Fiction by Pen . . . . . not real, made up, purely intended for entertainment

Dragon Country

with thanks to my betas, Brandywine28 and Chalcopyrite

"Going dragon-hunting this weekend, Bass?"

Lance leaned back in his chair. "Hello, Chris."

"Because," his friend said, "I've saved you the trouble." With a grand flourish, he produced a small, shiny object and set it in the middle of Lance's desk.

Lance picked it up. It was surprisingly heavy, for something perhaps an inch across—though he suspected the weight was due to a leaden core rather than actual gold content. Still. The tiny dragon spiraled in on itself like a snail, with a fronded head arching upwards at the top, and a tail curled for balance at the back.

"But it doesn't have wings. Not a real dragon if it can't fly," Lance said, mournfully.

"Who says it can't fly? A wingless dragon can totally fly if it wants to." Chris tapped the little ornament. "And you don't have a gold one."

"You shouldn't keep bringing me these love-tokens, Chris. People will talk."

Chris grinned, and sat carelessly in the chair on the other side of the desk. "If any of these people are gorgeous brunettes, send them my way. If they're not, fuck 'em."

"I think you have that backward," Lance murmured, and than sat forward to stare. "What in all creation have you done with your beard?"

Chris preened. "Like them?" He stroked the twin protruding spikes of his beard in what Lance dimly discerned as an attempt to look statesmanlike. Which was bizarre, coming from Chris, so he was not at all surprised it didn't last long. Chris was like that—head like a beehive, buzzing with a thousand different ideas all the time, but there was never any conflict between what he said and what he thought, unlike most of the rest of the world. Chris was essentially honest, and even if his honesty was relentless and at times quite hard work to deal with, it was still more restful than normal human behaviour, which put up a front about everything whether it was necessary or not. Chris probably couldn't put up enough fronts to keep pace with the frantic speed of his thoughts. If Lance wasn't careful he tended to get headaches after Chris's whirlwind visits.

"It's a… style choice," Lance said with care.

Chris laughed, with an echo of completely expected glee. "Anyway, I gotta run. I just came in to say, I got you a new customer."


"Yeah, new guy in town, came to get some maintenance on his motorcycle. Beautiful machine, too, great lines, going to be a pleasure working on it. At least, it'll be a pleasure if my asshole boss gets off my back. I guess punching him in the face would be a firing offence, huh? Anyway, the guy said he was looking for a place to stay and then a job, so I gave him one of your cards. He's got something, definitely. You'll like him. Mind you, he's a bit naive. Told me right off that he didn't know anything about mechanics and he wanted someone to make sure the machine was running right as it should. If I'd been a metal-hack I could have fleeced him and he'd never have known the difference."

Lance privately thought that nobody with an ounce of discernment would think Chris was untrustworthy, but he didn't bother to say so. Depending on his mood, Chris might decide he liked the image of himself as a fearsome criminal, and would be insulted to be called honest. "Does he have a name?"

"Huh. Now I think about it, I don't remember his name. Alan… Adam… Algernon?"

"Now you're just messing with me."

Chris grinned. "Gonna remember the bike, so it doesn't exactly matter. But he's got something, you'll see."

"Yeah, 'cause my week isn't busy enough already."

"You can work Saturday," Chris said, briskly, and stood up. "You don't have to go dragon-hunting this weekend, remember?"

There were perfunctory goodbyes, and the sound of a cheerful exchange between Chris and Lisa as Chris made his way out. Lance picked up the little gold dragon, and smiled. Cute. He set it next to the inkwell, and turned his attention to his schedule for the day. Telephone calls to a couple of his least favourite clients, three interviews with people looking for work, an hour before lunch to review some possible matches, and then—

"You have a therapy session this afternoon," Lisa said, uncannily echoing his own thoughts. "Good thing I brought cookies." She grinned at him, not without sympathy, and dropped three application forms on his desk. "Your interviews for this morning. First one's in at ten." Lisa was probably wasted here, working for his one-man employment bureau, but she was easily the best assistant he'd ever found. Not as decorative as—as some of the others, she was plump and cheerful rather than coolly elegant, but her friendliness was an asset and, more importantly, she was smart and efficient. And she had a habit of humming to herself while she worked which Lance found very restful.

His 'therapy session' this afternoon would be anything but restful. He wasn't surprised to find Britney's name in the day-planner again. Every six weeks—less, sometimes—she came back to him because the person he'd recruited to be her minder stroke nanny stroke secretary stroke companion… hadn't worked out. He wasn't sure the right person for the job actually existed. He was fairly sure Britney needed half a dozen people around her to get her life properly in order, but she was always insistent that she couldn't bear having that many people telling her what to do—and pointing out that she was supposed to tell them what to do didn't help.

But they'd talk, and she'd tell Lance her troubles and what she wanted, and he'd try to figure out what she really wanted and, more to the point, what she needed, and see if he could send somebody along, and for a week he'd get calls telling him what a treasure he'd found for her, and then things would go quiet, and then it would be back on the old merry-go-round again. This time would be no different, no matter how much he wanted to help. What Britney really wanted, he suspected, was a mother, and you couldn't hire those. Any more than you could hire the perfect husband.

Oh, well. A problem for this afternoon. Meanwhile, he had calls to make, and three hopefuls to interview. One of them even wanted to be a personal assistant. Maybe she'd be good enough for Britney.

The calls were no fun. Both clients were sharks. Talked a good talk, but he remembered meeting them originally and he wasn't fooled. The barely-veneered determination to get the most work for the least pay was normal but depressing. He'd fill the posts, because everybody wanted to work in the movies even if it was only in the accounting department or as a secretary, but nobody good would stay with them for long.

Interviewing possible job candidates was better, usually, but Lance knew before he shook hands and said goodbye that he wasn't going to find the miracle that would transform these three lives. As the last one closed the office door, Lance sat back and sighed. Some days it was hardly worth coming in to work.

Happily, Lisa seemed to have a talent for knowing when he needed coffee, and as soon as the third interviewee was gone she brought two mugs through—hers bore a cartoon mermaid, his a Welsh dragon—and sat down in the chair opposite. "Any good?"

"Sometimes, I wish this were an ordinary agency, just trying to fill vacancies in regular places like offices and restaurants. That way we'd get people who actually want to do the jobs they're applying for. Carpenters who actually want to build stuff, accountants who want to do the books, that sort of thing. Not the folks who're too distracted by working in a real, live theatre to notice that they have to buckle down and do the job they were hired for."

"Ah, the glamour of show business," Lisa said, wisely. "All wannabes?"

"All three of them had the right answers to every question I asked, and all three of them secretly believed that all they had to do was get next to a theatre producer, or a film director, or a casting agent, and it'd just be a matter of time until their shining talent was discovered. Sometimes I think nobody wants to work for it any more."

Wisely, Lisa didn't argue, although they both knew it wasn't true. There were plenty of people on their books who would work until they dropped. It was way more heartbreaking to watch the workers strive and strive and never get that lucky break than to watch the wannabes sail happily on into disappointment.

Lance, in a mood to rant, went on: "I mean, we can find them something, because everybody needs regular jobs done, and if it makes them happier to be pen-pushers in showbiz, instead of earning a decent wage somewhere else, then so be it. I mean, it won't make them happier in the long run, it'd be better if they just gave up their stupid dreams and found something sensible to aim for, but it's not up to me to tell them that nobody's been discovered like that since Mabel Normand."

"And look what happened to her," Lisa said. "Did any of this morning's lot have talent, do you think?"

He shrugged. "Doubt it. The talented ones have something to show for it at their age." It wasn't that talent was a necessity—he'd met plenty of singers who couldn't sing, actors who couldn't act, dancers with no sense of rhythm and magicians with no flim-flam. Some of them had made it anyway, on account of having more ambition than any six normal people, and a willingness to do whatever it might take. Overall, though, talent was preferable. There was a lot of competition out there. "Well, this won't get the bills paid. Who's on the list?"

Lisa opened her notebook, and they got down to business. By one o'clock Lisa had a selection of possibles to contact, and Lance went off to Fatone's to fortify himself for Britney's visit with lasagna and insalata verde, and to flirt with their head waiter. It was easy flirting with Joey, because Joey flirted with everybody and didn't take any of it seriously, which was just what Lance needed.


"I guess, I don't really know why it's not working out. She's good with the kids, not great, I mean, she keeps them organised and they go to bed regular, but I don't think they have fun, you know? And I get the feeling she don't really respect me, and I'm paying her wages so I think she ought to be respectful, don't you?"

Lance wondered what it was that had precipitated this latest sacking. He'd probably never find out. Britney had a way of refusing to think about things that upset her, and he had to be very careful to sort the specifics of behaviour from lingering emotions when debriefing the failed candidates. Better for all concerned to leave it at 'personal differences' and 'incompatible', even though it was frustrating never to have the full picture. What was clear, though, was that she was feeling more than usually insecure today.

"Is there something particular that we need to avoid? Or look for next time?"

"Oh!" She beamed at him. "You have a new dragon!" She picked up the little gold snail-dragon. "That's so cute. Where'd you get him?"

"A friend—my friend Chris—brought him over this morning."

"Ooh, and would this Chris be a boyfriend?"

"No! No, not a boyfriend."

"Don't be so sure."

"Trust me, I'm certain."

"Maybe you should look closer. The guy brings you random presents—this isn't the only one, am I right?"

"Well," Lance admitted, "he did bring me that green one on the shelf, but that was—"

"See! Guys don't do that unless they want you. They just don't."

"Chris is not trying to woo me, seriously. He brought Lisa a bunny pin one time because she'd been talking about how she had a baby rabbit when she was a kid."

Britney shook her head knowingly. "You wait. Is he cute? I bet he's cute."

"Er." It hadn't ever occurred to Lance to evaluate Chris's cuteness quotient, and he floundered. "I guess… I mean, he's not a hideous troll or anything, he just—we're just friends." Britney was not going to be convinced, but Lance was certain of his ground. Time to get the conversation back on track. "You know, I think we're getting closer to finding the right person for you. Is there something particular we should look for?" he prompted, gently. "Has your situation changed?"

"I—I. I'm trying to… get back to painting."

"That's great!"

"I guess. I sorta need someone around who'll be, like, supportive of me." She faltered, and the shade in her pretty brown eyes spoke of fear rather than eagerness, and suddenly the dam broke and the whole mass of insecurities spilled out—could she still do it? was what she did really art? was it only clever because she was a kid? were her paintings just childish and stupid and only valuable because Mother had persuaded that critic they were, was it not real at all? Would people laugh at her if she tried again? "I have ideas, there's things I want to do, only I'm not sure, it's difficult, and, and I really need an assistant who understands."

Lance was going to have to debrief the previous assistant—Melanie Hill—very carefully indeed. Mentally he was already flipping through the index to see if anyone had mentioned an interest in the visual arts, but nobody leapt to mind. "I think it's great that you're working again," he said, infusing his voice with reassurance and confidence. "I always loved seeing what you came up with before."

She smiled at him, doubt still swirling. "It's, you know, it's hard to get back into it. I guess sacking my assistant doesn't help, 'cause I'm going to have to run after the boys myself until you come up with the perfect person." It would give her an excuse not to face the empty canvasses. Lance sympathised.

"I will do my best."

"I know, sweetie," she said. "You've always been great. I know I'm kinda difficult, but there has to be someone out there who's the perfect person, you know?"

Lance did know. Unfortunately, when the client didn't really know what constituted perfection, it was hard to keep her happy. He would try, mostly because he really wanted Britney to be happy. She'd had a lot to deal with, and she tried so hard, if he could help her get her life in order he would do everything he could.

"Um, Lance, there's actually—can I ask you a favour?"


"See, there's this concert. I kinda want to go, because it's a guy I used to know, when we were teenagers, and everybody's talking about him now. And Kevin has the boys until the weekend, only, my friend who I thought was going to go with me," she paused, and Lance was very nearly sure there was no such friend, but he kept his face in neutral and let her finish, "she had something come up, so I wondered if you'd go with me?"

"I—ah. Let me check my schedule."

"Only, it's tonight… Please come! I hate going out on my own, and it'll be fun, I promise!"

"I really—" I don't go to concerts, Lance wanted to say, but faced with Britney's bright hopefulness he couldn't quite bring himself to say no. "I guess... I could."

"Oh, that's brilliant! Thanks, Lance!" She flung her arms around his neck and hugged him.

"I might have to go sit outside for part of it," he warned her. "I have, sometimes I have issues with crowds."

"It'll be fine," she assured him, blithely. "I'll send a driver for you. Oh, we'll have such a great time."


Against all his expectations, Lance was having a good time.

There were good reasons he didn't go to concerts. Leaving aside the issue of being in an overexcited crowd, too often it gave him a headache to see someone up on the stage whom he knew, for sure, was not pretty, not talented, not graceful, and to get the impression that they were all those things. To get a mixed message from brain and ears, one saying 'wonderful' and the other wincing at bum notes. People called it stage presence, or the magic of theatre, when a singer was beautiful in performance and yet could walk barely recognised through the crowded streets the next day, or when an actor held an entire theatre mesmerised and somehow completely lacked charisma on the screen.

Lance knew better.

He'd learned to recognise a glamour when he felt that dissonance. He knew that some of the glamour-enhanced performances he'd seen had been astonishing, magical, memorable, and that regular people had emerged in a daze from those events. It was almost a shame it didn't work on him, but it didn't. Maybe it was—at least in part—because he had to fix his shields firmly in place to block the waves of love, adulation, sexual fervour and so on that flowed around him from the audience. Shielding against all that was self-defence. He'd figured that out long before he even realised he was a receiver.

Whatever it was, the glamours didn't work on Lance, and the discrepancy between physical fact and perception gave him a headache. Not that every performer had a glamour, and most of them were just small enhancements, but they were surprisingly common. The effect almost always seemed to be unconscious, a projection from that secret part of the brain that most people didn't even know was there, and Lance had never been able to figure out whether glamours manifested from the insecurities of people who were afraid they weren't good enough or from the certainties of people who believed they were better than they were. He had, once, dealt with an applicant who projected her glamour deliberately, a very strange experience indeed. She was an actress who'd been referred to him by a cousin, so he'd taken her out to lunch, and on the way he'd caught her deciding to switch on her glamour—and the immediate reaction from the men they passed on the street had testified to its effectiveness. She was doing very well, these days. But she was, in Lance's experience, unique.

It was an asset to his professional life that Lance could discern when a performer used a glamour, and guide this actor towards the stage and that singer away from the recording studio… once he'd even met someone with the opposite affect, he called it a lackluster, a singer who made phenomenal recordings and yet failed to keep the attention of a live audience. No charisma at all.

This singer certainly kept his audience's attention. Justin Timberlake was not short of either talent or that indefinable something, and he accepted the crowd's adulation as his due. There didn't seem to be anything to give Lance a headache, nothing slathered over mediocrity to make it shine, and yet.... It took Lance a while to figure it out, but he did, eventually. Justin Timberlake was wearing a glamour that looked exactly like his own face. Now that, Lance thought, was the stuff of dreams for the psychoanalysts, a perfect mixture of ego and insecurity.

There was something else going on, too, and once Lance had stopped puzzling over the glamour question, he caught it: a faint telepathic imperative calling Love me! Love me! Definitely not deliberate, especially not with that very occasional I need you going on underneath. That confident, commanding performer wouldn't be sending out such a message on purpose! But it was there, and it was oddly appealing. Lance decided he was prepared to go along with it, provisionally.

He adjusted his shields, grinned at Britney, and enjoyed the show.


Even the next morning, Lance was still energised from the concert. He'd let himself absorb just a little of the crowd's excitement, and it was a most amazing feeling. He'd slept soundly for exactly six hours, bounced out of bed, and was at his desk long before Lisa arrived.

"Oh, my—what are you doing here at this hour?" she exclaimed. "I thought you'd be late, today. How was last night?"

He grinned at her. "Great! Way better than I expected."

"And did Britney, uh, Ms Spears have a good time?"

"She loved it. I think it's been way too long since she had any fun. And she—" He was interrupted by the telephone. Lisa mouthed "later" at him and hurried to answer it. Lance got back to his papers. There were a couple of likely ladies in the file who might be able to cope with Britney, but he didn't know whether either of them was at all interested in art. It wasn't something he'd ever thought to put on his miraculous index. Oh well. Better call them in for another chat and see how they felt.

