wasn't exactly your pastime of choice."
"Oh, it ain't mine," she answered from behind. Her voice faded in and out with each biting gust of winter air. "Borrowed it from my roommate; she goes out a few times a year with her family. I know because she won't shut up about it. But hey, goes to show you never know what'll come in handy."
"Well I'm not complaining."
Jake stood upright and scanned the rooftop around them. De Vire Plaza was easily the largest of the dormitories, and it had a flat, sprawling rooftop to match. They were situated at the center of the field of concrete. It felt like standing in an outdoor factory, surrounded on all sides by metal vents, piping, tanks, and other utilities that clanged and rattled. The ledges were some distance away, but beyond them in every direction stretched hills covered in campus and suburbia. A warm palette reached across the sky, burnt yellows from the just vanished Sun sliding into oranges, reds, and purples.
The view was, objectively, picturesque. It almost helped Jake forget the freezing air and even colder world below.
"You sure this is safe?" he asked. "Won't someone come up here and see me squatting? Getting you in trouble is the last thing I want."
She swatted him away with a psh. "You clearly haven't tried filling out a work order before. Maintenance never fixes anything in this place. Besides, I come up here all the time and I've never seen anyone else. You should have the penthouse all to yourself, baby."
"Hold up, you're here on the regular? Why?"
She shrugged. "Nice place to study, or just hang out. Did I mention the annoying roommate?"
"Right." Jake abandoned the view and turned back to the tent. "Well thanks, Trix. I was running out of people to ask, and it was a short list to begin with. You really came through for me."
The girl was smirking at her phone, her thumbs flicking over the screen in a blur. "Thanking me already? Ooh, boy. You might wanna hold onto that." She struck the device with a final tap and slid it into her coat. "We're just gettin' started, Jakie."
Now that was ominous. Jake slouched, groaning. It seemed the time had come, a time he'd been dreading, for Trixie to demand whatever compensation or favors she expected. Though he didn't know what, she clearly wanted something. The immediate response, the unflinching insistence, why else would she have been so eager to solve his latest dilemma?
But he was in no position to gripe. Fair was fair. "Aight, I get it," he sighed, turning. "What do you—"
Beside her hovered a sphere of crackling green energy.
The neon orb collapsed in a flash, revealing a group of bundled-up people burdened with bags and broad smiles.
Jake squinted through the wind and glaring light. "What?"
Spud shoving free from the group, arms bent from the weight of several bulging plastic bags. He dropped his load, reached to the sky, and prostrated, "Let the tent-warming party slash cramming session addendum rooftop cookout officially begin!"
The rest joined in the cheers and dispersed. After Spud followed Merida and Zach, the former's bubbly movements compensating for the latter's usual deadpan. Then Edith pushed forward in her chair with Wal hovering behind. The mermaid kept a thick blanket draped over her tail, for once probably for warmth rather than modesty, and Wal was back to grinning a radiant, distinctly non-canine smile. At the back of the pack, a boy with strikingly red hair remained closer to the far-off ledge and quietly gazed at the horizon. Jake almost didn't recognize Nigel in his strikingly casual outfit.
Trixie stood on her toes beside Jake. "It was Spud's idea, just roll with it. Alright, y'all!" she called, ushering the newcomers forward with grand waves. "Come on in! Welcome to the most hip and happenin' bachelor pad on campus! Relax, sit down, spread out, make yourselves at home. There's plenty of roof to go around."
"I call the exhaust vent!" Wal skipped to the dented, shiny box beside the tent and deposited his own bags. From the first he pulled a patterned quilt, freshly stolen from some retirement home couch, and draped it over the dropping speckled ground.
Edith grabbed the worn rucksack hanging behind her and tossed it at Wal's feet. "Fine, but overlap the blankets. Less gross, way comfier."
"Oh yeah, great idea! Give me a hand, Zach, and don't forget to weigh down the corners."
The boy straightened from peeking through the flap of Jake's tent. His hood defied the breeze and clung resolutely around his head, wings of lanky hair fluttering at the edges. "Fine," he mumbled. "Let's hurry, I'm getting hungry."
"First things first," sang Merida. "Set up, then we'll eat. But before that," she dropped her own blankets in the pile and, unburdened, sprang over the ground and jumped, catching Jake's torso in her arms. "Happy finals, Jake! Did we surprise you? We did, didn't we? Ahah, I knew it!"
Her laughing melted through his scales and hide, and he found himself chuckling along. "Uh, that's one word for it. I'm still trying to catch up. And just so we're clear, getting this excited about a bunch of tests is kinda weird, even for you."
The satyress let go and landed with a clop. "But we're so close! Just think—one week from now we'll all be on vacation, and I think we can all agree this has been one tough semester."
Wal groaned aloud. "Definitely. I had so many morning classes this time around and I'm a total night owl. That got old really fast."
"And I swear it gets hotter here every year." Edith hopped down from her chair and lounged on the flattened blankets, tail curving behind her. "And they must be accepting more students because campus felt way more crowded than usual. Getting between classes was such a pain."
Zach grimaced. "Seriously? Do I have to be the one pointing out the obvious?"
