Emily parked further down the narrow road, not trusting herself not to drive into the ocean in the dark. Her bikini was underneath an old dress—not cute, but something she didn’t mind leaving behind for a while.
The night was clear, the moon hanging heavy and the stars brighter than they were in the city. She walked to the end of the pier, looked out at the reflection of the moon on the water. It felt almost unreasonably bright for the hour.
“Hello?” she called out toward the water. The sound of graceful movement, faint splashes of water against skin. Drago emerged from the waves near her feet. His eyes looked darker in the night, stripes on his skin like shadows carved into him. He looked more alien than he did in the light. Scales reflected moonlight in small points like stars.
“Clothes?” he asked, snapping her out of her reverie. She flushed, realizing that she’d been staring.
“I didn’t forget,” she said. She reached behind herself for the zipper, trying not to feel self-conscious. She didn’t know why it was so tempting to ask him to turn around. He’d seen her in her bikini before. There was something different about it, anyway, having him watch her while she took off her dress.
Armor, he’d said. Maybe that would help, thinking about it like that. Taking off her armor, and not… getting more naked. While he watched.
Emily unzipped her dress and took her time pulling it down off her arms, wiggling the waist past her hips, trying to ignore him while she set it on top of a post. She stepped out of her shoes and finally ventured a glance in his direction. It was hard to interpret his expression, with so many shadows in the way. Maybe there was nothing to interpret.
He held out his arms for her. “Am I supposed to jump?” she asked.
“I will catch you,” he said.
She hesitated. “What if I hurt you?”
“You hurt me?” he repeated, rumbling.
“I’m heavier than I look!” she warned defensively. “And I kick sometimes. Accidentally. At… bad times…” She trailed off, clearing her throat as he continued to laugh with his arms outstretched.
“I remember,” he said.
“You…? Oh.” Had she kicked him, that first time, when he’d rescued her? It was a marvel he’d helped her at all, then, if she’d been blacked out and flailing. Slowly, she lowered herself to sit on the edge of the wood, inching her way forward. When she finally started to fall, Drago caught her by the hips, lifting her suddenly and without warning above his head. Emily yelped, curling her legs and grasping involuntarily at his wrists.
“Not that heavy,” he said, before lowering her into the water, hands still on her.
“You could have hurt yourself,” she scolded anyway, heart racing, trying to ignore the thrill of being held aloft like she was weightless.
“You did not hurt me,” he assured her, his lips a soft curve as he brushed his thumb along the line of her jaw.
“Good,” she said heatedly, leaning into his touch.
“And I did not hurt you,” he added.
“Of course you didn’t,” she said, trying to figure out what to do with her hands besides touch him. He made it very difficult.
“Of course?” he asked with a raise of his eyebrows.
“You’re… harmless,” she said, awkwardly patting his chest. “Like a puppy.”
“Harmless,” he repeated, and she could not tell if there was irony in the way he grinned, baring sharp shark’s teeth. They’d been drifting away from shore, his tail brushing against her legs and feeling sometimes like he was wrapping it around her before changing his mind. “Explain puppy,” he said.
“Um. A… baby dog?” He waited. “Except you don’t know… hm. A land… seal? No, more like an otter. Otters are in the water, right? They’re the ones with the fur? And they lay on their backs and they keep a favorite rock for smashing things open and hold things on their bellies…”
He was rumbling again, and she could feel the vibrations of it against her skin where they touched. Drago hummed a word, and maybe it was the one he used for the animal in question. “Otter,” he repeated. “You think I am an otter?”
“A baby otter,” she corrected, and he laughed again, pulling her closer and pressing a kiss to her cheek—and then her jaw, her neck, down to her shoulder. He leaned back, in the process pulling her on top of him, his tail trailing behind them and pushing them forward. She found herself straddling his waist, pressing her palms against his chest to steady herself.
Just for balance. It was just the most secure way to arrange herself, was all.
“I am so small and helpless,” he said, and she giggled.
“Maybe not small,” she conceded.
“But very helpless,” she insisted. “Luckily, you have me to protect you.” She rolled back her shoulders and puffed out her chest to try and look tough. She then decided that this was the worst possible thing to have done while wearing a bikini and riding a person.
Drago rested his hands on her legs at his sides, fingers curling around the bend in her knees. “I have you?” he asked, his voice as gentle as his smile. Immediately she was blushing again, trying not to look him in the eye—but that just meant that she ended up looking at his chest, which did not solve the blushing problem.
“What did you want to show me?” she asked, trying to change the subject.
“Patience,” he said, patting her leg.
She looked back toward the now-distant shore. “You couldn’t show me patience on land?” she asked. He narrowed his eyes at her, and this time it was her turn to feign wide-eyed innocence.
“No,” he said, and she couldn’t tell if he was answering the question or rejecting it entirely. The water started to get shallow again, an area that was almost-but-not-quite an island. Maybe it had been an island, once. Now it was only shallow water, a few stray boulders peeking out from among the waves. Maybe this was what the lighthouse had been for. They would be easy to miss, even on a clear night like this. Was she imagining the shape of something like a boat under the water?