Lisa came in with fresh coffee (Lance never made coffee in the office, for the cranky filter machine hated him and responded only to Lisa's touch) and a new possibility for Britney's assistant, a Mrs Kasdorf, who had proved her efficiency by calling on the dot of eight-thirty and who sounded suitably maternal. She would be in at ten for her preliminary interview.

"I have a good feeling about today," Lance said. It was probably the leftover buzz from the concert, but he might as well enjoy it. "Maybe this Mrs Kasdorf will the the one we want. I suppose you didn't happen to ask her about art?"

"Uh, no. Sorry, I didn't know that was a thing now."

"Not a problem, no way you could have known. Can you call these two and get them in as soon as possible? Don't tell them it's a specific job, just say it's a refresher." Lance didn't like to get people's hopes up. Job seekers who'd been on his books for a few weeks got offered the chance to come in for coffee and cookies every so often, and sometimes he was assessing them for a particular job, and sometimes he was just reminding himself who they were. It was an idiosyncratic system, as far as he knew, but it worked for him and for his applicants.

"I guess you don't have time to tell me all about the concert," Lisa said, sounding resigned.

"Not right now. Um. You're going early tonight, aren't you? How about we get together at lunch. We can talk about Mrs Kasdorf and the other Britney prospects, and I'll tell you everything I can remember about last night."

"You're a good boss," she said, and trotted back to her desk in the outside office. After a few minutes the rhythmic clack of the typewriter started up.

"Eh, maybe it isn't my lucky day after all," Lance said as he helped himself to a slice of pizza. "Mrs Kasdorf is close to perfect, but she looked awful blank when I asked her did she like art. And the way Britney's feeling right now, that's going to have to be a priority. Although," he paused for a bite, "I'm not seeing how her personal assistant is supposed to be her… her art teacher, or her, hmm, cheerleader, as well as everything else. Maybe I should persuade her into going to art school." Even as he said the words, he knew that wasn't going to work. Britney was—or had been—a famous artist. She wouldn't go back to school alongside a bunch of kids. She couldn't. He couldn't, either, if he were in her place. "Yeah, I don't know."

"Don't worry about Mrs Kasdorf," Lisa said. "You have Ms Hedderson and Ms Peters to see before you make any kind of decision. Tell me about the concert!"

So Lance talked about the show, the atmosphere, and the singer. And he told her how afterwards, Britney had squeaked with surprise and wriggled away from him through the crowd towards an older woman who was exuding maternal pride, who after a moment's astonishment had flung her arms around Britney. By the time Lance reached them, Britney was handing over a card. "Tell him to give me a call, if he wants to get together. We can talk about old times, it'll be fun!" she said.

"Didn't she want to go backstage? If she knew Justin Timberlake's mother," Lisa said, confused.

"I think she was nervous." More like terrified, but he wasn't going to spill Britney's secrets, however much he trusted Lisa. "And it probably wasn't a great time and place to get back with a friend you knew when you were, like, ten years old." And had a crush on. "I hope he calls, though."

"Pity he isn't one of ours, you could have found out."

"We have to leave a few for the other agents," Lance said. "I think I might buy his record, though. He was—" There was a loud knock at the door. It opened.

The most amazing man walked in.

He was tall, blue-eyed, dressed in black from head to foot, and he blazed with charisma. Lance could have sworn he felt the heat of it ripple through the air.

"Can I help you?" Lisa said. Incredibly, she sounded impressed, but not intimidated. How did she do that?

"A guy called Chris Kirkpatrick told me you could. Hi. I'm Adam Lambert. Oh, I'm so sorry—you're at lunch. I'll come back—"

"No, no," Lisa leapt up. "You're fine. It's a working lunch, really. Come on in. Are you looking for work? Let me get you one of our forms. Would you like some pizza?"

"I'm good, thanks."

Lance watched Lisa bustle about, and tried not to let Adam Lambert see him staring. There was something incredibly unsettling about this man who was sitting there being charming to his assistant. He was ridiculously attractive and had the most appealing smile Lance had seen in years, and something about him set Lance's teeth on edge. What was it? The ripple of heat around him that Lisa apparently didn't perceive at all—now that Lance looked more carefully it could not be charisma. It was something else, something he didn't recognise. And there was—was it a glamour? Not exactly, not the way Lance understood glamours, but there was something deceptive about him. Something untrustworthy.

"I'll just go wash my hands," Lance said.

He cleaned the pizza grease from his fingers, tidied himself up, and tried to puzzle it out. Lisa was obviously entranced, but Lisa's gift seemed to be restricted to providing refreshments at the perfect moment—which was a very handy gift for an assistant to have, but it barely qualified as telepathy, and nobody but himself seemed to have noticed Lisa had it. She obviously didn't perceive that aura boiling around Adam Lambert.

Who opened Lance's door at that moment, and said: "Shall I come in?"

"Sure," Lance said, shortly. "Take a seat." He reached for Lambert's application form.

"I see you're into dragons," said Lambert, after a moment of silence.

With a little gold one next to his inkwell, a hand-size green model on the lower bookshelf, two smaller ones on the upper shelf, and a leather dragon-etched bookmark on his desk, Lance could hardly deny it, though he didn't think it was worth making conversation about. After scanning the form twice—because he didn't take in any information the first time through—he looked up.

"You've just got into town?" he said, trying not to sound too suspicious.

"Just a few days ago." There was nothing, no reverberation of satisfaction or uncertainty or anything else. Lance loosened his everyday shields a bit. Nothing. No emotion to be read except from Lambert's face, which was calm and apparently friendly. Lance coughed, and pushed a bit.

Adam Lambert had a diamond-hard shield in place. Nothing was getting through it. Lance slammed his own shield back up. He'd never met anyone so utterly opaque.

"And Chris sent you here," he said.

"He said you have great contacts in showbiz, and that's where I want to be."

"A singer."

"That's right."

"Do you have tapes? I like to hear what people can do before I send them out for jobs," Lance said. He hoped it didn't sound too sarcastic. He wasn't supposed to be rude to applicants, even applicants who were lying through their impeccable white teeth.

"I don't have anything like that. I thought I could just, you know, sing?"

"Okay, then. Go ahead."

Lance forced himself to look as Lambert stood up. Took in the leather jacket, strong, shapely hands, long black jeans, boots which—"Those boots are dragon-hide!" he said, accusingly. "Dragons are a protected species!" Everyone knew that. Dragons were extinct, most likely, you never heard of sightings nowadays even if stuff like dragonhide boots did manage to show up now and again. No dragons left in the world was the last thing Lance wanted to believe, and certainly the idea that this man was wearing something made from the stolen skin of a dead dragon made him want to rip them off Lambert's feet and send him into the street in his socks.

"I didn't kill it, you know," Lambert said, smiling. Lance clenched his teeth on the response that wanted to fly out. Who the hell was this man?

"Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?" Lambert sang, "Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality."

As he sang, Lance sat back in his chair and stared. He'd never heard the song before, and the lyrics were rather strange, but that voice, the range, the power and control... And there wasn't a performance glamour, he was sure of it now, there was definitely something giving Lambert this huge presence, but it wasn't that. This talent, this singing, was real.

He vaguely noticed the door open, and Lisa standing listening.

The singing ended, and for a moment Lance had nothing to say. He wanted to applaud. Lisa did applaud, then disappeared back to her own desk.

"So, uh, do you think you can find something for me?"

"I—let me make a call. No, you can stay, it's fine." Lance picked up the receiver, and dialled. "Simon Cowell, please. It's Lance Bass." He was relieved to be put through at once. Simon could be a real bastard if he wasn't in the mood to play nice, and Lance did not want to have to leave humiliating messages, not in front of Adam Lambert. So stupid —he should have made him go to the outer office and sit with Lisa. "Simon, I have someone I think you should meet. Singer. Yes, I think so. As to that, you'd have to decide for yourself, but I think you'll be interested. All right, that sounds good. Thanks. Oh, don't thank me, usual terms and conditions apply! All right, I will." He put the receiver down. "Tomorrow afternoon, here's the address." He scrawled it on the back of a business card. "Take some sheet music with you."

"Who is Simon Cowell?"

Lance stared. "He's the biggest music promoter on this side of the ocean."

"Oh! So, that's great! Thanks." He really did have a potent smile. Lance thought of the dragon-hide boots, and did not reciprocate.


Lance was not particularly surprised to receive a phone call from Simon Cowell the following afternoon. It would have astonished him if Cowell had not wanted to sign Adam Lambert. Once his own commission came through, he would do his very best to forget him.

* * *

Lance sang as he walked into the woods. The sun was just up, the world might as well be empty, and it was a beautiful Saturday morning with the trees just hinting at yellow.

He hiked for a couple of hours, upwards and eastwards through the forest, aiming for the high ground and the majestic hills. A short break for a drink and something to eat, and he was high enough to be able to find an outcrop of rocks and sit enthroned to look back down towards the city he'd come from, and beyond that, misting into the western horizon, the ocean. To the north, a travelling plume announced a train; to the south there was a sliced line through the hills where the tracks led away, but no locomotive to be seen. He glimpsed, or thought he glimpsed, a balloon, but it was low in the sky and hard to be sure of. It was balloon weather, though; possibly there'd be a race later in the day.

Lance had persuaded a friendly aeronaut to take him up, once, and the winds had been kind and they'd overflown somewhere not so very far from where he was now standing. He hadn't been able to distinguish any kind of dragon sign, not from that height, but the experience was exhilarating. Not that it was real flight, not the way dragons did it, but it was the best a human being could do (airships, in Lance's opinion, Did Not Count) and Lance would certainly try it again when he got the opportunity.

He packed his water bottle back into his rucksack and folded the wrapper from his fruit and nut bar into his pocket. Time to be moving on.

He did not believe that all the dragons were gone. There had been so many dragons throughout history, dragons that had protected ships in storms, rescued frantic ballooning pioneers, helped foresters to clear trees. Also dragons who'd terrorised shepherds and set fire to cities and sent horses mad with fear, but you couldn't really blame a dragon for that, he thought. They were wild, after all.

But they said that there were no dragons left today, and he so badly wanted there to be dragons still in the world. Lance was determined to look for them, to find them somewhere, so every weekend he could spare, he went into the hills, to dragon country. Not to interfere, not to bring them back within range of humanity where they could be slaughtered to make dragon-hide boots for the beautiful and arrogant. No. Just to know that the dragons weren't all gone.

After a while the paths had petered out and there was only rough grass. Lance hadn't been this way before, but it felt promising, so he decided to let himself pick a random direction. He closed his eyes, rotated on the spot, and took a step forward. He felt a sudden wave of nausea and lurched to his knees. Okay, not doing that again. Still dizzy, he heaved in some deep breaths and decided that no, he was not going to throw up, then it felt as though his world darkened for an instant of chill, as though something had passed between him and the sun. He stared at the sky, but there was nothing to be seen, only a clear bright blue. Weird. Very weird.

The nauseated feeling stayed with him, but he walked on anyway. It would be wrong to waste such a lovely day. He was careful to note the shapes of the hills around him, and how far he went. It would be embarrassing to get lost and have to send up a flare for help.

To Lance's delight, he found himself descending into a bowl-shaped valley, which looked, he told himself, just right for dragons. There was even a small opening under one of the hills, but as it wasn't big enough for him to get more than his head and one arm inside, he doubted it would home a dragon. And there was nothing around to indicate that dragons did, in fact, live here. No bones of prey, no scratched or damaged trees, no footprints… certainly no glimpse of the noble beast in the distance. He sat down and ate his lunch. The nausea seemed to have subsided.

It was when he knocked his water bottle sideways, and snatched it up to minimise the loss, that he saw the claw.

It certainly looked like a claw. Black as charcoal, the length of his index finger, with a gleam to it and a scimitar-like curve… if it was a claw, and he very much wanted to believe that it was, it was a claw from a very large creature indeed. Lance put it carefully into his backpack. He'd have a look in his fossil books. He'd feel stupid if it was a prehistoric worm, or something. But he had a very good feeling about this.

The claw, if it was a claw, was the only thing he found that day, but it was a lot more than he'd ever found before, and Lance sang jauntily as he strode back towards the city. It seemed to be a long way off, and not getting any nearer, and he was almost ready to worry when he missed his footing and fell sideways with a yelp. But when he got his breath back and stood up again, he found he'd made better progress than he'd thought, because there was the path back through the woods, and after that it was less than two hours to get home because it was all downhill.

Lance's brain said he could not be certain that he'd found a dragon's claw. Lance's heart was sure, but even so, he didn't intend to mention it to anyone. He hunted through his repair kits and found a pair of black leather shoelaces, which he knotted into a careful loop and hung the claw through so that he could wear it like a necklace, a talisman, under his shirt. Proof that he was right, that there were still dragons in the world.


Lance was strongly tempted to go back to the hills on Sunday, but he was weary from the previous day's hiking, and more to the point, had promised to visit JC, who was obviously emerging from his reclusive phase and ready to reconnect with the world. He should probably be encouraged. So Lance caught the tram into town, stopped off for some pastries from Fatone's—the bakery adjunct to the restaurant was open every morning except Monday, and their sfogliatelle was the food of the gods—caught the bus out to the north-east, and walked the last half-mile to JC's barn, where he was welcomed by a slightly startled JC in a mud-stained T-shirt who promised he had not forgotten Lance's visit, but he'd been caught up working in the garden and time had gotten away from him. JC took him into the back garden, gave him wine, and took him on a tour of the plant beds, still abundant with the flowers of late summer. They ended up sitting on the bench carved from the trunk of a fallen tree, which was more comfortable than it looked and of which JC was inordinately proud. JC seemed ready for more than trivial conversation by this time, so Lance asked what he was working on.

JC looked oddly uncertain, and fiddled with his wine glass. "Oh, you know. Form, and relationship with reality..."

Lance was not at all sure what that meant, but decided he had better be encouraging. "Do you have a show lined up?"

"No, no... I'm nowhere near ready for that yet. But I could show you a couple of pieces, if you like."

"That'd be great. Please."

So JC led Lance to the workshop on the upper level of the barn. There were racks and tables and shelves full of metal pieces and wood, stones, found objects of all kinds from glass bottles to pebbles, scraps of newspaper, rusting garden tools. Lance had been in here once before, and was still surprised at the neatness and orderliness of JC's work space. The living room downstairs was anything but orderly. It was a matter of priorities, he supposed.

Four boulder-sized lumps were concealed by floral sheets ("My aunt gave them to me, and I can't sleep in them, they're so hideous," JC explained), which JC whisked clear to show Lance his newest creations.

Lance had never pretended to 'get' JC's sculpture, and he didn't understand these any more than he'd understood the collection that had been JC's last public show, four years before. Sharp-edged and angular, rising into odd, fractured shapes… his eyes traced the lines of metal and glass, snagged on the unexpected punctuations of softer materials, followed a course along from one joint to the next, through what seemed to be too many right angles, and almost, almost for a moment he thought he understood what JC was doing here, thought he saw something more in the world than he'd seen before… then it was gone, and he just felt queasy and had to look away. Lance shook his head.

"Wow, 'C. That is—I don't even know what that is. But I think you're on to something."

JC's face creased into a puzzled frown. "I don't know, man, I think I got it and then it just… it's actually kinda frustrating. I mean, I know what I want to achieve, but it's like, how do you, how does it, it's, it's—"

"Breathe, JC."

JC huffed. "It's like, I need more dimensions. How can three dimensions be enough to express it all? It seems like there should be more, only I can't figure out how to access them. If only I could access them, maybe I could say something real."

Lance began to laugh. Because, really, who else but JC would be dissatisfied with the fundamental facts of reality? After a moment, JC laughed along with him. And Lance looked at the finished and part-finished works, and shook his head again, because this was freaky stuff and no mistake, and nobody but JC could have made these particular pieces. Nobody else expected reality to accommodate itself to his sculptures.

"So you're saying you need more room in reality."

"Yeah. Yeah, that's it. There needs to be more… it feels like there ought to be more. There isn't room for everything."

"You have Time."

"I don't think it helps much."

"No, I mean, Time," Lance clarified. "The fourth dimension. Your work has length and breadth and depth, and also duration."

JC's mouth turned down. "Yeah, but, that's not 'cause of what I do, it's not in my control. I don't get to build duration into the work—everything has duration, and I guess I could, like, set it to explode or something, but that's not what I want to say. Although it would be cool, you know? Art that only exists for a precise amount of time… I guess like graffiti, and pavement art, but no. It's not what I'm doing, not right now. Things are like, like, like pencils, you know?"

