THE dragon was staring at him.
Arthur couldn’t move. He actually, literally couldn’t move. His legs wouldn’t carry him. He was certain that if he even tried to back up, head out the door, run toward his bike, he’d collapse to the floor and then… and then he wasn’t sure what would happen, but it probably wouldn’t be good. Best-case scenario, he wouldn’t get the job, and he needed this job; worst case, the dragon might eat him.
It didn’t matter what he’d read. It didn’t matter that there hadn’t been a reported case of a dragon eating a human for decades. None of that mattered because Arthur got one look at that dragon’s size, at his strong jaw and his white, wicked teeth and knew that the dragon could swallow him whole if it wanted to.
If he wanted to, Arthur corrected himself, only a little hysterically. The dragon was a he, was a Jones of all things, and no one with the last name Jones should be threatening. When Arthur left Professor Gibson’s office with the contact information, he had even thought it was funny that the dragon in need of an assistant was a Dr. Jones. Dr. Jones was even a historian—maybe not an archeologist, but close enough. Arthur actually had a tiny feeling of hope, as he prepared for this interview, that this job might not be too terrible, that he’d get it even without the best qualifications, that maybe it would give him a chance to get ahead of everything for once, give him room to breathe.
He swallowed air then choked and wondered if his face was now red. It was embarrassing, but it could have been the heat in here and that was what he would say if asked. He was so hot. The fall air outside had left him chilled even after pedaling halfway across town, but the startling heat inside the house was starting to make him feel dizzy.
If he fainted, either from fear or from the heat, it wasn’t going to get him the job. He needed this job, he reminded himself. He made himself think of the phone calls, the letters, and his sister counting on him. He looked back at the creature studying him from the upstairs landing.
The creature, the dragon, stared back for another moment, and then opened its mouth so a long forked tongue could loll out. Arthur quickly looked elsewhere, anywhere but at that open mouth and those teeth. They made him think of saber-toothed tigers or daggers carved of ivory.
The banister was of dark wood, with sloping balusters that unfortunately did not block his view of the dragon lying—standing—on four legs as it peered at him. It seemed frozen, as if Arthur had startled it, which made no sense because Arthur would swear that he’d heard a rough voice bark “Come in” when he knocked on the front door.
Not that he knew if the dragon could talk like that, and not that he was quite ready to look at its mouth again. He focused on the claws instead: sharp, sharp, black-tinted talons, five on each hand, or paw. Seeing five claws depicted in dragon art was important to many dragon societies—he remembered that from the reading he managed to get in on the subject before today’s interview, the reading he had done late at night while jotting down a quick list of irrefutable facts about dragons. Arthur knew it was nerdy, but he’d always liked lists and facts, and he’d enjoyed doing the research for today so he wouldn’t make a fool of himself. Clearly, he’d been unsuccessful.
He inhaled a deep, heady breath of warm air and heard the sound of the dragon doing the same. Arthur tried to think about his list of facts again.
The number of claws a dragon had in any depiction of him was a sign of nobility: the more claws, the higher the rank. Or it had supposedly been, back before dragons walked as freely among humans as they did since the other Beings came out of hiding. Arthur remembered that fact and focused on it. Facts were steady, even if they could change. It was why he liked learning and why he picked a major that left him surrounded by books. Facts were calming.
He lifted his head to look at the dragon again. The dragon’s body was a little bigger than a large man’s, with the tail making it even longer. There were wings at its back—small, leathery wings like those of a European dragon that couldn’t fly—but unlike a European dragon, this dragon had a mane, ebony black and somehow lighter than air as it shifted in an imperceptible breeze. The mane looked soft, like the tiny beard under the dragon’s chin. That beard was something usually only found in Asian varieties of dragon, Arthur remembered distractedly. This dragon was built more like an Asian dragon too. No towering height as it stood on its hind legs, no fat belly, no plates down its back like the old pictures of what dinosaurs looked like; it was sleeker, exactly like a big lizard, with the famed gleaming, shining scales down its back that rippled like water when it moved.
Legend held that dragons had eighty-one scales on their back, and each one held more magic than most humans could ever hope to touch. The legends also said dragons liked to feast on those who would attempt to take one but would give them freely to those they deemed worthy.
Arthur swallowed. The dragon hissed, making Arthur jump. He tried to push away the thought of stolen scales and the exorbitant prices people paid for black-market dragon parts. He imagined this dragon in pieces for sale and felt ill. Money wasn’t something that should matter that much, but he knew it was and always would be to some people, to desperate people.
He thought of his sister again, and the messages on his phone. Then he frowned and looked right at the dragon, since it was still looking right at him.
The dragon—Dr. Jones, Arthur forcefully reminded himself; this was Dr. Jones—pulled its tongue back into its mouth and flared its nostrils. Arthur had two distinct impressions; one, that the dragon was smelling him, the way reptiles scented the air, and two, that the dragon found him amusing.
