Zoe doesn’t scream, although it’s mostly because she has her hands clamped over her mouth. Above them, her eyes are anime-girl wide; almost grotesque and comical. Eli shifts, awkward in the silence that’s dragging on far too long.
“So, um,” he says. “Ta-daa?” He sits up on his haunches as he says it, making a sort of car salesman gesture with his arms. Zoe’s eyes, if anything, go even wider, and a muffled squeak emerges from behind her fingers.
Eli lowers himself back down again. There’s no way he can be smaller than Zoe, short of lying on the ground, but he does his best anyway to make himself non-threatening. “Um. Zee? Say something, please?”
“You can talk!” Still muffled behind Zoe’s hands and woolen bracer things. But it’s a start.
“You . . . you’re a dragon!”
Eli shrugs. It’s more in the wings than the shoulders, and he doesn’t miss the way Zoe’s eyes follow the motion.
“A week?” he hazards, in answer to her question. “Since the peryton, really.”
Zoe drops her hands. She’s shifting back and forth, craning to look more at Eli now her shock is being replaced by curiosity. Something inside Eli unclenches in relief. If Zoe had been frightened by him . . .
“And you didn’t tell me?”
“I’m telling you now!”
Zoe gives a sharp intake of breath. “This is why Morgan didn’t recognize you.”
“And why the magic works and— holy crap, Ee. You’re a dragon. An actual dragon!” She’s pacing, unashamedly checking out Eli’s big scaly ass. He stands back up so she can get a better look. After a moment, she adds, “You’re kind of a weird-looking dragon.”
“I mean, no offense? It’s just, you’re kind of . . . lion-y—?”
“Whatever, Captain GPA. It’s just not what I was expecting. Y’know, with the long neck or whatever.” A thought seems to occur to her. “Holy crap. Morgan knows you’re a dragon!”
“She doesn’t know I’m a dragon,” Eli corrects. “She knows there’s a dragon.”
“Her mom will kill you!”
“Um. Trying not to think about that, man. Besides, I saved Morgan’s life.”
“So. I, like. Told her not to tell Lacroix about me. In, like, return or whatever?”
“You think you can trust her?”
Eli shrugs. “No? I don’t know. She seemed pretty into it. The whole dragon thing.”
Zoe snorts. “That’d be right. It is you after all.” Then, before Eli can protest: “So can you do, like, anything cool?”
“Other than turn into a giant dragon?”
“You aren’t giant. Size class huge at most. Four squares.” Zoe’s draws a little grid pattern in the air, like the one her parents use in their weird nerd roleplaying whatever. “Can you breathe fire?”
“Um. Not yet?”
Zoe makes a noise of disgust. “Dude. You are the worst at this being a dragon stuff. Tell me you at least have a giant cave of gold or something?”
Eli’s about to protest—I’ve been a dragon for, like, a week, Zee. Sorry if I’m not the world expert—when her question finally registers. “Er. Well . . . actually.” He takes a step back, looking down at her, then up at the rocky rise of the mountain, looming above the woods. It’d be a tough walk for Zoe, but Eli can make it like this no problem.
He looks back down. Zoe is watching him, brow arched. “Ee?”
Yeah, he thinks. This is totally gonna work.
It is not, as it turns out, as easy to scale the edge of a cliff carrying a rider as Eli had assumed. It mostly involves a lot of screaming—not all of it from Zoe—and the start of a ferocious headache from where Zoe’s been gripping for dear life into the feathers of Eli’s mane.
Zoe can ride, care of summer camp, but maintains a horse is a very different experience from a dragon, and tells Eli as much, both repeatedly and very close to his ear, given the way she’s gripped around his neck.
“Are you sure you know where you’re— aagh! Where you’re going?” she asks at one point, heels kicking into Eli’s ribs in a panic as he leaps across a rocky outcropping. He still isn’t flying, but with his wings outstretched he thinks he’s getting the feel for the way the air moves across the membranes.
“Not really!” he yells, with faux cheer. “I don’t usually come this way!” He leaps another crevasse, giving a flap of his wings as he does, feeling the strange push of the air as he lifts. Like swimming, almost. But not.
“Come this way to what?”