Lance didn't know, but JC was clearly intent on explaining. "See, the work starts out as a concept, a point, and then you create it, and that takes a while, and its co-ordinates in time, no, its profile in time, is like the sharp end of a pencil, the point is when it starts and then it grows in length and depth and, uh, breadth until it's complete. And then when it's made, it looks like the shaft of the pencil, it just continues to exist, like an infinite pencil, except it isn't actually infinite because nothing is, but you don't know when its time will come to an end. But that isn't what I mean."

Good, thought Lance, because he didn't think the concept would come across in JC's weird, angular sculptures. Although it was kind of a cool image. "The physicists say there may be a whole bunch of other dimensions, only we can't perceive them. They're, um, wrapped around like tiny rolls..." He'd read that physics book two and a half times so far, and the concept wasn't really sticking in his brain. That was the trouble with astrophysicists, Lance thought, the really good ones didn't have brains like normal human beings. Normal human beings couldn't think about the size of the universe like it was easy. Particle physicists, too, from the opposite direction. "You know what, you should talk with people at the university about this stuff."

"Oh, yeah, I hung out with a couple of guys," JC said, dismissively, "but they were all about the equations. I mean, I guess the math is a bit like art, but, eh. I want to make it… palpable. If we could only access those other dimensions, create a truly multi-dimensional work, that's what I want to do. I get it in my head, but it doesn't fit into what I can do with my hands. It's driving me crazy."

"Hmm," said Lance. He was intrigued by the idea that JC could somehow think in more than three—four, he supposed—dimensions. It was almost a pity JC was an artist. If he'd been a mathematician, or a physicist, he might have been able to do something spectacular. At least he'd have the tools to express what he claimed to have in his head. It was all very well JC saying the university guys weren't getting it, but Lance had more faith in science than in art. "I guess you have as much chance of figuring it out as a mathematician," Lance said, mostly to be nice, although as the words left his mouth he thought maybe it was true. "Keep poking at reality until it bends for you. You let me know when you get to show these, you hear me?"

JC shuffled a bit. "I don't know if that's going to happen. When, I mean. Right now I'm just, you know. Working."

Shit, Lance thought. JC's agent had abandoned him. Again. What was that, the fourth one now? "I hope you don't forget to eat," he said.

"Oh! Um, no. Of course not. You wanna—I put something in the oven, I guess it should be done by now."

It was more than done, but they sloshed quite a bit of red wine and a can of tomatoes over the remains and cooked some pasta, and it was fine. JC ate in a single-minded way that led Lance to suspect he did, in fact, forget to eat quite a lot of the time. He practically inhaled the sfogliatelle. Lance would very much have liked to broach the subject of maybe getting JC an assistant, or a job, depending on where his finances were, and it was irritating not to be able to pick out the specifics from the multi-tonal hum of JC's thoughts. But JC had a natural shield, so that all Lance could get from him was mood, no better than a regular empath, and he could not tell whether the worry he could detect was something serious like "I can't afford next week's meals" or only "that order for faceted zircon is late".

"See, I think I hit a dead end," JC said, abruptly, and there was a flash of anguish that caught Lance off guard. "I haven't been able to work on anything in weeks. Months, even. It just won't… I just wonder if I'm trying to do something impossible because I can't create anymore, and it's an excuse. If I'm just chasing dragons."

"If you catch one, let me know," Lance said.

"Sometimes I think I should go right back to the beginning, start in, like, one dimension, well, okay, two, and work from there, make it simple, only, only I'm not sure if I can. I don't know if I remember how."

"You know what you need?" Lance said, as inspiration seized him. "You need a student. Someone who's stuck in a different place than you are. You help someone else to work on problems you already solved, maybe that will remind you how to do it."

JC's forehead creased. "Do you think that would be a good idea? I mean, I don't know if I could help anyone else, not stuck like I am."

"Sure you could," Lance said, "you have a great eye for this stuff, you could help someone see what sh—they were getting right, and you could help them be brave enough to try new stuff. You've never been afraid of trying new stuff, have you?"

"I… no, I guess not."

"And maybe it would help you, too. I think you're so tied up in wondering how to use more dimensions in your work, maybe stopping thinking about it would give it a chance to, like, resolve itself in your head. And if you want to go back to basics, then helping someone who needs that would help you, too, wouldn't it?"

"Lance, are you offering me a job?"

"Ah… maybe. Do you know Britney Spears?"

"The kid who did those lovely naif paintings? We met a couple of times. Awful mother."

"Well, Britney needs help."

"Is she still working? I don't recall seeing anything new from her for, uh, a long while."

"She's been out of it for a while, she got married, had a couple of kids, and she's ready to get back to painting again, only she lost her confidence. I think you two could be good for each other, if you get along. How about it? Will you give it a try?"

"I guess it wouldn't do any harm to meet," JC said, "but you know, we have to have an artistic relationship. Mutual respect, and all that. I mean, I liked her paintings but I was maybe seeing things in them that weren't there on purpose. And who knows if she likes my work? We were shown in the same exhibition a few years back, today's rising stars or some such crap, but it doesn't mean she likes what I do, or even knows it, really. She was just a kid."

"I'm going to set something up," Lance said, getting out his notepad. "Dinner, maybe. We'll start with that."

JC nodded. "It could be good," he mused, "getting to work with another artist. I kinda miss that."


"And this came for you," said Lisa, laying a small box on top of Monday's letters. "There's a card with it."

After Lisa and her air of excitement had retreated to her own desk, Lance was not particularly surprised to find that the card was from Adam Lambert. The flamboyant handwriting thanked him for introducing Adam to Simon Cowell, and hoped the enclosed would make a welcome addition to his collection. Lance remembered being so flustered he'd risked making that call with Lambert still in the room, and decided he disliked Adam Lambert. 'The enclosed' proved to be a snowglobe of a baby dragon emerging from an egg. Lance frowned at it. The proportions were all wrong. The egg's surface gleamed with muted rainbow colours like oil in a puddle, but it was too shallowly curved where it stood proud of the 'sand' surface, and the dragon baby's red head was so large the rest of its body could not possibly fit within the egg.

Lance did not want a thank-you present from Adam Lambert. Lance did not like people with adamantine shielding and dragon-hide boots. He would put the snowglobe into the box for the charity collectors… he looked at it again. Tilted it, so that tiny flakes drifted like ash from a volcano. Then he put it on the shelf next to the green dragon, and turned his attention to his mail.


He tried quite hard to ignore his new ornament, but it was as persistent as a popular song, worming its way into his head at unexpected moments, so that he'd find himself staring up at the little red head emerging from its improbable shell, and trying to figure out why something so patently incorrect seemed to convey a kind of rightness. Lance spent a lot of time mentally swearing at Adam Lambert for giving him such a distracting gift.

However, he did have a business to run, jobs to fill, applicants to see, and the particular problem of Britney to deal with. He was confident that she and JC would have something to offer one another, and set up a dinner together so they could get reacquainted and see if there was any reason why this deal wouldn't work; but there was still the difficulty of getting Britney an assistant to wrangle her kids and the rest of her life. Britney was a great client if you liked getting a fee every time she accepted a candidate you sent her, but he would have preferred to find the one, perfect person for her.


That afternoon there was a tidal disruption in the outer office. Lance put his accounts to one side and awaited Chris's entrance into his own room, which followed after a few noisy minutes.

"So, Mr Employment Agent," Chris began, and sat.

"You didn't," Lance said, though he knew he was wrong.

"If you mean, I didn't tell that fat git what he could do with his job, you're wrong." Chris looked pleased with himself, although there was a roil of uncertainty behind his grin.

"I suppose it was inevitable."

"I couldn't work there any more. I mean, I had this sweet motorcycle, and I went over every cog and rod and cylinder and she was singing, fine as could be, and the bastard wanted me to make out she needed—I'll spare you the technical details, but it was just fucked, seriously. And I said the owner was paying me to make sure his machine was safe and sound, and it was, and, eh. You know."

"You lost your temper."

"He lost his first! Technically, it's possible I provoked him."

Lance rolled his eyes. "And now you need a job. You do realise there's better places than here for someone with your kind of skills."

"I'm not necessarily looking to work as a mechanic," Chris said, surprising him. "I've been saving, I want to start up my own place, but I don't quite have the capital yet. I could go work for some other dishonest piece of shit, but I doubt it'd help me. The only decent garage I know is Wright's Wheels, and they aren't hiring because I asked. But I can do other stuff. I could be somebody's driver, chauffeur, keep the cars tuned and polished, whatever. Or, I don't know, anything. I don't mind being a bouncer or a trash collector or—anything that keeps me in meals and lets me put a bit by. I don't need much."

Lance felt a bit guilty for accepting the little coiled gold dragon, but there had been no point refusing the gift. And it probably hadn't cost a lot.

"Okay. Okay, I'll see what I can do. Did Lisa give you one of our forms?" Chris shot him a disgusted look, and Lance sighed. "It makes my life a lot easier—it makes getting you a job much quicker, if you fill in the details." There didn't seem to be any blanks in his drawer, so Lance went over to the press and stamped a couple, one of which he handed over. "If you need a pen there's one on the inkstand."

Chris muttered something about pretentious bastards with quills and fancy inkwells, even though he knew perfectly well that Lance used a fountain pen like everyone else and only kept the cut glass set on his desk because they were pretty, but he settled down to fill in his details, and very soon handed his completed application over.

"I'll do my best to find you something, Chris," Lance said. "With an honest boss."

"You're a good man," Chris said. "You don't mind if I distract your assistant for a while, do you? I think she has chocolate chip cookies."

Lance was actually wondering why Lisa had not come in with coffee and a plate of something, but as Chris opened the door to the outer office he heard a familiar voice and thought, oh. Chris went out, calling blessings down upon Lisa's head, and a moment later there was a knock on the door.

"Come in," he called, bracing himself.

"Hi," Adam Lambert said, cheerfully. "I brought Chris over, he finished working on my bike and managed to get himself sacked, so I thought it was the least I could do."

"It was very kind of you," Lance said.

"Oh, not really. I was coming this way anyway. I wanted to ask, I wondered if, would you have dinner with me tonight?"

"I, I—" what? "I'm busy." Lance almost bit his tongue to hold in the automatic apology that wanted to follow—his momma would be unimpressed. Truth to tell, he was fighting an impulse to say yes.

"Ah," said Adam Lambert. "Right. I see you have the hatchling on display."

"Yes, it's a very—it's an interesting piece. Thank you. You didn't need to give me anything, I was just doing my job."

"Sure, but you got me exactly where I needed to be. I'm grateful. And I thought you'd appreciate it, since you collect dragon… memorabilia. With the shell being authentic, I mean."


"Mm hm."

Did he mean, it was from an actual dragon egg? How on earth—was that even possible? "I'd have thought dragon eggs were a lot bigger," he said, trying to keep a disinterested tone.

"It's from the pointy end, obviously, or the curve would barely show in a thing that size. But you can see from the colours. Like a black version of abalone, which I don't believe occurs anywhere else in nature. You should look out for it next time you go hiking. You never know what else you might find."

Lance was too thrown to know what to say to that. "You, uh, seem to know a lot about dragons."

Adam Lambert smiled. "There's a lot more I could tell you, if you have dinner with me."

"I can't. Like I said. I'm busy."


"These are the best damn chocolate chip cookies ever. Bass, when I'm rich I'm going to steal your assistant." Chris, marching back into the office bearing a depleted plate of cookies. Lance blessed him for his timing.

"You wouldn't be as good a boss as me," he said. "Hand them over."

Chris, naturally, offered the plate to Adam Lambert first.

"No, thanks, I already tried them, and you're right, they are good. I guess I should get going. Do you need a ride home?"

"That would be cool," Chris said. "Lance, you got my number, if anything should, you know."

"I will call," said Lance. "You take care, now."

"Say hi to JC for me," Chris said as he left in Adam Lambert's wake.



"Hey, Lance. Good to see you!" Papa Fatone had the happy knack of making it seem that you were the one person in the world he most wanted to see. It was a real asset, when you ran a restaurant. "Hey, Joey! Here's your favourite customer! You have two guests tonight? Don't worry, we'll look after you."

"I know you will," Lance said, grinning back.

"We put you in the Nook," Joey said from behind him, "since you asked for privacy. This way."

The Nook turned out to be a tiny side-room filled with film posters and autographed photographs of famous people, which might have been the usual restaurant schtick except that Joe Fatone, Senior was in some of the pictures. Fatone's had been feeding people for a long time.

"Table for three," said Joey, in a tone of mild disapproval. "I suppose this means you aren't having an intimate date with that special person. Unless," he brightened, "you have a harem now?"

"No." Lance smiled. It was impossible not to cheer up with Joey around. "It's business. Well, mostly. They're friends too."

"When are you going to find yourself a nice boy? You ought to have them lining up!"

"Oh, well, you know. Work. And…"


"I did get—someone asked me out. Only it was for tonight, so I couldn't go. And I wasn't sure if I wanted to."

"So what's the problem?" Joey slid into one of the chairs. "I got time, there's hardly anybody in yet and Kel can cope for a few minutes."

"It's just that, he, I don't know. I don't trust him, and he seems to be, there's some questionable stuff. How could I date someone who goes against my principles?"

"But he's really hot," Joey stated. He didn't need to be a mind-reader to guess that.

"Yeah…" There was something compelling about Adam Lambert, and Lance did not know what it was. "I keep thinking about him," he admitted. "But I don't think I even like him."

"Maybe you should give the guy a chance," Joey said. "Could be you just aren't on the same wavelength."

Not on the same wavelength was about right, Lance thought. With Adam's shielding and the fact that he was hiding something in a way Lance had never encountered before, he didn't see how they could manage to get along. It was just really tempting to try, until Lance brought himself up short by remembering the dragon-hide boots. How could there possibly be a good explanation for dragon-hide boots?

Joey seemed to recognise that the conversation had nowhere to go, and stood up. "You want something to drink while you're waiting?"

Lance ordered gratefully, and scanned the wine list while Joey went to fetch his aperitif. It arrived scant seconds before Kelly showed JC into the Nook, and a few moments later, Britney's arrival had them both standing up again to greet her.

What was really gratifying was that Britney and JC seemed to get on at once. There were several minutes of obligatory mutual admiration, and then they were commiserating on how hard it was to fight through artist's block, and Lance hardly needed to say a word. He picked out a bottle of wine, but Joey didn't bother to take an order for food, showing up a few minutes later with a bowl of olives, a platter of antipasti, and breadsticks, and later brought a chicken dish with salad for Britney, a gigantic bowl of spaghetti and meatballs which JC hoovered clean in between enthusiastic and incoherent descriptions of pieces he had admired, and a dish for Lance which he hadn't tried before but which turned out to be just what he wanted. Joey informed him with a wicked smirk that it was Penne con Pollo al Dragoncello.

His artistic experiment was plainly going to work. Lance only needed to nudge the conversation briefly, to make sure the two of them made an actual appointment to get together at Britney's place to do some work. He was, he decided complacently, very good at his job. Even if he wasn't getting a commission for this one.


"I have to get someone for Britney," Lance said as Lisa entered his office first thing the following morning. "She's so excited about working as an artist again, it'd be a real shame if all that enthusiasm drains away because she doesn't get any time."

"It went well last night, then?"

"Couldn't have gone better, really. I'm sure it's going to work out for both of them. Oh, man." Lance was looking at the morning's list.

"I don't think you're going to have time for Britney's problems until after lunch," Lisa confirmed.

"Lunch? Hah. You know these two are going to over-run, and I would put money on at least one of the others as well. You keep the coffee brewing or there'll be fistfights."

His first appointment was due in half an hour, leaving Lance just enough time to read today's letters and glance through the files before the client arrived.

After that, there was no let-up until nigh on two o'clock, and as he showed the most recent applicant—a promising young woman, he thought she'd be easy to place, probably when the Pan Dancers got back from their tour—out of the office, Lance realised he was extremely hungry.

Lisa, of course, had been to the sandwich bar just along the road.

"You are the best assistant ever," he said through a mouthful of turkey and lettuce.

She beamed. "I know. You have about forty minutes before that update call with Mr Fuller. Do you want to think about the Britney problem, or is your head too full?"