Maybe it was those eyes. He couldn’t look away from them once he met them. They were almost all pupil. Big black spaces that shone and had impossible layers. Like agate, like molten gold or lava rock, they gleamed as blackly as the silvery onyx of those scales, with only a thin circle of pale brown to show the dragon’s eye color. The dragon had long eyelashes, flirtatiously long, Arthur decided, and then he felt the heat in the house all over again with a sudden awareness of his body, of how he was standing.
He moved. He didn’t think he was imagining the glittering of those dilated pupils; he just didn’t know if it meant he was supposed to be lunch.
They said dragons no longer ate people, but Arthur’s gut knew that was only mostly the truth. The fluttering in his stomach said the truth was that dragons didn’t eat people anymore unless the dragon was provoked or someone tried to steal its treasure, and—as many states operated under the Castle Doctrine, which said a man’s home was his castle and he had the right to defend his property—such behavior would be totally acceptable in most courts of law.
The problem was the matter of how much the dragons might enjoy it. All of mankind’s uneasy relationship with magical Beings could be summed up in dragons: worshipped and feared across the globe since the dawn of time.
Arthur’s legs were still weak, which made him think about falling to his knees. This in turn reminded him of the last few lines of one of the articles on dragons he’d glanced through, where the author wondered if dragons had truly been praised for their wisdom and benevolence, or merely to appease their terrifying hunger.
Hunger. Arthur was hot, dizzy, and breathing too fast. This dragon wanted to consume him whole, he was suddenly certain of it. His chest tightened, his heart thundering even as his mouth went dry, and he reached out, vaguely recalling childhood stories about knights battling dragons; wishing for any kind of defense. A shield maybe, since he wouldn’t use a sword.
The moment he moved, the dragon’s mouth fell open wider in what Arthur could only describe as a grin, and then those long eyelashes swept down over one eye in a definite wink.
“My apologies,” the dragon rumbled slowly as a hint of smoke scent carried down to Arthur, who was gaping. “But I thought it best that any applicants confront the beast, as it were, head on.”
Maybe it was the quiet British accent or the soft apology or maybe just that bold wink, but Arthur put his hand down and cleared his throat so he at least wouldn’t seem as stupid as he probably looked a second ago.
“Dr. Jones?” He let out a long breath and watched the dragon angle his head at him for another moment in a move not unlike a cat—perhaps a Cheshire cat with that grin—before Dr. Jones moved back in a sinuous motion. Only when he turned did Arthur register the statue on a table behind him on the landing. It was a stone gargoyle. It had to be there as a joke.
Arthur opened his mouth to ask, but the dragon was moving away, heading down the stairs, and unless Arthur came forward he couldn’t keep it in sight. He flicked his gaze back to the gargoyle, which looked dusty even at a distance and had the same relaxed grin. Strange for a creation intended to guard and warn and frighten.
The dust all over the stone wasn’t that unusual, as Arthur learned when he carefully took a few steps into the room and looked around. He wasn’t sure whether to call it a study, a living room, or a library. It could have been any of those. If the room had a defining feature, aside from the great fireplace against one wall or the short swords covered in cobwebs on display by the door, it was the shelves and shelves of books. They all looked old, but that could have been due to the dust covering every surface. Even the table against the back of the velvet couch by the fire looked like a relic.
There was no sign of treasure, but Arthur hadn’t really been expecting to find any in the living room. The books were far more interesting in any case. He had a suspicion that Dr. Jones, in addition to being a very poor housekeeper, had no system of organization. There were what looked like pamphlets and hardcovers next to encyclopedias and paperbacks of various sizes. There were comic books on one shelf by the fireplace, which was no place to keep any sort of paper good, much less any kind of book. Arthur itched to rescue them.
If the rest of the house was like this, there was no way he could work here, not without taking care of this… this problem, this… disaster. Yes, Arthur decided, it was a disaster. He might not have his master’s yet, might not ever have it, but this was unacceptable.
He heard footsteps and turned just as the dragon came back into view, or rather, as Dr. Jones came back into view. Dr. Jones had changed into the form dragons usually took when dealing with humans: a human-looking body, albeit one that would never be mistaken for a true man.
His skin shimmered. That was the only word for it. It shimmered as though the sleek black of his scales was just beneath the surface. His nails—both finger and toe, as he was barefoot—were shorter now and blunt, but still darkly tinged as if he had nail polish on. In place of his feathery mane was black hair, which he was smoothing away from his face as he walked.
His face. Arthur’s thoughts stopped for a moment, frozen. He should never have agreed to this interview. Whatever he’d been expecting, this handsome figure with bedroom eyes wasn’t it. He wasn’t overly tall or muscular, but there was strength there, a presence that took up space in the room, and in Arthur’s mind. Power, Arthur thought so fiercely that he almost said it out loud. Even while disguised as a man, the dragon gave the impression of power. His muscles rippled as he stretched and seemed to adjust to his new body. There was stubble along his jaw; he looked like the kind of dangerous, sexy man who always had a five o’clock shadow, the kind that would rasp and burn against skin and leave it red and used, or so Arthur had seen in movies anyway.