"Oh, right…I can't believe we almost forgot." Merida tapped her cheek and gnawed on her lip. "It'll be dark soon, and even colder. Hey Nigel, do you think you could—?"
"Conjure a contained and self-sustaining magical fire?" The apprentice sorcerer turned and produced his wand with a flourish, scarlet locks swaying. "Simple enough."
Jake looked up from the blanket he'd just helped Trixie spread out. "Yeah, what's up with you, Thrall? Never thought I'd see you around here. Did they drag you along just for the dramatic entrance?"
"That was certainly part of it—pardon me. We name a flame to burn so tame, in wind or rain and crackle the same!"
Wild sparks launched from his wand and chased each other in a flurry of hissing red streaks. Nigel observed as they rocketed around the roof, slinging over vents and narrowly missing marveling eyes. Then they collided in the center of their circle of blankets and bore a hovering, sputtering ball of fire.
Smirking, he waved to Edith's chair. "May I?"
"You want it, it's all yours. Don't say I didn't warn you, though."
He slid his wand in a pocket, brushed off the back of his khakis, and sat. Judging by his groan of pleasure, it couldn't have been that uncomfortable. "Theatrics aside, I'm not one to waste a chance to study. My master's curriculum keeps me quite busy, I can assure you."
"I also bribed him," said Zach, digging through Spud's plastic bags. He pulled a foam box free of the plastic and raised it. "Thai is his favorite."
Merida pouted. "Besides, it's about time! We've been inviting him to gatherings for months, but he's even less sociable than you, Jake." She stared down the wizard with folded arms. "A lady might get the impression of being avoided."
Nigel's cheeks glowed pink like the dusk skies. "No! Of course not! As I said, I've simply been too busy. Tonight, however, seemed particularly important…because of the food!"
They watched him intently. The shade of his face deepened to that of his hair.
He shifted in the chair and huffed, "But naturally I have no intention of 'crashing your party'. If I'm not welcome, then I'll be on my way…"
"Hey, c'mon," snickered Jake. "Don't be like that. Of course you can stay…if you want to, that is. I'm just not used to us hanging out is all…or seeing you in sandals."
"Even sorcerers tire of suits and ties, Long."
"Yeah, yeah, clothes, embarrassment, whatever. We're wasting time!" Spud hurried about delivering the take-out boxes, shoving them into laps and arms around the circle. Then he stood before the fire's glow, one hand cradling his own box and the other proudly offering a plastic fork to the waxing night. "I propose a toast! To honor this most righteous of all-nighters, which will be filled with endless snackage, countless tales of gossip and slander, aching wrists, weary eyes, goosebumps and—"
"Too long," griped Zach.
"I wasn't listening." Merida smiled, fork held high. "What are we toasting again?"
Spud slouched. "If I'd had five more minutes—"
"Minutes?!" Trixie popped the top off her box. "Uh-uh, mama Trixie can't wait that long. Y'all have fun."
The smell struck Jake first. Spiced chicken, mushrooms and herbs fried in aromatic oils, ginger, garlic, waves of noodles and rice packed into fluffy mounds—
Trixie jerked the box out of reach and shoved away Jake's drooling maw. "Hey, hey, hey, hands off! Get your own grub!"
"Oh." Blinking, Jake shifted back to his own seat. He'd leaned over into her space without even realizing it, entranced entirely by the meal. Now his eyes moved to the box in his hands. Drops of saliva dripped onto the closed lid, the same obsession already returning. "Wrap it up, Spud, it's about to get graphic over here."
"Okay, first of all you can't just rush a great toast."
Edith rested the side of her head on a bored fist. "Actually you can—like, really easily."
"Oh it's so easy, huh? Go on, then, if you think you've got a better—"
Wal waved. "Oh, here! Me! Pick me!" He bounced to his feet, stepped up beside Spud, and joined his fork with the shorter boy's. "To food, finals, and friends!"
"To food, finals, and friends!"
Lids flipped and forks plunged. Spud glanced about. "Well sure, it was okay…for a beginner." Still, he plopped down on his blanket and dug in with the rest.
Jake struggled with his utensil. The thing felt so small and delicate in his grip, and the bites it allowed were unacceptably small. At first he considered abandoning all pretense and plowing his paws in claw-first, but ultimately he settled for lifting the box and shoveling the wonderfully greasy food straight into his mouth. It was sensational. The faint sounds of conversation drifted at the edges of his attention as he gorged, far too weak and unimportant to register with his singularly focused mind.
Then the waterfall of carbs ran dry and his fork scraped against bare box.
His eyes opened. Jake lowered the box and deflated seeing the insides empty but for thin streaks of oil.
A low whistle dragged out beside him. "Daaang. You inhaled that, Jakie."
"Yeah. Guess I got carried away, huh?" He set the box in his lap, his gnawing hunger far from satisfied. "Didn't get much to eat today. None of the dining halls would let me in this morning. I thought about flying out for some fast food, but after the way people reacted at the first few places I went…well, it didn't really seem worth it."
Forks paused halfway to waiting mouths.
Jake looked around the circle. "I…just killed the mood, didn't I?"
