Authors: JB McDonald
Tags: #Gay Romance
With many thanks to Quin, who rubs my back, deals with my wailing about edits, and, best of all, doesn't mind the other woman in my life. And to the other woman in my life, who is the best hand-holding editor a writer could ask for!
"Hey, Katsu. I need a wrap."
The moment when Katsu noticed the blood seeping from between Ashe's fingers, which were clamped tightly around Ashe's left hand, was obvious. Katsu's dark eyes bugged out and his own broad, human hands tensed in alarm. "What the nine hells did you
Ashe loved it when Katsu said something particularly human like that. He crooked a grin, tipping his head to see past long strands of pale brown hair. "I was showing Eddie--"
"She hates it when you call her that." Already Katsu was snatching up lengths of bandage and pots of salve. The little shelves built into the medic wagon shook with the force of his grabs.
Ashe continued as if he hadn't been interrupted. "--some knife tricks I know--"
Katsu stopped, glaring up at him. "What is
with you? I should have known this was self-inflicted. Only an elf would do something this
Ashe frowned. "I'm trying to tell you what's wrong with me, and it doesn't have to do with my race." As expected, Katsu just leveled a flat, unimpressed glare at him again. Ashe grinned broadly, showing off the slightly pointed canines that matched his delicately pointed ears. "It was great, right up until I missed."
Katsu slapped Ashe's good hand away, then grabbed the injured one and lifted it to peer down, pulling Ashe into a sun patch to see better. It gave Ashe a moment to admire the way light played on Katsu's gold skin and ran down his silky black hair. Katsu was smaller than most of the other humans in their crew, and definitely shorter than Ashe. Ashe found him utterly charming. "We're hunting dragons here." Even his acerbic tone.
dragon," Ashe corrected.
"They don't need your help in slicing you to pieces." Katsu twisted Ashe's slender hand this way and that, wiping at the blood with a rag, pulling at the cut.
The wound was small but livid against Ashe's pale skin.
Ashe winced and tried not to resist. The medic only got worse if he thought you were thwarting him. "Dragons don't slice," Ashe muttered, pain washing away any good cheer. "They chomp."
With a grunt, Katsu dropped Ashe's hand and unscrewed a cap from a jar. "They especially like chomping idiots." He dipped two fingers in the salve -- a disturbing blood color -- and smeared it across the cut before wrapping it tightly. His movements were quick, economical, as if he'd done this a million times before -- which, of course, he had. "Try not to use it for a few hours while it binds. And if you
use it, don't come whining to me." With a sour look, he shoved Ashe's hand back and turned away, muttering under his breath.
Ashe hesitated, watching the graceful way Katsu's muscles, exposed by his short-sleeved tunic and the odd lengths of cloth wrapped around his forearms, moved. But Katsu had already dismissed him, and the stinging in his hand was getting worse. Ashe frowned and examined it, turning away. He glanced back once, trying to think of something to say, but the look on the human's face wasn't encouraging. Plus, Ashe's hand was really starting to hurt.
Carrying his hand cradled gingerly against his chest, Ashe threaded his way through pitched tents and mercenaries, around bladed weapons and pointed spears, back to the banked campfire. Come nightfall, they'd be ready to slay a dragon. Come daybreak, they'd be ready to collect their reward.
He swung a leg over the fallen log that Eddie was using as a bench, straddling it and sitting carefully. "I don't think he likes me." Ashe didn't have to say who "he" was.
Eddie didn't look up from oiling her bow. "Of course he doesn't. You're always pestering him for stupid things and hurting yourself in stupid ways. A medic has better use for his time than patching your sorry ass up."
The top of her head wasn't particularly responsive, but Ashe stuck his tongue out at it anyway. She didn't notice. He twisted, looking back through the campsite toward Katsu. Every so often he caught a glimpse of golden skin or rapidly moving hands. "He's interesting, isn't he?"
There was a pause, then Eddie said, "I suppose. You know humans and elves aren't particularly compatible, right?"
Ashe whipped around to look at her. The beads threaded through his light brown hair pattered against his spine. "What? Yes, they are."
Eddie shook her head. Red curls bobbed around her ears. "They're not. His thingy and your junk won't fit."
Once more Ashe turned to look. Katsu was lean and wiry for a human, with more than capable hands -- even if they did have five fingers -- that, Ashe had to admit, were perfect for fantasizing about. Ashe had done more than his fair share of that. "I think you're pulling my leg." But he couldn't quite help feeling just a little uncertain. Not that it really mattered -- there were different ways to enjoy each other.
"Nope. It's true. I don't think it'll work between the two of you."
Ashe glanced at Eddie, trying to see if she was just harassing him or if she was really serious. It was hard to tell with her, sometimes, and now she was keeping her head down, her hair a curtain, working on her bow.
Just when he was about to challenge her on it, a shadow fell over them, blocking out the watery sunshine of the little glade.
"What the nine hells did you do to your hand?"
Ashe flinched and looked up into the dark face of their captain. "I can explain."
One black eyebrow lifted.
Ashe looked at Eddie for help, but she was engrossed in oiling. He took a breath and said, "My knife slipped."
For a long while, they were all quiet. Then Nate rubbed a dark-skinned hand over his eyes, looking pained. "I'm docking your share of the bounty."
"That seems fair," Ashe agreed, if a little forlornly.
