by Dira Sudis, inspired by art by Sealcat

Written for the 2017 Captain America Reverse Big Bang, inspired by Sealcat's gorgeous art (embedded in Chapter 7!)

Thanks to CaliHart for beta, and to Feanorinleatherpants, Quarra, and everyone else who cheered this on along the way!!

Chapter 1

After the last battle--after the failure of his mission, with everything going down in flames--the winter dragon fled from his former masters, from the smoke of battle and the scent of blood.

He managed to shed most of his armor, but the gauntlet covering his left foreleg had long since fused to the damaged limb beneath, and would not come free. Soot-darkened as it was, the star gem covered in ashes and blood, it was barely distinguishable from his shadow-dark scales. It didn't make it any harder for him to hide himself in rocky shadows or the night sky.

He was not one of the great dragons, after all. He had long been a ghost, sent to do his masters' bidding where no dragon must be seen. He knew how to keep himself out of sight.

It was almost the only thing he knew.

He fled for days and nights, on and on, out of the country of his masters, away from every place he knew. Every place where he had ever done anyone harm. He would not be his masters' creature anymore, not ever again. He would not be owned. He would belong to himself alone.

He could not cease to be a dragon, but he had no wish to spread flame and fear everywhere he went.

If he had known that he was looking for a safe place to hide, he would have despaired the first night. It was only when he found the cave, long since abandoned by some dragon of old, that he knew he had found what he needed, and could rest at last. He crawled deep into the lair's hidden chambers, curled up on the hoard that would be his now, if he could keep it, and slept for days.

When everyone in town became convinced that a dragon really had come again to the Old Lair, and that the town would have to offer it tribute, they all looked at Steve.

Honestly, he was relieved.

He had never quite belonged in Brooklyn, for all that he had been born and raised there. He had too many ideas, too many big dreams, too much interest in making beautiful things instead of useful ones. It was the natural result of being a sickly child who had grown into a man too slight and small for farm work or the other heavy labors that a fatherless man might do to make his way.

Steve's mother had been a healer in the town, which was half the reason Steve had survived to this useless adulthood. The other half, his mother had often said, was pure stubbornness. But his mother had died, and it had been other women who learned her trade and took her place. Steve, left behind alone, lived now in a rented room above the tavern--though his rent consisted of a few pennies paid to the landlady on the rare occasions when he could scrape them together.

He did what little jobs people in the town found for him: a bit of scribing, a half-day's mending or painting. He lent a hand when and where he was needed, minding the apothecary's shop or washing dishes in the tavern, but often he was left with nothing to do at all. He made his own paper from bits of rag and wild reeds he collected, and now and then he sold a sheet or two.

Once he had even sold one of the pictures he drew on his paper, to a stranger passing through.

After that, he had dreamed of going to the city, where he might sell paper and drawings all the time, perhaps even learn to paint or sculpt. But the dreams faltered in the light of day.

He had no money and few supplies to make such a trip. Outside of Brooklyn he would be a stranger, whom no one would feed or house simply because he was one of their own. He could more or less bear to be looked after by the town as things were, in the hope that someday he might find a way to repay every debt he owed, but he could not ask anyone to give him the things he would need to leave Brooklyn behind and make a new life far away.

Even if he could reach the city, he knew what he would find there: artists and artisans who had trained from childhood, apprenticed to masters who taught them all the secrets of their craft. It would be the same as the way the apothecary and smith taught their apprentices in Brooklyn, and every farmer taught his sons to tend the land.

Steve, fatherless and friendless, would be nothing in the city, even more than he was in his own town.

So he had stayed, and had done what he could to pull his weight in Brooklyn, slight as it was. And then the signs of the dragon were seen and tracked to the Old Lair. That raised the question of offering tribute, and finally Steve knew what he was good for, and how he might repay all that had ever been given to him.

He stood up from the corner of the tavern, where he had been sitting in his customary spot out of the way, listening to the leaders of the town discuss the problem of the dragon.

"I'll do it. I volunteer. No one else should have to--to lay down--"

Words failed him as he thought of exactly what he was volunteering for. He could only nod sharply to the faces of people who had always seen him as the fatherless Rogers boy, Sarah's son. He waited until some of them nodded back, and then, knowing his offer had been accepted, he turned and walked out.

He didn't slow down until he was out on the edge of town, at the bridge over the brook--small river, really--that gave the town its name.

Steve leaned on the edge of the bridge and looked down into the water, letting the reality of it catch up with him.

It had been something like a hundred years since there was a dragon in Brooklyn, but everyone knew how this worked. No one went near the Old Lair--even kids didn't play on that rocky outcrop up above the town.

Everyone kept a little something set aside for tribute, for when the dragon comes to call. Steve kept a couple of silver pennies tucked away for that, the same ones his mother had kept for that purpose. No matter how poor he was, no matter how much it galled him to accept help, he kept those silver pennies of his mother's, just in case. So that when the dragon came to call, he'd be able to do his part the same as anyone.

But a dragon wouldn't only be given silver and gold. A dragon would be given a person, too. Sacrifice, they were called sometimes, but they weren't given to the dragon to kill.

They were for the dragon to use.

That was why whoever it was had to be a virgin. You couldn't give a dragon used goods.

Everyone in town knew Steve had never caught a woman's eye for so much as a dance on the green or in the tavern while the fiddler played. They knew he had never had a master or patron who might have taught him how to please a man, as well as a more public trade.

Steve was untouched, and everyone knew it. The handful of others who were of age and in the same state were all someone's daughter or son, respectable and with prospects for marriage someday. But there was no family to mourn the loss of Steve, no future he would be throwing away. He was the right choice, the obvious choice--and anyway he'd volunteered.


"Don't worry." Steve didn't bother to look back, just waited for Sam to come over beside him. "I'm not gonna jump."

Sam snorted.

It had been two summers back that fourteen-year-old Ellen, a farmer's daughter breaking her heart over a neighbor girl, had tried that. She'd been tumbled down nearly to the lake and sprained her wrist before she clambered out of the brook in front of a group of women gathering reeds. No one ever teased her about it to her face, but the absurdity of jumping from this particular bridge for anything but a bracing splash was well established.

"Really, though," Sam said softly. "You sure about this?"

Sam didn't come from Brooklyn--he'd been born clear up in Harlem and gone away to war, where he'd become fast friends with a Brooklyn boy--the smith's son, Riley. Sam had brought home the news of Riley's death to his family, and when they learned that Sam was an orphan himself and in no hurry to return to Harlem, they took Sam in and began teaching him their trade.

Things were different in Harlem, maybe. It was a bigger town, nearer the city. Maybe it wasn't so clear there that if somebody shirked a duty, one of his neighbors would have to take it up.

Steve just shook his head. "There's no one else, Sam. And even if there were--I can't stand aside and ask that someone be sent unwilling, not when I'm..."

Sam stood beside him in silence for a while and then said in a lighter tone, "I was just thinking maybe we oughta send someone sturdier. If that dragon wears you out before the summer ends, we'll be sending someone else up the hill anyway."

Steve snorted. Sam had a mothering sort of soul, despite his smith's size, but he'd learned the limits of what Steve would accept in the way of coddling. "I'm tougher than I look. I'll last long enough."

Sam's hand found his shoulder and squeezed. "You ever need a little doctoring, you send up a signal, huh? I learned a few things in the war, and saw more."

Steve nodded, swallowing hard against the thought of what Sam might see if Steve needed help badly enough to call him there.

Sam shook him gently by that grip on his shoulder and added, "Just don't go thinking it's gotta be you because no one will miss you, man. Because that's not true."

Steve closed his eyes and nodded, and let Sam draw him into a hug.

Chapter 2

The dragon was awakened by the sound of something approaching his lair.

Nothing had come near in all the days since he had come to this place. He had thought he was safe.

He had slept until he felt rested for the first time he could remember. He had basked in the warm sweetness of a hoard of gold and felt himself healing in ways he had not known he was broken.

He had wandered through the dusty, disused reaches of the lair, acquainting himself with his hoard. He had cleaned out the dust where he could, and peeked into caverns that had been left carefully sealed, finding them nicely intact. There were a few places where rock had fallen, blocking further passageways; he hadn't gotten as far as doing anything about that yet.

A few times hunger had driven him outside. There were no masters to dole out food here, or to withhold it from him.

Still, he had taken wild things when he could find them. Twice he couldn't, and he had taken the sheep and cow from the largest herds he could find, where they were least likely to be missed.

He had only gone out at night, and he hadn't thought he had been seen, but clearly he had been. It had been stupid to think he could just hide in his new lair forever. He crept closer to the entrance, tracking the vibration of approaching feet and... wheels?

If his masters had found him and come for him...

But no, they wouldn't come on foot. They'd send his own kind to find him--dragons with their talons sharpened, armor over their scales, dropping out of the sky to bear him down. The masters would come with their magic and their iron whips, but only after they were sure he couldn't get away and couldn't fight back.

The memories dragged at him, pinning him down like a collapsing cave. Then a shockingly sweet, clear sound drew him back to the present, and the humans approaching.

They were surely not masters, because they came on foot, to the entrance of his lair, and they came ringing gold bells. The chime of gold came again and again, like the sound of sunlight and open air, and the dragon was barely aware of what he was doing as he crept closer and closer to that irresistible song.

He stopped in the opening of the lair's tunnel, peering out into the bright light at the little procession of humans--eight of them, and not one in armor. Each held a bell, and they were gathered around a cart, which they had hauled up the ridge to this spot.

No. Not eight humans. There were nine. One of them was on the cart, kneeling among the chests and bundles there.

Gifts, the dragon belatedly realized. The humans had brought gifts. Tribute. That was... right. That was what humans did, when a new dragon settled down in their territory. Wasn't it?

Most humans weren't masters. They didn't have magic, or any way to bend a dragon to do their bidding. So they did this instead. They gave gifts.

They gave one of their own as a gift: the most precious kind of gift humans could give.

The human they had chosen to give to him was slim and small--smaller than all the others gathered around the cart. He had pale skin, soft and untouched like one of the mushrooms that grew deep in the caves, away from the light. A great deal of his skin was displayed, as he not only wore no armor, he didn't have even the soft clothes the humans pulling the cart wore. His hair was the color of gold, his eyes the color of the sky, and he was adorned with intricately knotted cords and delicate flowers of white and blue.

He was looking at the dragon very intently.

No. He was glaring.

The dragon jerked his head back--he hadn't realized how far he had extended it out of the cave to look at the gift-human. He looked around at the other humans.

None of them were glaring at him--wait, no, one was, one of the largest. He had richly dark brown skin and even darker eyes, and he stood by the side of the cart, near to the dragon's gift-human. He was glaring at the dragon.

The rest of the humans just looked... worried.

"We have brought these--these gifts," one finally said, a white-haired man standing further forward than the others. "To... welcome you. To Brooklyn. And we beg of you that you will give us that which, which..."

A gray-haired woman stepped up beside the man and said firmly, not sounding as if she were begging at all, "We beg that you will acknowledge these gifts by giving us that which you have in great abundance, and which we could not long live without."

She was holding a stick, and she raised it up in front of herself.

The dragon blinked at her, and at the stick. He did have a good-sized hoard now, it was true, but he couldn't give any part of his hoard to humans. Anyway, they didn't need it, and the stick...

They were all waiting. They wanted him to do something. He was supposed to do something; he could tell that.

They were giving the gifts--giving him that gold-haired human with the sky in his eyes, pale as a thing that was meant to be kept safe under the earth--but they wanted him to give them something in return. Wanted... his service, the way his masters had? Wanted him to shape the world for them?

"Fire," someone whispered loudly, and the dragon looked over to see it was his glaring gift-human. The gold-haired human looked at him, then at the stick the woman held, like--

Oh. That which he had in abundance, and which humans needed. Fire.

He glanced down toward the towns and sensed immediately that there was no fire there. Not one chimney showed even the palest wisp of smoke.

Not an accident, of course. They had put out all their fires, to make themselves have need of a dragon's help.

The dragon shook his head, testing. He hadn't breathed fire since--since--

It had been a long time ago and far away, and he had not needed to be this careful. He leaned his head close to the humans, turning it so that he need not breathe fire at the woman to light the brand, and he blew the tiniest flame he could manage.

It was still enough to make the woman flinch back, but he didn't burn her, and did kindle a flame at the end of the torch. She dipped a curtsey to him, setting off a tiny series of chimes from the golden bell she held in her other hand. The other humans made similar gestures, muttering thanks amid a bright jingling of bells as they began to back away. The brown-skinned one lingered longest, but all of them took last glances toward the dragon's gift-human, as if greedy for a last sight of him.

They had surely given him the most beautiful of them all. His human would be the most precious of all his treasures.

Now that all the others were gone, and the gifts were indisputably his to keep, the dragon crept a little way out of the cave, examining the cart and its cargo more closely. The cart had been decorated with flowers and ribbons as well, and the boxes and bundles were secured with white and blue rope--thicker and rougher than the fine cords which were so intricately wrapped around his human.

The human was bound by the cords in his kneeling position, the dragon saw, his wrists and ankles bound together. His hands were clenched into fists, even his toes curled tight, but he held still while the dragon studied him, even when the dragon flicked his tongue out a little to get the taste of his skin. The flowers weren't there to disguise anything; the human was freshly cleaned all over, good-smelling and whole.

There were no signs of rough handling, no bruises or scrapes anywhere, nor any older scars. Even the cords had not made any abrasions on the perfect pale skin; they crisscrossed to make a lovely star pattern over his heart, pale skin outlined in deep blue. Surely the human must have held still to allow that bit of artistry.

But the sun was rising higher, burning off the early fog, and the dragon needed to get his human safely into the lair, where he belonged. There were all the rest of his new treasures to be examined as well; he wouldn't open the packages here in the open.