Arthur could stop shaving for days and have nothing to show for it. He had the faintest possible trail of blond hair on his lower stomach, it was true, but that was as dangerous and sexy as he got.
He dropped his gaze, he had to, because the man must have been naked as a dragon and had obviously just stepped into some sweatpants on the way downstairs. The idea of him naked knocked the breath out of Arthur. He blinked in surprise at the lack of chest hair until he remembered what he was dealing with, only to immediately wonder how all that skin would feel against his and if the man’s hair would be as feathery and soft-looking as his dragon mane.
He shivered, then banished the thoughts with a shake of his head.
Despite how rude he’d been and stupid to stare so much, when he looked up he found the dragon giving him the same up and down. The dragon’s tongue came out, darting into sight just for a moment, wet and pink and not forked, and then he inhaled. Arthur could only guess at what he smelled like. Sweat, he would guess, from the bike ride over here and from nerves. Hopefully not so aroused it was noticeable. He resisted the urge to check his armpits, but only because he doubted it would matter.
Dr. Jones’s eyes were all pupil again, just for a moment. He offered Arthur a slow smile. “You didn’t run. I do like that.”
“You… you do?” Arthur’s mouth was inexplicably dry. A few minutes ago he’d been petrified, and now all he could think was that he refused, absolutely refused, to embarrass himself any more. The man was a historian. Once Arthur got over his appearance, he was going to remember that most historians were full of themselves and often boring, and he was going to feel very foolish.
Anyway, there were more important things here than a sexy scruff and a cultured, if rumbling, voice that hit Arthur like hot coffee on a cold morning. Like a job with a tremendous opportunity that he couldn’t ignore or risk losing.
But that smile, no, that grin, that Cheshire cat grin, made him frown.
“Then you shouldn’t scare people.”
It was a mistake. Arthur tensed, waiting for some furious reaction to his scolding even as he was forced to admit that he had, in fact, just scolded a dragon as though it was his baby sister, but after a second of silence, Dr. Jones’s gaze seemed to turn to liquid.
“Did I truly frighten you, pet?” Dr. Jones continued into the room, stopping by the table to reach into a small, tarnished silver chest. He seemed very sorry, but only briefly. “I thought you were about to pull out a sword and brandish it at me for a moment there.” He pulled out one cigarette, then two, but he put the second one back after a sideways look at Arthur.
Arthur glanced down, not sure where anyone could get the impression that he was any kind of threat. But it was close enough to what he had been thinking at that moment to make him wipe at his warm cheeks.
“Sorry. I was startled.” Or terrified, but Arthur really needed this job. The dragon hardly seemed to notice the lie.
“Mind if I smoke?” he asked, apparently to make Arthur shiver, but the cigarette at his mouth was already lit when Arthur raised his head. The smoke curled around him like a halo, lit by overheard lights and the crackling fire. It didn’t smell like tobacco. It was sharper, herbal. The smell grew stronger when the dragon came closer to him.
His hand rolled with the cigarette in it. It was an elegant gesture Arthur couldn’t have emulated if he tried. It made him think of aristocracy again. So did the slight fold at the corner of each of Dr. Jones’s eyes and the arch in his eyebrows. Arthur felt like he was talking to the descendant of an ancient line, and he wasn’t measuring up.
“I’m supposed to find a very qualified assistant.” Arthur got the impression Dr. Jones was quoting someone. “Yet Gibson recommended you.” There was enough of a beat to make Arthur’s pulse speed up. He hadn’t known that the professor had recommended him. Professor Gibson had only said it was a shame to see Arthur’s potential go to waste and then told him about the job opening.
He couldn’t ask what the professor had said. But he opened his mouth, having at least expected to have his credentials and experience called into question.
“I am working towards my degree.” Or he would be, if he ever found the money again. It wasn’t likely, but he couldn’t quite make himself admit that yet. There was always a chance. If he could do what he had to, maybe everything would be all right. As it was, his time away from school, his “sabbatical,” kept getting longer and longer. He closed his eyes just for a moment. A sword wouldn’t have been all that bad. It might have made him feel stronger and not scared and dead tired.
He opened his eyes. “And as for the others, who? Reilly? Birch? Not one of them has half my drive.” Archival studies was a field with limited opportunities, especially at a smaller university, but Arthur was damn good. He would have been working on his doctorate by now if things had gone his way. But they hadn’t. The others weren’t as good, and they didn’t need this job nearly as much as he did. It was his.
His voice trembled with everything he wasn’t saying, but if anything, Dr. Jones seemed to like it. When Arthur tried to speak again and explain the arrogance in that statement, he got waved down.
