Fluorescent lights blazed overhead and I squinted against the glow, keeping my head down to avoid accidental eye contact. I stomped up to the twining line of trolleys and fought silently for my prize; a wonky-wheeled monstrosity with someone else’s soggy receipts at the bottom. It’ll do.
Two steps into the supermarket, a bright yellow sign caught my attention; the oranges are on special. Piper likes oranges – maybe if I get some, there’ll be less spewing of fire when I next suggest fruit. Then again, knowing my extraordinarily wilful daughter, probably not. Glowering at the oranges who had the bad taste to exist within my personal space, it took me a moment to notice the pair of softly glowing indigo eyes peering out through a gap between two pieces of fruit.
“Go away,” I snapped, yanking a plastic bag from the nearby holster and shoving several oranges inside. A few paces further on, an elderly lady raised her eyebrow in my direction. I dumped the bag of oranges into my trolley and turned away, making for the safety of the next aisle before she could say anything.
Bread. We always need bread. A never ending supply of bread and – my internal rant seized as the loaf of bread I tugged free caused a black feather to float out of the shelf. It’s small, barely the length of my finger, coated in an oil-slick sheen of blues and purples that shimmered in the artificial lighting. Growling under my breath, I snatched the feather and crushed it in my fist. When I opened my fingers to discard the crumpled remains, my palm was empty.
“Coward,” I hissed, slapping the bread into the trolley. “Come out and face me like an adult.”
No answer – but the mother with her baby in a carrier backed away a few steps to let me pass by.
The next aisle over, when I pulled a bottle of lemon juice off the shelf, the same black feather was tucked into the label. Ragged and limp after being crushed in my fist, it was a pitiful thing that should’ve made my temper spark even further than before. Instead, I plucked the feather free and stroked a finger along the soft surface, pushing it gently back into shape. The little treasure straightened for a fraction of a moment, then sagged dramatically. Fighting the irrational urge to smile, I tucked the evidence of my bad mood behind my ear and continued on my way.
Opposite the cereal, a stand of children’s plush toys caught my eye. They were each about the size of my palm, with enormous eyes and fur in bright, cheerful colours. At the very front, nestled between a yellow elephant and a pink cat, was a mottled blue and purple raven with sparkling indigo eyes. It blinked.
Shaking my head, I snatched up the fluffy little bird and held it in front of my face. “Don’t think I don’t know that’s you.”
Another long, owlish blink.
Casting a glance around to make sure that we were alone, I put my nose against the raven’s warm beak. “You should know better than to beard a dragon.”
A puff of feathers and the scent of midnight, then the raven was gone and Dante stood before me. Raven-dark hair tumbled over his shoulders, the oil-slick sheen soft in the supermarket’s harsh light. He shoved both hands in the pockets of his faded jeans and offered a lopsided smile. “I never was very smart.”
I narrowed my eyes and opened my mouth to respond when a middle aged man wandered into the aisle – and straight through Dante’s chest. His wings flared in affront but his expression didn’t change, his eyes taking on the glitter of a challenge as he dared me to speak when he knew full well the passers-by couldn’t see him.
Taking my phone from my bag, I flipped open the cover and pressed the dark screen against my ear. “I think you’re smarter than you look.”
Dante kept easy pace beside me, his loose black band t-shirt echoing that of the man who’d passed through him none the wiser. He watched in silence as I selected bottles and packets and boxes. When we were at last on our way to the registers, he laid a hand on the trolley and tugged it to a stop. “Long day?”
“Long week,” I admitted – and even though he already knew, it felt better to say it aloud.
“Do you feel better now?”
I sighed. “Yes.”
“I didn’t say thank you.” I squashed the phone closer to my face, the angle allowing me to ignore his pointed look. It didn’t work. “Okay, fine. Thank you.”
Dante’s smile was broad, his hand warm on my shoulder where he patted it. “What are friends for? Besides, it’s not like I could leave a grumpy dragon wandering around – someone might get hurt.”
“I thought I was a unicorn.” I gave him a hard look from under my lashes as I started unloading my groceries. Dante was the first person who’d ever labelled me such, with the same cheeky glitter in his eye he wore now.
He flicked the spot in the middle of my forehead. “Dragon buried inside a unicorn whose roar was chained by a whisper. Those days are gone now; time to spread your wings.”
I grunted, dropped the phone back in my bag and finished paying for my groceries. Dante shadowed me outside, passing through the outer shell of the car to wait in the passenger seat as though he had every right to be there.
“Well?” I said, slamming my own door and turning the key. “You clearly want something.”
“I want to tell you a story.”
I blinked, all memory of my bad mood vanishing. “Your story?”
“No… one like mine.”
The car purred through the car park and out onto the road. “Conditions?”
“None; just promise me you’ll tell it.” Raven hair slid across his forehead as Dante stared down at his clenched hands. “It deserves to be told.”
“Done. Tell me,” I invited.