One Year Ago
Antonio stared at the smoldering skeleton of his apartment building. The firefighters had fought all day to keep it contained, and it was finally out. Though his lungs hurt, and soot was smeared over his face, he had refused to go to the hospital himself. He could still feel the burning heat in his gut, a feeling as thrilling as it was terrifying—and it was terrifying. He knew what that heat meant.
How long had it been since the world had found out about dragons? Five years? And it had only been a year, if that, since the dragon kingdom of Byrelmore had traveled from the past and come to the future, bringing with it magic to spread over the whole world.
He thought that if he was going to turn into a dragon, he would have done it already. He thought that after that much time had passed, there was no more magic to be absorbed into his body to make him into something he never thought he’d be… But now as he stared at the building, he knew better. The damage was too extensive for them to figure out the source of the fire, but he knew.
A hand brushed his elbow and he jumped, his hand immediately going to where he’d normally have his FBI-issue gun. He didn’t have it, of course, wearing only his pajamas with a blanket wrapped around his shoulders. It was just as well, anyway.
“Are you alright?” His neighbor, Marcia, peered at him with worried eyes.
Antonio shook himself. “Shouldn’t you be at the hospital?”
“I was discharged some time ago,” Marcia replied. “I wasn’t hurt. Nobody was, thank God. I’ve tracked down everybody. Mrs. Parks will have to stay for a few days with burns, but she’s the worst of it. She wanted me to thank you for carrying her out of there.”
Antonio nodded stiffly. Would she be thanking him if she knew that he was the one who started the fire in the first place? He hadn’t meant to. He’d been sleeping, dreaming of how his team had betrayed him a few months ago. There had been so much anger in his heart, it felt like it was burning him up from the inside.
He’d woken with flames shooting from his mouth and his hands curled into claws. Red scales had covered his arms and chest. At first he thought he was still dreaming. By the time he realized that he wasn’t, the flames had grown too high for him to extinguish.
Those flames still burned in his gut. They flickered, rising up his throat and settling back down into a steady smolder. Even though he was still bare-chested, and frost clung to the benches at the bus stop, he wasn’t cold. He’d only taken the blanket to stop the paramedics from continuously bugging him to go to the hospital.
“I don’t understand what happened,” Marcia continued. Her brow furrowed as she turned to the apartment building. “I didn’t know that fire could move that quickly. Do you think it was arson? I heard one of the fire-fighters talking and they thought it might be arson. What do you think?”
“I don’t know.”
He swallowed hard. If they knew what had happened, would it be considered arson? He hadn’t meant to light the fire. Law enforcement wasn’t exactly kind to the newly-created dragons and mages that found themselves causing accidents like this, though. As an FBI agent himself, Antonio knew that. People were scared. This was a complete change to how most people viewed their world.
Antonio sucked in a deep breath, feeling the warm metal of the cross his grandmother had given to him on his first communion. He’d treasured and worn it ever since. Every morning as he strapped on his guns and every time he went out on assignment, he was aware of the delicate weight around his neck, feeling the peace that his faith had always given him.
Only now, it wasn’t there.
He could feel the beating of wings in his heart. He could feel fire burning through his veins and struggled to keep those red scales from sprouting over his body once more. His hands trembled with the effort. If he wasn’t human anymore, was he still one of God’s creations? If he wasn’t human… what was he?
A dragon, a voice whispered in the back of his mind. You are a dragon.
He turned away from the burnt building at last, trying to ignore the shudders that ran down his spine. He started to walk away but paused and glanced back at Marcia. He had been thinking about asking her out for some time. She was smart, pretty, resourceful. Always friendly to him and the others in the building. She had put together more than one block party.
“Are you going to be okay?”
Marcia nodded. “Yeah. I’ve got friends that I can stay with until I find a new place. Oh, I forgot… here’s your coat back.”
He took the coat, only remembering now how he’d grabbed it as he left his apartment to sound the alarm. He’d wrapped it around her trembling shoulders as she stood watching their homes burn. Now he pulled it on and handed the blanket to a paramedic. As he buttoned the coat, he noticed that Marcia was still staring at him. He glanced at her with an arched brow, wondering what that was about.
“Are you going to be alright?”
Antonio’s hands paused. He considered it for a moment, then forced an easy smile and nodded. “Yeah. If nothing else, I can sleep at the office. Don’t worry about me.”
Marcia nodded. He gave her one final nod before he left, shoving his hands into his pockets as he did. His fingers brushed something, and he pulled it out. His heart dropped when he saw what it was. The business card that a mage of Byrelmore had given him almost a month ago. She’d shown up unexpectedly at his office, given him the card and introduced herself as Audiv.
“I’m part of a task force assigned by King Indulf to find potential dragons,” she’d said, “We have developed a test to calculate the possibility of such men and women to discover their potential to become dragons. You’ve had four cousins turn into dragons, so the genetics are there in your family.”
