Mell Eight © 2020
All Rights Reserved
“A picnic?” Dane repeated, looking down at Lumie and Alloy’s eager faces with skepticism and disbelief. These were Mercury’s outlandish kits. Why couldn’t they have waited to ask Mercury when he got home? Daisy, once his part-time housekeeper and more recently his and Mercury’s full-time nanny, was at a parent-teacher conference for her own kids, so she wasn’t a possible savior for at least five more minutes. Dane couldn’t stall that long, and Mercury hadn’t yet gotten home from work. It looked like Dane would have to save himself. “Why a picnic?”
“You and Daddy work too much,” Lumie explained solemnly as Alloy nodded in agreement. “You go, relax, and the answer will come to you.”
“Like magic!” Alloy chirped eagerly.
Lumie and Alloy were in a neck-and-neck race for which kit was Mercury’s strangest. Alloy should win for his looks alone. Unlike most dragons, he had hatched with two powers: fire and water. All other elemental dragons could only use one element, but Alloy was different—and that difference was reflected on the outside too. In human form, he had one red eye and one blue. His hair and his scales when he was in dragon form were an even mixture of the two colors. That the red and blue hadn’t mixed into purple was odd, but Alloy actually enjoyed having two colors.
Alloy was the result of a cruel experiment done by humans looking to harness dragon magic for their own selfish use. One day Dane was going to crush those humans, as soon as he could find them, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t love the results. They had made Alloy into something different, something special—but even he wasn’t as special as Lumie.
Lumie was also the result of experimentation. He looked normal for a fire elemental dragon. His hair in human form was flame red, as were his eyes. His scales in dragon form were a universal red as well. Whatever had been done to him wasn’t reflected on the outside, but rather with his magic. Lumie had fire magic like all dragons of his kind, but he was also impervious to the magic of others. He could walk through wards that would stop Dane without feeling a twinge and sneak around Dane’s house without Dane knowing he was there. Sometimes Dane wondered if Lumie was prescient as well, but since he didn’t walk around prophesying all the time, Dane couldn’t say for certain.
Both boys were five years old, although since Alloy liked to cuddle and play while Lumie had grown to be more aloof, it often felt like there were multiple years between them. They were just two of Mercury’s seven kits, all adopted. Unlike the kits, who were all elemental dragons, Mercury was a bronze precious dragon. His kits were all young dragons he’d rescued from secret government labs. It was unusual for dragons to mix between elements, never mind between elemental and precious, but they somehow made it work. All of the kits—even Lumie and Alloy—were beyond the age most adults would allow them to share territory, but Mercury wasn’t most adults. He, and now Dane, were committed to raising them to full adulthood. Which meant occasionally entertaining the whims of five-year-olds.
Dane could tell that Alloy and Lumie were both eager to help, given that they continued to stare expectantly at him, and he found himself unable to say no.
“Tomorrow,” Dane said, caving into their wide puppy-dog eyes. “Mercury and I will have a picnic lunch. Will that be okay?”
They cheered and smiled. “I have to tell Copper!” Alloy exclaimed, spinning on one heel and dashing out of Dane’s office door. Dane could hear him yelling Copper’s name all the way down the hall.
“I’ll make sure you have all the right picnic foods ready,” Lumie said before he followed Alloy at a much more sedate pace. Dane hid his grimace until he was certain Lumie was gone. Lumie and edible foods weren’t exactly synonymous. He liked food with cinnamon in it, the more the better, and he couldn’t quite grasp the fact that other people would throw up and die if they ate as much as he did.
Also, what were the chances that Lumie actually knew what foods belonged in a picnic? Pretty low, dammit. Maybe Dane could order a pizza and sneak it to the picnic spot without Lumie noticing. That way Mercury and Dane would be able to eat something and Lumie would still be happy.
It would take some finagling to get a pizza past Lumie, since he noticed everything, but Dane wasn’t the son of a god for nothing. He would find a way or, knowing Lumie, die trying. Mercury would need to be warned, too, Dane reminded himself. Still, that was a problem for tomorrow. Dane had a lead on his current case that he wasn’t about to let grow cold.