The dragon studied the cords knotted around his human again. There were more of them than were required just to keep him in place; enough to distribute the human's slight weight if it rested on them for a little while. Satisfied, the dragon ever so carefully threaded his front teeth between the cords and his human's pale skin and lifted him up off the cart.

His human let out a little startled sound, then was still again--too still, holding himself rigid, as if afraid the dragon would drop him. But the dragon could not speak with his mouth occupied, so he would simply have to prove to his gift-human that he would never damage such an important part of his hoard with carelessness.

He moved slowly and smoothly as he swung around to re-enter the lair, reaching back with his tail to grab the front end of the cart and pull it along behind him.

Steve squeezed his eyes shut and kept himself still, even with the dragon's hot breath blowing against his chest, its teeth hard points against his skin. He had seen it breathe flame just minutes ago, knew it could bite him in half if it had a mind to. He could still feel the flickering touch of its tongue all over his skin.

But at least it was him, and not young Ellen, or Timothy the butcher's boy, who hadn't lost the baby-fat roundness of his cheeks yet, or... or anyone else. He could endure this. He could. He would.

Whatever the dragon meant to do with him... at least the rest of the town would be safe. That was worth their pitying looks, worth the indignity of being stripped naked, cleaned and inspected, decorated like a maypole and trussed up like a pig, before he was hauled up here to be given away. The dragon hadn't hurt anyone, and had given the ritual gift of fire--and hadn't given it full-blast in Steve's face when Steve couldn't resist prompting him.

The dragon did some odd maneuvering that left Steve swaying more than before, and then he felt himself being lowered. He forced his eyes open only to discover that he was in, not a dank, terrible cave, but what looked very much like a farmer's cottage, if one without windows. There was a stove in the corner, and it seemed strangely small until Steve looked down and realized that the dragon had set him down, not on the floor, but on a sturdy wooden table.

Steve looked up, searching for the source of the dim but sufficient light, and found that it came from several small openings in the solid rock above him. Looking around, he realized that he was indeed in a cave, but one with smooth, squared-off walls, snug and dry and warm--for now, at least. Steve didn't like to think of what it would be like when rain started pouring through those holes in the roof.

Still, for now it was quite comfortable. The floor looked as level as any he'd seen in a house in town, and there was a big wooden bedstead on the wall opposite the stove. Chairs lined one side of the table, and a bench ran down the other.

Of course, he realized. Of course, if dragons were given human tribute, there would be a space in a dragon's lair for them to keep a human. He just hadn't expected it to be... homey. It reminded him of the little cottage where he had grown up, and he had to squeeze his eyes shut again to push away the thought of his mother.

At least she had died before she had to see this. At least none of this could touch her. He squeezed his hand tight on the one thing he had managed to bring with him, the one piece of inheritance from her that he still held on to.

He felt the dragon's hot breath on his back and struggled to hold back a shiver as a chill ran down his spine. Then there was a tug at the rope on his wrists, and Steve felt that knot come undone, freeing his hands. He jerked them away without a thought, rubbing at his right wrist with his left hand as soon as he was loose.

He froze again at the feeling of the dragon's breath on his ass--now exposed without his hands tied over it.

He flinched at the flicker of the dragon's tongue, but made himself keep still and silent--he could do this, he could endure--but all that happened was that the knot holding his ankles tied came loose as well. The dragon didn't pause again before tugging the ropes away, and the whole intricate web around him began to loosen bit by bit.

Steve sucked in a deep breath as soon as the pressure around his ribs was gone, and then he couldn't stop gasping, even when the cords were all piled up in front of him and he was still kneeling with his hands clasped in front of his chest, fingers cramped tight around two tiny silver pennies.

He wasn't holding them back from the dragon, really. He had been given to the dragon, coins and all. But still... Steve couldn't make himself let them go.

The dragon's head rose to the level of his face, and the dragon looked directly into his eyes. Steve couldn't help noticing that it had pale blue-gray eyes, lighter than its not-quite-black scales, lighter than the tarnished, battered metal wrapped around its left arm.

Steve kept utterly still, staring into the dragon's eyes.

He was braced for flame or teeth or anything but the dragon to ask, in a surprisingly light and slightly accented voice, "Are you hungry? Thirsty? You should sit, you'll hurt your knees."

Steve jerked back from the words as he wouldn't have from a blow, landing hard on his ass and then overbalancing. There was a sick second of oh no oh no that's going to hurt as he tipped backward, head-first over the edge of the table, and then he was--caught.

For a second he didn't even understand what had happened, how he was lying half-off the table in midair, and then he realized that the dragon's tail was behind him, under him. As he stared, bewildered, the tip of it wrapped around his chest, and the dragon lifted him clear off the table with it, setting him delicately on his feet.

Steve looked up at the dragon from his own standing height for the first time. The dragon was big, but in the way that a bear or a carthorse was big--though it was bigger than either--rather than big like a barn or a hundred-year oak tree. Its left--arm? foreleg?--was covered in plates of dull, scuffed silver metal, and at the shoulder there was a spiky, dark shape jutting out. Backswept spines framed its face, and its dark gray scales were overlapping leaf-shaped things, stiff like new leather but not hard, at least where they wrapped around Steve.

"I'm sorry," the dragon said, slowly uncurling its tail from around him. "I didn't mean to frighten you."

Steve tipped his chin up and snapped, "I'm not frightened."

The dragon's head tilted to one side, and then came closer to Steve. Its tongue flicked out again, at his throat, his armpit, making Steve all too aware of exactly where he was dripping sweat.

"Good," the dragon said, withdrawing its head so that Steve could meet its eyes again. "I don't want to frighten anyone. I don't do that anymore."

Steve stared at it. The thought occurred to him, fleetingly, that this was a piece of good luck, that if he could keep his mouth shut and play along with whatever this dragon meant by that he might spare himself pain, but he was already blurting out, "What do you mean, you don't want to frighten anyone? You're a dragon."

The dragon studied him a while longer, then said, "Do you mean to make me frighten people? Hurt people? Is that why you've come here?"

Steve spluttered for a moment, at a loss for words, and finally managed to snap, "I didn't come here. I was brought, as a gift for you, because everyone is scared when a dragon comes! They give gifts, to try to--to placate the dragon! Gifts, ha! More like a tax, more like highway robbery."

"You said you weren't frightened," the dragon pointed out.

Steve stopped short and glared.

"If you're not frightened," the dragon went on, in a low, raspy voice that might have been pleasant to listen to if Steve weren't naked and freshly enslaved to a dragon. "Then not everyone in the town is scared of me. Is that how you were chosen to be given to me, because you weren't scared?"

"I wasn't chosen, I volunteered! To spare anyone else--"

"So then you did come by your own choice," the dragon concluded. "Why? To make me hurt the rest of the town? To make you king over all of them?"

"What?! No!" Steve shouted. "I came to stop you from hurting anyone else!"

The dragon drew back slightly from Steve's shout, though it didn't seem at all alarmed--well, why should it be? Steve's fists would make even less mark on a dragon than they ever had on assorted burly apprentices and farmer's sons back in Brooklyn.

"But I didn't hurt anyone," the dragon pointed out after a few seconds. "And I don't mean to. Do you want to call them back, and tell them so?"

"If you don't mean to hurt anyone, how about you let me go home?" Steve snarled, fists clenched hard, his mother's pennies pressed tight against his palm.

The dragon bared its teeth at that, a little puff of smoke escaping its nose, and it was all Steve could do to keep his feet firmly planted, his back straight.

"No," the dragon said harshly. "You're mine. You were given to me--and you volunteered, too. You belong to me now. You can't take back what you give to a dragon."

"Then you're just as bad as we thought!" Steve snapped back, and then slapped a hand over his mouth, instantly picturing how much worse the dragon could be: fields and houses aflame, those teeth and claws digging into the bodies of people he'd known all his life--Sam--

But instead of flying into a rage, or proving to Steve just how bad it could be, the dragon sighed.

"Then I'm glad you thought nothing worse," the dragon said, sounding tired. It turned away, adding as it walked out of the little cave, "You never had any reason to be frightened of me at all."

It pushed a heavy stone door shut behind him, and no matter how Steve pounded on it and shouted, the dragon did not come back and open it.

Chapter 3

The dragon didn't go far. As soon as he was out of the human's cave--which had been kept clean and dust-free by that well-sealed door--he was confronted with the flower-bedecked cart full of gifts.

For a moment he sat and looked at them, feeling more tired than anything else. His little human stormed and shouted on the other side of the heavy stone door like a dragonet just learning to spit flame, and the dragon wanted only to go down to the gold cave and sleep on the part of his hoard that didn't demand--as if such a thing were possible!--to be set free.

His human was at least as precious as gold, though. The dragon didn't want to leave his human alone for long. He just couldn't bear to be shouted at that way, and to have the smell of angry fear in his nose while his human insisted he wasn't frightened.

The dragon knew what it was to be afraid, and to hurt because it was the only way to avoid being hurt. But he didn't want to be shouted at, either, and told that all he was good for was hurting and scaring, that he was hurting his human just by keeping him.

And all these other gifts--they came from humans just as frightened, if quieter about it. He couldn't give them back any more than he would give back his human, but he felt a temptation to roll the entire cart into the lowest cave and leave it there, where he could keep it without having to look at it and think about where it came from.

Except... there might be something quite nice in there. And of all the things he possessed, only these had been given to him, not some other long-gone dragon.

He ought to at least open the chests, first, shouldn't he? The humans had brought these things all the way up from the town--and he had given them fire in return, so it was an exchange of sorts. If they had given him these things--and his human--to stop him from hurting anyone, then surely they understood that he wouldn't hurt them now that they had given him gifts?

So they wouldn't be frightened--and soon his little human would understand that he was safe here--and then no one would be angry at him for keeping all the gifts he had been given.

The dragon moved over to the cart, flicking his tongue out to taste the sweet scents of the flowers. He wondered where they grew. Perhaps he could take his little human there--perhaps his human would feel better once he understood that he didn't have to stay always inside the cave, as long as the dragon was there to guard him from being stolen.

Yes, that would do very well, the dragon thought. And if they saw some other humans, then he could tell them that they were in no danger from him, and all would be well. No one would have to shout, and no one would be hurt.

He picked up the topmost box, of smooth dark wood inlaid with a tracery of gold on the lid. He didn't have to open it to know what was inside--he knew at once from the feel of the thing--but that only made him quicker to open the latch, which was only gilding over brass, but very nicely and neatly done.

Inside was a very nice little pile of golden things--mostly coins, and two rather small ingots, which he picked up gently between his claws to run his tongue over. There was nothing like the sweet taste of gold, and this was very pure, only a little mixed with silver to help it keep its shape.

There were some little gauds and fancy pieces, too--a couple of flowers made of gold mixed with copper, to give it a rosy color, pretty enough to excuse the base admixture. And there were two chains with bright gems set at intervals. He tried to wrap one around his right foreleg, but the gauntlet made his left too clumsy to manage it, and he knew the chain would look all wrong against the ugly base metal of the gauntlet.

He laid the chain back into the chest regretfully. Perhaps he could use the chains to adorn his human, once his human had settled down a bit. Right now, the dragon had no doubt that the human would fling such pretty things to the ground and stomp them underfoot, taking no care at all for how easily gold could be scratched, its lovely shine dulled.

The dragon set the chest of gold aside, and opened up a larger chest of lighter, reddish wood, with silver inlaid in its top. The contents of this chest were likewise unsurprising: silver in coins, and six small ingots. Wrapped carefully in soft cloth, there was a plate and bowl and goblet, knife and fork and spoon, a small pitcher, and a tray the rest would fit on, plus two candlesticks and three little spice boxes, all made of shining silver with fine engravings. The clasps of the boxes were so small that the dragon didn't dare try to open them with his claws.

These things were given to him as gifts, but they were for his human to use--and at a glance, the dragon realized that the rest of the chests and boxes contained similar things. There was no hint of metal around the rest of the gifts, and it was obvious that this little town could not muster an entire cartload of silver and gold and gems for a dragon.

The dragon glanced toward the door of the human's cave. His little human had finished his tantrum while the dragon was distracted by silver and gold, and, thinking of the soft things that must fill the other boxes, he thought of how soft and delicate his human was.

His hair was softer than even the purest gold, and his mushroom-pale skin was softer still--had he hurt it, pounding at the stone door? Had he scraped his throat raw with shouting?

Was he frightened at being left all alone with no one to shout at to show that he wasn't afraid?

The dragon gathered up the soft blue cloth that had been wrapped around the silver wares for his human and, holding it carefully in his claw on the right side, he used his left to pull the big door open again.

For a moment he didn't see his human at all, and then he spotted the glint of gold in the furthest corner, half-hidden behind the heavy iron stove. His human was curled up even smaller than usual, tucked into that sheltered spot and not looking up though he surely had heard the big door open.

The dragon wanted to call out to him, and realized he didn't know the proper way to do that, any more than he had known the humans were asking for fire.

"What is your name?" he asked quietly, still crouched near the door.

His human looked up warily, but after a moment he said, "Steve."

He didn't move, but a little of his former belligerence came back into his expression, making Steve look not quite so small, when he added, "What's yours?"

The dragon couldn't help looking down at the ugly gauntlet on his arm, remembering all the things his masters had called him. None of those had been a name. He didn't know if he'd ever had a name--he had never seen the mother who laid his egg, or if he had he hadn't known her. The masters had been waiting for him as soon as he cracked his shell, and he couldn't remember whether someone had brooded over him in a soft nest, deep in some comfortable hoard, or if the masters had stolen his egg as soon as it slipped from her body.

He thought sometimes that he remembered warmth, and singing, but he had never been able to remember any words. Nothing he could even pretend was a name.

