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A Tall Tail

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Lance is about 64% sure that there are aliens in his backyard. He knows how it sounds, okay, he’s not exactly broadcasting this to the world, or anything. But he’s not sure what else the strange lights in the sky, the weird noises at night, and the freaky smells coming from the forest could be. That’s why he’s walking into the woods at 12 o’clock at night, with nothing but a flashlight and a backpack with some trail mix, because alien hunting has to make one hungry.

Normally he would enlist his best friends, Hunk and Pidge, but he’s not quite sure if they’d believe him. He’s known to exaggerate a bit at times. And, if there hadn’t been a lightning strike that was decidedly not a lightning strike, he’d have left it alone. But Lance is pretty sure lightning isn’t supposed to look like straight fire, and last more than a fraction of a second.

He shakes his flashlight, the faded yellow light barely illuminating the path in front of him. Crunching gravel underfoot alerts every nocturnal creature in the vicinity of his presence, maybe even the said aliens.

There’s a sudden steady humming noise, coming from all directions, vibrating his bones. A series of clicking noises sound from his right, off the beaten path. Something in those sounds seems. . .sad. Before he consciously decides it, he turns sharply to his right, taking cautious steps. Off to see the depressed alien, he guesses, who is singing him a tune. What is his life?

The trees grow thicker the deeper Lance goes. His breath picks up, legs burning from the unnecessary exertion. After what feels like forever, the humming gets louder, shaking him down to his bones and rattling his teeth. It hits a crescendo, then abruptly stops. Silence follows, not even blanketed by the white noise of crickets. Goosebumps raise all along his arms, prickling the hair on his neck, but still, he continues. He’s already come this far.

A cave Lance has never seen before is now colored by his obsolete flashlight, which just creates new long and freaky shadows rather than actually letting Lance see anything. Still, Lance scales the light over the width of the cave before dropping it.

“Holy quiznak!” he shouts, falling on his ass. He scrambles on his knees, hands brushing through the rough grass to find where he’d dropped the flashlight. He needs to find it so he can know if he's really about to be murdered by a reptilian alien.

A deep hiss that is more felt than heard resounds, making Lance work faster. Finally, he glimpses a dull glow deeper in the grass, and dives, because he wants to see what’s really going on and he also really doesn’t want to die so blindly, still ignorant. Shakily, he directs his light towards the cave again, catching large eyes, causing them to glow in the dimness. The drop seems to have brightened the flashlight, illuminating into the closest corner of the cave, a few feet deep. And what he sees is impossible.

A dragon! A cheesing dragon! Or, at least that’s what it looks like since he doesn’t want to go misidentifying an alien race and potentially offending them. Actually, Lance is pretty sure that his entire existence would be an insult to this great being, so he turns tail and books it out of there, leaving the bag he dropped behind. He trips over his own feet a few times, but he somehow makes it home and through his open window without getting lost.

Lance amends to himself that anyone, even with adventure in their soul like him, would have done the same thing. Would have tucked tail and beat it.
_

Not to be intimidated by some mystical creature staying on his property without paying rent, he goes back the next day. In broad daylight, of course. The path looks different in the early afternoon, the sun high in the sky and determined to make Lance sweat. He pushes on, stumbling to find the cave again without the strange humming guiding him.

He manages since he has a good sense of direction. Walking slowly through the long grass, Lance makes himself peek inside the cave, finding nothing, but his backpack in pieces, torn to shreds. The annoyance is what makes him enter, the time of day giving him courage where the night stole it. And, of course, like every rash decision he’s made throughout his life, he regrets it as he feels a disturbance in the air, hears a fell swoosh, followed by the deep hissing noise from last night.

Not only has he entered this thing’s lair, but he’s also stealing his loot! He’s going to be burned to a crisp! He twists and turns, coming face to face with this-this dragon. Holy quiznak.

The thing roars, but the noise is quickly cut off. It drops down into the cave, sliding it’s body across the cold stone and into the shade. It’s panting through its nose, nostrils flaring before it opens its mouth and not so much as spits something out, but gapes its maw apart and lets gravity do its thing. Berries and shrubby plants slide out, flopping wetly on the cave floor.

What Lance can only describe as a dragon lays down completely, sitting its round head on its paws, huffing and glaring at him. It reminds him of a cat of sorts, grumpy but somehow still asking for attention. A big, scary, scaly cat with large bat-like wings. But, the closer Lance looks, the more he sees that said scales are inflamed, blood seeping out from under them. The dragon is hurt.

Of course, Lance has to help. He can’t just let an injured animal (possibly alien dragon, he corrects somewhat manically) slowly die and waste away without even trying. Cursing his great selflessness, he inches closer, hands up in a placating manner.

“I can’t believe aliens are more plausible than whatever you are,” he says. “Unless you are an alien and are reading my thoughts and desires and have decided that it totally isn’t worth eating me because I’d just cause indigestion. Right? Right? Am I getting warmer

The dragon’s lip curls, eyes shifting between Lance and the cave’s ceiling, like its begging for patience. Which is just rude, since he’s here to help. Wait, has he said that? Just in case the dragon isn’t an omniscient being, he says, “So, hey, I’m here to help. Those scales seem infected.”

