Part 18

"Help me up."

Artha grunted, rising on his elbows. His breath tightened as the pain twisted over his skin. And then Moordryd eased his hands under Artha's back, slowly bringing him upright.

"You shouldn't be getting up," Moordryd argued weakly. "You'll pull your burns open."

"I'm not—ow!—not getting up," Artha said, turning so he could put his feet on the floor. "I'm just sick of lying down."

Artha kept a tight grip on Moordryd's hand as he sat still, his eyes squeezed shut. Moordryd waited, watching Artha's face for any sign that he was going to pass out or give into the pain. Or throw up, although that was more from a memory of when a stomach bug had worked its way through the Dragon Eyes crew.

Focus, he scolded himself. Artha's hurting. Quit—

With a deep sigh, Artha relaxed, his shoulders dropping. After a moment, he opened his eyes, and Moordryd realized that he was sitting too close. He stiffened—he was still touching Artha's back, their hands were still together—he tried to pull away.

Instead Artha tightened his grip, refusing to let Moordyd go. And when he turned his head slightly, Moordryd found that Artha's blue eyes were so clear that he could see himself reflected inside.

"Moordryd—"

"Artha—"

They both winced as the pause stretched longer and longer. Both of them knew what was hanging horribly between them and both of them knew they needed to say something, but neither could start. Worse, nevermind starting—neither knew what to say at all. And the silence only grew heavier as neither spoke.

"How's Lance?" Artha finally managed.

Moordryd's look fell from strained to exasperated.

"That good, huh?" Artha smiled despite himself.

"Mini-brat's living up to his name," Moordryd grumbled. "Beating up Egghead, thinking he can fight, then the moment I put him on the ground, he starts telling me to teach him—"

"Wait, he was fighting Parm?" Artha said, blinking

"—and then when none of us think that's a good idea, he rips off his stupid armor and almost blasts us into the wall."

Moordryd tried to wave his hands dramatically and could only move one, his other still trapped in Artha's. He didn't seem to notice, too wrapped up in his annoyance.

"If Brainiac didn't have that power booster armor, I think all three of us would've been smashed flat."

Artha frowned, seizing the only thing that made sense in all that.

"Y'know, his name is Parmon."

Moordryd rolled his eyes. "So? He's still a brainiac and you're still a stable brat."

"...even now?"

His low voice brought them back to the main problem. Both of them fell silent, not looking at each other.

"Even now," Moordryd said, staring at the floor in the far corner of the room. "I swear, I'm gonna mag her through a window."

"Kitt?" Artha asked. "Why?"

Moordryd froze. "What do you mean, 'why'? She told you I...wait. Didn't she say something...about...um..."

"No," Artha said, then sighed and chuckled once. "Geez. Did everyone notice but me?"

"Notice...what?" Moordryd asked slowly.

"Dad told me." Artha gave Moordryd a look that said they both knew what he meant. "When I woke up the first time. I was wondering why he was standing behind the couch. You were kinda asleep on the floor in front of me."

Moordryd leaned forward, trying to pull his hand free again. Still Artha wouldn't let go, and Moordryd rested his head in his palm, grimacing at his own obviousness.

"He said a Paynn won't tell you the truth, but they can't help but show you truth instead." Artha took a long breath. "And that I had to make a decision."

Moordryd winced, turning away. He could hear it in Artha's voice—let Moordryd down easy, don't let him stay interested, it's nothing personal, just friends and allies—

"There's...a lot going on right now," Artha said. "Armeggaddon, your dad, my stupid brother, the war...I mean, I don't even have any friends outside of the crew, nevermind trying to date. And...well, you know it's not something you advertise on the track."

Not wanting to answer, Moordryd gave a faint nod. Yes, he knew. Riders in relationships would find their partners being attacked in order to distract them, or other crews would offer bribes or threats to drag secrets out of their lover. Or sometimes relationships were offered simply to sabotage the next race, and the unlucky rider had their heart broken as their lover sped past them on the track. And if a racer revealed that he was watching the other male riders, it was a perceived weakness—the race demanded absolute focus. Anyone with wandering eyes was revealing a chink in their armor.

All reasons that Moordryd had kept his mouth shut and his eyes straight forward. He dragged in a breath—he couldn't stand listening to it anymore. He'd hidden his interest precisely because he couldn't have that kind of weakness dragged into the light, and even if it was just stupidly honorable Artha who knew—

"But..." Artha said, "if you're willing to try...I'd like to give it a shot."

A moment passed before what he'd said sank in. Moordryd blinked, then glanced over his shoulder.

"...what?"

"A shot," Artha said again, wondering if he was doing this wrong and now speaking too quickly. "I mean, maybe we'll both decide it's too hard right now or that we don't...I mean, you have to admit. We're, um...we're really, really different...and..."

A laugh slipped out of Moordryd. He realized his hand was shaking, and with some effort, he managed to hold it still. The tension in his back began to relax, and he laughed again at how ridiculous they were. They'd take on an entire prophecy by themselves, but a stupid conversation nearly left him in pieces.