“There’s no shame in having pride in one’s work, if that pride is justified.” Dr. Jones put the cigarette to his mouth, then licked his lip and Arthur wasn’t sure if he was still smelling the air or tasting a fleck left behind from that cigarette, which looked hand rolled. “As for whether or not it is, that’s a wait-and-see matter, isn’t it?”
He exhaled. Arthur watched the streams of smoke rise upward with a fascination he hoped wasn’t too obvious.
“What is that? It’s not tobacco.” He remembered himself. “If you don’t mind me asking.”
He had a feeling that the timidity in the question surprised Dr. Jones, but after a moment, he nodded. “Herbs. I suppose they’re terrible for me, but I feel like they clear my head.” He took another long pull from his cigarette. Arthur did his best not to watch the man’s mouth as he did, but there was a small part of him that wondered if that was the dragon’s intention in smoking like that so close to him. If he’d been the Cheshire cat from Alice in Wonderland before, he was more of the Caterpillar now. A possibly stoned caterpillar, Arthur decided to himself, only to give a small jerk when Dr. Jones started waving his hand, and his cigarette, around him as he stepped back. The smoke followed him. So did Arthur, though at a distance. He wasn’t sure what else to do; this was the strangest interview he’d ever been on.
“Your GPA is, or was, quite high. Your employers at your various internships had nothing but fantastic things to say about your work, and your areas of study are varied enough to keep you interesting. Then there’s Gibson’s opinion of you, which you seemed surprised to learn about.”
“I….” Arthur couldn’t think of what to say to that. Dr. Jones didn’t give him the chance to try.
“He says you’re smart, focused, and determined.” He turned back. Arthur froze, but he knew the surprise was all over his face again. The professor had never given any sign that he valued Arthur’s work so much. Arthur thought of him saying that, committing that to paper, and bit his lip. Dr. Jones made a low noise, a tut. “You look exhausted to me.”
Arthur reached up but didn’t touch the circles under his eyes. He wanted to squirm when the dragon’s voice softened. “Now that I’ve got a good look at you, I find myself wanting to ask who’s been taking care of you, because they’ve been doing a very poor job.”
It wasn’t that Arthur wanted his potential employer to find him attractive. He was nothing special—young face, blond hair, “cute in a wholesome way,” someone had once said—but it was something else to be dismissed completely. He scowled and stepped up. He didn’t think he was going to get eaten, at least, not today.
“I take care of myself.” He had, for years now. But he wanted to bite back the words the second they were out. The dragon’s voice only rumbled lower, grew even softer.
“Is your name really Arthur MacArthur?” His tone was courteous and careful, but only for a moment. “Did your parents hate you?”
Arthur shook his head and answered anyway, with only the tiniest frown. Maybe it was the heat, or the smoke, or being so close to someone so hot, or that pride that Dr. Jones had talked about, but he was having a hard time remembering to stay quiet.
“No. Arthur was my mother’s father’s name.”
“Don’t worry.” Dr. Jones let out a sigh. “No insult intended. My parents hated me, you see. I don’t know if you’re aware, but most dragon families give their offspring names to reflect the family’s sense of pride and power. Sadly, my parents chose to honor an old family branch and thus: Philbert.”
Arthur was inhaling, the stinging, oddly refreshing herb smoke on his tongue as the name sank in. He coughed, then tried to cover it. His eyes were wide and watery. This creature’s name was Philbert?
“That’s ridiculous.” It just slipped out. Worse, when Arthur tried to think of something to mitigate that horrible faux pas, more came out. “Do people call you Phil?” He couldn’t help it. This man, this dragon, was named Phil. Phil the Dragon. Not even around those teeth was “Phil the Dragon” a terrifying possibility.
Dr. Jones sniffed.
“Do people call you Mac?”
People barely called Arthur at all. “No.”
Dr. Jones pursed his lips and angled his head for a moment. “Really?” Intrigue, or the cigarettes, made his voice seem smoky. “May I?”
Arthur suppressed a shiver. That was all he needed, to imagine this man breathing out a special nickname, something just for him. He’d always thought that might be nice, but with that voice, it also might kill him.
But it wasn’t going to happen, so he shook his head. Dr. Jones gave another sigh but then looked thoughtful.
“You’re right. Arthur is so much better. Arthur MacArthur…. It sounds like something from an epic saga.” When his eyes came back to Arthur, they were heavy. Arthur glimpsed his tongue again, wet against his lip, against the paper of the cigarette. This time Arthur couldn’t hide his shiver at all, but he could look away, focus on what he had to gain from this job and not on whether he smelled tasty or not.
“Is this part of the interview?” Arthur regularly confronted collection agencies. He could do this, even if it meant facing a thousand hot stares and feline smiles.
With a dramatic gesture, Dr. Jones shifted away to find an ashtray, or whatever he was using for an ashtray. His back was as breathtaking as his chest, if not more so. There was something obviously different about the skin there, shining with almost-scales and playing over muscle, looking sleek to the touch, smooth, all the way up to the back of his neck. There was no sign he had recently, or ever, lost a scale. But then, Arthur didn’t even know if that part of the story was true; he only knew people thought it was.