Drago looked thoughtfully from a few of the larger rocks to Emily and back. “You need to swim,” he told her.
“O-oh? Okay…” Slowly she slid off of him and into the water, leaving him free to use his arms to pull himself out. His tail curled around her as he moved, as if he did not entirely trust her not to sink like a stone. She’d barely been floating on her own for a minute before he reached down, hand wrapping entirely around one of her forearms to pick her up.
Emily was feeling a lot like a sack of potatoes.
When he’d finished maneuvering the both of them to his satisfaction, she was sitting in his lap—a bit stiffly, not comfortable enough with the situation to relax back against him. It wasn’t a cold night, but the water on her skin from her brief swim gave her a chill.
“See?” he said.
She didn’t, at first. She looked over her shoulder at him, but his eyes were at the sky, and so she followed.
The moon looked enormous. She’d thought that the stars had looked brighter by the lighthouse, but that was nothing compared to this. It was dark enough here that she could see the pale arm of the Milky Way overhead, the depths of color in a cloudless sky that had looked black. She forgot all about her discomfort, leaned back to press her back against his chest and look up.
“It’s beautiful,” she breathed.
Drago’s arms wrapped around her, but didn’t hold her, hands tracing a shape in the air as he hummed. “There are silent words,” he said, “for silent ones.” His hands cupped hers, not quite holding them, encouraging them to make the same curving shape that he had. “Moon,” he said this time instead of humming.
“Moon?” Emily tried to repeat the motion once he’d let her go.
“Much better,” he said, and she bit her lip, equal parts pleased and embarrassed. Pleased at his praise, and embarrassed that it felt so patronizing.
“I’m sorry I can’t sing,” she said, and he made a disapproving clicking sound.
“Do not be sorry,” he said. “Not everyone can. Here—my name.” He arced and twisted his hand again, his fingers splayed and sweeping this time, and she mimicked the gesture. He hummed something unfamiliar, too long to be a single word.
“Was that good?” she asked, trying to look over her shoulder at him again.
“Very good,” he said, and the way he said it made her wonder what it was he’d said when he’d known she couldn’t understand him. “I made one for you,” he said, “like you did for me.” Drago hummed again, and she turned her attention back to his hands, the way he rolled his knuckles and turned his wrists. He repeated both, and she tried to memorize the sound of it, the name he’d chosen for her.
“That means Emily?”
“It means you,” he corrected. “It is… coral?” He gently tugged her braid, his knuckles brushing against her skin. “Like your hair.” Then he pressed a kiss to the top of her head.
“That’s…” Emily swallowed the lump that had made its way into her throat, averting her gaze back to the sky. The beautiful, glorious sky. “That’s so sweet,” she managed finally.
He bent to the side, trying to see her face. “I hurt you?”
“No!” She rubbed vigorously at her eyes with the heels of her hands. “This is happy. These are happy… sad sounds. This is just… I think this is the best date I’ve ever been on.” She giggled.
He returned to his more comfortable position, resting his chin on top of her head. His forearms wound their way around her waist, and she wasn’t quite sure what she should do with her own arms. “Date,” he repeated, and it was like she could hear him looking up the dictionary definition in his mind. “Romantic,” he said, instead of repeating the whole thing. She knew that he knew the definition, but she was never sure when he knew what things meant. Knowing the definition of a dog was very different from knowing about dogs. “You go on many dates?”
Emily giggled again, this time nervous. “Not really?” she said. “Not lately, I mean. If you’re worried about… competition?” It was hard not to sound amused at the thought. Somehow she couldn’t reconcile all of these things into something cohesive, the fact that he was showing her the stars and singing her name and kissing her with surprising enthusiasm. All of those facts in a void, she was able to accept. But trying to arrange them into some kind of cohesive whole, one where he was legitimately vying for her affections—it simply didn’t work.
“Competition is fine,” Drago said, and for a moment she thought he was saying that he didn’t care. It hurt more than she would have thought. Then he nuzzled at her hair. “I will win,” he finished, sounding both serious and certain. She found herself smiling, and her fingers traced the shape of the stripes along his arms, followed them to the spiny fins along the backs of them.
“You sound very sure of yourself,” she pointed out.
“I am big,” he said, and she snorted. “And pretty.” He flared out one of the fins on his arms, and when she put her hand against one side of it she could see it on the other.
“True,” she murmured, gently running a fingertip along one of the spines. He nuzzled suddenly and fiercely against her neck, purring. “And you need me to protect you,” she reminded him, “because you’re so helpless.”
“Yes,” he agreed against her skin, “I need you.” Then he started humming, and it felt a lot like cheating when he did that. She hoped that whatever it was that he was saying was flattering.
“Teach me more words?” she asked, gesturing his name in the air again. Immediately he obliged, guiding her hands and murmuring in her ear.
She wished she could stay there forever. She wished she could take him home.
She wished home felt as much like home as this did.