He had flatly refused. It was too long since Byrelmore had arrived in this present world for him to suddenly turn into a dragon as his cousins had. Besides, they had been plagued with nightmares and the sense that something had changed in themselves before their shift. His life was the same as it always had been. There was no need, he thought, because he wasn’t a dragon.
Now, he had to wonder what would be different if he had gone. Would they have discovered that he was a dragon? Would they have been able to give him some sort of magical cure so that this heat in his belly would never have sparked to life? Could he have continued with his life, not having to worry about what was going to happen next?
Would his apartment building still be standing? Would his neighbors still have their homes and their precious belongings? Could this all have been avoided, if he had just gone with Audiv to be tested?
Why hadn’t he gone? Was it because his grandmother had called him, sobbing, to tell him to pray for his cousins’ souls when they had shifted? Was it the protestors who stood at the borders between the States and Byrelmore, shouting obscenities and threats at anybody who crossed? Was it the multitude of news outlets talking about how it was only a matter of time before the dragons turned on humanity?
He wasn’t sure… He reached up to touch his cross, and a feeling of disgust swept through him. Wasn’t sure? No, he knew exactly why had hadn’t gone. Because he didn’t want to even think about the possibility of being a dragon. Because it terrified him to think of the possibility that he might be something other than human, something completely beyond his abilities to control or choose.
Now… He took the cross off and shoved it into his pocket. Now he had no idea what he was… or who he was, even.
One Year Later
Sweat dripped from Antonio’s brow as he blocked a swing coming at his face, then punched his opponent in his padded chest. The man grunted as he stumbled back and came back with a wild swing that Antonio easily dodged. He kicked the man’s feet out from under him and brought him down with a grunt. The man let out a surprised groan, then flashed a smile as he propped himself on one arm.
“I’ve got to learn that move,” he said.
Antonio grinned at him, but there was no true emotion in it. He rocked back to his heels and looked over the other dragons. All were people who had moved to Byrelmore after circumstances similar to his. All had left family, jobs, and homes. Some of them had it better than others… and he had to admit that he was one of them. After all, even though he didn’t speak with his family as often these days, they hadn’t outright disowned him. They hadn’t told him to his face that they never wanted to see him again.
“That’s good for now, gentlemen,” a voice called.
Antonio turned to see their trainer, Thonis, striding to the center of the room. The dragon princess, Katrina, was at his side. She looked quite pleased as she glanced around at them. Antonio helped his sparring partner to his feet and turned towards the two of them.
Like everyone here, Katrina had been surprised to find out that she was a dragon, but she seemed to have made the most of it. She was a good choice for interacting with them like this because she knew what they were going through.
“You’re all doing well,” Thonis praised as his nostrils flared. “There is hardly a scent of smoke in the air. You’ve all improved your self-control greatly and should be proud of yourselves.”
Antonio grunted at that. This was the part he hated most. For the most part, living in Byrelmore was alright. He didn’t have to worry about how to take care of himself, as necessities were provided for all of them, but it was filling his time that was the difficult thing. He’d joined several classes beyond the mandatory ones for self-control. At the end of these sparring matches, though, when they were all physically tired, Katrina always did the same thing.
The men gathered chairs and put them in a circle. Antonio thought about slipping away and hitting the showers, but when Katrina glanced pointedly at him, he took a chair. She must have noticed his absence the last few times they’d done this.
As they were all settling, the doors opened and Audiv came in. Antonio felt himself sitting a little straighter as the curvy, beautiful mage strode in and handed something to Katrina. She waved at a few of the dragons, and her smile widened when her gaze landed on Antonio. He couldn’t help but grin back, the first true grin he’d had all day.
“Thank you,” Katrina said to Audiv. “Would you like to join our session today?”
“Unfortunately, I have to decline today,” Audiv replied. “The king’s given me a rather time-sensitive project and I need to get it done. Thank you, though.”
Katrina nodded at her, then settled down beside Thonis and smiled at the gathered group. “Let’s start with Antonio today, shall we?”
Antonio felt his face slip into a frown as all the eyes turned toward him.
“How have you been doing?” Katrina asked him.
“Adjusting,” he replied. And that was the truth. It had taken almost a year to get here, but he had finally accepted that his life wasn’t going to go back to the way it had been.
“Have you given any thought to voluntarily becoming a dragon yet?”
His hands curled, and his eyes flashed. “Yes, I have. And I am not going to do it.”
A year, and he felt like he was battling that heat inside him constantly. Like any moment, wings could sprout from his back and claws from his fingers. He’d had a few accidental shifts from time to time, but the thought of willingly shedding his humanity for the beast? Never.
Katrina’s eyes grew sad for a moment before she nodded. “And you, Hector? How are you doing?”
Antonio leaned back in his chair as they continued. His scowl deepened as he stared at the floor, listening to what the others had to say. All of them had voluntarily shifted by now, making him the odd one out. But it didn’t matter. He had one thing he could control in this situation, and that was what choices he made.
He wasn’t going to give that up just because they thought he should shift.