Actions

Work Header

Copperopolis, CA

Chapter Text

Whether you call it chance, or fate, very few people end up in Copperopolis by design. Perched at the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountain range, the town seems almost forgotten. It’s barely paved roads scattered with a handful of sun bleached buildings the copper barons couldn’t quite fit in their pockets when they packed everything up, and shuttered the town’s namesake mine so many years ago. 

However, while California’s coastal cities broadcast themselves the world over, while Los Angeles markets fantasy, and San Francisco peddles information, and Napa bottles pleasure for a price, the backroad towns of the California gold country hold their secrets close. Here flinty miners and forty-niners once set up silent camps, panning creeks and rivers, and hoping to pluck a dream from the icy waters. Here their hard earned money was spent too, on liquor, and cards and women harder than whiskey, and twice as strong. 

But none of this, though interesting, was the reason Rose Tyler moved to Copperopolis in the late summer of 2012. Nor was it the amber rolling hills, punctuated with dark lone oaks, like the period of a haiku you can’t quite fathom. No, the thing that brought Rose Tyler to Copperopolis had a name, and that name was Wilfred Mott.

Rose slipped her work-issued key into the lock of the Calaveras County Animal Clinic, and felt her heart sink into her stomach as its snicked open. In her three months of working there she had never once arrived in the morning before Wilf. As the clinic’s proprietor and sole licensed veterinary doctor, he usually arrived well before Rose and had all the blinds open and the coffee started by the time she got there. The clinic was his life’s work and he took pride that it was run efficiently. But for the last two days, he simply hadn’t shown up. Rose was getting worried.

Rose had tried everything she could think of, calling Wilf’s cell phone and home line, even going so far as to drive by his humble A-frame cottage and peek in the windows. But Wilf was no where to be found. 

Dropping her keys on the counter of the teal formica reception desk she occupied most days, Rose hurried to the office phone to check the voicemail that had come in since she’d left the day before. She hoped desperately for some sort of message and excuse from Wilf, but aside from a rather put out sounding Mrs. Wilkins trying to reschedule her appointment for her cat Molly there was nothing. Rose dropped the receiver back in it’s cradle, and pulled out a pad of post-it notes to scribble on as she tried to think. 

She liked Wilf. Rose liked his rough honest Northern California ways, the way he would compose naughty limericks about the dogs and tomcats that were brought into the vets office and that he would slip up sometimes and call something “hella cool”, then wink at her as if it had been what he’d intended all along. And Rose appreciated that Wilf had given her the job at the vet’s office which had brought her to the quiet town. He’d offered her a life-line, a chance to get her feet under her at a time she’d desperately needed it. 

She’d been rescheduling Wilf’s appointments and trying to keep a good face on the clinic in his absence for two days now, hoping that he’d  simply gone on an uncharacteristic bender, like so many of the town’s residents were wont to do, and that he would be back soon, hungover, and shamefaced for the verbal lashing she had prepared him.

It had gone too far though. Rose was beginning to get seriously concerned that something terrible had happened, and so she grabbed the phone receiver again, this time to call the police. 

The woman who answered at the County Substation’s sounded tired and bored despite the din of angry voices in the background. Amidst the yelling, Rose could just make out a woman’s voice screaming about something that sounded a lot like “pick-up truck on fire” and despite her worry, she couldn’t help but shake her head in amusement. Typical. 

She explained the situation briefly to the receptionist, and then rapped a pencil against her post-it pad as she waited to be transferred. When the line was picked up again the background noise was gone, and the voice was now a man’s, young sounding, and firm.

“Hello Miss, this is Officer Pitts. Dolores says you’re calling from the vet’s clinic in Copper? Can I get your name for the record?”

Rose sighed, she’d already given her name to the receptionist. 

“Rose Tyler, I’m the assistant here at the Calaveras Clinic,” she clarified. The full name of the vet’s office was a mouthful, especially for such a small practice, but Wilf was the only vet in town. The officer would know what she was talking about. “I’m worried about my boss, this is the third morning he hasn’t shown up for work and it’s not like him.” 

“Have you tried calling his cell?” The officer asked. Rose couldn’t help but feel he was being a bit condescending.

“Of course, and his home line. He’s not answering.” 

“Alright, what did you say your boss’s name was?”

Rose hadn’t said. “Wilfred Mott. W… I… L…”

“Right, I got it.” The officer cut her off. “He lives out off Stagecoach Road?”

“Yeah, that’s him,” Rose confirmed.

“Alright,” the officer said, sounding as if the matter had been settled. “I’ll drive by later today and see if he’s around.”

“No, no,” Rose jumped in, hoping that the officer hadn’t hung up yet, he’d sounded like he was about to. “Please, I’ve already done that. This isn’t like Wilf. I’m really worried something’s happened to him.”

There was a pause on the other end of the line and then the distinct sound of a sigh before the officer spoke again. “Look, Miss Tyler, I appreciate your concern, but most of the time in these cases, it just turns out that someone forgot to call into work with an excuse. If you want to find your boss, maybe check the saloon on Main Street. Last guy we had go missing from work turned up under a barstool in Angel’s Camp. I’m betting yours will too.”

“Alright,” Rose said, dejected. She wasn’t sure exactly what she’d hoped for, but the officers calm businesslike attitude certainly wasn’t it. “But you will look for him?”

“I’ve got a case file open.” The officer said matter of factly, “We’ll keep our eyes open.”

“Alright, thanks,” Rose said, and hung up before she could hear the officer’s reply. 

Not knowing what more to do, Rose got up and switched off the clinic’s neon “Open” sign. She couldn’t deal with another day of reschedules and sending people away. She turned the deadbolt on the glass door too, just in case somebody missed the sign and headed into the back of the small clinic. 

It was a humble space, just two exam rooms, one of which had been converted into a storage room, with various office and medical supplies laid out neatly on the red vinyl mat of the examination table. Across from that room was a metal scale on a table for the smaller animals that came in, and another on the floor beside for the larger ones. 

In the very back was Wilf’s office. Not knowing what else to do Rose headed in to poke around.  It felt wrong rummaging through someone’s desk, but Wilf had never been overly particular about his privacy. Even if he had, Rose figured that going AWOL for three days more than excused the invasion. 

Rose had been in the room before on many occasions. While Wilf was meticulous about the organization of the clinic as a whole, his own space was a bit more cluttered and lived in. Books, and random objects, and patient files littered his desk as if they had been strewn around in the exact order that thoughts happened to drift into his head. Rose smiled to see the small twisted metal sculpture of a gnome that always stood under an old goose-neck desk lamp, presiding over the chaos. Wilf loved fanciful things, but that sculpture was just about the ugliest object Rose had ever seen. 

Rose couldn’t imagine finding anything illuminating in the mess. She’d looked briefly before and there was no note saying: Gone fishing Rose, cancel my appointments, thanks! But like many men his age, Wilf tended to avoid digital conveniences. If she could find a calendar or an address book… Rose let her thoughts trail off, focusing instead on the papers in front of her and trying to decipher Wilf’s chicken-scratch handwriting. She almost thought she had something when a lower drawer turned up a note-book sized leather bound book, but gave up hope when she saw the words handwritten in a looping scrawl on the first page. 

“A Journal of Impossible Things”

She flipped to a random page and read aloud, dictating to the twisted unblinking face of the gnome on the desktop: 

…The tears of a mermaid like those of many magical creatures, are known to have powerful regenerative properties, to the point where wounded pirates were known to ply the maids with stolen treasures and trinkets in exchange for just a drop of the potent liquid. If the emotion that triggers the tears is pure enough, it is even rumored that they may bestow life eternal, and it is thus that the legend of the fountain of youth began…

Rose rolled her eyes, and tossed the journal down on the desk beside the troll. Useless. 

“Of course Wilf would have something like this,” she complained, addressing the gnome for lack of a more sympathetic ear. “I suppose this is your influence? You two get together at night and play D&D after I’ve gone home?”

The sculpture simply stared at her, his pinched little face seeming to grow uglier in Rose’s exasperation. She didn’t know what to do with herself. If there were any clues here they were well hidden, and she was no detective.  

Rose was just about to get up and head back to the front desk to pull up and cancel Wilf’s appointments for the day when the old switchboard telephone began to ring, the light at the base of it indicating that the number had been the direct one to Wilf’s office, and not the clinic main line.  It wouldn’t be a client or the officer calling back. Not to that number. Rose scrambled to get the phone off the hook, hoping against hope it was Wilf himself and only just remembering to answer with a professional greeting, in case it wasn’t.

“Wilfred Mott’s office, this is Rose speaking.”

From the other end of the line Rose could hear deep labored breathing, and for a moment was afraid the call was a prank. But then a deep, pained sounding voice echoed through the line. 

“Who the hell is this? Put Wilf on the line.”

Rose crumbled up a blank sheet of paper from Wilf’s desk and squeezed it in her palm. There was something she didn’t like about this phone call, something alarming. The man on the other end’s voice was strained and almost shouting. 

“Wilf isn’t here right now,” Rose said as calmly as she could manage. She felt like she’d repeated those words a hundred times in the past few days. “This is Rose, his assistant. Is there something that I can help you with?” 

“You?” The man on the other end of the line seemed to bite back a curse, “You can get Wilf on the line is what you can do. Tell him it’s an emergency. Tell him something happened at the mine.” 

Rose had no idea what that meant, but something told her it couldn’t be good. Copperopolis was in the heart of what had once been California gold rush territory. The countryside was literally dotted with hundreds of old ore mines, now all shuttered and abandoned. While they may be a romantic curiosity to tourists or out-of-towners, the locals pretty much only headed out to the mines if they wanted to do something they shouldn’t. Rose remembered one time a local man named Mike Gardner had thought to come in to the clinic, having nearly blown his hand off lighting an illegal M80. She didn’t much fancy having to deal with the fall out of one of Wilf’s idiot friend’s bad decisions now. 

Rose could hear a scraping and a strange crackling sound over the phone line, then the man’s voice came back, sounding angrier than before.

“Damnit woman I didn’t ask you to think. Get Wilf!”

Rose squeezed the ball of paper in her hands tighter, reminding herself that boss or no, she was at work, and she needed to stay calm.

“You aren’t hearing me Sir,” she said, impressed with herself at how level her voice sounded “Wilf isn’t here, I don’t know where he is, and I haven’t been able to reach him. And this is a Vet’s office, if you’re hurt you need to go to a hospital. I can transfer you if you’d like?”

“NO!” the man shouted with what sounded like a hiss of pain, “Don’t transfer me.”

There was a pause and a low grating sound over the line that sounded very much like something heavy being dragged over gravel. Rose could practically hear the man’s mind churning as he sorted through his options. 

“Look lady,” he said finally, “I won’t be able to talk like this much longer. You’re Wilf’s assistant?”

“I said I was didn’t I?” Rose snapped, this whole situation was testing her patience. 

The man only grunted, but whether it was in pain or annoyance Rose could hardly tell. 

“Does he trust you?”

“What?” Rose asked, not liking where things were going. She lightly tapped the worn buttons of Wilf’s old phone. She could just transfer the man to the hospital despite everything, but something stopped her, made her hear him out.

“Does he trust you,” he repeated, his voice tighter than ever. “Does Wilf trust you?”

“Yeah, I think he does.”

The voice on the other end of the line growled. “Alright, it’ll have to be good enough. I need you to come out to the old mine and bring medical supplies.”

“The old… you must be joking, there’s dozens of...”

“You won’t miss this one, just take route 4 out towards Arnold. The turnoff is on the right, just past Dorrington. The one with the gate and the no trespassing sign.” 

“Dorrington? That’s an hour away. You do know this is a vet’s office right? It’s just, you don’t sound so good yourself and we only deal with animals… ” 

“I know what I need.” The man snapped at her. “The mine is just a mile past the gate. Don’t forget painkillers.” He paused a moment, and Rose had to strain for the background noise to be sure he hand’t hung up. “Not aspirin, something else.” 

And then he was gone, leaving Rose completely unsure as to what exactly she had just been asked to do.

It felt like insanity to leave the clinic in the middle of the day with Wilf still missing. But after a few minutes of sitting back at her reception desk, staring at the four dingy grass-mat walls of the empty veterinary waiting room, Rose felt like she might actually go insane if she stayed there. Finally with a huff of annoyance she grabbed a sheet of paper and tape from her desk and scrawled a makeshift “Closed Due to Unforeseen Circumstances” sign for the front door, adding as an afterthought the phone number for the Veterinary Hospital up in Angel’s Camp, the next town, about fifteen minutes up the highway. 

That done, Rose hastily jotted down another note for Wilf, on the off chance that he returned while she was gone. This one she left on the counter of the reception desk, before ducking under it to fish out the old gym bag she kept there, and dumping out it’s contents on top of her desk chair. 

The man had said to bring medical supplies, but what did that mean exactly? Supplies for a man, or a dog, or a horse even? The only clue she had to go on was that whoever, or whatever her patient was, they apparently couldn’t tolerate aspirin. 

Deciding to start there, Rose went to the medical cupboard and selected a variety of non-aspirin pain medications in various dosages, and, after a moments thought tossed in a couple of vials of topical anesthetic and a handful of syringes as well. Moving on from there she tried to think of anything she possibly could that would be useful in a first aid situation, throwing in bandages, and burn cream, and even a mylar emergency blanket she dug up incase the creature had gone into shock and needed to be kept warm. 

Remembering the man who’d injured himself with the M-80, Rose moved to the exam room and dug through the cabinet there until she had retrieved a few suture kits, and threw them on top of the mess of supplies in the bag, along with a bottle of iodine and a box of nitrile gloves. 

Finally, feeling like she’d already wasted too much time, Rose grabbed her zip-up fleece from the back of her office chair, and headed back out the front door, sparing only a moment as she locked it to stare in disbelief at the shuttered business. 

“Damn you Wilf,” Rose muttered under her breath. She really hoped he’d come back soon. Because once he did, Rose was going to kill him. 

 

Chapter Text

As Rose drove eastward along California Route 4 the elevation rose and the rolling, golden hills gave way to craggier alpine cliffs and impossibly tall Redwoods, and Douglass Firs that jutted into the sky like sentinels. The Fall air grew cooler, with a damp that spoke of moss, and dark places. 

Lulled by the familiar landscape, and the endless twists and turns of the mountain highway, Rose felt her fears beginning to get the better of her. None of the scenarios she could think of to explain Wilf’s sudden disappearance, involved anything good. The old man could have his head in the clouds at times, but he was reliable to a fault. Leaving the vet’s office to go so far out of town with Wilf still missing felt horribly wrong.

But no, Rose told herself, she was doing the right thing. It was what Wilf would have done. Everyone liked Wilf, in no small part due to the fact that he was always dropping everything  to run off and help people. Even if those people hardly deserved it, Rose reflected, thinking about some of the characters about town that Wilf counted as friends. 

After all hadn’t Wilf bailed her out only a few short months ago? The least she could do was carry on in his absence.

In fact, it had been up this very stretch of highway that Rose had first met Wilf. 

Rose cringed remembering the circumstances. At twenty six years of age, she’d thought she was done making a fool of herself over a boy… man… well man-child really. Fucking Jimmy.

She didn’t even ski, but Jimmy, her now thankfully ex-boyfriend, had rented out the whole lodge at the Bear Valley Resort and brought her, his stupid band, and about a dozen of their ridiculous groupies up to take advantage of the late spring powder. Jimmy wasn’t exactly the world’s best skier either, for all he liked to brag about his childhood trips to Aspen, but even Rose had to admit, he truly excelled at trashing a hotel booking.

Jimmy was always making grand gestures like that. Footing the bill at places that Rose had never even thought to go before she’d met him. For a while Rose had fooled herself into thinking it was because he was generous. She knew better now. Jimmy Stones was a spoiled, rebellious, trust fund brat through and through. He liked showing off his privilege. 

He’d broken up with her on that trip. And Rose had been left to sit in the lodge and stew as she watched him glide off to the chairlift with air-headed Monica in tow. It had been a miserable, humiliating weekend. Especially because deep down Rose knew she should have known better. Better than to have been with someone like Jimmy in the first place, and certainly better than to have moved in with him in his downtown flat back in San Francisco.

What’s more, Rose had begun to realize she was royally and truly screwed. She’d have to move out of course. And with tuition at The University of San Francisco having eaten up most of the money finding a new place to live was going to be difficult, if not impossible. 

She’d been sulking over a pint at the lodge when Wilf sat down on the barstool next to her. Maybe it was the older man’s kindly open demeanor, or maybe it was her loneliness in the face of Jimmy’s idiot friend’s revelry, but she soon found herself commiserating with Wilf about everything. 

He was a good listener. Wilf always knew when to nod sympathetically, when to interject with anecdotes of his own misadventures, and when to call her ex a bastard. When he’d heard that she was going to school for veterinary science, he’d offered her the job in Copperopolis “…for as long, or as short amount of time as you need it. Sometimes a quiet change of scenery can be helpful.” Two and a half months later, after exhausting her options and remaining funds on a Craigslist sublet that didn’t pan out, Rose took him up on his offer.

But now Wilf was gone, and Rose had no idea what to do next.

Not wanting to think about it, Rose focused back on the road ahead of her, she was coming up on Dorrington, a town that was little more than a small inn and general store beside the highway, and the turnout the man had described would be just past it. 

Sure enough after another couple miles, beside a truly massive sequoia redwood, was a small dirt road behind a rusty gate labeled “No Trespassing”. The lane was so unassuming, and tucked so far behind the gigantic tree, that if it hadn’t been for the black BMW parked in the turnout Rose might have missed it. As it was Rose had to slam on her breaks to make it without having to double back around. 

She left her dinged-up, red Toyota Tercel running as she got out to unfasten the gate and peer down the road. It seemed to lead down a narrow natural canyon in the cliff, and Rose couldn’t help but feel the man, if he was down there, had been very lucky to get phone reception at all. She took a moment to savor the scent of the mountain air, a mixture of loam, and pine and wood smoke from the inn down the way, before she got back in her car and headed down the lane, stopping only to close the gate again behind her.

As she bumped slowly down the uneven road, trying to go easy on her shocks, the darkness of the canyon seemed to take on an almost palpable presence, not quite a foreboding, but the sort of power and potential that made Rose feel as if she was standing on the edge of an ocean cliff. But that was silly. Rose had hiked trails in these mountains plenty of times since moving to Copperopolis, there was no danger in a lonely mountain road. Taking a deep breath to shake off the feeling Rose noticed that the spicy scent of wood smoke had grown stronger too, and as she finally turned into the heavily wooded clearing where the lane dead-ended she saw why.

Someone must have made a massive bonfire up here recently. A shallow pit on the ground had been so scorched that Rose fancied she saw the shimmer of melted rock beneath the ash. Even the trunks and upper branches of the nearest trees were singed black  where they faced the clearing. 

It was hardly unheard of, there were plenty of local teens who liked to come out in the woods to drink or make out, but to make a fire that size would have been unbelievably stupid. The air may be moist under the trees’ canopy, but it had been a long hot summer, and there was plenty of underbrush. Whoever had done this had been very lucky they hadn’t started a forest fire.

Getting out of the car for a closer look, Rose nearly jumped out of her skin when she heard a low, almost feral cry of pain coming from the rear of the area, where, looking closer she saw a low square entrance into the rock, braced on three sides with crumbling wood planks. The strange caller at the clinic had spoken of an abandoned mine, and sure enough there it was. Hearing another shriek echo through the clearing, and remembering the man’s strained voice, Rose checked her earlier thought. Maybe he hadn’t been so lucky after all. She couldn’t help but conclude that things must have taken a significant turn for the worse since the man had called for him to sound like that. 

Rose doubled back to retrieve the gym bag of supplies she’d brought, and a torch she kept in the boot of her car and then, steeling her nerves, cautiously headed for the mine. As she ducked her head to make her way into the entrance, the strange sounds suddenly stopped, and the subterranean silence was broken only by the crunch of rocks under her trainers, and the deep, labored, eerily long breaths of whoever was in the mine with her. 

A few yards in the mine shaft turned and opened up into a larger open cavern within the cliff. For a few moments, all Rose could seem to make out was the sharp, glossy, midnight black crags of a pile of rubble that occupied the center of the room, until the rubble shifted, and all of a sudden the light of Rose’s torch was reflected of an ice blue, and impossibly large eye.

Rose jumped back, stumbling in the loose gravel, and falling against the damp wall of the cavern with a scream of shock. The creature, for Rose could not yet force her brain to accept what her eyes saw laying before her, made as if to move towards Rose, but just as quickly recoiled back with a moan of pain. And Rose suddenly realized, the… thing… the very large lizard thing, was injured. And the man who had called her had known it. Blimey. And then he’d buggered off! Rose thought with a flash of anger. Although, she could hardly blame him. And no wonder he’d sounded so panicky on the phone. 

That was… Rose could hardly wrap her head around the thought… but that could only be…

A dragon.

Stretching it’s neck out towards her the giant lizard let out another strained rumble, and Rose flinched, nearly dropping the torch and yelping, “Bloody hell, please don’t fire me.” 

Cringing internally despite her terror, Rose peered warily at the beast who only let out a short grunt in reply, a misty coil of smoke trailing out of each nostril. Something about the way it did it almost gave Rose the sense of offended gravitas, for all it was coming from a scaly, impossible creature.

Carefully, not wanting to provoke the thing, Rose bent down and set the gym bag of supplies upon the cave floor, propping her torch on top of it where it would best illuminate the space between her and the wounded animal. Then she straightened, holding her now empty hands in front of her.

“Alright, hey,” She began, then clearing her throat tied again. “I’m Rose,” she explained, not knowing how to possibly communicate with such a thing, but hoping against hope that calm words and a level tone would do the trick. “Sorry I sounded a bit daft there, it’s just I’ve never before met a umm… what you are,” she concluded awkwardly. The talking thing at least seemed to be working, for all she felt like a fool, the Dragon had settled back on the floor of the mine shaft and was glaring at her defensively with one startlingly intelligent looking eye.

It was just an animal, Rose told herself, like any other. Any wild injured creature was dangerous. For all it was a lot less strange and terrifying, a feral dog could likely kill her just as efficiently as the beast in front of her. And somehow… she couldn’t explain it… and would likely think herself crazy later on (if she ever got a later on), but she didn’t get the sense that this creature in front of her meant to harm her. Its cold blue eyes seemed defensive, and wary, but Rose didn’t see the kind of fear or aggression she would expect from a wild animal. 

Although, Rose thought ruefully, that could be because it was just confident it could fry her at a moment’s notice if she made a wrong move.

Trying now to settle her own nerves as much as the injured animal in front of her Rose started speaking again. “So someone called me, that’s why I’m here. I’m from the Vet’s office back in Copper,” she pointed to the bag at her feet. “I brought medical supplies like he asked.” 

The Dragon sniffed the air, following her gesture queryingly. Rose bent down again slowly, and unzipped the bag, moving the torch to shine it on the contents, but cursing her decision when the first thing the light illuminated were the plastic wrapped syringes she had thrown in there on top.

Peering into the bag, the Dragon moved suddenly and for a moment Rose feared her error had been a fatal one. But rather than lunging for her the Dragon simply shuffled around with a deep grumbling growl and angled his back toward her. Stunned, not wanting to do the wrong thing again, Rose just stood there until the beast peered back over his shoulder and gave an impatient sounding sneeze in her direction, in the near blackness Rose could see the faint glow of sparks from the area around his face, and feeling jittery, and oddly sheepish, she muttered “sorry” and raised the torchlight to better see whatever it was he was trying to show her. 

It wasn’t good. 

The Dragon’s back was broad and dark, with long ropes of well defined muscles running under a skin of flat black scales, that seemed to swallow and intensify the darkness rather than reflect Rose’s feeble light. It brought to Rose’s mind a panther she had once seen at the London zoo, the way the creature seemed almost like the night itself, brought to life with deadly efficiency and power. In the center of the Dragon’s back folded close were it’s wings, but if they’d been extended Rose could see they’d likely span her entire height each. But even from her distance, Rose could see that the left one hung a bit awkwardly and as Rose shone the torch above it, she gasped to see a evil looking gash, about half the length of her forearm, still oozing blood from the creature’s shoulder.

Such a wound had to hurt immensely. 

Moved by compassion Rose couldn’t help but murmur “You poor thing,” and cautiously inched a step closer to see better.

The Dragon only let out another pained sounding grumble. But it seemed more like a complaint of hurt pride, than a warning.

“I can help you,” Rose ventured, testing out another step closer. “If you’ll let me. But I can’t promise it won’t hurt and I don’t want you biting off my head with those teeth of yours.” 

In truth, Rose couldn’t see the Dragon’s teeth but if the sickly efficient, razor sharp talons on its feet were anything to go by they were sure to be impressive to say the least. 

The Dragon shifted, and to Rose’s surprise, a long, inky sleek tail that had, up until that point, been tucked under his body, arced out along the ground to impatiently flick the bag of supplies by her feet. 

Rose shook her head. She had to be dreaming, or gone nutty or something. This whole situation seemed so surreal. 

“Alright,” she said, picking up the bag. But then a thought occurred to her that made her stall. That had all been a little too easy. “Wait a minute.” She pondered aloud, wrinkling her brow and gesturing with a finger at the Dragon. “Do you understand me? I mean, when I’m talking, do you know what I’m saying to you?”

The beast just sniffed at her, flicking its tail twice more upon the ground with a rattle of disturbed gravel as if to say ‘get on with it’.

“Right,” Rose stepped forward more confidently now, sure that at this point, stalling any longer seemed as likely to get her eaten by the giant lizard as trying to help it would. “Thanks for clearing that up.” The Dragon turned away from her at that, resting his head upon the ground and settling down in what must have been the most comfortable way possible. It still looked desperately awkward and uncomfortable. 

Laying the bag open beside the Dragon’s front feet, and shifting the torch to her teeth, Rose ventured a single hand low on the beast’s back below where his injured wing was tucked up. The creature’s scales were smooth like ceramic beads, and he radiated warmth, but not painfully so, like a hot mug of tea. Having gone thus far, Rose slowly trailed her fingers around the edge of the Dragons wing and up across it’s belly towards the area that had been injured. She could feel it shiver beneath her touch, and then tense up. Firming her hand to hold the creature steady, but avoiding the area too close to the wound, Rose leaned in for a closer look.

It was as bad as she’d thought. A ragged, deep gash that had gone into the muscle and would have to be sewn up if it had any chance of healing properly. 

Rose let out a breath, trying to remember everything she’d learned at veterinary school before she’d dropped out. They hadn’t covered dragons. Served her right for not finishing her course work.

“Alright,” she thought out loud. Talking had seemed to soothe the Dragon before, and it had somehow kept her from freaking out completely thus far, so why not? “I don’t know anything about your biology, or what you’re supposed to be like, so there’s no way for me to know if you have a fever.” 

She tried an absent minded stroke down the Dragon’s back as she thought things through and felt it shiver again, but it remained otherwise still, as if it were listening intently to her voice.

“But a cut like that is going to have to be cleaned somehow, or else it’ll get infected. And it’ll need to be stitched up. You won’t like me doing either of those.”

The Dragon growled low at that, but gently enough. Rose remembered the brusque voice of the man who had called her, painkillers he’d said. Well she’d certainly brought plenty of those, but the dosage for a dragon would hardly be on the side of the bottles. 

“Alright,” she decided, “I can give you something for the pain. But I’m only comfortable giving you as much as I would give a horse. I have no idea how you’ll react. And I have a local anesthetic too, but I’ll have to use the needles for that.”

The Dragon turned and nudged her gently with his snout and, figuring that she wouldn’t get any better confirmation than that, Rose bent down and began rummaging through her bag.

The first thing she retrieved was a bottle of oral medication. It was meant for dogs, and smelled vaguely of beef, and when she walked around to where the Dragon had laid back down his head and held a handful of the capsules out to him, he sniffed at them fussily before lapping them out of her open palm with care. 

Rose felt a thrill go through her at the gently touch, and this time her gasp was one of wonder. This dragon, this incredible, powerful creature, that should definitely not be occupying an old abandoned mine in rural California of all places… this creature had just eaten from her palm. 

Rose found that inexplicably, the corners of her mouth were twitching up, and before she knew it she was smiling. 

She’d gone barmy for sure.

Moving back to her bag, Rose lined up the little vials of anesthetic on the ground taking a little more time than necessary to select a syringe, open the package and fill it. Everything thus far, she told herself sternly, had been the easy part. 

“Alright,” she said, feeling around the long gash for areas between the scales where she had a chance of getting the needle in. “I’m going to have to inject you a couple times from top to bottom to numb you up as much as possible. The first time will probably pinch, but everything should get better after that.”

Rose took a deep breath and she could have sworn she saw the Dragon brace himself. Willing her hand to be steady Rose pushed the needle under the skin between two large scales and depressed the plunger. 

The Dragon flinched. This time she was sure of it. But remarkably, he didn’t kill her. And after a moment she could feel the muscles that had been tight beneath her steadying hand loosen. Feeling more confident, Rose filled another syringe and moved to give three more injections along the wound. Having done that and survived, she waited a few moments, and then gently prodded the injury with a gloved finger. The Dragon barely reacted. 

It had worked.

Rose finally let out a nervous breath, feeling like she hadn’t breathed properly in hours. 

“Completely mental.” She muttered to herself, and the Dragon snorted into the dirt as if to agree.

After that, stitching up the wound was straightforward if tedious work, and by the time Rose had finished she’d a crick in her back from bending over, and her eyes hurt from straining in the dim light. 

Hurrying to finish up, she dabbed iodine over the whole thing and dug around for some bandages and tape to cover the stitches. They weren’t bad, she thought with a little bit of pride. For all she hadn’t really finished that segment at school and considering she was stitching dragon skin, the sutures were even and the skin barely puckered. It should heal well if they were both lucky. Honestly she kind of wanted to take a picture of it with her cell phone. But venturing a glance up at the Dragon, its head resting on his massive clawed feet and smoke drifting from his nostrils Rose thought better of it. The light was terrible anyway. 

Finding that the medical tape she’d brought didn’t stick to the strange texture of the Dragon’s hide, Rose peeled of her nitrile gloves and moved to bend down where the beast could see her. It’s eyes, for all their intensity were drooped and seemed dreamy, and Rose thought he must be exhausted from his ordeal.

“I need to go out to the car for some things,” she said, resisting the urge to pat the Dragon on the head. “I might be a little while, but I’ll come back. Try to rest, and be careful you don’t roll over onto it. I need to get it covered, ok?”

The Dragon exhaled and let its eyes fall closed, and Rose knew by now that was as good an answer as she was going to get. 

