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A Dragon's Redemption

by Evan Drake ©2019-2022, Evan Drake, All Rights Reserved
It was the perfect end to a great day. Even from inside the restaurant, filled with jubilant laughter and satisfied smiles, it was easy to tell the night was cool and calm. From the window, the moon sat high in the sky, a few clouds lazily floating by in the pale glow.  
Quinn couldn’t stop smiling as he escorted the last of his customers to the door, wishing them good night and a safe trip home. He held his tail stiffly behind him just to keep it from wagging and knocking something over. It was the only time he envied humans and hated being a dragon. Humans didn’t have to worry about getting overly excited and extra appendages going wild.  
Instead of cleaning up, he remained by the door and took in the sights. It was finally done. His pa’s dream of creating a place where humans and dragons could eat together had finally come to fruition. The first dragon-owned restaurant in the Dragonlands, or perhaps all of Geolga. After the place had burned down, it surprised him how quickly everyone came together to help rebuild. Now was bigger and better than ever. Even now, standing in the fruit of his labor still felt like a dream.
 
“Well, that was a good night, wasn’t it, hon?” Alyse asked.  
Quinn turned to the middle-aged woman. She had lost some weight assisting with the rebuilding, but she still retained her plump shape. He liked her better with the weight. It made her seem cuddly and approachable, something he would never admit to out loud. She was the fiercest human he knew and she wasn’t afraid to tell off a dragon for being rude.  
“Yeah, our first grand opening since rebuilding, and not a single fight,” he said proudly.  
“I ain’t complainin’,” Harold said as he flipped a chair over to put on the table.  
Quinn rolled his eyes at the teen. It was hard to believe how much Harold’s appearance had changed since they first met. The once pale, skinny human with greasy hair had returned to a healthy weight and his skin had returned to a healthy pink tinge. Thanks to Alyse’s nagging, his hair had been properly cut and no longer looked thin and greasy.  
I wish you were here to see what you made, pa, Quinn thought.  
A tap on his shoulder from Harold snapped him out of his reverie. “You a’ight?”  
“Yeah, I’m fine. You know what? How about you two head home early tonight? I can handle closing up on my own.”  
“You sure, hon? I don’t mind—”  
“And I live here!” Harold added. “What am I gonna do?”  
Quinn shrugged. “Get to bed early for once or maybe clean your room; I saw how you left it. Alyse, you have been the backbone of this place for as long as I can remember. You earned yourself a break. And I know you’ve been pushing yourself, Harold. Both of you go on. And take the week off. That’s an order from your boss.”  
She gave him a playful shove. “As if you could order me to do anything. But if you’re sure. I ain’t gonna stay longer than I have to. I’ll see you next week then.”  
“He’d burn the place down by time we got back,” Harold added.  
The pair laughed as they left the restaurant through separate doors.  
Quinn chuckled to himself and got back to work cleaning off the tables. There was a certain serenity to cleaning up when no one was around. A different feel than preparing for the day. He could take his time and absorb the silence without worry. Let his thoughts reminisce on the day’s events and not feel pressured into a deadline.  
The bell over the door jingled again. At first he figured Alyse had forgotten something but then he heard the distinct sound of claws on the floor.  
“Sorry, but I’m closed for tonight,” he said without looking back at the new interloper.  
“Look, can you just do me a favor? I’m tired and I haven’t eaten in days.”  
He turned around and saw a female Short Snout standing by the door. She looked to be in really bad shape. Despite being covered in dirt, scars marked her dingy green scales, particularly a long jagged scar that ran along her neck to her shoulder. The fins on the sides of her head and the end of her tail were torn.  
He sighed and said, “All right. Take a seat over there.” He pointed his tail to the one table that didn’t have chairs on it. “I’ll get you something to eat, but you’ll have to wait for me to heat it up.”  
“I don’t care if it’s cold,” the dragoness said as she crossed the room. She moved with her head down like someone under the watchful gaze of a harsh parent.  
Quinn tried to ignore what her defensive posturing implied and give a warm smile, but it was so rare to see a dragon acting that way. The only time he saw it was when the Matriarch, Ragenta, gave someone a good chewing out, usually in public. He had never seen this dragoness before and judging from her current state, she had suffered worse than a verbal lashing. “Well, I do mind,” he said. “Nothing beats a warm meal. Just stay here. It won’t take long.” He disappeared into the kitchen.  
He had plans to eat the leftovers for dinner, but that plan was shot now. Someone needed it more than him, so he didn’t mind. No one went hungry on his watch. Still, he wondered if his kindness would come back to bite him as he prepared the meal. It wasn’t uncommon to get a late-night visitor. While most humans didn’t dare travel at night, there was always the occasional wyrm who stopped by tired and angry after a failed day of hunting. But this time felt different. She was hiding something.  
Preparing the meal didn’t take long. He placed it on a tray along with a tall cup of ale and carried it to the dragoness, trying to ignore the savory scents reminding him of what he was giving up.  
The way her eyes widened at the sight of the food made it worthwhile. That look never got old.  
“Go ahead and dig in,” he said.  
The dragoness didn’t hesitate to practically smash her muzzle against the plate and start gulping down chunks of meat and bread.  
Quinn sat down at the table next to hers. “So what’s your name?”  
She hesitated before answering. “Rowen.”  
“That’s a pretty name. I’m Quinn. So where’re you from, Rowen?”  
Her fins flattened against her head. “I’m from nowhere.”  
“Hmm. I never heard of nowhere. Is it nice there?”  
“Very funny. You know what I mean.”  
“Seeing as how we just met, I don’t know how I could possibly know what you meant.”  
She rolled her eyes and glared at him. “Are you always this talkative?”  
“Actually, yes. I don’t know about you but eating in silence is pretty awkward and lonely.”  
“Maybe I like being lonely.”  
“Fair enough. One last thing though: is anyone looking for you? I’d rather know now if there’s going to be an angry dragon or something standing outside my restaurant.”  
“Wait, this is your—never mind. No, no one’s looking for me.”  