"I really want to get her suited as soon as possible, so let's see if we can figure something out now. So. Kasdorf, Hedderson, Peters."

"I have the notes here. It looks like any of them would be competent."

"Yeah. It's more a personality thing. Ms Peters seemed a bit young… see, I kinda thought she really needs a mom in her life," Lance said, "but now I'm wondering if I got that wrong. Maybe a younger assistant would be better, they'd have more in common."

"A mom might be what she needs," Lisa decided, "but I'm not sure it's what she wants. I mean, you said her actual mom was all kinds of pushy and not very nurturing, and honestly, if Britney's mom was the kind of mom who, like, baked cookies with her kids and made sure they had clean socks and everything, I bet Britney would have turned out to be that kind of mom too."

"I think she wants to be, but I don't think she knows how."

"Yeah, but, there's lots of ways to be a good mother. You don't have to be the cookies-baking kind."

"That's true." Lance's mother had taught him to bake cookies. "Also, kids are pretty good at forgiving their parents when they fuck up." But it was still uncomfortable to go home and hear everyone desperately trying not to think about anything except Mary Had A Little Lamb.

"I wonder if Britney doesn't like women very much," Lisa said, thoughtfully. "I mean, she doesn't seem to have girlfriends. Sometimes, women feel like other women are competitors, and they don't get to be friends. Maybe that's why her assistants don't last long. If she, if she feels like they're competing for her kids' affection, that'd be kinda scary, wouldn't it?"

"Huh." Lance would have to ponder that. He'd never picked up on any such feelings, but then, he'd never witnessed Britney's interactions with her assistants, and she did have that habit of pushing all the negative stuff down out of sight and refusing to think about it. If it even made it as far as conscious thought, which it probably wouldn't. He—and Britney, as far as he could tell—had just assumed what she wanted was a capable, organised woman. If that was wrong... He didn't think there were any men on his books who were applying for a job as a nanny or personal assistant. Mostly the ones without marketable talent, professional qualifications or technical skills wanted to be bodyguards. He sighed. "The more I think about it, the more I wonder if you aren't right about her not really wanting another woman around. But we don't have any men who—wait. Wait just one second. I just had the stupidest—Okay, I'm gonna—" He leapt for his telephone and paged hurriedly through the address folder.

"Chris! Hi. Listen, you said you didn't need a job as a mechanic, right? How would you feel about being a kind of, erm, part time secretary, part time child minder, with a side order of cook and laundry-maid?"

Five minutes later, he put the phone down and did a little dance of triumph. Lisa applauded politely from the doorway.

"Your boss is a genius, seriously. It's crazy, but I really think it'll work—at least for long enough that Britney'll get back her artist mojo and Chris will save enough money to start his garage."

"Chris? Chris Kirkpatrick?" Lisa started to laugh. "Are you serious?"

"He has four younger sisters, he'll look after her," said Lance. "And he's incredibly good with little kids, mostly because he never really grew up." He had a great feeling about this. "Right, back to the grindstone. I'll give Britney a call and tell her we're sending someone over, then it's time to hit the accounts. Here's my notes from this morning."

"And here's the rest of your sandwich. And, um, this came."

Lance eyed her warily as she handed him the envelope. He recognised that fizzy feeling behind her smile, and was not at all surprised that the address was in Adam Lambert's handwriting.

"He, um, he sent me something, too. Tickets for a concert Saturday night. It's a variety concert, he's probably on quite early, being so new, but wouldn't it be great to see what he can do when he's not just singing in the office?"

Possibly, Lance thought. "I'm sure he'll be very good," he said.

"Then you'll come?"

"Me? Aren't you going to ask a friend along?"

She wrinkled her nose. "Last time I went to a concert with my mates they ditched me because a bunch of skeevy guys wanted to buy them drinks. And you're the reason Adam has this gig, of course you should come!"

"Ah. Well…"

"Just think about it. I'm going to start on this filing."

Left alone in his office, Lance opened the note. Hi. Chris K told me you really were busy yesterday, and I'm a persistent guy so I'm going to ask you again, and then one more time after this if you say no, but third time's the charm and if you say no again I promise I'll leave you alone. Will you have dinner with me? As an extra incentive, you can ask me about my boots. My evenings are filling up now, Simon C has me on the circuit already, but I'm sure we can work something out. A telephone number, a sprawling signature.

Damn it, Lance thought.


"See, I just don't know if it's a good idea."

"You said he was hot," Joey stated, as though that answered all arguments.

"No, you said he was hot," said Lance. "Okay, he is hot." Gorgeous blue eyes, great smile, long legs—in dragon-hide boots. "But I don't have a clue what he's thinking, and it's so weird, I've never had that before and I don't like it."

"It might not be such a bad thing," said Joey, who never needed to ask a customer what he wanted to eat. "Keeps the element of surprise. And, it means you aren't always the one who knows what's going on. Makes for a more equal relationship, if you have to use your words."

Lance opened his mouth to reply to that, realised Joe had a point, and ate a meatball instead. He'd never thought of it that way before, but maybe, maybe it was a little bit unfair that he could always tell if a guy was lying to him. "So you're saying I should go for it?"

"Course I am. 'Bout time you had someone interesting in your life. Make him bring you here for dinner, I want to get a look at the guy."

"I was thinking maybe lunch," said Lance, admitting to himself that he'd known Joey would encourage him, which was why he was here eating spaghetti and meatballs for dinner and asking for advice. If he'd wanted to be discouraged he'd have called his sister.

"That's right, make him work for it," Joey said, cheerfully.


He telephoned, and—inevitably—reached Adam Lambert's answering service, so left a message suggesting three possible lunch dates. Right. Done. Then he settled down for a nice, comfortable evening with his dogs and his physics book. Dogs were so much easier than people. Their love was total and uncomplicated. And they hid nothing.

Mid-way through the evening, Adam Lambert called back, and they had a polite, stilted conversation culminating in an arrangement to meet for lunch the following Wednesday. When he replaced the receiver, Lance sat immobile by his telephone table, trying for what seemed like the thousandth time to decide whether he was being fair and reasonable and giving a good-looking man a chance, or being foolish, led around by his baser desires, and going against all his principles.

Lance's life had been much simpler before Adam Lambert arrived in it.

He had brought the snowglobe home with him. It was too distracting to keep at work. At least if he spent half an hour gazing at it in his own living room he wasn't wasting time that should be spent on his accounts. He set it on the coffee table in front of the couch, and settled down to tackle the physics book again. He was almost sure his brain was beginning to wrap itself around the idea of a many-dimensional universe, but Kaluza-Klein theory was very slippery. If JC could do it by instinct, more power to him.

And now he was picturing those weird and wonderful sculptures JC had made. He tried to get them plain in his mind, and experienced again that odd feeling that there were too many right angles, until he slid off the couch feeling dizzy. He fetched up in front of the coffee table, nose to nose with the baby dragonlet which was of course, of course it was coming from a different dimension than was captured in the snowglobe, it was too big because the rest of it was somewhere else, how obvious it was. The meatballs lurched uncomfortably in his stomach and Lance had to blink and shake his head, and when he looked again the little dragon was just the wrong size as usual.

But he knew, now. He knew where dragon country was.

* * *

He was awake long before the alarm clock shrilled on Saturday morning, eager to get back into the hills. The dragon snowglobe, wrapped carefully in a towel, went into the backpack along with water, oat bars and sandwiches, pocket light, emergency flare, emergency blanket in its little pouch, maps, first aid pack and waterproof jacket. Great-grandpa's compass he tucked into one of the side pockets as usual. He'd never actually used it but it seemed right to take it when he went hiking. He caught the early tram to the end of the line and set off at a good pace. The morning sky was pale and cold, not the bright, sun-filled blue that sometimes made autumn glorious, but it didn't matter. He'd warm up as he went. It would probably be best to get beyond the woods, so he strode along merrily and even sang.

He paused for a snack once he was through to the higher ground. He was tingly with nerves and anticipation. Would it even work? Would he be able to do, in practice, what he could theorise? Or would he be left as frustrated as JC by the gap between what he could imagine and what he could achieve?

Well, it was time to try. Lance unwrapped the snowglobe from its protective towel and stared at the little red creature emerging from its egg. He visualised JC's bizarre creations until he felt queasy again and closed his eyes, still firmly thinking of too many right angles and a dragonlet hatching from nowhere, and stepped forward. A lurch in his belly, nausea. Stepped again, and wanted to heave his innards onto the ground. One more struggled step and—suddenly the nausea was gone.

Lance opened his eyes.

He was—he was where he had been, except… it was different. As if the world were painted in different colours, except that things were still green, blue, brown as they had been before, but… the sky was a more intense blue. Was it warmer, brighter, were the greens of grass and leaves richer and more alive than he remembered, or was it just that he'd had his eyes so tightly closed he was seeing the echoes on his eyeballs? He turned slowly. Was the city—

The city wasn't there.

The contours of the world were the same, but the city was not there.

Lance breathed very carefully. He'd done it. It didn't make sense, but somehow he'd done it. This had to be dragon country, in the dimensions that weren't there. He knew an ecstatic moment of joy and terror, and tamped it down. He'd done it. Now he must go and find out if the dragons were still here.

The hills ahead seemed a familiar shape, so he headed onward and upward, and after a while found himself gazing down at the valley where he'd found the claw, except that this time, it was bigger. He had to pick his way carefully down the rough, tussocky slope, and was panting a little by the time he stood on the flat ground at the bottom. And the cave, the cave he'd poked an arm into was now a real cave, more than big enough for him to walk into it—warily—deep under the hill. There was a strange resonance, indefinable, and the walls were worn smooth in places higher than his head, perhaps—he could almost see it—where a dragon's shoulders had smoothed against the rock.

He was walking in a tunnel, Lance realised, a tunnel with a purpose, a tunnel with a floor that was neat and clear of debris. Were dragons tidy creatures? Had there simply been nothing in this tunnel for too many years?

The sunlight behind him wasn't penetrating far enough, and what was ahead was just blackness. Lance groped through his backpack for the pocket light, and could have kicked himself when it offered a dim orange glow which barely illuminated his hand. The batteries were almost spent. All this way, and he'd found what had to be a dragon's cave, and he couldn't explore it. He stood there in the tunnel, poised between the dull good sense of retreat and the enticing, stupid allure of going forward into the darkness, and quite seriously considered bashing his head against the tunnel's oddly smooth wall.

However, that wouldn't help. With immense reluctance he retreated back into the sunlight. He would come back next week, he'd bring a working pocket light, and matches, for backup.

Moving a cautious distance from the cave entrance, Lance found a comfortable spot in the grass and sat down to eat his sandwiches. It seemed so prosaic, but he was hungry, and he must be practical. He hoped time didn't work differently here—his watch was behaving normally, as far as he could tell, but who knew what the physics of different dimensions might be? There was nothing he could do about it, one way or the other, so he decided not to worry.

If he couldn't explore the cave, there was no reason he couldn't explore the valley. There might be other evidence of dragons, another claw maybe, or… something. Putting the sandwich wrappings neatly into his backpack, Lance got to his feet and headed across the bowl-like valley. There was a dip between the hills on the far side, he'd work across and go up there.

The valley floor yielded nothing, not so much as a scorch mark, so he climbed up to that dip in the valley's surrounding bowl, and stood to survey the terrain. The view made him catch his breath. Not unfamiliar, and yet fresh, new, all the colours more saturated than his everyday world. From the little yellow flowers in the grass to the purple of the distant mountains, everything was so vivid. There must be at least one dragon here, surely? Surely there must be a dragon here.

He was looking for a suitable place to sit down when he saw it. A glimpse of gold, a flash in the sky, quite far off. Lance felt for a moment as though his heart had stopped, and he fell to his knees with the shock, but he kept his eyes fixed on that far-off speck of gold and was rewarded, for it flew closer, until it was the size of his hand, still distant but clear enough to see its beautiful, glorious lines and the wide, shining wings like sails as it glided in spirals above the hills. He gazed, rapturous. What was it like to fly over the world like that? Could it possibly be as wonderful as it looked from his earth-bound place? How far could the dragon see, could it see Lance? Would it come closer? He was torn between hope and fear, because if it did, if it noticed him, what would it do? And if it did not notice him, would he ever recover?

It did not come closer. Lance was not tired of watching when the dragon flapped its great wings and flew away. He watched it until it was a tiny speck in front of the mountains, and then it was gone.

Lance lay back in the grass, and felt as though he would burst with joy.

After a while he realised that tears were trickling into his ears, and sat up. It was probably time to go. His watch said he had time to return home before the concert, and he hoped it was telling the truth, because he was going to need a shower. He circled the valley and set off down the hill towards the place where there was a path through the woods in the other version of the world.

Time to get back. He unwound the snowglobe again, hoping he hadn't managed to trap himself here—it didn't feel as though it would be impossible to return, but what did he know of such things? Still reluctant to leave, Lance looked back over his shoulder, and turned, for there on the crest of the hill, silhouetted and black against the light of the low sun, was the dragon, standing with its wings and tail raised almost in salute. A moment later it furled its wings and disappeared down the far side of the slope.


"Hi, boss! Are you excited? You look exited." Lisa beamed at him. She was waiting outside the restaurant, but he'd seen her arrive and start peering at the menu in the window as he got off the tram, so he knew she'd not been there long.

"I guess I am," he told her, and did not add, but not for the reason you think. "I'm also starving. Let's get inside."

A very large steak, a bowl of fried potatoes and a generous salad later, he was wondering whether he had room for dessert, and Lisa was getting twitchy.

"We don't want to miss him. It starts in—it starts now!"

"Adam Lambert is never going to be the opening act," Lance assured her. There would be eight different acts on the bill, culminating in a band with a vaguely familiar name. Lance had spoken to one of Cowell's assistants, as an interested party, and was pleased to discover that Adam would not be the only performer he'd sent Cowell's way. But Lisa was anxious, and he wasn't going to be unkind, so he waved for the waitress, and paid. "C'mon, then."

No more than half the seats in the splendid hall had been filled when they got to theirs, and the floor area was mostly empty. Probably the friends and family of the neophyte performers, determined to give a good show of support. Adam Lambert, not at all to Lance's surprise, was to perform sixth. The kid on stage now had a really hard job to do, singing in front of the indifferent incomers, and was doing her best, although Lance was getting waves of nervousness from the stage. He settled into his seat, but couldn't keep his mind on the show. Instead he went into a reverie. A golden dragon!

The second performer had such a powerful glamour that Lance had to go outside. He wound up at the bar with a nice cold vodka tonic rather than a headache, and returned in time for performer number three. Meredith was someone he'd been able to sell to Simon Cowell. She hadn't been received with such instant interest as Adam, but she was doing okay. The hall was mostly full, now, and the atmosphere was improving. Lisa was enjoying herself, standing to dance in the aisle when the music took her that way. Lance kept his shield firmly in place. It gave him a feeling of being outside the crowd rather than a part of it, which was sort of a shame—the Timberlake concert had taught him that it could be fun to give in to the massed emotions and groove along, but he wasn't going to do that tonight.

Acts four and five kept things moving nicely, and although the lead singer of the trio in the fifth spot was definitely using a glamour, she was also a capable singer, so there was only a slight dissonance and Lance could enjoy the harmonies if he closed his eyes and listened. Actually, that alto had the best voice, but the glamour was going to keep the pretty soprano in the spotlight for longer. Ah, well.

And then, Adam Lambert, all in black and glittering with spikes and silver chains, swaggered down an illuminated staircase with all the self-confidence in the world, and suddenly the air was electrified. Such a huge presence that this crowd of people who'd never heard him sing before were riveted. Nobody was sitting down when he sang the loud, uptempo numbers, and when he paused for a lonely, aching ballad the crowd seemed to hold its collective breath. Adam Lambert could do anything with his voice, apparently. Then he revved back up again—Lookin' for adventure, whatever comes my way—and oh, the way he moved his body, Lance had not been expecting that. He strutted, he dominated, and the audience responded—the whole hall was alive with reaction and hot with desire.

I'm going to have sex with that man, Lance thought, and then, No! No, I'm not! Damn it, this wasn't even the audience reaction creeping into his mind. He was not supposed to be thinking about having sex with Adam Lambert. He did not intend any such thing.

But I could, he thought, and oh, dear, it was tempting.