He tried to think of something to say, anything he had ever been called that he wouldn't mind his human--Steve, gold-haired sky-eyed soft-skinned Steve--calling him.

"Buck," he offered finally.

There had been a dragon who called him that when he was young and just beginning training. He hadn't been cruel, though he'd been a spirited fighter--Steve would have been like that if he was a dragon. No fear in battle, but he would never have been cruel outside an open fight. "You can call me Buck."

Steve frowned, like he knew that buck really just meant young male dragon and was nothing special, no kind of real name at all, but he nodded. "Buck, then."

It sounded like it could be his name, when Steve said it. The dragon suddenly wanted to have a name more than he wanted any other treasure in his hoard--except Steve, who had given him the gift of making his name real.

Buck said quietly, "Come here, Steve? There are gifts for you. Soft things. You'll need them, I think."

Steve curled down small again for a moment, and Buck knew that it wasn't really defiance; he seemed to be gathering himself. Finally Steve stood up, and Buck could see rusty red on his hands, could smell the hard tang of iron from his blood exposed to air. He raised the cloth, but Steve didn't look toward it, coming to a stop a little way from Buck.

"You promise that you won't hurt anyone else?" Steve said quietly. "You won't--you won't demand more tribute, you won't set the crops on fire, or--or hurt anyone in the town?"

"I promise," Buck said solemnly. "I don't want to hurt anyone. I came a long way to get away from the war. I don't want to do anything like that anymore."

"Then... okay," Steve said, nodding and looking down. "Then that's... that's the bargain. And I came willingly, so. You're right. I'll stay. That's only fair."

Steve raised one hand, still clenched in a fist, knuckles all scraped red. Before Buck could try to dab away the blood with the cloth he held, Steve turned his hand, opening it, to show two tiny silver pennies and four crescent-shaped marks where his fingernails had dug into his flesh.

"These are yours," Steve said in a small, cracked voice. His outstretched hand was shaking. "I was--I was holding them to give to you."

Buck flicked his tongue out carefully over Steve's hand, exploring every line and contour, learning those two small pieces of silver--and those four gouged marks--more carefully than all the silver and gold in the chests outside. These were more precious than those could possibly be, given by his human with every evidence of how important, how uniquely valuable, they were.

"Put them somewhere safe," Buck said. "In here, where you can guard them. I don't want them to get mixed up with the rest. These are special, aren't they?"

Steve raised his eyes to meet Buck's, then, and he held Buck's gaze for a long, still moment before he nodded and turned away. He carefully laid the two pennies in the exact center of the big table, side by side, two bright glints in that dark expanse.

When he turned to face Buck again, his hands hung by his sides, his slim shoulders hanging lower than before. Buck didn't want to be shouted at, but he wanted his human's defiance back, the proud uprightness of him when he glared and told Buck what to do.

He didn't know how to give that back to his human, so he offered what would have cheered up any dragon. "Come out here, now. There are gifts for you."

Steve followed the dragon--Buck--out of the house-cave into a dark passageway. The little light that spilled out from the chamber behind him showed him the flower-decked cart he'd ridden on, along with the rest of Brooklyn's tribute to the dragon.

He could see that Buck had already opened the chests of gold and silver while Steve was screaming and begging on the other side of the door. A fresh spark of rage broke through his resolve to accept his fate, and he had to close his eyes and close his empty hands into fists, reminding himself that he had agreed to this. It was him here so that it wouldn't be anyone else, so the dragon wouldn't hurt anyone else. That was the bargain. If what Steve was suffering wasn't anything like what he'd expected... then he was lucky, or else Buck simply hadn't gotten to that part yet.

Buck was peering at the other boxes and bundles on the cart, flicking his tongue over them as he had at Steve, and he settled on a particular one.

"Here, Steve. Open this first." His voice took Steve by surprise every time he spoke, softer than he expected. He was coaxing now.

Steve climbed up onto the cart and over the bundles to the small chest of dark wood. His breath caught as soon as he touched it.

Steve hadn't been paying much attention while the rest of the tribute was gathered and packed. Last night Sam had poured a couple of stiff drinks into him and then tucked him into bed, and before dawn he'd been wakened up to be washed and groomed like a pony going to the fair and to have the ropes tied all over him.

So he hadn't seen this go onto the cart: his mother's medicine chest. Steve had given it to Judith, who had been more or less his mother's apprentice, after she died. Judith's family were farmers, prosperous enough, and Judith had no sickly son to look after; she'd already had the start of her own medicine chest by the time Sarah died, so she wouldn't really have needed it. She must have kept it for her bit of tribute--or just to remember her teacher by--and now here it was.

Steve ran his hand gently over the lid of it, remembering his mother rummaging through it for remedies, picking herbs with her to refill this or that jar. He had made labels for all the jars when he was twelve, decorated each with a little drawing of the source of its contents. He was scared to open the chest and see if they were all still there, if the glue had dried up and the paper flaked away after years in storage.

"For your hands," Buck said, jerking Steve out of his memories and making him look up. Buck's eyes glowed faintly--like a cat's. The passageway probably seemed bright as day to him.

Steve knew the salve his mother would have spread on the scrapes and cuts on his hands--she had, often enough, when he hurt himself exploring somewhere or got into a fight. His eyes filled with tears at just the memory of the salve's scent; he had been glad his mother hadn't lived to see this happen to him, and yet it was like a part of her was here with him, ready to take care of him. He wondered what Judith had packed, what she had thought he would need.

"Steve?" Buck prompted gently.

"It's--" Steve tried to breathe without sniffling, but Buck's head came down close to his and his tongue flicked out lightly at Steve's cheeks. Steve forced himself not to flinch or pull away, and said only, "It's too dark out here. I can tend to my hands in--in my room."

"Oh." Buck drew away from him slightly, looking around, as if only realizing for the first time that Steve needed more light than he did. "There will be lamps and candles somewhere," Buck said. "But you can see well enough in the other room? It is not too dark?"

He sounded oddly anxious about that, and Steve shook his head, still keeping his head bowed. "I can see all right in there."

"Go back, then, and I'll bring this." Buck actually nudged him gently, pressing his snout against Steve's shoulder. It was like being nosed by a carthorse when he was a child, except that Buck seemed to be rather more careful about not knocking him down.

Well, that and Buck wasn't after Steve's precious once-a-week candy. Steve let himself be nudged backward, and crawled carefully over the boxes to the front of the cart. He didn't want to fall--because he knew Buck would catch him again, and...

He didn't think about that. He went back into the little house-cave and looked around more carefully than he had before. He would need some water to wash his hands; there had been no sign of a well or pump outside anywhere, so there must be a source of water within the lair somewhere, and this would be the most logical place...

There was a deep, wide sink against the same wall as the stove, and two spigots protruded from the wall above it, like taps in a keg of beer. He cautiously pushed the left-hand lever and jerked back from the sudden gush of water. It looked clean and clear, and smelled a little sour with minerals, but not bad. He put his hands under the flow to rinse away the blood, and quickly realized that the water was getting hotter as it continued flowing. He yanked back his hands before it could get to scalding, and slapped the tap off.

"That must be piped from the hot spring that feeds the baths," Buck said, startling Steve when he realized how close the dragon was behind him. "The other tap will be cold."

Steve stared at the dragon a moment, then turned his attention back to shaking his hands as dry as he could. With his head down over the sink, Steve said, "The dragon who made this place must have really... really liked the human they kept here."

Buck didn't say anything in reply, and when Steve looked over his shoulder he realized that Buck wasn't there anymore. He probably hadn't ever been all that close, in terms of where his feet were planted, and now he was coming back in from the corridor with one chest held in his claws, carrying another with his tail.

The medicine chest was already on the table. Steve walked over to it, still shaking his hands to try to dry them. Buck set the chests he was carrying on the table and said, "I think one of these will have cloth in it. To dry your hands? Or... if you're cold?"

Buck raised one taloned forefoot to the latch on the chest, hesitating, and Steve said, "I can--I can get that. Here, let me."

Buck stepped back, letting Steve flip the latch open and lift the lid. As promised, there were linens inside, fine white sheets and towels woven in a striped pattern, blue and white. Too nice to wipe his hands on, but there was nothing else, and Buck was still standing there watching him, waiting. Steve picked up the smallest towel and gingerly dried his hands, trying to only touch the scraped places to the darker blue stripes, to hide any stains he left.

He stepped back up to the medicine chest, dropping the towel in front of it. For another second he rested his hands on the lid, and he felt the great presence of Buck pressing closer behind him.

The dragon's snout nudged his bare shoulder with a gentleness that made Steve's throat go tight. "Steve? Is it..."

"This was my mother's," Steve said, when he hadn't meant to say anything at all. His hands still rested motionless on the lid. "She was a healer, but she--she died. Years ago, not..."

Steve shook his head and made himself flip the latches open only to stop short at the sight and scent of his mother's medicine chest.

It was the same. It was all the same. Every jar freshly filled, and all the labels were the ones he had so carefully decorated and pasted in place. His breath caught on something that could have been a sob. He could almost hear his mother's voice, could almost feel her hands on his forehead, tending his hurts, though he had only a great scaly dragon by his side now.

"Mothers are very important," Buck said quietly, resting his chin lightly on Steve's shoulder. "She must have been precious to you, and you to her."

Steve squeezed his eyes shut and nodded quickly.

She had been all he had--and he had been all she had. Even when he was sick, hurt, even when he couldn't hold a job and help her... she had looked at him and he had known that he was special to her, worth all the trouble he caused. She had told him so often enough, but even at the end, even when she couldn't speak, he had seen it in her eyes.

"What would she have put on your hands if you hurt them?" Buck prompted gently.

Steve wanted to hate the dragon for intruding on this, but it would have been worse to be alone. He had had his taste of that, and the light touch on his shoulder was better than the alternative.

"She, uh," Steve wiped the back of one hand quickly under his eyes and then reached out. He didn't even have to see, he knew where the salve would be, pulled out the jar and found it full, freshly made. Up close he could see that someone had re-glued the label, but it was the one he had made.

He unscrewed the lid and set it outside, the sharp smell of the salve rising up to make his eyes prickle again.

Buck's head moved forward, Buck's tongue flicking out to taste the air just above the mouth of the jar. "Oh, it's made of growing things."

"Yeah, there's a few different herbs in it," Steve said. He dipped two fingertips in and scooped out a little of the salve, then rubbed it between his palms to warm it so it would spread easily over his scrapes. "This one's just for soothing, mostly. If it were a real bad cut that might fester, it would take a different one. But Ma would put this on when I skinned my knees or my knuckles. She said everything's worth tending if you care about it, even if it would heal on its own. She said..."

Steve had to stop there, his throat gone tight again, the scent of his mother's salve taking him back to their little cottage, back to his mother's touch and the days when he'd still believed he might grow up into something better. Someone worth all the love and care she poured into him.

There was a quick light touch on his cheek, once and again. He knew it was Buck's tongue, but it felt soft and kind.

"I'm glad your mother taught you that," Buck said quietly. "I'm glad someone treasured you before you came to be my treasure."

Steve pulled back a little, just far enough to meet Buck's eyes. "That's not..."

He couldn't bring any heat to it, couldn't even finish saying it. Buck's tongue flicked out again and again, wiping tears from his cheek before Buck nuzzled gently at the same spot.

"You are my treasure," Buck said patiently. "You are precious to me. I know that isn't the same as having a mother, but since neither of us has one of those maybe we'll do well enough for each other."

Chapter 4

His human settled down a little more after that. Buck had been close enough to right about the gifts: his human got very interested in going through them, making guesses about who had given which item. There were lots of pieces of cloth that apparently had different uses. Buck didn't recognize most of them, but he knew what a shirt was when Steve held it up.

Steve hesitated, lowering it and looking at Buck over it. "Can I... you said if I was cold..."

Buck glanced into the chest, but there didn't seem to be anything like armor, and he could always tell Steve he wasn't allowed to put on anything like that if it did turn up. "Yes, if you want to wear it. It's for you, go ahead."

Steve hurriedly tugged the shirt on, running his hands down over his chest. Buck brought his head close enough to flick his tongue at it, then run his lips over the cloth.

It certainly wasn't softer or finer than Steve's skin, but then that was what wrappings were for--to protect something more valuable with something less valuable. The shirt would protect Steve's pretty skin if Buck took him outside, or even while he was in the lair, since all the hard stone surfaces had the potential to hurt him if he tripped in the darkness.

Buck was going to have to do something about that. He couldn't have his human feeling trapped in this one part of the lair, even if he thought it would be rather cozy when his human had filled it up with the gifts that had been sent for him.

Steve dug through the trunk and made a pleased sound, pulling out a pair of dark blue trousers to pull on under the white shirt. They were stiffer than the shirt, and seemed as if they would be too harsh against Steve's skin--especially the tender places between his legs, which the trousers seemed meant to cover rather closely.

Buck nosed through the trunk, bringing his tail around to help him sort through the little articles. It wasn't easy to recognize the purpose of this or that piece, but soon he found just what he wanted--a very soft, shortened version of the trousers that would cover the most delicate places.

"Here, Steve," he said, before carefully drawing the item out with just his lips, not daring to use teeth or claws on the fragile item.

"What," Steve said, and then his whole face flushed a violent pink, as if he'd been burned.

Buck brought his tail around to hold the under-trousers and leaned closer to Steve, flicking his tongue out to try to detect whether he had somehow gotten hurt. Was he coming down sick? The reddened skin felt hotter, but not feverish, and he didn't have the smell of sickness or hurt on him.

"Buck," Steve said, swatting at Buck's tongue with his hand. "I can't--you want me to--to wear--those?"

"They go under your trousers," Buck explained, drawing back slightly.

