The last robot on the other side of the dam hightailed it at a speed I wouldn’t have expected such a big piece of machinery to manage after Fafnir pitched the third one over the side. Once Fafnir neutralized all the threats, my mind immediately went into EMT mode, and I checked the injured. TakeDown who had taken a couple of bullets to the back, waved me off. His body armor kept the bullets from going through, and while he was badly bruised, he was going to be okay.
Vlad, on the other hand, still wasn’t moving. I knelt next to him in the crater left by the giant robotic hammers. His wings were clearly broken in several places. One leg and one arm bent the wrong way. I had no way of telling how bad the internal injuries were, but it was obvious that Vlad was in really bad shape. He was still breathing though, thank goodness.
I felt like the worst kind of scum as I straightened his wings and set his bones. I was glad that he wasn’t conscious to feel the agony, but I felt it as if it were my own bones broken. I’d done this to him. I’d used his infatuation with me to con him into a battle he otherwise wouldn’t have fought. I had to wipe away tears a few times as I worked.
Beyond caring if the news crews saw me do it, I started to bite him, just under the wrist where his wings attach, and I’d only have to pierce tough leathery skin, but Fafnir landed next to me. A dragon the size of a freight train car landing next to you really gets your attention.
“Take care, fledgling. You have your father’s gift of healing, but you must clear your mind of anger and guilt first.” His voice, always deep, sounded like it came from the bottom of a well.
I vaguely remembered my dad telling me that a dragon’s state of mind was all. I didn’t entirely get it at the time. I still didn’t, really. “What do you mean?”
Fafnir, the gigantic reptilian creature out of legend, closed his eyes, took a deep breath and let it out slowly. As he did, his body shrank and changed until he was more like he had been when I first met him: big as an extended cab pickup, and scaly, but humanoid. His state of mind certainly had an effect on him. (Note to self: Don’t make Fafnir angry.) “Have you ever tried to heal when your mind was not calm?” he asked me.
I remembered Pete’s bright blue staring eyes. I’d been frustrated and a little pissed off. The men had poisoned themselves and ruined my evening doing it. And Pete hadn’t healed completely. It hadn’t occurred to me that I’d forgotten to take the steadying breath I’d always seen Dad take. Pete was blind because I wasn’t in the right state of mind when I bit him. If I did the same with Vlad, in his current condition, he might be crippled for life, might never fly again.
“Yeah, okay, right. Calm. Got it.” I closed my eyes and took a deep breath and tried not to think of the time bomb ticking under my feet somewhere on the huge dam that when it broke would kill thousands. I tried not to think about the sexy dragon who had gotten himself beat to hell because I’d said please. In other words, I failed utterly to be anything that resembled calm. “I can’t do it. I can’t just decide to be calm.”
“You can, child. And you must. A dragon who cannot control her emotions becomes a monster.”
I looked up into the glowing red eyes of a creature that could probably rip this dam apart with his bare hands, and knew he was right. I tried to distract myself from what was making me so agitated. “Why did you help me, Fafnir? I thought you weren’t going to fight unless someone paid you.”
Fafnir grinned, showing fangs and teeth gone pointy. “I will not fight the human’s battles with no reward, but those automatons would have killed you. You are the only female dragon I have encountered in half a century. There are far too few of us left, fledgling. We cannot afford to lose you.” He shrugged and managed to look sheepish. “And, you remind me of my eldest daughter. She, too, was headstrong and determined to change the world for the better.” He put a hand with the circumference of an extra large pizza on my shoulder.
“Thanks, Fafnir. I think you’re pretty cool, too.” I patted his hand. Fafnir was a legend, as ancient and wise as the sphinx in Egypt. And he believed in me.
Okay. Calm. I could do this. I closed my eyes and breathed three times, each time slower than the last, and thought about the view of the ranch I grew up on from high in the sky, soaring on my father’s back. When I opened my eyes, my heartbeat was slow and steady, my mind at rest, and my emotions stilled.