Two weeks ago, a mother dragon and her three very young kits had been attacked. She managed to get safely away with all three kits, but her mate was badly injured. He sent word to Dane, since Dane had made it widely known over the past five years that he was very interested in helping any dragon in need. The enemy had left the father dragon for dead, uninterested in a full-grown dragon when they had three kits to snatch. Dane needed to find the kits and their mother before the enemy did and get them to safety with the still-healing mate.
Dane’s newest lead was from a werewolf who’d stopped by Dane’s office to tell Dane about the strange bag lady he’d run into two nights previously. It had been the full moon, so some of what he had seen was a little shaky in his memory, but he clearly recalled a harried-looking woman wearing what looked like two dresses and three coats pushing a shopping cart through the woods where he and his pack were hunting. He remembered three children in the cart, he told Dane, but none of them had smelled like prey, so he and the pack had moved on.
Either that was the mother dragon ineffectively trying to hide by wearing human clothing, following customs that she didn’t quite understand—she was a wild dragon from the forest, not one taken in as a kit by humans like Mercury had been—or Dane had a lamia hunting in his territory. A lamia would need to be destroyed at once before she started eating children, so it was imperative Dane locate whoever the werewolf had seen.
Dane pushed his chair away from his desk and stood. He couldn’t do anything more from home, and his kits were in Daisy’s care. The answer was somewhere in that forest. Dane had already done one grid search of the area, but this time he would widen his search. It was impossible to keep three young dragons corralled for long. Dane knew that from experience; Lumie and Alloy hadn’t been easy to deal with when they were only a few months out of the egg, not that they were any easier five years later. The missing kits would have caused a mess somewhere that their mother couldn’t hide. Dane just had to find it, especially before the enemy did. Dane heard Daisy talking in the kitchen, so he knew the kits were being supervised and he could leave to continue his search.
Magic came to his call easily, and as Dane walked forward, he let it pull him away. The first step was on the hard floor of his home office, but a second later his feet crunched on leaves as he walked into the forest. The trees above were showing off their autumn colors of red, orange, and yellow, while the leaves on the ground were turning an ugly shade of brown. They hid the paw prints from the werewolf pack that Dane remembered from his last time here a day ago, but autumn was really starting to progress now and many of the tracks he had followed before were obscured. Dane hoped fervently there would be new tracks now.
He directed his magic to send feelers out around him, allowing him to sense more than his eyes could see alone. The magic delved up into the trees and down hills. Dane used it to dig underneath large piles of leaves so he wouldn’t have to search them by hand. He wasn’t searching for dragons like Lumie, who had been experimented on and therefore had the ability to hide from magic at will. These were ordinary, wild elemental dragons. When Dane got near them, he would know. He would also know if he found a lamia: their magic was even more distinct than a dragon’s and always felt slightly warped to Dane. Any creature that did something as vile as eat children pinged wrongly on his magical radar.
The sun was setting earlier and earlier as winter approached. Soon it was difficult to see the difference between a pile of leaves and other debris and what was simply a shadow thrown by the trees. It was even more difficult thanks to the irregular shapes of the trees overhead. Some of them still had all of their leaves while others were nearly bare. The worst were the trees that had only lost half their leaves; they threw both bulky and barren shadows, their strangeness catching Dane’s eye.
He spent two hours walking a large grid, back and forth through the forest, while his magic swept an even larger grid around him. There was plenty of evidence of the werewolf pack. Fallen leaves hid the visible evidence of footprints and claw marks, but Dane could sense lingering pack magic around the trees. Anyone with a hint of magic would be able to sense that the woods were owned and know to stay away. Which would tell a dragon with territorial urges to pass through quickly and quietly, of course.
Dane froze in place and called himself eighty different kinds of stupid. How had he missed something so obvious? He shouldn’t be trusted with helping an old lady get her cat out of a tree, let alone saving dragons from an unknown enemy. Hell, Dane shouldn’t even be allowed to leave the house if he kept making stupid mistakes.