He nodded and let her continue eating in peace. It reminded him of when Harold first arrived. The teen was just as dirty and distrusting when they met. Even after Quinn took him in, it took some time before Harold warmed up to him and spoke freely. They still didn’t anything about the boy’s past, but that didn’t matter anymore. The Harold that mattered now had put on weight and grown confident under Quinn and Alyse’s watchful eyes.  
Rowen ate her fill, but she stared at the now-empty tray, her fins flat against her head.  
“Is something wrong?” he asked.  
“Just tell me what I have to do to pay for it so we can get this over with.”  
“It’s on me. Don’t worry about it.”  
“That’s it? I don’t have to do anything?”  
“No, you don’t. I wouldn’t dream of charging someone who’s starving.”  
“I’m surprised you’re still in business with that attitude,” Rowen said, frowning.  
That made him laugh. “I don’t get that many starving customers. Besides, currency isn’t very important around here.”  
The smile faded upon seeing she didn’t share the humor.  
He quickly cleared his throat and decided to change the subject. “So, Rowen, I’m guessing you don’t have a place to stay.”  
She stared at the floor, fins flattening against her head. “I have a place to sleep.”  
“A pile of leaves in the woods doesn’t count.”  
“Well, I’m not staying here. I appreciate the meal and all, but I don’t owe you anything.”  
“Wait, what? I told you it’s on me. Hey, where are you going?”  
She slipped out the front door without stopping. It wasn’t how he wanted things to go, but there was nothing he could do about it now. He went back to cleaning up and preparing to close shop for the night.  
While he cleaned, he couldn’t stop thinking about Rowen. A dragon in her state was pretty rare. Every dragon he knew could take care of themselves. Now that he thought about it, she mentioned not eating in days. There was a forest less than a day’s flight from there that was teeming with game. Couldn’t she hunt something on her own? And with how filthy her scales were, she didn’t think to take a dip in a lake or a pond?  
Now he regretted not chasing after her when he had the chance. Something was wrong; he knew that and still ignored the signs.  
There was nothing he could do about it now. She had to be long gone by now, but that thought didn’t assuage his guilt. He had always been dedicated to helping those in need except he didn’t notice a cry for help right in front of him?  
His thoughts nagged at him while he finished wiping the tables and flipping the chairs. He was finally done and preparing to leave when there came a loud crash from the kitchen.  
A heavy sigh escaped him. Hopefully it wasn’t the rats again. Most creatures knew better than to linger around a dragon’s territory but smaller scavengers didn’t seem to care especially when food became scarce. He was not looking forward to having to plug up more holes. It wasn’t likely to be anyone trying to rob the place. That was even rarer. During his entire time living in the clan, he never once heard of anyone getting robbed. For one, dragons didn’t have much worth stealing to begin with and he doubted anyone would want to buy a dragon’s stolen goods anyway. And two, their sense of smell made it easy to track would-be thieves.  
His pa used to tell him how larger places, called cities had problems with people stealing from one another. Sometimes it was about not enough to go around for everyone, other times it was about greed, plain and simple. It had to be the latter since everyone knew he would give them a free meal if they asked.  
He went into the kitchen, not even trying to be quiet in the hopes of scaring off whatever it was. What he didn’t expect was to see Rowen again, hanging halfway through the window.  
“Uh, hello,” he said. “You know I have a front door, right?”  
Rowen refused to look his way, her fins flat against her skull. “Shut up. I…I…”  
“You wanted a warm place to sleep,” Quinn finished matter-of-factly. “I did offer for you to stay here if you remember.”  
“Just…shut up, okay? I don’t need your pity.”  
“Yes, because getting caught breaking into a dragon’s home is such the better option.”  
“Wait, you live here?”  
“Yeah, just behind the restaurant. Through that door over there. It has a front door, too.”  
Rowen swore under her breath.  
Quinn chuckled and responded, “Okay, enough games. Get out of the window and come around through the door like a normal person.”  
Rowen hung her head. “I…I can’t.”  
“What? You too proud to use the door again?”  
“No, I’m…stuck.”  
He would have laughed if she didn’t look pitiful, limbs dangling over the floor. “Okay, hold on, let me see if I can pull you out.” He reared up on his hind legs, seized her head, and pulled.  
“Ow, ow, ow, ow! Let go! You’re gonna pull my head off!”  
“Well hold still! It’s the only thing I can grip from this side.”  
“Try pushing then!”  
Pushing didn’t yield any better results. He went around outside and tried again. The result was the same. He sat on the grass and sighed.  
It seemed there were only two options: either get one of the carpenters to take the whole window out or find a way to apply a greater force. Regardless the window would need to be fixed afterward.  
He spread his wings and took to the air. If there would need to be repairs anyway, he would rather deal with things now than force her to go through the embarrassment of being cut out of a window.  
“This is gonna hurt,” he mumbled.  
He looped through the air and then dove straight for the window. He slammed into her hard enough to rattle the walls. Pain laced through his shoulder as he bounced off her and slid along the ground. Rowen gave a frightened, pained scream, the crashing of pots following behind her.  
Quinn lay on the ground for a moment until the throb in his shoulder lessened a bit. He dreaded looking up and seeing what the escape attempt had done to the window.  
The victory was short-lived when Harold’s voice cut through the silence. “Who the fuck are you?!”  
Quinn swore and rolled over. “Hold on, Harold! She’s a friend!”  
“What? But she fucked up the kitchen!”  
“No, I didn’t!”  
“Hold on. I’m coming in!”  
He groaned as he stood up and limped around to the front of the restaurant. In hindsight, dive-bombing the window wasn’t the best idea.  
The kitchen was in worse shape than he feared. Rowen had really done a number on it when she went inside. In addition to the various pots scattered along the floor and some broken jars he had left on the countertop, one of the cabinets had been broken completely from her collision. Harold stood in the middle of it all staring at the mess in horror. Rowen lay on the floor, a nasty abrasion on her side. Several of her scales had been shaved off from being forced through the window and it bled in places.  