It turned Arthur’s stomach and made him shake, but it let him take his eyes off the man in front of him and focus on the questions he was asking.
“You have transportation? Do you mind smoke? Can you type quickly, use a computer?” Dr. Jones turned back in time for Arthur’s answer.
Arthur nodded to all of them, though he thought of his bicycle apprehensively and decided not to mention that he didn’t own a car until he was asked directly. He was getting good at indirect lies… too good, really.
He stayed where he was and let the doctor circle slowly and turn back around to fully face him.
“What’s your favorite period in history?”
That was a new one. Arthur let himself frown as he repeated the question to buy time. But he honestly couldn’t say. His interests truly were varied, and the courtly romances and adventures of the Middle Ages written to describe earlier periods were too embarrassing to admit to. He hesitated and Dr. Jones added to his question.
“Well, when you minored in history, what was your thesis on?”
Arthur jumped. “The Wars of the Roses.” He glanced up and then stared down at his feet, trying to figure out the point of the question. Dr. Jones pressed him for more.
“Really? Bloody Old England? Do go on, Arthur.”
“With… uh… with what?” It wasn’t that he couldn’t keep up; he just couldn’t see how this was relevant.
“Lancaster or York?”
The question was so distant it echoed, and Arthur turned, not certain when Dr. Jones had left the room. Arthur had thought he was coming closer, but he must have gone into another room, maybe the kitchen that Arthur could see part of through one open door.
“Lancaster.” He shouldn’t have hesitated at the answer. He turned again at the flash of motion to one side and noticed the second door coming out of the kitchen as Dr. Jones emerged from it. His cigarette was gone.
“Why? Because they win?”
Dr. Jones was not an old dragon. Some of them lived to be a hundred. He appeared to be in his thirties, but his use of the present tense to describe a historical event was disconcerting, as if he was older than he looked and had lived it. That wasn’t possible; even for a fairy, that would be ancient.
“No, I….” Arthur squeezed his eyes shut at the embarrassing truth and then opened them wide when he realized he had to keep an eye on the dragon. It was too late. Dr. Jones was close to him again and watching him with an intent expression. It only got more so when Arthur tried to wet his lips. “When I was kid… I liked stories about King Arthur.”
Dr. Jones beamed at him, hopping on the balls of his feet in clear delight.
“Of course you did. And?”
Arthur knew he ought to shut up before he revealed all of his nerdiness and what a lonely kid he’d obviously been. He really should. But Dr. Jones settled into his space, hot and bare chested and interested, and his heart started pounding.
“The House of Lancaster had a red rose but also a red dragon as their emblem.” There was nothing more arrogant than explaining something to someone who probably already knew all about it, but Dr. Jones’s gaze didn’t waver, not even when Arthur realized he was talking about dragons to a Being and dragon historian. “Because they were Welsh, who are the People of the Red Dragon. And in some stories, the red dragon myth was a foretelling of the existence of Arthur. King Arthur I mean, not me. Obviously.” He could not have sounded like a bigger dork.
Dr. Jones closed his eyes and sighed so deeply that his shoulders moved with it. When he reopened his eyes, Arthur blinked. A reptile, or something like a reptile, shouldn’t have a gaze so hot. There was warmth coming from Dr. Jones too, radiating across the small space between them as if he wasn’t cold-blooded at all.
“You truly are a pearl,” Dr. Jones declared at last, quiet and purposeful.
“What?” Arthur took a step back only to stare with stinging eyes.
“You,” the voice rumbled slowly for his benefit, “are a pearl, Arthur.”
Arthur’s mouth opened, but no sound came out. No one said things like that, and if they did, they didn’t say things like that to him, not since his parents had been alive. His social life was nonexistent. With two jobs and school and his sister, it had had to be, but back when he had a social life, he’d never heard anything like that either. There was nothing pearl-like about him.
He suddenly remembered why he was there and dropped his head.
“Does that mean I’m hired?” he asked at last.
“Oh yes.” Dr. Jones nodded. After a pause, Arthur dared a look up. Dr. Jones seemed pleased with himself, but his watchful stare was not as reassuring as it should have been. Arthur started to speak, then couldn’t think of what to say. He had the job, which meant regular hours in a safe, warm place—if a dragon’s lair could be said to be safe; it was definitely warm—with more than decent pay. And he would be close to the university again, and even closer to a chance to finally get ahead of the financial mess he was in.
He had the job, Arthur thought again, and then went weak. He put a hand on the table to stay on his feet and ignored the concerned way the doctor leaned in his direction. Arthur almost smiled at him, then tossed his head, because he shouldn’t smile, not with his reasons for being here.
“Thank you. I will do my very best work for you.” He felt even hotter at how serious, how formal, he was, but held still as he watched the arrested expression come and go in shining dragon’s eyes.