I didn’t want the cameras to see me bite Vlad, so I lifted his head gently, and kissed him. Well, it seemed like a good excuse, anyway. Under cover of the kiss, I injected venom into his tongue with my fang. He came awake during the kiss, and put his hand with the unbroken arm into my hair. I’d kissed Vlad once before and it had been nice enough, if a bit odd with the scales, but this time, there was more to it. He wasn’t just sexy; he had nearly gotten himself killed for me. He had been willing to risk anything to please me and protect me. There’s a fine line between stalker and romantic hero.
When I broke the kiss and looked down at him, his dark eyes burned with that inner red fire. He touched my face gently with a scaly clawed hand that could rip armored steel. “Your hair is burned,” he said. “Are you all right?”
I grinned at him. “Yeah, I’m good. You?”
“I am feeling less than ideal, but I shall recover.”
TakeDown had come up behind me, movements slow from obvious pain. “You’re a dragon!” he said to Fafnir.
Fafnir looked at me, and we both laughed. “No shit, Sherlock. What gave you your first clue?” Fafnir said. He likes that saying for some reason.
TakeDown looked embarrassed to have blurted out the obvious.
“Don’t worry about it, TD. It’s the same thing I said first time I saw him.” I made the introductions, as I helped Vlad carefully to his feet. He’d be fragile for a few days, and he couldn’t fly until his wings healed fully, but he really was going to be okay.
Both Vlad and Fafnir now stood, wings folded, side by side, and the similarities were obvious. Fafnir was far bigger and more bulky in the muscles, and red and black where Vlad was all black, but aside from that, they were clearly built along the same lines.
“You’re both dragons!” TakeDown said.
I nodded. “That’s why the White Knight has issues. He thinks all dragons need to be slain, on principle.”
TakeDown shook his head, obviously on my side of that argument. “Knight needs to move his head into this century.”
Fafnir nodded approval. “You are a brave warrior. My intention was only to protect Damson, but you have kept the young black’s secrets, and fought well beside the fledgling. I’m pleased that my actions spared your life as well.”
“He means me.” I could see TD’s brain clicking through what he knew. “It’s because I can’t fly yet.” And that did it. The gears clicked into place.
“You’re a dragon, too.”
“So, are there a lot of dragons?”
“Just us that I’ve met. And my dad, but White Knight’s religious order killed him a long time ago.”
TakeDown opened his mouth to ask another question, then closed it, and shook his head. “Look, this is fascinating, but we’ve got a bomb somewhere on this dam, and less than half an hour to find it, and defuse it.”
“Oh, right.” Hell of a thing to forget about.
Fafnir said, “I saw a large device that did not look like it belonged when I flew near the downstream side of the dam. I can show you where.”
So, we found the bomb with 15 minutes to spare. Great. I looked at the thing with 50 gallon barrels of no doubt explosive stuff and wires and a big timer, and realized something important. “I have no idea how to defuse a bomb.”
TakeDown was already pulling tools out of his pockets. “I recognize the detonation trigger. Seen it before. Vile’s people are consistent, at least.”
Things were a bit tense for a while, but TD managed to render the thing harmless with about 10 minutes to spare. Fafnir did a quick fly around to make sure he couldn’t see any other devices. It looked good.
Fafnir flew TD to the next dam downstream, much to his delight. We couldn’t get there fast enough otherwise to stop the other bomb. Fafnir seemed to figure if he was in for a penny, he was in for a pound. They got it taken care of with a few seconds left on the timer. Crisis averted. The city was safe.
After dropping off TakeDown, who had a grin on his face like a kid on Christmas morning, Fafnir promised he’d come have dinner with Ma and me before he left town, then flew away. Vlad shifted back to half naked human form, and started shivering, even though the air was mild. His body was still badly damaged, although healing. He limped when he walked and held one arm gingerly. I located his jacket for him and helped him put it on.
His face looked hopeful as I helped him. “Have I proven my worthiness to court you?”
I grinned back at him. “I still don’t want you staring in my window, but I suppose you’ve earned a dinner date.”