Two days of exhausting work wasted, all because Dane hadn’t bothered to think.
Elemental dragons, like the mother and kits he was searching for, would immediately know they had encroached on someone else’s territory. When Dane’s werewolf contact had seen her on the last full moon, she was probably trying to get out of the werewolves’ hunting ground as fast as possible. And Dane, in his idiocy, had confined his search to the hunting ground. Dane would have been amazingly, impossibly lucky to find the tracks of a shopping cart underneath all the leaves, but he had kept up with his wild goose chase for far too long. The dragons were an additional two days ahead of him, and Dane doubted the enemy had made the same stupid mistake he had.
Dane needed a map and he needed to begin figuring out where he should have been searching. He strode forward and let his magic pull him away again. Dane reappeared at home in his office and hurried over to his desk where his laptop sat waiting for him.
He almost sat on Lumie before Dane noticed he was sleeping in Dane’s desk chair. Lumie was upside down, his messy red hair flopping toward the ground while his feet were hooked over one of the armrests. His thumb was firmly planted in his mouth. Lumie had grown a lot in the five years Dane had known him, but Dane knew the one thing about Lumie that would never change was how strange he was. He was odd even for a dragon, but that honestly only made him more loveable. It also made him one of the more annoying kits living under Dane’s roof, but it was an annoyance Dane was happy to live with.
Instead of waking him, Dane took his laptop and left his office. All the wards that kept everyone else out were still up and running. Dane double-checked them as he softly closed the door behind him and stepped into the hall. An ominous crash sounded from downstairs before Dane could move more than a few feet down the hall toward the bedroom he shared with Mercury. He rushed into the bedroom and dropped his laptop onto the sitting table by the fireplace in the corner, then turned around and quickly retraced his steps until he reached the stairs.
No one was screaming and Dane didn’t smell smoke, but that didn’t always mean much in his household. Dane reached the kitchen and Daisy wordlessly pointed to the set of double doors that led to the dining room. He followed her directions and pushed through the doors. The centerpiece of the room was a massive sixteen-seater oak table. It had been flipped over, and the sixteen chairs had been scattered around the room. Dane sent his magic toward the table and lifted it in one swift motion, hoping he didn’t find a squashed kit underneath. When Dane didn’t see blood, he rotated the table and put it back where it belonged. He sent his magic after the chairs too. As Dane flipped the last chair into place, he found Alloy clinging to the cushion.
The room had looked like a giant gust of wind had blown through it, which meant Zinc, the lone air dragon living under Dane’s roof, was the culprit. Alloy would have to serve as Dane’s witness.
“Alloy, what happened?” Dane asked, kneeling on the floor next to him. “Are you okay?”
Alloy popped his blue eye open, saw who was talking to him, and opened his red eye too. “Are Zinc and Copper done yelling at each other?” he asked.
“For the moment,” Dane replied with an inward sigh. Their flirting had been cute when they were eight years old. Now that they were thirteen and hormones were making them even stupider about it… Dane didn’t understand how Mercury could laugh over the sheer amount of destruction they caused. Dane was really glad Copper hadn’t been the one to lose this round. Instead of flipping the table, he would have set it on fire.
Since Dane couldn’t hear anything else getting smashed around the house, he felt it was safe to assume that Copper and Zinc had concluded this particular fight. Or they had taken it outside and were busy destroying his lawn. That was also possible.
Alloy sighed in relief and climbed off the chair. “Okay. It’s time for dinner anyway.” He grinned and wandered off in the direction of the kitchen. Dane followed. There was research to do, but leaving Daisy alone with all the kits when he didn’t have to was cruel. She usually left right after cooking dinner so she could spend the evening with her own family, but was staying later tonight because she had started work today after her kids’ parent-teacher conferences.