Stepping out of the dark cave-like mine shaft Rose squinted in the mid afternoon sun. It had been a long time since breakfast and her stomach was starting to protest. It would be an easy thing to drive back down the road to the general store she had passed and pick up a sandwich, but she still hadn’t taped up her improbable patient’s injury and she didn’t much fancy an angry wounded dragon charging after her because she had failed to return. She’d told it she would be right back, and something told her that when dealing with such a creature it was best to keep her promises. So instead she rummaged around in the backseat of her car, retrieving a bag of crisps, a bottle of water and a few energy bars she kept there for emergencies. In the boot she found a roll of duct tape she was hoping would help hold the Dragon’s bandages on better than the medical tape had. 

Finding a convenient fallen log to the side of the little clearing Rose sat down for a moment to rest her back, and to open and munch on one of the energy bars while she gave herself time to think through her situation. Back in that mine was a dragon. An real life honest to goodness dragon, who she had patched up and befriended… well sort of befriended. If you stretched the definition of friendship to encompass not being burned to a crisp, which she felt in this instance was fair enough. 

Maybe it was a nice dragon, Rose considered. That was surely possible wasn’t it. It seemed just as likely or unlikely to run into a nice dragon as an evil one. Perhaps the beast’s surly temperament was just because it was injured. Certainly a gash like that would make anyone… or anything, lash out. 

Trying to picture what a friendly dragon would act like were it not injured, and trying even harder not to start laughing hysterically at the insanity of the whole situation, Rose stared absentmindedly towards the scorched area where she had initially thought some kids had set a bonfire. That conclusion at least seemed highly unlikely given what she now knew. As the afternoon sun shifted to peak out between the towering boughs of the trees overhead, something bright and glinting caught her eye among the charred debris. 

Leaving her things by the log, Rose went to investigate. When she got closer she could see the object was half buried in the ash, but even then it looked to her as if it was some sort of ornament. Delicately moulded and shaped, it looked as if it were made of solid gold. 

Stooping to pick it up Rose was sure. The item was heavy for it’s weight, and now that she held it in her hand Rose could see what it was. A short, expensive looking dagger, barely longer that a kitchen knife, but with a razor sharp curved blade that had been mostly buried in the dust at her feet. 

Suspicious now, Rose scanned the area where the fire had been, noticing for the first time how recently it must have happened. Here and there larger chunks of singed wood still smoked and Rose could still feel a faint heat coming off the ground. But it was near where she stood, just a few feet away that Rose saw something that made her gasp. On the ground lay a smart phone, the newest model but half melted and with the screen shattered, and beside the phone was the burnt, and crumbling, but unmistakable shape of a human skull.

Rose remembered the strained voice of the man who had called into the clinic. Her heart sunk. Maybe not such a nice dragon after all.

Chapter Text

Rose stared at the golden dagger in her hands, turning it over and over as she tried to fit things together in a way that made sense and wasn’t horrifying. The dagger, the dragon, the mysterious caller and the charred bones at her feet... a picture was forming in her mind and she needed to pull it into focus before she decided what to do next. 

The Dragon had killed that man, of that much she was certain. But why then hadn’t it killed her as well? She’d spent the better part of the afternoon poking and prodding the beast, and it had done little more than lie patiently on the floor of the cavern letting her do it. Staring at the blade in her hand she recalled the long angry gash in the Dragon’s flesh.. 

It could have been self defense. 

She’d been gentle with the dragon and it been gentle in return, but someone— or something— had wounded it. Could they have paid the ultimate price? Rose wanted to believe it. But if the man was the attacker, why would he have called a vet’s office for help? Had something gone dreadfully wrong and she had gotten there too late?? 

And what about the dagger? It was sharp enough but hardly longer than some of the tactical knives she’d seen the hunters in town carry, and it seemed more ornamental than anything. Who in their right mind would attack a beast of that size with a weapon like that? Why not a gun? Or a grenade launcher for that matter— it wasn’t like back home where firearms were difficult to acquire.

There were just too many questions, too much mystery. Trying to reason out the potentially lethal situation in her head left Rose feeling ill at ease and queasy. Still, despite her misgivings something deep within Rose seemed to draw her like a magnet towards the creature in the cave. A sane person would have run away screaming a long time ago, but Rose found herself retrieving the scattered items from the car and making her way with them and the dagger back into the mine.

The Dragon was still asleep when she arrived. Rose could hear its heavy breaths rasping quietly in its throat like the crackle of a wood fire. She deposited the tape and snacks next to her gym bag of supplies and considered her options. The dagger was a solid weight in her hands and the image of the charred skull outside flashed in her mind. It wouldn’t be wise for the Dragon to wake and find her confronting it with a weapon. Treading carefully so as not to rouse the creature, Rose set the blade down in front of the Dragon’s massive head, before retreating far enough so that the dagger was nearer it than her. 

Then she sat down with her back against the cool cavern wall and tucked her chin on her knees and waited.

She didn’t have to wait long. 

After about fifteen minutes the Dragon shifted and awoke with a groan. For a moment he simply took in the space around him with bleary half hooded eyes. His gaze softened when it fell on Rose’s huddled form. For all he had terrified her, it only then occurred to Rose that the Dragon must have been equally frightened. After all, he was the one who had been trapped and bleeding. More afraid of you than you are of them… isn’t that what was said about wild animals?

Rose knew the instant the Dragon saw the knife. The soft look dropped from his eyes and he lunged to cover the blade with his body, his feet planted firmly in the dirt and his shoulders wide and powerful. For the first time, the Dragon raised himself to his full height, arching his back menacingly as he glared down at Rose. A low dangerous growl rumbled through his chest, echoing in the cavern and shaking loose bits of dirt and dust that tumbled down the rough stone walls. All around her Rose could feel the heat of his breath, the air practically crackling with power and savage potential. It was a warning she realized. The Dragon’s strength was an almost visceral presence. 

It was as threatening as she had seen the beast, and yet where her heart had been racing before, Rose felt a calm settle. He could have killed her immediately, but he hadn’t.

Somewhere within her, Rose remembered the advice she had heard for dealing with wild animals— not to show your fear, not to run, to make yourself look bigger. With that in mind she pulled herself up to her full height as well and crossed her arms over her chest bossily, trying not to think about how this creature had just killed a man a few hours before. 

She took a steadying breath. Jackie Tyler hadn’t raised a coward; if this was the end of it she didn’t plan on going down quietly.

“You killed him,” she accused the Dragon. 

He snarled in reply, his lips curling to reveal sickly efficient teeth, each as long and sharp as the blade at his feet. 

“Oh come off it,” she snapped. “If I’d wanted to stab you in your sleep don’t you think I’d have done it by now?”

Rose could see the tension drop a bit in the Dragon’s heavily muscled shoulders. 

“You’ve got a lot of nerve coming at me like that,” she continued, her courage building as she gave voice to her anger. “I’ve done nothing but help you, and look at the mess I’m in because of it. You think anyone back in town’s going to believe me if I tell them a Dragon did it? I’ve got enough on my plate without being an accomplice to murder.”

He’d either understood her, or responded remarkably to the confidence in her tone, because Rose almost fancied he looked a bit sheepish. 

“Right,” Rose continued, not really sure she wanted to know the answer to her next question. “So are you going to kill me too?” For all her bravado, she couldn’t quite keep the tremor out of her voice.

The Dragon looked a bit shocked at that. His great, powerful brow raising into a series of furrows and his eyes widening. 

“Don’t look so surprised” she said, growing frustrated at the one-sidedness of the conversation. She knew the Dragon was a beast and shouldn’t be expected to talk to her, but she needed answers and it irritated her that she wasn’t getting them. “You murdered the last person that came here. I think I deserve to know if you plan the same for me.” 

The Dragon glared at her, looking angry and offended but not immediately dangerous. Then to Rose’s surprise he hunched over and lifted the dagger in his teeth before turning on her and strutting haughtily into the dark passage that led deeper into the mine.

“Good talk,” Rose muttered grumpily.

Needing to keep busy, Rose moved to begin cleaning up the debris from her impromptu medical intervention. She figured she wouldn’t see much more of the Dragon, that he’d remain hidden and sulking in the depths of his lair. But after a few minutes he returned, circling like a dog a few times, before settling with his back to her in the spot she’d first found him. 

Rose could see the wound high on his shoulder, it looked better for being stitched up but it still oozed a faint trickle of blood and needed to be covered. So grabbing the tape and a handful of large gauze pads, she moved over to tend to him, purposefully making noise as she went so as not to startle the creature. If she’d hoped for some acknowledgement she didn’t get it. 

The Dragon remained still and seemingly ambivalent as she began to tape him up.

When she was done, she rested for a moment with her palm on the Dragon’s back before plopping down to sit on the hard packed dirt and gravel of the cave floor. She felt both mentally and physically exhausted despite the fact that it couldn’t have been later than five o’clock. She sighed deeply, cursing herself internally. It was just her luck to have gotten herself into such a mess. The Dragon aside, once she got home she still had the matter of tracking down her missing employer.

The Dragon must have sensed her mood, because for the first time since storming off, he turned and looked at her with his expressive, ancient blue eyes. He sniffed her, his wide nostrils flaring and his lips parting slightly. Rose smiled halfheartedly.  

For a moment, the creature seemed to hesitate, then, almost as if he had to work himself up to do it, he hesitantly stretched his neck to nudge her hands with his enormous snout. Rose gasped, hardly daring to even breathe as he carefully worked his head under her palms until it lay resting in her lap as if he were some sort of scaly over-large Labrador. 

Rose held her breath as long as she could trying not to move lest she frighten the beast. Finally, needing oxygen, Rose released her breath in a whoosh of astonishment. As she curled her fingers to venture a soft stroke of his brow, she was rewarded with a low rumble from deep in the beast’s throat, as close to a purr of contentment as she figured a dragon could manage. 

“Ok, I’m sorry too,” Rose said, amazed by the gentle gesture from the beast. “I know you’re as scared as I am.” 

The Dragon huffed beneath her hands as if to indicate that a mighty creature such as himself certainly didn’t get frightened. His gruffness was somewhat undercut though when he let his eyes drop closed and nuzzled further into Rose’s hands. “I guess… I guess we’ll be friends.” She said in utter astonishment. 

Rose sat there for a long time, gently stroking the over-warm lump in her lap and thinking. 

The Dragon allowed itself to doze off again and Rose contemplated him. 

At some point in the last few hours she had started thinking about the Dragon as a “him”.  She couldn’t honestly say what made her so certain that the beast was a male; there had been no obvious sexual organs or markers that she had observed. For all she knew she was violating some unwritten code of mythology by assigning pronouns to a Dragon. Still whether it was based on instinct, or the utter sense of testosterone he had given off when threatened, she just knew it. The Dragon was a he. 

It was comforting sitting there like that, feeling the Dragon’s rhythmic breathing and gentle weight radiating heat in her lap. Rose supposed that was why some people had dogs, or cats, the simple physical comfort of another being beside you. 

It wasn’t that Rose needed to be in a relationship to be happy. And god forbid, better to be single that with a wanker like Jimmy again, but Rose hadn’t realized until that moment quite how lonely she’d felt. 

Rose savored the smoke scented quiet of the cavern and allowed her mind to go empty as time passed and she watched the wondrous creature. At length, she found that her eyes, which had adjusted well enough to the dim light of the mine began to struggle again. It was growing dark outside and she still had a long drive back to Copper. It was time to leave. 

Rose wiggled out from under the sleeping Dragon, sighing as she brushed the dust off her trousers. She retrieved her torch and began to collect her things. After a few minutes of trying to move quietly Rose realized the Dragon was awake. His sharp expressive eyes had opened and were following her as the moved about. Shouldering her bag Rose moved to kneel down to his level and stroke his head. 

“I have to go now. Try to stay out of trouble. Ok?” She said, sad to be seeing the last of the fantastic creature. 

The Dragon narrowed its eyes and growled at her, the rumble in his chest deep enough that Rose could feel the vibrations through the soles of her shoes. 

“Don’t be like that,” Rose chided, scrambling to her feet and turning towards the cavern entrance. “You’re a Dragon remember, you’ll be fine.”

With another menacing growl the Dragon moved swiftly, his hulking dark form a blur of midnight against the darkness. Rose was forced to stop short as she found her exit blocked by the beast’s stubborn, hulking form. 

Rose tried to squeeze around him, and was even so bold as to venture a shove where he’d planted his enormous haunch against the rock wall, but it was impossible. The Dragon didn’t want her to leave.

“Oh come on now” Rose pleaded, “I have work tomorrow… or at least… I should have. Time for humans to go home and sleep in human beds.”

The Dragon croaked in reply, a raspy high-pitched pitiful sound as if to emphasize the vulnerability of his position. Rose wasn’t buying it. The Dragon breathed fire after all, he wasn’t that much of an invalid. Honestly, if she’d had any doubt up until that point that the creature was a ‘he’ it was gone now. Men were bloody babies when they were unwell.

Rose couldn’t help but laugh a little at the enormous beast’s childish behavior. He was trying his best to seem impassive, avoiding her eyes where he’d only watched her intently before. But Rose could see the pout behind the Dragon’s stern exterior.

He wasn’t planning on budging, that much was for sure. 

Rose sighed, she hadn’t been looking forward to the dark, windy drive home anyway. “Alright, alright, you win. But I’m only staying for tonight, I have to leave in the morning.” 

The Dragon, head snapped down to meet her gaze and its tail flicked against the dirt. Rose shook her head and gave his rump another half hearted push. “But at least let me go get some stuff from the car. I promise I won’t sneak off.”

This time the Dragon allowed himself to shuffle out of the way and, dropping her bag on the ground, Rose ran out to quickly gather some things from the car. Sitting in the driver’s seat, she retrieved a package of wet wipes from the glove compartment and used them as best she could on her face and hands. Then reaching in the back Rose grabbed her fleece and a beanie, and as an afterthought retrieved the floor mats below her feet to give herself something beside gravel to sleep on top of. It wouldn’t be the most comfortable night she’d spent, but she’d manage. 

Rose could feel the Dragon watching her intently as she returned to the cave, laying out the mats and trying to arrange the lumpy gym bag into something serviceable enough for a pillow. When she was satisfied finally with her makeshift bed, Rose fished out the remaining energy bar, and the bag of crisps from the car and tucked in with enthusiasm, wishing she’d at least picked up a sandwich or something on the way up. 

Rose stashed the rubbish in a pocket of her bag when she was done and dug around for the mylar emergency blanket she’d packed. At this elevation the nights had already grown quite cool, but with her fuzzy magenta beanie pulled down over her ears and her fleece zipped all the way up she’d make do.

Settling down on the car mats Rose turned to the Dragon. “Alright tough guy,” she said “Just remember you owe me. If it weren’t for you I’d be sleeping in a nice soft bed. If any grizzlies wander by in the night I expect protection,” Rose shook a finger at the Dragon teasingly, she wasn’t really afraid of grizzlies. But her suspicion that he could somehow understand her deepened when, as tried to make herself comfortable on her makeshift bed, the Dragon stalked around her to settle himself by her side, the solid frame of his body between her and the cavern entrance. 

Contented that she was safe, if not comfortable, Rose shut off the torch, closed her eyes and dreamed of flying.

The preternatural darkness of the cave, and the muffled morning sounds of nature woke Rose slowly, her dreams overlapping her conscious state like vivid bleeding watercolors over ink. Jumbled images and snippets of dialogue mixed with her awareness only to be pulled back into the dark oblivion. She heard a heavy, soulful voice cursing softly. But wasn’t she forgetting something? 

Behind her, pressed along the length of her back Rose could feel a firm muscular presence. It smelled heavenly, like woodsmoke and fir tips and with a sleepy moan of pleasure Rose made to snuggle deeper into the heat of her bedmate’s body. Jimmy had never smelled this good before. It was glorious. The air was chilly, Rose could feel it on the tips of her nose and ears, but the rest of her body felt cocooned in the most delicious warmth. Presently, she became aware that her trainers were still on and  grunting and still bleary, Rose gave a half hearted effort to kick them off, inadvertently dislodging the solid weight of Jimmy’s leg that had been radiating heat into her lower body. Her bedmate stirred and shifted and Rose moved to fling an arm around him, finding, to her surprise that she couldn’t quite reach.

And scales.

Her partner was distinctly scaly.

Blinking her eyes clear in the dim light and sitting up enough to prop her weight on one elbow Rose found that sometime in the night she had become tucked against the Dragon’s soft underside, and that it had curled itself around her like a mother cat guarding a litter of kittens. Instead of the lumpy gym bag, her head had been pillowed on one massive forearm and the weight that settled over her legs was its long sinewy tail.

She could see that her movements had woken the beast too, in the filtered dawn light his blue eyes seemed almost to glow. 

“Mornin’” Rose mumbled, patting the foreleg that had been her pillow. “Don’t suppose you’ve got an espresso machine hidden anywhere around here?”

The Dragon snorted, collecting his sprawling body parts and tucking his feet back under his body with an air of gravity.

“Right,” Rose hopped to her feet, running her tongue across her teeth and wishing she had a toothbrush.  “Well unfortunately I’m pretty worthless without some form of caffeination,” she said. “So that means I’m really going to have to say goodbye to you this time.” 

The Dragon stretched to his feet, arching his back and opening his mouth wide in a groggy yawn. Rose skipped away as a shower of sparks erupted from his cavernous throat. It was almost laughably casual, as if he hadn’t acted like an enormous toddler having a hissy fit the last time she’d tried to leave.  

Glancing at Rose from the corner of his eye the Dragon stalked pridefully into the darkness at the rear of the cavern, and Rose hid a bemused smile beneath her own yawn as she began to collect her things. 

The Dragon returned as she was finishing up. He seemed to shuffle almost bashfully across the space between them and as he neared Rose’s side, he ducked his head and dropped something very small and very shiny at her feet.

Rose bent to pick it up and gasped when she realized what she held. In her palm lay a small ring, it’s golden band delicately tooled and twisted around a single faceted opal that seemed to blaze and glow as if it held an internal fire. As Rose turned over the gem in wonder and it caught the light from different angles, it flashed a rainbow of colors, first pink and golden, then deep blue and even black like the Dragon’s own hide. It was beautiful, and, as if it had been torn from a storybook. It was exactly the kind of thing Rose would have thought to find in a Dragon’s lair. 

She held it back out to the Dragon, “It’s lovely, but I can’t take this. It’s too much.”  The Dragon growled low a deep rumble in his chest like the sound of the earth moving. Rose could feel his breath hot on her face. “Really, it’s alright, you don’t need to pay me,” she protested. But the Dragon remained impassive, grumpily narrowing his eyes at her and planting his arse firmly in the gravel.

Rose sighed, feeling guilty. She hadn’t really done that much. “Alright.” She conceded, slipping the ring onto her left hand reluctantly. “I guess I can always use it to scare off any handsy blokes I meet.” 

On an impulse, Rose moved towards the Dragon and, steadying herself with a hand against the beast’s neck reached up on her toes to plant a soft kiss against the side of his head. 

The Dragon’s eyes went wide, and he looked so surprised and alarmed that Rose couldn’t help but giggle. Definitely a bloke. 

Figuring she might as well earn her pay, Rose moved to check the Dragon’s wound, peeling back the gauze and duct tape to avoid irritating his shimmering scales. To her surprise, she found the wound well healed. At least half of it’s length on either end had already formed scar tissue, raised and unnaturally pink against the beast’s dark flesh. 

“Amazing!” Rose breathed in wonder. “Just a few days and you should be all better. I’ll try to come back and I can take out those stitches, ok?” 

Fetching new tape and gauze Rose re-bandaged the beast and then heaved her bag of supplies onto her shoulder and tucked the mats under her arm. But when she turned to say a final goodbye to the strange and amazing creature with which she had spent the night, all she saw was the flicking tip of his tail, as he disappeared back into the darkness. This time, Rose had the sense that he would not return.

“See ya then,” she called, almost not wishing that her adventure had come to an end. Still, she was  beginning to feel the effects of so many skipped meals, and so she took one last look about the cave and quickly trudged back to her car before her or the Dragon changed their mind.

A cool mountain mist hung low in the lane as Rose drove away, capturing and multiplying the shadows cast by the jagged trees overhead. As Rose closed the old gate behind her, its rusty creak seemed almost swallowed up by the silence, and Rose hurried back into her idling car, rubbing her numb fingers in front of the driver’s side heat vent before pulling out onto the empty mountain highway.

Back home in London, Rose had never really needed to drive much, and after leaving at age 19 to travel she’d pretty much relied on public transportation for the few weeks a year she’d gone back to visit her mum. Once she’d settled in San Francisco, she’d taken a few courses and managed to get her California Driver’s license, but mostly it was just to shut Jimmy up. He’d constantly jeered her about the fact that she didn’t have one. Living in the city she’d gotten decent at parallel parking, but she’d had to borrow Jimmy’s sports car and she didn’t much fancy tackling San Francisco’s notoriously hilly streets with it’s stick shift. 

The winding highway and backroads of her new home made her equally nervous, but with the small towns so spread apart Rose’d had little choice, and so she’d picked up the Toyota—  an early 90’s model— for cheap at a used car lot. It ran a bit dodgy, but it’d been all she could afford at the time.

The radio had been busted long before she got the car, and so now, winding down Route 4 the only sound to distract her from her thoughts was the repetitive thwap of her tires hitting the cracks in the poorly maintained asphalt. 

She’d seen a dragon.

The magic and adrenaline of such a discovery was starting to wear off and worry came rushing in to take it’s place. There had been a man’s body… or bones rather. Burnt until they were practically crumbling apart but still, unmistakable. It was a mess that Rose really didn’t want to get mixed up in, especially with the problem of Wilf’s disappearance still weighing heavily on her shoulders. But how could she report such a crime, and who would believe her if she said that a dragon was the culprit? 

And what of Wilf? Rose’s heart sank for a minute as it occurred to her that the bones of the man… but no. The voice on the phone had definitely not been Wilf’s, and the charred smart-phone by the man’s body had been a flashy model that had only recently come out. Wilf was still using what must have been the first Nokia flip phone ever invented. Rose shook her head remembering the stubborn old man, but her amusement at the recollection was tempered by her concern for her boss’ well-being. 

This early there were hardly any cars on the road, and so Rose took advantage of the opportunity to drive a bit slower and safer than was commonly acceptable The sharp turns and occasional ravines off the highway still made her nervous. She had only gone a few miles when, as she depressed the accelerator to make it to the top of a slight incline, she found that nothing happened. 

Frantically, Rose checked the gas gauge, but no. She’d fueled up before she left and still had half a tank. Slamming on her hazards, and willing herself into some semblance of calm even as her heart beat double time, Rose tried to step on the brakes steadily and pulled on the steering wheel in an attempt to glide the car into a wide area of dirt to the side of the road. 

To her absolute terror she found that the wheel wouldn’t budge. She’d lost power steering as well. 

The adrenaline that had been clearing from her system flooded back in a rush and Rose threw all her weight into the stuck steering wheel, Managing only just in time to get it to turn and praying that her tires retained traction as she heard them skid and squeal on the asphalt. 

Rose saw a blur of trees and green and closed her eyes tight as the car hit the dirt, slamming on the brakes and feeling the safety harness cut across her chest as she jerked forward. Her fingers gripped the steering wheel like a vise and she could feel the white hot heat of the new ring digging into her finger. The sickly scent of melted rubber and brake filled the cabin, but the car, finally jerked to a halt. 

She’d made it.

Opening her eyes, Rose found that the car had come to a final rest at an odd angle but was fully off the side of the road. Her head dropped back against the seat and she swallowed, prying her fingers from where they still gripped the steering wheel and trying desperately to steady her breathing. 

She nearly jumped out of her skin a few moments later when the “check engine” light flashed on in the console with a shrill, cheery little ding.

Rose groaned. This was the absolute last thing she needed. She’d have to call a tow truck and that was money she just hadn’t budgeted for, not to mention whatever it would cost to fix the piece of junk. She was due for a paycheck on Friday, but with Wilf gone…

Rose dug in her bag for her mobile and flicked it on to search for a tow company nearby, the screen flared for a moment and then promptly went black.

“Shit!” Rose shouted, throwing the phone down with more force than was necessary on the passenger seat. 

Her car was fucked, her phone was dead, and when she got home… if she ever managed to flag someone down for a lift… she was probably out of a job too. How the hell did she manage to get herself into these situations?

It could have been five minutes, it could have been thirty, Rose really wouldn’t have been able to say how long she’d sat there steaming. At length she heard the rumble of a engine up the road behind her and looking in her rear view mirror saw a dark blue Range Rover pull off the road about a yard back. 

It would be a local. Rose could see from the mud splattered along the bottom front of the SUV that the car had spent plenty of time on the dirt roads that split off the highway. Rose watched as the solid lanky form of a man step out of the car and walked stiffly up the drivers side toward her car.

She got a better look at the man when he leaned down stiffly to rap with one knuckle against her window, gesturing with an outdated cranking motion that she should roll it down. He looked about middle aged, with short hair and a scruffy chin already shot through with salt and pepper. But there was a startling intensity in the man’s blue eyes, that was immediately youthful and appealing, even as he gazed at her with his brow furrowed in concern. 

Rather than rolling down the window as the man has requested, Rose opted to exit the car entirely and, as he stepped back to allow her to do so, Rose noticed that he shifted a leather jacket, dark and worn, that had been slung over one arm into his hands. 

The man seemed tense, as if he’d feared he was responding to something more serious than a roadside breakdown. His eyes focused on the car and road rather than Rose herself. 

“Is everything alright?” his voice was deep and blunt, and to Rose surprise, had a thick accent as if he from her home country.  

“Yeah… well no.” Rose mumbled, put off by the stern earnestness of the strange man. The lines on his forehead deepened at her conflicting response and his hands tightened on his leather jacket as he scanned the area around the car in confusion. “My car broke down, but I’m alright,” she clarified, feeling foolish. “I just need a tow... or a ride to the nearest payphone is all.”

Rose shifted awkwardly, hoping she hadn’t presumed too much mentioning the ride. Really all she needed was a few minutes and a borrowed mobile. She was becoming increasingly aware that it wasn’t just the man’s intensity and severe gaze that were making her nervous. He was also stunningly attractive. 

He shouldn’t have been, if Rose were to guess he was more than ten years her senior. His features were more striking than harmonious: over-large ears and nose, set off by high sharp cheekbones. But it was the way he moved too, all broad shoulders and solid arms, even as he shifted his stance in the dirt beside her, every movement somehow seemed deliberate, and even graceful. 

Rose twisted the ring on her finger nervously and saw his gaze follow the motion. 

“You’re sure you aren’t hurt Miss…” 

“Rose Tyler” Rose supplied, hoping her voice sounded cheery and casual (but not too cheery or casual for the situation.) “And yeah… umm… Miss. I’m not married.”

God she sounded daft when she found a guy attractive. Rose cringed internally wishing she could somehow crawl out of her skin and into the body of a woman who had half a clue how to play it cool.. He’d only stopped to see if she was alright Rose reminded herself sternly. 

Besides, for all she knew he was probably married. Men his age usually were. Rose let her eyes drop to surreptitiously take in his long elegant fingers. No ring there, not that it really meant anything. 

“Right.” The man hesitated a moment looking a bit lost. Likely Rose thought, because she was making him uncomfortable. “Jonathan Smith. I could take a look if you like?” 

At Rose’s puzzled look he gestured to the car,  “I’m pretty good with mechanical things.” 

“Oh of course, yeah, as long as it’s not too much trouble.” The man moved over to the bonnet of the car, trailing his fingers along it as he went in a way that really shouldn’t have made Rose shiver. “But I don’t want to bother you,” she babbled, sure that she sounded like an idiot, and equally certain her attraction was showing all over her flushed face.. “I think really what it needs is a new car all together. The thing’s ancient.”

The man smiled at her, it was a tight reluctant thing but it was there, and it put Rose at ease to some extent. 

“Nothing wrong with that. Just needs a little patching up now and again, these older models were built to last,” Rose could have sworn she caught a twinkle in his eye at that, though his face remained stern as ever. 

It occurred to her he could have been talking about more than just the car. 

The man… Jonathan… tapped lightly on the hood of the Toyota. “Care to pop the bonnet?”

Rose smiled and ducked back in the car to fish around for the lever, realizing with a little embarrassment that she’d never actually used it before. Once opened the bonnet of the car obscured Jonathan from Rose’s view and she hastily peered into the rearview mirror to check her reflection. 

As she’d suspected, she looked like someone who’d just spent the night on the hard floor of a damp and chilly cave. She took a second to straighten up her hair and pick the odd bit of leaf mulch of her clothes before calling out, “So do you prefer John or Jonathan?” 

Jonathan seemed a mouthful, but she didn’t want to presume any intimacy with the man, after all he was just some stranger who’d stopped to help her out of a jam. 

Climbing out of the driver’s seat Rose  moved to join Jonathan at the front of the car. He was bent over examining mess of engine parts, wires and belts, and she nearly got a crick in her neck forcing herself to not check out his bum.  He straightened as she approached which was a relief. It had been a pretty fantastic bum.

“Name doesn’t matter much,” and there was that twinkle again. Rose was beginning to think he might be having fun at her expense. “Dealers choice.” 

“Alright… umm John…” Rose said. It had been over 24 hours now since she’d been home and as much as the man fascinated her, she was anxious to get a meal and a hot shower. “What’s the diagnosis? Can you fix her?”

“Shouldn’t be too much of a problem,” he said, and Rose breathed a sigh of relief. If he could actually get her car running again that would be a huge worry off her shoulders.  “Just um…” Jonathan hesitated for a moment before seeming to come to some sort of a decision. he shifted the battered jacket from his elbow to his right hand and held it out to her. 

Rose took it from him. It was an old well-worn thing, and the leather was silky soft. He pointed a stern finger at her glowering a bit from beneath his eyebrows. “Be careful with that. And stand back, over there.” Rose did as he requested, moving towards the boot of the car where he’d indicated and hugging the jacket against her chest. It was body warm, as if it had been resting on a heated seat before he’d gotten out of the car, and it had a musky masculine scent of loam and ash. 

Johnathan had moved back out of her view behind the bonnet and suddenly it occurred to Rose... “Don’t you need some kind of tools or something? I think I might have a screwdriver in my glovebox.”

Jonathan grunted something unintelligible that sounded like a no, a second later sticking his hands out where she could see them and wiggling his fingers. “Got all the tools I need right here.”

Rose shrugged, if he was going to help her she wasn’t going to question his methods.

After a few minutes, some soft cursing and the flash of what Rose was pretty sure were sparks, Jonathan reemerged from behind the hood and gestured for Rose to come over. 

“Try starting her up.” He suggested, closing the bonnet with a gentle shove to get it to catch. And for a second Rose thought she saw a flicker of pain in his eyes, as if he’d tweaked his back or something. 