"Here!" Merida scooted over onto his blanket, her box held out. "Have some of mine, I'm not that hungry anyway."
"Same here," said Wal.
Nigel didn't move. "That should about do it, yes? Wonderful. Glad that's sorted." He took another bite of his food.
"No, no! Thank you." Jake eased Merida's box back into her hands. "I appreciate it, for real, but I'm good! My share was plenty. If anything, it was too good. Thanks again for that. You guys really didn't have to do that, or any of this."
Merida smiled in a nurturing, understanding way, like a grandparent having their offer of more fresh cookies carefully rejected. "Our pleasure."
"Don't worry," said Edith, voice muffled as she tried to speak around a cheek full of noodles and sauce. She jabbed her fork at one of the plump bags they had yet to open. "We've got plenty of snacks, too. Most importantly," she swallowed, "stuff to make s'mores, because, y'know, s'mores."
"Ah ah ah," Wal hummed. "Those aren't just snacks, they're incentives. We have to earn them first."
Trixie nodded. "So the more we study—"
"—the more we s'more. And trust me," Wal's teeth twinkled in the firelight, "there's scores of s'mores in store."
Jake's stomach rumbled a drawn-out, squelching growl. Shifting into a crouch, he crawled to his tent and slipped in through the open flap. "Yo, say no more. I'm about to show y'all the meaning of studying." He curved around the enclosure, circling it like a nest, and picked up his backpack. Head and paws protruding, he lied down in the flap and got to work unpacking his books. "English is first for me, shouldn't be too bad. What about you guys?"
"Ugh, Differential Equations. Just carve my eyes out, please."
"Advanced Synergistic Incantations. Oh…you meant your college classes. I'll just keep eating then."
"We both have History of Jazz in two days. Speaking of, you finished the last reading, right?"
"Chemistry over here. What about you, Spud?"
"Let's see…sociology, interpretive dance, and statistics. And before anyone says anything, I know, I know—statistics was something of a last-minute decision."
They went on like this for a while as, one by one, the group switched from feasting to studying. Much of the time was spent in quiet, the scholarly mood set by chilling breezes and the pops of their magical fire. It was regularly punctuated, however, with humored conversation. Funny quotations from textbooks, stories of derailed lectures, loudly complaining about mind-bending problems, it all became the perfect balance of work and play, of struggle and support.
In short, it was fun; it was the most fun Jake could remember having in a long, long time.
"Heard anything yet?"
Trixie's whispered question woke Jake from his mindless skyward gazing. He'd been drawn by the stars popping to life. "Heard what?"
"You know, from her?"
"Oh." Right, her. "Nah, nothing."
"Maybe she's waiting for you to call first?"
"Maybe," hummed Jake. He looked back to his notes below, trying to distract himself from a new thought. The tent flap was just big enough that, were Liz here, she could snugly lie beside Jake.
"You could reach out, if you wanted to."
He laughed once. "And say what? Sorry for lying and turning into a lizard?"
From the edge of his periphery, Jake could see the pausing of her lips mid-speech, the concern in her eyes. She wanted to argue, but she hesitated. Gathering her thoughts? Unsure of what to say? Maybe she just couldn't think of any reason for Jake to hold out hope. He'd understand if so; he'd given up days ago.
"She really cares about you, Jake." Trixie returned to thumbing through the pages of her notebook. "Maybe she'll come back, maybe she won't. But either way, what y'all had, or still have, was real. It was real as it gets. Don't forget that."
"Who're you guys talking about?"
Facing the other way, Jake came nose to nose with Merida and her giddy smile.
"Is it a girl?" she tittered. "It sounded like a girl. Please please please tell me it's a girl."
"Just talkin' about Rose," Trixie said with flawless indifference. She didn't skip a beat in concocting the cover. "We invited her, but homegirl said she was busy and rain checked."
Merida's floppy ears drooped. "That's a shame. We've all been waiting to meet her…but it's alright. I'm sure she'll join us one of these days. Until then, we'll just keep on offering."
"And in the meantime," snickered Edith, digging through the remaining bags, "more snacks for the rest of us."
Her comment was a call to action. All hands dropped their books and pens and tore into their reserves, bringing out chocolate, chips, popcorn, and candy. One of the bags held metal skewers, and soon Nigel had each impaling several marshmallows and rotating above his enchanted fire at what he insisted was 'optimal roasting distance'.
Even if he'd wanted to, which he definitely did not, Jake couldn't bear to look away. And this time, it wasn't due to hunger. It was embarrassingly clear—this was what he'd been missing. Not a grand peace between humans and magical creatures, not the defeat of another global nemesis, not some all-defining revelation, this. The kinship of these few people affirmed him, gave him a true sense of belonging. It felt like home. The acceptance he'd once craved from crowds and cameras couldn't possibly compare.
He was homeless, cold, mutilated, and starving, and he still wished one person was lying beside him, but this…he loved this. He only wished he had more time to appreciate it all.
His eyes drifted back to the night sky and found it red. Red as the rooftop, red as his thoughts, red as everything. Even with the Sun fully set, even accounting for the bright fire and the normal hue of his dragon vision, there was no denying it.
The world around Jake was burning, and the flames deepened by the second.