The universe contained herein belongs to J.K. Rowling. The original characters and plot are mine, and my responsibility.
No dragons were harmed in the crafting of this story.
This story was written at the request of, and to fend off demands of, my dear friend Skylark. She has approved it, and thus, it is free to roam the fanfic universe, seeking out friends and loved ones. I hope you like it. 3
Reviews feed the hungry dragons. And the dragon handlers. And the author.
by Carol Oster
Skylark Amber Dessirei wiped sweaty palms on the tight green pants she wore under the strangely form-fitting black robe that was the uniform of a dragon-handler. The piping at cuff, hem and seams was also green, as befit her Slytherin origins, but the cowl was lined in garish yellow and crimson, alternating in wide stripes – the mark of an apprentice. This would allow the dragon handlers to keep an eye on the least experienced member of their team. Sky was determined to shed that designation as soon as was wizardly possible, though just now, her dry mouth, pounding heart, and trembling hands made the mere idea laughable.
"I can do this," she admonished herself. "I didn't study Advanced Care of Magical Beasts for two years beyond NEWTs to spend my life in a pet shop on Diagon Alley!"
This apprenticeship was a plum position. She'd scarcely believed her eyes when she read the post that arrived by Owl a mere three weeks into summer. Roberto Amato, the head dragon handler, had sent her a warm letter, congratulating her on completing her studies, and complimenting her post-NEWT academic accomplishments, the quality of her application, and her responses during the interview process for the single post that was open for an apprentice at the Romanian Dragon Reserve. Two of her fellow trainees had applied to the Welsh Reserve, and had encouraged her to join them, wanting to keep their trio together, but not even the lure of another year with James and Trevor was enough to keep her in Britain. She'd wanted – no – she'd needed – to get as far away as possible, so that her father and brother had no possible excuse to demand her presence… and so that she could, perhaps, figure out who she was.
Dragon handler Roberto Amato's letter had been accompanied by a list of equipment she would need to bring with her. Burn ointment – she winced when she saw that heading the list. Tebo-hide boots, gloves, pants and robe – the first three in House colors, and the robe accented in the same – though next to Robes was the word Apprentice, underlined twice, for emphasis. The boots and gloves were to be treated with a permanent Incendio Impervio as added precaution. She needed a broom – something sturdy, definitely not a racing broom, as those were too dainty for the field.
The pants and robes were awkwardly tight, but designed to move with the dragon handler like a second skin, and prevent catches on rough scales, horns, talons, or even brambles. When Sky tried on the size the clerk insisted was right, she was equally insistent the size was wrong. A consultation with the specialist in professional attire, however, finally convinced her that the clerk knew what she was talking about, and she reluctantly agreed to take them on a trial basis. The shirt to be worn under the robe was, she gratefully noted, a loose, flowing, open-weave affair, more tunic than shirt, really. It came in multiple colors, so she chose a white silky dress tunic as suitable for all occasions, green for her House, a blue that matched her eyes, and a dusky grey that matched the pants. The clerk knowledgeably suggested a number of work-a-day cotton tunics as well, and she added those.
She'd been instructed to either cut her hair or have a supply of leather hair ties to hold it off her face and capture it so it would not be loose. Her request for dragon pox and dragon fever potions, which had to be ordered specially, caused the owner of the apothecary to beam at her in a congratulatory smile. "Dragon Apprentice, eh?" the man had said with a grin. "You're a bit… female for the job, aintcha? Mosta' them dragon catchers are boys, now, ain't they?"
Sky tried not to take offense – not on her own behalf, anyway. "Dragon handlers", she corrected quietly.
She knew female dragon handlers were rare – not many girls set their sights on working with the huge, forbidding, flaming beasts, but something in Sky responded to them, found them noble, and rather than being frightened of them, she felt an empathic response. The thought of them in chains, guarding the deepest vaults of Gringotts, nearly undid her, as if their captivity mirrored her own. During the Triwizard Tournament, held when she was in her seventh year, she was angered, sickened, and nearly broke down at the cruel hoax that had been perpetrated upon four dragons – in the name of sport, for Merlin's sake! She couldn't understand how the dragon handlers had allowed such a thing – taking clutching females and threatening their eggs – at least as far as the poor beasts knew – and putting the unborn dragons at risk of losing their mothers. What if one of the contestants had killed one of the mares? The babies would have been motherless, and who would have cared for them? As far as she was concerned, the Tournament had lost all of its appeal at that moment. She had not bothered to attend the Yule Ball, and attended the other tasks only to assure herself that no other beasts were being abused.
That was when she'd made her final choice of career. Her path in the care of magical beasts had been clear enough, but she had thought to work in research, or international studies, within the Beast Division of the Ministry of Magic. Her empathic response to the four dragons, though, sealed her fate. Or so she'd tried to explain to her father.
