Ani stands in her old bedroom, fitting into it instead of the other way round. A place of two worlds—she has inhabited neither for many a year. Dragons run riot in both, but can only be seen in one. She prepares herself now to ride another dragon to a new, redder place, hoping her old companion won’t be jealous.
Her head instinctively dodges a long-disappeared orrery. Knees and elbows jostle for space next to the tiny desk now empty of science trophies, single bed still covered in a faded candlewick spread, and denuded walls showing their tan lines. There’s a ghost of spilled perfume intertwined with the heat from a vacuum cleaner motor. Just far enough away, and years ago, a lawn mower mutters over the whomp of Nika’s embarrassing vinyl, sent to her by her brother in South Africa, and a symphony of heat creaks. This is suburbia, watched over by the forty-hour knights.
Once guarded over by shining godlings and the humbling eye of the Hubble, the wardrobe was, is, where things are Kept.
For those times she would silently grab her jacket and make a dash for it, Ani used to keep the hinges well oiled, though Gareth never much liked the smell. Busy with oiling minds and hearts to an esoteric task, she has left the hinges and dragon a long while untended.
“So, an epic journey, is it?” rumbles a voice that could fill valleys and tumble peaks if allowed to perform opera. The voice is muffled by the scant inches of wood and time.
No apologies are called for, such is Gareth’s way. A sigh Ani has learned well to use only in the safe space of alone escapes. Her brown fingers, dented with a few more years than should have been proper to open this door, clasp the door knob, and turn.
“An engineer’s hand,” Gareth observes from beneath bronze eye feathers and coat hangers singing a lament to satin that had never dressed their shoulders. Gareth passes Ani a box of Wonder Woman toys. She contemplates the contents, looking from the “Keep” to the “Recycle” to the “Charity” box.
“Physicist,” Ani clarifies, selecting the least battered figurine and placing the rest carefully in the charity box.
“Then you’ve figured out how I can fly in your gravity?” Gareth chuckles, nostrils whuffing up dust bunnies and the decaying carcasses of blowflies.
“A long time ago, my love. Third-form science fair project.” Ani ventures a smile, but Gareth snorts more dust for the practised response.
Her lips falter, then curve up and down at the same time, amusement trapped against teeth that had not been as small or as straight as Tina Cooper’s. Gareth keeps his council now on performing smiles for dragon favours; he remembers those arguments and how Ani learned to breathe fire before he did.
Gareth passes over a box of books, and just for good measure opens that final school magazine, a giant claw delicately tapping a photo full of atrocious hairstyles and sidelong looks. “And where is Tina Cooper now?”
Ani offers up a shrug more suited to her petulant thirteen-year-old self, who is watching from the corner—back and forth, recursive in time, filling up the room with sweat and hair and silence—fingers screwed tight around equal first prize certificate and monies split two ways.
“Running a gardening centre I suspect.” Ani’s mother has made sure she does not suspect, but she wants to throw away the battered certificate without the regret that oozes out of the pores of the walls. Sixteen-year-old Ani steps forward, shakes her head slicked smooth and silky black, plucks the useless papers from her fingers, and throws them into the recycle box.
“And where are you?” Gareth rests his long chin in his claws, dribbles of smoke mixing with the dust that dances sideways down sunlight and genuflects to the carpet.
“Mars,” Ani says, as matter-of-fact as she can. She has been practising.
“Ah, the red place.” Gareth nods slowly, setting the coat hangers off into a Wagnerian treatise to faded denim. Ani shuts them up with a gather of one hand. They mutter a fractious refrain from the recycle box, then lie still.
“Red, just like me,” Gareth says in response to Ani’s silence. She rewards him with a look much louder than usual, even in response to such a falsehood. “Well, I could be red again. It’s completely up to you.”
Eight-year-old Ani sits at the desk shaping Gareth out of red play dough. It’s not the real, store-bought dough, a school treat smooth and fine and warm beneath her searching fingers. She does not create fat plaited hair like other girls have done, imitated with sideways smirks at her thick woollen bunch. No, this dough is cobbled together from flour, water, and salt, splotched with Nika’s limited pantry of colours.
Dough Gareth is red, like the tips of her fingers, which she licks small bites of dough from, a substitute for the always-empty biscuit tin. Ani is displeased with the inadequate, crumbling representation of her dragon that does nothing to show his grandeur, but Nika smiles regardless.
Nika smiles less when fourteen-year-old Ani is still drawing Gareth, but that might not be her daughter’s or the dragon’s fault. Red is not the colour of proper dreams.
The wardrobe is now almost empty. Only a couple of bags of school papers remain, and they go into the recycle box with barely a glance from Ani sixteen. There are other papers much more important, but they sit in places and boxes Nika or Tina Cooper or even Gareth would be unlikely to open.
And now, there is only Gareth, neck cricked at an impossible angle beneath the shelf. Eye feathers sweep scaled cheeks as they share regard.
“What am I going to do with you?” She has allowed herself many sighs this day, having stored them up to share only with herself. It is good practise for the long, cramped months ahead, the storing, collecting, and cataloguing of sighs and smiles, shoulders and hands just so, no threat.
“What you have always done,” Gareth replies, head easing out and hovering over the lintel of the wardrobe, but never transgressing. “Take me with you.”
“But where I’m going the wardrobe is so very, very small. It’s not even a wardrobe at all.” Ani shapes her hands, just so by just so. “And I definitely have no weight allowance for a dragon.”