"Do you think we should stay and congratulate him at the stage door?" Lisa said, starry-eyed as they waited for the penultimate performer, who was going to have a hell of a time trying to follow that.

"I… think there'll be a lot of people fighting for his attention," Lance said. "He'll, uh, he'll be in the office Wednesday, you can tell him then."

"He doesn't have an appointment, does he? Oh, wait—he's your lunch?"

Or I might be his lunch, Lance thought, and quelled the notion. "We are having lunch together, yes."

Lisa danced and clapped her hands. "Excellent!"

They enjoyed the rest of the concert, but it did feel like a bit of an anticlimax.


Lance wanted so very much to head back to dragon country on Sunday, but he had things to do at home—laundry, for one, and the dogs deserved the long walk he'd denied them yesterday. He didn't take them on his dragon walks—a dog might make a nice little snack for a dragon, and he wasn't going to risk that. He could wait until next weekend.


"Hey, Lance! Lisa says you have a few minutes." Britney breezed into his office with a large, flat brown paper package in her arms. "How's it going?"

"Good, thanks." He rose to greet her and invited her to sit. "So, what brings you here today?"

"I won't stay long," she said. "I just wanted to thank you. You did a great job."

He smiled. "You mean Chris? Is that working out?" He could tell from her air of excited happiness that something was definitely going right.

"Chris is great," Britney said. "I never would have thought a guy could be so good with my boys, but he cooks these weird meals that they love, and they even made a list of vegetables that are not evil and they eat them. I guess having someone around who agrees with them about cabbage and stuff means they don't need to fight when he asks them to eat, like, bell peppers."

Lance grinned at the thought of Chris getting right down to the kids' level and being their ally. It might just be the perfect approach. "How about his other duties—is he keeping your life in order?"

"He is!" She looked baffled, but happy. "I'm not sure how, because he seems like an even bigger flake than me, but it works out. And I get plenty of time to paint, because he's never out of ideas for stuff to do with the kids. Oh, Lance, thank you so much for bringing me and JC together. That man is just so inspiring. I mean, I don't understand what he's saying half the time, but when we get together in the studio we can just, we don't even need to say, things just seem to make sense."

"So you're painting again. I'm so pleased," Lance said.

"I am! And JC's doing some wonderful stuff too. He's kinda weird but he's a sweetheart, and he's so talented. I just love being able to bounce things off him, you know? And we can, like, have the same idea and then produce completely different pictures. We actually do that a lot. My agent is getting excited, and it looks like we might maybe do a show together. Not yet, because we have to produce a whole lot more work that's good enough to show, but it's gonna happen. We're getting someone in from Gallery D to take a look at what we have, uh, I think next week."

"That's wonderful news, Britney."

"And, you know, it's all down to you for bringing me JC and Chris," Britney said, beaming at him, "so I brought you a, I brought you something. I'd have come sooner, only it had to, um. Dry." Suddenly shy, she handed over the brown paper parcel, which from the shape of it was—

"Oh, wow! A Britney Spears original? Seriously, wow." He stared at the picture. It was a vibrant swirl of reds and greens, exciting, fun, and—"Oh! It's dragons!" The whirl of colour resolved itself into a ring of dragons. Then he blinked, and they were gone again, back to abstract shapes. "You really have been working with JC," he observed.

"I know you're always looking for dragons, so I thought, maybe you'd like to find some," she said.

"It's wonderful," Lance told her with sincerity. "I'm going to have to get a hook put on the wall somewhere I can look at this every day."

She beamed, and there was a sense of relief and great satisfaction, entirely understandable. Britney leaped to her feet. "I should go. Time to play with my boys." Lance laid the picture carefully on his desk, and went around to usher her out. She gave him an impulsive hug, and kissed his cheek.

"Wow," Lisa said, after Britney's bright presence had left the office. "Did you just graduate from therapist to best friend?"

"Something like that. Come see!"

He put the picture up on the wall opposite his desk. This was turning out to be the best week for dragons.


Lance did not want to feel jittery on Wednesday, but he woke up with an odd feeling that seemed to oscillate between anticipation and reluctance and cause his stomach to vibrate. It was just lunch, and okay, Adam Lambert was an attractive man and a disturbing man who was hiding something, but still, it was just lunch.

He wore his favourite shirt. Sage green. It brought out his eyes. Lance told himself that knowing he looked good would give him confidence. Then he told himself not to kid himself, and it became quite the conversation before he managed to get himself to shut up. Just as well he was intending to work on accounts due this morning. He'd have to concentrate.

Adam Lambert arrived promptly at five to one. Muffled conversation told him—as if he needed to know—that Lisa was rhapsodising about Saturday's concert. Lance couldn't hear the words, but the tone was unmistakeable and the mood came right through the door, clear as anything. Lance tidied his desk and went through into the outside office. Adam was in his customary black, today a suit with a purple shirt, and almost glowing in his mystifying aura. Lance looked at him, and he looked at Lance, and a crystal clear thought rang in Lance's head: He's just perfect! Lisa was very definitely a fan. Traitor.

"Lisa told me you like to eat at Fatone's," Adam said as they walked along the street, "so I booked a table there. But if you wanna go somewhere else, that's okay."

"Fatone's is fine," Lance said. Joey would be delighted with the opportunity to assess the hot guy in person.

So it proved. There was a lot of very unsubtle winking and nodding as Joey seated the two of them, so Joey's totally unnecessary approval had obviously been given. Lance was somewhat irritated by this. Joey ought, he felt, to wait for Lance to decide whether Adam was a decent human being before rendering any judgments about his hotness. He was very much amused, therefore, when Joey hovered at the table and, looking somewhat embarrassed, inquired what Adam might like to eat. Adam gazed for a few moments at the blackboard on which the day's specials were chalked and ordered the Filetto Casanova. Lance was very careful to keep a straight face as Joey departed.

"Did he forget to take your order? Let me call him back—"

"No, no, it's fine. Joey knows what I like," Lance said, and stared. "Are you—are you wearing eyeliner?"

"Do you like it? I think it brings out my eyes," Adam said. "You should try it. You have beautiful eyes."

"Ah, uh. Thank you." Lance was stuck for words for a moment. "I enjoyed your performance on Saturday. You have great stage presence."

"I had such a blast! I've never performed to such a big audience before, it was amazing. I've sung in theatres, but you get such a different energy from a concert crowd."

"I expect you'll be doing bigger concerts soon."

"Simon's pleased with how I'm going over," Adam said, and he did have a very appealing grin. "He's putting me with some songwriters to work on my own music. It all seems to be happening really fast. I'm so grateful to you for sending me over to X-Works, I've seen how most people have to jump through all kinds of hoops to get an audition, and you got me straight to Simon with one phone call."

"You were one of the easiest applicants I ever placed," Lance said, lightly. "I'm glad it's working out for you." He wanted to ask about the dragon-hide boots, but could not figure out how to wrench the conversation round. So he inquired instead about the songwriters, and what kind of music Adam planned to create when he was no longer singing covers for the exposure, and when Joey returned to the table with water and salads, they were talking quite easily. Lance was pleased to see Joey's faintly baffled expression when he looked at Adam. No, Joey didn't like it either.

Now that Adam had taken off his jacket, Lance noticed something inside his shirt that gleamed like black abalone, and asked about it.

"The pendant? Yes, it's a piece of shell. It's so pretty, I couldn't resist. I love jewellery."

"I could tell, at the concert."

"Well, you have to go a bit over the top for concerts, right? Though I guess I wear quite a lot anyway. But, you know, all those chains and bracelets wouldn't go with the suit, so I was very restrained and just wore the shell. Speaking of shell, how are you getting on with the snowglobe? I hope it's not giving you headaches."

"No, no headaches. I think I understand where it's coming from," Lance said.

"I'm pleased to hear it," said Adam. "It's nice to meet someone who's interested in dragons."

"Speaking of dragons, you were going to tell me why your boots aren't something I should disapprove of."

"I was, wasn't I." There was a mischievous glint in Adam Lambert's eyes. "Well, did you know dragons shed their skins?"

"They shed…? Huh." They must be related to lizards, Lance thought. "I didn't know that. I guess it makes sense."

"Yeah. Well, I took a whole skin to a fancy leather dealer, and part of the sale was that I got a pair of boots made. Bought my motorcycle with the proceeds." Their entrées arrived at that point—Lance was given garlicky prawns with a kick of chilli—and there was a pause while they tasted. "Oh, this is good! Do you eat here a lot?"

"Their food is amazing."

"Here, taste this." Adam cut a piece from his beef and corralled peppercorn sauce onto it. "Isn't that good? Oh, sure, if you don't mind," and he accepted a prawn in exchange. "Oh, mmm, I will eat here again!"

Joey had arrived just in time to hear this, and was gratified. He refreshed the water jug and left them in peace.

"So where did you find a dragon skin?" Lance asked.

"Oh, you have to know where to look," said Adam. "And they are pretty rare, because adult dragons only peel once a decade, when they reach full size. More often when they're growing, obviously."

"You seem to know a lot about dragons," Lance said.

"Mmm." Adam reapplied himself to his food.

He hesitated, hoping Adam would be a bit more forthcoming. "So, how did you come to find out so much about dragons?"

Adam chewed, quite slowly, Lance thought. "Well, I've always been interested." He paused. "My parents taught me quite a lot." He shifted in his seat, and Lance would very much have liked to be able to confirm from Adam's thoughts that Adam was being evasive on purpose, but of course, he couldn't.

"You must have spent a long time in dragon country," Lance said.

"Yeah," Adam said, and his smile reminded Lance why he'd agreed to have lunch in the first place. "It's—it's beautiful there."

Lance had to agree. He was getting the picture clearly enough, even without Adam's thoughts. Adam Lambert was a dragon hunter, like himself, except he was in it for profit rather than the love of dragons. In fairness, it looked as though he got his profit without doing any actual harm, and Lance couldn't exactly blame him for being cagey about what he knew and how he'd found it out. Lance hadn't told anyone what he knew, either. "And you found an egg, too, or at least a part of one. That must have been quite profitable."

"Not as good as the skin, because most people don't know what it is. It just looks like some kind of exotic oyster shell, or whatever. I mean, it's pretty, but there isn't really a market because it never gets to market, you know?"

Lance tried very hard not to be envious. All he'd found was a claw. But it did sound as though Adam had been looking for dragons for a lot longer than Lance had.

"Well, then, I'm very flattered you gave some to me."

"I thought you'd appreciate it," said Adam, and grinned at him. "After all, you have your own… relic," he added, and Lance stared. How could he know that? How could he possibly know that? "Anyway, now you know no dragons were harmed in the production of my favourite boots, are we okay?"

"I—I—" Lance was still suspicious, but he couldn't very well admit that not being able to identify any of Adam's thoughts or feelings was the real cause. "I guess we are," he said. "I'm sorry I was kinda rude about it. I didn't know about the skin shedding."

"Peeling, we call it," Adam said, absently. "It's fine. I mean, it's good, I wouldn't want to be around someone who killed dragons to make clothes, either."


"Did you have a good lunch?" Lisa asked the instant Lance opened the office door.

"Yes, thank you, very good. Sorry if my breath smells of garlic."

She gave him an exasperated look. "And? Are you seeing him again?"

He looked at her for a moment, and then grinned. "Yeah." Lisa squealed. "Lunch on Sunday."

She looked disappointed. "I thought you'd have progressed to dinner. You do like him, don't you? Surely you like him?"

"I'm very picky," Lance said. "Also, he's busy. The variety concert went so well, they're repeating it at Simivale Arena tomorrow and the Verentain Concert Hall Friday. The venue they had a hold on for Saturday got booked for something else, but I'm busy Saturday," he added, before she could ask. He didn't need anything at the end of the day to curtail his time in dragon country. Not now he knew how to get there. He had a cave to explore.


Lance spent a lot of time thinking about Adam Lambert. Who was charming, and sweet, and apparently sincere, and certainly talented. And really hot. Everything Lance would have asked for. Was he wrong to be put off by that mental shield? It might not be covering a deliberate deception at all, it might just be a natural defence that most people never noticed was there. Was it so terrible not to be able to tell what Adam was thinking? But… how could Lance know?

Joey was no help. "Who's to say having a strong shield isn't just what comes natural to him? It doesn't mean he's a liar, or that he has anything more to hide than anyone else. You like having it easy. You always get to be the one in charge, because you know how they're feeling without them even having to tell you." Joey sounded quite put out. Lance reckoned not being able to bring Adam's meal without being asked had hurt his professional pride. "And you should tell him you're an empath."

"I should not! People who have a gift recognise it, and people who don't have one don't want to know." And Lance was not going to tell Joey, or anyone else, that he got more than feelings from most people. Ordinary empaths were okay and even acknowledged for their skills in certain professions, and people with highly specialised gifts, like the Fatones, generally didn't get recognised for it anyway, but a receiver? A guy who could hear actual thoughts? Not going to be popular. Lance had known that pretty much forever.

"Well, maybe. Okay. But you should give the guy a chance. He's just your type, and he's interested. Don't need to be an empath to see that. It'll be good for you to have to work it out like us normal guys."

He did have a point. Lance had always been safe, in his relationships. He'd always known what was going on in the other guy's head. He'd always been the one to break it off if things were getting too serious, or not serious enough, or just not… perfect. If he hadn't known Jesse was having doubts, was looking at other guys, Lance would never have broken it off with him, and maybe they could have worked it out. He had wondered, sometimes. Maybe he would have tried a bit harder…. He wouldn't be able to do that with Adam Lambert. He'd have to be honest, they would have to talk to each other. It sounded scary.

It sounded like Joey was right.

* * *

This weekend he had a wind-up pocket light, and matches, and extra food and water so that he could stay longer. The tram driver looked at him with world-weary eyes as he sprang aboard, but Lance did not care that he was grinning like a lunatic. He was going to dragon country. He bounded off the tram at the end of the line, and sang uninhibitedly as he strode through the woods.

It was easier getting through the dimensions now he knew he could do it. Lance set out confidently, and felt the snap of understanding as he looked at the snowglobe and imagined JC's sculptures. He almost thought he could do it with his eyes open, but decided not to try, not this time, anyway. He was too eager to get there.

He headed straight for the valley with the cave, determined to get inside and see what might be there. It was such a very dragonish place. When he reached it, he forced himself to sit at the entrance and eat an oat bar before he got the new pocket light out, wound it a couple of times just to be sure, and headed into the tunnel with its light playing on the ground in front of him.

It opened out into a cave of wonders. At first, Lance thought the lumps were natural formations, and wondered that the dragon had not cleared and flattened this cavern as it had cleared the passage-way; but the lumps glittered in the light's pale beam, and as he got closer he realised that this was not mere rock, this was shaped and made and—this was treasure! Dragon treasure! Metallic gleams of chains, coins, bracelets. Silver, he thought, but perhaps that was the pocket light leaching the colour out of the metal, since everyone knew dragons hoarded gold. There were gems, sparkling darkly. Sapphires, perhaps, and clusters of diamonds on rings and brooches, and great fiery opals in cleaved rock nuggets. A dragon's hoard. Real.

Amazed, Lance stared at the heaped treasures, noticing more and more details—strange, some of them, for now that he looked more carefully he could see that not everything was precious, at least, not by his standards. There were scraps of worked metal which might have come from household machinery—bits of piping, cable, cogs, and was that a hubcap? Over there were what looked oddly like—what were, in fact—old gramophone records, 78s, and the elegant cone of an ancient player, though it was draped with a cascade of gemstones and an evening purse in an Art Deco style was propped against it. A stack of leather-bound books with a curved, jewel-crusted dagger and a Minnie Mouse alarm clock on top. Altogether a much more idiosyncratic hoard than Lance would ever have expected, after the tales of treasure chests and purloined crowns he'd been reading all his life. What kind of dragon would steal these things from the world where humans made them? Why would it crave such stuff?

If it comes back and finds me here, I can ask it, Lance thought. If it doesn't decide it's hungry.