Rose climbed back in the driver’s seat and turned the keys in the steering column. The ignition caught on the first try, and as Rose carefully depressed the accelerator the engine revved obligingly. Rose grinned a sigh of relief, unable to hide her glee that the problem had been fixed so easily. 

She hated to admit it, but a big part of her hadn’t really thought that Jonathan would have been able to pull it off. 

“You did it!” She whooped, hopping out of the car and throwing up her hands. “I could hug you!”

Jonathan looked bashful and not a little bit alarmed at her enthusiasm, and so she simply handed him back his jacket grinning at him gleefully.  Rose’s stomach chose that moment to assert itself with a loud grumble, but she could hardly care. Her car was fixed and she’d be on the road again. For the moment at least, it seemed as if all her problems could be solved by a good meal, a hot shower and some clean knickers. 

Jonathan had crossed his arms again and was staring at her with bemusement. He really was a handsome bloke. Seemed like a decent guys too, at least… more decent than the guys that Rose was used to. It was really too bad they hadn’t met under different circumstances. Although Rose had to admit the chances that he was single were slim. What had her mate Shireen always said? The good ones were always taken. 

“I don’t know how to thank you.” she told Jonathan, sorry that she had to say goodbye to him but eager to be on the road.

Jonathan considered, and for a moment Rose thought he was going to brush it off, as if fixing her wreck of a car with nothing but his two hands were no big deal. Instead he shifted awkwardly, and gestured up the road, speaking softly and ducking his head to avoid her gaze. “Let me buy you lunch and we’re even.”

“Oh no, I couldn’t” Rose said in dismay, and she saw Jonathan cringe. He looked hurt at the rejection. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to have lunch with him. After all Rose was starving and he was bloody gorgeous, there were definitely worse blokes who could have asked her out. But he’d already done so much for her, it would have felt like taking advantage to let him pay for her meal as well. 

“I mean… I couldn’t let you buy me lunch… I already feel like I owe you so much as it is.”

Jonathan relaxed, venturing a cautious smile as the tenseness in his shoulders dropped a bit. “Oh I assure you Rose Tyler, the debt is all mine,” at her puzzled look he clarified “It’s not often I get to play the hero.”

Rose just nodded, not willing to fight him on the subject if he was going to press the matter. Perhaps she could steal the cheque from the waitress before she brought it to the table or something. Seeing her acquiescence Jonathan smiled and pointed up the highway. 

“There’s a pretty good restaurant up that way if you don’t mind doubling back a mile or so.”

Rose nodded. He could only mean the turnout at Dorrington, there wasn’t much else in the vicinity. She watched Jonathan for a bit as he walked back to his car, then flushed as she caught herself out. That man was far too attractive for her own good. And besides, hadn’t she sworn off men after Jimmy? 

As Rose climbed back into her idling car, and turned around to pull out into the opposite lane she reminded herself firmly that Jonathan was just a kind stranger. She’d have one meal with him, try to grab the bill, and then say her goodbyes.

That settled, Rose pulled out carefully onto the highway behind the Jonathan’s blue SUV.  As she hit the asphalt her car stereo, which had up until that point been completely worthless, popped and fizzled with static and then, picking up a local country station, began to blare Johnny Cash’s deep baritone as he sang the chorus to Ring of Fire.

Chapter Text

Rose couldn’t help giggling at the doubtful look on Jonathan’s face as he stood in front of the Lube Room Saloon and Liquor Emporium. It was a dingy place, clad with rough hewn wood panels. Its dirty windowless walls were tacked with red and white hand painted signs cheerily proclaiming the availability of “Jumbo Hot Dogs” and “Charbroiled Burgers”. 

As far as Rose was concerned it looked perfect and, at the scent of grease and meat in the air, her stomach turned flips in agreement. 

“Are you sure, Rose?” Jonathan asked gesturing to an antique yellow two-story building at the far side of the parking lot. “The food at the inn is much nicer.” Rose just shook her head. She knew the kind of fare the local hotels served up for the skiers who trekked up this way to the mountain resort. She knew the prices too. 

Jonathan scowled at the row of Harley Davidsons parked outside the saloon. He’d brought his black jacket with him from the car, despite the dark fleece he wore zipped up to his chin, and he fidgeted with the leather as he considered. 

Jonathan seemed to have grown more reserved during the short drive over. His eyes darted everywhere around the shallow parking lot off the highway that made up the entirety of the roadside town, but he seemed to be going out of his way to avoid looking at Rose directly. It occurred to her that he might be reconsidering his offer, and she couldn’t help but feel a bit bashful as well.  But it had been his idea after all and Rose was starving, so before she could think better of it Rose pushed past her hesitation, laced her fingers through Jonathan’s and began tugging him towards the saloon. 

For a moment Jonathan didn’t move, his black boots planted so firmly on the concrete that Rose’s confident tug didn’t even sway him. He looked down at their joined palms as if it were a riddle, as if Rose had suddenly given him a dead fish or alien instrument instead of her own chilly fingers. She’d really only meant it as a friendly gesture, and to keep him from standing in the parking lot deliberating until she died of hunger, but at his shocked look, Rose couldn’t help but feel her face flush. Had she gone too far? 

But no, just as Rose was about to loosen her grip Jonathan tightened his, and she had to scramble to keep up with him as he led her to the door, opening it with his left hand as the long warm fingers of his right remained entwined with hers. 

The interior of the bar was filled with a motley assortment of knick knacks and decorations, an old wooden ski lift chair hung from the ceiling and an enormous stuffed bear reared in perpetual attack against a wall. Behind the bar, a middle-aged woman with shiny black curls was pouring drinks. Once inside Jonathan gave her an easy familiar wave and a greeting of “hiya Becca”. The woman returned John’s greeting with a smile, but Rose didn’t miss the inquisitive look she shot at their linked palms.

 Feeling foolish, Rose wiggled her fingers loose and wiped them nervously on her denims. To her mortification, Rose realized that she still had no idea what Jonathan’s relationship status was. She couldn’t help but wonder if his reluctance to eat at the saloon had been due to a desire for privacy rather than a concern over the food. Obviously he’d been in here before, and Rose knew how people talked in these backwoods communities. 

After all Jonathan had done for her it would be awful to be a source of ugly rumors.

But if Jonathan was regretting his offer of lunch he didn’t show it. He led her to a small table in a dark corner out of view of the door, and the handful of patrons nursing their drinks by the bar. 

The table sat next to a small, squat potbelly stove and Jonathan hung his leather coat over the back of the chair closest to it, then moved to pull the opposite chair out for Rose and lingered to help her to push it back in as she sat down. 

“Thanks,” Rose said “I’ve got it.” 

It felt like such an odd, old-fashioned gesture, and the formality of it grated a bit on Rose’s nerves. The only blokes who’d ever done that before for had either been old enough to well and truly see her as a child, or had been unbelievably condescending. Her irritation must have shown, because Jonathan only nodded and gave her a wan thin-lipped smile and to Rose’s dismay the awkwardness between them seemed to multiply as he moved back to his side of the table. She shouldn’t have said anything, Rose chided himself. He was probably just trying to be a gentleman.

Jonathan sat down and picked up the menu, his long lean legs stretching out a bit awkwardly under the cafe table, reaching close enough to the stove that Rose wondered the rubber didn’t melt. Jonathan only gave the menu a cursory glance, confirming Rose’s suspicion that he’d been there often enough before. 

The food was all typical pub fare, and Rose took her time scanning the prices and stealing glances at Jonathan over her menu before making her decision.  

She had to admit, he wasn’t handsome in any traditional sense. There was a sharpness to him, maybe a shrewdness too. His face seemed to be made up of hard contrasts and angles: a long, sharp nose offsetting an elegant, almost delicate mouth, a heavy, care-worn brow above eyes so blue it almost made her heart stutter when they fixed on her. There was a magnetism, a presence in him Rose decided, something in the way he carried himself, in his contained deliberate gestures… it was very, very attractive.

After a while the barmaid, Becca came to take their order, shouting over her shoulder for the barflies at the counter to behave, and tapping her fat order sheet with a pencil. 

“What’s it today John, the usual?” She asked, barely glancing at him and scrawling on her pad without waiting for his answer.

John nodded handing his menu to the woman.  

“And a pint of the Firestone IPA. Ta.”

“And for your… niece?” 

Rose pulled a face. They weren’t doing anything wrong. If the woman was getting ideas best to put them to rest sooner than later. “You got a question, might as well just ask and save us all the time,” she said into her menu, fighting her voice to sound cool and calm. She was getting tired of all the pointed looks from the woman, and was more than happy to set her straight. Snapping her menu closed she returned it to the woman, making sure to look unflinchingly into her wide eyes. “My car broke down and he pulled over to help me fix it, that’s all. Then it was lunch time so we thought we might as well eat. So if that’s all I’ll have a bowl of the chili and an ice water, thanks.” 

For a moment Becca’s mouth hung open and Rose really thought the woman was about to fume at her. But a second later she was doubled over and slapping Jonathan on the back with the menus, her deep broad laugh filling the cluttered little bar completely. 

“Oh I like this girl,” she said with tears in her eyes. “John if you don’t seal the deal with her let me know and I will.” And with that she collected Rose’s menu as well and headed back to the bar yelling at some patron named Arlo not to “help yourself to what ain’t yours,” as she went.

Rose gaped at her as she left, then chanced a guilty peek at Jonathan to check his reaction. It could have been the glow of the fire, but she would have sworn he was blushing. He certainly looked awkward. 

“Sorry,” he said sheepishly, his eyes focused on some invisible spot he was wiping of his table knife with a paper napkin. “She’s like that.”

Rose nodded, not that the apology had been strictly necessary. After all she’d been the one to provoke the matter. 

“So ummm…” she chanced, desperately grasping for a better way to ask the question, “I take it I’m not just the latest in a string of young women you bring here?” It wasn’t the smoothest way to broach the subject, but she needed to figure out if Jonathan was single or not before things went any further. She figured after the waitress’s insinuating looks and comments Jonathan could probably read between the lines well enough and politely set her straight if he were spoken for or uninterested.

Instead for a moment Jonathan just stared at her with a horrified expression on his face, as if the idea of him being on a previous date with a woman was a foreign and scandalizing prospect. 

Rose shook her head and smiled at him, hoping he would see that she was just (well mostly at least) teasing. Something in her face must have reassured him, because the tension in his shoulders eased and he seemed to warm to the game finding a teasing intensity of his own. He leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms across his chest sizing Rose up with a brazen look of challenge. 

“Nah,” he quipped, eyes shining at her from beneath long lashes “All the other girls I take to the inn next door. You’re the first one foolhardy enough to come into this dump.”

“Foolhardy am I?” Rose rejoined, more than happy to give as good as she got and living for the stern smoldering look he was giving her. 

Jonathan shrugged, “Jeopardy friendly. I did find you on the side of the road after all.”

Rose laughed and shook her head. She hadn’t missed the fact that despite his teasing Jonathan had neatly evaded her question. But then she hadn’t taken her own advice and asked it properly in the first place. She was beginning to get the impression that Jonathan wasn’t the type of person to readily give up information about himself. 

She needed to be careful with that. Moving too fast with Jimmy— and against her better judgement— had landed her in a right mess. It was a mistake she’d promised herself she’d learn from. Jonathan was bloody gorgeous, but he was also less than forthcoming. For all his teasing thrilled her, it was a little irritating not to get answers to her questions straight.

She also didn’t much care for the insinuation about the side of the road, for all he’d been teasing, and so she decided to set him right.

“Well I may not have your trick of magically fixing cars,” she joked, although a bit of her affront must have shown through, because at her words Jonathan seemed to grow surprised and guarded once more, “but I know how to take care of myself. Been doing it for a long time.”

“Right,” Jonathan said sitting up straight again and giving her a strange searching look, “I’m sure you’re quite capable.”

The conversation lapsed back into an awkward silence and Jonathan resumed his scrutiny of the various knickknacks that lined the walls, occasionally stealing glances at Rose when he thought she wasn’t looking. 

Jonathan’s attention was diverted for a few minutes when the door to the bar opened and a new customer came in along with a rush of cold air. Rose had to turn in her chair to catch sight of the man, he was an out of towner for sure, well-dressed with an expensive looking overcoat and scarf and as far as Rose was concerned far too much mustache for someone as sparse as he was up top. He’d walked in as if he owned the place, and left the door open behind him, as she turned away Rose could hear Becca cursing as she shouted to one of the regulars to close it. 

Rose watched Jonathan as the newcomer and Becca exchanged a few sharp muffled words. The Bear Valley Resort was only about twenty minutes up the road. It wasn’t nearly as popular as Lake Tahoe, but it got it’s fair share of visitors. They didn’t always mesh well with the locals. Jonathan seemed ready to intervene at any minute, his nostrils flaring at the man’s haughty tone and his sharp eyes missing nothing. But after a short tense exchange the man left once again leaving the door open to the crisp fall air.

“So umm…” seeing Jonathan’s attention return to her Rose fished her brain for something to say to break the silence, something between the painfully awkward ‘come here often’ and the desperately obvious ‘what’s your number’. 

“Where are you from exactly?” She asked. It was after all nice to meet a fellow countryman, and rare in these parts.

Jonathan looked surprised at the question, and took his time grimacing into his pint before he answered, his long neck working and his breath fogging up the glass as he swallowed.  

“I’ve got a cabin up by Dorado Lake, off Summit Road.” He answered, shifting his chair a bit closer to the fire. None of the places he’d mentioned sounded familiar to Rose and at her blank look he clarified “About ten miles north of Big Trees. It’s nice, quiet. I have the place all to myself.”

Rose nodded. She’d hiked at Big Trees State Park once when she’d first moved to the area. If he was ten miles out from there it would be quite remote. Still, that hadn’t been what she meant.

“No I mean… you’re a Brit right?” she probed, unwilling to let it drop. “Your accent sounds Northern.”

Jonathan scoffed. Rose was beginning to see it was all an act, his gruff ways, he was as pleased as she was that the silence had been broken.

“Well,” he reasoned, the corners of his mouth twitching and his eyes daring her to argue. “This is Northern California innit?” Rose just rolled her eyes fighting down her own smirk. He was flirting with her, this time she was sure of it, and she struggled not to seem too obviously pleased at the revelation. “Besides,” he continued, “you’re one to talk Miss Londoner. How’d a girl like you end up all the way out here?”

Rose mirrored Jonathan’s crossed arms and leaned into the table. It’d been awhile since she played this game and she was rusty for sure, but she still remembered the rules. 

“Oh you’re not getting anything from me after an answer like that,” She teased. “For all I know you’re some bank robber hiding out in that remote cabin of yours.”

Jonathan shrugged. “Nah, not me. ‘Though full disclosure, I did have a mate who robbed stagecoaches once.” 

Rose waited. This time the silence was anything but awkward, it practically sizzled. 

Jonathan grinned, full and toothy and warm enough to send a frisson of electricity all the way down to Rose’s toes. “Historical reenactor,” he declared with a smug satisfaction that really shouldn’t have been quite so attractive. “Used to do a whole song and dance for tourists down in Placerville.”

Rose schooled her face into a mask of seriousness. “Duly noted.”

Their exchange was interrupted by the return of Becca. “A chili for the pretty lady,” she proclaimed setting a steaming bowl in front of Rose, “and John the usual for you. Tacos and fries.”

Rose couldn’t help but raise her eyebrows at the odd combination. Every taco plate she’d had out here usually came with corn chips and salsa not well… chip chips.

“Tacos with chips?” She asked incredulously once Becca had left.

Picking up a taco Jonathan tucked in with relish, taking a comically large bite before answering. “What’s wrong with that? I love Tacos.”

“Yeah?” Rose said walking her fingers across the table and drawing her words out with precision. “Well I… love… chips.” Rose had seen Jonathan’s mouth drop open a bit as she made the proclamation and stole a chip in triumph, dipping it in the chili before devouring her prize. 

Jonathan collected himself and with a grumble of “not the proper condiment…” turned back to his tacos. Rose couldn’t help but agree. Still there were few foods that couldn’t be improved by the addition of greasy salty potatoes.

The food was decent and Jonathan seemed nearly as hungry as Rose, so for a while the two lapsed back into a happy silence. Jonathan ate neatly, almost daintily, and Rose tried not to focus on him as he licked a spot of salsa off his long slender fingers. 

“So,” Jonathan said finishing his last taco and starting in on his chips. From the assortment of condiments in the center of the table he selected a bottle of cholula, and shook a few drops of the hot sauce on the end of each chip before popping it in his mouth. “You mentioned you lived down in Copper? I get down there often enough. Haven’t seen you around before.”

Had she mentioned that? Rose could hardly remember, but she supposed must have. 

“Actually I only moved out here a few months ago. Before that I was going to school in San Francisco.” Rose said, hoping it wasn’t too much of an omission not to mention that she hadn’t actually graduated yet. That was a subject she really didn’t want to get into.

Jonathan nodded, “Been out there before myself, but I imagine it’s grown quite a bit since then. Beautiful city.”

Rose scraped up the last of her chili and gently pushed away the bowl before answering. “Yeah, beautiful, and the rents to match. I wouldn’t have been able to afford more than a few more months when Wilf offered me the job. I was lucky to run into him.” 

Jonathan grinned at her, sly and wide and so toothy she could have sworn he had a few extra canines tucked behind his lips. 

“Ahh I see.” He said, “A damsel in distress then? Old Wilf always was soft hearted.”

“I assure you I earn every dollar he pays me… and wait a minute… you know Wilf?” Rose asked in surprise. The area was sparsely populated enough that most of the locals in the small towns knew each other, but Copper was nearly an hour away. It seemed an incredible coincidence to run into one of Wilf’s friends up here. 

One of the chips must have had too much hot sauce on it, because for a moment Jonathan was seized in a fit of coughing which he had to drown quickly with a few large gulps of ale. Served him right for criticizing her condiment choice, Rose thought. What sort of monster put hot sauce on chips anyway?

Jonathan cleared his throat, responding vaguely “I’ve known Wilf a long time. Me and his family go way back.”

Rose supposed that made sense. Wilf had hinted his family went way back in the area, and she knew he hadn’t always lived in Copper. 

“I don’t suppose you know where he is then? I’ve been looking for Wilf everywhere.” Rose asked. The old weight of her alarm was like cold water on whatever had seemed to spring up between her and the fascinating man opposite her. Her stomach sank and she felt horribly guilty. So much had happened in the last 24 hours, it was easy to let herself forget about the troubles that awaited her back home. But that was hardly fair to Wilf. She should be scouring every place she could think of for him, not sitting here eating lunch with a stranger.

The teasing lilt had dropped from Jonathan’s voice as well. He set down his bottle of colula carefully and fixed her with his ice blue eyes. “Wilf’s missing?”

“Yeah” Rose said on a whoosh of breath. After she’d basically had her concerns dismissed by the police officer yesterday it was a relief to find someone who took her seriously. Particularly someone who seemed as capable as Jonathan. Her concerns had been weighing on her and maybe it was the way Jonathan had magically fixed her car, or maybe it was something deeper, but Rose couldn’t help feeling relieved to share her burden with him. 

“I haven’t seen him since we closed up the clinic Monday afternoon. I filed a police report, but the officer I talked to didn’t seem to think it was anything to be concerned about. I’m really worried.” 

Rose couldn’t manage to keep the tremor out of her voice. She was worried. And she couldn’t help but envision all the terrible things that might have happened to Wilf. 

 Jonathan, after a moment’s hesitation, passed his hand across the table to clasp hers. His palms were rough and strong and Rose could feel the heat from his palm seeping into her finger tips. She tried to smile her thanks at him, but there was something caged and cautious behind Jonathan’s eyes and he looked away.

“Of course you’re worried,” he said thoughtfully, measuring out each word slowly as if he were holding them up to a light to test their quality. “It isn’t like Wilf to disappear like that. You haven’t noticed anything… suspicious have you?” He probed, turning back to her once again with a strange intensity in his eyes. 

Rose had to think before she answered. Suspicious? Between the frantic caller and the dragon she had spent the night with, her life had seemed to consist of little more than bizarre twists and turns since Wilf had disappeared, but she hadn’t noticed anything that had related to Wilf specifically. Part of her wanted to confide everything to Jonathan. But some better instinct warned against it. The Dragon’s secrets were not her own, and it wouldn’t be wise to treat them carelessly.

“No, not really,” She answered at last. “It’s just everything’s been a bit surreal since I last saw him is all.”

Jonathan seemed strangely relieved at her answer and for a minute simply sat staring into the flames of the stove next to him, his eyes far away and distant and his thumb stroking idly where her hand was still captured in his. 

It was so strange Rose thought, lost for a moment watching him, the way he held himself so still when he was thinking, as if each drawn breath came a little too late, as if his very heartbeat slowed. It put Rose in mind of some predatory animal hiding in the grass, his stillness somehow holding the potential for movement tethered within it. He was captivating. 

“You two done here?” 

Becca’s brassy voice broke their shared reverie. Rose caught the woman’s glance at their entwined hands on the table and reclaimed hers, folding it in her lap, the woman’s nosiness breaking whatever spell had formed between them at the little table. Rose mentally shook herself as Becca collected the plates with a clatter. 

Whatever had come over her, she needed to slow down. She barely knew Jonathan, and he certainly wasn’t helping her get to know him better. At her age, and after her mistakes with Jimmy, Rose should have known the dangers of moving too fast with a handsome stranger. 

Jonathan must have also noticed the waitress’s looks, because he was looking at Rose odd, as if he were trying to decide something but thinking better of it. 

“I should let you go then,” he said gesturing to Becca to bring the bill, “a woman like you must have someone waiting on you back in Copper… likely wondering where you’ve been.”

“Oh,” Rose flushed, a bit taken aback that Jonathan would test the waters so blatantly after he’d been so evasive earlier, “no. I live alone and I’m not seeing anyone if that’s what you mean,” she said pointedly, tired of dancing around the matter, hoping if she was straight with him he would take her lead. “I should probably get back though in case Wilf’s shown up. Today should have been a work day.”

Jonathan looked a bit lost for a minute. Rose had hoped her reassurances that she was single would have cheered him more than that.

“Right,” he said finally. “You know, Wilf has a niece in Orange County. I could probably dig up her number and see if she’s heard from him… if you think it would help.” 

Rose smiled. It would be a relief at least to do something for Wilf. “Yeah would you? It’s just I’ve run out of ideas on my end and it feels awful just waiting around.” 

Becca returned with the cheque and dropped it on the table with a wink towards Rose. Rose groaned internally, she’d meant to sneak away during the meal and settle the bill. She made a grab for it, but Jonathan was faster. He’d already gotten his wallet out before she’d time to protest. 

Frustrated despite his gallantry Rose swatted at his hand and tugged at the corner of the little booklet that held the cheque. The affront in Jonathan’s eyes was more irritating than anything and Rose couldn’t help remember his smug words earlier. Helping her on the side of the road had been one thing, but it wasn’t like she didn’t know how to stand on her own two feet. She could certainly handle paying for her own meal.

“Really, you should let me get this.” She scolded, annoyed that he still wasn’t letting go of the cheque. “You already saved me a tow and whatever fortune they would have charged me to fix my car. It’s the least I can do.”

Jonathan yanked the little booklet out of her hands and looked at it thoughtfully either not noticing or choosing to ignore Rose’s frustration.

“Well, it’s been ages since I’ve done this, so maybe I’m a bit rusty.” He said with a look of apology that at least seemed genuine. “I could let you pay now as a gesture of gratitude for helping you out even though like I said before, I think I owe you more than you know.” Jonathan set the cheque on the table in front of him slowly tracing the golden lettering on it’s plastic cover with one finger as he continued. “But if you let me pay… then correct me if I’m wrong but that makes this a date. And I think I’d like that… if you don’t mind.”

Jonathan looked back up at Rose as he slowly slid the book across the table, a hesitant unguarded look in his eyes.

“So Rose Tyler,” he concluded, “I’ll leave the decision up to you. Do you want to pay? Or should I? Either way we’re square. You shouldn’t consider yourself under any obligation moving forward.”

Rose’s breath caught in her throat. She hadn’t expected that from him, hadn’t thought he’d make such a bold move or be so upfront about his intentions. It seemed to draw the force from any protest she’d been about to make, her objections melting under the smoldering heat of his gaze.  

Wordlessly, Rose slid the cheque back across the table and Jonathan carried it back over to the bar to pay their bill. For a moment as he’d turned to go Rose could have sworn she’d caught a flicker of relief cross Jonathan’s face. But whether it was reassurance that his intentions were not unwelcome, or appreciation at having a moment’s escape to collect himself Rose couldn’t be sure. In any case, whatever had or hadn’t been there was gone by the time he returned and collected his coat, replaced again with his strange mix of timid hesitancy and cocky self-assurance. 

Jonathan walked Rose back to her car and waited, leaning with one forearm against the open driver’s side door as she started the engine. Rose grinned up at him tongue tucked in her teeth. “Good as new” she proclaimed. 

She was giddy and a bit high off whatever frissions of static were sparking between them. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d felt this way over a bloke. Maybe back in London when she was still a teenager on a steady drip of hormones and newly found independence but not lately. Definitely not in her last relationship. 

Rose saw Jonathan’s eyes drop down to her lips and for a moment she could have sworn he was going to kiss her. Not that she wanted him to… it was way too soon and she barely knew him… but oh, she thought he might. But as Jonathan leant his long frame down a bit closer to where she was sitting he must have tweaked his back, because Rose saw him cringe with a sudden flash of pain and when he straightened again his knuckles were white where they gripped the car door.

“Good as new,” he echoed, “or will be soon enough. Best hit the road you’ve a long drive.”

“Alright,” Rose agreed. He was right of course. Still she couldn’t help feel a stab of disappointment to say goodbye to him. “See you around.”

Jonathan nodded as he closed her door firmly and gave a last brusque wave as he headed back to his truck and it wasn’t until Rose was already about ten miles down the highway that her heart sank with the realization that she had never gotten his mobile number or given him hers.

Chapter Text

Rose stopped by the vets office on her way home, only to find it shuttered up as she’d left it with the note outside still taped to the door. She went ahead and pulled it down before leaving, business hours had long since concluded. There’d been little hope that after her night away she’d come back to find Wilf returned, but it was deflating none the less to have it washed away all together. 

Home was only another seven blocks away, a small mid-century duplex that she rented one half of. The building was cheaply made, but well maintained. The front room had large picture windows that looked out on a small seating area in front of her half of the house, and she’d tucked a second hand couch up beside it to make best use of the light. She’d only been there a few weeks, but it was hers and hers alone, and she’d tried to make it homey.

Her landlord’s, the Longs occupied the other half of the property. They were a quiet older couple. Mrs. Long, in addition to managing the property, ran the sole coffee shop in town, and was always stopping by with noodle soup or leftover pastries from the cafe.

Mr. Long was out front watering his marigolds and waved cheerily as Rose pulled into her side of the drive. Rose smiled and returned the greeting, but couldn’t help but feel guilty. She needed to check her finances. She’d missed a paycheck with Wilf gone and rent was due in a few days.

Once inside, Rose dropped her keys in the bowl by the door and made a beeline through her bedroom to the connected ensuite bathroom shower, stripping her grimy day old clothes along the way and promising herself she’d be back later to pick them up off the floor. Stepping into the shower, Rose allowed the warm water to cascade down her back, soothing her stiff muscles and washing away the tenseness borne of too much worry. She’d passed the night surprisingly comfortably given the circumstances. But surprisingly comfortably wasn’t the same thing as comfortably. She’d still slept the night on the floor of a rocky, gravely cave and her sore back was the proof of it.   

Rose smiled to herself remembering the soft feeling of the Dragon’s body moulded warm and heavy against her own. They must have both shifted in the night for her to have woken up like that, tucked against the creature as if she were some treasure he was guarding. Rose couldn’t help wondering if the move had been conscious on the creature’s part, or like her, he’d simply drawn closer as he’d slept. She suspected the latter. 

Once the heat of the water had reached the core of her, Rose grabbed a bottle of shampoo from the rack and began working it through her  hair, wishing that the knots of her thoughts were as easy to untangle.  It was simple enough to distract herself with pleasant memories of the Dragon, or Jonathan, each wondrous and mysterious in their own way. But her troubles ran hand in hand with her adventure, and it was impossible to invite one into her mind without the other.

Rose sighed, clenching her eyes shut tight as she pressed her face into the shower’s pummeling spray. The worst of it was, she had no idea what to do. Between Wilf’s disappearance, the murdered man, and the unbelievably fantastical creature she’d discovered in the cave, Rose felt as if she’d suddenly been thrust into some strange pulp mystery novel. 

But the heroines in those stories were always so busy, racing after one clue or another, drawn inevitably, as if by some invisible hand towards the story’s climax. If this were a mystery novel, Rose decided, it was a spectacularly awful one. Or perhaps she was simply a dull and uninspiring heroine, puttering clueless about her house when she should’ve been out saving the day.

Shutting off the shower and wrapping herself in a towel, Rose tried to shake her melancholy as she went to her room and pulled a clean pair of knickers out of the basket of folded laundry by the door. A pair of pajama pants and a cozy oversized sweater were draped over a small armchair, and by the time she’d got them on Rose knew there was only one thing for it. So she fished her mobile out of her bag and plopped down on her bed, propping a few pillows behind her and dialing the number from memory as she calculated time-zones in her head. It’d be late, but not that late.

The phone picked up within a couple of rings and Rose felt better the moment she heard her mum’s  voice on the line. 

“Hello love, I was just hoping you’d call. How are things in sunny California?”

Rose couldn’t help but roll her eyes in exasperation. No matter how many times she explained that not all of California looked like LA, her mother persisted in believing she was living out some sort of Baywatch fantasy.

“Fine, Mum. You know, it’s not always sunny here.”

“Yeah, yeah so you’ve said. What’s happened? I know that voice; you didn’t call just to talk about the weather.” Rose toyed with the gold ring on her finger, twisting it with her thumb and holding it up to see the shimmering unworldly flash of color in the stone. There was so much. Where could she even start?

Rose took a deep breath. “There’s a bloke.”

For a moment the other side of the line was silent, and Rose could practically envision her Mum tapping a hot pink manicured nail on the kitchen counter. When she finally spoke her voice was level and carefully neutral. 

“Good bloke or bad bloke?” she asked. 

“Good bloke Mum,” Rose rushed to reassure her, “you don’t need to worry.”

“Oh, well, in that case,” her mother replied, once again her cheery gossipy self, “just let me pour myself a cuppa and you can tell me all about him. Is he handsome?” 

“I dunno, not exactly. Jonathan’s sorta tall… and broad,” Rose answered, struggling for a way to describe the appeal of Jonathan’s harsh craggy features.

“Ooo well that’s a bit fit isn’t it? What about his father? He single?”

“Oh my god, Mum,” Rose laughed. “Yuck! Anyway I thought you were still seeing Harold.”