Dr. Jones’s mouth turned up, leaving Arthur to internally wriggle in humiliation at how obviously the myths of dragons were going to his head if he was pledging himself like a knight at a tournament.
“I’ll need you several days a week,” Dr. Jones said.
Arthur hadn’t thought he could make a bigger fool of himself. No amount of frowning could hide the way his eyes went wide to hear those words or disguise what he’d obviously been thinking about.
“And some of your nights too, I’m afraid.” Dr. Jones said it on purpose. He had to have. Arthur kept his face as blank as he could. Dr. Jones exhaled in obvious disappointment and went on. “I’m afraid I can’t tell when something will strike me, and in the meantime, there’s always something to be done.”
“You’re writing a book.” It was like Arthur had forgotten everything he knew once he’d walked in here. Everything but bits of feudal lore and fairy tales.
“Yes, Arthur, very good. I’m writing a book.” In his place, Arthur might have been far more condescending. “It’s why I need an assistant. So you will be here tomorrow?”
He didn’t say a thing about a background check. Arthur didn’t glance around for the treasure, but this was a dragon: naturally there had to be treasure here somewhere. Of course, dragons were supposed to be hard to fool. Perhaps background checks didn’t matter when dragons could peer into souls.
Arthur bit his lip and raised his head and only then realized that Dr. Jones was still talking to him, stepping close with burning heat and a cleansing brace of herbal scent to exhale a question with breath so warm that Arthur shivered when it hit his skin.
“Unless I can persuade you to stay a little longer?” He was too much, too close, and dangerous and strange, and Arthur needed this too much to risk it even for someone so… incredibly fucking sexy. He did his best to try to convince his legs to carry him away and failed when Dr. Jones continued. “I could offer you my take on what lengths those Woodvilles might get to if given the chance.”
At least it let him speak.
“What?” It took Arthur way too long to remember the Woodvilles’ role in the Wars of the Roses. At this rate, Dr. Jones was going to regret hiring him any second now. Breathe, Arthur told himself. He needed to breathe, and to do that he needed cool, fresh air free of sexy, smoky dragons and their sexy, smoky scent. “I… have to go. I have work.”
He always had work. It wasn’t a total lie.
Dr. Jones pulled back with a pout. A pout. “Whatever else you’re doing, I’m afraid you aren’t going to be able to keep it for long if you’re mine.”
Arthur swung a look over to him. Dr. Jones licked the corner of his mouth in a way that did not disguise his smile. “I mean, if you work for me.” He shrugged in a half apology for his innuendo or joke or whatever it had been, and Arthur realized that he was glaring. At his dragon employer. But he couldn’t seem to stop. In fact, his glare only grew fiercer at the man’s next words, which revealed how not sorry he actually was. “I’m the demanding, possessive type.”
Arthur had been planning on quitting his day job anyway, but he was going to keep his weekend job of delivering Chinese on his bike. He didn’t say any of that though, because he wasn’t risking anything at this point. When Dr. Jones stared at him for another moment and then took a step back to wave him toward the door, a wave Arthur could only describe as regretful, he almost reconsidered his decision.
Then his instincts kicked in and he moved toward the door, keeping his back to the wall and his eyes on the smiling predator in front of him.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, Dr. Jones.”
“Philbert, Arthur. Philbert. Or Bertie or Jones, to my friends.”
Jones. It was perfect. Arthur stumbled but righted himself and concentrated on work, the job. The job that could answer his prayers. Jones, his mind repeated anyway, but then slid on to Bertie. It was adorable. There was no other word.
Adorable. Arthur had the faintest thought that maybe the threat from dragons wasn’t at all about being eaten, not with his mind holding onto the soft little nickname like it was made of gold. Bertie. He could almost hear himself saying it between kisses.
“I’ll be here early,” he promised too loudly, trying not to think of kissing his new boss, not now, not ever while he was in this house, and saw Dr. Jones open his mouth, as though the very air or Arthur himself was delicious to him, delicious and edible.
“I look forward to it,” he called back as Arthur hurriedly ducked away. His voice was so light that Arthur could have imagined it, but somehow he didn’t think so. Especially when the words seemed to follow him home.
HE WAS worried about rain but, though the skies had threatened it, he made it back across town to his apartment just as the first sprinkles were starting to fall. The approaching wet winter was going to be a problem now that he was working farther away, but it was something for him to worry about later.
For now he had a job, a good job. He almost couldn’t believe it. Since dropping out of school, taking his sabbatical, he’d worked two, sometimes three part-time jobs, anything he could to keep the apartment and put food on the table, but fighting for jobs with younger kids in a college town, kids who had cars and no competing work schedules, had been starting to take its toll. His paychecks had been getting smaller, his hours reduced. Sleep was something he fantasized about.
Finally, that might change. Arthur carried his bike up the stairs with him, taking the back way by the dumpsters because Mr. Cruz, nice though he was, almost never went there and rent was due in a few days, and that was a conversation Arthur didn’t want to have today. Not with his blood pumping and his cheeks hot despite the chill in the air and the growl in his stomach that he was almost used to.