It would be prudent to retreat. But he couldn't, quite, bear to leave this incredible find without something to remind himself, when he got back to his own world, that he had truly found it. There was a small object close to his feet, a ring, bands of twined metal, too large for his ring finger but he slipped it onto his middle finger and it stayed. It was probably very, very stupid to steal something from a dragon's hoard, if all the legends of avariciousness were true, but… none of the legends had mentioned that a dragon might see value in an ancient black telephone, or, or an ostrich feather fan. Then again, it didn't feel entirely right to take something, but perhaps if he offered something in exchange? Would a bar of chocolate do? Lance dug into his backpack and then thought, no, and opened the side pocket where he kept the compass. A shiny, functional thing. The dragon would probably appreciate it, he thought. It was silver, with an elegant pattern and a handsome chain. He'd never needed the compass, only used it to prove to himself that he knew how; he could navigate perfectly well by the sun, and actually, even when it rained, his sense of direction was pretty reliable. Yes, the dragon should have it. Lance laid the compass carefully next to a shimmering necklace, to make it clear to the dragon that he hadn't stolen anything really valuable.

He retreated back the way he'd come, blinking as he emerged into the open air. It must be about noon, and the world seemed very bright.

On the whole, it might be better not to be in the immediate vicinity if the owner of the hoard came back, he decided, and climbed back up to the crest of hills surrounding the dragon valley. Over yonder was where he'd seen the glorious golden dragon. Would it be insane to try to get closer?

Yes, probably. But he was going to.

He set off determinedly down the slope. The hills the dragon had been spiralling over were higher than the ones surrounding the valley with the cave. It was a pity he couldn't walk across the gap, that he'd have to go down and then up. If he knew more about how to move through the dimensions—oh well. One thing at a time. He'd get up that next hill, and then eat.

He was hot and sweaty by the time he achieved his goal, and took off his top layer. Looking back, he didn't seem to have come so very far, but his legs assured him that the distant woods where he'd emerged into dragon country were a long way off. He probably shouldn't go any further, but he shouldn't need to. This was a great vantage point for dragon-spotting. He shivered, suddenly cold.

*CURIOSITY* filled his head, a huge and foreign curiosity which was certainly, certainly coming from someone, something—he looked around and didn't see any—oh, oh, the shadow on the ground around him was… He looked up.

The golden dragon was hovering high above, and its attention was plainly focussed on him. There was puzzlement in its thoughts, surprise, a hint of disapproval at his bizarre stunted shape—*NO WINGS?*—but mostly there was a relentless pressure of *CURIOSITY*.

Lance scrambled to his feet. "Hello?" he said, and bowed uncertainly.


The dragon wafted gently down. It was enormous. Its head was as long, Lance reckoned, as he himself was tall. Its wings, spread to gentle its descent, would have done a Napoleonic battleship credit, and one of its mighty talons could eviscerate him easily.

It did not seem to be considering evisceration. It seemed baffled, not at all sure what this puny earthbound creature might be. Its huge head snaked forward, and eyes like molten cauldrons surveyed him unfathomably. For all that he'd imagined this moment, Lance had no idea what to do. He wasn't sure he could do anything—his legs seemed unwilling to support him, and he honestly didn't think he could move. His head throbbed from the pressure of the dragon's thoughts.

The dragon examined him for a few moments longer, and then appeared to lose interest. *SMALL*, it thought, and something that felt like *UNIMPORTANT* but might have been *SAVE FOR LATER*, and it reared back, bunched its mighty hind legs and took off into the sky. Lance's legs gave up the struggle and he collapsed to the ground, and his mind was filled with *FLY*JOY*POWER* as the dragon spiralled up into the azure sky. He had never seen anything so magnificent. He watched it and felt its entirely unhuman pleasure pounding like distant kettledrums in his head, and his heart hurt with delight.

And then it was gone. Lance had no idea how long he'd watched the dragon fly—not long enough—but it was gone, and time was still passing, and he must go home. He was cold, he realised, and hurried to put his jacket on. The sky was fading, perhaps because there was no longer a dragon in it, but he didn't want to spend the night here, he wanted a hot bath and his comfortable bed and he wanted, he really, really wanted to be able to tell somebody, anybody, that he had seen a dragon, that he'd had a, well, not exactly a conversation with a dragon, but communication. If only there was someone he could tell.

Adam Lambert might believe him, but Adam exploited dragons for profit, he would want to know where the dragon was, so he could track it and take its skin when it shed. Although now that Lance had seen a dragon—had seen a dragon—close up, he couldn't imagine how one human being could deal with the skin of an entire dragon. Maybe it got packed in the same place that the baby dragonlet in the snowglobe did. Did Adam Lambert own a Mary Poppins carpet bag?

He laughed for joy as he ran down the hill.

That night, Lance's dreams were filled with dragons and treasure and flying over mountains.


Adam Lambert should not be allowed to ride a motorcycle. Or wear leather. Lance watched him settle the heavy machine and stride towards the house, and opened the door before Adam had a chance to knock.

"Nice," Adam remarked, flicking his head at the decorative knocker, which was cast iron in the shape of a rather portly wyvern.

"Come on in." Adam followed him into the kitchen, and set his leather jacket—regular leather, although he was wearing the dragon-hide boots—over the back of one of the chairs. "Er, do you have a problem with dogs?" Lance should have asked about this before inviting Adam to his home, but it had only just occurred to him.

"Dogs? A problem?"

"You're not afraid of them, or anything?"

"No. Should I be?"

"No, no, they're good dogs, but you know, some people don't like dogs, if they never grew up around dogs, or, um, whatever. Come on through to the living room and I'll let them in."

The dogs were outside, enjoying themselves as usual, and were very excited to be summoned into the house. The four of them scrambled through the open glass door and then stopped dead, sniffing and cocking their heads like a synchronised canine dance troupe. Weird. "This is Lily," he said. "She's a flirt. Go on, Lily, say hello." The little mongrel walked forward with her tail slowly waving, and Adam dropped to his knees.

"Hi, Lily!" he crooned, and she bounced up to him and made overtures, and ended up with her front paws on his chest, licking his chin while he giggled. Then Foster trotted forward and nosed for attention, and Dingo followed, and Jackson, elderly, grouchy and somewhat arthritic, clicked his way across the hardwood floor, demanded to be stroked, and settled himself at Adam's knee. Adam looked enchanted with all this doggy attention, and petting the beasts seemed to come very naturally to him. "They're adorable," he announced. Lance had to agree.

"You don't have to stay on the floor with them," Lance said, smiling, and after a few minutes more of love, Adam extricated himself and sat on the couch, facing the big glass doors and the expanse of back yard. The dogs arranged themselves on the floor at his feet, and Lance went back to the kitchen for some iced tea. The dogs' obvious trust in Adam was a huge point in Adam's favour, and Lance found himself yet again revisiting Joey's arguments for why it would be good for Lance to have a boyfriend with a solid shield.

"Four dogs!" Adam said as he accepted his drink, and sounded almost envious.

"It works out easier than having just one, because they keep each other busy while I'm out at work." He let them out every morning, and opened up the odd little extension down the side of the house, where their crates and water dishes and beanbags and an ancient couch gave them a comfortable retreat in case of rain or weariness. Jackson spent a lot of time snoozing in there. "That's why I live right out here, it's not so handy for work and seeing friends, but it had the biggest back yard of anywhere I looked at. I only had the three boys when I got this place, but it was perfect."

"And three dogs just wasn't enough," Adam said, raising an eyebrow at him.

"I was helping out at a dog shelter—the one where I got Dingo and Foster, actually—and they were trying to get someone to adopt Lily, and I, well. Kinda couldn't resist."

"I'm not surprised." Adam bent down to stroke Lily's absurd curls. "She's such a cutie."

"Did you have a pet dog when you were a kid?"

Adam looked startled. "No, no pets. I don't think I ever thought about it."

"I can recommend a good shelter, if you want to get one."

"I can't. At least—I think I might be spending quite a bit of time away, in the spring. Simon's talking about going national when the record comes out, so." He looked quite regretful. "It must be nice to come home to this little army."

"Yeah." The dogs were always purely happy to see him, exuding thoughts he interpreted as lovelovelovemasterlove and mastergivefoodnowkindmaster and nicemastermorepettings, simple, uncomplicated emotions that infallibly made him feel better. "I'm just going to check on the food, excuse me." As he left the room, Adam was making a fuss of Foster.

They herded the dogs back outside and sat down to a meal of roast chicken which Lance was relieved to find had worked perfectly. Adam was impressed that Lance could cook, and this involved an explanation about Lance's family and how his Mama and Nana had taught him to bake, and how easy roasting a dinner was by comparison to making pastry or a perfectly risen sponge cake. They were eating the apple pie when Adam's right hand darted out to grab Lance's left.

"You have—I don't think I saw you wear jewellery before."

Lance knew an impulse to hide his hand, and the purloined ring, but it was too late for that. "Yeah, this is new."

"It's pretty." Adam was staring very intently at the ring, and he hadn't let go Lance's hand, which was unsettling in a mostly good way. "It looks, what's the word, vintage? Is that the word for it, when it's jewellery? Where did you find it? I love finding new places to shop."

"It's… it wasn't a shop, it was kind of a barter thing." It was no good. If he was going to try this, if there was to be any chance of a relationship here, he'd have to be honest and hope Adam deserved his trust. "Actually, uh. Adam, did you ever, did you ever find a dragon's cave?"

Adam looked at him intently. "Are you saying, you did?"

"Yes. I found the dragon's hoard. And I wanted—I took this because I had to have something to prove to myself that I really found it. So I took it. I guess maybe that wasn't very smart. I mean, a dragon's hoard, you know? Dragon treasure!"

Adam considered. "A dragon usually holds on tight to its treasure," he said.

"So I might be in trouble, if I go back? I did leave it something in exchange," Lance said.

"You did?"

"My compass. My mother will be so mad if she ever finds out, because it was her grandpa's compass, and I think it was silver, but it seemed like, I couldn't take something and not, um, leave something in exchange. I mean, I didn't want to just steal it."

Adam had a very strange expression on his face. "I think," he said after a moment, "that's probably why you were able to take the ring at all. If you left a gift, something meaningful and valuable, then it would be okay."

"I don't even know for sure if that dragon is still there," Lance said. It was a relief to know that someone with a lot more dragon expertise than himself thought it had been a good idea to offer something in exchange for the ring. "I mean, it could have died. It wasn't, like, lying on top of its treasures like in pictures."

"Do you think it died?"

"No. I think it…" Lance laughed, still incredulous. "I think it talked to me. I mean, I think I met it."

"You met it?"

"Not in the cave, but close by. It was—it was—I can't even explain. It was so beautiful. A golden dragon. I never realised how big they were. I saw it before, a week ago, when I took the snowglobe with me and got all the way in, but yesterday it saw me."

"Huh." Adam's face was a study in emotions, and Lance couldn't read them. He had to guess.

"Are you jealous?" he said. Because damn, if Adam had met a dragon and Lance hadn't, he'd be totally consumed with envy.

"Yeah," Adam said eventually. "I am jealous. But don't worry about it. Just—be careful, you know?"

"I've been looking for years, and I didn't know how to get there, and I thought if I could just see one, just to know the dragons weren't all gone, you know, I thought that would be enough, but now I actually saw one and I just, I just, it's so incredible. I'm going to go back." Not that it had been entirely a pleasure, being overwhelmed by the dragon's relentless thoughts, but hell. He could deal with that.

"The dragons certainly aren't gone," Adam said. "Although most people can't find them. But I mean it, Lance. Be careful."

"I will." He intended to.

"That pie was really good," Adam said, and Lance was grateful for the change of subject. "I shouldn't, but, if there's more…?" So they had more pie, and talked of other things, of music and concerts and visual arts, and Chris Kirkpatrick's new job, which made Adam laugh, and the conversation wended its way to JC and his peculiar sculptures and how they'd been helpful in getting Lance to understand the snowglobe, and Adam said he must be sure to see JC's exhibition, maybe they could go together? Lance said it was a date, and if JC's exhibition wasn't going to be open until Adam was away touring, he'd arrange for them to visit JC beforehand so that Adam could see the wonderful weirdness of JC for himself.

Eventually, after coffee and a session in the yard playing toss-the-ring and tug-of-war with the dogs, it was time for Adam to leave.

They went back into the kitchen to retrieve his jacket. He slid it on, hesitated, and stepped closer to Lance. "May I kiss you?"

Lance grinned. "You are very sweet."

"I'm very smitten," Adam said, ruefully.

"I don't know why," Lance said, suddenly sorry. He'd been curt, and rude, and made all kinds of assumptions. "I haven't—I've been—I haven't done anything to deserve it."

Adam's expression was unfathomable, and Lance was oddly grateful not to be able to hear all of Adam's thoughts right now. He wasn't sure he was ready for them.

"You don't even know," Adam said. "I… really want to kiss you."

"Please do," said Lance, and slid into Adam's ready embrace. And, oh, yes, it was wonderful.


Adam was busy with his recording sessions and having his photograph taken on location and all kinds of showbusiness business, so they had no chance for anything more than a couple of phone calls. Lance wasn't worried. There was no need to hurry things. Adam was interested, Lance was interested, they could take their time. He had dragons to discover.

Mid-way through the week, Lisa waved a newspaper at him excitedly as he walked through the door, and pointed out a brief item about how noted singer Justin Timberlake had been seen taking artist Britney Spears out for dinner, and afterwards dancing. "Aww," he said, pleased for her.

* * *

He might have thought it would be less exciting going dragon-hunting when he'd already seen—met—a dragon, but as Lance made his sandwiches and put everything into his backpack, he felt just as much anticipation as he had before. More, because he knew now how incredible it could be.

It was unnerving, yes, and he remembered Adam's warning to take care, but he'd not felt any malice in the dragon, last week. If anything it was indifferent to him, which was, to his own surprise, a relief. Anyway, he would take care, he always did.

It was a dull day today, definitely autumn, grey sky and chilly air. As Lance walked through the woods it began to rain, very fine rain, hardly noticeable at all. Lance considered putting on his waterproof, but it would make him hot and sticky, and he'd be fine once he got into dragon country. It was warmer there, and he'd never seen a cloud in the sky.

In fact, why not make the transition now? He'd been in the habit of walking up into the hills for so long now, but there could be no reason to be in a particular spot in order to move through the dimensions. He could probably do it from his own back yard. Maybe next week. Lance pulled out the snowglobe, thought of too many right angles and a golden dragon in the sky, closed his eyes, and stepped through.

"Argh!" It was raining, it was bucketing, great sheets of water falling on him. Lance was soaking wet in seconds, before he could even pick up the backpack. The snowglobe's protective towel was already a sodden rag, and Lance was so wet that his waterproof jacket would be too little and way, way too late. He gasped under the downpour, and decided to make for the cave. At least that way he wouldn't drown! He tucked the wet towel through one of the backpack's loops, put the snowglobe carefully inside, and hoisted it onto his shoulders. At least his lunch was properly wrapped.

He shielded his eyes and looked ahead, but to his surprise the bowl of hills surrounding the valley where he'd found the dragon's hoard was away to the west, and more distant than he'd expected. He seemed to have entered dragon country a few miles from his usual spot, closer to the hills where he'd met the golden dragon. Which would have been great, if he hadn't needed to shelter from the rain.

Well, standing here wouldn't help. There might be another cave. Or an overhang, or something. Lance started to move, hunched pointlessly against the downpour.

Miraculously, he found his overhang after just ten minutes. There seemed to be a slippage in the hillside, a brown shadow under the green, and it did provide shelter—actually more shelter than he'd anticipated, seeing it through the rain, for it proved to be a cave. Just a small one, though, and half full of drifted leaves, no tunnel here to lead to a dragon's hoard. He'd never heard of a dragon having more than one treasure hoard anyway. As wet as if he'd stumbled into a swimming pool, Lance sat with his back against the bare clay, his dripping pack beside him. At least there was no wind. A curtain of water fell over the cave mouth, several feet away, but the water stayed over there and he stayed well clear of it.

And began to shiver. Really, he could not be more wet. And no prospect of drying out… unless… the leaves seemed to be dry. In fact, there were quite a few twigs and bits of branch amongst the heap. There must have been strong east winds a few days ago, he concluded, and the autumn trees had sacrificed worthwhile substance here. If his matches had stayed dry…

They had, thanks to his long habit of packing everything in plastic bags. Shaking a little with cold, Lance piled several twigs into a likely fire and put a match to them. The flame caught, and he fed it with handfuls from the pile. He soon discovered a substantial branch, and set to stamping it into manageable pieces and adding them to his fire.