“Well it never hurts to have options does it? Tell me more, is he rich?”

“No Mum… at least… I don’t think so.” Rose said, realizing once again how very little personal information Jonathan had managed to give away during their conversation. For all she knew he might be some eccentric billionaire hiding out in the mountains. The eccentric part at least rang true. Still she’d learned her lesson not to judge a bloke by the size of his wallet. “That’s Jimmy you’re thinking of, and he was a total knob.”

“I know that. Doesn’t mean all rich blokes are. What do you mean you don’t think so?”

“I just met him Mum. And actually I’ll probably never see him again anyway. I forgot to get his mobile number.”

“Well did he get yours?”

“No, I think we both sorta forgot.” Rose said, kicking herself once again for the oversight. “He knows where I work though.”

“Well there you go love. If he’s anywhere near as interested in you as I can tell you are in him he’ll track you down. And if not, he’s an idiot and an arsehole and good riddance.”

“Yeah.” Rose sighed, not quite ready to share her mum’s optimism. Besides, with all her other problems, the last thing Rose figured she should be worrying about was a bloke. Especially one who cared so little that he hadn’t even bothered to get her number in the first place. “Actually that’s the other thing. I may not be working at the clinic much longer.”

“What happened?” Her mum said, sounding surprised. “I thought you said that Wilf fellow depended on you.”

‘He did… does… it’s not like that Mum.” Rose stammered, struggling to explain the situation. First San Francisco, now here— a dark part of her couldn’t help but feel this was all somehow down to her own bad luck.  “He’s disappeared though, I haven’t seen him for days.”

There was silence on the line for a few seconds as her mum pieced together the situation. Rose toyed with the edge of her bedsheets nervously.

“And I reckon with your boss gone you aren’t getting paid anymore?”

“Yeah that might be an issue too. I don’t have much saved.”

“Well worst come to worst your old room’s still waiting for you. I might be able to scrape enough together for a plane ticket too if you need it.”

Rose was silent. Her mum was right of course, but the thought of leaving now seemed impossible. She’d just seen a dragon, a real live dragon in the absolute last place she would expect one, and she couldn’t help wanting to learn more about the strange creature. Beyond that she still had Wilf to worry about and…

“Rose I know you won’t want to leave now that you’ve met this John bloke.” Her mother said, interrupting Rose’s reverie. She’d always had a funny way of being able to anticipate Rose’s next thought, even when she didn’t know it. “But worrying about rent money, dodging the landlord? It’s a horrible feeling. I never wanted that for you.”

“I know, Mum,” Rose said feeling terrible. She hadn’t wanted her mother to worry, certainly not about something like that. Her dad had died when Rose was young and her mum had raised her as a single mother. When she talked about worry over how to pay the rent Rose knew Jackie spoke from experience. It was something that should have been behind them.

 “Come home, honey,” Jackie said, her voice soft. She was asking, not pushing. Somehow that made Rose feel doubly guilty. Her mum had always been so supportive of her desire to travel, even if it meant she hadn’t been able to see her only daughter hardly as much as she’d wanted to. “Harold can get you a job at the shop, and when you’ve saved up enough you can be on your way again. It won’t be forever. Not with that wandering heart of yours.”

Rose sighed. Maybe her mum was right. 

“It’s not that Mum, I’ve actually been feeling… I dunno… like maybe I wanna stay somewhere a while. Put down roots. Traveling’s been great, but I’m not a kid anymore. I really thought I could do it, that I had a chance here. I’m disappointed in myself is all.” Rose concluded lamely, picking at her nails and grateful that her Mum couldn’t see to scold her about it.

“Oh honey… no. There’s always time for that. I’m so proud of you, really I am.”

“I know, Mum,” Rose conceded. She didn’t feel better, but at least she knew she had a back-up plan. “I’ll talk to you later, ok? I’ve got to go.”

After a few goodbyes, Rose hung up and sat for a moment, staring at her phone. She hadn’t told her mum about the other thing. But how did you explain something like that? Oh hi Mum, I saw a dragon today. He’s nice, actually for all I think he killed someone… her mother would have been on the next flight from London just to have her committed. It was just too crazy.

Casting around for something that at least made sense, Rose pulled up the app on her mobile to check her bank balance. She was relieved to see that she at least had enough to make rent for the month without starving herself to do it. But only just… if Wilf wasn’t going to come back she’d have to decide what she wanted to do quickly in order to give Mrs. Long a month’s notice before rent was due again.

Rose yawned, feeling tired and overwhelmed. Her sheets were crisp and her bed comfortable and she just wanted to bury herself in them and hide away. The heroines in the stories never had to worry about being short on rent, prissy, stuck-up things that they were. They never seemed to have to work much of a day job either. Well… at least she had that in common with them now.

Tomorrow was Friday, and that meant only one more day of checking into work only to find there was no work really for her to do. There was still probably some Chinese take-away in the fridge. She’d make an early night of it, and maybe in the morning her problems will have disappeared magically, of their own accord. 

It was possible after all wasn’t it?

---

The wind howled that night, but Rose slept too deeply to hear it, and by the time she’d dressed and headed out to the clinic it’d already died down, like a sulky child who’d cried itself to sleep. 

The morning was lovely— pink and soft, smelling of the sweet brown grasses that covered the hills around town. With no clients scheduled, and no boss counting her hours Rose opted for a leisurely commute on foot. There was no real reason to rush. And so it was in the cool stillness of Copper’s empty streets, commuter mug of coffee cradled in her hands, that she finally accepted the truth of the matter.

Her mother had been right… of course she had. There was nothing really keeping her in Copperopolis but her own stubbornness. Monday she’d hand in her rent and her four weeks notice, and she’d begin the process of selling off her furniture and packing what things she could to ship back to London. She’d have a month. A month to say good bye, a month to look for Wilf, a month to see that the creature in the cave had recovered. As to Jonathan… well she just needed to get over that. If he’d wanted to pursue her he would have. 

Decision made, and mind turning to the various logistical hurdles in front of her, Rose turned a corner and caught sight of the clinic at the end of the block, it’s yellow exterior nearly glowing gold in the low sunlight. 

Wilf… Rose tried to swallow down the lump in her throat… she wasn’t quite sure when she’d given up hope in him, couldn’t quite put her finger on the moment things had turned. He’d been gone a full week and as optimistic as she wanted to be, Rose couldn’t help but acknowledge that the situation didn’t look good.

Her mind elsewhere and with a force born of habit, Rose turned the handle of the clinic door and pushed it open. And it wasn’t until a half-second later that she realized that she shouldn’t have been able to do that.

The door should have been locked. 

Her memory was crystal clear on that fact. She’d locked it behind her as she’d left. Her heart nearly pounding out of her chest Rose stared in disbelief at the doorknob in her hand rather than look inside and be disappointed. There was no sign of forced entry, and the only other person who had a key…

“Wilf?” Rose called out, her voice shaking as she rushed into the clinic lobby and caught sight of the hunched figure of a man behind her reception desk. His back was to her and he seemed to be rummaging through the thick appointment book she kept behind the counter. She heard it’s heavy thump against the desk as the man straightened and dropped it and her stomach echoed the sensation as the man turned to face her.

It wasn’t Wilf.

He was young, about her age… maybe a bit older, sandy-haired with a soft undefined face that seemed  attractive more for it’s absence of flaws than for any particular appeal. As if some Ancient Greek sculptor, had set out to form a David, but had lacked conviction in his own skill. Rose registered the gun at his hip, a half second before she did his navy shirt or the brass star on his chest.

“Miss Tyler, I presume,” The police officer said, his face grim. “I’ve been looking for you.”

“Sorry?” Rose scrambled to catch up emotionally; for a moment there she’d been so sure that Wilf had come back. “You’re a police officer. Have you found Wilf?”

Rose set her black shoulder bag down on the reception counter, and she could feel the officer following her movements. 

“Officer Pitts,” he clarified from the other side of the desk, not moving his hands from his belt to shake hers. “We spoke on the phone. Miss Tyler, you called to report a disappearance but I haven’t been able to find you for two days. Where have you been?”

“I…” Suddenly the image of a charred skull burst out from where she’d tried to bury it in the back of Rose’s mind. A man had been killed, and another man was missing. 

“There was an emergency call, after I talked to you,” Rose began. “Someone called the clinic for help, and I had to rush out.”

The officer’s square eyes narrowed and Rose faltered. What was he doing here anyway? Hadn’t he brushed off her concerns just the other day?His hands had shifted from his belt to splay across the desk in front of him, and he was leaning in intently. The thick, leather bound appointment book lay closed between them, giving Rose no clue as to what he’d been looking at when she’d arrived. 

“And this emergency caller,” the officer prompted sternly, “he had you out all night? I went to your house, you weren’t there, and you weren’t here at your work the next morning either.”

Rose swallowed, her own hands growing uncomfortably sweaty. She was being cross-examined. The officer was laying out the facts like pit-fall traps and was waiting to see if she’d fall in. 

“My car broke-down,” she hazarded. It wasn’t a lie. “I think maybe the call was a prank. There was no one there when I arrived and then my car broke-down on the way back.” Also not technically a lie. There hadn’t been any person at the mine when she’d arrived. 

The officer gave her a hard searching look and Rose fidgeted with the hem of her cable-knit sweater. Bloody hell she was a shit liar. 

“So what you’re telling me Miss Tyler,” the officer said slowly, leaving space between each word to catch Rose’s reaction, “is that you drove out on an emergency medical call, found no-one, and then passed the night in your car after it broke down on the way back?”

“Umm yeah, just about. I don’t usually go on the out calls but with Wilf gone…”

“Where?” The officer interrupted.

“Pardon?”

“Where did you go? Where exactly did this mystery caller have you drive to?”

“Oh uh, just up Route 4 a bit.”

“Give me your cell phone.”

“My… actually the call came in on the office line.”

“Your cell. Give me your cell.”

Reluctantly, Rose pulled out her mobile and handed it over to the blonde officer, who came around the counter to take it from her. It was a relatively new model smart phone, and he flipped it over a few times examining the casing before taking what looked like a small black USB drive from his pocket and inserting it into the port at the bottom of the phone. 

To her alarm, Rose’s mobile buzzed to life, lighting up to her home screen instantly and bypassing her usual passcode prompt. A half second later her navigation app opened of it’s own accord, displaying their current location with a blazing green trail leading out of town. The police officer was standing so close that her nose began to itch from his cologne . 

“Well, Miss Tyler,” the officer crowed, smug satisfaction dripping from his stocky muscular frame, “it looks like you and I are going on a road trip.”

 

Rose shivered in the hard vinyl interior of the squad car, Officer Pitts seemed content to drive in silence, her mobile mounted on the dash as he followed what Rose now found to be a familiar path up into the hills along Route 4. At least he’d let her sit in the front passenger seat rather than putting her in the back behind the metal grate partition. But Rose couldn’t help but suspect the temperature, the silence and the close proximity were all designed for psychological effect.

Well, she thought, let him play his games, she hadn’t done anything wrong. Still, Rose couldn’t help but feel a growing sense of dread as the squad car climbed in altitude along the twisted mountain highway. It wasn’t so much that she was worried for herself… although now that she considered it, the situation certainly wouldn’t look good… but there was something about the stocky, blunt-jawed officer that made her reluctant to share the wonder of her discovery.

“Shouldn’t you be looking for Wilf?” She asked, breaking the silence and crossing her arms across her chest for warmth.

The officer kept his head trained forward but Rose had noticed earlier how he’d adjusted the rearview mirror to catch sight of the passenger seat as well. It was becoming increasingly clear that Officer Pitts leaned on a dull sort of masculine confidence when dealing with suspects more than any sort of sophisticated  strategy. Rose was reminded of Jimmy and his unsubtle exploits.

“What makes you think I’m not?” The officer asked.

“This stupid side-trip for one, and the fact that you’ve confiscated my mobile. Don’t you guys have laws against invasion of privacy or something here in the States?”

The officer scoffed, and now Rose was sure he was checking her out in the mirror. She could feel his gaze like a pile of snakes slithering all over her. 

“You must admit, Miss Tyler, that it’s an awful coincidence: your boss goes missing and the day you report it you disappear out into the middle of nowhere.”

The officer let his words hang, let the gravity of the situation unfurl his implication. 

“Everywhere around here is the middle of nowhere,” Rose shot back, because if he didn’t want to make an accusation outright there was no reason she should answer one.

The officer gave an indulgent chuckle. For a second they were interrupted by the sharp unintelligible chatter of some dispatcher on the officer’s comm, but after a moment, he shut it off.

“I’ve read up on you, moved here from the Bay Area just a few months ago,” the officer stated, tightening his gloved grip on the steering wheel. “I’d’ve thought a big city girl would’ve been more impressed by my tech,” he said, nodding to Rose’s mobile on his dash, whatever tracking device he’d used still plugged into it. 

“Boys always think their toys are more impressive than they really are,” Rose said, annoyed. “And yours better not void my warranty.” 

Up ahead Rose could see the Dorrington turnout. The sudden rush of memories from the day before gave her an idea. 

“I had lunch over there after my car got fixed,” she pointed the restaurant on the side of the road out to the officer. “Why don’t you just pull over? The waitress can corroborate my story.”

To Rose’s dismay, the officer completely ignored her, grunting something noncommittal as the small ramshackle bar whizzed past. 

They were truly drawing close now; the massive sequoia tree that marked the gate towered ahead of them as they rounded the last wide turn in the road. Rose’s palms began to sweat as the squad car slowed and the officer eased it alongside the black BMW that had been parked there the other day. She hadn’t really thought about it much then. But it was still there. 

On her phone, Rose could see the green arrow icon flash, indicating that they’d reached their destination, and she gave a silent prayer of thanks that the trail hadn’t led all the way to the mine’s entrance. The steep walls of the canyon beyond the gate must have blocked her GPS signal. Maybe there was still a way she could keep this from going any further. The gate was tucked back far enough that it wasn’t immediately visible behind the trunk of the redwood tree beside it… If they stayed in the car…

Glancing at her with a grim look, the Officer Pitts leaned across her legs to open his glove box and retrieve a flashlight from inside. The motion seemed to stretch out longer than was strictly necessary, his right hand bracing against the side of Rose’s passenger seat while his left rummaged in the box. Rose could feel the muggy heat of his breath against her neck and pressed back into her seat, trying to make herself as small as possible. 

“Stay here,” he instructed, before shifting back into his seat, opening the door and exiting the car. Rose watched him, chewing the corner of her thumb as he circled the black car beside them, tested the doors and then shined his flashlight over the interior through the window. Whatever he saw there seemed not to satisfy him, because there was a dark cloud over his face as he made his way back to the car and opened the passenger side door.

“You say you spent the night here?” He asked, not waiting for Rose’s response. “Was the other car here?”

“Yeah,” she replied, “but I think it’s been abandoned. There was no one in it.”

Rose could feel herself beginning to babble. If she could just keep the officer’s attention here, keep him from exploring down the lane… it seemed unlikely but what other choice did she have? 

“Do you umm… do you think the car has anything to do with Wilf’s disappearance? He drives a pick-up.”

The officer’s eyes narrowed. “No. Why? Do you?”

Rose shrugged. “You’re the police officer,” she said by way of answer. “Wasn’t my idea to come up here.”

The officer stalked away at that, and for a moment Rose thought he would come around the car to get back in the driver’s seat, but something, some noise or movement that Rose hadn’t detected seemed to catch his attention on the far end of the narrow roadside clearing and to Rose’s horror, he began to move in that direction until he was standing beside the tree and shining his light down where the gate was. He took a step closer and Rose panicked. He’d told her to stay in the car but she had to do something. Fumbling with her seat belt she hurled herself out of the car and scurried over to the officer’s side, gasping when she saw what he was looking at.

It was nothing.

No gate, no lane, no red “no trespassing” sign… just a sheer, moss covered wall of stone and scree where the narrow canyon road had been. 

Shocked, she cast her eyes about her as critically as Officer Pitt’s had when he first arrived. Could it be a different turn-out? But no, it was unmistakably the same place. Aside from the black luxury car, it had been only yesterday that she’d emerged from the rusted gate that should have been beside the gnarled ancient redwood. It was the same tree, she was sure of it.

“There’s nothing here,” she gasped, unable to explain what she saw before her.

The officer scanned the roadside space and then gave her a long odd look. The hardness and professionalism seemed to drop from his gaze. Without his forced professionalism, it was as if he was seeing her truly for the first time.

“No, there isn’t,” he confirmed, the words coming out slowly as glanced around the small space his eyes finally coming to rest on the black BMW beside the patrol car. “You say you got a call at the clinic? And it lead you out here?”

“Yeah.” Rose laughed unsteadily, trying not to let her relief shine through too much. “I think it must have been kids pulling a prank or something.”

“Well Miss Tyler… Rose…” the officer said, turning finally to look her up and down. “It seems we’ve both been led on a wild goose chase. Where did you say you had lunch again?” He asked, offering her a cool slick smile for the first time since she’d found him in Wilf’s clinic.

Rose gestured vaguely up the road in the direction they’d just come from. The Officer moved closer and uncrossed his arms; his tone was careful and conciliatory, but there was a new type of hunger in his eyes now and Rose didn’t really want to engage him. She wasn’t sure she liked this good cop game he was playing any better than she had the bad cop.

Officer Pitts laid a gentling hand on Rose’s shoulder, and let it lay there heavy, like an uncooked steak. If he noticed how she stiffened beneath his touch, he didn’t let it show.

“Look, Rose, I didn’t mean to frighten you earlier,” he said, sticky sweet. “I hope you understand I’m just doing my job.” 

Rose shifted her feet in the gravel, and shrugged her shoulders as she rubbed her elbows against the chill air. She was still in for a long ride back to town with the officer, and she didn’t want it to be too obvious she was shrugging him off. 

“So can I have my mobile back then? Now that I’m no longer a suspect or…”

“Of course,” Officer Pitts interrupted with a condescending laugh. “You just show me the way back to this restaurant, and once your alibi checks out, I’ll buy you a drink as an apology.”

---

 Becca’s face lit up when she caught sight of Rose coming through he door of the Lube room, but was extinguished just as fast as soon as the blue-black uniform of the officer became visible behind her. Whether it was just the common mistrust of law enforcement many of the locals seemed to share, or something more specific Rose couldn’t make out. 

For his part, Officer Pitts seemed accustomed to the icy welcome, and strode heavy footed to plant himself in a barstool at the counter, catching Rose by the arm to navigate her into one beside him.

Warily, Becca laid out a pair of white cocktail napkins on the counter of the bar.

“Rose,” she said, her typically warm eyes narrowing. “Good to see you again. Seems you’ve got a new companion.”

Rose blushed and opened her mouth to explain, but the officer didn’t give her the chance. 

“Ma’am, can you confirm for me the time and circumstances you last saw Miss Tyler?”

Becca reached for a remote control behind the bar and moved to shut off the TV overhead, sizing the officer up the whole while. 

“Is she under arrest?”

“Of course not. Why would you think that?” he said, leaning forward onto his forearms with a disarming smile. Becca’s eyes flickered away. 

“Can I see your badge then?”

Officer Pitts reached inside his coat to retrieve a small black wallet from an interior pocket and flipped it open to hand to Becca. He’d unhooked his radio comm to do it, and as he set in on the counter between them Rose realized that since turning it off earlier, he’d never switched it back on. 

“Alright then,” Becca said, flipping the wallet closed again and handing back to the officer. “Last I saw Rose was yesterday— a little before noon. Came in with John. She’d had a bit of car trouble up the road and he’d given her a hand.”

Officer Pitts raised his eyebrows and grinned at Rose. “Looks like everything checks out, should have known a pretty girl like you would have nothing to hide. Should we have that drink to celebrate?”

“Oh,” Rose said, wondering exactly what sort of girl the officer was taking her for. He seemed to have shifted his gaze from interrogation, to open appreciation. “No… thank you. Look Officer Pitts, I really should get back.”

“Now don’t be like that,” the officer chided with a tone of patient explanation. “For starters, call me Keith. And second you’ve got no job to get back to anyway, and my shifts almost over so don’t be so uptight.” 

 Before Rose could get another word of protest in he’d turned to the bar and flagged down Becca, whose attention had drifted to the area of the saloon behind them. 

“One gin and tonic,” he instructed Becca, “and a Budweiser for me. Rose why don’t you go find us a table, this is my treat.”

Rose bristled at the officer’s presumption and at the casual way he’d just dismissed her, but he’d already turned his back, and headed to the end of the bar with Becca to pay and collect their drinks. She had absolutely no intention of actually having hers, for all his department-store mannequin good looks, Rose didn’t much fancy getting too familiar with Officer Keith Pitts. Rose remembered the way he’d dismissed her on the phone when she’d first reported Wilf missing, and instead of moving to find a table as he’d instructed, she stubbornly sat and kept her eye on the drink he’d bought her the way her mother had always taught her to. She was so distracted, that at the feeling of a warm almost hesitant touch on her shoulder she nearly jumped out of her skin. Until the newly familiar sound of Jonathan’s voice accompanied it as well and then her stomach seemed to jump too. 

“Rose?” He asked, his voice low and cautious, as if he hardly dared to interrupt. “Is everything alright?”

 

Chapter Text

“Jonathan!” Rose turned and leapt off her barstool, nearly hurtling herself into Jonathan’s solid frame in her relief and excitement to find him there. He’d been closer behind her than she’d anticipated, and as she wobbled on her feet a bit, Jonathan’s hand shot out to catch her right elbow to steady her. 

The last time Rose had seen him, Jonathan had been wearing his dark fleece— practically a uniform for the locals who lived up here— and had left it zipped to the collar even as they’d sat by the fireside and eaten.  But today he wore a jumper of deep forest green wool, its sleeves pushed up on his forearms as if he’d been working with his hands. With their height difference, and his nearness, Rose was left watching his neck and the long ridge of his clavicle where it showed above the shallow vee of the jumper’s neckline. There was something vulnerable in that, something familiar in the grace of the long exposed lines of his neck. And Rose allowed the moment to grow long as she steadied herself, and tried to work out what to say to him.

Seeing that she’d regained her balance, Jonathan’s hand left her, and Rose took a step back so she could properly gauge his expression. He seemed cautious, his eyes wide and a half apology written across his face. He seemed the exact opposite of the joyful relief that Rose had felt when she’d first heard his voice behind her, and Rose was put in mind of the hesitant way she herself had approached the Dragon just the other day, step by careful step, every inch advanced fearful of being burned. 

Rose couldn’t imagine what would make Jonathan feel that way, but now that they could see each other properly, she gave him a warm, apologetic smile all the same, hoping she could get across in her expression what she didn’t yet dare to say out loud. She was very happy to see him. 

Jonathan’s smile in return was guarded and his eyes flickered to the bar behind her. 

 “I’m sorry Rose,” he said, his voice a low vibration between them. “I didn’t mean to interrupt.” 

Interrupt? For a moment, Rose couldn’t imagine what would have made Jonathan think it, and she was about to protest that he hadn’t been interrupting at all, when following his hard gaze she turned to see that Officer Pitts had returned with two drinks in his hands. 

Jonathan’s weight shifted and for a moment Rose thought he was about to move to draw her closer, but, as the officer swaggered forward to press a glass into her hand, his other hand dropping possessively to the small of her back, Jonathan must have thought better of it, and instead reached for his ever present black leather jacket which lay on a chair beside them where he must have set it down earlier. 

Rose stomach dropped as she realized how the situation must look to Jonathan. He knew nothing of the context, and if she let him, Rose feared he’d retreat without giving her a chance to explain.

“Please don’t go,” she said quickly, and with as much earnestness as she could muster. The cloud of the officer’s cologne had returned with him, and Rose could see Jonathan’s nostrils flare as he sized him up, his eyes never leaving the other man. “I’m actually really glad I ran into you.” 

Jonathan’s eyes shot her a questioning look, his brow furrowed, and Rose returned it by widening her eyes meaningfully and giving him a pointed look of her own, hoping he was good at reading between the lines. 

As if on cue, Rose felt the hand of Officer Pitts tighten at her back, and a second later he’d reached into his pocket with his left hand to pull out his badge, stepping between them and blocking her view of Jonathan so entirely that Rose had to scoot to one side to stay in the conversation at all. 

“Officer Keith Pitts,” he barked in the no-nonsense tone common to police officers everywhere, “I hope there isn’t a problem here.”

Rose watched as Jonathan took measure of the man in front of him, glancing only briefly at the badge that had been presented to him, his fingers flexing where they gripped his jacket as he caught sight of the gun at the officer’s hip. 

The officer was barrel chested, and compact as a cannonball, where Jonathan was taut and rangy. He might have had the advantage in weight and sheer muscle mass, but Jonathan was nearly a head taller, and Rose had to suppress a smirk at the way— unwilling to crane his neck at the other man— Officer Pitts was left glaring in the general direction of Jonathan’s chin.

Dismissing the officer nearly as quickly as he’d sized him up, Jonathan turned searchingly to Rose. She gave him a small shake of her head, trying to convey with her pleading look all the things she wished she could say out loud.

He must have understood her, despite all, because at Rose’s signal, Jonathan’s stance loosened noticeably and he crossed his arms and shot the officer a wide sarcastic grin.

“No trouble,” he said, his voice relaxed and casual to an almost mocking degree, “I just came over to talk to my good friend Rose. How are you doing sweetheart?” he said, raising his arm and beckoning her over to him.

For a moment, Rose was surprised at the endearment, but Jonathan was watching her intently, and at her pause she saw a flash of something… hesitation or apology… across his face, and caught on to the game he was playing. Setting her unwanted drink down on the counter beside the officer’s, she hurried to Jonathan’s side, folding herself against him, wrapping her arm around his waist and beaming up at him as his own arm settled over her shoulders as if it belonged there. He was solid, and his jumper was soft against the side of her face, and if the officer mistook the gratitude in her expression for familiarity, or even something more… well then so be it.

“Great, now that you’re here,” she said, meaning every word of it, even if they were putting on a show for the officer. “I guess Officer Pitts already introduced himself; he’s the cop I told you about, the one who’s investigating Wilf’s disappearance,” Rose said, indicating the glaring officer with the hand not resting on Jonathan’s hip. “It’s lucky we ran into you, actually; the officer has been taking me around verifying my alibi. Officer Pitts,” she said, turning to the man who had begun to recover his composure, “this is Jonathan. He rescued me when my car broke down.”

Officer Pitts watched the two of them critically as he tucked his ID badge back into his pocket and Jonathan gave Rose a reassuring squeeze where she was tucked in against him. 

“Ahh… the copper from Copper! And our Rose is a suspect. Is that it?”

“Not at all, Mister…”

“Smith,” Jonathan supplied helpfully.

“Simply following standard procedure. In fact, as I’ve ruled Rose out as a suspect, her and I were just celebrating.” Officer Pitts said, nodding towards their abandoned drinks on the counter with a pointed look at Rose. “You said you were the one to find her after her car broke down?”

“Exactly,” Jonathan confirmed. “Poor thing was half frozen to death. I was happy to help.”

“Right well, I’m sure we’re all grateful for your assistance, although in the future it’s always best to call the authorities in those sorts of situations,” the officer said, and Rose couldn’t help but wonder if he really meant the police should be called every time someone needed roadside help. “But we’d hate to take up any more of your time,” the officer continued. “Perhaps Rose and I should head back, after all. It’s a long drive.”

The officer raised a hand to gesture to the door and for a long awkward moment Rose just stood there, reluctant to follow him and leave the security of Jonathan’s side. The last thing she wanted was another long ride with the officer and his ever present cloud of body spray.

“Well, actually,” Jonathan said, and Rose released a breath she hadn’t known she’d been holding, “I’m headed down towards Angel’s Camp, wouldn’t be any trouble to go a bit further. I’d be happy to give Rose a lift if she wants. What do you say Rose,” he asked, pushing Rose away enough to be able to look at her properly his voice turning low and sincere. “Your choice.”

The officer huffed from his side of their threesome, but it barely even registered to Rose, she was so relieved.

“Yeah, thanks,” she agreed quickly. And having gotten her consent for his plan, Jonathan was once again all joviality and solicitousness, and began chattering immediately before the officer had a chance to draw breath to protest.

“Now, now Officer Copper, it’s decided. I’m sure you have important policing to get to.” 

“Rose…” the officer began, but she just shrugged.

“Let me know if there’s any news about Wilf,” she offered, although she felt Wilf’s chances were dismal if they rested on the investigative talents of the man in front of her. 

Seeing that he had no chance to convince her, Officer Pitts gave them each a brief tense nod, before turning and striding back out the door of the saloon, slamming it behind him with a bang.

With the officer gone, and unsure how Jonathan would feel about their little game now that it was just the two of them, Rose reluctantly moved away from Jonathan back over to the barstool she’d been sitting in before. She thought she caught a flicker of disappointment cross his eyes as she did so, but if she did he’d covered it up quickly, smirking in open malice at the door the officer had just left through.

“Well that’s the back of him and good riddance,” he said. 

Rose shook her head.

“Yeah but did you see his face as he left. With my luck he’s probably gone to wait up the road so he can pull you over for speeding or something.”

Jonathan shrugged. 

“I’ll drive careful, then. Law around here has always been more blue than brains, trust me.”

Rose followed Jonathan’s gaze to the two full glasses on the bar counter; she’d forgotten about them.

“Don’t drink that,” he said, and before Rose had gotten a chance to answer that she hadn’t intended to, that she didn’t even like gin in the first place, he’d leaned over the bar and poured out both into the sink behind it. 

Jonathan smiled sheepishly. “I can buy you a drink if you’d like.” 

“Another date?” Rose asked.

“If you like.”

Giving Jonathan a tongue touched smile, Rose waved Becca over, who arrived in a huff.

“Traded in for the older model, eh? Well, he’s not to my taste but I can’t say it’s not an improvement over your previous company. What’ll it be?”

Rose rolled her eyes; she was as happy as any of them to be rid of Officer Pitts.

“I’ll have the lager,” she said, pointing to one of the local microbrews on tap. Nodding, Becca turned to Jonathan who was doing his best to scowl at her, but couldn’t seem to control the slight curl at the corner of his lips.

“The usual, Becca, and we can do without the color commentary thank you much.”

Becca hurried off to fetch their drinks and Jonathan settled down on the barstool behind Rose, pulling his wallet out of his back pocket as he did so, and setting his leather jacket in his lap. 

“Lucky to run into you here,” she said by way of starting a conversation. She wasn’t sure how Jonathan had interpreted the way they’d left off yesterday, but having been gifted a second chance, Rose wanted to make sure that this time she made her intentions clear. If he was put off by her forwardness, so be it. At least she wouldn’t be left wondering what might have been. 

“Nah,” Jonathan scoffed. “I’m always down for a bit of fun, but you’re smart enough. I reckon you could have put Officer Pitts in his place just as well without me. From the looks of it Becca would have probably even you helped you bury the body.”