Daisy had set plates along the kitchen island where Dane had bought high stools for the kits to sit on. Lumie, ’Ron, and Chrome were already seated and waiting eagerly for dinner to be served. Alloy climbed onto his stool next to Lumie. Copper’s stool was still empty, but he would be joining them soon, as would Zinc and Nickel.
’Ron and Chrome were both earth elemental dragons. They were nine years old and they shared the same brown hair and eyes, but the similarities ended there. ’Ron had embraced being a girl from the very first moment Daisy had introduced her to dresses, and now ’Ron was looking forward to puberty so she could start filling out. Chrome had decided to embrace being a boy instead. He wore ratty shirts and played every sport he could, and ’Ron avoided him like the plague, something Mercury insisted meant that he and ’Ron were eventually going to have a lot of kits of their own together. Mercury said that a lot, though, and Dane wasn’t entirely certain he believed him. Then again, dragons were a bit odd when it came to finding their mates. If Mercury thought that ’Ron and Chrome would realize they had that connection after puberty, Dane knew Mercury would encourage them to be happy together. It wouldn’t matter to them or to Mercury that they were being raised as siblings. They weren’t related by blood, and the mating bond trumped adoptive family ties.
Nickel was the most serious of Mercury’s kits. He was a water dragon with blue hair and eyes, and he had made it his mission to personally rescue the dragons. Nickel was Dane’s assistant at Dane’s consulting firm, and he worked there every day instead of staying behind to play with Copper and Zinc, who were both his age.
Daisy clicked her tongue unhappily at the empty seats, but she started serving food to the kits that were present. Her green skin was bright and vibrant, which meant the parent-teacher conference had gone well. Her own kids were a handful, too, which only meant that she was experienced enough to handle Dane’s. He had doubled her salary when he invited Mercury and the kits to live with him permanently, and she had obligingly doubled her work hours.
“Lumie, are ya done in the kitchen tonight?” Daisy asked once everyone present had been served, Dane included. Dane usually waited for Mercury to get home to eat on the few nights he had to work past dinnertime, but it was nice to eat with the kits on occasion too.
Lumie nodded. “I made everything for the picnic,” he insisted. “I’ll put it in the basket tomorrow.” Lumie had done the cooking? Dane suppressed a wince and a groan. He was five years old, for Pete’s sake. What the hell was he doing cooking a picnic for Mercury and Dane? And how horrible would it taste? Ordering a pizza to eat instead of Lumie’s picnic was sounding like a better idea every minute.
Nickel strolled into the kitchen just moments after the food was served. He was reading from a packet of papers, either schoolwork or, more likely, casework from Dane’s firm as he took his stool. Daisy frowned pointedly at him, and Nickel tucked the papers away and let ’Ron draw him into conversation. Copper and Zinc slunk in moments later. They wouldn’t look at each other, and their stools were on opposite sides of the kitchen island. Copper immediately started grilling Alloy about his day. Copper was essentially the one raising Alloy, not Mercury or Dane, and he took being Alloy’s big brother very seriously. Zinc pulled her long white hair away from her face and joined ’Ron and Nickel’s conversation.
Daisy had been trying to teach the kits table manners, but even though they all managed to use a fork and knife to eat, they stuffed their faces quickly and dashed off.
“Bath time!” Daisy yelled after Lumie and Chrome, who both ran out of the kitchen pretending they hadn’t heard her. Daisy sighed, but collected dishes from the counter. “I’ll catch up with the scamps,” she insisted when Dane stood and began helping gather the dirty plates. “I’m sure ya still have work to do.”
“I don’t know what I would do without you,” Dane told her seriously. With both Mercury and Dane working, there was no way they could have raised all the kits without Daisy’s help. “How were your parent-teacher conferences?”
Daisy sighed. “Good. My brats are passing middle school, although Jeremy wants to take up football.” Dane winced, thinking about her rambunctious kids running around learning to tackle people. It would only be worse if Chrome were the one who wanted to play. Dane made a promise to himself to never let Chrome even try. Although Dane couldn’t get any of his kits into school at all.