“Guess that means I’ll be eating alone,” Jack said, and I spun around. Oh, crap. “This isn’t what it looks like.”
“It looks like a handsome dragon you didn’t tell me about has been trying to date you, and now you’ve just said yes.”
Um, yeah. So, it was exactly what it looked like.
Vlad, of course, made it worse. “Your dragon blood is long diluted, Dragon Lord. I am a far more suitable mate to Damson. I can protect her where she must protect you.”
Jack’s lips tightened, but instead of getting pissed off, he nodded to Vlad. “I’ll see you at work,” he said to me, and walked away.
“Wait! Jack!” I let go of Vlad’s arm to go after Jack, and Vlad wobbled on his bad leg from the sudden lack of support. I steadied Vlad for a second, turned back around and I’d lost Jack in the crowd of reporters and shouting, celebrating bystanders. The police were doing a good job of holding the crowd back from us, but it was obvious that a lot of reporters wanted to talk to me, TakeDown, and Vlad about saving the city, and about the giant red dragon.
Then the reporters forgot all about us as the dark figure of the Devastator soared overhead, his hands glowing white with power. Two ropes dangled from a belt around his waist attached to harnesses. Liberty and White Knight touched their feet to the concrete of the dam, hit quick releases, and dropped into impressive-looking, and thoroughly pointless, fighting crouches.
I don’t know why, but somehow, the Protectors showing up late seemed almost worse than not showing up at all. If the bomb had gone off, they’d be right in front of the cameras making desperate saves and coming to the rescue of the beleaguered city.
I stalked up to the most powerful heroes on the planet, the Devastator and Liberty, and told them, “You’re too late.”
Liberty stepped forward to speak. She looked just like she did on TV, only a bit shorter, a lovely, delicate-looking blonde woman in drapey stars and stripes with a diamondite crown that was worth more than my apartment building. “The bomb threat was a hoax?” she asked.
I barked a laugh, and gestured at the exploded cop car and the shattered combat robot parts scattered over a quarter mile area. It looked like what it was, a battlefield. “It was no hoax.”
White Knight stepped forward next to Liberty, and the Devastator landed just in front of them. TakeDown and Vlad stood behind me, at my left and right shoulders, and I was struck by the parallels. Did I become the leader of this little band at some point?
The Devastator asked in an authoritative bark. “Cut the nonsense, girl. Is the city still in danger?”
I got so pissed off at the way he called me girl that I couldn’t speak for a second.
Vlad limped up right into the Devastator’s personal space, eyes glowing red. “You will not speak to her in that tone.”
I put an arm on his shoulder. “Don’t sweat it, Vlad. I’ve been called worse.”
TakeDown practically saluted. “The bombs are defused, sir. The city is no longer in danger.”
The Devastator’s shoulders noticeably relaxed. He looked at Vlad who was still fuming, and nodded. “My apologies. I gather that I have you three to thank for not arriving to mass destruction.”
“Four,” I said. “TakeDown defused the bombs. Vlad, Fafnir, and I took out the combat robots. Mostly Fafnir.”
“Fafnir? Fafnir the Red?!” White Knight blurted.
It was my turn to get in someone’s personal space. “Yeah, Fafnir. If Fafnir hadn’t defeated two of the robots himself, we’d all three be dead, and most of Austin would be waterfront property.”
“Who is this Fafnir?” the Devastator asked White Knight.
“An ancient evil, one of the most feared, blood-thirsty, horrific monsters who has ever lived.”
I ignored White Knight, and answered the Devastator. “Fafnir is a dragon, possibly the oldest and most powerful dragon living. White Knight is a member of a religious order that believes dragons are evil and should be killed on sight. His view is skewed, to say the least.”
“And who are you?” the Devastator asked.
His big dark eyes bored into me, and I damn near told him. But I couldn’t just blurt out my name and nature right in front of a Georgian, not and even pretend to keep my promise to Ma.