It was amazing he hadn’t gotten hit by a car; the way his thoughts were spinning, he hadn’t been paying much attention to traffic. The moment he could think calmly, he was going to remember all his near misses, but for now he smiled as he unlocked the door and made sure to make plenty of noise to let his sister know he was home.
Kate was in the small kitchen, and Arthur only smiled wider to see her dressed and attempting to make dinner. The pot of boiling water meant noodles and not their other staples, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or mac and cheese, and though Arthur would have been happy to never ever smell another MSG-laden bowl of instant noodles again, his stomach rumbled at the thought of a hot meal.
Skimping on food was one of the few ways they could save money, and it wasn’t too bad if he let himself get hungry enough that it all seemed delicious.
There was a smile on Kate’s face, or a hint of one. She never smiled with her mouth as much as her eyes. They were the same blue as Arthur’s, but Kate plucked her eyebrows to make them even thinner, though they were usually slanted downward in an uncertain frown. The steam made her pink. Arthur took off his helmet and left it hanging from the handlebar of his bike while he took in her outfit.
There were very few clothes Kate owned that could be considered respectable. Her wilder, younger days weren’t that far behind her, and she hadn’t had the energy or the money to buy new clothes since she’d come to live with him. What she had on might be her best: clean jeans, low heels, a smart blazer.
“You went out?” He couldn’t keep the excitement from his voice. The apartment was clean, dinner was on the stove, and Kate had gone out. Even if he hadn’t found a job, this would have been a good day.
“There was an ad for a weekend shift at that sex shop downtown.” Kate rolled a shoulder nervously. “I don’t think they’re going to want anyone who has to check ‘yes’ when asked if they’ve ever been arrested for something. But I thought I should try.” She was dismissive, trying to play it off, but Arthur came forward to wrap her up in a hug. He couldn’t help it. Kate was about average height for a girl, and Arthur topped her by an inch or two, but the way she reacted to the embrace made her seem tiny and fragile. She stiffened, the way she still did sometimes around displays of emotion, but then relaxed. She didn’t hug him back, but Arthur heard her swallow.
“How did you get there?” He pulled back after a second to give her space and let her regain control of the situation, and she shrugged again, though she was too tense to be nonchalant.
“I took the bus.” She was too pale, paler than Arthur, because she was inside most of the time. Arthur watched her closely as she put the dried nest of noodles into the water.
“They’ll call.” He had no idea if that was true, but she needed to hear it. Kate was young and pretty and smart, even if she didn’t believe that. “If those people don’t want you, then fuck them.”
She snorted but didn’t acknowledge his faith in her. “How about you? How did your interview go?”
“It wasn’t even an interview,” he blurted out, then shut up and slid past her to remove his jacket and wash his hands in the sink. His face and neck felt hot. It wasn’t a good sign that just thinking about his new boss made him flush all over.
“So you didn’t get it?” Kate pressed when he didn’t go on.
“No, I got it.” His smile came back, bigger than before. He didn’t think even splashing cold water on his face would have any effect on his red cheeks, but whatever. At least for now he had a job, a real job. He turned around and put his back to the sink. Kate was studying him. The steam was making strands of her hair fly around her face. Arthur had the same fine blond hair, and he had the sudden horrifying thought that it must have been just as frizzy in the heat of Dr. Jones’s house, making the faint waves that never went away even more pronounced. He usually just combed it and left it alone during the day, growing it to cover up his ears, which he thought stuck out a little, but he had at least tried to keep it neat under his bike helmet for the interview today.
Kate opened her mouth but seemed to change her mind and shook her head. “If it wasn’t an interview, then what was it? This was the dragon, right? The professor?”
“He’s a doctor.” Arthur had no idea what expression was on his face to make his sister blink rapidly at him the way she was doing before the noodles called her back. “He has a PhD and a house like you wouldn’t believe. Books everywhere.” And a face and body out of Arthur’s fantasies, but she didn’t need to know that any more than she needed to know that the man had been flirting with him.
“You would focus on the books and not the treasure.” She didn’t bother with a strainer; she used a spoon and tilted the pot over the sink, leaving some of the water in with the noodles so they could pretend it was soup.
Arthur’s smile faltered at the mention of treasure.
“There wasn’t any treasure.” Arthur scowled at her. “Unless you count those books, which I know you don’t. I….” It wasn’t that he hadn’t thought of treasure—of course he had. He was desperate, and people had stolen more for worse reasons than needing money. He didn’t want her thinking of it though. He didn’t want any part of his desperation to reach her.
He shrugged when she made a face back at him for pointing out how little she liked to read.