Nickel had heard just how long the school day was, asked Dane how he was supposed to get any work done when he was stuck in a horrible classroom all day, then informed Dane that he wouldn’t be attending. Luckily Dane had gotten a compromise out of Nickel that he would study for three hours every day with a tutor Dane had hired for him and spend at least one hour every night on homework. Once the other kits had learned that Nickel wouldn’t be attending school, they had also refused, but thanks to Nickel’s compromise, they spent the better part of the day in a classroom. When Mercury, the tutor, or Dane could catch them first, of course. Dane was going to make certain that they would all get their GEDs at the very least.
“Yeah, it’s a mess,” Daisy finished, echoing Dane’s own thoughts closely, “but I’ll figure it out. Now, ya git. We’ve both got stuff that needs doing.” She was smiling as she made shooing motions, so Dane allowed himself to be pushed from the kitchen.
He walked up the stairs and turned toward his bedroom where he had left his laptop. Dane could hear splashing from one of the bathrooms down the other wing of the house, so at least someone was obeying Daisy. Probably ’Ron or Zinc. Nickel would finish his work first while Copper would avoid the water for as long as Daisy let him. Daisy would have to catch Lumie and force him into the water, and Alloy’s bath depended on whether he was embracing his fire or water half that day.
Dane left them to it and headed into his bedroom. His computer was where he had left it, so he settled into one of the armchairs, popped it open, and called up a map of the Great Appalachian Valley. It stretched from Alabama all the way up into Newfoundland. Dane’s territory was a small part of that. He controlled from north of the Mason-Dixon line—although his territory did stretch down the Chesapeake Bay into Maryland in a few places, so that wasn’t exactly an accurate description—and ended at the Canadian border. Dane watched over the Northeast primarily, the boundary of which depended on which map he looked at. Some said the Northeast began in Virginia and followed the coast to Maine; others said it began in Pennsylvania; and yet more insisted it was everything east of New York, which was essentially New England. Regardless, in Dane’s opinion, north of the portions of Maryland that he controlled was all his.
The werewolf’s pack territory was in the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania. The mother dragon wouldn’t have traveled south or west, as an extremely territorial Minotaur had set up his maze in the mountains there. She couldn’t have gone east because she would have run into human civilization, the very creature she was running from. Which only left north. Given the amount of time she had been on the run and the distance Dane calculated she could have traveled with three kits in tow, she must be in the Hudson or the Mohawk Valley in New York. It was a large geographic area, but aside from the lone cat shifters setting up small territories throughout, there wasn’t anything to keep her from feeling safe. Therefore, this was the most logical area for Dane to resume searching. He would start walking a grid in the Hudson Valley, keeping away from the suburbs of New York City, and head toward Albany. She and her kits had to be somewhere in between the two big cities.
First thing tomorrow, Dane would start walking through the valleys.
“Almost done?” Mercury asked, leaning over Dane’s shoulder to look at what he was researching. Mercury’s long bronze hair brushed Dane’s arm as he settled his chin on Dane’s shoulder. Dane loved the way Mercury looked with his full lips, small and pert nose, and his thick lashes over his bronze-colored eyes. Mercury’s hair was also a beautiful bronze color that echoed the large scales that covered most of his body.
“Yeah,” Dane sighed. He had his starting point, so he didn’t need to keep looking at maps. Going out searching in the dark in those mountainous woods was dangerous. Dane had to at least wait for first light.
“Good,” Mercury breathed. He tilted his head and took the point of Dane’s ear in his teeth. “Because Daisy has Lumie in the tub right now. She’s running the water faster than he can evaporate it, but they’ll still be a while.”
Which meant that they didn’t have to worry about Lumie walking through the wards and locked bedroom door and seeing something he shouldn’t. Dane grinned and shut his laptop, then turned his head to take Mercury’s mouth in a proper kiss. Sometimes it was awkward finding time to be together, but Daisy had informed Dane that he was only living the hell of any parent. In a way, it made the time they did find together more special.
Dane loved Mercury, and it was nice to know Mercury loved Dane too, even after five years together.