The exertion warmed him a little, but his clothes were clammy on his skin. He could almost hear his grandmother scolding him to get out of those wet things, and indeed, there was no sense sitting here all soggy. So he wrestled the thick sweater off, and the thin one, and the T-shirt, and draped them as best he could in the vicinity of his little fire. Boots off. Socks, wrung out, then suspended on a branch that wasn't yet needed for the fire. Oh, what the hell, off with his jeans too. Even his underpants were wet. He wrapped himself in his emergency blanket, put his arms through the waterproof's sleeves for good measure, and hoped for the best.

Huddled as close to the fire as he dared sit, Lance ate his oat bar and thought morosely that he had to face it, he might as well go home. It might not be pissing with rain in his own dimensions. The disappointment was almost painful. There was a golden dragon somewhere in this world, and he was stuck in a stupid cave trying to dry his stupid clothes and what a waste.

Something important burgeoned in his brain, a puzzle, a problem, a—*WHAT?* A moment later the rain in front of the cave stopped, and the golden dragon, with its wings outstretched against the downpour like a marquee, landed and glared at him. There was an enormous sense of surprise in Lance's head, now.

Feeling incredibly stupid in his blanket and jacket, Lance stood awkwardly and bowed to the dragon. Its great head tilted and snaked about on that long, sinuous neck, obviously examining him. The *CURIOSITY* was back, but underlaid this time with a sense of something else, possessiveness? It was hard to put the dragon's emotions into human terms, Lance found, particularly since it filled his head so very full, like a party balloon blown up to bursting point.

The dragon's gaze was caught by the garments spread around the fire and it did a visible double take which, in less intimidating circumstances, would have been funny.

*PEELED!?* it stated/questioned, a mixture of astonishment and comprehension.

"Uh, no," Lance said, "not—these are clothes. See, I can put them on—" he picked up his jeans and held them in front of him, but that didn't seem to be helpful, so he dropped them and unzipped the waterproof jacket, took it off, then put it back on again. The blanket fell to the ground as though to add emphasis to the demonstration. The dragon watched in unmistakable surprise, and seemed particularly interested in the unzipping and zipping. To Lance's consternation it stretched one mighty leg towards him, and plainly attempted to unzip the jacket with one of its talons. "Okay, no, I don't think that's going to work," he said, trying not to sound as nervous as he felt. He unzipped again, very slowly, demonstrating how his fingers grasped and pulled down the little tab.

The dragon stuck a talon through the waterproof at thigh level—eek!—and Lance wriggled out of the jacket. If it wanted a closer look at his 'skin', he wasn't going to argue.

The dragon poked at the fallen jacket for a few minutes, and Lance's head was filled with its frustration, irritation and bafflement. Then the dragon's head whipped back to Lance, and it examined his hand very closely. He demonstrated how he could articulate each finger, and press each in turn against his thumb. Next it peered at his entire body, and *PUZZLED* took over again. Was his lack of wings the problem? Suddenly it opened its great mouth and shot a stream of fire towards the diminished pile of leaves at the back of the cave.

There was now a pile of ash at the back of the cave. "Okay," Lance said, breathing carefully. Perhaps the dragon wondered how he, a mere human, had made fire. He opened the backpack—the dragon watched with riveted attention—got out the box of matches and struck one. The dragon reared back *HOW*WHAT*HOW* from the tiny flame, and again, Lance thought he'd probably laugh at the memory, when his head didn't hurt quite so much. He dropped the match onto the fire.

"My clothes were wet," he said, and tried to pantomime 'rain'. "I made fire to warm them, make them dry." He held his jeans up towards the flames and attempted to indicate how the heat was supposed to help.

The dragon stared at Lance, then at Lance's thick sweater, which the fire had totally failed to dry out. A snorting noise, and a stream of smoky breath directly onto the sweater. Which steamed, briefly.

"Uh. Thank you," Lance said, wide-eyed.

*SUPERIOR* was the best word for what the dragon was thinking now. He wasn't going to argue.

The dragon directed its hot breath at each garment (the T-shirt now bore scorch-marks, but it was most definitely dry) and Lance bowed and thanked the dragon again and hoped it understood. "Er, is it all right if I put my clothes back on?" There was only a vast self-satisfied smugness now, so he scrambled into his warmed clothing with enormous relief. "Uh, can I offer you—" he dived back into the backpack and pulled out the chocolate bar. The outer wrapper was soggy but the silver foil had protected the chocolate, and he picked it off carefully and rolled it into a tiny ball, then held the bar between finger and thumb and stretched his arm towards the dragon. It did not look impressed.

That didn't seem to be getting him anywhere. Lance broke off a chunk, ate it with exaggerated relish and offered it again.

Whatever was filling his head now, he didn't understand it at all, and he could only gape as the dragon blurred somehow, and seemed to collapse in on itself, and reformed, and then there was no dragon, there was a man. He was entirely naked, at least six inches taller than Lance, built like a god, and the most beautiful male Lance had ever seen. The air around him shimmered with a golden glow, almost as though his human shape could not contain all the heat and brightness of the dragon. The dragon-man looked at his own right hand, flexed his fingers, and reached for the chocolate.

He sniffed, tasted, and *PLEASURE* wolfed down the entire bar.

The dragon-man was fascinated by his own hands. He spent some time zipping and unzipping the waterproof, and groped for the matchbox. The first match burned down to his fingertips and there was an instant of *PAIN*FIRE*IRRITATION*. Lance lit another match and blew it out, and *AMUSED* saw his example copied until every match in the box was gone. The dragon-man didn't seem able to believe the box was truly empty, and Lance got a distinct impression of *ELSEWHERE* and that nauseous feeling as the dragon-man reached through for more matches, but he gave up at last and pitched the box into the fire.

Lance had had no idea a dragon could transform like this, and was charmed that he seemed to have inspired what must surely be its first attempt at becoming human. The pressure in his head had not lessened now that the dragon was in human form, but its—his—thoughts were not so powerfully focussed as he tried out this new body. He was stepping into the rain, now, and enjoying it, and Lance could feel the *PLEASURE* of water needling on skin, cool and regular.

The glorious sight of the dragon-man dripping with water was one Lance would treasure for quite a while. Just how much humanity did the dragon wish to experience, he wondered, because—never mind. But the dragon-man's genitalia were just as impressive as the rest of his physique, and it wasn't a crime to imagine these things, even if it would be reckless to the point of insanity to do anything about them. Haloed like an angel with his arms and face held up to the rain, or bent over to tumble the contents of the backpack to the ground, the view was very fine indeed.

Dragon-man rooted through every item he'd spilled. He sniffed and ate one of the sandwiches and tossed the other over his shoulder. The maps did not interest him until one of them, opened, caught against Lance's leaf bonfire and flared up, which the dragon-man found funny; but he spent some time puzzling over the little tin of first aid items, only to scatter them in mild annoyance when he eventually got it open. The emergency flare rolled aside and was ignored, for which Lance was profoundly thankful. The snowglobe, though, was not ignored. The dragon-man went rigid as he picked it up, and *MINE* warred with *ANGER* as he threw it to the ground. Lance cried out, and the snowglobe rolled drunkenly into the fire. He was utterly bewildered, and his head hurt worse than ever.

"It's just, it was a present," he tried to explain, but being human-shaped didn't seem to have given the dragon language, and though its thoughts filled his head, he had no sense that it understood anything in his mind. Or was interested.

*MINE*. It throbbed in his head. He saw an image of himself, *SMALL*HELPLESS*, quite disorienting; the dragon-man cocked his head, looking at Lance. In the dragon's mind, Lance was naked, the image so compelling he had to touch his arms and thighs, yes, he was still clothed, but in the dragon's mind inside his head Lance was naked. Was it remembering how it had inspected him? *MINE* Talons, raking through clothing, tearing it away. An image of things to come. Lance on the ground as the dragon man pulled and poked at his body, tugged at his limbs, rolled him, tested his fingers in the fire. It was planning, gloating, and if it knew, it didn't care that Lance could sense what it intended. What Lance knew didn't matter.

The dragon-man stood between Lance and the rain, and thought terrible thoughts. *PLEASURE*, an image of himself thrusting into Lance, *WANT*ANTICIPATION*TAKE*. Fear flooded the squeezed edges of Lance's mind that the dragon did not occupy, and the dragon's thoughts beat on relentlessly, so primal now that Lance couldn't interpret their meaning in words, but the images of himself impaled, his face pressed into the cave's brown floor, his fingers snapped and broken one by one, *FUNNY*, his eyeballs plucked and tasted, *MINE*, that monstrous possessiveness and disregard for anything Lance might want, might be. His own helplessness was bitter in his mouth and his own thoughts fought for space at the edges of his mind. He was its plaything, he understood that now, it would do as it pleased with him. The appalling images moved on, Lance was spitted now on a great spike of flame, blistering, burning, blackening from the inside and screaming as he was consumed. *MIRTH* His skin crisped. Each bone crackled as it was snapped. Acid burned in his throat but he couldn't taste it for the overwhelming, appetising smell of his own cooked flesh.

Help, Lance's mind begged, help! And it echoed inside his skull because he could not send a message and there was nobody to hear it anyway, not here in dragon country. He shouted it aloud, *AMUSED*, and would have run but there was nowhere to run, not from a dragon, and his legs were liquid and couldn't hold him up let alone run anywhere and in his mind he was incinerated on a phallus of flame and the dragon was laughing with delight.

The dragon-man stepped towards him.

There was a thunderclap, a great bellow, *MINE!* and Lance sobbed with the fear and pain in his head and fell to his knees, and through the rain came a vast black shape glittering like jet. The dragon-man shrieked *RAGE* and rose up to meet it, golden and winged, and two dragons fought in the sky, snarling like tornadoes and slashing at one another with finger-long claws. Lance's head was full of molten *WRATH* and his own terror, he could hardly breathe, and the dragons would tear him apart and rape and burn him to death, and then there was a furious defeated sound that reverberated in his head and ears, and the golden dragon flew away and elsewhere into a pinpoint of oblivion. The triumphant black dragon screeched its defiance and landed in front of the cave, and Lance had nowhere to go.

His mind gave up, and he fainted.


Lance opened his eyes. In the enclosing darkness there was a glow of golden light. He blinked, and it resolved into candle flames, eight of them.

Where on earth am I? he thought.

"You're safe."


Adam's hands caught his. "It's okay now. It's okay." He gathered Lance into his arms. "I've got you."

Lance clung, hardly believing his own eyes. "How? I mean—what happened?"

"You called for help."

"I…" he had called out, he thought, but he hadn't known there was anybody to hear him. Where had Adam been hiding? Had he seen everything? At least he had been wise enough to stay out of the dragon's sight. Both dragons' sight, since they'd fought over him. Lance felt sick. But—"What about the dragon?"

"It's gone. It went elsewhere."

Perhaps it had followed the golden one, to continue the fight. He took a deep breath, and felt some of the fear drain away. "Are you sure? I was so—so scared, Adam, it was—" He couldn't say it. He pushed the terrible image of himself broken and burning firmly out of his mind. An image of a lake, cool and tranquil and surrounded by mountains, came to him instead, the antithesis of golden flames, and he held on to it gratefully. Adam's hand stroked his hair. It felt so very soothing. Lance hid his face against Adam's neck and tried to understand how he could possibly be here, safe, wherever here was.

"I think you fainted," Adam said. "And it was raining, so I brought you here. Are you warm enough?"

Lance seemed to be draped in a velvet blanket—no, it had a gathered end. A cloak. "Somehow it doesn't surprise me that you have a cloak," he said.

Adam snorted. "I brought your silver blanket, if you want, although seriously, a cloak is way more stylish. I brought your jacket, and your bag too, but there wasn't anything else to put in it. There was a map, but it was so soggy it fell apart when I tried to pick it up."

Lance hadn't thought about his things, such of them as had survived the—"Thank you." He was not going to think about it. He looked around, not that he could see much beyond the edges of the candleglow. Here and there, something gleamed, and he squinted to make out—a glitter of diamonds, a metallic curve, an old black telephone. They were in the dragon's cave. Panic surged again.

"We're not safe in here! This is its treasure, dragons guard their treasure, don't they, it'll come back!"

"I promise you, you're safe here. Besides, this isn't treasure. This is—this is just stuff."

"Just stuff?" One of the candlesticks was clustered with gemstones, and might be gold. Another, with five candles held proudly above the rest, was intricate with filigree and colourless enough to be silver. All right, the other two were plain black and probably wrought iron, but still. Stuff? "That one's gold, isn't it? That has to be valuable."

"Dragons don't value things the way humans do," Adam said, and Lance was reminded that Adam knew more, much more, about how dragons worked than he did himself. Adam had known enough to stay out of the dragon's sight. Lance had been so entranced that he was almost—no.

"See, candlesticks are useful because you put candles in them, and candlelight is prettier than candlesticks, and also, even more useful."

"Seems like an odd reason to collect treasure," Lance said, trying to sound as if he was in control of himself.

"No, what I mean is, this isn't treasure. A dragon's treasure is the most precious thing in the world, something a dragon would never abandon or forget or allow to come to harm. This," he waved his hand vaguely, "is just stuff. Don't get me wrong, dragons like to have stuff, and they don't take kindly to having it interfered with, but it's not the same thing."

Like me, Lance thought. "I was stuff, wasn't I? That golden dragon, it thought I was just stuff, that it owned me and if it wanted to break me or burn me, it was entitled." No different from his box of matches.

"That dragon was a fool." Adam squeezed him, gently. "You aren't stuff, Lance, you're treasure."

I'm actually a person, Lance thought, crossly. He wasn't sure he wanted to be treasure any more than he wanted to be stuff. "I always thought a dragon's hoard was treasure."

"Common misconception," Adam said. "There are way too many stories about dragons for them all to be true. You're safe here, I promise you. I promise."

Lance did feel safe. It was odd, really. Here in the most dragonish place he could be, he felt safe. With Adam. Adam, who knew way more about dragon country than Lance did, who'd given him the dragonlet and shell that—"Did you find the snowglobe?" he said, sitting up. "I don't want to lose it. The dr—it rolled into the fire."

"I'll get it back for you, but not right now. Right now, I think we should get you home."

"I really don't want to lose it. I don't know if I can do the dimensions thing without it," Lance said, suddenly worried that he might not be able to get home at all.

"We'll do it together," Adam said, with such confidence that Lance couldn't help but believe him. "Let's go outside."

"I'd better put my waterproof on." Lance's fingers were unsteady as he zipped it, and it was very hard to ignore the talon-wrought rip, but he managed. "You could use the blanket to shield you," he suggested. "If it's still raining."

It was still raining, but not the driving downpour of earlier. They moved a few paces from the tunnel mouth, and Adam said, "I think this will do. Where shall we go? How about your back yard?"

"We can do that?"

"Of course. We just walk through to the right spot."

"Huh. I never knew that. I mean, I wondered, but I always came through in the same place as I was." Except for this time, Lance thought. I was over that way… "Except this time I was thinking of, of…" A golden dragon in the sky.

"It's easiest to transit if you do it somewhere familiar. Staying in the same place was an obvious call," Adam said. "But now, think about your back yard, and hold it in your head. Take my hand." Lance closed his eyes and thought of home. "Now, remember the snowglobe and the way you move between dimensions."

Too many right angles, Lance thought, and they stepped forward together, only the nauseated feeling didn't come, and Lance was almost afraid to open his eyes in case it hadn't worked, until he realised that it wasn't raining any more, and his dogs were barking ecstatically around his legs.

Lance cooked dinner. It was comfortingly normal to dip chicken pieces in seasoned flour, and peel potatoes. Adam hovered, interested, and made himself useful by keeping Lily and Foster out of Lance's way. After dinner, they snuggled on the couch, knees and feet blanketed by happy dogs. The dogs' minds emitted firm love and comfortableness, and hazy approval of Adam, who seemed to impress them. Lance, too. Adam was strong and warm, and Lance felt wonderfully secure.

"It might help to talk about it, a bit," Adam said, tentatively. "I'm guessing you have questions?"

Lance did not want to talk about what had happened—or almost happened—to him. He didn't want to think about it. But Adam had a point. If Lance was going to be able to sleep tonight it would probably help to let the dragon stuff out, to settle some of the questions and try to make sense of things. He didn't think he could talk about—about—about the visions the dragon had put in his head, but there were other matters, and Adam seemed to have the answers. "I never knew dragons could change shape."

"Dragons can change into all kinds of things, although mostly they don't. Humans are good, it's interesting being a human, you know? Dolphins, too."