Quinn hissed in pain at the injury. “That looks bad.”  
“Really? Because it feels really fucking great,” Rowen shot back.  
“Maybe next time you’ll think twice before climbing through someone’s window. Harold, can you go get Alyse? She should know how to treat this.”  
The teen nodded and hurried out of the kitchen, probably too eager to get away from the mess and responsibility of cleaning it up.  
Once they were alone, Quinn turned back to Rowen.  
“Can you stand? We need to get that cleaned and I’d rather not do it here.”  
She hissed with every movement, but she managed to get up. “You couldn’t come up with a better idea?” she asked.  
“I figured you didn’t want anyone to see you like that.”  
“I think I’d rather take the embarrassment.” She tried to lick her wound but winced and quickly gave up on it. “Or you could have at least warned me.”  
He shrugged. “Figured you’d try to talk me out of it. Listen, I know I said you can keep your private life private, but I’d like some answers.”  
“Do I have a choice?”  
“Of course.”  
“But you’ll throw me out on the street if I refuse, won’t you?”  
“I’m not forcing you to do anything, but our choices have consequences,” he replied gently. “Like you chose to break into my place instead of just accepting my help, so here we are.”  
Rowen said nothing, her guilt apparent in her expression. “Sorry. It’s just…the last time someone offered to help me, I had to…pay for it.”  
Quinn didn’t know what kind of payment she was referring to and he wasn’t certain he wanted to. It didn’t seem like a pleasant memory anyway if the lowering of her voice and slackness of her neck was an indication. Instead he motioned for her to follow him into the back room. “C’mon, we can talk more in the back. So, obviously, you’re not from around here. Where are you from?”  
Fear flooded her eyes as she refused to meet his gaze. “Nowhere. I move around a lot.”  
He didn’t buy it for a second. A dragon who traveled a lot would know how to hunt. Most likely wherever she was from, she couldn’t go back.  
“So where are you headed?” he asked.  
“Nowhere. I like to keep moving.”  
“Well, if you don’t have a destination in mind, you could always stay here.”  
“You really want me to stay here, don’t you?” she asked, her fins flaring. “You’re that hard up for a female?”  
Now it was his turn to frown. “I offer to do something nice and you immediately assume I have an ulterior motive? I’m guessing where you’re from, no one does anything just to be nice.”  
“We I came from, we know how the world works. No one cares about you unless you’re useful to them. So stop wasting my time and tell me the real reason why you want me here.”  
Quinn shook his head. It was déjà vu all over again, just like when he found Harold in the food stores. At least the teen was too thin to get stuck in the window. Hopefully this time it wouldn’t end with him getting smacked upside the head. “You’re dirty, hungry, and have nowhere to go. I just wanna help.”  
She snorted. “Pity? I’d rather the ulterior motive.”  
“You dragons and your damn pride,” he mumbled. In a clear voice, he added, “You want an ulterior motive, fine. I want you to stay here so you can take responsibility for my broken window.”  
“But that was your fault!”  
“Which wouldn’t have happened if someone wasn’t trying to break in,” Quinn replied calmly.  
They entered the backhouse as Quinn liked to call it. Alyse took over the design for it and did a wonderful job. The main room where they were now as large enough for both of them to move about freely. Chairs for human guests, or specifically Alyse and Harold, were pressed against the wall along with the end tables and bookshelves. Quinn’s favorite thing about it was the plush carpet. He wasn’t sure why Alyse was so set on getting it installed but he loved how comfortable it felt to walk on.  
Rowen walked over to the bookshelf. “You can read?”  
“I can actually. I’m told it’s not very common among dragons though. Can you read?”  
Rowen’s fins flattened again. “So if I pay off my debt for the window, will you let me go?”  
The change in subject hadn’t escaped his notice but decided it was best to leave it alone. “Yeah, you’ll be free to leave.” He’d rather she stay, but if she really wanted to go, he wouldn’t stand in her way.  
“So what will I be doing to pay off this debt exactly?”  
“Nothing too complicated, just carrying dishes and wiping tables.”  
“Is that it? Well, I won’t complain. At least I won’t have to worry about tasting you for the next week.”  
Quinn had no idea how to respond to that so he decided to change the subject. “So what was your plan after you broke in?”  
“Curl up on the floor and sleep. Be gone by morning.”  
“And if I had caught you?”  
“I have ways out of those.”  
“I hope climbing out the window isn’t one of them.”  
Rowen’s fins flattened and she turned away. It was a low blow, and he knew it but it needed to be said. He didn’t know if she was like this out of pride or denial, but she couldn’t keep doing this to herself.  
Neither of them spoke until Harold returned with Alyse following behind.  
The woman took one look at Rowen then gave Quinn an admonishing stare. “I can’t leave you alone for one night, can I?” Alyse asked.  
“Whoa, whoa, who is this?” Rowen asked.  
“That’s Alyse,” Quinn replied. “She’s a friend. You can trust her. Alyse, this is Rowen. She’s my newest employee until I get the place fixed up.”  
Alyse chuckled and shook her head. “You’re really something else, hon. You’re the only one I know who catches someone breaking into their place and gives them a job.”  
Quinn laughed seeing Harold’s ears turn pink. “I never caught you breaking into the place.”  
“Good thing, too! You also seem to hurt your new hires.”  
“In my defense, I saved Harold’s life. Ragenta would have done way worse to him.”  
“I think I would’ve liked staying in the window,” Rowen said.  
Alyse gave a gentle tap on the snout. “Shush, you. Quinn might be the forgiving sort, but I’m not. Just ask that one.” She jerked her thumb towards Harold whose blush deepened at the gesture.  
The woman went back to digging through her bag. She set aside a large piece of cloth, some bandages, and a bottle filled with a clear liquid.  
Rowen scooted backward. “What’s that stuff for?”  
“We’re cleaning it so it doesn’t get infected,” Quinn said. “Think of it as part of repaying your debt.”  
“Just another thing I’ll owe you for, right?”  