You’ll see, he doesn’t answer. His eyes are too busy scanning the shadows between the rocks and ferns. They’re above Widow Adeline’s house, the green patchwork of her manicured garden spreading out down below. There’s a kind of presence in the air; the crisp-clean feel of good magic. It’s been growing for a while and Eli’s been following it like a hound with a scent, not quite consciously. But it’s conscious now, and Eli can even pin-point the source; a cleft nestled between the jagged rocks, ferns spilling from the mouth.
“What is—?” Zoe starts, at the same time Eli announces, “Hah!” and leaps into the hole.
Zoe screams the whole way down. And for quite a while afterwards.
She doesn’t so much dismount as land in a pile on the ground, post inelegant sideways slide. Eli is crouching, so she doesn’t have that far to fall, but she still says, “Warn a girl next time! If I pee on you in fear, it’s your fault!”
“Sorry,” lies Eli, trying not to laugh. Zoe isn’t really scared, he doesn’t think. Or, she is. But, like. Rollercoaster scared. Not active shooter scared. “I wouldn’t have dropped you,” he adds, just in case.
“I know.” No hesitation, and Eli might currently be a dragon the size of a small car, but the words still send his heart fluttering like the faevern that are already landing on his scales.
Zoe takes a big breath, then another. Then she opens he eyes, and sits up. “So where are weoooly shit, Eli!” Her eyes go round like moons as she takes in her surroundings. Eli’s landed the right in the main cavern of Widow Adeline’s cave, gold and gems and gleaming fae all around them.
“This . . . you have a cave,” Zoe breathes. Her voice starts hushed in awe but is pitching up to squee faster than likes on a Beyoncé tweet. “A dragon cave! A really real life dragon cave!”
“Yup.” Eli sits back on his haunches, allowing the moment of smugness. Just a moment, though. “Well . . . I mean. I borrow it. Kinda.”
If Zoe were paying more attention, she might’ve queried that. But she’s not. Instead, she’s crawled over to one of the piles of gold and is running the coins and jewels and gems through her fingers.
“This stuff must be worth millions!”
“It’s mostly fake, I think,” Eli says, no longer feeling so smug. “It just . . . you know. Looks cool.”
Zoe is holding up a chunk of amethyst as big as her first. “Is it . . . y’know,” she starts. “A dragon thing?” As soon as she says it, her eyes go wide. She drops the gem, turning to Eli, hands coming up to cover her mouth in horror. “Ohmigawd,” she says. “I’m sorry. Is that, like. A racist thing? Racist against dragons? I’m so sorry.”
“‘Sokay.” Eli shrugs. Truthfully, he thinks maybe it kinda is A Thing, but he doesn’t want to think about that right now. And he certainly doesn’t want to chew Zoe out about it.
He moves closer to her, instead. Just a step or two, but it’s enough for Zoe to blurt out:
“You’re covered in butterflies!”
“Faevern,” Eli corrects. He angles his body so Zoe can see the ones nestled in his mane. “They’re kind of . . . I dunno. Like those birds that sit on crocodiles, I guess? But, like. Magic.”
“They’re tiny dragons!” Zoe has coaxed one onto her hand. It mantles its wings and hisses at her, fearless and harmless in equal measure.
Eli also suspects calling the ótchan “dragons” falls into the same bucket as calling monkeys “people,” but decides not to mention it. It’d been his first thought, too, and he supposes he’ll have time later to have any heavy conversations with Zoe, assuming she doesn’t make the mental connection herself. For now, her excitement is infectious, sitting on a pile of gold, laughing and covered in glittering fae.
“So hey,” Eli says, “you wanna see the rest of the cave?”
Zoe’s eyes go even wider. “There’s more?”
Eli just grins a toothy grin.
Unsurprisingly, Zoe loves every inch of Widow Adeline’s grotto, and Eli loves that she loves it. He loses track of how long they spend, scrambling over rocks and picking the dubiously glowing fungi and splashing in the unnaturally warm streams. Zoe talks a mile-a-minute, brandishing sketchbook and pen as she makes notes on everything she sees. Starting a new grimoire, Eli assumes, and maybe it doesn’t totally make up for what she’s lost, but at least it’s something.