Huffing, the dragon’s tail flicks and thumps on the stone, but not in an aggressive manner. He takes this as an invitation to step closer; he has never been a patient person, so he quickly reaches the creature, close enough to smell the infection. “Dude, that looks and smells awful. Someone needs to, like, treat it or something.”

Spying, he sees that the contents of his torn backpack are carefully placed in a nook in the cave wall. Since the dragon -- Red, Lance decides to call it since the scales are the bright shade associated with fire -- is the size of a large horse, he can just imagine the creature having to delicately hold onto the items with the very edge of its claws, which are massive. It brings a giggle to the forefront of his throat, startling his scaly companion, who is now smoking from the nostrils. Disregarding the spike of adrenaline in his veins, he sees an undamaged water bottle and a dirty shirt that must have been packed into the bottom of the bag. (The granola is gone, though, and he hopes Red enjoyed stealing the fiber).

Unscrewing the cap, he douses the shirt in water, slowly making his way back to the dragon. It lets him, looking too exhausted to do much of anything. And what is a puny human to it, anyway? “Hey, are you a lady dragon or a lord dragon? I don’t mind either way. Uhh, two taps for dude, one tap for chick.”

Red taps twice. “Okay, dude, I’m just gonna...do stuff. To your wounds. You need to get all the grudge and gunk out of it, I think because that’s probably why it’s so inflamed. Inflamed...ha, in flames. Get it? You’re a dragon, fire? Okay, I’ll shut up.”

He shows Red the bottle and the shirt, so he knows what’s going on, and reaches to press the damp cloth in slow motion, just waiting for his arm to be burnt off from the shoulder. When that doesn’t happen, he cleans the worst of the wounds, breathing through his mouth all the while. Not even halfway through cleaning the first wound, the shirt is already ruined, brown with dry blood and other things he’d rather not think about.

“This really doesn’t look good, buddy.” He looks Red in the eyes and sees with clarity that he can understand everything Lance is saying. His eyes are almost human in emotion, and that’s when Lance truly makes a decision. “I’m gonna help you.”
_

Like ripping off a bandaid, once you see a dragon bathe himself like a cat, the instinctual prey jitters fall away. Three weeks have passed since Lance has been doctoring Red’s wounds, and Lance has to admit that he’s getting attached. Which, realistically, won’t end well. He’s read enough fantasy novels. But, still, every day without fail, he trudges through the increasingly muggy forest to see his dragon (Lance catches himself calling Red his, raising some concerns that he quickly suppresses.)

Today he was a little late due to his sister. Veronica has some suspicions on why he has been taking old stained T-shirts to the forest and never coming back with them. He ignores her snickers and jaunts, knowing he’s doing a good thing, not going off to get dirty in nature. It’s sort of nasty that that is her first thought.

He hums as he walks at a leisurely pace, not too perturbed by the heaviness of the sun. The breeze is cool but not biting, and he doesn’t even mind the strange loudness of the forest; it’s been pretty quiet since Red has taken residence in the cave like every living thing knows that a predator lurks within their domain. He doesn’t think much of it, until he comes into the clearing, and doesn’t see Red’s tail poking out of the mouth of the cave.

Lance freezes, craning his neck while his feet are firmly planted into the ground. “Red?” he asks, the moniker being well used the past few weeks. There’s a rustle of the wind through the trees, serenades from frogs, but no annoyed huff or shaking humming that he has equated to purring. Taking a deep breath, he lets out a loud, “RED?”

Realistically, Red would be able to roast any human, Lance included, but if dragons exist, surely dragon hunters do as well, right?! Despite a good bit of shaking, Lance goes for stealth and slowly creeps up to the entrance, taking cover until he no longer can.

And what he sees is shocking. A naked man, no, a naked teenager, laying in the same exact spot as Red has. He’s on his stomach, one cheek pressed against the cold stone of the cave floor...just like Red does. His arms are crossed, just like Red. Holy frick, this is most likely Red. He can’t scoff at the possibility of shapeshifters when he’s been spending the last two weeks with a dragon. Brandishing the stick, Lance pokes at the guy’s calloused feet.

He jumps as though electrocuted, legs swinging out to kick Lance’s right out from under him. Before he even hits the ground the other boy is on top of him, newly unsheathed claws at his throat, the tips pressing into Lance’s soft neck, flesh depressed under the barely controlled strength.

“Red,” Lance gasps, feeling the claws dig into him more as he swallows loudly. At the nickname, the boy’s eyes widen before he’s scrambling to get off of Lance, confirming his identity. Red tries to stand, legs bowing under him like a toddler; this calms Lance’s heart, taking the predatory narrow of Red’s eyes and lessens the phantom feel of death’s vice around his throat.

He must have been in his other form for a while, because when he speaks, it’s throaty and deep, cracking halfway through. “Lance,” he says, in what sounds like wonder. Like pieces and parts of things and emotions that he can’t possibly begin to analyze from one syllable.