Steve said it had been years since his mother died. Perhaps no one, since then, had taken proper care of Steve, and he hadn't known how to take good care of himself. Buck knew that the tender places grew both larger and more sensitive when humans reached adulthood; perhaps they hadn't been so much in need of care before.

Buck explained, "They protect you."

"Protect," Steve repeated, sounding faintly horrified at the idea. "From what? They're--I can practically see through them!"

Buck brought the garment to his mouth again, brushing the softest part of his lips over the cloth, flicking out his tongue. "It's silk, that's actually quite strong. But soft, so your skin won't be abraded by your trousers."

"My... skin," Steve repeated. The worst of the flush was already fading, and Buck remembered abruptly that some of the fairer-skinned masters had been prone to such color changes when they were angry. Steve himself had turned a bit pink earlier, when he was shouting at Buck. But he didn't seem angry now. Was he afraid?

Buck leaned closer, flicking his tongue out again, near to Steve but not touching him, just to get a better taste of his scent. He was running a bit hot, excited in some way, but he didn't seem fearful, exactly.

"Just try them," Buck said gently. "They'll feel nice. They're soft, like your skin."

He held out the undergarment, still carefully wrapped up in the end of his tail, and after a few seconds Steve reached out and took it. He turned away from Buck as he unfastened the trousers he'd pulled on.

Buck let Steve sort himself out while he went back out to get more boxes and bundles from the cart. Some of them had the interesting, varied scents of human foods; there was a big sack of flour and a chest that rattled and gave up the scent of base metals, iron and copper and tin.

Steve stood watching while Buck set down the gifts before him. He had put his trousers back on, so now he was covered from his throat to the tops of his feet, only his hands extending from the ends of his sleeves.

"These are all for you," Buck said. "For here, for you to be well kept. You may arrange them as you like, so that you will be comfortable."

Buck went back out to the cart, and found the tightly-compacted shapes of three feather ticks all tied down tightly in a wrapping of canvas. He carried them inside and over to the big wooden bedframe in the warmest corner of the cave. Steve was at least looking through the chests now, though he still seemed bewildered.

"Here, this first," Buck directed, though he could have done it himself. "Untie these and spread them out."

Steve came over, frowning, but he untied the knots with quick, clever fingers and spread out the layers of softness to make his bed. He did not smooth them out with particular care, but Buck took that over, using his tail to slide between the ticks and settle them nicely.

Steve soon returned with a pile of cloth, and when Buck moved out of his way, he spread the sheets of cloth over the bed in a meticulous fashion. Buck left him to it, pleased that he was finally getting the idea, and went out to see what was still left on the cart.

Steve had not had a particularly clear idea of how it would go, his first day belonging to a dragon. He hadn't thought there was much use in trying to make a plan, or expect anything. Something would happen--which would probably hurt, and maybe kill him--and then he would deal with it however he could.

He was not at all sure how to deal with this. Buck hadn't hurt him at all--the few little scrapes on his hands were his own doing--and instead he was outfitting a snug little cave as if it were his own cottage, complete with a fine iron stove and an attached privy behind a stone door so tightly fitted that Steve hadn't known it was there until he expressed the necessity and Buck pointed it out. That was certainly a comfort no one had down in the town.

He had finer things to furnish the cave than he'd ever imagined owning, soft linen sheets and warm bright blankets, feather ticks and down pillows and a whole larder's worth of food with good iron pots and pans and a copper kettle, tins and jars of a dozen ingredients, even spices. He had his own bed big enough to sleep a whole family, plates and bowls and cups of pottery and plates and bowls and cups of silver, knives and forks and spoons and more things than he knew what to do with.

And he had new clothes, which the dragon had insisted he wear, including the silky little smallclothes that surely must have been intended for some other tribute than him, or some other use than being hidden away under his trousers. They were very soft, and clung to his skin. Nothing should have been able to distract him from the dragon, and yet...

The new clothes were very, very distracting.

When Steve had put his new home in order to Buck's satisfaction, the dragon said, "Now, I will show you about my lair. You may ride upon my back if you do not like being carried."

Steve wanted to argue that he could walk, but he remembered the inky darkness outside this little oasis. "Will I be able to see anything? If it's dark?"

"Some of the other caves are lit like this one," Buck explained. "And... you could bring a light?"

It was those last tentative words that put an end to any thought Steve had of refusing to go or telling Buck he didn't wish to be dragged through miles of underground tunnels. All these things for his comfort really belonged to Buck, but he had never said a word about that, hadn't shown the least sign of meaning to hold any of it back to punish him. He hadn't complained about Steve dawdling through putting them away or showed any impatience.

He wanted Steve to like it here, impossible as that seemed. He wanted Steve to wear fancy drawers to protect his skin.

And Steve had volunteered, and promised to stay. The least he could do was try to be friendly, as long as the dragon didn't show any signs of...

Steve pushed those thoughts away. Nothing like what he'd expected seemed likely to happen now, and if it did, well, he had volunteered knowing anything was possible.

"I'd like that," Steve tried. "A light, please. And I could ride on your back."

Buck's head lifted, his tongue flicking out briefly and the spines around his head rising. A dragon's smile, Steve thought, pleased to recognize it.

"If you'll get out a candle," Buck said. "I can light it. That's the easiest way."

Steve remembered the huge gout of flame that had resulted from Buck's attempt to light Mella's torch, but he went and got one of the dozen sweet-smelling beeswax tapers in the chest. He held it out uncertainly, but Buck did his smile again and shook his head.

"Come to the door--just to the door--and hold it out by the end. And put your other hand over your eyes."

Buck headed out into the corridor, and Steve heard him pushing the empty cart some distance away in the close, echoing darkness.

"I can see you!" Buck called out cheerfully. "You're not covering your eyes!"

Steve huffed but placed his left hand over his eyes, holding the candle out in his right hand like the baton in a festival relay.

There was a sudden flare of light and crackling heat; even with his eyes closed and his hand shielding them, it registered as a flash of red, there and gone. Steve lowered his hand, looked down to see that it was unblistered, and then realized that he was seeing in the light of the candle.

It was burning merrily, only half an inch of the wick blackened. The whole length of the taper was still held out from Steve's hand.

"Ha!" Buck said, coming back out of the darkness to join him. "I do know my range, at least. You should light a lamp with that, so the wax doesn't drip everywhere."

"Yes," Steve said, dazed. "I'll just..."

He turned away, his brain still flashing wordlessly black, then red, then black again. He had already filled the lamps with oil, so it was easy enough to light one. He pinched out the candle, though there was hardly any melted wax to avoid splashing, and set it down carefully to cool.

Walking back to Buck with the lamp in his hand, he couldn't feel anything but the soft friction of his drawers against his cock. Steve bit his lip hard, trying to ignore the teasing sensation, but his whole body was running hot and wild from that shock, including that part.

When he stepped out into the dark tunnel, Buck was waiting for him, folded down low to the ground with his wings held back to make an obvious place for Steve to sit astride the base of his long neck. Walking over to him, feeling his cock sliding half-hard between his thigh and that slippery-soft cloth, Steve thought hopefully, Maybe it will be really uncomfortable. Maybe those scales will pinch.

Buck lowered his neck nearly to the ground to make it easy for Steve to climb on, even holding the lamp in one hand, and as soon as Steve was in place he knew that hope was in vain. He was straddling the thick column of Buck's neck. When it rose up between his legs it was like being astride a big man's thigh, the flex of muscle and subtle motion pressing right against him.

Steve let out an involuntary noise and pressed his free hand against his mouth, fighting the wave of sensation.

"Don't worry, Steve!" Buck said brightly. "I won't let you fall. And I can't go too fast down here anyhow."

Steve squeezed his eyes shut and tried to shift into a position that wouldn't be so... so very...

His left thigh nudged up against something cool and unyielding, and he looked down and realized it was the metal armor that covered Buck's left foreleg.

Dragon, he reminded himself. Dangerous.

But not to him. Buck hadn't so much as singed the hairs off the back of his hand when lighting his candle. Buck hadn't even threatened him; he'd asked if Steve wanted to be made a king, to use Buck's power to rule over others. It had been pretty obvious that Buck hated the idea, but still--he couldn't help knowing the power of the creature under him. Between his legs.

Steve stared straight ahead as Buck set off down the dark tunnel and tried not to feel anything at all, or think about anything.

"I got lucky with this place," Buck was saying, walking surefootedly down a tunnel that, even with the lamp raised, was just endless dim shadows to Steve's sight. "It's been empty a long time, but the dragon who was here before left it in good order."

"He went to the wars," Steve said. "The people here made some bargain with him, I think--it was in the old days, when there was a king in York, and the dragon took his human and went to fight, to defend the border."

Buck didn't reply right away to that, but his head drooped lower. After a second's relief that he wasn't rubbing quite so intimately between Steve's legs, Steve realized that that was sadness, or something like it. Hadn't Buck said he came all this way to get away from fighting and hurting people?

"Were you...?" Steve didn't know how to ask.

"Don't have to worry for him coming back and reclaiming the place, anyway," Buck muttered, and Steve leaned forward to lay a hand on his neck.

"It's only right, I think," Steve said firmly. "If he couldn't come home from the war to enjoy this place--I bet he would have wanted some other dragon to be able to get away from the fighting and have it. A safe place."

Buck stopped walking and craned his head to look at Steve. "I didn't... I didn't want to fight. I didn't like it. I wasn't... defending anyone."

Steve swallowed but kept his gaze steady on Buck's uncanny eyes, reflecting the lamplight silver and blue. "Then it's good that you aren't fighting anymore, isn't it? It's good that you came to Brooklyn."

Buck curled his head around, and Steve raised his hand from the base of Buck's neck, reaching toward his face. Buck's tongue flickered out, touching lightly against his palm, and then Buck straightened himself out, facing front again and raising his head almost as high as before.

Steve closed his eyes and did not rock his hips down against Buck's muscular neck.

"It's in pretty good shape, for how long it's been empty," Buck said, as if there had been no interruption. "A few of the caves are blocked up where rocks have fallen, but we can clear those out when we've got time; they're safe enough where they are. And there's still quite a nice hoard in these upper caves."

Steve saw a glow ahead and realized that the little bit of lamplight reaching that far was reflecting off something at one side of the tunnel. The glow grew as they got closer, until a gleam like soft yellow daylight shone back at him through a doorway, showing him a cave heaped with an impossible quantity of gold.

"Oh," Steve said in a small voice, staring.

"Yes," Buck agreed cheerfully. "It's a very nice pile, isn't it? I've been sleeping there, mostly--gold is so much nicer than gems to sleep on."

"Gems," Steve repeated faintly.

"Yes! In all colors, would you like to see?" Buck started moving again, carrying Steve away through the tunnel to another offshoot cave. His light didn't reflect as easily off them, but the glitter and shine was obvious.

"And then there's the silver, of course," Buck said, when Steve only stared in silence, and he carried Steve away to another cave, and another after that. He showed Steve the places where rocks had fallen, blocking off some caves, and the great cavern--one of the ones lit from above, though even more dimly than the house-cave--where warm water bubbled up into a series of pools.

"Baths," Buck observed cheerfully. "That will be very nice in winter, won't it?"

"Very nice," Steve echoed absently. He could hardly think at all, just staring around. His heart was beating fast again and his face felt hot, and he was not wriggling against the thick column of Buck's neck between his thighs.

"Tomorrow perhaps you could show me around, above ground," Buck said almost diffidently. "I don't know much of the country around here, other than where to get deer."

Steve's stomach rumbled at the thought, and Steve felt Buck jump a little, tensing from head to tail-tip under him. "Oh! Oh, I've been showing you things for hours, you must be hungry! You need to eat every day."

"Yes," Steve agreed faintly. "Yes, every day."

"We'll go back." Buck turned and headed off at a brisker pace, presumably back the way they had come. Steve closed his eyes and tried to keep the lamp steady in his hand, but it was all he could do to brace himself against the feeling of Buck moving under him, muscles bunching under the stiffness of his scales, and the firm sense that he could be moving faster, could take wing, if not for the walls around them.

And all the time there was the maddening, delicious friction of silk against his crotch.

When he was back in his own house-cave, and off of Buck, Steve managed to put his mind to eating. He found some bread and cheese, a pot of butter and jars of preserves, and he made himself a good little meal of that. It was only when he'd eaten that he noticed how dim the room had gotten. The light from those holes in the ceiling was barely a glow, silvery blue like Buck's eyes.

Starlight. The long day was done, and he'd survived. He felt a little more alert now that he'd eaten and wasn't dazed with arousal--he still felt that warm weight between his legs, but it wasn't so urgent or distracting now. He looked over at Buck, who had made himself almost unobtrusive while Steve ate. "Well, I think I'll turn in."

"Oh!" Buck lifted his head and brought it closer to Steve, and Steve stood up and walked nearer to him, letting Buck's tongue flick at the air around him, barely brushing his cheek, his hand. The tiny touches lingered on his skin, stirring up that warm wanting, but he didn't let himself think about that. It was just touch, sensation. Anything could do it when he was in this sort of mood.

"Yes," Buck agreed. "You should rest."

Steve smiled a little. "Glad you agree, Buck."

He washed up and used the privy, and stripped off his trousers and those damned silky underthings as well. Buck couldn't argue he needed protecting from a linen-covered feather tick.

He shouldn't have underestimated the dragon, though. When he made to get into bed in his shirt, Buck said, "No, wait! The longer shirts are for sleeping, you said so yourself."

Steve sighed, but he went back to the trunk and shuffled through the things there until he found the fine, soft nightshirt, thinner and a little longer than his regular shirt. He turned his back to Buck, changing one for the other, and then held out his arms, trying to ignore the brush of soft cloth against his crotch and the tops of his thighs. He'd be able to deal with it soon enough. "There. May I go to bed now?"