“I don’t need it anyway,” he lied. “The hours will be better, I never have to work a graveyard shift behind that supposedly bulletproof glass at the gas station again.” He would quit without notice and not feel even a little bad about it. “And I will be around—” He stopped, not sure whether he wanted to say around the university again or around Bertie. There was no way he could say the name Bertie around his sister. She would ask questions. He should say Dr. Jones, or a well-known historian. He should tell her that he hadn’t seen the dragon breathe fire and that Bertie was an appalling housekeeper for someone with magic and money at his disposal, or maybe ask if she ever had a thing for men who smoked.
No, that he’d keep to himself. It might alarm her to think of him ogling his boss, or make her think Arthur was going to let himself get harassed by some creeper for the sake of a paycheck. It was hard to tell how Kate would take news these days. As she had told him, repeating what her sponsor had told her, without the alcohol and weed clouding her mind and messing up her brain chemistry, her mind had to relearn how to react to things, and it didn’t help that her thoughts were clear for the first time in years. Some things seemed to hit her harder than others, so Arthur had to choose his words more carefully.
After everything that being wasted had led her to, all the trouble of the past few years, Kate was a lot more scared and protective than she used to be. Arthur was just grateful to have his sister back. He could deal with her worrying as long as it meant she wasn’t depressed again. She left the house today, had thought enough of herself to apply for a job. He wasn’t going to distract her now.
“I’ll be around someone that I have a feeling is brilliant,” he settled on, though he knew it was true as he said it, from the little thrill it gave him. He’d never met anyone who talked about history like it was alive and present. He wanted to know what Bertie might have had to say on the Woodvilles. Maybe someday he could ask.
“Well I’m happy that you’ll be doing something you like again.” Kate made a face. “And that you won’t be in that gas station all night anymore.” She got down two bowls. “Though it’s a shame you’ll never see the treasure. Imagine having money like that.” She shivered. “Maybe it’s good that you won’t see it. I’d be too tempted to steal it.”
Arthur put his head down and shut his eyes at the thought. He hadn’t thought about treasure. But he had thought, in something a little more than passing, about scales. Dragons were said to lose their scales from time to time. He read that and although he had already wanted the job, he couldn’t help but think that picking up a discarded scale so he could sell it hardly counted as stealing. Maybe it didn’t. But even before he walked into that house and saw that beautiful, terrifying, extraordinary creature, it had felt like something secretive and wrong.
Now he saw the dragon, Dr. Jones, shirtless—the muscles of his back, the hint of shining scales along his spine—and flushed with color that he was going to blame on the weather if Kate asked.
She didn’t. She only handed him his bowl of noodles and a fork, and then went into the small space they called a living room because of the old couch against one wall. It was Kate’s bed at night.
He wasn’t doing anything wrong, Arthur reminded himself firmly. He wouldn’t be stealing, exactly. He’d do what he had to do, if it was even possible. No one would be hurt, despite what his suddenly tight stomach was trying to tell him.
He ignored it and followed Kate to the couch.
“I’ll still be working weekend nights delivering food.” Hopefully it would be a mild winter. He couldn’t afford to get sick.
That only made Kate sigh. He recognized the guilt in it and hurried on in an attempt to keep her from fretting even more about Arthur working so hard to support them.
“You should have seen him,” he offered, only to stare at his noodles when she looked up. His tone had been warm. Even knowing teasing him about a new crush might lift her mood, he hurried on. “He’s different, even for a Being, and you know how they can be.” Talking to Beings was often confusing; they could speak the same language as the humans they interacted with, but it was as if the words meant something else to them.
Like with fairies. Fairies weren’t flirtatious, they were shockingly direct. Elves were usually impatient with humanity’s slowness. But they both looked more or less human. Even as a man, Dr. Jones—Bertie—had seemed something other. Even with arms and legs and opposable thumbs, he seemed like something special.
“I might stop by the library tomorrow on my way, to get his books. Professor Gibson recommended me to him, and he doesn’t do that lightly, so I should be prepared. I wouldn’t want him to get disappointed in me.”
He wondered if Kate would have found Bertie as fascinating as he had because Bertie’s magic made him fascinating, or if Arthur had found him fascinating for completely personal reasons. Not that he was going to ask her, or ever have a chance to introduce them.
She was watching him, her eyes round, and Arthur tried to remember the last time, if ever, he’d gone on like this around her. She hadn’t been interested in his studies back when she was high all the time and running around with her asshole boyfriend, and though she guessed he liked boys back when he was in high school, he’d never shared details of his love life with her.
Not that this was about his love life. This was about work and a chance to get ahead of his money troubles, to maybe even someday go back to school. It couldn’t be about his love life.
“Disappointed?” Kate echoed him. “Who would ever be disappointed in you, Arthur?” She must have meant it, because the twist of her lips was shy before it turned rueful.
For the second time that day, Arthur’s mouth fell open.
He thought of a similar approving look from a man who had called him a pearl, and quickly ducked his head to stuff noodles into his mouth and avoid any more talk about his new job.
His sister cleared her throat and set about eating too, as if she was suddenly just as starving as Arthur was.