“Consider this a freebie. And don’t worry about Alyse. She’s tough but she wouldn’t hurt a fly.”  
“Lucky flies,” Harold mumbled. He quickly scrambled away from Alyse upon seeing the scolding stare sent his way.  
Alyse rolled her eyes and poured some of the liquid onto the cloth. “I need to keep still for me, hon. I’m gonna clean your cuts, but you’re not gonna like it. Just bear with me. It won’t take long.”  
Rowen didn’t seem at all bothered as she shrugged.  
“So where are you really from?” Quinn asked.  
“What? OW!”  
“I said you weren’t gonna like it, hon.”  
“Don’t focus on her, look at me,” Quinn said. “Talking will distract from the pain.”  
Rowen hissed again. “I doubt that.”  
“Just humor him,” Harold said. “If ya worried he’ll hurt ya, don’t.”  
“He may not look it, but he’s the nicest dragon you’ll ever come across,” Alyse added. “Stop squirming! It doesn’t hurt that bad.”  
Rowen snorted. “I’m sure he is. Ow! Sounds like a certain someone I used to know.”  
“Oh? Well, maybe I can meet them one day,” Quinn said.  
“You can’t. She got her stupid ass killed.”  
Quinn couldn’t tell if she was upset or bitter. Either way, it was a sore subject so he decided to move on. “So what brings you here?”  
“You really want to know my life story? Fine. I’m a domesticate from the Human Territories. I used to work for Cutter until I fucked up and turned on her. Instead of killing me, she gave me this”—she motioned to the scar on her neck—“and told me to never show my face again. So I crossed the border figuring I wouldn’t run into her here. So there it is.”  
Quinn said nothing and looked at the others. He had never lived in the Human Territories so domesticate life was foreign to him. What he did know was that the other dragons didn’t like domesticates at all and no one would ever admit to being one.  
Alyse was the one to break the silence as she poured more liquid on the cloth and moved to Rowen’s other side. “Well, you’re a brave one. I never heard a dragon around here admit to being a domesticate.”  
“What more can you do to me?” Rowen asked. She winced at the touch of the cloth. “I lost my brother, my master, my friends, and my home. I gave up my dignity and my pride for revenge on a dead dragon only to fuck that up, too. I have nowhere to go and no one will accept me. There’s nothing left to take.”  
“Now I don’t know what you’re going on about, but you still have a life worth living,” Alyse said. “So I don’t wanna hear any more nonsense about having nothing to lose. Just look at Quinn. He’s practically a domesticate but look at him. Half the dragons here would lose their minds if he left. Even the Matriarch looks to him for advice! You can do anything you set your mind to, hon. It’s never too late to claw yourself out of whatever hole you fell in.”  
Rowen said nothing and stared at the floor. Her eyes gave away her true emotions. Something in Alyse’s words struck a chord.  
“I’m not a domesticate,” Quinn said.  
“Hon, you were raised by a human and outside of a clan. That’s a domesticate in anyone’s eyes.”  
“If everythin’s done here, I’m goin’ to bed,” Harold said. He waved lazily as he headed out of the room.  
“Ah, ah, ah! I need some help putting these bandages on,” Alyse said. “We’ll have to wrap it around her body. Just stand on that side. Lift your wings for me, hon.”  
Quinn lay on the large cushion by one of the armchairs. “Well, looks like we’ll be having a sleepover. “Rowen can have my room. I’ll sleep here.”  
“You don’t need to do that,” Rowen said. “I can sleep on the—”  
Alyse gave her another tap on the snout. “Just accept the help, hon. Besides, you’ll have a hard time sleeping on anything hard until you heal.”  
“Yeah, first rule here: don’t argue with Alyse,” Quinn said. “She’s the wisest woman you’ll ever meet and the nicest.”  
“And don’t you forget it!” She stepped back from the dragoness and examined her handiwork. “That’ll do it. We’ll need to replace it every few days, but you’ll be fine.”  
“Finally, I can go to bed,” Harold cried before rushing out of the room.  
Quinn chuckled. Even he would have had a hard time holding the teen back from his bed at this point. Alyse escorted Rowen to show her where the bedrooms were.  
Finally, alone, Quinn curled up as best he could on the cushion. It wasn’t big enough to lie on, but it would do. In the morning, he would see about getting Rowen her own bed. If all went well, she would be staying for a long time. He hoped she did.  
He heard the whisper of footsteps on the carpet. He didn’t bother opening his eyes, figuring it was Harold to sneak a late-night snack as he always did.  
“We need to talk, hon.”  
He opened an eye to the woman sitting in the chair next to him. He quickly sat up. “What’s wrong?”  
“You’ll need to see Ragenta first thing in the morning. Everyone accepts you, but I doubt they’ll like another domesticate around here. Without the Matriarch’s blessing, we’ll be playing a very dangerous game.”  
“We could just not tell anyone. Who’s gonna find out?”  
“You really wanna take that risk, hon? You know that Salise is just waiting for a chance to come after us.”  
Quinn groaned. “Don’t remind me. But she could still use that to get the dragons riled up. Maybe anything.”  
“And put Ragenta in a tough spot again?”  
Quinn said nothing.  
“It’s funny how you can sit there and talk about me like I can’t hear you,” Rowen said.  
Quinn was surprised to find the dragoness standing in the doorway. He didn’t even hear her approach! Rowen shuffled into the room and sat down.  
“Look, if being here is going to cause problems, I can always—” she began.  
“You’re not leaving Quinn said firmly. “I won’t let them drive you out just because of some stupid label. Don’t worry about the Matriarch. She’ll listen to me.”  
Rowen chuckled. “Influence over a Matriarch? You must have a mean dick to pull that off.”  
“It’s not like that!”  
“Then what’s it like?” Rowen asked, her expression serious. “What exactly did I walk into?”  