"Okay," he said, smiling despite himself. "We'll try it out. And...who knows? Maybe we won't end up hating each other. Maybe you'll even like it."

Artha looked at him more seriously. "Have you ever...um...?"

"Ever what?" Moordryd asked.

"You know," Artha said. "Have you ever...?"

Moordryd stared at him a little longer before he realized what Artha meant. He colored slightly.

"Oh, that." He considered lying, then shrugged. Why bother lying? "Yeah. A couple times."

His look fell back to the floor. Against his will, he remembered insults, mocking laughter. The slamming of a door and the sound of heavy dragon-hide boots fading into the distance.

"That's why I didn't say anything." Moordryd shrugged. "Things didn't exactly end well. I...I didn't want a repeat of that."

Artha frowned, about to ask, when the sound of dragon at full gallop came up to the door. Moordryd was up on his feet even as Kitt burst into the room, panting for breath.

"Dragons," she said, her words choppy as she gasped for breath. "Black. I could barely see them on Connor's security grid, but they're coming fast."

"On it—" Artha said, starting to rise. He hissed and fell back onto the couch as the burns across his body pulled and tore.

"Oh no you don't," Kitt and Moordryd chorused without realizing.

"I'll get Connor," Kitt said, already heading down. Her voice echoed up at them. "And Parm!"

"Stay put," Moordryd said, gently pulling at Artha's hand. "It's probably just my crew."

"She didn't say the Black Eyes," Artha said. "She said black dragons. That means your dad. Or Armeggaddon—"

"She didn't say those, either." Moordryd squeezed Artha's hand, then relaxed, waiting expectantly.

After a brief struggle with himself, Artha sighed and let go.

"Be careful."

With a nod, Moordryd turned and headed out, dropping the amulet into the gauntlet. Where before the transformation had controlled him, he found himself growing more and more in control of the power. In midstep, the armor formed around him and it was the shadow booster that came out onto the sand.

Only a few seconds later, the ground began to audibly rumble. Moordryd briefly considered trying to rouse Decepshun, but he shook his head. It had only been a couple of days since she had been thrown by his father and taken the brunt of his attack. Moordryd couldn't bring her up into a battle against what felt like a flight of dragons. He would just have to wait and hope that he could stall long enough for Parmon, Kitt or Connor to show up.

The rumbling finally came close enough that he could hear the solid thunks of dragon claws on pavement. In the neon light, he saw them come around the building at the far end of the street, a mass of dark silhouettes that gleamed with purple and silver edges. His eyes widened. He'd expect three or four. Kitt hadn't said there were almost fifteen.

The only saving grace was that they were riderless, coming without any gear. His mind raced back to Connor explaining the ancient prophecies, the priests foreseeing the rise of a new war between dragons and humans. Was this the start? Were the dragons now gathering an army?

They must have seen him, but they weren't slowing down. If anything, the one in front roared and put her head down, charging toward him.

Moordryd felt himself go cold and numb. They meant to trample him down.

A shield wouldn't work against the amount of energy that they could muster. He couldn't blast them away. And these were slender, agile black dragons—they could follow him up into the stands and easily run him down. Even with the booster armor, without a dragon of his own, they would outmatch him eventually.

They were almost at the gate—finally they came into the light of Penn stables.

Moordryd steeled himself. They were dragons. He was a Paynn. And if he meant what he'd said about the proper role of dragons in society, the outcome that he hoped for in the war, then he had only one option. He took a deep breath, then dropped down to one knee, hand on the ground, bowing his head.

The roaring ceased. The ground stopped shuddering as the dust and sand kicked up, blowing past him. He was surrounded by their heavy pants, their low growls, but they weren't snarling or snapping. He recognized these sounds, the patient consideration of dragons waiting for the leader to make a decision.

Where were the other boosters? Moordryd drew tighter and tighter into himself as the seconds passed. Why wasn't the cavalry coming? Maybe Connor had decided that trying to save him wasn't worth it—not like they had any love for a dragon thief. And the moment these black dragons decided to stomp him into the sand or fling him into the empty air, to tumble down into the lower levels—

The leader of the dragons began to chuckle.

Moordryd blinked, looking up at her. Inside his helmet, his eyes grew huge and his jaw dropped in joy. In a moment he'd stood and put his arms around her neck, feeling the dragon put her head on his shoulder, the only way she had to hold him in return.

"Um...does this mean we're not going to fight?"

Moordryd turned his head just enough to see to his right. To the side of the stadium, Kitt and Parm flanked Connor, the only one of them who'd already been in his armor.

"Definitely no fighting," Connor said with a growing smile. "I think I recognize this pack now that I can see them properly."

"When did you—?" Moordryd started, then remembered. Connor had seen him frantically call home just before trying to escape his father.

Moordryd smiled, suddenly as self-conscious as he'd been when sitting beside Artha. He glanced at the dragon, who raised an eyeridge in question, and he stepped back, keeping one hand on the dragon's neck

"Um, Mare," he started, "this is Parmon Sean, Connor Penn and Kitt Won. They're the ones who took me in after father found out."

He glanced at his fellow boosters.