Buck nodded firmly, and Steve was not in the least surprised when, once he had climbed in and pulled the blankets over himself, Buck leaned over him to fuss at them. The dragon had to assure himself that Steve was quite comfortable, that his feet were warm enough and his head was resting at a pleasing angle on the cloud-soft pillow.

Steve was really comfortable, and the little bit of squirming and friction from Buck fiddling with the covers was only increasing his need for Buck to leave him alone to attend to himself. And of course, no sooner had he thought that than Buck's head swung down his body to hover just above his hips, where no bulge could possibly be seen under the layers of covers.

Buck's tongue flicked out again, and Steve sat up with a sudden shout, flailing out with both hands to push him away. Buck jerked back but said only, "Is it quite sensitive? You should--"

"I just need to go to sleep," Steve snapped. "Good night."

Buck tilted his head, looking dubious, but then said, "Very well."

And then he curled himself around Steve's bed, laying his head on the covers by Steve's legs.

Steve could only stare for a moment, and then spluttered out, "What are you--you're not--"

"A dragon always sleeps by his treasure," Buck said, sounding rather drowsy already. "Can't have anyone sneaking in to steal you."

Can't have me sneaking out, you mean, Steve thought with a glance at the big stone door to the cave, still open wide enough for Steve to slip through. Not that he would, if Buck would just give him ten minutes' privacy, because he did want to sleep. He just couldn't. Not yet. And not with Buck right there.

"Well, I can't sleep with you so close," Steve snapped. "Get out."

Buck lifted his head, studying Steve again, and then looking down at Steve's lap. His tongue flicked out again, though not from nearly so close this time, so Steve only glared at him.

"It's quite normal," Buck said, "I've seen many--"

"No," Steve snapped, even as a corner of his mind recalled that he'd expected Buck to ravish him when this day started, and now he was refusing to have Buck too close while he touched himself. But it was different, what you suffered when you couldn't do anything else and what you actually allowed. "It's private."

Buck looked baffled again. "Private?"

"Yes!" Steve snapped. "Private! It's--delicate, it needs to be protected."

"Oh, of course," Buck said promptly. "I'll--"

"It needs to be protected from you!" Steve shouted.

Buck recoiled harder this time, uncurling from around Steve's bed, his wings rising slightly and then clamping down tight to his back.

"Get out!" Steve added, unable to think of anything but that he had actually scored a hit somehow.

Buck stood and turned away, slipping out of the cave, and Steve stared after him for a second, stunned by the victory, and then his body recalled him to what he'd needed for hours now. He shoved his hand under the covers and gripped his cock, and the touch felt better than anything ever had, his whole body running hot with anger and his skin sensitized till it felt thin as that stupid silk.

He stroked himself fast and rough, thinking of nothing, hearing nothing but the pounding of his pulse in his ears, feeling only the pleasure, the satisfaction of the need, that sped along with his racing heart. It wasn't long before he was coming in hard pulses that shook his whole body, stealing his breath.

For a few minutes he drifted, dazed and near to dropping right into sleep, and then it suddenly occurred to him what he'd said to drive Buck away.

Oh. Oh hell. Steve wiped his sticky hand on his thigh and pushed back up to sit again. "Buck?"

The door of the cave wasn't closed. He didn't think Buck would have gone far. Would he? After what Steve had said...

"Buck, I didn't... I didn't mean that I thought you would hurt me," he called out, trying to think of how to explain the difference between mortification and fear. "I just... I just wanted to be by myself for a minute. It's all right, you can come back now."

Still nothing, but he thought he heard a gust of wind that must have been the dragon's breath, down here underground.

"Please," Steve tried, squeezing his eyes shut. "Please, Buck, I don't want to be all alone all night. Please come back."

He only realized it was true as he was saying it. The thought of being alone here in this cave all night, in the deep silence of this stone-walled place, was horrible. It would be like lying in a tomb. All his life he'd slept where others were sleeping too, on the trundle bed beside his mother's in their cottage, or in the tavern where the thin walls meant he could always hear someone else snoring or... doing quite a range of other things... even after the barroom had emptied out and all was quiet.

There was another gust of wind just outside, and then Steve's heart jumped with relief as the huge black shape of Buck slipped back inside.

"I just wanted to be alone for a moment," Steve repeated, seeing the way Buck carried his head low, even now. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said it like that. I didn't think you would hurt me like that, I just... I just wanted to do it myself."

Buck's head swung close, his tongue flicking over Steve's right hand, then lingering, actually really licking over his skin. Steve's face flamed at the thought of what he must taste, and his spent cock throbbed a little too.

No, he told himself. Absolutely not.

"I wouldn't have interfered," Buck said quietly. "I know humans all have their own ways of doing that. Only..." Buck raised his head level with Steve's, and his tongue flicked out again, brushing against Steve's flushed cheek.

"You are my treasure," Buck said quietly, his voice so low and close that Steve could feel it skittering across his skin, vibrating in his bones. "What pleases you pleases me. I won't prevent you from taking pleasure."

For a moment Steve couldn't speak at all, and when he did manage it the words came out small. "I know that now."

Buck's tongue flickered gently against his cheek, and Buck said, "You'll have plenty of time to know it."

He settled down again, curling himself around Steve's bed, but he set his head carefully at the corner of the tick, far from Steve's feet. Steve couldn't bring himself to scoot closer, but he curled up with his face tilted toward Buck's, and before long he slept.

Chapter 5

Buck lay awake a long time, with the sharp taste of Steve's pleasure lingering on his tongue, and Steve himself so close. Sleeping was a sign of trust, he knew, and that meant it really was true, what Steve had said in the end. He wasn't frightened of Buck; he had only wanted to hoard up his own pleasure for himself, and not share it with Buck.

It wasn't as if Buck couldn't understand the impulse to be selfish. Dragons were known for it, after all. And he had little enough experience of pleasure; he had never seen his masters indulging in it, and from the time he was too young to really mate, he had been punished harshly for anything resembling that sort of play.

He had caught glimpses now and then of dragons mating as their masters required, or furtive humans coupling in out of the way places. The one thing he knew was that the pleasure that was best, for humans and for dragons, was the kind that was shared.

But Steve hadn't wanted to share with him, and now, lying here watching Steve sleep, it occurred to Buck to wonder if he would want to share with Steve.

They couldn't mate, obviously, but the masters would not have been so harsh about other things if they did not think dragons would like to do them. There must be ways to have pleasure together without making an egg.

Maybe if he showed Steve that he could share, Steve would learn to share as well?

But the thought of touching himself with a human nearby made Buck want to burrow deep in the earth and hide, even though he knew Steve wasn't a master at all and couldn't hurt Buck if he wanted to.

Buck probably should have been more understanding about Steve wanting to be alone.

Still, Steve was asleep now--sleeping quite deeply--and Buck knew that Steve's eyes were much weaker than his. If he was quiet, Steve wouldn't be able to tell what he was doing, even if he did wake up.

Buck kept his head on the bed, watching Steve's sleeping face, but doubled his tail around to his belly to rub tentatively at the tightly-closed slit in his belly that concealed his cock.

Even that much would have been punished by the masters--and even that muffled sensation made Buck tremble all over. His tail jerked away instinctively and he lifted his head and turned away just in time to send a little rush of flame harmlessly away from Steve and his dreadfully flammable bed.

When he looked down Steve was blinking drowsily at him. "Buck? Whazzat?"

"There was a fly," Buck lied promptly. "I didn't want it to get into your things."

Steve blinked and then cuddled back down into his pillows, eyes closing. "You showed 'em, huh."

"Yes," Buck said, and he wrapped the tip of his tail firmly around a bedpost and told himself to go to sleep.

He slept only lightly--no sooner would he doze off than he would be dreaming of the masters. Every time he was awake enough to know where he was he was afraid of putting out flames by accident and lighting Steve's bed on fire.

It was a relief when he was startled out of an uneasy drowse by Steve sitting up, yawning and stretching before he said, "Buck? Is it morning?"

Buck looked up at the angle of light coming in, and said, "Yes, an hour past dawn."

"An hour!" Steve looked up at the ceiling and hopped out of bed so quickly that Buck had to scramble to clear his way.

Steve looked around as soon as his feet were on the ground and then his shoulders sagged. He smiled a little and ran a hand through his hair in an oddly nervous way. "I guess it doesn't matter, does it? No chores to do or anything. Or... do you want me to do anything? Should I?"

"I wanted you to sleep until you were properly rested," Buck pointed out, but when he flicked his tongue around Steve his scent seemed to indicate that that had been accomplished. "You should... eat, probably?"

"Yes," Steve said. "Um. Privy, first."

Buck nodded agreeably and set to tidying up Steve's bed while Steve tended to that disagreeable necessity. Then he raised up to his fullest height to examine the skylights. The room seemed perfectly bright to him, and Steve clearly could see well enough to get around, but he had not thought it was as late as an hour past dawn. Perhaps he would like more lights? Or brighter ones?

"Can you smell what's outside?"

Buck looked down to see that Steve was standing near his hind feet, looking up the line of Buck's body to see what he was doing.

That put Steve's face and hands quite close to Buck's belly slit. Steve showed no sign of knowing--humans found it oddly difficult to identify that spot--but it reminded Buck of his thoughts the night before. He was suddenly aware that he would very much like Steve to touch him there, perhaps with those quick, clever fingers, or even with his lips, rosy pink and impossibly soft.

Buck took a hasty step back, and his tail smashed into two wooden chairs, knocking them over with a loud clatter. Steve jumped back as well, and was half-hidden in the corner behind the stove by the time Buck realized how ridiculously he had overreacted.

"Sorry," Buck said. "You startled me."

Steve blinked at him, frowning, but did not point out that Buck hadn't jumped away from him until he'd already been looking down at Steve for several seconds.

"I was looking at the skylights," Buck went on, using his tail to put the chairs back into place and gesturing toward the lights with his head. "I think these are supposed to be letting in more light--they're probably dirty, or maybe even partially covered, on the outside."

Steve straightened up and stepped away from the wall, looking up again without coming so close to Buck. "Skylights?"

"Oh, yes!" Buck latched on to the distraction immediately. "Rather nicely done, too--some sort of hard crystal or tempered glass at this end, and probably at the other end as well--I think some of these are using mirrors to bring the light down, but that part should all be safe enough as long as they've stayed sealed at the top."

"Oh," Steve said, stepping a little closer and squinting. "I thought they were, um, holes. But they won't let rain in, then, or snow or anything."

"No, not at all!" Buck straightened up then, stretching his head high to check the near ends of the skylights carefully, but he didn't detect any cracks or signs of weakness in the crystals covering the lower ends of the lights. He looked back down at Steve, and found him smiling slightly as he watched.

"I would never let you live somewhere the rain and snow could get in," Buck said firmly, lowering himself down to the floor again so that he could look Steve in the eye. "I will always keep you safe, Steve. You're my treasure."

Steve looked away, running a hand through his hair, before he met Buck's eyes. "I know that. I just... I mean, there's safe, and then there's... this."

Buck looked around the snug little cave and back to Steve. "This is not safe?"

"This is more than safe," Steve said, the words bursting out as if he'd been holding them back. "This isn't just--stopping me from getting hurt or going hungry, this is... is... coddling."

Buck tilted his head. "How else should I treat something precious? You're not a piece of gold to be shut in a cave, and only care that it isn't stolen. You're a whole person. If I am to keep you well, I must give you everything you require--not just to stay alive, but to be the very best and--and happiest that you can be."

Steve turned away from Buck entirely, hiding his face in his hands. Buck withdrew a little way, hoping that Steve wouldn't shout again, or say that he could not be his best, or happiest, unless Buck let him go away. But if that were true...

Steve's voice sounded a little rough and hoarse when he spoke again, but it wasn't a shout. He only said, "I guess I'd better eat, then. And... maybe we could go outside? And see where the tops of the skylights are?"

"Yes," Buck said immediately, grateful that Steve seemed to have accepted what he said without feeling the need to argue. "Yes, you must eat. I shall look to see if you have a good hat to keep the sun off you when we go out."

Steve explored his food supplies a bit more while assembling his bit of breakfast. He had flour and salt and a firmly-sealed jar of bread-starter, so he would be able to bake his own bread when the loaf packed for him was gone. He fed the starter with a bit of honey and a little warm water from the tap and put it on the stove, which was still cold but would, obviously, be easy enough to light. He could gather some wood, too, perhaps.

Buck really did insist that he wear a hat, though. He had found one among the trunks full of things for Steve--a straw hat with a wide brim, trimmed with sky-blue ribbon. Steve put it on and wondered who in town had made it. There hadn't been much time to make things new, once the decision was made to give tribute, but folk had suspected the dragon's presence for more than a week by then.

He pushed the thought of his former neighbors down in Brooklyn out of his mind. They were safe because of him, and if Buck was going to let him out of the cave perhaps Steve would be able to find ways to communicate with them, or even visit. If he told Buck he needed to go shopping on market days...?

For now, though, he put on the hat, tied it under his chin when Buck insisted, and rode on dragon-back up to the surface. It was a much shorter ride than the day before, and he was better able to keep from getting distracted by the feeling of Buck--and another pair of fine silk drawers--between his legs.

Then he saw light--real daylight, almost blinding after a day in the dimness of Buck's lair--and his eyes prickled with tears. It was mostly just brightness, but... maybe not entirely.

He hadn't been sure, when Buck carried him inside, that he would ever see the sky again.

When they actually emerged from the cave Buck stopped for a moment, and Steve tipped his head back and stared up at the blue vastness overhead. There were just a few clouds high up, fluffy and white, promising a clear, calm day.