“Woah, there, dude,” Lance says when Red tries to stand again. Red just huffs and glares as he takes very deliberate steps towards him; he falls after he takes the three small steps that separate them, and Lance manages to catch him by his underarms.

Lance’s nose wrinkles. “You smell horrible.”

Keith looks down at himself, not-so-subtly sniffing himself and his face twists as he grimaces. “Yeah.”

Lance bites his lip and takes a risk. “Let’s get you clean...and some clothes...dude.”
Red jolts like he just remembered something. “My name is Keith.”

Lance rolls that around in his head, and no matter how he stacks it, Keith is a strangely mundane name for a dragon shifter, but he holds that thought. “I’m Lance.”

A small smile. “I know.”
_

Lance sneaks them into his house only to find it empty. His sisters are at summer camp, his brother works afternoons, so his parents must be visiting said summer camp. Glancing around the kitchen, he finds a note confirming this on the fridge. With the need to be subtle (and how can one be subtle with a naked dude that has some scales here and there? unlikely) no longer present, he guides Keith slowly up the stairs and into the joint bath. Lance worries that Keith might get lost in civilization, but he follows him around like a baby duckling, eyes wide at every nook and cranny of the house.

He ends having to help Keith take a shower, the former dragon no longer used to standing on two legs. Lance has a field day with Keith’s hair, which is down to his waist, but quickly grows tired of the knots and tangles. He decides that it definitely has to be cut, which is met by opposition.

“No!”

“Oh, come on! It’s too long, and look at those dead ends! It’s a travesty!”

Keith huffs and complies, but only allows Lance to cut up to the nape of his neck. The loss of locks reveals more scales, some embedded into the skin of his neck, only visible when the light hits it just so. He leans in to examine them, causing Keith to shiver. Lance winces.

“Sorry, that was rude.”

“It never stopped you before,” Keith grumbles.

“Hey!” Lance says, feigning outrage. Keith just smiles softly, a small smile compared to the toothy growl of a grin of his dragon form. He realizes that he’s come to know the nuances of Dragon Keith’s expressions, and now he’ll have to do it all over again. But that’s okay, he’s always liked a challenge.

He gets a call from his mother, saying that they’ll be home late. Lance takes this as an opportunity to have the run of the house, the quietness not getting to him with Keith there. He shows Keith his room (“I know what a TV is, Lance.”) and he teaches him how to play the Xbox. Lance also shows Keith the wonders of streaming, which has them up late into the evening. Keith falls asleep between episodes, and Lance doesn’t have the heart to kick him off the bed and lays down next to him, falling asleep quickly with another warm body next to his. He doesn’t even do his skincare routine, which is downright sacrilege.

The first time he wakes up, it’s due to heat. He blinks into awareness, ready to snarl at whoever woke him up but finds silence. Instead, he finds silence, and a Keith wrapped around him like he’s an octopus shifter and not a dragon one. He means to chide Keith, he does, but he falls asleep before he can get the words out.

The second time, it’s due to coldness. Sweat dries on his skin, reminding him of its purpose. The blazing heat next to him is gone, turning into a leaning mass getting out of the bed.

“Wha’ are you doin’?” He asks around a dry mouth.

Keith freezes like he was just caught in a horrible act, and Lance knows. The idiot was leaving in the middle of the night. Lance grabs Keith’s arm in an attempt to stop him, and Keith allows it.

“What are you doing?” He repeats, more coherent this time.

“Leaving.” Keith’s voice is so grim that Lance can imagine his slumped form, his downtrodden expression. If he were in his dragon form, his ears would be drooping.

“Why the quiznak are you leaving?!”

“I thank you for healing me, and I can never repay you for it. Especially since you used that special gel on my scales. But I have to go, to tell my clan that I’m okay.”
Lance scoffs. “You mean antibiotic ointment?”

“They’re probably looking for me...I wasn’t supposed to go through my change alone.”

“But you didn’t.”

Silence envelopes them, like a shell that needs to be crack. Keith, surprisingly, is the first to break it. “I didn’t. And, as I said, I can’t begin to repay you for that.”

“Uh, yeah ya can. By coming back and telling me all about your dragon mojo.”

“Lance, it is not my dragon ‘mojo’ and I really wish you’d stop calling it that.”

He sits up, sliding across the bed to be next to Keith. “That’s my point! I helped you and I don’t even really know how! Leave if you have to, but come back and tell me what the cheese you are and how it works. Like, when you’re human, does...all of you stay human. If you know whaddya mean.”

“I. . .I’ll try to come back. For you.”

Keith leans over, resting his head against Lance’s, then stands up before Lance can even react. Lance’s eyes have adjusted to the dark enough to see Keith stand at the windowsill, still wearing a pair of Lance’s pajamas. He likes to think that he’s smiling, despite the darkness not revealing Keith’s expression. “Oh, and Lance, your parents are home.”

Lance curses as Keith jumps from the window, and the light in the hall turns on.
_

It’s weeks later when he goes back. Keith feels an itch that signals the change from his dragon form, to his human one, an annoyance that used to be agony. Shedding his wings is always disorientating, but standing on two feet is just as rewarding as flying in the sky. To be grounded is to be with Lance.