Rose fidgeted with her earring, unsure of whether Jonathan was misunderstanding her intention on purpose or not. If their little game with Officer Pitts had made one thing clear, it was that JOnathan had an excellent poker face. . 

“No,” Rose said, not wanting to let it go at that. For all her attraction, she couldn’t help but feel a bit frustrated that Jonathan would joke around the matter when she wanted to speak plain. “I mean, after yesterday, I was afraid I might not see you again.”

To his credit, Jonathan seemed genuinely surprised. “Why would you think that?” he asked, his eyes flickering down to where her hands lay folded on the bar, and the golden ring on her finger.

“Well, we didn’t exchange mobiles,” she explained, feeling foolish. She’d been kicking herself for the mistake since the moment she realized her oversight. Was it just her ego then, that she’d sort of just assumed that Jonathan would have had similar regrets… or at least noticed. Had she misread his intentions?

Jonathan looked momentarily stricken; his eyes dropped to focus on the jacket in his lap, his long fingers worrying a worn patch of leather at the shoulder.

“Oh,” he said softly, sounding aghast. “I should have asked you for your number shouldn’t I?”

Rose dropped her hand to cover and still Jonathan’s over the leather and felt it tremble. “Only if you wanted it.”

Jonathan’s eyes met hers and his gaze was contrite and sincere. “I did… do.” He shook his head with a self deprecating scowl. “I think I told you before, I’m rubbish at courting.”

Rose smiled, relief washing through her that the misunderstanding had been cleared. “Courting?” she asked, amused and charmed by his odd old-fashioned ways. “Well whatever you’re doing you seem to be managing well enough from where I sit.”

Jonathan returned her smile and turned his hand palm up to capture hers. He was leaning closer now, turned towards her on his barstool the knees of his long, lanky legs threaded in-between her own. For a moment, sitting there, hand in hand, Rose was nearly certain he was about to kiss her; her skin felt warm and her breath caught high in her throat in anticipation. 

Their moment, though, was interrupted by the dull thump of two beers hitting the bar counter and Becca’s rough voice.

“A pair of beers for the lovebirds!” she exclaimed gleefully. “And a cuter couple I’ve never seen. At least…” she said looking Jonathan up and down in mock disgust and shooting a wink at Rose, “the better half makes up for the rest.”

Dropping Rose’s hand Jonathan shooed her away with a scowl. “Don’t fool yourself, Becca, about who we all prefer, you or that wife of yours. Besides, I’m not a bird,” Jonathan grumbled.

“‘Course not.” Becca said with a chuckle, scurrying off looking wholly pleased with herself.

Rose had to hide her smile behind her pint as she took a sip. “She’s nice.”

Jonathan was still scowling behind Becca’s retreating form. “I think she’s a witch,” he grumbled. 

Rose simply rolled her eyes, finding his surly scowls no less attractive than his cocky teasing. They were both an act in their own way, and charming in their own way. Still she liked best the little glimpses she got of the man behind the personas, liked very much the shy, earnest, and slightly frightened way he would look at her sometimes when she surprised him, and she couldn’t help but wonder what a man like him could possibly be so frightened of. She wanted to get to know him better. 

“Thanks for bailing me out on the ride back to Copper,” Rose said, heart swelling a bit at the pleased look on Jonathan’s face as she said it. “Were you really heading down that way?” she asked. 

“No.” 

“Oh.” Rose said, she’d suspected as much, but at hearing it put so succinctly, she couldn’t help worrying she’d put him out. “Sorry.”

“Don’t be,” he said softly, his eyes flickering to her lips and then to Becca behind the bar who was stacking glasses near them in a series of noisy unsubtle clinks. 

“Actually, Rose,” he said dryly, “do you think you’d mind moving over by the fire? It’s a bit cold and… nosy over here, don’t you think?”

Rose laughed but jumped off her chair obligingly, and grabbing their drinks, they made their way back over to the table they’d sat at the day before. It was much warmer, and this time rather than pulling her chair out for her, Jonathan simply turned toward her and guided her towards her seat with the barest of touches against the small of her back, before once again stretching out in the chair closest to the fire.

“So then, tell me about yourself, Rose Tyler - how does a Londoner like you end up half the world away?”

“Oh well… you know the bit about Wilf offering me a job. Before that I was living in San Francisco, and before that I was sorta traveling around for a while. I grew up on the estate and all my life I just wanted to… you know… get out of there, see the world, didn’t want to end up like all the rest of them. I had some money saved from working in the shops while living with my mum, and so after school I took a gap year, and then another, and before I knew it the gap had sorta turned into a chasm.”

“You travelled by yourself? That was brave of you,” he said, and Rose thought he meant it.

“I know how to take care of myself.” Rose said simply, shrugging. “And I had my mate Mickey with me for a while at first. He’s back in London now,” Rose clarified. “And what about you? What brought you here?” Rose asked, genuinely curious.

Jonathan tilted his head as if searching in the air above him for the right words; his thumb rubbed absentmindedly against the frost on his glass of beer, and the flicker of the fire caught the traced circles, making the amber liquid inside seem to glow. 

“I was…I guess you could call it treasure hunting…”  he began, his words slow and carefully chosen. Whether his care was in the effort of capturing the right meaning, or excluding it, Rose couldn’t tell, “…I was searching for something special,” he smiled at her and Rose found herself nodding in agreement. “I found it here, and here I’ve been ever since.” 

“Your family must miss you though.” Rose said thinking about her own mum, how hard it had been for her when she first left home.

“It’s just me. My ties to the old world are long gone.” Jonathan said.

“I’m sorry,” Rose said, the lines on his face giving her the impression that there was more to that story than Jonathan was ready to talk about. As anxious as she was to get to know him, Rose didn’t want to pry; still there must be things he missed about his home. 

“Well, there’s me,” she offered, not sure how he would take it. “If you ever need someone to talk to who knows how to make a good cuppa.”

Jonathan looked at her oddly at that, as if her were trying to fathom if she’d meant what she said. They lapsed back into silence for a few moments, Jonathan contemplating something darkly and Rose left guessing what secrets his past held. 

Finally, just as Rose was about to, Jonathan changed the subject, moving as if to take a drink of his beer, before setting it down deliberately and speaking softly. 

“I thought maybe I was interrupting or I’d’ve come over sooner. I didn’t want to intrude.”

“The officer?” Rose hazarded. Of course. How could Jonathan have known the circumstances that brought them into the bar. All he’d seen was her having a drink with another man. 

“Well he was rather pretty. I thought maybe…”

Rose wrinkled her nose. She couldn’t exactly blame Jonathan for the assumption; the officer had been coming on strong once he’d ruled her out as a suspect. But just because he was interested in flirting definitely didn’t mean she was. 

“He was at the clinic when I got there this morning. Investigating or something. He dragged me up here to find out where I’d been yesterday. It was stupid,” Rose clarified. She wanted Jonathan to understand how things had come about. “Besides,” she added. “He’s not my type.”

“What is your type then?” Jonathan asked eyes flickering away to the upright form of a stuffed grizzly bear on the opposite side of the room; its teeth were bared and its beady eyes shone lifelessly back at him.

Rose thought back on her relationship with Jimmy, how very little she’d known herself then. She should have seen through Jimmy’s act just as she had today with Officer Pitts. Despite it all, he hadn’t been her type, not really. Jonathan, though - her attraction to him was different wasn’t it? Even if she couldn’t seem to put her finger on how. 

“I don’t know…” Rose answered, trying to find the perfect response and smiling when she found it. “I guess I’m just looking for something special.“

Jonathan nodded in acknowledgement and drank without speaking, his expression grave and thoughtful. If he’d recognized his own words handed back to him he gave no sign of it. Had she been too forward? Rose made herself busy with her lager, drinking it rather faster than she’d intended in the awkwardness of the moment. 

“So what do you do?” Rose asked, hoping that Jonathan would be more forthcoming if the conversation shifted to less personal topics. “For work, I mean,” she clarified at his blank look. “And please don’t say you live off a trust fund, because I don’t think I can handle more of that,” she joked, figuring it was a safe subject. He definitely didn’t seem like a trust fund brat to her. 

“I don’t have a trust fund,” Jonathan said succinctly, draining the last of his beer and pointing to her nearly empty glass. “But we should probably head out if you’re ready. “Your pretty boy copper should have grown bored of waiting for us by now.” 

“Oh,” Rose said, disappointed. Had he just deliberately dodged her question? What could he possibly be doing up here that he wouldn’t want to talk about? He’d said he lived off the main roads and Rose had heard plenty of stories about people growing weed in the area, but Jonathan? He didn’t seem like the type. 

Rose grabbed her beer and her bag, trying to hide her irritation as she finished off her drink and set the pint glass back down on the table with a wave to Becca. She liked Jonathan… wanted to like him even better. But despite her attraction even she had to admit that his refusal to open up about even the simplest things was a bad sign.

 

Outside, Rose stared out at the narrow two lane highway, lined as it was with vivid green ferns and sorel, and the towering jagged sequoias with their fuzzy orange-red bark. Over by his dinged up blue truck, Jonathan held the passenger side door open expectantly for her, but Rose felt frozen. To her right, the highway stretched downhill and back towards Copper, but to her left… she had so many questions still. 

It would have been so easy to just believe she had just imagined it all, the dirt lane, the burnt body… the dragon. So easy. But how could she when she still thrummed with the sensation of the dragon’s lithe body wrapped around hers, when her fingers could still conjure up the sensation of his sleek warm skin beneath her hand.

Jonathan watched her, and Rose realized with a twinge of regret that he must have thought she was second guessing his offer of a ride home, because she caught him tensing almost imperceptibly every time she glanced back up the road. Still, she couldn’t shake the mystery of it all. The gate, the mountain lane… it had all just vanished. 

Reckless as it was, she needed answers.

“Actually,” she said, walking to Jonathan’s side and touching her hand to his arm hoping she wasn’t asking too much, “if you have the time, there’s something I need to check out.”

Jonathan was largely silent as Rose directed him back up the road towards the turn-out where the gnarled redwood tree should have marked the gate to the Dragon’s lair. Despite the warmth Rose had tried to put into her smile of gratitude, she still could still sense Jonathan’s unease. It made Rose nervous herself. She tried to search for a joke or something. Anything to bring back the lightness that had been between them as they’d laughed and flirted at the Lube Room earlier, but Jonathan’s eyes were steel blue and focused on the road, and at her directions he only gave a terse nod and grunt of affirmation. 

The black BMW was still parked there in the mud, now plastered with a wide yellow tow notice the officer had left on it before they’d driven off. Jonathan eased the truck past the other car and Rose couldn’t help but feel her heart pound as she craned her neck to catch sight of whatever lay behind the old tree. 

And yes. There. As if it had been there all along. The red “No Trespassing” sign on the rusty old gate, its spare cast iron bars doing little to thwart entry to anyone determined to follow the dirt lane behind it. 

Pulling to a stop in front of the gate and letting the car idle, Jonathan turned to Rose. “You want me to go down there?” he asked cautiously, and Rose realized regretfully how odd it must seem to him, offering generously as he had to drive her home, and instead being led without explanation down a deserted mountain lane.

In truth, with her hopes low as they’d been, Rose hadn’t really considered what she would tell Jonathan if her trip had turned out a success. Now, as Jonathan leaned back in his seat to watch her, one hand on the steering wheel and the other open in his lap, Rose didn’t know what to say. Perhaps it was because of the way he’d helped her intuitively with Officer Pitts, or maybe it was just another side effect of the instant chemistry she’d felt for him, but she trusted Jonathan. 

Of course that didn’t mean that the Dragon would trust him, and Jonathan hadn’t asked to be dragged into any of this mess.

Rose just nodded, and was thankful that Jonathan left it at that, even if he did give her a leery sideways glance as he exited the car to lug open the heavy gate so he could pull his truck through. Rose could see the impressions in the wet leaf mould of the road where she’d pulled in and out just the other day, and in a moment of inspiration she turned to see the twin tracks where the officer’s cruiser had pulled up behind them. She missed the look on Jonathan’s face as he re-entered the car, but not the rush of cold air that chilled the cabin, and she was still looking backwards as he began to pull down the canyon lane, not stopping to go back and re-latch the gate behind him.

How could they possibly not have seen the side road when she and the Officer had been there earlier? 

There was no sign of the dragon in the small clearing by the mine, and to Rose’s relief, Jonathan brought the car to a halt where she directed him, on the side far from both the mine’s entrance and the scorched earth beside it. With the engine off, the windows of the car began to fog up from the heat of their breath. Rose watched the white mist slowly obfuscate the view outside as she worked out what to say.

Jonathan, for his part, seemed to have picked up on her wariness, and simply stared at his tense knuckles where his hands still gripped the steering wheel. 

“Rose, I…” he began, but Rose didn’t let him finish.

“Look, just wait here,” she said, wishing as soon as she’d spoken that it hadn’t sounded quite so like the command Officer Pitts had given her earlier. It wasn’t that the thought of Jonathan’s lean muscular frame beside her as she ventured into the cave wasn’t appealing— her heart was pounding, and Jonathan was tall and fit — but her own desire for physical comfort wasn’t reason enough to bring what amounted to a virtual stranger into such a dangerous situation. 

“I just need to check something out,” she explained to the befuddled looking man beside her. “It will only take a minute,” and before Jonathan could get a chance to ask the questions she could see in his eyes, Rose hopped out of the car and shut the door firmly behind her. 

The air in the glen was cool and wet, and a relief after the muggy heat inside Jonathan’s car. It was an older model, and something about the smell of the interior cabin gave Rose the impression that the car’s previous owner had smoked. She took a deep steadying breath and hurried over and into the mine entrance, ducking inside and letting her eyes adjust to the penumbral light within. 

The main cavern was empty, although Rose was nearly certain she recognized the wide, shallow impression in the gravel where the Dragon had lain the other day. 

Venturing as deep as she dared without a torch, Rose remembered how the Dragon had disappeared into the caves antechambers and returned with her ring, and she twisted it nervously on her finger as she called out. 

“Hello? It’s me… Rose.”

The only response was the fading echo of her own voice, and after calling out a few more times Rose had to admit that even if she hadn’t imagined him in the first place, the Dragon had vanished. 

“Damn,” Rose muttered to herself, the slight sound bouncing of the slick stone of the cavern to hang suspended in the cool air above her. There was a sense in here, perhaps because the daylight never touched it, that the space inside the mine was a world apart. It was almost a tangible presence, a just subsensory current in the air. But Rose was adrift. She’d needed to see the Dragon again, to assure herself it wasn’t all some strange feverish dream.

Jonathan had exited the car when Rose returned to the clearing, and was standing beside the blue Land Rover, his stance wide and and a carefully blank neutral expression on his face. 

“What are you looking for, Rose?” he asked, voice soft enough that it well could have been carried away on a breath of wind. 

Rose turned to look back at the mine entrance, fighting back tears that shouldn’t have been there. It was just silly. After all the day’s mysteries and disappointments, what had she expected?

“Nothing, I…” she began, hating that she had to lie to Jonathan after all he’d done for her, but not really seeing another option. “There was a coyote.”

Rose chanced a glance at Jonathan’s face, but he wasn’t looking at her. His hands were jammed into the pockets of his denims and as she ducked her head back down she could see he’d balled them into fists. What must he think of her, leading him out here? He’d been so quiet.

“A… coyote?” he asked, and Rose nodded.

“The other day. It was hurt, and I helped it… I just wanted…” Tears once again threatened to fall, and, frustrated with herself, Rose dashed them away with her palm. Jonathan caught her hand in his own as she let it drop, rubbing circles over the wet spots on her palm with the pad of his thumb. 

“You wanted to make sure it was alright. You tried… tried to save it.” Rose couldn’t tell if it was a statement or a question; Jonathan’s blunt voice seemed almost incredulous. 

“Yes. Yes, of course,” Rose said, almost irritated that he would question her. What did he know anyway?

“Rose,” he said, with a strange intensity in his voice that made Rose for the first time look him full in the face.  His crystal blue eyes seemed like bottomless pools and his hand was so warm around hers that, had she not been so entranced, Rose might have pulled away. “Rose, why do you care? A… wild… creature like that…”

“Why shouldn’t I?” Rose answered stubbornly, her heart tremoring at how close Jonathan had drawn to her. Their clasped hands between them seemed to be the only thing stopping him from drawing her into his arms. Jonathan’s eyes were wild, searching her expression with a wild, veiled intensity, like smouldering embers in ash. His eyes flickered to her lips and she couldn’t help but lean closer, drawn as she was by his rough magnetism. 

There was no one to interrupt them this time, nothing to stop them. Jonathan’s hand was tight where it clenched hers, but he almost seemed poised to run. And Rose couldn’t imagine why a man of his age and presumed experience would look so very frightened in such a moment. Hadn’t they been building up to this all along?  Rose could have sworn the pine-scented breeze in the clearing even held its breath, that the falling leaves paused their swaying descent for just a moment, to see if he would. 

Rose tilted her head up to him, the slightest invitation and that was all it took. His breath, blazing, was upon her. His lips, soft and insistent, his hand dropped hers to cradle her jaw, the other arm twining about her waist to pull her close. 

Rose whimpered, opening up to him, letting her own arms twine about his neck, enjoying the feel of his broad chest pressed against her own. He was broad and wiry, but for all his strength, for all the heat of his lips moving against hers, his hands were gentle. One clenched and unclenched at the small of her back, and the other stroked fingertip-light at the side of her face teasing tendrils of hair against her cheek.

What sort of a man kissed like that? It was as if the quiet magic of the little glen had spun a web around the two of them. For a while Rose was lost to it, to the feeling of this strange man clasping her body to his and to the sweet slide of his lips against hers. And it was only when Jonathan finally paused to let her catch her breath, his eyes closed as if he were steeling himself, his forehead light against hers, that the trance was broken. 

“Rose,” Jonathan muttered, his voice rough and low and his breath curling tendrils of mist in the crisp mountain air. He closed his eyes for a moment and seemed to gather his composure. “Rose,” he tried again, “I’d like to get your number, if you don’t mind.”

 

Chapter Text

“Rose,” Jonathan muttered, his voice rough and low and his breath curling tendrils of mist in the crisp mountain air. He closed his eyes for a moment and seemed to gather his composure. “Rose,” he tried again, “I’d like to get your number, if you don’t mind.”

Rose was spinning, as if gravity had suddenly fled the little tree lined glen and she was floating away into outer space. Jonathan pulled away as he spoke, and her hands, which had been twined about his neck now clutched at his biceps for balance. His eyes were so blue, so deep, like alpine pools... no, warmer, almost flickering like the deepest part of a fire. For a moment Rose felt a low swooping sensation in her belly and thought she must be falling.

Catching herself, Rose closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Her number... He’d only asked for her number, but for a moment she'd almost felt as if she'd have given him everything... anything he'd asked of her.

Collected, and feeling cooler for her moment's breath, Rose tilted her head back up to Jonathan's, happy to reclaim his lips and assure him of her very positive intentions. But when she looked up at Jonathan, the look of smoldering intensity had vanished from his eyes, and he was backing away from her with an expression of aghast embarrassment.

"I’m sorry," Jonathan mumbled, drawing his arms from where they'd been entwined around Rose's waist and turning himself bodily away from her, staring fixedly at the brown mat of slowly decomposing pine needles that blanketed the ground. "I shouldn't have...," he trailed off, his face red and fists clenched at his sides.

"I came on too strong."

"No..." Rose began to deny it. His kiss had been passionate, certainly, but hardly uninvited or unwelcome. But Jonathan shook his head and turned to her, his expression sincere.

"I did. I didn’t mean to...," he began, looking frustrated. "I should have better control than that. I'm sorry, Rose."

Rose met his eyes and this time they were wide and apologetic.

"Jonathan," she said, her heart flipping in her chest just a little. He was so different from all the other blokes she'd known. "It’s alright."

Rose moved toward him slowly, careful not to push his boundaries. She couldn't tell if he really wanted to slow things down, or if he'd just thought that was what she'd wanted. Or maybe it was just more of his peculiar brand of anachronistic chivalry. It was charming, but also a bit frustrating. Rose was itching to feel his long arms wrapped around her again.

She rested a hand on Jonathan's shoulder to steady herself and lifted up on her toes, pressing a soft kiss to his slightly parted lips, and resisting the urge when his lips parted on an exhale. Jonathan's eyes flickered closed at her touch, and her heart flipped again when as she broke the kiss and settled down on her heels, his lips chased hers for just a moment, as if pulled by some invisible magnet.

"I wanted you to kiss me," she said, clasping both his hands in hers and giving them a squeeze. "And I definitely want to give you my number. After all," she said, laughing to lighten the mood, "we can't just keep meeting on the side of the road like this now, can we?"

Rose felt Jonathan's large hands tighten in hers and he smiled at last, sheepish, but still somehow smirking.

"Damsel in distress," he accused her.

Rose grinned to see his teasing side return. "Knight in shining armor," she shot back at him, chucking him in the shoulder playfully.

"That's definitely not me," Jonathan deadpanned, but he let her tug him back towards the truck.

"Well whoever you are, you promised me a ride home," Rose said, reaching the passenger side door of Jonathan's blue truck and opening it herself before he could do it for her. Instead, to her surprise, he planted one hand on the car to either side of her and leaned down to press his lips firmly to hers.

"I really am sorry about earlier," he said, breaking the kiss after just a few moments. "Like I said, I'm rubbish at this... but it's no excuse." Jonathan dipped his head and recaptured her lips.

"Keep kissin' me like that," Rose mumbled against Jonathan's hot breath, "an' I'll never get home. Then you really will have something to apologize for."

Jonathan pulled away chuckling.

"As the lady wishes," he said, giving her his hand to help her into the truck and closing the door with a smirking, if courtly, bow.

The air inside the Land Rover had seemed to have lost its stuffiness since she'd last been in it, and Rose shook her head in disbelief as Jonathan made his way around to the driver's side.

"Bloody knight in shining armor," she muttered under her breath.

But she must have spoken louder than she'd thought, because as Jonathan settled into the car and turned his key in the ignition, he rejoined, "Still not me."

The thirty mile drive back down to Copperopolis seemed to go by much quicker than Rose's earlier trip up the mountain had. Conversation with Jonathan came light and easy to Rose, as if she'd known him far longer than just two unplanned lunch dates. For his part, Jonathan seemed genuinely interested in what she said - just as happy to hear her talk about growing up in London, and her impressions of it the last time she'd been there, as he was to tease and flirt with her.

Still, at times when the road evened out, and he wasn't busy shifting the manual transmission of the old truck, Jonathan's hand would creep over to find and clasp hers, and he would squeeze his fingers between her own as if he almost needed to feel them to reassure himself she was really there. At the feel of his rough palm against hers Rose's heart seemed to bubble and sing, and she had to turn her head to the window so he wouldn't see her grinning like a fool.

It was near dusk when Jonathan finally got her home, the pale blue California sky curling into pinky gold about its edges. Along the horizon, the gnarled silhouette of each puffy oak tree seemed to wear a halo of golden light. For all her time in Copperopolis, it still took Rose's breath away when the sky got like that, yielding to the night in a blaze of fire.

At the Copperopolis exit, Jonathan pulled off the highway, and Rose directed him from there to her house, wishing the drive didn't have to end when they got there. Curled up by Jonathan's side in the car, surrounded in warmth and the faint smell of woodsmoke, feeling his light gentle touches... it seemed so easy. Maybe it was just her wanderlust calling, that nagging urge to fly away, but she wished they could just keep going like that, follow the sun wherever it was going, or just keep on driving into the eastward night.

Jonathan eased the truck into Rose's side of the double driveway and turned off the ignition. For a moment, they sat there, the silence only broken by the sound of the Longs' dog, Sam, barking next door.

Jonathan shifted in his seat toward her, one hand gripping the steering wheel and the other resting awkwardly in his lap. Rose could feel her skin prickle in anticipation thinking he'd pull her in for a kiss, but he didn't.

"I should get headed back," he said.

"Yeah," Rose agreed, casting around for any excuse to delay the inevitable goodbye. She'd spent so much time wondering if she'd ever see him again that she hardly felt ready for him to go. Then she remembered.

"Oh um, give me your mobile."

Jonathan looked confused for a moment, patting himself down, before lifting up slightly to ease his mobile out of the hip pocket of his denims and handing it to Rose. It was ancient. Rose rolled her eyes internally, somehow not surprised in the slightest that Jonathan of all people would still be using a flip-phone.

"Well yeah, have to give you my number now, don't I?" Rose grinned as she typed herself in as a contact.

"You don't have to," Jonathan grumbled, but Rose just rolled her eyes, handing him back the phone and shifting to unbuckle her seatbelt. Jonathan's jacket lay on the center console between them, and unthinkingly she shifted it into her lap to get to the seatbelt clasp.

"Just ping me when you get a chance, yeah?" she said, absentmindedly stroking the leather of the jacket in her nervousness. It really was soft.

Jonathan took a deep breath. "I should really get headed back," he said again, lamely, and Rose almost fancied a tremor in his voice as he said it. He reached over and stilled her hand on the jacket.

"Yeah," Rose said reluctantly, her voice feeling breathy in her own throat. She was yearning for him to kiss her and she almost couldn't believe what she was about to say. "Or, you know... it's a long drive. You could come in... for a coffee... or something..."

Rose could feel Jonathan's hand tense above hers and desperately wished she could read his carefully schooled expression. He was staring out the window behind her. The dusky shadows of just a few minutes earlier had gathered into the true dark of early evening, and as they sat there, the Longs' round porch light flickered on, their dog still barking and scratching behind the door.

Rose swallowed, the nervous part of her brain screaming in her head. She was sure she'd misread him. After all, hadn't he wanted to take things slow? Jonathan seemed visibly tense and uncomfortable and the longer the silence stretched out between them, the louder the voices in Rose's head were shouting.

Rose was just about to apologize, to laugh it off as if her invitation had been nothing more than teasing when Jonathan drew a breath and spoke, his voice soft and careful.

"Coffee?" he asked.

Rose glanced at Jonathan in surprise. She couldn't tell if he was taking her up on her offer or if she'd misread him again. He seemed so serious.

Rose shrugged. "Or whatever."

"Rose...," Jonathan began, the low rumble of his voice causing something hot and needy to respond inside her, and oh... she had it so bad.

In an instant Jonathan seemed to gather himself and, collecting his jacket from her lap, he met her gaze once more. "Yeah. As long as I'm not putting you out, I wouldn't mind stretching my legs a bit before the ride back."

He smiled at her, that strange, crooked, toothy smile, and for a moment Rose was struck with a sense of deja vu so palpable, that she hardly noticed Jonathan had exited the car, until he'd already rounded the bonnet and was opening the door to let her out.

"Everything alright?" He asked, his eyes unsure and his stance wide.

Rose smiled, the cool outdoor air hitting her face and calming her nerves.

"Yeah," she said. "Absolutely." And grasping his palm in one hand and her purse in the other Rose led Jonathan up the short walk to her front door. When she got there Rose relinquished Jonathan's palm to dig for her keys, and after a moment's hesitation, she felt his touch return, a light warm pressure at the small of her back as she fumbled to open the door.

Seeing her pile of shoes and the bench she kept just inside the door, Jonathan wordlessly sat and began unlacing his own boots. Kicking off her flats, Rose left him there to move through the small living room to the kitchen, thankful that she'd had the foresight to leave the flat in a respectable state.

Rose smiled despite herself, her lips carried on the same buoyancy that seemed to be spreading outward through her veins from the spot where she could still feel the warmth of his palm.

She needed to get a handle on herself. She'd barely known Jonathan for two days... actually she barely knew him at all. Rose thought back over their conversations, trying to remember what Jonathan had told her about himself. She had to admit it was hardly anything. He'd always danced around anything more than surface level intimacy.

The realization gave Rose pause. Her chemistry with Jonathan was undeniable but what if that was all it was? What if that was all he wanted it to be? Rose couldn't pretend to be happy about the idea. And it wasn't just prudishness. Rose'd had relationships that were strictly physical before, but with Jonathan she just... wanted more.

Rose pressed her palms against the cool of the granite countertop in front of her, trying to take in the realization and examine it for what it was. She liked Jonathan, a lot, given the short time she'd known him. And she wanted more from him than just a quick shag. But that might not be what he wanted, and so she had to be careful about getting too carried away with the way he made her feel.

Reaching up to grab a couple of mugs from the cabinet, Rose called back to him.

"Coffee then?" she asked. "Or would you rather a cuppa?"

She'd thought him still in the living room, but without his black boots he must have had a light tread, because as she settled the cups down on the tile countertop she found a pair of strong arms folding around her waist from behind and a pair of warm lips pressed to her hair.

"Oh," Rose gasped, the sound unnaturally quiet compared to the way she'd just been shouting. She let her eyes drop as she leaned back into Jonathan's solid embrace, enjoying the feeling of his broad chest against her back and the scent of him all around her.

When Jonathan held her, or touched her, there was such a shy sweetness in his manner, though the rest of the time he hardly seemed capable of it beneath his shell of cocky sarcasm. She remembered how sensing her discomfit with Officer Pitts he'd tucked her against his side back at the Lube Room. He had a way about him of being... not possessive, Rose thought, that wasn't quite it... protective? She squeezed his arms around her tighter with her own and rocked a bit in his embrace, thrilling at Jonathan's responding nuzzle against her ear.

"Your hair is so soft," he mumbled, "like golden silk."

Jonathan's long fingers covered Rose's where they were wrapped about her waist, and Rose could feel him gently fingering the gold and opal ring she wore on her right hand, its weight still a bit new and foreign. Rose lifted their joined hands in front of her and regarded it, the opal's fire glinting and blazing even in kitchen's dim canned light.

"It's new," she said, referring to the object of their attention. "Pretty, isn't it."

"You're pretty," Jonathan rejoined. "I thought so the first time I saw you. Pretty, and so brave. I could hardly believe my eyes." Jonathan groaned self-deprecatingly behind her and Rose felt him drop his temple to her shoulder. "Sorry, that was corny wasn't it? You have to help me here, I'm a bit out of my depth."

Rose laughed, a happy bubble bursting in her chest. Being stuck on the side of the road really hadn't been that bad. Hardly noteworthy in the bravery department, but she'd take what she could get.

"It's ok," she reassured him. "Just so you know, it's not like I do this all the time either."

"I know," Jonathan said, with a soft chuckle. "I'm pretty good at reading people. I'd smell it on you if that were the case."

"Oi!" Rose protested, twisting in Jonathan's arms to face him. His eyes sparkled. He could be a smug bastard to be sure, but it was dead sexy. Rose threw her arms around his neck and glared at him, desperately hoping she wasn't coming off nearly as besotted as she felt.