Steve looked down toward the town, then, but he barely had time to try to work out what was where before Buck was moving under him, twisting and springing upward. Steve lunged low over his neck, wrapping his arms around him and holding on; he barely had time to realize that Buck was leaping up the nearly-vertical wall of rock above the opening of his lair before he was springing up over the lip of it onto a grassy flatland. There was a line of trees perhaps a quarter of a mile back from the edge, but where they stood was the edge of a great flat meadow.

Steve straightened up from clinging to Buck's neck and looked back--down--at the town below them. It looked like a collection of toys on a green and brown rug: he could identify the collection of shops and the tavern, the cottages clustered near them, the farms spreading farther away.

Buck, meanwhile, was looking around on the ground, sniffing and occasionally prodding things with his nose.

"Here, Steve," he called. "Come look."

Steve slid down from Buck's neck and hurried over to Buck, and found what looked like a burrow in the ground--but he could just see a glint of light being reflected from within it. He knelt and reached down, and looked up at Buck, startled, when his hand met something smooth and cool as glass.

Buck gave his dragon smile, head tilting, spines rising, and Steve looked back down at the hole in the ground and started working at it with his hands, raking dirt and grass back from that glimmer of glass.

He was only at it for a moment before Buck nudged him away. "Let me do that, Steve. You're getting your hands dirty."

Steve huffed but let Buck take over--he was certainly quicker about it, his curved talons cutting through the earth to widen the hole in just a few strokes, and then the tiny dome of glass was laid bare.

Steve leaned in, practically crawling under the dragon to reach, and carefully brushed the scattering of earth off the smooth glass. He squinted, peering down into it, but with his head in the way there wasn't enough light to see anything at the bottom; he had the impression that he was looking down through some sort of pipe, but nothing more.

Then he looked around, remembering the approximate arrangement of the holes--skylights--in the ceiling of the cave. There ought to be another glass dome not too far away...

He crawled through the grass, looking.

"Steve!" Buck followed him, extending a wing over him like a sunshade. "You're getting dirty. I can do that! The reflectors have gold in them, I can find them easily."

"Well, find them faster than me, then," Steve said, daring to grin up at Buck as he stuck his hand down the hole of another skylight.

Buck made an exasperated noise and looked away, keeping his wing over Steve as he dug out a few others nearby. Steve moved in to tidy the rough cuts Buck made in the earth, using a handful of grass to wipe the glass clean, so they soon fell into a comfortable rhythm.

Steve stayed in Buck's shadow, since Buck groused at him when he didn't, but took his hat off, since Buck made it redundant by insisting on hiding him from the sun. They moved together easily enough, and he was absorbed enough in the work to forget the strangeness of crawling around beside, or beneath, a dragon.

He fell a little behind, peering into a lens, and didn't notice until he raised his head to look around and nearly collided with Buck's underside when he had thought he was nearer to forelegs. The dragon's belly scales were different from the leaf-shaped ones that covered the rest of his body, being smooth chevron-shaped plates of a lighter gray.

From this particular vantage, Steve could see a slight gap where two of the belly-plates didn't quite overlap, revealing paler skin underneath. A scar? Steve pushed up to look more closely, his hair brushing against Buck's belly as he looked at that fleshy line, and then he was suddenly blinking in the full glare of the sun as Buck surged up and away from him.

Steve threw up one arm to shade his eyes, staring as Buck actually took flight, his great dark wings flapping against the bright blue sky.

He dropped back to earth after another second, and Steve abruptly remembered that this had happened just an hour or two ago, down in the cave. He had said Steve startled him, and Steve had been awfully close to his underside then, too. It was obviously a sensitive place, and if that was a scar, he must have been dreadfully hurt there before.

In the war? He had said that he had come here to get away from fighting and hurting people, but that didn't mean he couldn't have been hurt too.

"I'm sorry!" Steve called out, just as Buck returned lightly to the earth, folding quickly down on all fours to put his belly out of sight. "I didn't mean to startle you again."

Buck just shook his head. "Get your hat, Steve. We should go back inside. The sun's getting high, you'll burn. And you're all dirty."

"So are you," Steve pointed out. The silvery metal of Buck's odd armor was thoroughly blackened on its lower half, and there was dirt clinging around the bases of all his talons, and between the scales of his right foreleg, smudged here and there on his underside.

"Baths, then," Buck said briskly, and lowered himself to the ground for Steve to climb on.

Steve thought about how long the ride was from the front of the cave down to the cavern with the baths. The torturous pleasure of it was probably just what he deserved. He said only, "We should stop and get a lamp. And clean clothes and towels. And soap."

Buck grumbled at him, but he did stop at the house-cave for Steve to gather things to take to the bath. He even joined Steve in admiring how much brighter it was now that the skylights had been cleaned.

It only made the darkness outside seem darker afterward, but Steve clutched the lamp in one hand and the armor on Buck's shoulder with the other and thought grimly that he'd brought this on himself.

Chapter 6

Buck realized when he reached the cavern of the baths that he had not chosen a very sensible way to distract himself from wanting Steve to touch him.

He nudged Steve toward the smallest of the baths, which was also the coolest, no warmer than the warm air of the cave. "That one won't burn you."

Steve dipped his hand into it, but shook his head and walked briskly toward the next pool. "My ma was a great believer in the hottest water you can stand. I think it was mostly for getting clean of contamination, or disease, but I never feel properly clean until I've had a really hot bath. Or else a really cold one."

Buck hated cold water almost as much as he hated snow, but he didn't much like feeling as if he were being bathed in dragonfire, either. Still, surely hot water would feel hotter to pale, soft human skin than to dragon scales? He and Steve couldn't possibly like to take equally hot baths.

They didn't, as it turned out. Steve slid into the third pool with a happy sigh. Buck's favorite was the fourth, separated from the third by only a narrow wall of stone. He got in and began to rub his scales against the stone and sand, and couldn't help thinking about how nice it would be to have Steve help him scrub the hard-to-reach spots.

Steve made another happy noise, and Buck couldn't help looking over to see him rubbing his skin with a soft cloth, using soap that lathered up into white bubbles rather than sand. That only made sense, with such delicate skin, and Buck got distracted from his own bath by watching Steve enjoy his.

As Steve washed lower down his body, Buck found himself coiling up in anticipation, his tail curling in. Would Steve touch himself, pleasure himself, in the half-concealment of the hot water and the dim, steamy room? Or would he simply keep running his hands and the cloth over his pale skin, making little noises of contentment?

The last thing Buck was expecting was for Steve to stop with his hands on his belly and open his eyes, looking straight at Buck.

He hurried to pretend that he hadn't been watching, twisting half away and rubbing his shoulder into the stone wall, but when he stole another glance Steve was still watching him. He looked nervous--more like when he had been first brought to Buck than this morning's pleasant hours working to clear the skylights together.

"What's wrong?" Buck asked.

Steve bit his lip and waded closer to the wall. "I... I wanted to ask you, but maybe it's private. If you don't want to tell me, I won't ask again."

Buck twisted around to face Steve fully, remembering what he had wanted to conceal from Steve the night before. Did Steve somehow suspect what Buck had been doing? Would he dislike it, even if he couldn't punish Buck as the masters would?

"I saw that... that line, on your belly," Steve explained haltingly, when Buck said nothing. "And I know that must be why you jumped away from me like that. Because you didn't want me to touch, or maybe even to see it. Was it... were you wounded there?"

For a moment Buck could taste the sharpness of magic on his tongue; he could feel the sting of the iron whips, and he curled himself up protectively without thinking.

Then he caught a glimpse of gold, and saw that Steve had pulled himself half out of the water and was leaning over the wall dividing their bathing pools. He was looking at Buck with worry, reaching out one soft, small hand.

Buck uncurled and brought his head almost to Steve's hand, flicking out his tongue to brush lightly across Steve's palm and fingertips. He tasted of soap and stone more than anything. "Sorry. Just... remembering."

"No, I'm sorry." Steve slid back down into the water and turned away, his slim shoulders hunched. "I shouldn't have said anything. It was pretty obvious you didn't want to... never mind. Sorry."

Buck moved closer, extending his head across the divide so he could flick his tongue over the unhappy curve of Steve's shoulder. When that got no response, he nudged softly, brushing his nose over Steve's bare skin.

Steve twitched at that, turning his head to look at Buck, and then he cautiously raised one hand to set it on top of Buck's nose. The skin there was without scales, so he could feel Steve's hand nearly as well as if Steve touched his lip. Or if he touched...

Buck closed his eyes and rested his chin on Steve's shoulder for a moment, enjoying the closeness of his human and the small weight of Steve's hand resting gingerly on his nose. No harness, no whip, not a scrap of magic--but Steve didn't need any of those. He was Buck's treasure, precious to him, and so Steve only had to say what he wanted and Buck would do it.

And Steve wanted to know why Buck had been so shy of him today.

Even if it disgusted Steve, even if this gentle touch of his hand was all Buck would ever have from him, Buck had to tell him. How could his treasured human ever be happy when he thought that he had hurt Buck somehow?

"It's not your fault," Buck said quietly, trying not to open his jaw wide enough to dislodge Steve's hand.

Steve twisted around to face him, taking his hand away, but when Buck lowered his nose and nudged hopefully at it, Steve set it on Buck's nose again. He looked searchingly at Buck's eyes, and Buck had to look away from that sky-blue gaze.

"And it's not a wound," Buck muttered. "It's... it's where my cock is. We carry ours hidden, not flapping around all the time like humans."

"Oh!" Steve's hand jerked away from Buck's nose, and his face went red-hot as his eyes darted down toward Buck's belly, though it was well concealed behind the stone wall between them. Then he looked up to meet Buck's eyes again, starting to frown as he said, "But you didn't want...?"

"Well," Buck said, pulling back from Steve and nosing at his scales as if he had nothing better to do than wash up, though he couldn't quite keep the peevishness out of his voice. "You didn't want me to touch yours, either."

"Well, no." Steve sounded a bit small and lost, and Buck couldn't even pretend to ignore him as he went on, "But you... I mean... you could..." Steve trailed off and then his frown dissolved into an even more horrified look. "But you--did someone hurt you like that?"

Buck wasn't sure exactly what like that meant, but he couldn't have his human being so upset. "The masters just didn't like any dragons doing breeding-things outside of breeding time. They said it was too distracting. I know you're not like them! You're my Steve. But I remember, sometimes. That's all."

Steve's expression rapidly shifted from horror to anger. "They--do you mean humans--wouldn't let you even--even touch yourself if you wanted to?"

Buck thought that making him kill people and set all their treasure alight had been worse, but he didn't need to bring that up right now. He didn't want to set Steve to shouting again.

"I got away from them," Buck said firmly. "I came here. And now I've got you, and I'll never do that to you."

"No, I know, but you--you know that you're allowed now, right? You... you can..."

"I know," Buck said soothingly. "I do know. Don't you worry about that."

"It's natural," Steve said earnestly, setting his hand on Buck's nose again. "My Ma--I mean, it was an awful embarrassing talk, but--better than making a baby when you don't mean to, or harassing a girl, that's what my ma said. It's your own body and you oughta use it any way you like, long as you don't bother anyone else."

"I won't bother you," Buck said hastily. "You don't have to."

"Oh," Steve said, in a much different tone this time, and without taking his hand from Buck's nose.

Steve stared at Buck, and Buck stared back at him. Steve wondered if there was a way to tell when a dragon was blushing. Well, I guess if there is I'll have plenty of time to find out.

"Do you want..." Steve couldn't quite make himself ask. Buck dipped his head under Steve's hand, the spines around his head flattening a little. There was a movement in the water on his side of the wall that made Steve think he was squirming, or at least moving his tail restlessly.

Buck wouldn't have said you don't have to and I won't bother you if he didn't want something from Steve. And Steve did believe that Buck didn't want to hurt him, so whatever he wanted couldn't be anything like what Steve had been imagining, before he met Buck. He was a little ashamed now to have imagined the dragon being like that: brutal, barely more than an animal, carelessly violent and cruel.

Still, it was a way to say it, to maybe edge up toward offering without actually offering. And Buck deserved to have good things too, just as much as he wanted Steve to have good things.

"You know I--when I volunteered, when I came here," Steve said haltingly. It seemed a lot more than a day ago now. "I thought you would want something like that. We all did. That's, um..."

Steve trailed off, feeling the flush on his face get hotter, even though he shouldn't feel ashamed to admit it.

Obviously Buck was even more of a virgin than he was, although for wildly different reasons.

Buck looked at him when he fell silent, and Steve cleared his throat and said, "I've never... done anything like that, with anyone else. So the idea was, um, if you did want me for--for that, to please you that way, then I'd only be yours, because no one else before you ever..."

"But you..." Buck turned away from Steve's hand, and his voice was smaller than any sound Steve had thought a dragon could make, when he said, "But if that was what you volunteered for, why did you tell me to go away? When I only wanted to see, not even..."

Steve winced and looked away himself. "I... I guess I didn't think of that part. Of you caring what I wanted. I thought, everybody thought, that was what a human was good for, to a dragon. That was--"

He stopped short as Buck's head whipped around, and he said fiercely, an uncanny light glowing in his silver-blue eyes, "You are my treasure."

Steve just stared at him, not understanding what that had to do with anything.

"That is not the same as to be my, my slave," Buck went on. "It is not just that you are mine, it is that you--are--treasure. Not because you are good for anything; you are precious because you are. And because you are mine I will guard you and keep you and never hurt you. Not because I can use you for something--that's human masters you're thinking of. Humans think like that."

Steve struggled not to cringe away from Buck's obvious anger; it obviously had to do with the humans he'd known before, who had treated him as a slave, used him for what he was useful for.

Still, when Buck fell silent, Steve couldn't help saying, "Well, not the humans I know. But they think that's what dragons are like. That's what I thought dragons were like, until I got to know you. We'd never met one, we'd only heard stories. So I was wrong about you--but you're not right about us, either."