There was nothing else for it, so Quinn explained the situation. He explained how Ragenta has feelings for him but he only saw her as a friend at best. This caused problems with Ragenta’s former chosen, Tark, who was secretly teased by the other dragons for it. He noticed the spark of hate in her eyes when he explained how Salise, wanting to become the clan Matriarch herself, provoked Tark into setting the old restaurant on fire, forcing Ragenta to punish him and play favorites to Quinn or do nothing and further alienate herself from the clan who was sick of the love triangle. She had chosen the former and killed Tark.  
The only good thing to come of it was it didn’t give Salise the rallying cry she wanted. Several dragons developed a newfound respect for their Matriarch in making such a tough decision and everyone rallied around Quinn to help him rebuild the restaurant he had lost. But Salise hadn’t given up. She continued to visit and occasionally harass Quinn about supporting her claims.  
Rowen listened to all of this with a bitter frown. When the explanation concluded, she responded, “This bitch likes to play dirty. You do know if you keep ignoring her, she’s going to back you into a corner you can’t get out of?”  
“I’m not afraid of her,” Quinn said.  
“You should be. She got a Matriarch to kill her chosen and burned your place to the ground and got away with it. You really think she’s gonna stop there?”  
Quinn looked at Alyse who shrugged. He figured Salise wasn’t done, her regular visits proved that, but he also hadn’t considered that she would try something worse.  
Rowen sighed and shook her head. “Wow, you’re really not too bright. Hopefully I’ll pay off my debt and get out of here before you fuck up and set her after me.” She turned and left the room.  
Alyse shook her head as she rose from her seat. “You certainly know how to pick ‘em. This one has even more attitude than Harold did when he first got here. For now, let’s just worry ‘bout getting some sleep. We’ll worry about Ragenta in the morning.”  
****
 
“Have you lost your mind?!” Ragenta cried. She slapped her tail on the floor, the thundering crack making Quinn flinch. “Did you really bring a domesticate here?”  
Quinn continued to bow before the Nightstalker standing over him. Hopefully his submissive posture would keep her calm. He doubted it since he could feel the anger radiating from her like heat. He had gone to Ragenta’s first thing upon waking up, even before opening up the restaurant. Now he regretted the decision as she hadn’t eaten breakfast yet and she was usually more amiable after eating.  
“Look at me,” she commanded.  
He slowly raised his head, grateful she wasn’t using her Call on him. It could have just been his fear of her current anger, but her black scales seemed darker than ever like looking at a living shadow.  
“Well, to be fair, I didn’t bring her here,” Quinn offered shakily. “She just showed up. And you know I won’t let anyone go hungry—”  
“So you fed her. Now send her on her way.”  
“Ragenta, please. She’s got nowhere to go.”  
“That’s not my problem. She’s lucky she gets to leave at all.”  
“But—”  
“But nothing! If I take in a domesticate, do know how that makes me look?”  
Quinn wasn’t sure why but her words triggered something within him. The fear of reprisal faded under his sudden annoyance at her question. “You didn’t seem to care when you asked me to be your chosen.”  
Ragenta’s anger wavered. Her tail swayed as if getting ready to strike the floor again, but the blow never came. “That’s different.”  
“Why? Because you said so? Why can’t you say so, now? I’m practically a domesticate myself—everyone says so! Oh, I get it, a domesticate is only good enough when it's laying under you, is that it?”  
He knew before he finished the sentence that he had said the wrong thing. In an instant, Ragenta crossed the gap between them and stood over him, snarling. “Watch your mouth,” said with a low growl.  
He stood his ground despite his tail quivering. “You accepted me when I came here. I thought you were different from the others. Did you really only let me stay because you wanted me or because I knew how to cook good food?”  
Ragenta stood there, all traces of her rage gone. Now it was his turn to be angry. He hated seeing that guilt on her face. She should have been irate for him thinking such a thing, yet she didn’t even rebuke him.  
It told him all he needed to know.  
“Wow. Nice to know where I really stand around here,” he said as he turned away.  
“Wait.”  
He should keep walking. He shouldn’t turn around. Not after what she confirmed. The only reason he hadn’t been driven out or even killed was because he was useful. She had an ulterior motive for him. She didn’t deserve the time of day.  
But he turned around anyway.  
“Even after you rejected me, I never chased you out,” Ragenta said. “If I just wanted you for the benefits, I never would’ve chosen you over Tark.”  
“Then why can’t Rowen stay?”  
“Because you earned your place here. What’s she going to do to earn their trust?”  
“I…I don’t know. But you’re the Matriarch—”  
“That doesn’t mean I can do whatever I want. I stay in charge so long as I give them what they want or else Salise takes over. And you know what she’ll want from you to let Rowen stay. Even then, she’ll never be accepted.”  
Quinn remained silent. He knew what Salise would want from him. She wanted to use him to keep the dragons in line. She wanted him so she could lord it over Ragenta that she got the drake that rejected her.  
Still, he refused to budge. He promised to help her and he wasn’t going to abandon anyone just to save his skin.  
“You’re not backing down are you?” Ragenta asked.  
“No. My pa always said to help anyone who needs help.”  
“You’ll lose your restaurant again. They might even chase you out.”  
He shrugged. “Then I’ll leave. I don’t wanna cook for customers like that anyway.”  
Ragenta smiled. It was the first time Quinn had seen her show positive emotion in months.  
“That is why I wanted you to be my chosen,” Ragenta said. “Not because you can cook but because you’re a true dragon. Your friend can stay, but tell her to keep her mouth shut about being a domesticate.”  
Quinn wanted to jump for joy, but he settled for a wide grin and a nod instead.  
Instead of going straight back to the restaurant, he took a quick detour to see the carpenters about getting his window. Thankfully, they didn’t ask for an explanation as he didn’t think of one on the way over and agreed to fix whatever he needed in exchange for some hot meals delivered to them. The walk back to the restaurant felt good. Ragenta hadn’t demanded Rowen be chased out immediately or even killed, he had gained another employee even if only temporarily, and he might be getting that extra counter space he always wanted.  