"You think you're so impressive," she challenged him.

Jonathan responded to her mock outrage with a look of mock affront.

"I am so...," he began, but unwilling to surrender the last word Rose silenced him with a kiss, tightening her arms around his neck and feeling a thrill rush through her at the way his own arms clutched her tighter in response.

Rose sunk into the solid comfort of Jonathan's body pressed against hers. Her mind was screaming at her to slow things down, to stop and check his intentions, but she simply couldn't bear to look another thing in the eye right now.

Hadn't she had enough of doing the responsible thing? She wanted him, needed this, some sort of break from the constant worry over Wilf, worry over rent, and worry over her damn life choices that led her to this messed up situation.

Jonathan's lips were sinful and tempting. His hands trailed down her body slowly, brushing against her clavicle, the underside of her breast, her ribs. At her hips Jonathan's fingers tightened and with an almost feral grunt he ground her body against his.
Rose gasped. She could feel his cock, stiff and think and... well yes... quite impressive as he rutted gently against her leg.

Sod it.

If the universe, or whatever, saw fit to throw her a chance for something with this gorgeous man— be it one night, or something, well, more— then Rose would take it and not look back. She needed a win.

Decision made, Rose let her own hands drop from where they'd been fingering the coarse strands of hair at the base of Jonathan's neck. He'd begun to work his way back up and under her shirt, tickling her side with his long fingers and Rose wanted to do the same.

Slowly and deliberately, giving him time to pull away, but still trying to be explicit as possible, Rose trailed her hand down across his chest, across the tight plane of his stomach, down to palm him gently over his denims where they bulged for her. She couldn't feel him quite properly, not with the angle of her hand and his clothes in the way, but what she could feel made her thighs clench. He was thick and straining.

Above her, Jonathan froze. For a moment Rose feared she had gone too far. He was so still he hardly seemed to be breathing. But when she looked up he was gazing at her with a fierce, almost predatory, focus and some equally primal instinct deep within Rose began screaming in her head.

It wasn't that he frightened her. If anything, Rose was almost getting the sense that it was quite the other way around. But when he looked at her like that Rose felt as if she were standing in the eye of a hurricane, surrounded and protected by a primordial force of nature, and she felt if she wasn't careful, how easy it would be to get swept up in this man.

Rose took a breath to steady herself. He'd praised her for her bravery, hadn't he?

She gave him a long slow stroke with the hand still covering his cock, watching his reaction as she did so. His eyes fluttered shut at the the feel of her moving against him and when he'd opened them again, he'd managed to tamp down whatever storm had been brewing. He dropped his head to her shoulder and spoke, his words muffled and shaky against her skin.

"Rose," he murmured, his voice trembling. "Is this... ah... I mean did you want to...?"

"Yeah," Rose breathed, looking around the small kitchen with a racing heart.

Not the countertop. Jonathan was bloody gorgeous and she wanted somewhere she could see and touch him properly. The bedroom then.

Grabbing Jonathan's hands in hers, Rose led him through the living room into her bedroom. He followed with a shaky smile, and once there drew her into his arms for another searing kiss, grabbing her arse in both his hands and pressing her against the length of him.

Together, somehow, between kisses, they managed to work Rose's T-shirt over her head. And when Jonathan lifted a tentative finger to trace the swell of her breast, his touch seemed to spark something warm and joyous and golden beneath it. For a while he simply traced the line of her bra, feather light, sliding down the line of one cup and back up the crest of the other.

"Your...," he said, his voice cracking, so low it seemed almost a vibration between them, "your skin is so lovely," he marveled, finally palming her lace clad breast in his palm. Her nipple was tight and yearning for his touch and Rose knew he could feel it too.

Rose wanted to feel him in turn, to trace the lines of his torso where she'd only felt him through wool and cotton. But when she moved to lift his jumper, Jonathan chased away her fingers, redoubling his attention back at her collarbone where he kissed and sucked in a way that Rose was nearly sure would leave a mark.

She couldn't bring herself to care.

Rose was so caught up in the sensations Jonathan was giving her, that when she felt his teeth make contact and nip against her neck she let out a surprised squeal. He stilled, and for a minute, Rose feared that Jonathan would take it the wrong way and back off, but he just grinned at her with that strange lopsided smile of his and her heart flipped in her chest.

"Git!" she said, chucking him on the shoulder, only to explode in a fit of giggles as he promptly tumbled her onto the bed chasing after to arch his long lean body above her and attacking the crook of her neck again with gusto.

Rose trailed her hands down Jonathan's back, and for a second, she thought she saw him flinch. It gave her enough pause to remember there was something they still needed to settle.

"Umm...," she said, pushing Jonathan away from her lightly. His hands stilled, and he regarded her with searching look. "We should probably talk about protection," Rose offered, desperately wishing there was a better way to broach the subject, but at the same time hearing her mother's voice in her head telling her that a bit of awkwardness wasn't worth the consequences.

Jonathan's voice was soft and reverent and his fingers trailed along her ribs affectionately. "I wouldn't hurt you, Rose...," he said. But Rose just huffed, annoyed despite herself that he would play clueless about such a thing.

"No," she pressed, removing his fingers and knitting her brows. "I mean birth control... condoms? I think there's some in the bedside table, but I'm on the pill and I got tested before I left San Francisco if you..."

"Oh," Jonathan interrupted before Rose could finish her sentence, the tips of his ears turning pink and his eyes blinking away from hers.

Bloody men.

"I... I'm clean. But I can ahh... use a condom if you like. Sorry."

He seemed so genuinely contrite and uncomfortable that Rose nearly apologized herself, but... no. If things were going to progress any further with Jonathan they needed to start off on a clear and honest footing. She'd done the right thing.

"It's ah... I trust you," Rose said, only realizing once she said it that despite everything, despite his caginess and the newness of knowing him, she did.

From the beginning, Jonathan had followed her lead, always respectful of her boundaries. And if he was slow to open up? Well she could respect that in turn. Couldn't she?

Jonathan seemed happy to leave the conversation at that, and with a contented sigh drew Rose closer against his side. For a while they were lost, in feeling each other through their clothes and in the slow languorous sensation of lips on skin. But soon enough the heat between them began to sizzle and crack again and Rose needed to feel more of him than she could through his admittedly soft jumper.

Once more she moved her hands to work the jumper off of him and once more she found her fingers chased away.

"Not yet, Rose, just...," Jonathan mumbled, and lunged for her mouth kissing her hard, his fingers fumbling at the clasp of her trousers, managing to get them open despite the closeness of their bodies and yanking them down enough to work his hand between her thighs.

Rose gasped as Jonathan traced her sex through her knickers. She was sodden. And she knew Jonathan must be able to feel it.

At first that was all he did - light touches, as if he were mapping the shape of her, but then, just when Rose thought she was about to go mad from wanting him, she felt his thumb press down, hard above her clit and she bucked into his hands reflexively.

"Good?" Johnathan whispered in her ear, his voice husky and sinful. Rose could feel his own need rutting lightly against her hip. Rose bit her lip and nodded, desperate for more sensation. Jonathan chuckled, "Good," and worked his hand under the gusset of her knickers to touch and stroke her properly, his fingers warm against the core of her.

For a while Rose was lost to his touch, the spark of starlight warming her from the inside out where his fingers stroked her. Jonathan shifted and Rose gasped to feel him adjust his hand to dip first one then two fingers into her, pumping them lightly, his thumb still tracing circles over her clit. Soon enough Rose began to feel herself grasping around his fingers, the crest of her pleasure swirling ever closer.

He must have felt it too, because removing his fingers, he pushed Rose's knickers down her legs. Rose whimpered from the loss of him, but lifted up obligingly, and soon enough he'd moved between her legs and she could hear him scrabbling to undo his own trousers.

Rose was panting and hazy, her skin buzzing from the nearness of orgasm and the anticipation of feeling him inside her. She wanted to see him, wanted to stroke Jonathan's skin and cock with her hands and mouth and give back a fraction of the pleasure that was buzzing through her veins, but she could sense that Jonathan needed this bit of control.

In any case, she was too far gone. Instead, as Jonathan lowered his body over hers, Rose settled for winding her arms around his neck and running her fingers through his short hair.

Jonathan's kiss was deep and passionate and only interrupted by their mutual gasp when the steel of his cock slipped against Rose's wet folds. Jonathan was... he was thick. Rose had guessed as much before, but the feel of him stiff and ready so near where she wanted him had her grasping inside.

For his part, Jonathan heaved a long shuddering breath and pressed his eyes closed, his forehead against hers. The hand he wasn't using to prop himself up on moved down to grasp his shaft.

"Rose...," he breathed, sounding utterly broken, his breath warm against her cheek. "...Treasure, please let me have you."

Rose could feel Jonathan above her, every single muscle in his body straining to hear her answer. She knew at a word from her he'd pull away and her her heart clenched in tenderness for him.

"Yeah," she whispered, wishing he would open his eyes but afraid if he did he'd see just how far gone she was for him. "Yeah, I want you too."

There was a look of awe in Jonathan's eyes when he opened them. A moment passed between them, and Rose knew... she just knew... this wasn't a one off. It wasn't just the sex, although bloody hell her body practically burned for wanting him. There was something more, they had something more. He had to feel it too.

Jonathan dropped one hand to his cock to line himself up, and slowly pushed into her. He was thick, thicker than Rose was used to, and her hands fisted the rough wool of the jumper he still wore. She wanted to rip it off of him, wanted to feel his skin as he moved within and above her, but the feel of him inside her was shorting out her brain.

When he was seated fully, he paused for a minute, moving the hand that had been on his cock to where they were joined, and resumed stroking Rose's clit lightly, and before she knew it Rose was right back where she'd been - the slide of his fingers and exquisite pressure of his cock inside her combining in shivers of pleasure that raced through her veins.

Jonathan thrusted lightly, shallow movements in time with the bucking of Rose hips, giving himself to Rose to pleasure herself on rather than pleasing himself.

"Rose," Jonathan said, leaning falling forward to whisper in her ear, the change in angle causing his cock to hit someplace deep inside her that had Rose gasping. His voice was tight and strained. "Sweetheart, are you close?"

Rose nodded, her hands tight knots at his chest. It was inevitable now. Rose felt so full of him, his cock stretching her, his fingers lighting fire in her veins, the scent of him on her skin on her sheets. She could feel it coming and knew now all she had to do was surrender, but oh... first she wanted to see him let go.

"Jonathan," she gasped, stars bursting behind her eyes, "Fuck me, please."

The desperation in Rose's voice seemed enough to ignite the last tethers of restraint for both of them. Rose felt the scrape of Jonathan's teeth against her neck as he buried his head in her shoulder and his cock over and over where she was slick and grasping for him. Light burst in her vision and she was falling, no... flying into an abyss of white hot pleasure.

Jonathan was close, his movements rough and jerky where they'd once been laser precise. Rose strained, lifting her legs to lock around his waist, wanting to light his kindle with her flame. Dimly through the fog of her orgasm, Rose felt the rough folds of his denims against her thighs. But the thought was chased away when, with a sharp victorious sound, Jonathan strained one last time, his mouth sloppy against her neck, and tipped over into the aftershocks of her pleasure.

It was beautiful, beautiful, the feeling of him pulsing into her waves, like a perfectly tuned chord.

For a moment Jonathan was still and limp, the dense weight of him not quite enough to crush her, and Rose wrapped her arms around him trying to commit the moment to memory as his cock slowly grew soft inside her.

The moment stretched thin, and then it was gone. Rose began to grow aware of the small discomforts. The teeth of Jonathan's zipper fly were digging into her leg. She was about to suggest he pull his jeans and jumper off, at least, and join her under the covers, when Jonathan lifted away, pulling out of her and hastily tucking himself back in his pants before turning into the crook of his arm in a fit of ragged coughing.

Catching the duvet from the foot of the bed Rose drew it into her lap. She tried to tell herself it was the cold, not nerves. It was silly feeling self conscious after what they'd just shared... but Jonathan still hadn't looked at her.

When he did finally turn, his gaze was shuttered, and Rose's heart sank.

"Sorry Rose, I... I should go."

Rose scooched closer on the bed, reaching out for Jonathan's hand, hoping to find in his touch a little of the closeness they'd shared before. He seemed miles away when just moments before they'd been joined so close. What had happened? Sex like that... not just the sex even... he'd called her treasure, sweetheart, she'd thought...

"You could stay," she ventured. "You don't have to go."

But Jonathan just squeezed her hand and smiled sadly. "I should go," he said again, and before Rose knew it, he'd kissed her once more on the forehead, and let himself out, and she was alone in her bedroom listening to the muffled scrape of his tires against the asphalt as he pulled out of her driveway outside.

---

Rose pulled her knees up against her chest and hugged them, sniffling a bit as she sat on the concrete step just outside her doorway and stared up at the night sky. The stars twinkled back at her like so many shards of ice - pretty, cold and utterly silent.

It was stupid, really, getting so worked up over a bloke. Jonathan had been a bit of fun, that was all, a distraction. She barely knew him.

Beside her, Rose's phone lit up briefly with a text from an unknown number and she scrambled in the dark to unlock the screen.

Thanks for tonight. Jonathan.

Rose huffed, wishing she could hurl the mobile to vent her frustration, but knowing she couldn't afford to replace it if it broke. Carefully, her hands shaking, she set it face down, and took a long angry gulp of the merlot she'd brought out with her.

She'd asked him to ping her and he had, but bloody hell...

Hot tears of frustration began to make the starlight swim in front of Rose's eyes, and she pressed them closed, counting backwards from ten until she was calmer.

He was just a bloke. She barely knew him. She was being daft.

From the other side of the duplex, Rose heard the loose tinny sound of the Longs' screen door open and shut, and smiled despite herself as, with the scrambling, scraping sound of claws on concrete, the Longs' mutt Sam burst out of her neighbor's house. He ran an exuberant sniffing perimeter of the yard, growling and whining as he crossed over to the walkway that led up to her door. His favorite bush was by the corner of her garage and he moistened it for good measure, then shuffled over to her side of the driveway to plant himself in her arms.

He was a cute little thing, with shaggy brown hair and wise soulful eyes. Rose scratched his head absently as Mrs. Long, her landlady, made her way slowly over to sit by Rose's side. She pulled a red and white package of Marlboros out of her pocket waving it a bit to catch Rose's attention.

"Mind if I smoke?" Mrs. Long asked, tipping a cigarette out of the pack and holding it in her mouth with the lighter ready, waiting for Rose's nod before she lit it and took a long drag.

"Don't tell the Mister. I don't often but it's been a hell of a night. Powerball, you know? Got Sammy here all upset. Hope he didn't bother you."

Rose smiled and patted the dog's head. He had been uncharacteristically loud earlier, but he was such a sweet thing, she couldn't hold it against him.

"No harm done," She said. And Sammy, as if relieved, trotted off to give the driveway a thorough sniffing.

Mrs. Long took another long drag off her cigarette, tapping the ash with her finger into a planter beside her.

"What about you? How are you holding up?"

Rose gathered a breath, the night air cold in her lungs. Of course everyone in town knew about Wilf. He was well known and well liked, and the Longs had come by the clinic just as often to say hi as they had to bring Sam in for a check-up.

"Alright I suppose. I just can't believe it, you know, one day Wilf's telling me I didn't close up properly and the next he's just gone. I don't know what to do about the clinic, or what to tell anyone. The police are..."

At the mention of the police Mrs. Long pulled a face, waving the hand that held her cigarette dismissively.

"Cops are always clueless. Especially around here," she said. "I imagine your gentleman friend's got you tied in knots too, or you wouldn't be looking like a funeral parlor so soon after he's left."

Rose listened to Sam as he growled at a particularly offensive scent by the bins and shook her head. Mrs. Long rarely missed a beat.

"He's a dead end, that's all," Rose said. "Look, I think I should let you know, with this thing with Wilf and all I'm sorta out of a job. I can cover this month, but the lease said thirty days' notice so..."

Mrs. Long pinched out her butt, waving her hand to disperse the haze of smoke that still surrounded her and nodded.

"Out of a job," she grumbled, "you and half this town. Alright. Just don't up and leave without saying goodbye to Sammy, or I'll have to live with the consequences."

Rose smiled ruefully. The Longs were characters but she'd miss them. There was so much here she was going to miss.

Chapter Text

The hours crawled unnaturally slowly over the next few days. Rose couldn’t remember a time when she’d had neither a job, nor school, nor travel to occupy her, and with little to do and plenty of thoughts she’d rather not dwell on, she found herself rattling about like a marble in a glass jar.

The day after Jonathan left, Rose gave herself permission to have a proper lie in, indulging in a morning spent in her PJs with her favorite book. Propping her pillows against the headrest, Rose made herself a little nest under her fluffy duvet, its warmth making it all the more delicious as she read about Doctor Frankenstein pursuing his creature across the barren wasteland of the North Pole. It was the perfect narrative to suit her mood, a pompous mansplaining arsehole getting his comeuppance. Good ole’ Mary Shelley!

By mid-afternoon the small of her back had begun to protest and her stomach was grumbling, so she shuffled into the kitchen, popping a couple of slices of bread into the toaster and fetching out a tin of beans.

On the counter by the coffee machine, sat the pair of mugs she’d gotten out the night before. They were an old matching set she’d picked up at Goodwill when she’d first moved in. She’d thought them pretty with their swirling patterns of flowers and brambles. Now they just looked forlorn, one with a long hairline crack by the handle, both empty. Rose hastily shoved them both back in the cupboard, then reconsidered and retrieved the undamaged one to make herself a cuppa.

What had gone wrong last night? Rose had played it over and over in her head trying to figure out how she could have possibly misinterpreted Jonathan’s actions so badly. Sure he’d acted a bit odd… not letting her undress him… but he seemed eager enough. He’d been the one to instigate things, coming up behind her and holding her like that. She hadn’t pushed, and she wouldn’t have had a problem if he’d wanted to take things slower.

Checking the clock over the stove, Rose did some mental calculations as she pulled a plate out of the cabinet. It’d be late in London. Her mum might still be up, but she didn’t want to risk waking her with a call.

A wide picture window separated the kitchen from the living room and Rose plopped down at the small table and chair she’d put there. A couple of stray sparrows flitted about the bushes outside, scratching in the dirt and puffing their tiny fluffy bodies against the chill. It was a dreary fall day, the sky white and windless, the cold’s biting fingers worming its way through the thin glass of the window.

Rose picked up her mobile, opening a text window.

Hey Mum, call me when you get a chance. Coming home at the end of the month, wanted to chat.

Rose stared at the words on the tiny screen chewing slowly on a mouthful of toast that suddenly seemed unbelievably dry and impossible to swallow. She was leaving. Really leaving at the end of the month. Back to her mum’s flat at the estate. Back to the day in, day out, utterly predictable monotony, where the biggest adventure she’d meet would be some new bit of estate gossip. Back to clocking in and clocking out of some dead end job… she’d need to get a job and…

A realization suddenly struck Rose and her stomach bottomed out. She’d hardly enough money in her bank account for rent and to get her through the next month; she hadn’t budgeted for a flight home. She hastily typed out another sentence on her mobile, the letters swimming and floating as her eyes grew wet.

May need to borrow some money.

She hit send, feeling lower than dirt. She knew her mum would give up her last penny if it came to it, but it was so unfair to ask. As long as Rose could remember, her mum had been stuck in that flat, slaving away so that she could have a better life. She’d never thanked her, never given her anything back. All Rose had ever thought about was how to escape.

It wasn’t that Rose regretted her choices. Leaving the estate had felt like a drowning man struggling to breathe. But the very least she owed her mum was cleaning up her own messes and paying her own way. It had been years now since her mum had even been outside of London proper. She deserved to be having adventures of her own.

Sorry I’m such a terrible daughter. Rose typed. Why couldn’t she do anything right?

Barely five minutes had passed before Rose’s mobile exploded in a fit of buzzing rattling the table and causing Rose to jump. She wiped away a few miserable tears before answering it.

“Hey Mum,” Rose said, hating herself anew for how ragged her voice sounded.

“Alright love, what’s happened.”

Rose shook her head, taking a moment to answer. The sound of her mother’s voice had opened up some fresh dam of emotion inside of her, and she fought to keep it from washing her away. She wanted desperately to remain sensible.

“Nothing,” she said finally. “Everything. I put in my notice with my landlord. I’m coming home Mum.”

“Oh sweetie, that’s not so bad is it,” her Mum said. “A little time with your old Mum? Might not have all those movie stars you’ve been hobnobbing with, but we’ll make do.”

Rose smiled despite herself, despite her stupid mess of a life, and despite the fact that she’d been foolish enough to think that a bloke was the answer. When would she learn?

“I told you, Mum, it’s not that part of California… I just feel so stupid, you know, like everything I do is such a disaster.”

Jackie snorted loud enough that Rose could hear it despite the long distance call. “I don’t see how you’ve done anything wrong.”

“Mum! I’m out of a job, I’m broke.”

“That your fault is it? Your boss fired you? Didn’t like your work ethic?”

“No Mum, you know it’s not that, but Wilf’s gone. He just disappeared.”

“Sounds to me like that’s his problem not yours. Honey, you’ve done nothing wrong.”

Rose’s fingers burned where she gripped her too hot mug of tea. She couldn’t blame her mother for trying to cheer her up; she was just trying to help.

“But Mum, I don’t even have enough saved for the flight home. I should have…”

…What? Saved more money? Not spent it all on a college program she couldn’t even follow through with? She’d tried and tried to do the responsible thing and it never worked out.

“Sweetie, you’re young, still discovering the world, figuring out your place in it. What sort of mother would I be if I didn’t help you?”

“A richer one?” Rose offered wryly. “But what about you, Mum?”

“What about me? I’ll be fine. After all, I’ve got my daughter coming home for a visit. What could be better than that?”

Rose sighed glumly. “Thanks. I love you Mum.”

“I love you. And what’s more I believe in you. You’ve never been one to give up if something was important enough to you. You come home, get your feet under you. You’ll find your path.”

Rose took a bite of her toast, tracing the design on the mug with her index finger, a twisting knot of branch and foliage and thorns fading and re-emerging from the darkness of the glaze in-between bright pink bursts of blossoms. It really was pretty. Maybe if she could, she’d take it with her when she left. Rose ventured a sip and found the tea tolerable.

Her mother’s faith in her was as unshakable as ever.

“Stop, Mum.”

“Never,” her mother replied without hesitation. “You going to be alright then?”

“Yeah,” Rose said, making a go at her beans and toast, half thinking she might not have been so emotional if she’d had a full stomach. “I just needed a good cry, that’s all.”

“Everyone does sometimes. Oh and Sweetie?”

“Yeah?” Rose asked, peering out the window. A beam of sunlight flickered through the leaves outside, painting shifting dancing patterns against the glass. Outside, Mr. Long was tinkering on his beloved orange Ford, Sam patiently following along at his heels.

“You’ll pay me back if you know what’s good for you,” her mum threatened, and there was something in the tone of her voice that made Rose smile. Her mum never changed.

“Stop,” she protested.

“Never.”

——-
Rose took a quick shower the next morning, telling herself the indulgence of a bath was out of the question. She had work to do.

At first, visiting the thrift stores around town had been born of necessity. The duplex had been unfurnished when she’d rented it and she’d had to supply herself with the necessities on a tight budget.

After that it had become something of a hobby, there was always something new and old and unexpected to discover, and she’d never before had her own place to fill with treasures. She’d loved finding new things to make the small place more like a home.

But she wouldn’t be able to take it all with her when she left. Some of the furniture might be sold, and the Longs might be interested in keeping the rest. She could post some of the stuff on craigslist and maybe make some money back. But to do that it would all need to be sorted through before her lease was up. She had a big task ahead of her.

In her bedroom, Rose flattened to her stomach, the dust bunnies itching her nose as she reached under the bed and dragged her luggage out. Her beat up red backpack still had the airline tags from her last trip. Rose brushed it off, smiling at the memories. Thailand, Bali… they’d been so many places together. Maybe some people just simply weren’t meant to settle down.

Pulling a large rolling suitcase from the back of her closet she placed the bags next to each other, surveying them appraisingly. It wasn’t much space, but she’d make do. She’d had a small carry on as well, a duffel…

Rose groaned remembering the last time she’d used it. She’d taken it back to the clinic, planning to empty it of all the supplies she’d taken with her to the dragon’s mine, but she’d been interrupted by Officer Pitts and left it there.

She’d need to retrieve the bag, as well as a few other personal items she kept at the clinic, and while she was there she might as well do her best to tidy things up and close things down. Wilf would like that, and despite everything, she couldn’t help but be grateful that he’d given her this chance, and to hope against hope that he’d return unharmed.

Mr. Long and Sam were still outside when Rose left and she gave them a wave and a pat on the head respectively before hopping into her car. Her mind was running ahead now to the next few weeks. She’d need the car to get back to the Bay Area. Maybe she could stay long enough to sell it. Have sort of a farewell tour. If she got enough money for her stuff, she might even make a good start at paying her mum back.

At the very least she should bring her mum home something. She’d been going on and on about all the California movie stars Rose must have been running into. Rose remembered her mentioning some new perfume line Gwyneth Paltrow had out. Bazoolium… something?

Her Mum was right, Rose thought, parking in her usual spot in front of the clinic and digging through her purse for the keys to let herself in. Going home wouldn’t be so bad. She’d regroup and make a new start of it. There’d be other journeys, other small towns to explore. What was Copperopolis really? Just a small town in the middle of nowhere, California. There was nothing so unique about it that she needed to be so upset over leaving.

Inside, the clinic had grown musty and stuffy, the only light filtering into the reception area through the half shut Venetian blinds of the high windows. Rose opened them and flicked on the lights for good measure. All her uplifting self-talk crashed to her feet at the sight of the black duffel she’d left haphazardly on the front desk.

The dragon.

She might find other towns, other friends, other jobs, but she’d never find another dragon. She couldn’t even tell anyone about it; who would ever believe her? And yet, crazy as it was, some instinct, some wild, long buried part of her soul had responded to the creature. It thrilled her and tickled her curiosity. She could feel it even now, like a spark slowly smoldering inside her, waiting to catch flame. She’d leave, because she had to, but she couldn’t help regret the adventure she was leaving behind.

Rose sighed and began unzipping the bag and sorting through its contents, tossing the used mylar emergency blanket in the bin and promising herself she’d take out the rubbish before she left. If she closed her eyes and imagined hard enough, she could still feel the sensation of being wrapped up in that blanket, the solid warmth of the creature pressed against her back and his long sinewy body wrapped around her.

She had so many questions. Where had the dragon gone? She could hardly imagine it roaming the countryside unnoticed. And where had it come from? Were there others like it? Rose moved about the clinic pondering the many mysteries, putting away the contents of the duffel, shutting off electronics and tidying things up. It seemed as if everything reminded her of the creature.

Passing Wilf’s office Rose caught sight of his phone on the desk, the ugly little troll sculpture scowling at it expressively. She remembered the panicked urgent call which had led her to the mine. It seemed like it had happened ages ago. It’d only been a couple of days.

At least one other person had known about the dragon then: the man who’d called her. Rose considered...he’d been missing all this time, but she hadn’t seen any mention in the local news. Maybe the local cops really were as rubbish as everyone seemed to think. Officer Pitts certainly had been. She’d been so grateful to run into Jonathan, relieved that he’d instinctively known just what to do. Rose shivered at the memory of Jonathan’s lean form beside her as he made it very clear that the officer’s company was not welcome.

She hadn’t heard from Jonathan since his short text, and she hadn’t bothered to respond to it. She was tired of all the mixed messages, the evasion. Why couldn’t blokes just say what they were thinking? She’d been a fool to let herself get carried away.

Rose moved to sit at Wilf’s desk like she had the first time, trying to focus her thoughts on Wilf and his disappearance, or the mysterious dragon. She had bigger problems than some foolish school-girl crush.

Rose stared at the phone, black and glossy like the dragon’s scales. She should go back, Rose decided. She still had nearly a month left on her lease. She could drive up the the old mine every day if she wanted to. The dragon had sutures that needed to be removed and she needed to see it again before she left for good.

She needed to reassure herself that she wasn’t crazy. She needed to say goodbye.

Rose turned to the large built-in bookcase that dominated the wall behind Wilf’s desk. It was filled haphazardly with files and loose papers, mementos and a surprising number of sci-fi novels, but also Wilf’s collection of veterinary reference books. Rose scanned for something that would help her shore up her knowledge of large lizards. If she was lucky enough to find the dragon, she wanted to be better prepared this time.

Rose pulled out a worn hardcover on anatomy and began flipping through the various chapters. None of it seemed particularly relevant, and there was no way of knowing how closely the dragon resembled any common creature. When she got to the section on pet iguanas Rose shut the book, tossing it to the floor with a heavy thump.

There’d been another book too, hadn’t there? Rose remembered vaguely some sort of journal of Wilf’s. At the time she’d only glanced at it, writing its scribbled stories off as fantasy. Now it seemed worth a second look… if only she could find the thing.

Wilf’s desk, always a disaster zone, seemed far messier even then she’d remembered, and no matter how much she shifted things around she couldn’t seem to locate the journal.

Rose was about to move her search to the desk drawers when she was interrupted by a loud rapping on the frosted glass of the clinic’s front door. She got up reluctantly, and went to answer it. Wilf had been much loved in Copperopolis, and his disappearance had been shocking. A few of his friends had gotten in the habit of stopping by for news when they saw Rose’s car out front. She never had any.

Still, Rose liked Wilf’s friends; they were honest and rough around the edges and reminded her a bit of her mum’s mates back home. She couldn’t blame them for checking in.

Despite her worry, Rose answered the door of the clinic wearing her best customer-service smile, but she let it drop completely at the sight of the black leather clad man slouching against the railing on the other side. Surprise and righteous fury battled in her head, choking her ability to form words for a few moments, until she was finally able to sort herself out enough to shout and glare at the man before her.

“Jimmy! What the hell?”

Jimmy. Fucking. Stones. The absolute last human on earth Rose wanted to see. Ever. And yet there he was, light haloed behind him like he was god’s gift to ripped designer jeans.

Rose blinked a few times, her eyes adjusting from the dim clinic interior, and Jimmy blinked back at her, his mouth gaping like a fish beneath his dark over-long fringe. He actually seemed genuinely surprised to see her. He shuffled his hands in his pockets awkwardly before managing a response.

“Rose. Babe… “ Jimmy leaned in, his eyes flicking nervously behind her, and Rose narrowed the door, blocking his view into the clinic. “What are you doing here?”

“I work here, Jimmy. You really gonna pretend you didn’t know that already?”

Jimmy shrugged, “How would I know where you work? You blocked me on Facebook.”

“That’s right, I did,” Rose said. She could hardly believe the nerve of him, showing up out of the blue like this. She glared at Jimmy. “And yet here you are. Practically on my doorstep. How do you explain that then?”