Zoe wants to know where the water comes from, so they follow one of streams upriver, further than Eli’s ever been before. He keeps waiting for the tunnel to narrow down too small for him to pass through, but it never does. In fact, it gets wider, eventually opening up into an open-topped crevasse the size of Widow Adeline’s entrance hall, rays of sunlight fragmenting into rainbows over the waterfall crashing down the far end.
There are plants here like Eli’s never seen before. Five-petaled flowers that gleam and glow like stars. Vines with leaves that look made from iridescent gossamer. Mosses that flicker and change color when touched. Zoe catalogues them all, taking samples to press between the pages of her book, sneaking photographs and making sketches. Eli leaves her to it, instead sits himself down at the edge of the water and watches schools of strange, glittering fish dart around the rocks.
Eventually, Zoe comes to join him.
“This place . . .” she says, voice overwhelmed in awe. “I don’t even know . . .”
“Yeah,” says Eli, because he gets it. This place, exactly.
“Thank you for showing it to me.”
Eli traces a claw through the water, watching the fish dart about trying to escape it. “S’okay,” he says. “You’re, like. My best friend.”
Zoe inhales, sharp enough that the sound seems to bounce off the walls of the cavern. There’s a piece of silence after that, long and heavy and awkward. Eli can hear a sort of wet clicking sound, like Zoe keeps opening her mouth and closing it again, except he isn’t sure because he doesn’t want to look at her. Is too scared, maybe, with things still . . . like they are.
Eventually, Zoe blurts:
Eli blinks. “What?”
“The ribbon,” Zoe says, still talking too-fast. “It wasn’t . . . y’know. It was for luck. You . . . you’d just arrived, and you’d been so nice to me, and . . . and I just wanted things to work out for you. So I cast a luck spell. For you. I know that still doesn’t make it okay. To do the spell or to . . . to cut your hair. But it wasn’t— I wasn’t trying to . . . do that. Just . . . I just wanted things to get better. For you, y’know? After . . . after what happened.”
Hong Kong, Eli thinks. Zoe’s family came from Hong Kong. She’d told him that, months ago now. Mr. Chung had come to America for school, then stayed for his work, which is where he’d met Ms. Chung. But they still went back to Hong Kong for holidays, and family events, and Eli was pretty sure Zoe spoke Cantonese, at least a little bit. And she’d mentioned it, hadn’t she? Getting lucky red envelopes of money from her family at New Year’s.
Eli decides he believes it. He decides he wants to live in a world where Zoe’s dumb spell was trying to make him happy, not her. That’s the person he thinks Zoe is and that’s the person he thinks Zoe wants to be. So he believes it. And if it wasn’t true? Well. Then it is now.
“Yeah,” he says. “All right.”
“I’m still sorry,” Zoe says. She’s still speaking too fast and her voice cracks, just a little. When she sniffs, there’s a thick wetness to it, like she’s been crying, or trying not to. “It’s still . . . I won’t do it again. I swear. I should . . . I should be better than that.”
Zoe shifts, and the quiet descends once more, broken only by the white noise murmur of the waterfall. “Still friends?” she asks, after a while.
Her voice is so quiet, so hesitant, that it makes Eli turn to face her, eyes wide in surprise. She has been crying, he realizes, now that he’s looking; shiny furrows tracking down her too-red cheeks.
“Zee . . .” he says, feeling something inside his chest clench. “Zee, yeah. Yeah, of course. Always.” He bumps sideways, pushing against Zoe’s shoulder, and he’s bigger than they’re both used to and Zoe makes a kind of squawking sound and nearly goes sprawling sideways. “Er . . .” says Eli, who’s just as sure he can’t blush like this as he is that he’d be doing it something chronic if he were in his human skin.
Zoe makes another undignified noise, and the next thing Eli knows she’s cupped a hand in the stream and flung it at his face. The water splashes him but it mostly splashes her, and he can’t help it. He starts laughing. And so does Zoe. It isn’t that funny, really, but they laugh like they can’t stop, eventually ending up slumped against each other in the cavern, impossible flowers glowing all around, and they’re all right, Eli thinks. Whatever else happens, they’ll be all right.