Without another word, Nate turned and left the area.
Ashe stretched to see beyond Nate's broad back to the little, cleared area where Katsu was working. "You really don't think he likes me?"
"I really think you need to get laid," Eddie muttered.
Ashe nodded. "No argument here."
"Watch it watch it watch it -- it's coming around!" Ashe dropped out of the tree he'd been clinging to, hitting as many limbs as he caught while he fell toward the ground.
The initial plan, to surprise and kill the dragon when it was full of food and too lazy to move quickly, had failed. The secondary plan seemed to be, "Don't die." Ashe was generally pretty good at plans like those, especially with his superior eyesight, but his hand wasn't at full working capacity yet, and the dragon's path wasn't the best place to sit.
He hit the ground, bending his knees to absorb the shock, and flung himself forward. "Be the look-out and stay out of harm's way, my ass. Next time Nate suggests something like that--" Ashe scrambled to one side as the dragon came crashing closer, "--I'm going to spit in his coffee." He ducked behind a giant old oak, realized the dragon could probably pull it up without trying, and kept running.
He could only be glad that the dragon was too enraged to notice one scrawny elf, trying to get out of the way in the dark. He dove under a bush, feeling the ground scrape against his leg, and curled as small as possible. The dragon went crashing past him, sliding between and around the trees as if it were a giant centipede that just happened to have only four legs. Scales glittered wickedly in the moonlight, there for an instant before it seemed to blend with the darkness.
Ashe squinted, trying to track the animal's progress. Who had any idea dragons were so
? He certainly hadn't known. It was bigger than they'd been led to believe, too; more like a gypsy wagon, and less like a horse. Damned townies. He hoped Nate charged them extra.
It vanished into the shadows long before it should have, dappled gray and black markings hiding it even from elven sight. Several minutes after it was gone, the first of the mercenaries started running by, following the clear trail the dragon had left. Ashe counted five of the fifteen others, and assumed the rest were attacking from different angles -- with a very loose definition of "attack."
Slowly, he pulled himself out from under the bush, wincing as thorns he hadn't noticed before caught at his clothes and in his hair. His hand throbbed, despite the miraculous healing their medic had done. Ashe didn't know what was in those salves, but they worked wonders.
Dragging his aching bones upright, Ashe groaned as pain rushed up his knee. He wasn't old, but even young was sometimes too old for this job. Every sheathed knife on his person -- and there were a lot of them -- had seemingly dug into his skin, leaving bruises in their wake. He limped away from the bush, glancing around, trying to get his bearings. The dragon had gone back toward camp, but there was no one there for it to eat. That, at least, was a small blessing. Ashe offered up a prayer to Moran, the god of the forest, and hobbled toward camp. Leaping from a treetop hadn't been the brightest of ideas, though as he passed the tree he'd been in, he saw it looked more like kindling than a plant. So leaping had been a better idea than staying put, but that didn't make it a
The forest, now that the dragon had passed by, was silent. All the animals hid, smart enough to avoid both dragons and people. Nothing rustled, no owls hooted. Ashe did his best to follow suit, treading lightly even as he limped.
Something snapped. Ashe froze mid-step.
"You look like a deer."
He whipped around, yanking a knife free before he even realized the voice was just Katsu. He grinned and tucked the blade away. "Katsu! I didn't think anyone was around here!"
"What, you thought I'd leave everyone to get gored by a dragon on their own? What's the point in having a medic?" Katsu tromped through the forest, heedless of breaking branches or snapping twigs. It was almost like he was daring the dragon to come back and eat him -- and Ashe doubted even a dragon had those kind of guts. Katsu'd probably give it indigestion.
Ashe fell in beside Katsu, relieved to have company, glad it was the medic. Somehow, things seemed better with Katsu around. "Do dragons gore people? I don't think they have horns to gore with." Ashe squawked as Katsu slapped the back of his head, sending him stumbling forward. He caught his balance, rubbing his skull. "Bad medic."
Katsu snorted. "Bad medic? Bad elf. Shouldn't you be up with the others trying to kill yourself? Or do you save that for your off time?"
Ashe fell back into step with Katsu. "I save that for my off time. How else am I going to get to see you?"
Katsu gave him a sharp look, but kept walking.
"And if I don't get to see you," Ashe put his hand to his chest, faking heartbreak, "my day would just never be bright."
"I hate elves," Katsu muttered. "You're all drama queens."
Ashe grinned but dropped his hand. "Is there anything you
"I hate peas. They look like marsh griffin spawn. Have you seen a marsh griffin?"
Katsu gave him a disgusted look.
"They're about this big," Ashe held his hands a foot apart, "and they eat bugs."
Katsu kept walking.
"When they spawn, they squeeze out these nasty, ooze-coated egg things. The male--"
Katsu slapped the back of his hand into Ashe's chest, stopping them both. "Do you hear that?"
Ashe listened. Something growled. Slowly, carefully, he looked around the forest. It took two sweeps before he realized that he wasn't seeing fireflies, but rather the moon reflected off a scaled hide. He traced it with his gaze, up to a finely wrought head with a strong jaw.
This dragon wasn't as big as the last. More like a horse than a wagon. But it was looking right at them.
"Moran's teats," Ashe whispered.
"Is that bad?" From the corner of Ashe's eye, he could see Katsu looking around, the human's vision not quite spotting the dragon.