TakeDown bailed me out. “This is Dee. She’s a local EMT with super-strength and limited invulnerability who has been helping me hold back the tide while you’ve been away. And she’s right. Fafnir saved the city. If he’s a monster, then he’s the kind of monster I wish we had more of.”
Liberty asked, “And who is this young man who moves as if wounded, and defends your EMT from insults? Did you fight for the city as well?”
TakeDown said, “This is Vlad. He’s saved my life and Dee’s a dozen times in the last few weeks. He nearly got himself killed trying to destroy Vile’s combat mechs single-handed so that Dee and I could get through to defuse the bomb.”
Liberty and the Devastator and even White Knight looked at Vlad with something like respect.
“Tell them the rest, these great heroes of the age,” Vlad said.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” I said, but his eyes were still bright red, like angry LED’s. It wasn’t really a request.
“The cameras have seen my true nature. Soon, all will know. I would tell this one Georgian right to his face that I do not fear him.” Vlad looked White Knight straight in the eyes and said, “Who am I? I am Vlad, son of Vlad. Grandson of the first Dracul prince. I am the last survivor of my clan since my wife, my tiny sons, and all of my relatives were slaughtered by religious zealots of the order of St. George.”
White Knight’s hand fell on his sword, knuckles white.
Vlad nodded. “Yes, I am a dragon.” He braced himself, in his fragile, wounded, human form, fists clenched.
White Knight drew his sword, face grim under the half concealment of the silver coif as he faced the ancient enemy of his order.
“So, this is the truth, then,” I said to White Knight, and stepped between them, incidentally putting the point of the Knight’s sword against my own chest. “You’ll kill a dragon, no matter what he’s done to prove he’s not a monster.”
“You can’t possibly understand. This is between his kind and mine. It always has been.”
“Vlad saved my life today. And it’s not the first time. You want to kill him, kill me first.”
I heard Vlad take a sharp breath through his teeth behind me, and reach for my arm to pull me back, but I yanked it free.
TakeDown stepped beside me, and stood between the wounded Vlad and the Knight’s sword, too. “If you want him, you’ll have to go through me. He saved my life more than once.”
The Devastator spoke in a soft, deep voice that held the snap of a command and a reprimand without ever being raised in volume. “Put the sword away, Knight. You’re way out of line.”
Liberty looked shocked by Knight’s actions, her cheeks flaming with shame. She simply reached out, and with her famous invulnerability, grabbed the Knight’s blade and wrenched it out of his startled grip. “Enough. This is nonsense.” She looked down, surprised, as blood trickled through her fingers. The blade had cut her. No one knew of any substance other than diamondite that could cut Liberty.
“Remarkable,” she said thoughtfully, then shifted her grip to the hilt, and faced White Knight with his own sword in her hand. “You will not attack a man who has committed no crime, and who has, in fact, been wounded in action while defending the innocent like a true hero, regardless of your personal prejudices against his race. Stand down immediately, or I will arrest you myself.”
“But you don’t understand. It’s not a hero. It’s not even a man. It’s a dragon.”
“We get it,” TakeDown said. “He’s a dragon.” He grabbed Knight’s white tunic and pulled him in close to get his full attention. TakeDown’s power meant that he was currently stronger and faster than White Knight, and Knight was unarmed. Liberty still had his sword. TakeDown said very calmly, like he was explaining to a retarded kid. “What you don’t get is that he’s a dragon who’s on our side. And I don’t care what you think of his kind, if you lay a finger on him, you’ll be missing a hand. Do we understand each other now?”
Knight looked from TakeDown to Liberty to Devastator to me. It was clear we were a united front on this issue.
No killing Vlad.
Knight nodded reluctantly, and TakeDown let go of his tunic.
Knight held out his hand to Liberty, and she placed his sword hilt in his palm without hesitation.
Everyone else stayed tense until Knight got his sword sheathed. He did as he was ordered, but his eyes glared hatred at Vlad.
I happened to glance at Vlad and saw a small, smug little smile. “Are you enjoying this?” I whispered to him.
“Immensely,” Vlad answered.
And I couldn’t really blame him.