Buck stared at him for a moment, and then shook his head, bringing it down close to Steve. His tongue flicked out over the valley of Steve's breastbone, the point of Steve's tipped-up chin.

"I don't like that you don't understand," Buck said finally. "I don't like that you think your only value can be what you can be used for. It makes me think no one else ever treasured you. No one else ever gave you pleasure. No one in your town wanted to keep you from me, even though they thought I would use you for my pleasure, whether you liked it or not."

"I volunteered," Steve insisted, but the words sounded a little weak. "I was the best choice."

"You were," Buck said, but he obviously meant something entirely different than Steve did.

"And now you're my treasure, and I want to cherish you and give you pleasure, but I won't if it will hurt you, or frighten you. And I would like it if you touched me that way, but I won't require it of you. That's not what I am."

"I know that now," Steve said softly resting his hand on Buck's nose again. "I, uh... I don't know how. But I think I'd like to try."

The spines around Buck's head twitched down and then back up, and the water moved like his tail was lashing around under there, and Steve let himself smile.

He was pretty sure that meant Buck didn't have any idea how to do it either. But they could probably figure it out together.

"Maybe not here?" Steve suggested. "I have this feeling it'd end in me almost drowning and sort of ruin the fun."

Buck's claws grabbed on to the wall between them, and the end of Buck's tail popped up from the water to wrap around Steve's arm. "Absolutely no drowning. Back in your cave? Where it's nice and light?"

Steve nodded frantically, digging his toes in against the stone wall of the bath to keep from focusing too much on Buck's grip. "We should finish getting clean first, though? Dry off, at least?"

Buck made a low rumbling noise and loosened his grip very slightly. "No drowning."

"No drowning," Steve promised, and then hurriedly ducked himself under the hot water to quickly scrub his hair and behind his ears. And... everywhere.

When he climbed up out of the water and grabbed a towel, Buck was already waiting impatiently on the stone floor outside the baths. He was still dripping and the armor on his left arm didn't look any cleaner than ever, but then that would probably require a proper polishing.

Later. Steve pulled on the clean clothes he'd brought with him, and then hesitated, contemplating the trip back to his house-cave. If he had to ride astride on Buck, knowing what they were headed toward, it would be over before they ever got a chance to start.

"Maybe I should walk," Steve said hesitantly, bundling up his towel and dirty clothes and picking up the lantern.

Buck went still, every hint of impatience vanishing as he curled down smaller, bringing his head close to Steve and sniffing at him. "You don't want...?"

"I just, uh," Steve laughed a little, and wondered if he was ever going to stop blushing. "I like it too much, when I... the way I sit, you rub right up against me and..."

Blue-white fire flared in Buck's eyes, and Buck nudged in close enough to lick a quick stripe up Steve's throat.

"I could carry you," Buck said, breathing hot against Steve's ear. "A different way, with less touching? Less... there, anyway."

Steve nodded. He didn't really want to walk through the dark corridors and risk slowing everything down by skinning a knee or getting too out of breath, so...

Buck drew him closer, and then raised his enormous claws. Steve bit his lip and Buck said, "I wouldn't hurt you, Steve. Never. I'll be careful."

Steve nodded, and Buck scooped him up carefully, holding him mostly along his right foreleg and using the left only to steady him. Steve leaned against the smoother scales of Buck's chest, thinking about what was down below, and he heard Buck make another rumbling noise, inside and out.

Then Buck was running, seeming not slowed down at all by using three legs instead of four, and moving so fast that Steve thought it had been a waste of time to dry off--the wind would do it for him by the time they got home.

The trip seemed very long and very short all at once, but soon enough Buck was setting him down at the doorway of the house-cave. Steve doused the lantern and set it out of the way on the table, dumping his laundry beside it.

He looked for Buck, then, and found him still hesitating at the doorway, his wings drawn shyly downward around his body.

Buck, Steve reminded himself, was even more virgin than he was, and scared of hurting him into the bargain.

"Come on," Steve said, moving toward him, reaching out his hand. "Come in, I want you to."

"Why?" Buck asked, though he did bring his nose to Steve's hand. "Why... last night you wouldn't, but now...?"

"I understand better now," Steve said. "You're still a dragon, but you're... you're my friend, too. I think that's the best way to do new things, with a friend. Then it's all right if you make stupid faces or stupid noises or don't know what you're doing, right? Because you've got your friend with you."

Buck nudged his face into Steve's hand, but at a little angle. Steve's palm skidded to the side of Buck's mouth, and he discovered that the skin right there, though it was black as his scales and came to hard-looking points along the length of his mouth, was soft and bare. He trailed his fingers along it, exploring the texture, and Buck made a little muffled sound.

"Come here," Steve repeated. "Come closer, Buck."

Buck moved his body fully inside the doorway, arching his neck to keep his head still against Steve's hand.

Steve's belly was full of butterflies, his blood pounding. He brought his face closer to Buck's and nuzzled at Buck's lips, discovering that even the little spiny points were softer than scales.

Buck made a broken little sound, and his tongue flicked out, over Steve's knuckles, caressing across his cheek and behind his ear. Steve giggled before he could stop himself, and licked along Buck's lip, throwing his arms around the top of Buck's neck to keep him close.

That didn't stop Buck from picking his head up; he lifted Steve right into the air, and Steve yelped and tightened his grip.

Buck carried him over to the bed and lowered him into it, and Steve let himself relax a little, though he kept one hand on Buck's face, tracing the edges of the last small spines around his mouth, just teasing that sensitive skin.

Buck, in turn, kept licking across his heated cheeks, his bared throat. Then he turned his head, nudging delicately at the collar of Steve's shirt. "Will you show me? Let me see you?"

"Yeah, if you--yeah. Okay."

It was nothing Buck hadn't seen before, not really, and they'd only just been in the baths together, after all. Steve's hands shook a little as he peeled hastily out of his fine linen shirt and soft pants, kicking them to the foot of the bed. His cock was standing up, and his blush was already halfway down his chest, going blotchy and looking more like a rash than anything else.

Buck didn't seem to mind, though. He flicked his tongue over the pink skin of Steve's chest, and his tail came up to coil across Steve's ribs, holding him still. Steve moaned at the feeling of it, wriggling just to feel the smooth strength of it, shifting like nothing human to hold him in place without pressing down painfully hard.

"Buck, please," Steve said. "Please--" He pushed his hips up, unable to ask for it in words. He still wasn't even sure what he was asking for, what Buck might do, but he knew it would feel good.

Steve's breath still caught as Buck's head swung down lower, but after a half-second Steve made himself spread his legs, offering himself. Trusting. He did trust Buck, he did, he wanted--

Buck's tongue flicked out, stroking up the inside of his thigh, the most sensitive hidden part right at the top. Steve whined a little when that quick touch didn't quite reach his balls, and Buck did it again on the other side, the lightest teasing touch on the inside of his thigh.

"Please," Steve gasped. "C'mon, Buck, don't tea--oh, oh!"

The very tip of Buck's tongue traced up the underside of his cock, slower than Steve had ever seen or felt it move, and Steve arched into it. At the same time, Buck's tail was moving against his belly, the tip of it leading like a snake as it quested lower; it curled around the base of his cock as Buck licked around the head. It was a pleasure like nothing he'd ever felt; his own two hands couldn't move like that, and knowing it was Buck leaning over the bed, greedy to make him feel good...

Steve gritted his teeth but couldn't hold back a cry as he felt the thin, flexible tip of Buck's tail moving lower, a coil of it still wrapped around his cock and sliding endlessly against it as the tip curled around his balls and Buck licked, and licked, and then leaned lower and coiled his tongue around Steve's cock. He tightened his tongue and tail around it at once and Steve looked down and saw Buck's open mouth, a glint of those sharp teeth, and he cried out and came as Buck licked and squeezed and caressed him.

He thought he saw that blue-hot fire in Buck's eyes again, but he was so overcome that it might have been nothing at all.

After a moment he dragged his gaze down from staring up at the dazzling sun pouring through the skylights to blink at Buck.

He was licking again, at Steve's belly and thighs, and his teeth were hidden again.

Steve decided not to think of what it meant about him that he'd gone off when he saw a dragon's teeth. Also, he devoutly hoped that he never met another dragon.

He squirmed when Buck licked a ticklish spot, and reached down to put his hand on Buck's nose, thumb trailing down toward the sensitive edge of his lip.

Buck went very, very still, and Steve smiled so widely his face hurt.

"Your turn, isn't it?"

Chapter 7

Buck wanted to lick Steve's smile, wanted to keep tasting the pleasure and release that suffused his whole lovely body. He ducked his head, flicking his tongue across Steve's cheek, the stretch of his open mouth, and Steve giggled and pushed up on his elbows.

"Your turn," Steve repeated in a more definite tone, only to have doubt immediately steal his assurance. "I mean... if you... if you still want me to?"

Buck huffed in frustration. He wanted everything at once: to go on reveling in how happy he had made Steve, to keep cherishing his sweetly pleased body, to revel in the way he was allowed to touch and hold even the most sensitive, delicate parts of his loveliest treasure. But he also wanted to feel what Steve had felt, or something like it, to receive from a human--his human, his treasured Steve--what humans had forbidden him for so long.

"What if I get too excited?" Buck asked. "What if I hurt you, or--or set fire to something?"

He wanted Steve to say You won't, of course you won't, but he saw the doubt flicker in Steve's eyes as it did in his own chest.

"We'll go slow," Steve said instead. "So you don't get too overwhelmed. It's not all or nothing; if it's too much and you don't feel like it's safe, we'll stop for a little while."

That sounded... sensible. Businesslike.

"You don't have to," Buck offered, and Steve made a miniature version of Buck's frustrated noise and sat up fully, reaching for Buck.

"I wouldn't if I had to," Steve said, when Buck jerked back slightly. "I told you to go away when I didn't want you to see, remember? I wouldn't ask you to hurt me, or put me in danger. I want to. You're my friend."

"I'm a dragon," Buck pointed out. "You're my treasure."

"Call it what you like," Steve said, as if there was no difference, and knelt up. Buck didn't move away this time, letting Steve's hands wrap around on either side of his mouth.

Buck closed his eyes, letting out the tiniest sigh--only a little hot--as Steve's clever, slender thumbs stroked along the sensitive edge, teasing at the soft little spines that studded his lip.

"Show me where else to touch you," Steve said. "Show me where else it feels good."

Buck considered pointing out that that wasn't exactly moving slow, but he could tell Steve not to touch yet. Just knowing Steve was looking, was willing to touch, was enough to make him feel his pulse throbbing in his cock, the start of the pressure that would make him open up and push it forth.

Still, it was an effort, far more than just the physical awkwardness, to rearrange himself so that he was crouched half-upright by the side of Steve's bed. His neck had to arch a bit to keep his head between Steve's hands while he straightened up enough to show his belly, but it meant he saw the hot fascination in Steve's eyes when he glanced down to see what he was showing.

"How..." Steve let go, crawling to the edge of the bed and flinging himself down on his belly to stare at Buck's. Buck curled his neck down with his head beside Steve's to look at himself the way Steve was looking. Buck thought he could feel Steve's breath on the thin naked line between belly-scales that marked his slit, and his cock ached within him.

Still, it was safe inside him--it was his and his alone. To allow Steve to touch, to see, what had only ever been his... it was like sharing a treasure more closely-held than any other, allowing someone else to see it. Someone who might damage or steal it, or just see it as less beautiful and precious than he did himself.

He found himself edging backward from even the possibility of Steve's touch, drawing his tail up between them.

Steve looked over at him, beaming, and said, "You wanna do it like that? We could start that way. You touch yourself, huh? Just show me what feels good."

Buck stared for a moment, but the end of his tail was already brushing over his own belly--not his slit, but not far from it. "Steve..."

Steve pressed his sweet pink lips to the end of Buck's nose and said more firmly, "Show me, Buck. Let me see."

Buck closed his eyes, making a tiny whining noise deep in his throat, and used his tail to touch closer, closer, finally dragging the tip right across that sensitive seam in his flesh. He shuddered as he did it, half from pleasure, half from fear.

"Good," Steve murmured, sounding firm and authoritative and nothing like a master. "That's it, Buck, try that again. Can you lick there, too? Your tongue felt so good on me, I bet you'd love it too."

Buck groaned, flicking his tongue out to caress Steve's cheek.

Steve gave him a gentle push, and Buck moved away from his hand, ducking his head down over himself and extending his tongue in a slow swipe over his slit. The shiver that took him then was nothing but pleasure, his cock surging inside him, and his slit opened just enough to reveal the hot, wet place inside.

Steve groaned this time, wriggling on the bed. "Oh, Buck, that's--do that again, you're doing so well."

Buck felt as if he were tumbling endlessly in the air, not knowing up from down but somehow in no danger of falling. He licked again, the tip of his tongue stroking along the inside edge of his slit, finding it damp and hot and so sensitive that it clamped shut again, pleasure wracking him.

He didn't stop, then, using his tail to press up against his cock from the outside, stroking and pressing in irresistible undulations. He licked at himself again and again until his slit parted again, wider this time.

Wide enough for one tip of his cock to emerge, red-black and slick, stiff with eagerness.

Steve was saying something to him; Buck couldn't make out words but the tone was all encouragement, tinged with something like awe.

Steve would not rate this treasure too low, then. Buck put out his tongue again, pressing with his tail to rub the length of his cock still inside, and then his whole body arched, his head tipping back, as a sudden climax shot through him.

He managed to keep his roar down below battlefield levels, and the flame that shot from his mouth splashed harmlessly off the stone ceiling of Steve's cave.