He had been apoplectic that she'd turned down the Malfoys' offer to facilitate her path into the Ministry. She'd refused for a few reasons. First, she preferred to earn her own way, thank you very much, not have it handed to her as a political "favor". Second, she had no interest in being her father's political pawn within the Ministry. If she'd accepted, she'd "owe" him – or so he would have insisted. And she would have been expected to pay back the "favor" – probably for as long as she lived.
And finally, she didn't like Lucius Malfoy. The man's, calculating, appraising stare and the lewd way he looked over her… curves… made her queasy. The dinner party at which her father had introduced them, the man had grabbed her by the arse and squeezed so hard, she'd practically had to tear her dress robes off, to get out of his slimy grasp. Just thinking about it made her curdle in shame and feel like hexing the bullocks off every man in sight. Her father had had the gall to blame her for it, as if the loose, shapeless robes she wore were, somehow, provocative. And then – what's worse – he'd told her to "relax and enjoy it." She could have screamed. But if she had, it would have been ten times worse. As it was, her father and brother had made it clear, after the party, that they expected her to do whatever it took to succeed – "even if that means sleeping your way to the top!" She had to get out of here!
So, she'd made her escape, planned it, really – knowing all along that she'd apply to the number one apprenticeship in the world, to train with the elite group that were the Romanian dragon handlers. While she had hoped, she had never really allowed herself to dream of success.
But here she was, mid-July, 1997, standing in her new tent in the middle of half a dozen or so others, in Romania. The roars of dragons echoed off the mountainsides, and flashes of dragons' fiery breath made strange shadows appear against the canvas on the side of the tent that faced the forest. She cast a tempus. Eight-fifteen. She'd been told to wait in her tent for an escort to dinner, and not to be wandering out of the tent alone. Inhaling nervously and wiping sweaty hands on her robe for the twentieth time, she stepped to the entrance and pulled back the flap so she could see out. It was approaching sundown here. She briefly wondered what time it was in England, but didn't bother to calculate the time difference.
"Weren't you told to stay in your tent? What the bloody hell do you think you're doing?"
A tall, thin, dark-haired dragon handler shoved at Sky's shoulder, pushing her roughly back into the tent and slamming the flap down, but not before glaring at her and snarling, "Follow directions, or you'll get yourself killed – or worse – one of us or a dragon!"
Oh, bullocks! I've screwed up already! she thought. Before she could follow that train of thought, though, the flaps parted and a short, stocky, red-haired wizard in robes that bore the crest and colors of a Gryffindor dragon handler took one step inside.
"I apologize for not knocking," he said with a grim smile. "Stewart can be a bit of a prig – especially when he's just been burnt."
"He's hurt?" Sky's hand flew to her mouth. "Oh, no! I'm so sorry… should I go apologize?"
"For what? It's not as if standing here caused the dragon to go all apeshit on him. It was his own bloody fault. He turned his back and his cloak flared. The dragon was startled, is all." The dragon handler shrugged it off as if having one's back singed by a panicky dragon was an everyday occurrence. Which it might be, Sky realized. She eyed the man. He had a burn scar down the left side of his face, and his robe was lightly singed at the hem. The backs of his square hands were scarred with what looked like small pin-dots of burns, along with several larger burn scars. She thought they were beautiful, and that his scar turned his rather plain face into something alluring in a very masculine way.
"I'm Charlie, by the way," the man said, moving forward and extending his hand. "Charlie Weasley." Weasley. She knew the name of course. So this was one of Fred and George's older brothers. Sky looked up into his warm brown eyes, then startled when she realized she was staring, and his hand was still extended. Blushing, she hastily stuck out her hand. "Sky. Skylark Amber Dessirei. I was a year ahead of your brothers – Fred and George." The man smiled with genuine warmth, and his face transformed before it flicked back to professional. They shook hands. She'd expected his hand to be rough, but it was surprisingly soft.
"Welcome to the Romanian Dragon Reserve, Skylark Amber Dessirei," the man said. "Let's get something to eat. I'm starved."
Charlie Weasley led the new apprentice to the head dragon handler's tent. Ordinarily, the rowdy group rotated dinner duties and hosting amongst themselves, but Roberto thought something more formal was appropriate to welcome their trainee. While Charlie had voted against this applicant, he'd obviously been overruled. He wondered who, amongst his fellow handlers, had voted for the girl, and whether his had been the only negative vote. His first impression of her had only been confirmed by her clammy handshake and her cowed response to Stewart's aggravation.
He sighed. This was going to be a problem. Dragon handlers were a rough lot. Bad enough to have a girlin camp. A spineless male would have been as much a problem. No one could afford to second-guess their teammates when facing down an angry, wounded, or distressed dragon. Even the youngsters were dangerous. He'd have to… He stopped. He'd been going to say he'd have to warn the others to watch their own tails as well as hers, but… that was unfair. He had to at least try to give the girl a test flight at it. He gave a mental shrug. She'd fly or fall on her own, he supposed.