"This is Mare, my...nannydrag." He motioned at the rest of the dragons now forming a semi-circle around him. "And the rest of my, uh..."

"There's no other word for it," Connor said. "Your nest mates."

"Wait," Kitt breathed. "A full sized dragon? Was your nannydrag?"

Mare gave a decisive nod.

"May I assume," Connor began, "that you and your flight of dragons have fled from Word Paynn's citadel and need a place to stay?"

Mare nodded again.

"I'm glad that the stables are mostly empty right now," Connor said. "You're welcome to take your pick. Beau and the others can help you get settled in."

The rest of the day was a blur of opening some of the stables and setting them up with soft bedding, chow and water, scraping scales that had gone cloudy, tending to dragon paw pads that had split from hard running, taping up cracked claws not yet used to racing on pavement. Decepshun, the eldest of Mare's brood, limped over to her mother's side and fell back asleep.

Neither Kitt nor Parm came to help, which Moordryd didn't begrudge. They were busy with Lance and their own armor and training, and Moordryd spent the time talking, catching his nannydrag up on what had happened—on Word's ancient warrior gear, on Connor being a dragon priest and his friends all dragon boosters. On Armegaddon and the Academy. Occasionally one of the black dragons huffed or snorted, asking wordless questions, laughing or nuzzling him, and Moordryd answered as easily as if he understood everything they said.

Connor watched from a distance, appraising and quietly observing.

Maybe Moordryd understood them after all.

As evening crept in and Moordryd set the stable lights to dim, he watched his nest mates curl up in communal piles, taking up three stables. For him, it was like having the comfort of his nannydrag close by while also knowing that she was outside of her safe stable in the citadel. Like something that he cared about held by a fragile thread.

"Kneeling like that was very brave," Connor said behind him.

Moordryd froze. The man had a maddening ability to sneak up on even a thief. It took an act of will to relax again.

"'Brave'," Moordryd muttered. "It was all I could think of."

"Maybe not the best of plans," Connor admitted. "But it worked. And now your father can't get to them."

"Yet," Moordryd sighed.

He closed off the stables, protecting them from the cooler night temperatures, and he joined Connor as they walked back to the house.

"Or Armeggaddon," Moordryd said. "Or...hell, if I'm not lucky, father might have reported them stolen."

"Trust me," Connor laughed. "If there's one thing Word won't do, it's contact the police. Too many questions."

Moordryd hoped Connor was right. Knew he was probably right. With the dragons there at the stables, though, he didn't feel confident enough when he saw every way it could fall apart.

"Moordryd," Connor said, more seriously. "What do you know about the ancient black draconium empire?"

"I..." Moordryd paused. "Not much. Father didn't explain history to me. I think he doesn't consider it important. I've tried studying up on it, but..."

"But academy books can be dense and difficult to understand," Connor said, smiling when Moordryd looked at him in surprise.

"You knew?" Moordryd said.

"That you saved a handful of books from the fire?" Connor said. "You fidget in your sleep. The books slid out from under the pillow. I'm amazed you managed to grab those ones in particular, but I'm glad you did."

"I didn't pick them. The armor did."

"Hm."

Connor opened the door, escorting him back inside. Both of them looked to Artha, making sure he was asleep and comfortable. Connor said nothing else about Moordryd's concern. To their mutual relief. There was a conversation neither of them wanted to have.

"Actually," Connor said. "I'd like to look through those books with you. I think they'll help explain your heritage as the shadow booster."

"'My heritage'?" Moordryd said.

"The Black Draconium Empire was like the others," Connor said. "Trying to breed their dragons into stronger, obedient soldiers. But the original shadow booster...you share a lot with him. And now that I think about it, we should give you a physical exam as well."

"What? Why?" Moordryd halted, refusing to follow him into the cave after that. "What do you mean? An examination? Like tests? Like—"

"Not like your father's," Connor said firmly. "No wires, no electrodes. Nothing invasive. I really just want to check your draconium levels."

Moordryd frowned. It was common knowledge that humans absorbed some draconium simply by living around dragons. Everyone had some kind of influence in their life—it was why Kitt worked more easily with a magma-class dragon and Parmon with a bull-class.

"You want to see how much black draconium I've absorbed," Moordryd realized.

"Yes." Connor waited, not heading downstairs yet, and he lowered his voice so they wouldn't wake Artha. "I want to see if...well. I have my suspicions about the original shadow booster and why he rebelled against his empire. If you'll allow me to read the books you found and compare it with your own experience, I may have an answer."

"If I allow you?" Moordryd asked, frowning.

"I'm not going to force you into anything you wouldn't want," Connor said.

Moordryd felt his heart clench. Why couldn't his own father...? He strangled that thought and buried it deep. From Connor's look, the other man knew what he was thinking. His gaze went straight through Moordryd.

"...sure," Moordryd murmured. "As long as you tell me everything."

"Nothing held back," Connor promised. "No matter what."

Moordryd followed him into the darkness beneath the house, their steps echoing in the empty cavern as they descended down the long steps.

TBC...

(note: this is being uploaded to AO3 under my name GoblinCatKC)