Jimmy shrugged. “Whatever. Think you know so much. Why you in such a bad mood?”

“I know you,” Rose replied, her voice climbing despite herself. How dare he follow her up here? He’d hardly seemed to care when she left him; he’d been too busy bragging to his groupies about the band and some big European tour they were planning to go on. “I know you wouldn’t be caught dead in a place like this unless there was something you wanted. So get to the point and leave.”

“Jesus Rose, you can be such a bitch sometimes.”

Rose crossed her arms and debated just slamming the door in Jimmy’s face. Of all the men who could have reappeared in her life, he was the absolute last one she wanted to see. In the parking lot of the coffee shop across the street a cop car pulled up alongside a glossy black sedan with tinted windows. She couldn’t help but remember how Jonathan had showed up right when she’d needed him to scare away Officer Pitts. Of course Jimmy would show up right when her love life was at its most pathetic.

“Well, for your information,” Jimmy began, forcing her attention back to the prat who was actually in front of her. “My Pops is looking into some real estate investment around here and needed my help. You know, not everything’s about you, Rose.”

Jimmy folded his arms across his chest, mirroring Rose’s pose, and grinned at her in smug satisfaction. Rose had never met Jimmy’s dad but she’d heard about him. Jimmy had been in the habit of giving him a call whenever he needed a fresh infusion of cash. He was loaded. Some internet start up CEO who’d hit it big. Rose didn’t remember the details.

Still, Rose had to grudgingly admit to herself, Jimmy’s story kinda made sense. She remembered on that awful ski trip they’d went on that Jimmy had mentioned his dad had some ventures in the area. She’d met Wilf on that trip.

In any case, she had bigger problems to deal with than Jimmy’s stupid pissing contest. If he hadn’t intended to run into her that was fine by Rose. She didn’t want to see him either.

“Fine then, Jimmy,” she said, hand on the door. “Good chat. I hope you enjoy take your kid to work day. Bye.”

Rose went to slam the door, but Jimmy bolted to block her.

“Actually Rose,” He said, foot in the door jamb, and for a brief terrifying minute Rose thought he might do something really repulsive, like try to kiss her, “the reason I’m here is my dad heard this place might be on the market soon and he wanted me to check it out. Can’t you do me a favor and show me around the place? For old time’s sake.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Rose said. Old time’s sake? What a joke. “You really think I would do you a favor. I had to drop out of school because you left me high and dry. Do you remember that?”

Jimmy’s eyes widened but his foot stayed in the door jamb. “You still hung up on that?” He scoffed.

“Yeah Jimmy, I really am.’ she continued, kicking his foot away from where it held the door open. ”In any case, the guy who owns this place ain’t around and I don’t know when or if he ever will be. If your dad wants a tour, he can find him. Now sod off!”

Rose slammed the door in Jimmy’s face, locking it for good measure. The bloody nerve. Her palms were sweaty and the ring on her finger felt hot and over tight. She twisted it nervously as she fought down the adrenaline rising in her system. Across the room she could hear her phone buzzing in her purse but she let it go to voicemail. Jimmy would get the message.

——-

It was two days later that Rose pulled into the filtered light of the dragon’s glen, willing her heart to beat steady and trying not to get her hopes up. Jonathan, Wilf, the dragon, it seemed as if the men in her life had a habit of disappearing when she needed them the most. Hell, even her father… Rose cut the thought short, mentally scolding herself. Best to keep her mind on the present.

Entering the cave, Rose took a deep steadying breath, letting her lungs fill with the scent of wet moss and pleasantly decomposing things. Her nerves and anxieties didn’t belong here, not in the peace and balance of nature, not in this quiet corner of the mountain, so strangely and perfectly hidden from the outside world.

As it always had been, stepping into the abandoned mine was like walking into another world, the shift from bright sunlight to darkness so sudden that it left her blinking and disoriented for several minutes. He wouldn’t be here.

It was silly for her to have come yet again. She’d imagined it all. The result in an accidental leak of ether back at the clinic, or maybe some stray mold in her apartment. She’d read about something like that. Hadn’t she?

Still, knowing that she’d be gone, back in London in just a few short weeks, Rose just couldn’t let it go. Something, instinct or whatever, told her she had to see this through.

Blinking her way deeper into the cave until she felt rather than saw the space open up into the main cavern, Rose at first didn’t notice the inky black form until it had uncoiled itself from where it crouched in the gravel and turned its bright blue eyes toward her.

For a moment Rose stopped short, nearly as shocked as she’d been the first time she’d seen the dragon. But then, hardly thinking, on a rush of pure relief and emotion, Rose found that her feet were carrying her forward, until she slammed into the beast’s body, enfolding his neck in her arms in a big scaly hug.

“You’re here! I was so…” Rose trailed off, choking on words that somehow couldn’t quite express how she felt. She was so… what? Worried? Doubting her sanity? Both? There was a low trickling sound of water on rocks coming from somewhere deeper in the cave and Rose let herself focus on that, on the still humid scent of the air, and on the dragon’s warm protective presence in her arms.

She was safe. Whatever problems existed outside the cave, they couldn’t follow her here. Rose pressed her eyes closed and buried her head deeper into the dragon’s shoulder, her body shaking in ugly dry sobs. She could feel his body vibrating in a low gentle almost-purr, though he held himself tense, as if the creature was unsure whether to leap into action or relax against her.

“I’m sorry,” Rose sniffled finally, feeling better. “It’s just been a rough week, an I’m doubting everything about myself. I’m really glad to see you, I am,” she said to the mute creature, wiping her eyes on her sleeve and settling herself on the ground by his side.

“It’s just… I don’t know what I’m doing anymore, you know? I thought I had everything figured out, or at least… well the basics… flat, job. And then I met this bloke and…” Rose chewed her lip, trying not to remember the feeling of Jonathan’s arms wrapped around her, his wide rough hands against her skin. He’d made her feel as if nothing else mattered. “I feel so foolish. Everything’s up in smoke.”

Rose sighed, She could feel the dragon shift awkwardly behind her. The poor thing. She really needed to take out those stitches. Dragging her bag towards her, Rose began to sift through it, digging out the supplies she’d brought just in case.

The dragon sat back on his haunches and watched her silently, his strange ice blue eyes unblinking, as if she were a puzzle he was trying to work out. Rose worried her lip as she surveyed him, trying to assess his condition as impartially as she would any other animal. The makeshift bandage she’d put on him was still there, high over his wing, and she gestured to it, hoping to signal her intentions.

“Here, let me have a look at that,” she said, climbing to her feet and moving to the dragon’s side. He seemed to understand her well enough, lowering down to his belly to give her better access. Peeling off the duct tape and gauze, Rose appraised the wound, a long pinkish grey line amidst the iridescent black of the creature’s scales. She nodded, pleased with her work.

“S’ healed nicely,” she said, giving the dragon a pat and moving to slip on a pair of neoprene gloves. “I just need to take out the stitches, shouldn’t hurt, but just stay still.”

Slowly Rose began working her way down the dragon’s back, snipping the knots on each stitch and tugging them out with a pair of sharp tweezers she had brought for that purpose. It was slow repetitive work, and Rose found her mind wandering back to Jonathan. He’d called her the other day, after her run in with Jimmy, but he hadn’t left a message and she hadn’t bothered to call him back.

“So anyway, this bloke,” Rose began, letting her hand soothe its way across the dragon’s back where his muscles had suddenly tensed. “I know it sounds daft, but I really thought he was different. And I’m frustrated you know, because I let myself believe he was really interested in me, not just… you know… the sex… although that was… yeah.”

The dragon jerked as Rose pulled another stitch loose and she chided him. “Stay still, I’m almost done.”

Rose paused to squint at her work and to give the dragon a minute. She could hear him growling low and deep in his throat and could smell the acrid scent of smoke in the air; he was getting agitated. After a few moments silence she resumed her progress.

“I just feel so foolish,” she continued, hoping the prattle of her voice would keep the dragon calm enough for her to remove the last few stitches. “My age I should know better, but when I’m with this bloke it just feels so right, you know. I let myself get my hopes up and then poof… he up and disappears on me... left some lame text.”

The dragon yelped, and Rose had to take a step back as he jumped to his feet, the green grey walls of the cavern briefly illuminated by a handful of skittering sparks that burst from his mouth. Her heart was racing in surprise and Rose swore under her breath.

She needed to be more careful; removing the dragon’s stitches shouldn’t hurt that much.

Rose held her hands in front of her and waited patiently as the dragon paced back and forth a few times, shaking his head and flicking his tail against the ground.

“Easy there,” she said, trying to make her voice as low and soothing as she could.“I know it feels strange, but you just have to trust me. I’m not trying to hurt you.” Not for the first time she wished for some way she could simply communicate more directly with the creature.

She approached the dragon slowly, from the front this time, catching his large craggy head in her hands and gazing sincerely into the creature’s eyes.

“Please,” she said, “give me another chance. I know how vulnerable it must make you feel, letting me poke and prod at you when you can’t understand my intentions, but I swear, I’ll be more careful.”

The dragon huffed a long slow exhale, his head heavy in Rose’s hands and his wide, mute eyes staring into hers expressively. His face was so close to hers, and on an instinct Rose lowered her forehead to press against the dragon’s leathery brow, imagining she could somehow press her own thoughts into his mind and his in hers.

Against her fingertips, where they cradled his jaw, Rose could feel the dragon’s heartbeat thrumming unnaturally fast, his breath ghosted against her cheek, eerily deep and slow. He was so alien to anything she’d ever encountered, and yet, somehow familiar too, like someone from a dream long forgotten. Close as she was, she could feel the tension leave the dragon’s body, and he sagged against her a bit, his long lanky hindquarters sagging back down to the ground.

“I know,” she half-cooed, half-whispered, twining her arms around the creature’s neck and curling into his large body. “I’m scared too.”

——-

Rose stared at the phone buzzing in her hand, debating what to do. After calming the dragon down, she’d managed to make quick work of the remaining stitches, and said goodbye to the dragon, promising to return to check on him in a few days’ time. The creature had eyed her warily, but let her go this time without any trouble, and Rose hoped the dragon was learning to trust her.

She only got as far as the gate of the long drive when her phone started ringing. Despite everything, she’d saved Jonathan’s number to her contacts and the screen of her phone lit up with it now. It was the second time he’d tried to call her. At the clinic she’d missed a call from him and never bothered to call back.

She’d thought Jonathan had been blowing her off. His text had been dismissive and he’d run out on her like that. Now Rose didn’t know what to think. Had she been too quick to take offense? She’d never know if she kept avoiding his calls. She needed to stop running from her problems.

Rose’s finger was just hovering over the button to accept the call when the screen dimmed. Rose sighed; maybe it was just as well she hadn’t gotten it in time. A few seconds later the text notification dinged.

Please give me another chance.

Chapter Text

Rose dialed up Jonathan’s number on her mobile. The photo of her mum that she kept as a lock screen was smiling cheerily in a rare beam of London sunshine; still Rose couldn’t help but feel like even from the tiny screen, her mum’s eyes saw right through her.

Are you sure you know what you’re doing? They seemed to say.

“Sorry Mum,” Rose mumbled, hitting the send button before she could reconsider. “Too late now.”

Rose kicked off her flats and wiggled her toes in the stream of her car’s lower heating vent as the phone rang. She’d pulled over just past the gate that led to the dragon’s mine and was sitting in the driver’s seat with the motor idling.

Jonathan answered after only one ring.

“Rose!” he said, sounding breathless and unsure. “I’m so glad you called.”

Rose struggled to keep her heart from leaping at the familiar timbre of Jonathan’s voice. There was a small voice inside her that kept whispering how easy it would be to just forgive him, pretend like nothing had happened, smooth things over. But then what? She wasn’t about to start off with a bloke by making excuses for his inconsiderate behavior. She knew where that path led and it was nowhere she wanted to go with Jonathan. She deserved better than being treated poorly and having to shoulder the emotional burden of the reconciliation all on her own. She deserved better than how Jonathan had acted.

But she’d already crossed her imaginary line in the sand by calling Jonathan back. She could feel him waiting on the other end of the line as the silence drew out, his nerves as palpable as static on the line. She was angry, at him for the way he’d treated her, and frustrated with herself for how easy it suddenly seemed to forgive him. For her own sake Rose wanted to stay calm and sensible, not lose her dignity in some petty argument. But it was exhausting. Why should she feel obligated to be the mature one in the face of inconsiderate men?

“You know I almost didn’t call,” she said, needing him to know that at least.

Rose heard what sounded like a deep breath on the other end of the line and barreled on, wanting to have her say before she heard his excuses.

“Look Jonathan, I like you, I do. And the other night… well I thought it was going great, but then you ran out on me. It… well it hurt. It was really rude, yeah?”

The silence on the line stretched on until Rose’s ears began to prick listening for him, as if she were leaning into an empty room. She couldn’t tell whether he was angry, composing his response, or, like her, simply didn’t know what to say or how to say it.

“Rose,” Jonathan began, finally, his voice unreadable, “I told you I’m no good at this.”

“You did,” Rose acknowledged. “But a warning isn’t the same as blanket absolution. You can’t treat me like that. I won’t let you.”

“I didn’t leave because of anything that had to do with you… I had some…”

“It’s not just that,” Rose tumbled on. She wasn’t done, and she wasn’t ready to start forgiving him yet either. “I’ve told you loads about myself but I barely know anything about you. You don’t let me know anything about you. Every time the conversation turns in that direction you deflect or change the subject. Don’t think I haven’t noticed.”

“Of course you have,” Jonathan admitted.

“Rose,” he began after another moment’s pause, “are you hungry?”

Rose’s stomach grumbled traitorously, her body always seeming to respond to Jonathan in ways her brain wasn’t completely on board with.

“It’s just,” Jonathan huffed, “I can’t talk like this. I hate phones.”

Rose sighed. As upset as she was, she had to admit she wished she could read his expression during those long moments of silence on the other end of the line. Phones were rubbish.

“Yeah, ok,” she conceded. “The Lube Room? I’m actually near there.”

“No,” Jonathan protested quickly, “Becca’s too nosy by half. Besides, she’ll be on your side. Come to mine. It’s not far. I can have something made by the time you get here.”

“Jonathan, that’s hardly neutral ground.”

“If you can’t trust me, then we’ve got nothing to talk about anyway,” his voice was tight but not without a tone of regret. “If you want to know me better, come to my lair. It’s not far.”

It didn’t take Rose long to make her decision.

Ten minutes later, Rose found herself winding along a serpentine side road that traced along the edge of a steep canyon. The air was moister here than it had been along the main highway. The thick blanket of ferns and sorel tucked amongst the shade of the towering firs were a testament to how rarely the dusty shafts of sunlight licked their way through the canopy of vegetation above. From time to time an arched concrete bridge would span the canyon and the road would swap over to the other side of the ridge. It was the only time that Rose caught sight of the rushing creek below, its frothy waters wearing the canyon ever deeper with their patient hands. From the sheer rock on the cliff side of the road, miniature trickling waterfalls oozed out their way through the sediment.

Jonathan’s directions had been easy to follow, only requiring Rose to keep track of the numbers on the mailboxes that dotted the side of the main highway so that she could identify the dinged up metal one that signaled the correct turn off that led to his cabin. After that Rose was free to let her mind wander, and found herself lulled into almost a sort of trance by the regular sway of the road and the flickering dusty light through trees.

Jonathan had been right. His cabin was likely not far from where she’d been when she’d stopped to take his call--not as the crow flies. But the road to get there was indirect and in poor repair. Rose had plenty of time to calm her thoughts.

When she’d gotten off the phone with Jonathan, Rose had feared it might rain. The light had dimmed briefly as if a dark cloud had passed across the sun. But the patches of sky that now peeked overhead were crystal blue. Rose was relieved. She wasn’t sure how long she’d be at Jonathan’s house, but this wasn’t a road she’d want to be caught on if there was rain on the way back.

The elevation dropped considerably by the time the winding mountain road twisted itself out into the long dirt drive that terminated in front of Jonathan’s cabin. There was no formal gate marking the property, but Rose caught sight of a wide flat space with Jonathan’s familiar blue Land Rover parked in it and eased her red compact beside it.

Jonathan was standing beside his car, hands jammed into his pockets as if he’d rather they were crossed against his chest. Rose wondered how long he’d been waiting for her like that, watching the road. For the first time since she’d met him, he didn’t move to open the car door for her.

Behind Jonathan, what he’d referred to as his “lair” turned out to be a modest cabin covered in the the same rough-hewn grey-brown siding common to the area. From where Rose stood, the house appeared to be a single story. The low-slung roof dipped over the structure like the wide brim of a farmer’s hat. Beyond the porch was a wooden front door set with glass panes that sat level with the area in front of the house where Rose now stood. But from there the forest floor sloped down at a grade, exposing the windows and side of a second lower floor. The house’s porch wrapped around the side towards the back and where at the front it was ground level, by the back of the house it was suspended amongst the trees. To the side of the house, wide steps set with wooden railroad ties led down the hill in the direction of a small lake that Rose could just make out twinkling in the distance.

Jonathan watched her warily as Rose took in her surroundings. There was no sign of his toothy grin or the twinkle in his eye that always appeared when he was flirting with her. He seemed to be waiting and watching for Rose to make the first move. But if he was, Rose didn’t quite know where to begin.

Rose’s stomach flipped and gurgled, making it clear that whatever issues of principle she may have, it, at least, had no problem knowing what it wanted.

Jonathan took a deep breath. “I thought we’d eat outside, if that’s alright,” he said finally, mentioning for Rose to follow him as he stepped towards the house and onto the porch. They made their way to one side past a neatly piled stack of chopped wood which sat under the eaves, to where the porch continued around the back of the house. Here it widened into a full deck, becoming a proper eagles’ roost among the treetops. A wooden patio table and two chairs had been set to one side with two sets of mismatched silverware, tall glass tumblers of water and a pair of plates, each with a matching soup bowl overturned atop it, shielding whatever lay beneath from the flies and wasps that would inevitably be drawn.

Rose sat down in the chair nearest her before Jonathan could get a chance to pull it out and lifted the bowl from the top of her plate as Jonathan slid into the other. The scalloped, floral patterned plate below held two halves of a sandwich on thick wheat bread with a few cornichons set to the side as a garnish.

“Roast beef,” Jonathan muttered carefully. “I hope that’s alright.” But with her stomach screaming, Rose had already lifted one half of the sandwich to her mouth.

The first thing Rose registered was the flavor of the bread, chewy and nutty, with the characteristic lactic tang of the sourdoughs she’d discovered back in San Francisco. The second thing she registered was pain. White hot and searing, it traveled up the back of her throat to her nasal cavity where it licked behind her eyes like flames on dry paper.

Rose began to cough and sputter, her eyes bleary with tears. In a second Jonathan was kneeling beside her, one hand firmly on her back as he handed her a glass of water with the other. Rose took it gratefully, and Jonathan steadied it until he was sure of her grasp.

“Sorry,” Jonathan said when Rose had mostly recovered. He drew her plate towards him and swapped it with the one that had sat in front of him. “That one’s mine.”

Rose’s eyes were still watering, and when she could speak she gave a curse that would have made her mother proud. If Jonathan was surprised by her profanity, only the widening of his eyes betrayed it.

“What the hell was that?” Rose asked.

After spending a reasonable chunk of her travels in Latin America, she’d thought she had a decent tolerance for spice. But this was something else. In response Jonathan handed her a small nondescript glass jar which had been sitting to one side on the table. Its blue label featured a portly old woman with a handkerchief and Cyrillic lettering that was impossible for Rose to make out.

“Russian horseradish,” Jonathan explained, an expression of doom on his face. “I forget I’m immune.”

Rose laid a hand on his arm, shaking her head to clear it.

“Jonathan, it’s ok. If I never see you again, it won’t be because of some spicy mustard.”

Jonathan simply nodded. Returning to his seat with his correct meal and the same hangman’s look about his eyes.

Rose returned to her meal and Jonathan to his, sniffing at the sandwich half that Rose had started and taking a large bite that left him completely unaffected. He really was immune.

When Rose’s hunger was finally satisfied and Jonathan’s meal was reduced to little more than a long crescent of crust, his long hands fidgeted, ripping the left over strip of bread into smaller and smaller hunks and raining them down on his empty plate. He met her eyes, finally, and Rose waited to hear what he had to say.

“What we… did… the other night. I didn’t expect that to happen.”

“We had sex,” Rose clarified. She wasn’t ashamed of doing it, and she didn’t want to dance around the subject.

Jonathan nodded. “Yes. It’s not…” Jonathan released a long breath, and dropped his eyes to his plate, his long fingers sorting through the crumbs and crusts, finding the largest and pushing it over to one edge of the plate. “It’s been a long time since I’ve done that… I’m not used to opening up to people. I reacted badly. Not just… after we had sex. Getting to know you too. Old habits die hard. I’ve taken everything you offered, intimacy, physical, and not given anything of myself in return.”

“We haven’t known each other long.” Rose acknowledged. “It’s not like I’m asking you to bare your soul to me right away. But simple things… your family, what you do for a living… when you get evasive you make me think you’re hiding some big dark secret. My mate Shireen back home met a guy at the local, only to find out months later he had a wife and two kids.”

“That’s a sad story,” Jonathan said, nodding. He’d begun lining the crumbs up across his plate, the biggest to one side, the smallest to the other.

“Shireen got over it. She’s with my mate Mickey now.”

“For the wife and kids, I mean. Rose it’s…” Jonathan stopped. Whatever he wanted to say, Rose could see it wasn’t easy coming out. He nudged an errant crumb back into line and continued. “Everyone has secrets. And no one reveals them all at once. The trick is the order of things. One thing leading to another. So the person doesn’t just know, they understand.”

Jonathan gave her a meaningful look, his eyes wide and clear as crystal. But if he was waiting for her to catch on, he would be disappointed. Rose didn’t understand. How could she if he kept talking in riddles?

“What do I need to understand?” she asked, trying to steer the conversation back to a place that made sense to her.

Jonathan’s eyes shuttered and he stood, grabbing their plates, tilting the carefully designed line of crumbs from his onto the top of hers, then sliding the empty plate beneath its mate in a nestled stack.

“Come on, let’s take these things in and I’ll show you the house.”

“Jonathan,” Rose said, not wanting him to change the subject.

“Rose please... let me show you the house.”

Rose sighed. Jonathan had secrets, whether he wanted to admit it or not. They’d only just met, but she couldn’t just take it on faith that, like his trail of crumbs, the little ones would eventually lead to the bigger.

“Jonathan, I know things got physical quickly the other night, but I’m not looking for a relationship that’s just sexual.”

Jonathan looked shocked, as if the thought had never even occurred to him. The plates rattled in his hands.

“That’s not what I want!” Jonathan replied. “How could you think that?”

Rose let out a long breath and grabbed the water tumblers from the table.

“Alright then, show me your house.”

From the outside, Jonathan’s cabin had looked almost modern, but once inside, Rose realized that it was much older than she had thought. The wide knotty pine beams and panels that lined the ceiling had faded from bright golden to a deeper more subdued color and the door that had led from the deck into the small kitchen where they deposited their plates had been solid and heavy.

Rose looked around. Above the sink, a window sill was cluttered with plants and knickknacks, and an unfashionably vintage looking harvest gold formica countertop was cluttered with jars and crocks of kitchen utensils. Following the line of the countertop around the room, Rose spied a modern industrial six burner stove that she knew from her time with Jimmy must have cost a small fortune.

“Wow,” she said, moving toward it and running her fingers across the smooth chrome surface. “What a beast.”

Jonathan joined her.

“I can make more than just sandwiches,” he boasted, giving Rose her first a glimpse of what she’d come to realize was his instinctual gruff cockiness. “And when I do, I prefer to cook on a good gas range.”

Rose took in the sleek sub zero refrigerator in the corner and a small collection of French looking wine bottles on the counter.

“You’re a foodie!” she accused him, genuinely surprised. Jonathan’s truck, his style of dress...they all gave off the sense of something more akin to a retired mechanic than a gourmet chef.

Jonathan just shrugged, the quirk of a smile playing about the corner of his mouth.

“I have my taste for delicacies, like any man.” Something about the way he looked at her when he said it gave Rose the impression that Jonathan was talking about more than just fine wine and high end appliances. She shivered, remembering despite herself the way he’d felt against her body and the thick slide of him as he’d moved inside her. Jonathan’s nostrils twitched and Rose hastily moved away, toward a wide doorway that led to the rest of the house.

The other night, their passion had started in the kitchen too.

“How old is this place?” she asked, changing the subject and hoping to redirect her wayward thoughts.

“This house was built in 1928, but I’ve updated it quite a bit. The deck is a new addition. But come here. I want to show you something.”

Jonathan led Rose through a dining room with a wide wooden table set with battered leather chairs, into a living room that had the same sense of ordered clutter that Rose had observed in the kitchen.

Against one wall, a record table and wood paneled speakers were set upon a low mid-century sideboard. The wall beside it was covered floor to ceiling with deep wooden shelves stuffed with records, plants trailing from rustic ceramic bowls, various bits of bronze, and other items of significance unknown to Rose. On a low shelf, Rose caught sight of a glass fish-bowl filled with an assortment of shells and bright bits of sea-glass, and beside it a chessboard, its opposing forces realistically cast in gold and silver metal. Rose picked up a piece for a closer look. It was a white knight seated astride a rampant horse, sword drawn and aloft. The casting of the piece was fine enough that the sword looked as if it could double as a letter opener, and something about the style seemed familiar to her.

Jonathan gestured to the other end of the shelves and Rose followed him. This end of the room was dominated by a motley assortment of books rather than records and the shelves rounded the corner of the wall to form a small reading nook. A tan Chesterfield wide enough to seat two sat here atop an oriental rug that looked as if it had seen better days, but Jonathan directed Rose’s attention to a spot where the wood panelling of the bookshelves seemed almost black.

Rose examined the wood. It was old, covered in scars and dark rimmed holes where old nails had been pulled out of the boards. Reclaimed wood wasn’t unusual; before Rose left San Francisco it had seemed almost de rigueur that every new bar or restaurant include a salvaged bar or table tops. But here the wood was dark as if it had been scorched. Rose followed Jonathan’s fingers to where they pointed to a spot where someone had gouged something out of the wood. They were letters, awkwardly carved.

S. Clemens ’64

“Is that what I think it is?” Rose gasped, her fingers touching the blackened letters as if they would work their way from beneath the fire scarred wood and disappear into thin air.

“Samuel Clemens.” Jonathan grinned. “This is the second house that’s stood on this site. I was able to salvage some of the boards from the ruin of the first to make these shelves.”

Rose shook her head in amazement. Samuel Clemens, otherwise known by his pen name: Mark Twain, was a legend in these parts. The way it went was he’d gotten his inspiration for The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County from a bartender while staying in the nearby town of Angels Camp. It was the short story that launched a literary career that would ultimately result in Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer, and some of the greatest works of American literature and satire. The county still celebrated their small role in the famous author’s success with a frog jumping contest and fair every year.

“He was born shortly after an appearance of Halley's comet and always said he would go out with it as well. He got his wish in the end.” Jonathan touched Rose’s fingers where they rested above the inscription. “Do you like my secret, Rose?”

Rose could feel Jonathan’s breath against her shoulder. He was standing close behind her, like he had been the other night, and she had to count her breaths to keep her body from responding to him as readily as it had then.

When she had her hormones under control, Rose turned and lifted up on her toes to capture Jonathan’s lips. For a while she let herself get lost in the feel of him, the warmth, the way Jonathan wrapped his long arms around her when they kissed, and the way his hands trembled when her lips gently parted to let him in.

But after a few moments she set him aside from her with the gentle pressure of her palm against his chest. His “secret” as he’d put it was charming, but it told her little about the man in her arms. Everything else in the room: the records, worn carpet, and clutter, gave her better illumination into his personality.

Jonathan was looking down at her as if she’d personally set the stars in the sky; it was hard to not simply get carried away when he did that. But she’d made her conditions clear. She wanted to know him.

“Show me more,” she said, and Jonathan nodded, taking her back through the house to look in more detail over the things they’d skipped before.

Most of the rooms, save a small half bath and the stairs that led down to the lower floor, they’d already passed through on their way to the reading nook. From time to time Jonathan would point out something or explain the significance of a particular treasure, but for the most part he let Rose draw her own conclusions.

His record collection, it turned out, was an eclectic mix, dominated heavily by blues and soul. Rifling through the stacks, Jonathan selected one with a cover featuring a black and white photograph and crisp rather than worn edges. It was newer than most of his collection. Jonathan opened the clear plastic top of the record player and put the disc on, lowering the pin carefully. After a few moments of static a lean repetitive guitar riff filled the room.

A deep voice began to sing over the spare chords of the guitar, in the chanting rough style particular to the bluesman:

“Woke up this morning”

The man sang and the deep thumping bass rolled and prowled, steady as a heartbeat,

Woke up this morning
In a deep deep
A deep sleep
I found out
I found out
I found out
I was Jesus

Jonathan waved the record sleeve before returning it to the shelf where he had taken it out.

“Otis Taylor,” He explained. “A new obsession.”

Jonathan perched on the arm of a worn mohair sofa and they both listened to the music for a moment, Rose standing and swaying despite herself to the raw primal rhythm. Even when she closed her eyes she could feel the heat of Jonathan’s gaze on her.

When the song ended, Jonathan stood and turned down the volume on the tuner so that the music faded to the background. Then he gathered her in his arms.

“Do you have plans tonight?”

Rose just shook her head. Her only evening plans for the rest of the month had been packing up her things and cleaning out her apartment. Rose’s stomach sank. She had her secrets too. She hadn’t told Jonathan she’d be leaving soon.

“I’d like to take you out somewhere,” he offered shyly. “After we finish the grand tour, of course.”

Rose looked around, confused. There was nothing more to see on this floor and Jonathan had dismissed the staircase that had branched down from the kitchen, explaining that it led to his bedroom. Rose had assumed that with so many firecrackers still fizzling between them, and so much still left unsaid, Jonathan had skipped that part of the tour, and the implications that came with it, on purpose.

Rose’s confusion only grew as Jonathan took her by the hand and led her back towards the front door, out and down the steep stepped path that wound around the side of the house. Making their way through the trees towards the water, Rose caught sight of a second structure, squat and wide, made up of the same rough hewn boards that seemed to fade into the dirt and dark of the forest. The path branched off here, one way winding down to the water, and the other towards the set of double doors that dominated the front of the barn.

Releasing Rose’s hand, Jonathan tugged the right hand door open effortlessly, though it was at least twice his height, and motioned her to follow him in. Inside the bulk of dark shadows loomed in the open interior and Rose took a moment to get a sense of the place, as her eyes adjusted to the dim light.