Not even Salise could dampen his spirits now although dragoness did linger in his thoughts. He still hadn’t decided what would be done about Salise, but he would cross that bridge when he came to it. She likely wouldn’t do anything unless it benefitted her in some way and he saw no reason why she would take interest in a random dragon. So long as Rowen’s status remained a secret they should be fine.  
After apologizing to everyone for opening up late, and taking a few extra minutes to explain the good news to Harold and Alyse in secret, he got to work.  
Surprisingly Rowen wasn’t among them when he got back. “After you headed out this morning, she said something about needing to take care of some things,” Alyse had explained. “I’m not sure what things she could possibly have to take care of, but she ain’t been back all day.”  
There was no time to look for her now so Quinn decided they should just wait until she came in.  
By the end of the day, there was still no Rowen. The anxiety worsened the longer the day went on. He soon found himself straining his ears for any signs of the front door, even running out of the kitchen to check. Soon he stopped trying to hide his worry even as the customers gave him strange looks. If it weren’t for how packed things were, he would risk going out and looking for her. He asked several customers who came in but none of them saw anyone who went by that name.  
There was still no sign of her by the time night rolled in and customers started to leave. Quinn watched them go, hoping she would come bursting through the door at any moment.  
“You don’t think anything happened to her, do you?” Alyse asked as she wiped down tables and flipped chairs. “I mean if the dragons found out about her, word would’ve gotten here, right?”  
“I like to think so,” Quinn said solemnly.  
The teen re-entered the room with a sour look on his face. “Found ‘er. She’s sleepin’! We spent all day bustin’ our asses and she’s in here sleep!”  
Quinn groaned and stood up to follow the enraged Harold into the other room. Sure enough, Rowen lay on the bed, snoring peacefully. Quinn slammed his tail on the floor as hard as he could. He didn’t care if he cracked the floor or not.  
Rowen snatched her head up and looked around. She relaxed upon seeing Quinn and Harold. “Don’t scare me like that,” she mumbled before lying down again.  
“Scare you?!” Quinn cried. “You do realize you had work today? That’s not what we agreed!”  
Rowan rolled her eyes and stretched. “Calm down. If you must know, I have a good reason for missing work today: I’m tired.”  
Quinn bit his tongue to keep from yelling at her. Harold paced beside the bed. “If she wasn’t a derg…” the teen said.  
“Tired?” Quinn said. “You know what? I’m gonna make this easy. Tell us where you were and what you were doing or have fun sleeping outside!”  
Rowen sat up at that but her expression showed she wasn’t taking it any more seriously than before. “I took care of your Salise problem. I went out and tracked down several of the dragons who support her—not that they made it hard. They were practically bragging about it. Anyway, I found her main supporter, what was his name…? Oh yeah, Stret.”  
“I’m still waiting for you to get to the part where all of this means something,” Quinn said, nettled.  
“Yeah, get to the damn point,” Harold added.  
Rowen frowned and scratched her side. “All right, fine. I fucked him.”  
Quinn could only stare dumbfounded. This was what she was building up to?  
“Are ya serious!?” Harold cried. He had to be held back to keep from jumping on the bed. “Ya skipped work to get laid?!”  
“You really don’t get it,” Rowen said. “One of the worst things a dragon can do is lay with a domesticate. If word got out that Salise’s right hand was a domesticate lover, she’d never live down especially since it’s her main attack against Ragenta.”  
Harold calmed down a look of confusion on his face. “I don’t get it.”  
“She’s saying that if everyone found out she was a domesticate, it would hurt Salise more,” Quinn said. “But how’s word supposed to get around? They could just kill you to shut you up or deny everything.”  
Rowen laid down again, chuckling softly. “Oh, you are new to this. Dragons don’t lie about their conquests. I’m sure you noticed that our kind is a bit full of themselves. Besides, I made sure everyone knew what happened.”  
“How did you—never mind, don’t tell me,” Quinn said. “Look, Rowen, I really appreciate you doing something about Salise, but you didn’t have to do that. You lowered yourself and ruined your reputation.”  
Rowen chuckled again. “I’m not the only one who spent time around the humans. Dragons don’t care if you sleep around. We prefer it, actually. It’s another one of those pride things. Like my old boss used to say, ‘there’s nothing more flattering than a long line of folks waiting to clean your pipes.’ ”  
“You dergs and your egos,” Harold mumbled.  
“Still, I don’t like that you did that and I don’t want you to do it again,” Quinn said. “We can find other solutions that don’t involve lifting your tail.”  
“Quinn, I told you it doesn’t bother me. Honestly, it had been a while anyway.”  
“Harold, go make sure everything’s locked up, would you?” Quinn asked.  
“But we did that before we—”  
“Just make sure. I think I left the oven on.”  
The teen left the room, grumbling under his breath the whole way. Quinn made sure to close the door behind him and then returned to the side of the bed. He and Rowen sat in silence. The longer the silence went on, the more visibly agitated she became.  
“What?” she finally asked.  
“Don’t you have any respect for yourself?”  
“What is that supposed to mean?”  
“You say dragons are prideful, but you slept with that back-stabbing bastard, Stret who openly hates domesticates just so you can get dirt on him. That doesn’t sound like someone with pride. It sounds more like someone who would do anything just to get ahead. Which is exactly what Salise would do.”  
Rowen said nothing, but the shock on her face meant his words hit their mark. Her gaze was distant as if recalling a distant memory.  
“Thank you for trying to help us, but please don’t lower yourself to their level just for me.”  
She snorted and turned away. “Fine. Whatever. Just leave me alone.”  
There was nothing more to be said anyway and he had other things to do. He returned to the hall, closing the door behind him again.  
Just before leaving, he heard a soft whine from Rowen’s room.  
The next day, Rowen was at work on time though Quinn noticed a distinct change in her demeanor. She didn’t have the usual brazen arrogance about her and instead was meek and quiet. She constantly bumped into things and kept forgetting orders. Thankfully, Harold was able to pick up the slack and cover up her blunders. Quinn made a mental note to reward the teen for his hard work.  
