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Pen Your Pride

Part 21: Heart Breakers and Heart Takers

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There it was again, someone calling me ‘dragon.’

As Mac shifted his butt off the picnic table to dutifully follow after his pack leader, Jett, I jumped up and announced.  “I’m coming too.”

Mac shot me a look that was easy to read.  His expression very clearly said: ‘Jesus, Alex.  Don’t make her mad.’

But, Jett seemed to respect my audacity—or, at least, she rolled with it.  With an impatient, ‘come on then’ gesture, she turned her back to us.  She walked down the path toward the lake, clearly expecting us to hustle and catch up to her.

Mac fell into step about a pace behind her, like a well-trained honor guard.  I flanked her other side, because I had no idea what else I should do and I figured I’d rather be able to exchange glances with Mac without having to be obvious about it.  We walked along a path, under the shaded canopy of tall cottonwoods for a while in silence.  Leaves crinkled dryly in the breeze and our shoes crunched on the gravel.  

Finally, Jett said, “You’ve got a problem with strays, Mac.”

“Hey now,” he said, “I don’t see how Alex counts as one of my problems.  It’s not like she’s signing up to ride with us.”

“No, but you are expecting us to protect her,” Jett pointed out.  She stopped and turned around to pin us both under her fierce, obsidian gaze, “From the police.”

Mac’s hands went up in a very submissive, surrendering pose.  “Well, it’s really more of ‘hiding out from’ than ‘protection,’ but… yeah, kind of?”

Jett swung her attention to me.  “I would think a dragon could protect herself just fine.”

“They have a gold cell with my name on it,” I pointed out.  “Which, I didn’t even know would work on me until… it did.  I’m thinking the cops know a lot more about me than I do.  And… no one told me, even though they were supposed to be my friends.  I mean Jack had me thinking I was a witch or a switch or—“ I petered out when I realized I needed to take a breath and this was devolving into a full-on whine fest.  “Look, the point is, I just need a place I can think about all this in peace for a while. If the agents actually track me all the way out here, you have my permission to throw me to the—“ I was going to say ‘ to the wolves,’ but, well that was awkward,”--uh, that is, you can hand me over.  No hard feelings.”

Jett listened to all of this with her arms crossed.  “Very well.  I suppose it would not harm the pack to have a dragon who owes us a favor.”

“Right,” I said with a confident nod, like we’d made some kind of bargain I had any hope of making good on.  And so, when she offered her hand, I shook it: deal sealed.

Mac let out a breath.  “Cool.”

Jett glanced at him.  “Your still on my list, Mac.”  When she jabbed a finger in his direction, he flinched back.  “Every time I think we’ve gotten rid of that vampire hybrid you keep bringing him back to us.”

Even though he looked ready to bolt, Mac held his ground.  “He’s my responsibility. Our responsibility.”

“I don’t like him,” Jett said plainly.

“Nobody does,” I agreed with her.

Mac frowned.  “Like him or not, he’s still one of us.”

Jett let out a little snarl.  She pushed past him, body checking him with her shoulder in that tough-guy way.  “I don’t need a lecture in pack loyalty from you, Henry Macalister.”

Henry?  The brassy red hair and tattoos did not say ‘Henry’ by any stretch of imagination.

Mac saw my look and shrugged.  “Now you know why I go by Mac, okay?  My middle name isn’t any better: Edwin.”

I could maybe see him as an ‘Eddie’ but I had to smile.  With a glance at where Jett had stalked off, I let out a breath.  “That went pretty well.”

Mac rubbed his shoulder.  “Yeah, just a little nip, really.  Not bad at all.”

Instead of heading back toward the campground, I continued down toward the lake.  I felt the urge to sink my toes in warm sand and watch waves lapping on the shore.  Honestly, I couldn’t cope with too many others right now.  Just like I told Jett, what I really needed was some quiet thinking time. I could see Mac hesitating, clearly being more of a people person.  I’d have been okay on my own, but I was just as happy when Mac decided to follow me. When we’d nearly reached the shore, I asked him, “How does everyone know but me?”

“I suppose Jett could smell dragon on you, but I didn’t until the birds started talking.”

We reached the beach.  It really wasn’t much more than a sandy strip, but I found a spot without too many burrs and sat down.  “So you understand bird language?”

“Only a little.  Big Joe is our expert. He’s got cousin who’s a skinwalker, so he comes by it natural-like.  Me, I only understand them after I’ve eaten ‘em—marrow and bone, heart and liver.”

He said it like it was nothing, but I was having trouble digesting the idea, as it were.

“It’s animal magic,” Mac said, as if that helped.  “The moon makes us dream eaters.”  I was still staring at him, trying to work it out when he added, “If I ate your heart and bones, I’d know you.”

“You eat people?”

“Good gods no,” he laughed.  “Not me.  Do I look like a Heart Taker?”

The way he said the title, it almost sounded like heartbreaker and I was going to point out that, yes, he sort of did.  But, then I’d finally heard what he’d really said, “Taker?  Heart Taker?  What’s that?”

“Werewolf shaman-type,” he said.  “It happens, you know. By accident.  I mean, we all bite people, but sometimes the madness takes over and… well, let’s just say things get ugly in a hurry.  Then suddenly you’ve got more than just chicken scratch dreams, you know what I’m saying?” 

I didn’t, but I nodded anyway.

Picking up a rock, Mac flicked his wrist and tried to make it skip across the water’s surface.  It jumped once and then fell into the lake with a heavy ker-plunk.  “Heart Takers.  They sometimes know stuff; they can dream it.  But, they can’t run with a pack.  They’re too dangerous.”

Because they were cannibals, I thought, but didn’t say.  The sun felt warm on my face, but the fishy breeze coming off the lake was cool.   Besides me, reeds rustled, and I wondered how much more crazy magic there was to this world that I would never know.

“I don’t supposed you know anything about dragons,” I asked, leaning back on my arms.

Mac hunted around for another flat pebble.  With a shrug, “Probably only as much as you.” He smiled, “I’ve never even met one.”

And I lived with one.  Who told me nothing.  Closing my eyes, I sighed, “Trust me, that doesn’t help.”

A shadow passed in front of the sun.  Mac and I glanced up in time to see a silvery white pair of wings soar over the lake.  “Or, you know,” Mac said dryly, “I guess you could just ask him.”

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