The air was cool and still with the particular earth like sense of places deep underground. Below her feet the dirt floor had been worn and trampled smooth and hard. A strange familiar scent hung in the air, somewhere between woodsmoke and graphite. The first thing she noticed was a deep white bucket filled with what looked like dirty water; it was set next to what looked almost like a small pot-bellied stove, except rather than cast iron, the body was squared off and made of thick slabs of concrete. Various other pieces of large industrial looking machinery, whose uses Rose couldn’t fathom, came into focus, and the walls and beams of the rafters hung with an assortment of strange tools: hammers of all sizes, chisels, and several huge pinchers and tongs that looked as if they could have come from a medieval torture chamber.

But the item in the center of the room was what captured her attention. Rose had only ever seen something like that in cartoons, never in person.

“Is that an… anvil?” she asked, incredulous.

Jonathan moved over to it and laid his hands on the smooth metal, burnished to a shine.

“And my forge. This is my workshop. You wanted to know what I do for a living.”

Rose’s mouth dropped open. Of all the secretive vocations she’d thought Jonathan might have been hiding, blacksmith wasn’t one of them. Over Jonathan’s shoulder, a long rack of objects caught Rose’s attention. She ran over and held one up to Jonathan in a shock of realization. The bulbous pinched face of an elf glared at him from Rose’s hands.

“You!” she accused. “You’re the one who made that ugly gnome sculpture on Wilf’s desk!”

“Oi!” Jonathan protested, looking highly offended. “He’s not ugly.”

Rose laughed, setting the little elf back on the rack next to his brothers, and moving in front of Jonathan where she could wrap her arms around his broad shoulders and look into his deep blue eyes. Jonathan’s arms wrapped around her in return.

“He’s hideous,” she said solemnly, catching her tongue in her teeth with a wide grin to let him know she wasn’t nearly as serious as she might seem. “But I can learn to love him anyway.” And just to be sure there was no sting to her words, and because Jonathan was irresistible when he was looking at her with his eyes flashing, Rose tilted her mouth up to capture his soft lips in hers. Jonathan grumbled, but responded eagerly.

“I’ll have you know, Rose Tyler, that those go for a pretty penny on Etsy,” Jonathan said, before pressing her to his lips to swallow her laughter with his own wide wolfish smile.

Chapter Text

The small aluminum fishing boat dipped and wobbled beneath her feet, but Jonathan’s hand was strong where she held it. He helped Rose climb up onto the wooden dock that extended into the lake, set her beside him, and waited, hands resting gently on her hips, until Rose’s legs became accustomed to the platform’s gentle sway.

His own frame was steady.

“You make it look so easy,” she said, amazed at Jonathan’s sure footing and the effortless way he’d been able to swing himself up out of the boat. “If I’d’ve done that on my own, you’d probably be fishing me out with a net.”

“There’s an image,” Jonathan chuckled. “Spend enough time on a boat and it gets to be second nature.”

Once sure of herself, Rose looked around with eager interest. Jonathan had been characteristically tight-lipped when she asked him where they were headed, only saying that it was on the other side of the lake from his house. He’d loaned her one of his apparently numerous wool jumpers, wrapping it around her shoulders with a shy smile, and led her down to the boat.

 When Rose tried to press him for details, he’d only chided her lack of patience. Jonathan was full of secrets, and Rose was beginning to see how instinctual it was for him to hold his cards close to his chest. But this time, the way his eyes danced and twinkled at her gave Rose more of a sense that she was being initiated into some wonderful mystery, rather than that he was being evasive. Several times, as Jonathan motored the boat across the lake, Rose caught him watching her when he thought she wouldn’t notice, a pleased smile playing at the edges of his lips.

The dock was attached to the back deck of a long single-story stucco lake house with massive arched windows designed to catch the best view of the water, and a sloping roof of red mission-style terra-cotta tiles. At one end of the deck, a number of men in black were setting up an impromptu stage area, with a microphone, speakers and a folding chair set on a worn Turkish carpet. At the other end, a young, bald man in a red shirt manned a grill, flipping hot dogs and burgers and setting them in disposable tin trays on a folding table when they were done. In between these two ends, a motley assortment of mostly male figures milled around, chatting and sipping beverages.  

Rose had spent enough time around Jimmy and his band to recognize the early hours of a party when she saw one, and she was about to turn to Jonathan and say as much when a stocky man in a red t-shirt and tan cargo shorts broke off from the group to greet them.

“Why if it isn’t the man himself, come to grace us with his presence,” the bearded stranger hollered, clapping Jonathan on the back with gusto and smiling at Rose. His bushy grey beard and flushed cheeks combined with the Birkenstock sandals he wore over ankle length white socks made him look like a rumpled hybrid between ZZ Top, and a drunk friar, with a bit of Santa Claus thrown in for good measure.

 Rose couldn’t help but smile back at him; his joviality was infectious.

But the man’s attention was quickly drawn to the battered red and white cooler that Jonathan had brought with them in the boat and now carried. It was another one of his mysteries. When Rose had asked about it, he’d only called it his treasure chest and winked at her with such mischief she couldn’t help but laugh.

“Is that what I think it is?” the man asked, eyeing the cooler with open greed. Jonathan smiled and handed it over.

“Got here fresh from Drakes Bay last night. Miguel brought them up,” Jonathan affirmed.

The man whooped in glee. “Johnny boy, you hold your liquor like the devil but I’m glad to call you my friend.” 

Free of his burden, Jonathan reached for Rose’s hand, twining his rough fingers between hers. “Rose, this is Bill Hicks; everybody calls him Big Bill. He’s a good man… just don’t believe a word he says.” 

Big Bill held his hand to his heart, feigning a look of surprised indignation. “Why Johnny, you wound me.” 

Jonathan snorted in response, and Bill turned his attention to Rose, clasping her free hand in both of his and shaking it heartily.

“Big Bill Hicks at your service, Noble Grand Humbug of the Black Bart Chapter of E. Clampus Vitus, friend to widows and children.” Still grasping her hand, Bill leaned in close and added conspiratorially, “but especially the widows.”

“Big Bill here is a Clamper,” Jonathan explained, rolling his eyes in patient exasperation at his friend’s antics. “They’re an old fraternal order, dedicated to preserving the history of the American West… at least the parts that don’t usually make it into the history books.They’re also pretty good at making sure no saloon ever goes out of business for want of customers.”

Rose looked around the crowd of people drinking on the deck behind Big Bill; many of them, like him, wore red shirts, and some had black vests and hats decorated with a random assortment of pins, patches, and even feathers.

“So like a history club with a drinking problem?” she surmised, grinning at how Jonathan could manage to look so surly when she could tell from the relaxed set of his shoulders and the way his thumb was playing against the palm of her hand that he was nothing but pleased.

“That, or a drinking club with a history problem,” Bill responded philosophically.

“They’re a sorry bunch,” Jonathan said apologetically, Bill nodding in agreement, “but the music at their parties is almost as legendary as the trouble that inevitably follows.” 

Bill wrinkled his nose and tilted his head towards Rose. “ We just call it fun,” he said haughtily.  “I’m sorry to tell you this, but your boyfriend is a bit of a stick in the mud.”

Jonathan shifted uncomfortably at Bill’s use of the word boyfriend and for a moment Rose thought he was about to protest, but she just laughed and gave Bill a saucy wink.

“We’ll just have to see what we can do to help him lighten up.”

“That we will Rosita, but not without libations. Keg’s that-a way.” Bill said pointing in the general direction of the back wall. “Johnny, make sure she’s taken care of.” He held up the cooler. “I’ll take care of these babies.” 

Jonathan led Rose through the crowd, waving and nodding to a few people he recognized and stopping to say a few words to some others. Everyone seemed pleased, if pleasantly surprised, to see him, and Rose got the impression that while he was well known and liked, Jonathan wasn’t a regular fixture at such gatherings. When they reached the keg, Jonathan grabbed a red plastic cup from a stack, filled it, and handed it to Rose.

“Sorry about Big Bill; he can be a bit much,” he said. Jonathan’s voice was the same cautious even tone he’d used when she first arrived at his house that afternoon. The sun had just begun to set over the water and Rose had thought they’d moved past that. She thought back over their conversation with Bill.

“You didn’t like it when he called you my boyfriend, did you?” she asked, convinced by the way he flinched when she said it that she was right. Rose tried to catch his gaze, but Jonathan ducked his head away from her rubbing the back of his neck with his palm.

“Well, I’m not a boy. Bill knows that better than most,” Jonathan said, “and just this morning you’d resolved never to speak to me again.” Despite his carefully neutral tone, Rose didn’t think she’d imagined the note of bitterness at the end. 

“That’s not really fair, you know. You’re the one who keeps running hot and cold; you haven’t exactly given me the impression you want a relationship.” 

Jonathan shook his head. “Of course I do. I’d never have been with you if I didn’t,” he said, and Rose couldn’t help but notice that once again he’d skirted around simply naming the intimacy they’d shared. “But it’s not just down to me,” Jonathan continued, his eyes as wide as dark moons. “What do you want?” 

“To know you,” Rose said simply. 

It was the best answer she could give: one that was both honest and didn’t promise more than Rose was sure she could deliver on. Jonathan was right; he wasn’t a boy, and ‘boyfriend’ fit him as well as an outgrown suit. He was bigger than that, better. But Rose still had to remind herself she’d be leaving soon. 

Even so, Rose desperately wanted to see Jonathan let his guard down, and to know the man hiding behind the wry humor and guarded responses. He looked so scared now, his hands balled up in fists at his hips, that Rose wondered how she ever could have thought he wasn’t interested. 

He wasn’t a boy, so a relationship shouldn’t be such a new thing to him. What could possibly have a man like Jonathan so terrified? Rose had to lean in to catch his next words over the din of the crowd. 

“You might not like what you see, Rose.”

Rose took a step closer, hoping, praying that Jonathan would take a step too. He seemed miles away. “Maybe,” she conceded, her own voice barely a whisper. “But don’t you think we deserve that chance?”

“Rose, I…”

Jonathan was close enough to gather her into his arms, and for a moment Rose was sure he would, but he jumped away at the sound of an abrasively familiar voice.

 “You have a perverse sense of romance, Jonathan Smith.” Becca’s short but formidable form stepped from the crowd of people around them and joined Rose and Jonathan by the keg. “It’s bad enough the Lube Room seems to be your idea of a date; what are you thinking bringing Rose to a sausage-fest like this?”

Becca’s dark eyes flashed at Jonathan, and Rose watched the man before her transform before her very eyes. A moment ago he’d been all soft vulnerability; his own eyes, gentle pools that begged for her understanding. Now all of that was gone.

She’d been convinced he was about to tell her something important, some key that would help her finally unlock his mysterious behavior. But his sincerity dropped the moment Becca yelled out to them. Jonathan’s whole posture straightened, making him seem larger, broader. He folded his arms across his chest with a smirk, and he returned Becca’s glare with relaxed defiance. 

It struck Rose for the first time, how very similar Jonathan and Becca were. They looked to be about the same age, and for all Jonathan loomed over her, he and Becca might have been mistaken for brother and sister. The steel in their spines was the same. 

“The Lube Room is your bar!” Jonathan protested. Becca’s nosiness clearly annoyed him. He’d told Rose as much already, but there was a fondness there too. 

“So I should know what a dump it is!” Becca said, turning her attention to Rose, her fierce glare finding the plastic cup in Rose’s hands. “She can certainly do better than this Clamper swill. Come on Rose, I’ve got someone who wants to meet you, anyway.”

Rose gave Jonathan a pleading look. She didn’t really want to leave him and go off with Becca, who she was sure was only trying to get her away from Jonathan so she could pepper Rose with questions.

On the other hand, Rose knew enough to tell that whatever had been happening between her and Jonathan when Becca interrupted was, for the time being at least, long gone. There was no reason to spend the whole night clinging to Jonathan’s side like she was his shadow, and Becca, annoying as she might be, was the only other person she knew at the party.  

Jonathan gave Rose a nod and a careless wave of his hand, clearly indicating that she might as well go, and so Rose handed him her beer and followed Becca. Together, they made their way through the crowd to the side of the long building where a few people were busily carrying trays of food and equipment out through a side door. 

Inside, what looked like it had once been a small lakeside restaurant, had been converted into a multipurpose general store. At the far end of the building Rose could see an array of fishing tackle and camp gear, tin plates and cups and cast iron pans, displayed on shelves in front of cold cases stocked with beverages and pre-made sandwiches. There were rows and rows of dry goods, and a wire turning rack of faded postcards, next to another with various styles of plastic sunglasses. The long end of the wall was set with the arched windows Rose had seen from outside, and in front of them a long bar and eating counter with a vintage brass cash register at the end near the door. Nearest Rose, about a half dozen bookshelves had been arranged into a mini library, surrounding a couple of bistro tables and chairs. There was a red threadbare sofa there too, and a thin willowy woman seated there waved them over. 

“Rose, this is my wife, Maisie,” Becca said by way of introduction. “Mais, this is the one I was telling you about.” 

Maisie regarded Rose, a strange far-away look in her eyes, but curiosity too, as if she was trying to figure something out about Rose and could look right through her to do it. Whatever it was, she must have found her answer, because her eyes focused and she began digging through a reusable canvas grocery bag at her feet, the stacked bangles on her arms clinking and jingling as she did so. 

“Moonglow or Heartsong I think,” she said, her voice light and musical and her words enigmatic. 

“Rumor has it that Jonathan’s brought gold nuggets,” Becca replied from Rose’s side, her wife nodding sagely as if the enigmatic statement somehow made perfect sense. 

“We’ll save the Moonglow then, it’ll pair better. Heartsong it is,” Becca said, pulling a brown glass bottle from the bag, uncorking it, and handing it to Rose. Sure enough, a blue painter’s tape label on the side read Heartsong in a flowing handwritten script. 

The bottle was cold in her hands and Maisie and Becca watched her expectantly, so Rose lifted it to her lips and took a cautious sip. A cacophony of flavors erupted like wildflowers on her palate, bright and sunny. It was beer, as she might have guessed from the bottle, malty and hoppy, but unlike any Rose had ever tasted. 

“That’s incredible!” Rose said, taking another larger sip, and delighting in the way it bubbled on her tongue. “It tastes like springtime.” 

Maisie smiled and Becca beamed proudly. 

“Maisie’s home-brew is legendary,” she boasted. “If we tried to sell it at the Lube room, we wouldn’t be able to keep it in stock.” 

“It’s not meant to be sold,” Maisie said, giving her wife a stern look. “Each batch is special; it has to find the right person.” 

“And that person isn’t determined by the money in their pocket, I know, I know, Mais.” 

“So what’s in this batch?” Rose asked, curious, and also trying to reroute the subject away from what was clearly a well worn disagreement.

“Hyssop and wild strawberry, crystal hops… take another sip.” 

Rose followed Maisie’s suggestion, happy to try to see if she could tease out the flavors. It tasted like the forest smelled. Not the dry woody flavor of the trees, or the moist loam of the forest floor, but the green, fresh green of wild clover, and yes… there it was… strawberries, sweet and juicy.

When Rose lowered the bottle again, Maisie and Becca were still looking at her expectantly. She sighed, and turned to Becca, who at least would talk plain to her.

“Why don’t you just tell me what you really want?” 

“To warn you.” Becca said, the line of her mouth hard. “Some men aren’t what they seem. They lie about what they want and who they are, they offer you things, but they don’t mean it. Maisie’s worried about you. I am too.” 

“Look,” Rose said, irritated, “what’s between me and Jonathan isn’t any of your business.”

“Not him,” Becca huffed. “That cop you came in with has been asking around about you, and he’s not the only one. Although now that you mention it, that grouch is far too old for you and not nearly good enough.” 

“Like I said, it’s none of your business.” Rose said, frustrated. Likely her own mother would have said the same, but Becca and Maisie weren’t her mother and she had never asked for their opinion. “Thanks for the beer, but I don’t need your advice.” 

“Aw, come on, don’t be like that,” Becca protested, but Rose had already turned and was walking away. “We were only trying to help.”

Rose stopped once she was outside to clear her head, scanning the crowd below for Jonathan. The sun had gone down and fairy lights twinkled over the patio. An old man in black and a wide cowboy hat seated on the makeshift stage had begun to play. The melody was slow and haunting, and the man’s voice was warm and well lived in. 

The South Coast is wild coast and lonely.

You might win at a game in Jolon,

The spaces between the lyrics were filled with a longing that seemed to grasp and pull at the bay-scented night air, pull at Rose’s heart, at her very soul. 

But a lion still rules the Barranca,

And a man there is always alone.

Rose took a few deep breaths, letting the night’s cool calm her.

Becca and Maisie were just nosy, and Rose knew she shouldn’t let their prying bother her as much as it had. Back home on the estate there had been plenty of women like that. They’d staked out their little corner of the world and tried to rule it by meddling in everyone else’s business. It was as good a way as any to feel some small sense of power when so much of life was disappointing, downright cruel, and completely uncontrollable. Rose could sympathize with that at least. 

Becca and Maisie had meant well, and she should tolerate them. It was nothing. 

Jonathan, as tall as he was, was easy to spot in the crowd. He was standing with Big Bill by the grill, and whatever the two were talking about, Rose could tell by Jonathan’s body language it had him upset. To her surprise, Bill’s own face was as serious as well. He leaned in as if to ask Jonathan a question and was answered with a sullen shake of Jonathan’s head. It must not have been the answer Bill was looking for, because he stepped back in surprise and pulled a small metal flask from his pocket, taking a long pull and handing it to Jonathan to do likewise.

For all Rose couldn’t hear what they were discussing, Bill’s message was clear: It’s your funeral

Rose was just about to head over to join them when a slim hand on her shoulder diverted her attention. 

“Do you love him?” Maisie asked, her eyes like crystals.

Despite her determination to be more patient, Rose tensed. How was she supposed to answer a question like that, anyway? She barely understood Jonathan, and every time she thought she was getting closer, something came in between them.

“It’s too soon to tell,” Rose sighed. 

Why couldn’t things just be simple? Why couldn’t things between her and Jonathan play out like any normal attraction turned fledgling relationship? Becca and Maisie’s insistent questions were beside the point. Wilf’s disappearance, her lack of a job and rapidly dwindling bank account, even bloody Officer Pitts, who had apparently not forgotten her: it was all hanging over their relationship from the very beginning, ticking like a clock, descending like a slowly paying out noose. 

Maisie took Rose’s free hand in hers, tracing the lines of Rose’s palm with her thumb and fixing Rose with that strange look of hers. But then it was as if she had landed back on Earth, her gaze a strange circling bird descending through a layer of clouds.

She smiled sweetly and far too knowingly for Rose’s comfort. “Too soon or too late? There’s some people in this world you have to love all the way or not at all. My Becca’s like that,” she said, the set of her lips softening fondly. “Your Jonathan is too.” 

Rose had no idea what to say to that, so she stayed silent, chewing the inside of her lip to keep from blurting out something unkind. They meant well, Rose reminded herself like a silent inner mantra. They were harmless. Maisie pressed another brown bottle into her hand.

 “For Jonathan,” she said simply. Rose turned the stoppered bottle over and read the label.

Total Blackout

When she looked back up to thank Maisie, she’d already left.

Big Bill had gone when Rose finally rejoined Jonathan. She’d been able to feel his eyes on her as she’d pushed her way through the crowd, and he’d given her a cautious smile once she’d reached his side.

“Becca and Mais succeed in putting you off me then?” he asked. 

“Not for lack of trying. Apparently all men are liars and you in particular are too old for me. But Maisie sends you a peace offering nonetheless.”

“Ahh,” Jonathan said, nodding his head in resigned annoyance. “Maisie’s finest,” he observed, uncorking the bottle and taking an experimental sniff before raising it to his lips. Rose watched the long muscles in his neck work as he drank. He let his eyes close as he held the liquid in his mouth for a moment, savoring it. It was obvious to Rose that the drink Maisie had chosen for him pleased Jonathan as much as her own had her. 

Jonathan shook his head with a wry smile. “I must admit it smoothes the ruffled feathers.” 

They slipped into silence for a moment, Rose sipping Maisie’s home-brew and remembering what they had been talking about before Becca’s brash voice had interrupted them. She’d been sure Jonathan was just about to tell her something, to open a window for her into whatever it was he seemed to be holding so close. She thought back over what Becca had said. It was plain to see that Jonathan was reluctant to open up, but had he lied to her? Was he offering her things he didn’t really intend to give her? If so, Rose couldn’t see how.

“How old are you anyway?” she asked. 

From the looks of him, Rose guessed Jonathan was in his late thirties to early forties; her own twenty-eighth birthday had passed just a few months ago. It wasn’t an insignificant age gap to be sure, but to her mind it wasn’t fatal. Rose considered herself well past the age to know what she wanted. Some of her friends back home had even begun getting married and starting families. 

“Ancient,” Jonathan said. He’d taken his time answering, shifting uncomfortably and struggling with something he clearly couldn’t, or wouldn’t, put into words, finally resorting to his usual acerbic jokes and deflection. 

This time it didn’t put a smile on Rose’s face.

“You won’t tell me?”

She wasn’t angry anymore, but if Jonathan really couldn’t give her a straight answer on something as simple as his age, what chance did they have? 

“It’s not… Rose…” Jonathan said helplessly, his eyes skittering away from her own searching gaze and turning up to the dark sky above them. But if he thought the stars were going to reach down and rescue him from this conversation he was mistaken. “My age… my age does not become me… it’s complicated.”

“Your age… is complicated,” she said incredulously. It didn’t make sense, Rose thought. Jonathan couldn’t be more than fifty… tops. There was no reason for him to be so coy.

“Yes,” Jonathan said, his long fingers fidgeting, his knuckles white around the neck of his beer bottle. “I don’t know how to explain it to you,” Jonathan ground out. “I’m trying.”

Rose released a long breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. She knew she should just walk away, ask him to take her back to her car, not look back. Instead she grabbed his free hand in hers and tugged on it to be sure she had his attention.

“Should I be worried?” she asked, wanting at least reassurance from him that this wouldn’t be a source of problems later on.

“Probably,” Jonathan admitted glumly.

“Are you worried?”

Jonathan’s hand tightened in hers and Rose gave him a minute to sort through his response.

“About our age gap?” Jonathan said, shaking his head. “No. Not really. It doesn’t bother me.”

Rose pulled her hand from Jonathan’s in frustration but kept her voice low, wary of the crowd of people around them who surely weren’t all strangers to Jonathan even if they were to her. She wasn’t looking to make a scene. 

“What do you want from me?” 

“You!” Jonathan ground out, the word sounding as if he had ripped it from some anguished place deep inside of himself. “I want you so bad I’m burning with it, but I need… I need your patience… and your trust. Because I don’t know how to do this and I’m trying .” 

Rose felt like she wanted to scream. She was wrung out, exhausted with this game of intimacy that felt like she was playing charades in a dark room. It was a mess. And Rose knew, she just knew, she should stop whatever this thing with Jonathan was before it blew up in her face.  And yet, when she looked in Jonathan’s eyes, earnest and clearly struggling just as much as she was… she just couldn’t. 

Rose sagged, the fight gone out of her, and her mind whirling. Moving closer to Jonathan, she leaned her head against him, hiding her eyes against his broad chest and trying to calm her breathing. After a moment’s hesitation she felt his arms reach up and clasp her to him, the glass bottle he still held cold against her shoulder. He smelled strongly of woodsmoke but it didn’t bother her, not when she needed the comfort of his embrace so badly.

“Becca said that cop you saw me with has been asking around about me,” Rose said, wanting a new subject and remembering the rest of her conversation with the two women. “Do you think I should be worried? I wasn’t entirely truthful with him.”

Rose felt rather than saw Jonathan shaking his head. “He’s probably just sniffing around for Wilf. He might as well; it’s what he’d paid for. I’ve watched the law around here a long time; they aren’t exactly bloodhounds.”

Rose nodded, the motion scratching her cheek against the wool of Jonathan’s jumper. Her landlady, Mrs. Long, had said as much. If the locals’ low estimation of the police was justified it was bad news for Wilf, but good news for her, and, Rose was convinced, good news for the dragon and any macho idiot like Officer Pitts who would be unlucky enough to stumble upon the beast and inevitably do something stupid. 

Jonathan hadn’t asked about her admission that she was hiding something from Officer Pitts and Rose was glad of it. She had her own secrets that she would struggle to find words for if forced to explain.   

They ended the conversation by unspoken agreement and moved to rejoin the party, which by this point had gotten well underway. Rose let Jonathan lead her over to the grill where he introduced her to Zach, the young man who was flipping burgers, and dragged his cooler out from where it sat at the man’s feet. 

“Hungry?” he asked Rose, reaching into the cooler and pulling out a dull plastic handled knife and several net bags of what looked like small wet stones.

“Oysters?”

 Jonathan grinned, handing a bag to Zach and sitting down on top of the cooler with another bag beside him, retrieved two oysters and began expertly working them open with the small knife.

“A friend of mine runs an oyster farm out on Drakes Bay; legally the land’s mine, but I let him run it in exchange for a small share of the harvest.” Having gotten the first oyster open, Jonathan swept the flat of the blade under the meat to detach it from the shell and handed it to Rose. 

Rose tilted the oyster into her mouth, savoring the salty brine and the clean fresh taste of the sea, and considered what Jonathan had told her. She’d been to the area around Drakes Bay a few times; it was only about an hour north of San Francisco. There were indeed several oyster farms there. But land that close to the city would be worth quite a bit. It didn’t seem like the kind of thing someone could purchase off the earnings of a small Etsy shop. She tucked the information away, another little clue to try to fit into the larger puzzle that was Jonathan’s life. 

As news spread that Jonathan had opened his treasure chest, a small group of people gathered to partake in the bounty. Another knife was procured and Jonathan put Rose to work shucking the mollusks, patiently showing her how to work the smaller side of the shell open, digging her knife in at the hinge rather than the lip where it would break, and protecting the palm of her hand from accidental slips with a dishtowel. Jonathan was an expert, easily opening half a dozen by the time Rose had won the battle with her first oyster, but he seemed happy for the help nonetheless. 

The larger oysters were monsters, nearly the length of Rose’s hand. Those they gave to Zach who dressed them with garlic and butter and slowly grilled them in the shell over the barbecue coals. The smaller ones were the golden nuggets; those they ate fresh, handing them out around the small group and snacking themselves as they worked. 

At one point, finding a particularly nice specimen, Jonathan reached over and tipped it into Rose’s mouth himself and Rose was certain that the resulting shiver of pleasure was due to more than the fresh shellfish. Becca, who had joined them, snorted and handed Rose the bottle of Moonglow they’d saved earlier, the crisp taste of the ale a better counterpoint than even champagne. 

“You know those are an aphrodisiac, don’t you?” she said testily, her words somewhat undercut when she helped herself to one of the monstrous oysters from the grill. 

Rose stole a glance at Jonathan from behind her eyelashes and smirked. It was clear that Maisie wasn’t the only one who knew how to smooth over ruffled feathers with a delicious gift.

By the time they’d finished shucking, and Rose had helped herself to some potato salad that Zach set out on the long table, both the music and the mood of the party had gone raucous. On the little stage, a harmonica player joined the guitarist and was wailing like a freight train. Below, people were dancing and shouting. 

Big Bill sat on a folding camp chair in one corner orating dirty stories like some elder head of state and Becca had somehow orchestrated an arm-wrestling tournament and was serving as the official self-appointed bookie. 

Jonathan came up behind her as Rose watched the performers, wrapping his long arms around her possessively and folding her into the protective shell of his own body. At the feel of him holding her, something equally tight worked its way through her, twisting ribbons around Rose’s chest and making her breath come out in short little gasps. Her skin prickled under Jonathan’s borrowed jumper, the scent of him all around her.

Given the state of things between them, and Jonathan’s own reluctance to open up, Rose had somehow assumed that Jonathan would avoid physical intimacy once they were around other people. As it turned out, that couldn’t have been further from the case. 

Jonathan’s lips found the shell of her ear and his voice was low and sinful. “If we don’t get out of here soon, Becca’s going to try to recruit me for her tourney,” he said. 

Rose couldn’t resist the smile that tugged at her lips as she swayed gently in Jonathan’s arms. “Scared of embarrassing yourself?” she joked softly. 

“No,” Jonathan said nuzzling her hair and breathing deep. “It’s just that I’m a pacifist.” 

Rose leaned back into Jonathan’s embrace wishing to capture that moment indelibly in her mind, the way the night air felt, the warm glow of the revelry around them, and Jonathan. If only she could capture it all like a favorite chapter in a book, to come back and re-read when she needed cheering the most.

When the music reached its crescendo, and everyone was otherwise occupied, Jonathan and Rose slipped away together into the night. 

Rose sat in the boat watching Jonathan as he steered their way back over the lake. The dark star-flecked sky reflected off the water below them, giving the little boat the sense that it was flying, like the two of them were all alone at the center of an empty universe. She thought back on the events of the night, on the things Jonathan had said, the things he hadn’t, and the tremulous fire that always stirred inside her when he was near. 

It was tempting to push their problems to one side, to delay and ignore and only focus on the good side of being with Jonathan. But Rose knew she needed to make a choice, and the terms of that choice had to be explicit between the two of them. Jonathan must have sensed her mood, because he cut the engine and let the little boat drift in the center of the lake.

“Jonathan,” she said, pausing for a moment and listening to the lapping of the water to be sure she had her words straight, “I know there are secrets you aren’t ready to share, and I can’t promise you I’ll wait forever. But I do trust you... for now, at least, I can be patient.” There were conditions to her patience though and Rose continued, wanting to be sure Jonathan understood them. “You have to promise me: no lies, and you won’t just leave me like you did the other night, not knowing what to think, that you’ll at least try to explain what you can, and…”  Rose trailed off, her last condition was hard, but it had to be said. “If you know you can’t trust me, and things between us don’t have a future, you have to tell me, and not lead me along with lies of omission.”

Jonathan shuffled forward to clasp Rose’s hands in his, the night was moonless but the light from the stars captured in his eyes so that they almost seemed to glow.

“I promise,” he said, the weight of his words sounding like a vow.

Light flashed behind Rose’s eyelids when their lips came together to seal the pledge, and she might have thought it was just the usual magic of his touch if it hadn’t been for the loud booming report that came a half second later and the curse that, breaking away from her, Jonathan flung across the lake.

 Turning in her seat, Rose saw a half dozen fireworks blooming like chrysanthemums in red and gold from the shore they had just left. They blossomed and glittered and she couldn’t hold back her laugh of joy at the perfect night. Her own heart was pounding in answer to the riot in the sky.

 “Bloody idiots are going to start a forest fire one of these days,” Jonathan grumbled. But he was smiling too, and he didn’t stop as he carefully piloted them the rest of the way home.