Alyse said it was first-day jitters or even fear of her status being discovered, but Quinn wasn’t so sure. The day before she tracked Salise’s supporters without a second thought.  
Closing time couldn’t come fast enough. Rowen’s absentmindedness had begun to test the customers’ patience. He was sure the only reason no one snapped at her was that he vouched for her, but even these dragons would only allow so much.  
When the last of the customers left the building and the door had been locked behind them, he decided to take care of talking sooner rather than later.  
“Hey, can you guys handle cleaning up?” he asked. “Rowen, I need you to help me get some things from the store room.” He noticed the dragoness staring into the corner instead of following him. “Rowen!”  
“Huh? What?”  
“I need your help,” he said calmly. “Follow me, please.”  
Luckily, she didn’t require anymore coaching or leading to get to the kitchens and downstairs into the storage.  
The moment they reached the bottom of the stairs, he turned to her.  
“So what’s going on with you?” he asked.  
“Wha—oh, I get it. Look, I don’t know—”  
“Don’t even try that. You’ve been staring into space all day.”  
Her fins flattened against her head as she stared at the shelves against the wall. “You’ll think it’s stupid.”  
“I doubt that. Try me anyway. I’m a great listener. Besides, I’m not letting you leave here until you get it off your chest. By the way, I don’t recommend trying to crawl out the window.” It was meant to be a jest, but it didn’t have the desired impact. She hadn’t even cracked a smile.  
She sighed heavily. “I thought about what you said and you’re right. I’m not a true dragon.”  
“I don’t remember saying that.”  
“It’s what you meant. A true dragon takes pride in themselves. I don’t.”  
“What? When did I—oh, I did say that. But I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. I didn’t want you to lower yourself like that just to help me.”  
“But you’re right. I just…I don’t know. I just wanted to be accepted.”  
Quinn tilted his head. “Accepted? By who?”  
“Everyone!” she cried. “Anyone! All my life I never lived up to the expectations my master set for me. He always said I was going places, that I was beautiful and I was destined to be Grand Wyrm.”  
“Grand-what?”  
“It’s a human thing. I guess the easiest explanation is like winning a contest. The winner gets everything they wanted. You become famous and everyone wants to know you. You get invited to everything and people throw favors at your feet so they can become known as well.” Her gaze became distant again, but there was anger in her eyes, confirmed by her tail quivering and hovering over the floor ready to strike. “But not her. She didn’t have to work to get noticed. She didn’t have to make backroom deals just to get an invitation to the parties. Everyone loved her.”  
Quinn wasn’t sure who she was talking about and just chalked it up to someone from her past. It seemed she had a lot to get off her chest. “I’m guessing you never won Grand Wyrm.”  
“Not once. After all my struggling and all the hard work me and my brother put in, we never even got close.”  
“Oh, you have a brother?”  
“Had a brother.”  
Quinn lowered his head. “Oh, I’m sorry.”  
“Anyway, what you said brought it all back,” she said, relaxing. “They were right. I have too much human in me. I couldn’t let go of my anger, my jealousy. I couldn’t take pride in what I did and thought I had nothing because I wanted what she had. There was another dragon. She never even tried to become Grand Wyrm, but everyone said she had practically won already. I hated her for it. She didn’t put in the work so why should she get the reward?”  
Quinn said nothing, having no words of comfort or wisdom to offer. He had felt pangs of jealousy before, times when he felt other dragons were bigger or stronger than him. But it didn’t feel like that was what Rowen was talking about. He always prided himself on his cooking skill and never had to worry about not being recognized for it. Even now he had never heard of another dragon doing what he did. Others were better than him at other things, but that was okay; he had something to take pride in, to feel good about.  
He couldn’t imagine what it was like for her to constantly fight for the slightest crumb of recognition. It reminded him Tark, Ragenta’s old chosen. Only now did he understand. To want something so badly only to have it wrenched away by someone who didn’t even want it. He hoped to never feel that kind of torment.  
“Why aren’t you saying anything?” Rowen asked. “See, I told you it was stupid.”  
“It’s not stupid, and I was quiet because there’s not much to say. I’m sorry that happened to you, but you made a pretty big realization. And it’s a great first step.”  
She snorted. “Not really. Everyone’s been saying it. I just never listened to them.”  
“But you finally heard them and that’s what matters.”  
“Yeah, it just took me betraying everyone who ever gave a damn about me to finally get the picture!”  
“Rowen—”  
“No, save me the inspirational speech, okay? I fucked up. I know.”  
He did as she asked and said nothing. Instead, he closed the distance between them and curled his neck around hers, pulling their chests together. She stiffened at his touch but didn’t pull away.  
“What are you doing?” she asked.  
“You told me to save you the speech, so I’m telling you a different way.”  
“I appreciate the thought, but it’s not that simple.”  
“Well, like my pa always said, ‘If life was simple, no one would have something to fight for.’ Just know that you’re welcome to stay as long as you need to until you’re back on your feet.”  
“Oh. Just like that? Even after I broke your window?”  
Quinn chuckled. “Not the best time to bring that up, but yeah, even after you broke my window. C’mon. let’s get back before the others start worrying.”  
“Wait, what we talked about—”  
“Don’t worry. My lips are sealed.”  
****
 
“What took ya so long?” Harold asked as the two re-entered the dining hall. “Don’t tell me ya were fuckin’ down there?”  
“Harold!” Alyse shouted, outraged. “What did I tell you about speaking to adults that way?”  
The teen was sure to move out of striking distance before shrugging. “It’s just Quinn.”  
“Like my pa always said, a gentleman doesn’t kiss and tell,” Quinn said, throwing a quick wink at Rowen.  
Alyse sighed and rubbed her temple. “And you need to stop encouraging him. He needs to learn manners.”  
“I’ve been asked worse,” Rowen added. “And to answer your question, no. We decided to use your bed for that.”  
“Wait, what? Y’all ain’t usin’ my bed!”  
“Oh yeah?” She stepped forward until Harold had been backed against the wall. “And how do you plan on stopping us?”  