They arrived at the tent and he held the flap open for her. She frowned at him and shook her head. He waited impatiently for her to precede him. Was she that easily quenched during the interview process? He didn't remember it being that bad! If she was going to go all Welsh Green on them at the first sign of flame, she wouldn't make it 'til Christmas!
The girl must finally have at least gotten some smoke in her, if not flame, because she abruptly shook her head, squared her shoulders, and stalked into the tent like some haughty Chinese Fireball. He followed her in, half expecting her to smell of cinnamon.
"Skylark Amber Dessirei," he announced. The group of handlers, smelling of sweat, smoke, and dragon, and barely cleaned up enough for dinner, turned and looked, all of them smiling except for Stewart, who was snarling like a Hungarian horntail.
"Sky," the girl said, moving forward to shake hands. She headed straight for Roberto, which was natural, since she'd met him and knew he was the head of their small group.
"Welcome, Sky," the man said, and held her hand a moment too long, in Charlie's opinion. He shook his head and leaned against the wall of the tent, muscled arms crossed over his chest. She moved next to shake hands with Daniel, the eldest of those present – and therefore the wisest. Unwise dragon handlers didn't live to be old. She shook hands with each of them in turn, save Stewart, with whom she had the sense to limit herself to a nod. Well, she had some self-preservation instinct, then.
The talk around the camp table was of dragons and home. Though Stewart, Charlie and Jamie had attended Hogwarts and were Scottish, English and Welsh, respectively, Roberto was from Columbia; Daniel from New Zealand, and Henry from America. Sky relaxed into the casual banter, and asked questions about the post-Newt level training the others had completed. Daniel, being the eldest, had had the least formal training, though he said it was simply "the way things were done," in his country. He'd come to the Romanian Reserve "for adventure," he said, as New Zealand and Australia boasted only one true dragon, the Antipodean Opaleye. When he talked about it, his face took on a dreamy look, and his gaze seemed to be in the past as he described the creature's pearly scales and whirling, multi-colored, multi-faceted eyes. Sky determined that someday, she'd visit New Zealand and see the beautiful beast for herself. Daniel responded enthusiastically and offered to take her himself, his one good eye twinkling at her.
That led to an argument over "the best" dragon. Everyone seemed to have their favorite breed. Not surprisingly, Stewart preferred his country's Hebredian Black. His clan, the McFasty's, had the exclusive care of the Scottish beast, and that accounted for his presence here – there were three such beasts on the Romanian Reserve, all of whom had been injured violating the airspace of others of their kind, who were violently territorial, needing one hundred square miles each. The Romanian Reserve was the only preserve large enough to contain them without triggering a battle that would have ended up with one or both combatants dead.
"What's your favorite dragon, Skylark?" Stewart asked with narrowed eyes.
Sky, who'd been listening avidly to the discussion, blushed as all eyes turned to her. "As all my knowledge is theoretical," she said carefully, "it would be a bit premature for me to choose, I think. Ask me again in three months."
Jamie clapped her on the back and laughed. "There you go, Stu. She's a smart one, isn't she, to avoid your trap!"
Stewart scowled, but gave a grudgingly respectful nod.
The evening concluded with a review of the schedule for the next day. They would rise before dawn to check on broody mares – particularly the Romanian Longhorn, hunted nearly to extinction due to the demand for its horns, used in so many critical potions. The breeding program on the reserve was literally the only thing that kept the species extant. Stewart would be off to check his injured Hebredians. Camp would move to where the Portuguese Longsnouts had last been seen. At a mere twenty feet long, they were agile, quick flyers, but sometimes in danger from other, larger beasts. Tracking them was tricky, because they were adept at hiding in amongst the caves and the upper reaches of the forest, where their light green scales blended with the fir trees near the timberline. After that, the group would split for a week – half returning to the Romanian Longhorns, half heading off to check each of the territories in turn, watching for poachers. Sky would go with the second group, to learn her way around the Reserve and acquaint herself with each of the dragon species in their care.
Sky headed back to her tent, took out her work clothes and laid them over a chair, tucked a vial of burn ointment into the pocket of her tebo-hide robe, and lay down on the bed. She was too excited to sleep, she thought, and cast a Tempus. Ten-thirty. What time was it at home? She shrugged. It did not matter. She turned over and tried to sleep, to no avail. Finally, she breathed a soft sigh and got up, going to her tent flap to look out into the night. Thirty feet away or so, the silhouette of a dragon handler was black against the starry skyline. Charlie Weasley stood outside his tent, tensely looking off in some direction or another. Sky held her wand flat on her open palm. "Point me," she whispered, and the wand spun to point in the direction the rigid Dragon Handler was staring. Home. Sky watched until the dragon handler passed a hand over his face, his shoulders tense, shook off whatever it was, and turned heavily back to his tent. Sky did the same.