“But where is your head, girl!” Gareth cries, and somewhere behind him sheep startle and skitter down a grassy meadow.
“In the clouds, obviously.” Ani appropriates the imprecation and a slow smirk. She has forgotten how good it feels to be dangerous around her dragon.
“I told you that’s where it should stay,” Gareth scolds, his eyes twinkling a king’s ransom to belie the sting of his words.
“And I’ve always listened to you, dear heart, even when I thought I shouldn’t.” Ani reaches up to scratch where his right wing meets the shoulder, a place he can never reach. Gareth bends into the caress, rumbling and purring, eyes oozing shut.
“I’ll fit into any space you put me in,” Gareth says, his voice ticking with pleasure, like the small coolings of the house late on a summer’s evening.
“But you will be so cramped.” Ani’s protests are feeble, because each one of her in that room has already made up her mind.
“Tish. Just so long as I have a back door, I’ll be fine.”
Ani tries to peer past her large lizard friend into the depths of the old wardrobe. “Is that what you’ve always had back there? An escape hatch for when I wasn’t looking? So you could go fly with your dragon friends?”
“And run with the unicorns, yes.” Gareth has never worried about his smile scaring anyone off, despite the number of teeth. The larger the smile, the better.
“But isn’t that like—?”
“Oh no, it is nothing like that other place,” Gareth snorts. A small puff of smoke redolent of cigars and beeswax curls around their heads. “It snows when it is supposed to in July, you don’t need winter coats where we go, and everyone can eat whatever lollies they jolly well please.”
Ani laughs, a strange sound, and the ears of the room prick up. A seventeen-year-old Ani with braids tight against her skull glares at them from the desk, fingers poised over a battered laptop, writing a physics paper that will furrow the brow of her teacher.
“You are so very young, dear Gareth,” she whispers. “I just can’t bring myself to put you in any of those boxes.”
Gareth brings a wing around for a better view. He beams again, dragonish, for the red hue of his scales.
Ani is buttoning a shirt pocket as her mother enters the room, hands dusty from other years. “All done?” Nika asks, a quaver, a semitone.
“All done,” Ani confirms, indicating the three boxes, one quite empty, one quite full. “Don’t need much where I’m going.”
Nika frowns at this, as she does every time, but says nothing, as she does every time. She folds the box tops closed, not even bothering to recatalogue the contents.
On the way out with the heaviest box first, she stops, turns, and nods at the open wardrobe door, her long braids clicking. “What about Gareth?”
Ani freezes, rearranging her face to neutrality.
Nika pierces her with a look over the top of her glasses, the first smile in days hinting at the corner of her plump lips.
“She knows. She’s always known,” Gareth whispers from her pocket. “Why did you think otherwise?”
Ani nods. For just a moment, she wishes she could take her mother with her.
And then it is gone.
Ani pats the pocket over her left breast, reassuring the warm lump of dragon curled there as well as her mother. Nika drops a single nod and looks away before anything else gets unsaid.
“Good. Help me carry these out to the truck. Tokyo won’t wait forever, ya know.”
Ani straps herself into her seat for another day of hurry-up-and-wait, headaches and tasteless food, surrounded by a world of tiny lights, metal, and promise. She’s a long way from the bedroom wardrobe, a long way from anything.
When watching the diamond-studded black becomes old real quick, there’s always weathering the barbs and arrows of endless, elegant equations that someone wants to argue over—hers more than others—as a tinge of desperate sweat recycles in the air. Come along red planet, head in the clouds.
Bai Ryu, more cattle herder than commander, settles into the seat beside Ani and smiles pleasantly enough over at her, hands poised above a screen ready for her own exacting equations.
Ani experiments with a smile back. She likes their robust team leader with her perpetual smile around the eyes and nicely proportioned skull beneath the number one—Ani of just six months ago tests her own bumpy scalp with her hands—but in the confines of the ship, elbow to elbow with just a few dozen, Ani must practise the courtesy she was chosen for. She’s good at it. It serves her well.
Gareth squirms against Ani’s chest, and she habitually pats the left pocket of her jumpsuit.
A movement out the corner of her eye—Ryu is mimicking her, patting her own left pocket. Ani reassesses the freckles and small blemishes on the woman’s face. Usually a master at the quick judgment, she can’t read the commander at all in that moment. Ani looks away, trying but failing not to stare at the woman’s chest.
A tiny black scaled head is poking out of Ryu’s breast pocket. The commander absently scratches its head as tiny golden eyes and forked tongue flicker in pleasure.
Ryu cuts a glance, the side of her mouth to Ani curling up ever so slightly.
Ani glances back, scratching Gareth’s red head. She bites the corner of her mouth into an unfamiliar smile that startles her face and her dragon friend.
AJ Fitzwater is a dragon wrangler of high repute from Christchurch, New Zealand (a.k.a. Shakytown). When not buffing scales, stoking chili-infused breath, or skipping cracks, they’re being herded by a solar-powered calico cat and a mortgage. Their tap dances and feints with words can be found in such venues as Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Crossed Genres Magazine, and Wily Writers. Their stories have appeared in such anthologies as Daughters of Icarus: New Feminist Science Fiction and Fantasy, Menial: Skilled Labor in Science Fiction, and Regeneration: New Zealand Speculative Fiction II. The author’s ideal dinner guests would include Joanna Russ, James Tiptree Jr., Freddie Mercury, and Darren Hayes. There’s something resembling a blog at pickledthink.blogspot.com, and plenty of brain farts to be found on Twitter: @AJFitzwater.