“I—But—Ya can’t just—C’mon, Quinn! Use your own bed!”  
Quinn looked around wearing a confused expression. “What was that? I can’t hear you unless you ask nicely!”  
Everyone shared a round of laughter at the now blushing teen’s expense and concluded the final tasks before going to bed. Harold especially hurried off faster than usual. Quinn escorted Alyse home. It surprised him to come back to find Rowen not only awake but waiting for him.  
“Um, you do know I was joking before, right?”  
“Oh, haha,” she replied sarcastically. “Anyway, that’s not what I’m here for. I, I wanted to ask you something.”  
Judging from the way her fins flattened and how her tail swayed behind her, now wasn’t the time for more jokes, so Quinn sat down and put on a serious face. “Shoot.”  
“Honestly, I expected to die here. I only came to the Dragonlands because I knew no one would recognize me here and I could leave my past behind. But I get it now. Running from my past isn’t gonna solve my problems.”  
“I’m glad you realized that. So what will solve your problems?”  
“I don’t know. I just know I’m done running from it all. I want a new life. I want something I can be proud of.” She slowly pawed at an unseen spot on the floor. “So…is okay if…I stay here? Not just until my debt is paid, but y’know, forever? There’s no point in taking my chances out there. At least here, I know I’m accepted.”  
Quinn replied without hesitation. “Sure.”  
“Wait, that’s it? Just like that?”  
“If you thought I was gonna say no, why’d you ask?”  
“I didn’t think you were gonna say no, I just thought you’d make me beg or something. Plead my case. But you just say yeah without even waiting.”  
Quinn chuckled. “Yeah, if there’s one thing I learned living out here, dragons don’t beg or at least they don’t like to. Besides, I would never make you beg.” He started to get ready to sleep then remembered one last thing. “Oh yeah, if you’re gonna stay here, you need to abide by one specific rule: no one in my restaurant goes hungry. Even if it’s someone you hate. Feed them first, then you can kick their ass.”  
Rowen smiled. “Deal.”  
****
 
Rowen proved herself much better at her work than Quinn expected. Yesterday’s mishaps seemed more a consequence of the things weighing heavily on her mind and not an abundance of clumsiness.  
Her social skills were especially exceptional. The restaurant was always lively, but Rowen somehow got everyone in an even more jubilant mood. Someone brought in musical instruments while Quinn was in the kitchen and it wasn’t until the songs began to play, that he noticed a band of humans in the corner of the dining hall. Voices singing and laughing overlapped, mixed with the sound of human feet dancing on the tables and mugs full to the brim with beer clanged together and tapped in beat with the music. The dragons stamped and cheered. The walls shook making the lights tremble, causing the shadows to resemble a dance in time with the beat.  
At one point, they had stopped serving customers and just joined in the festivities. Quinn had never danced or sang before, at least not in front of a crowd, but being here in front of everyone, he forgot his anxiety and joined the revelers in their drink and merriment.  
He occasionally caught glimpses of Harold in the crowd, the teen dancing and cheering harder than anyone else, a grin wide enough to split his head in two adorning his face.  
By the end of the day, the restaurant was a mess. Quinn had never felt so sore and tired in his life. He reeked of beer and human sweat, food and liquor had dried on scales making certain movements feel awkward, his paws and throat hurt from the dancing and singing. The customers, full of alcohol and food, somehow managed to stumble outside and hopefully find their way home. It wouldn’t surprise him to find some of them sleeping in the streets tomorrow. But he felt good. His body would pay for it tomorrow, but today, he would relish the moment.  
“Now that was a party,” Rowen said. “Is this what your job is like every day?”  
Quinn struggled to stand up only the find the dragoness slumped against a table. Harold sat in one of the few chairs still upright, his chin resting on his chest while he snored peacefully. Alyse sat on the floor next to him, sleeping as well.  
“Not even close,” Quinn said. “People have a good time, but it’s never been like this.” He groaned softly as he stood up. He just wanted to lie down but he couldn’t leave the restaurant in this state. “You really had an effect on everyone today.”  
Rowen snorted and turned away even though the way her fins flared and the slight smile on her face betrayed her true emotions. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”  
“Yeah, sure you don’t. Coming here for a fresh start was a good idea. Do you mind carrying the others into the back while I clean up?”  
Despite her looking like how Quinn felt, she managed to deftly pull Harold onto her back. “What do you mean?”  
“I mean here you’re not held down by your jealousy so you can do what you want instead of trying to upstage someone else.” With a smile, he added, “You stand out pretty well when you really try. If we held one of those Grand Wyrm things here, I’m pretty sure you’d win.”
 
She stopped long enough to send a sly smile over her shoulder before saying, “Yeah, well, a good friend once told me people just did it to show off so it wasn’t worth winning anyway.”

Comments

Author's Notes

Since May is mental health awareness month, I figured this was the best time to put this out there. We're often under a lot of pressure even when no one is directly putting the pressure on us. We want to be the best, we want to stand out, and we want to be noticed. The peer pressure never leaves and many people are driven by it in ways they probably don't even think about. It does things to your mind and can seriously impact your thinking and productivity.   So to everyone struggling out there and feeling unnoticed, this is to you. And remember, just because you're not at the top doesn't mean you failed.


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26 May, 2022 18:02

A couple of big twists here in this one! I never thought we'd see Rowen alive again after what she'd did to Cutter. But she has shown some tenacity to make it this far into the Dragonlands. The other surprise is that Ragenta still remains in power, and still carries a flame for Quinn.   It was very nice that you wrote this one with note at the end in mind. Like it was said in the story, sometimes it takes a while for you to accept the advice that others are giving you.   Glad to see the you're back to writing at full throttle across multiple stories. I hope everything is going better for you.

26 May, 2022 18:35

Thanks! Rowen was always meant to play a bigger role int he story, she just never got her chance, and Ragenta...there's plans for her later. ;)   There are still some rough waters ahead, but I'll weather the storm with a confident mindset and writing like there's no tomorrow.