He looked down sharply at a tentative touch on his belly, and moaned at the sight of Steve's clever little fingers stroking across his belly, above his slit, sliding through a puddle of his seed. Steve looked up at him. "Can I taste it? You got all of mine."

Buck nodded, staring avidly at the bright, hungry light in Steve's eyes. This was a gift no one else could give to Steve--a treasure only he could hoard up. Buck's pleasure, given physical form.

Steve's thick, short tongue swiped out over his fingers, taking up Buck's seed. He grinned at Buck when he'd swallowed it all. "Tastes better than mine, I think. Not so bitter, just kind of like... stone, or the air before a thunderstorm."

Buck rumbled out a helpless little growl and curled himself away where Steve couldn't tempt him to try to feel that again, immediately, and forever. He nudged at Steve to lie down properly on the bed, and lay his head on Steve's chest and curled the end of his tail over Steve's legs.

"My treasure," Buck murmured, not knowing what else to say.

"My dragon," Steve returned, sounding fond and a little sleepy as he stroked his hand over the small, delicate scales above Buck's eyes.

That was true, Buck realized. Steve might belong to him, but he belonged to Steve, too. When his masters had owned him, they had never cared for him and never belonged to him. But he was Steve's, just as Steve was his; that was what made the difference.

Maybe that was what made Steve say they were friends. Buck would have to ask him about that sometime.

Steve woke up from his pleasant midday doze when Buck made a snuffling sound and shifted to rest his head across Steve's lap instead of his chest. That turned his body a little more perpendicular to Steve's, and Steve's eye was drawn to the glint of light on the tarnished metal covering Buck's left foreleg.

Steve glanced at Buck's closed eyes before he reached out carefully toward the armored shoulder. There was a huge, dark, spiky protrusion near the top of Buck's foreleg, just below where the armor ended.

It looked like a cruel weapon itself, but it didn't seem to be made of the same metal as the rest. When Steve touched it, it felt gritty, as if there were dirt or ash ground into it, something that hadn't been removed even when Buck was in the bath today. Had he even put his shoulder under the water? Steve wasn't sure. He'd been distracted.

He licked his fingers and then rubbed harder at a flattish plane of the thing, jerking his hand back when something seemed to crack under his fingers.

Buck's head jerked up, and he curled it around to look at his shoulder, then flicked a glance at Steve before he tucked his head down--not on top of Steve at all now, but at the edge of the mattress.

"I can't take it off," he said after a while. "My foreleg was damaged when I was young, and the masters put the armor in place. There are no scales under it, only muscle and bone. I tried to cover the star, at least. I would tear it out if I could."

"Star," Steve repeated, and he sat up and reached right across Buck's nose to rub at the shape again--a doubled star shape, he realized, looking at it closely. It was covered in some hardened mix of ash and... he didn't want to know what else. But where Steve broke away the grime that covered it, the gem showed a deep, dark red, just barely translucent.

"Isn't it..." Steve looked down at Buck. "Isn't it treasure, then?"

Buck lifted his head to shake it, hard. "Theirs, maybe. Not mine. It meant they owned me. It helped them control me. It was cracked in battle, and my mind was freed enough to know that I could flee. It came clearer, the further I flew away from them."

Steve scrambled out of bed and Buck didn't try to stop him. Steve dug through the supplies that had been sent for him until he found a pumice stone and a cloth, and he came back to perch on the edge of the bed. He alternately scrubbed and polished the surface of the stone until it was revealed, gleaming red as a drop of blood, with a spiderweb of cracks through it.

"It's yours now," Steve said, looking up to meet Buck's eyes. He seemed wary, but he hadn't pulled away from Steve once as he worked, hadn't tried to hide the wicked gem. "Buck--it can't control you anymore, the cracks are all through it. Whatever magic it had, it's gone now. And what's left is yours. Of all things, you own this."

Buck studied him for a moment, and then said, "It was the sign of how they owned me, and I covered it because I couldn't get rid of it. I was determined never to belong to anyone again, to be only my own. But I'm your dragon, as you are my treasure."

Steve shook his head sharply, horrified at the comparison. "I'm not--"

Buck caught Steve's hand, with infinite gentleness, between his teeth. Steve stopped, staring.

Buck let him go, without a single scratch on his skin, and said, "I am yours, as you are mine. Not the way it was with them, any more than you are the same kind of treasure as a pile of gold. But if the star on my shoulder belongs to anyone now, it belongs to you."

Steve stared at him for a moment, then dropped his gaze to Buck's shoulder, and the tarnished metal surrounding the half-polished red star.

"Well," Steve said. "Then I really do have to get on with taking proper care of it."

Buck made his dragonish smiling expression, and gave a pleased little rumble, but said nothing more.

Steve snorted and got back to work, cleaning and polishing the stone and the metal around it. He moved to get a better angle on the metal plates at the top of Buck's shoulder, and set his hand on the black scales right beside the upper edge of the armor plates.

He hissed and yanked his hand back; Buck only twitched the tip of his tail, and after a second said, "It's all right, you can clean there."

"Buck, doesn't it hurt? It's hot, like a fever. Is there an infection there?"

Buck rippled his tail and tilted his head this way and that, making a shrug without using his shoulders. "It hurts. It's always hurt. Some of the scales at the edge try to grow under it or around it, and grow into my flesh instead. I can't reach them to pull them out. When I try to use my teeth I just cut myself up and make it worse."

"Well, I can reach," Steve said, peering down at Buck's shoulder. Now that he knew what he was looking for, he could see three scales growing at unnatural angles, and the swollen skin around them. He hissed in sympathetic pain even as he reached for the edge of the nearest one.

"Ready, Buck?"

Buck moved so he had his head pointed away from the bed--away from anything flammable. Steve tucked himself more firmly into the angle of Buck's neck, to be safe himself. He knew there was no use hemming and hawing or trying to ease through something like this; he sent up a brief wordless prayer in his ma's direction, hoping to be strong enough for what Buck needed, and then he clamped his fingers on the edge of the crooked scale and pulled with all his strength.

For a second it was like pulling on a tree trunk, and then it gave way with a sickening ease, like the softness of rotten fruit. Steve stumbled back a step, half-falling over Buck's neck, and Buck's tail caught him even as Buck let out a deep sigh that Steve recognized, from recent experience, as pleasure.

"Oh, that's much better," Buck said, nudging Steve aside so he could curl his head around and flick his tongue over the spot. "Are there more? Do another one."

Steve pushed Buck out of the way in turn and peered at the spot he'd pulled the crooked scale. He'd expected blood or pus, but but there was only a little raw line of exposed flesh, and a few drops of black blood.

"Okay," Steve said, setting the scale he'd pulled out on his polishing cloth. He got a grip on the next one, bracing his feet so he wouldn't fall this time, and pulled it free, then dropped it and pulled the next while Buck was still groaning with relief.

"Oh," Buck sighed, "oh, that's much better."

Steve gathered up the three pulled scales in his cleaning cloth and took them all away. He left them on the table beside the silver pennies and opened up his mother's medicine box, pulling out the same jar of salve he'd used on his own scraped hands.

When he came back Buck was still licking over the raw spots, and Steve swatted his nose gently. "Stop that, let me put some salve on it."

"Oh!" Buck rested his head against Steve's back while Steve bent over his shoulder, smearing on a generous dollop of the salve over the raw places. "That's the one for soothing."

"That's right," Steve said, remembering again his mother's touch, his mother's voice, as the familiar herbal smell rose up from the warmth of his hands and Buck's skin. "It would probably heal just fine on its own, but we always tend to the ones we love. My ma always told me that helps the healing more than any medicine."

Art by Sealcat!

Chapter 8

Buck slept deeply that night, free of pain and curled around his most precious treasure. When he woke Steve was already out of bed, though he hadn't gone far; he was still dressed in his nightshirt, which was blackened with tarnish here and there. Steve held Buck's armored foreleg across his thighs, and was polishing the jointed armor that covered his claws; the rest of its length was already shining as brilliantly as the finest silver.

"Oh," Buck said, and Steve looked up and grinned at him, apparently unaware of the dark smudges on his cheek and forehead. He made another as he pushed his hair out of his eyes.

"I was thinking," Steve said brightly. "I could ask Sam for some tools--they have fine ones at the smithy, for the fancy bits of metalworking. He's shown me before, a little bit about how to use them. I thought I could draw some designs and if we find one you like, I could do some engraving on your arm, to decorate it. If you have to have it with you all the time, it should at least be something beautiful."

"Steve," Buck said helplessly, staring at the mirror-finish on the metal, every inch a sign of Steve's care and tending. "It's already beautiful."

Steve hesitated biting his lip. "Oh. Do you not..."

Buck huffed and turned, drawing Steve carefully closer with his armored claw. "If you wish to make it more beautiful still, that is your choice, Steve. It is your treasure."

"But I want it to please my dragon," Steve said, rubbing his cheek against the side of Buck's jaw, brushing sweetly over the sensitive places along his lip. "So we'll have to agree before I do anything."

"You'll need a bath before you do anything," Buck corrected. "And to put proper clothes on. And your hat."

Steve made a grumpy little sound, but it dissolved into something more pleased when Buck curled his tail around Steve's bare thighs, just under the end of his nightshirt.

"Bath, huh," Steve said, his voice gone breathy and high.

"Mm-hm," Buck agreed, licking lower, and set about pleasing his human.

It was midday by the time Steve succeeded in getting dressed to Buck's satisfaction to go outside, hat and all, and then he thought of a problem.

"I can't ask Sam for tools without something to trade," Steve said, looking around the home-cave. His eye fell on his mother's silver pennies, but he knew that they wouldn't be enough to buy smith's tools even if Buck would allow Steve to take them away. Even if Steve could bear to give them up, when they were his only real inheritance from his mother.

"Oh, give him one of those scales you pulled," Buck said absently. "Humans always like to have those. The harnessers used to trade them for all sorts of things, even just a little broken piece was enough to buy many bottles of drink."

Steve went and picked up one of the scales and found that they had hardened since they were pulled. Steve rubbed at one with a polishing cloth, and the blackness of it turned shiny, with an odd iridescent finish.

For a moment Steve wanted to insist that he couldn't give one of the scales away--it was a piece of Buck, of his dragon.

Then he shook his head. Obviously Buck didn't care about the scales, and now that he gave it half a thought, he knew that dragon scales were tremendously rare--and therefore at least as valuable as Buck said. He couldn't share Buck's gold with anyone in town to repay them for all these fine things, but he could give away a couple of Buck's scales, which would be almost as valuable.

Still, Steve squinted at the scales until he identified the one he'd pulled first, and left it on the table, with his mother's two silver pennies cradled in its shiny black curve. The other two scales he polished up carefully and tucked into his pocket.

"All right, then," Steve said. "I'm ready to go."

"And you'll signal to me when you're ready to be collected," Buck said, as though they hadn't gone over the plan already. "And if anyone tries to harm you, or if you need me urgently, you'll take off your hat and wave it."

"Yes," Steve agreed, knowing that he was being manipulated into keeping the ridiculous hat on where everyone in town could see him. "Yes, I'll wave my hat if I'm in danger, and otherwise I'll wave the handkerchief and meet you on the green."

"And you won't go inside without talking to me first," Buck insisted. "You'll stay where I can see you."

"I'll stay where I can see you," Steve said roughly. It would be strange being even as far away from Buck as that, after the last few days. He didn't think he had anything to fear from the people he'd known all his life--less than ever, now that he belonged to a dragon--but he knew he would seem different to them now, even more than he always had.

He hoped Sam, at least, would see him the same.

"Let's go," Steve said. "Come on, quit stalling."

Buck grumbled at him, but gathered Steve up in his forelegs, holding Steve carefully against his chest, and carried him out of the cave. Steve barely had a moment to admire the clear blue sky above him before Buck was leaping into it, taking flight with a few hard beats of his wings.

Steve snuggled closer against him and bit his lip, thinking it was definitely a good thing Buck was carrying him instead of letting him ride, or he would be in no condition to talk to anyone by the time they got into Brooklyn. He would have thought this morning--and then their baths--would have worn him out for a while, but his body had other ideas when he felt Buck's strength all around him.

Still, it was only a moment before they were descending. Steve picked his head up to look around, and saw that the green park in the town was utterly empty. Buck gingerly set him down and looked around.

"It's okay," Steve said, catching a glimpse of a few people peering out from the shelter of the nearest cottage. "Go up, Buck, I don't think anyone will come out while you're here. I'll be all right."

Buck huffed and nosed against his throat, giving him a few quick licks before he let go of Steve and bounded back into the air. Steve watched him until he was flying high, circling like a hawk. He waved his bare hand, and Buck waggled his wings in answer.

Then Steve looked around, just in time to see Sam running full-speed toward him, his head swiveling as he looked back and forth from Buck to Steve.

Steve held his hands up, laughing. "I'm fine! I'm fine, Buck just brought me to town to do a little shopping."

"Who the hell is Buck?" Sam demanded as he looked up toward the dragon again, then back to Steve.

"Buck," Steve repeated, pointing. "My dragon. He sent me to do a little trading."

"Your..." Sam trailed off, looking Steve over in obvious disbelief, then back up at the dragon. Finally he covered his face with one hand and began to laugh. "Of course! Of course you go into a dragon's den and three days later you walk out, and you're the boss of the dragon."

"I wouldn't say that," Steve said, looking around and waving at the other people of the town as they began to emerge from their hiding places, all looking warily from Buck in the sky to Steve standing before them. "We made friends, that's all."

Sam stared at him for a moment, looked up at the dragon, and then shook his head and turned, drawing Steve with him toward the center of town. "I think you're going to need to tell me that story over some food and a strong drink."

"Sure, as long as we sit outside to eat." Steve reached into his pocket to touch the riches there. Grinning, he added, "This time it's on me."