"Dolphins? Seriously?"

"Yeah, well, dragons mostly aren't very sociable, so if a dragon does want company, dolphins are less complicated than humans. And swimming is a lot like flying, at least, so I'm told. I've never actually been a dolphin."

Me neither, Lance thought. But it seemed plausible. "So when you read stories of people swimming with dolphins, they might be swimming with dragons?"

Adam laughed. "I don't think there are that many dolphin dragons around. I mean, most of the dolphins in the world didn't start out as dragons."

"I guess not." Lance sighed. "I was so amazed when that one turned into a human, right in front of me."

Adam levered himself sideways to look earnestly into Lance's eyes. "That's not what happened. The golden one may have taken human form, but it was never human. It was always dragon. And not, not a nice dragon."

No kidding. "I'd always believed dragons were, I don't know, good. Noble." He'd known they could be destructive, sure, but not… "I expected them to be different, because dragons, you know? But not evil. And I'm not even sure it was actually evil, if it just didn't see me as a person, if it thought I was a thing it could play with, like the box of matches. I guess dragons are just too far different from us."

"Dragons are like people," said Adam. "Humans are all different, and so—"

"So I was just unlucky to meet that one?" Lance said, eagerly. He didn't want to believe that all dragons were so—so devoid of humanity. That wasn't quite the right way of putting it, but it'd do. "I guess it makes sense they'd all be different." It wasn't much consolation, but it was something. It wasn't dragons that were wrong, it was that one dragon. And the black dragon that had fought it, too, just as appallingly possessive and overwhelming.

The odds of meeting a gentle dragon seemed pretty slim.

"I don't know if I can go back," he said. But oh, I want to. It was hard to give up on the dream, even in the face of reality.

"You can. I'll come with you."

"I guess, I'd feel safer if you—" Lance said, and paused. Adam was protective. Adam was feeling protective, and Lance was picking up on that. How long had that been happening? He thought back. Had he been able to sense Adam's feelings in the cave? Had that certainty that he was safe been because Adam had been certain, and Lance shared it? Now he thought about it, it probably had, and he'd been too shaken up to notice.

"Is everything all right?" Adam asked, and Lance could tell there was an overtone of worry, of not-quite-security, of how-does-Lance-feel-about-me, along with the strength and the… love. No more adamantine shield.

Lance moved Dingo off his feet, and knelt on the couch so that he could kiss Adam properly. It was even more wonderful than before, and he was in no hurry to stop, although they did have to rearrange after a while so that Adam was sprawled across the couch with Lance straddling him, and the dogs in an aggrieved heap on the floor. They kissed for what probably wasn't hours, but time didn't seem relevant, only the joy of it. And, inevitably, the desire for more.

"Adam, will you stay?" Lance said, abruptly.

"Stay with you? You mean, tonight?"


"Of course. Whatever you need. Um, what exactly...?"

"I don't want those things in my head." Spitted, helpless. "I want you. I want something wonderful."

"I can do that. I think." Adam smiled up at him, a huge, beautiful smile, and he was filled with delight.

"Right," said Lance, getting to his feet. "Dogs, bed! Come on, Lily, be a good girl, off you get." He herded them into their room, checked the water bowls again, and closed the door. "So. Shall we go upstairs?"

Adam was beautifully careful with him, his hands so assured as they slid over Lance's skin. Lance felt cherished, lying there to be worshipped with hands and mouth. Joy swelled within him and pushed the terrible memories away, elsewhere, and there was just this, just now, and it was wonderful.

There was a crackle of flame at the edge of his mind as he drifted towards sleep, but Adam held him closer, petted him and whispered words of love in his ear, and he was filled with certainty. He was safe.


Something was tickling his chest. Lance opened an eye. Adam was smiling down at him. Lance opened the other eye and blinked his vision clear. In the early light edging in around the drapes, he could see that Adam was dangling the dragon claw on its leather thong, trailing it across Lance's chest. Lance's head was full of joy, so full there was hardly room for his other thoughts, like You are incredibly hot, and, Last night was amazing.

"I'm so pleased you found this," Adam said. "You got part-way through the dimensions, didn't you."

"I think so. I can't remember exactly how," Lance said. "It was before I figured out how to do it. But finding the claw was my first real clue that I wasn't—wasn't just kidding myself. About dragons."

"How long had you been walking into the hills to find dragons?"

"I'm not sure. A couple of years, maybe. Not every weekend, but quite often."

"When you found the claw, I was sure. Almost sure," Adam said.

"Sure of what?"

"Sure that you were my—my—I can't think of the word for it. My perfect one, my heart's mate."

"Wow." Lance smiled up at him. "It's probably a good thing I didn't know what you were thinking back then. I'd probably have decided you were crazy."

"You were so beautiful, and with your dragon ornaments and the way you got angry when you saw my boots, I knew you cared, you really cared about dragons. So I hoped, right from the start. And when you found the claw, that was why I gave you the snowglobe. I knew it would help you transit properly."

"I don't know how anyone managed to make it like that, so you can see the baby dragon is coming from—from elsewhere. But it did help, a lot."

"I was so proud of you when you got through," Adam said, sliding the leather thong over Lance's head so that the claw rested on his chest. "I thought the black dragon would be your first one, but then when you told me you saw the golden one, I—well, I was jealous. Because you were mine, you know?"

"Jealous. Okay."

"I had it all planned. I waited until the sun was low, so you'd see your dragon in silhouette. Well, I had to, because we were rehearsing that afternoon, but after, I had some time. Did you—did you realise there were two dragons? Or did you think the one you saw at the end of the day was the same one you saw earlier?"

"I—I thought it was the same one," Lance said. He felt oddly chilled.

"And then you got into the hoard, which, you know, that never happens. It might have been because you were wearing my claw and carrying a piece of my shell, but," he smiled, beatifically, "I like to think it was because you're my heart's mate. You didn't get into the golden one's hoard, you know, that cave didn't open up for you. And you took the ring, and you left the compass, and that was just such a perfect thing to do."

"I don't—your claw?"

"From the last peel. I knew there was one missing. You know, when I was hatched I was bright red. I got darker with every peel, and now I'm pure black, which I love. It's so me, you know?"

He couldn't—this couldn't be what it seemed to be. It couldn't be.

The pressure of joy in Lance's head was beginning to be oppressive.

"And when I heard you, when you called to me, it was—I was terrified, of course, because you were in danger, but I knew beyond a doubt that you were mine, when I heard you call. That's what happens, you see? When a dragon meets its heart's mate, they can mindspeak. No barriers."

"I thought… I thought you were hiding close by," Lance said. His mouth was so dry he could hardly scrape the words out. Mine, he thought.

"I was at the movies. But your signal was so clear it was easy to find you. And I was in time." He lifted his hand to stroke Lance's cheek, and Lance jacknifed off the bed and was across the room so fast he might have transited right there in his bedroom.

"You. Are a dragon."

"Yes. But I'm human, too."

Lance's whole body shook with the memory of that terrible fight. Adam's joy thundered in his head, with flashes of astonishment, and Lance's mind was not his own, all that was left at the edges were the images of himself broken and burning. The dragon possessing him, playing with him, destroying him wantonly.

"No, no, treasure, that's not, I would never—"

Not your treasure! Lance shouted the words in his mind, and Adam flinched. "Get out of my head!" Lance yelled, "Get out! Get out!"

"I—I can't. We're linked—I can't shield you any more."

"You can't do this. Get away from me. Go away!" I don't want you, Lance thought with every ounce of strength he could muster. That, or the shaking terror in his head, finally convinced Adam that he meant it.

"Lance, please. Please!"

"No," Lance said. "I can't."

The dragon understood that, and its pain and shock reverberated inside Lance's mind. And yes, he felt that same loss, something so perfect that was shattered, but how could he stay with a dragon, when dragons were flame and agony and fear?

"I'll go." Adam gathered his scattered clothes, and his dragon-hide boots. "I will never hurt you," he said. Lance looked at Adam's devastated face, and could only think, how can I ever be sure?

Adam stepped away, and Lance was alone in his room and in his head.


"Good morning, La—what happened? What's wrong?" Lisa's alarm was unmistakeable.

"I don't want to talk about it," he said, sharply. "Leave it."

Her eyes widened, and she thought shutting up now, so clearly she might have said it aloud. Lance went through to his office and closed the door.

After a moment, he picked all the dragon ornaments off their assorted shelves and dropped them into the wastebasket. He couldn't dump Britney's red and green dragon picture, but after a moment's thought he swapped it for the innocuous landscape that hung behind his desk. He didn't have to look at it.


Tuesday went no better, but he managed to fend off Lisa's worried thoughts and bury himself in admin work. On Wednesday he had to deal with actual people, with a couple of prospective clients, a theatre booking agent for a meeting in the office and a casting director over lunch. Lance did his best to be sincere and charming while catching all the clues he could as to what the two women were really looking for, and seemed to have managed well enough, as they both signed up for his service before they left. He spent the last half-hour of the day writing up the meetings and working on index cards.

"Lance?" Lisa looked worried, but not as worried as she felt. Lance really didn't want to deal with it, since it was about him.

"Is it urgent?" he said, unencouragingly.

"I was just wondering if—"

The telephone rang, and Lisa paused.

Lance picked up the receiver. Better a phone call, whoever it was, than trying to evade Lisa's concern.


His breath caught. "Adam."

*I needed to know… are you all right?* Adam chose his words with care, acknowledging that Lance might put the phone down at any moment. He should put the phone down, Lance thought, but he didn't.

"I'm all right," he said. It didn't sound very convincing, even to himself.

He looked up to see the door closing behind Lisa.

*It's just that, uh, you have nightmares. I can't help knowing that. I know you aren't trying to send them.*

Lance didn't know what to say to that. Yes, he had nightmares. He woke up drenched in sweat, his heart beating so fast he thought he'd die, and imagined pain cramping his fingers. The dogs, delighted though they were to sleep on master's bed, didn't know how to deal with his terror even though he hugged them for the comfort of their warm, solid bodies. All that seemed to help were the cool, calm images his mind reached for, the tranquillity of the mountain lake where there was no spike of flame consuming him.

There was silence, except for very careful breathing. *Is it all right that I called?*

No, I'm trying to forget you. "Yes."

*I thought, at a distance. You wouldn't be overwhelmed.*

It was true. Out of Adam's actual presence, the overwhelming press of his thoughts was not apparent. "But you still hear my thoughts."

*Only the ones you send, not everything. Not unless I'm there with you.*

So Adam could still hear his thoughts. But it did not sound as though Adam's head got filled to bursting, not the way Adam's thoughts pushed everything else out of Lance's head. It wasn't surprising, Lance thought, resentfully. Who could possibly expect a relationship between a human and a dragon to be on equal terms? "Plus the nightmares," he said. "No, I'm sorry, I know it's not your fault."

There was another silence.

*How's business?* Adam was obviously trying to make this feel normal.

"It's fine. And, uh, you've been recording?"

*An album. Yes. They're getting the single pressed, it'll be out soon.*

"That's great. Really. I'm sure it'll do well."

*Thank you.*

"I should get back to work," Lance said, because this was very hard to bear.

*Yes, yes, of course. Sorry. Lance, take care of yourself. If you need me—*

"Sure." He put the phone down.

It was a lot easier to take care of himself when there were no dragons in his life, treating him as stuff and invading his mind. Was he sending that to Adam? He didn't know. He wasn't sure if he even cared.

* * *

The weekend stretched ahead, empty and pointless. He'd wanted to find dragons for so long, and now he had found them and he couldn't go back. He couldn't go back, and yet he remembered the sanctuary of that cave, of Adam's cave of treasures, how safe he had felt there. Lance tried his best to keep his thoughts small, keep them inside his head and not let anything out to Adam. It wasn't Adam's fault that he was what he was, or that Lance didn't understand why there now seemed to be a link between them that he would have thought impossible back when Adam had a shield and Lance could sense nothing from him. He hadn't realised how lucky he was, then.

On Saturday morning he took the dogs for a long walk in the open hills to the north, and ended up carrying poor Jackson most of the way home. It was a hard life, being an elderly Yorkie.

Back home, he let the dogs settle around him as he sat on the couch. He'd have lunch in a minute.

The telephone rang, but he ignored it. He should probably get up and do something.

Maybe a drink of water.

When the front door knocker sounded, the dogs barked excitedly and scurried to the door. There was a leap of joy in Lance's heart, followed by dread. Did he even want to answer it?

The imperious knocking kept going, so he dragged himself up from the couch and went to see who was there.

It was Chris and JC. Lance blinked. When did it get dark?

"Gonna let us in, Bass?" Chris said, motioning him to step aside. He was laden with carrier bags.

"Sure." He opened the door wider, and the two of them entered, to be greeted by a welcoming committee of wagging tails and importuning noses. They fought their way through to the kitchen, where JC promptly put the kettle on the stove and declared his intention of making tea.

"Although you look like you could use a double brandy," Chris said, examining Lance.

Lance considered. It might help him to stop thinking. But JC was already tutting and telling Chris not to be silly.

"When did you last eat?"

"Uh," Lance said. "I had breakfast." A piece of toast, at any rate. Although Foster had eaten quite a bit of it. Most of it, really.

"Right, then." Chris set his bags on the counter top. "Out, out, go sit down. You'll just get in the way." He brought out onions, and cans, fresh peppers, pasta. JC ushered Lance to the high stools on the other side of the counter and they sat. Lance watched, faintly bewildered, as Chris spread bowls, chopping boards and ingredients across every available surface in his kitchen.

"We saw Adam," JC said. Lance looked at him sharply. "We were having lunch at Fatone's, and he came in. He said you… might need someone to talk to."

"Did he," Lance said, sourly. He hardened his shields. All that concern, all that fretted anxiety, it was too much. He'd keep it out.

"Actually," said Chris, "he said you needed a friend. And it looks like he was right. You look like you died and forgot to lie down."

"Thanks," said Lance.

"Not quite like that," JC said, directing a frown at Chris, "but, man, you look pretty rough. Are you going to tell us what happened?"

Somehow, Lance found himself clutching a glass of wine—where had that come from? The kettle started whistling, and Chris claimed it for his pasta, so JC huffed and refilled the kettle for his threatened tea. Lance sipped his wine. Huh, it was good. By the time JC came back and settled next to him, he'd more or less emptied the glass. JC refilled it.

"So," said JC, sitting down next to him. "What happened?"

Lance looked at them, and they both looked back, and they both looked pretty implacable about getting the story out of him.

Might as well tell them.

"I found the dragons," he said.

A pause. "When you say, you found the dragons… what, exactly..?" JC asked, carefully.

"I mean, I found dragons. I found my way into dragon country and there they were."

"Um. How?" That was Chris, looking very worried.

"Actually, you helped," said Lance, his eyes on JC. That was quite nice, that wine. He gestured for more. "You remember how we talked about your work, and not having enough dimensions to express it properly? And I didn't tell you, but I felt weird when I looked at them. Too many right angles. Turns out, that's what you need to do to get into dragon country."

"No, still not getting it," said Chris. His racing thoughts were a tangle of worries and disbelief, and there was not a shred in there that seemed to understand that Lance was telling the truth. Of course Chris had never realised that Lance had been hunting for actual dragons. He'd thought it meant shopping for trinkets, or else it was a metaphor for chasing rainbows. Or was that already a metaphor? "What do you mean, dragon country?" Chris said.

"Ask Adam fucking Lambert!" Lance snarled. "Maybe he'll take you there himself."

"Adam knows about this?" JC said, startled.

"Oh, yeah."

"He's been to, uh, dragon country himself?"

"You don't get it," Lance said, tired. "Adam comes from there. He has," he started to laugh, weakly, "a cave. A hoard." His glass was empty again. Lance grabbed the bottle and filled it.

"Maybe you've had enough," JC suggested, and reached for the wine bottle. Lance refused to let go, and there was a silent, polite battle, with JC—who was more polite than Lance—finally admitting defeat. Defiantly, Lance swallowed a large mouthful.

"See, I found stuff. Weeks ago." How many weeks? He couldn't remember for sure. "I found a claw. And then Adam gave me the snowglobe, damn it, he said he'd get it back for me, I want it back. It's mine. And I got it, you know? Your crazy sculptures and the snowglobe, I just had to think of too many right angles and I was there. No ruby slippers required. It's like here, only better. Brighter," he amended. Not better. "No, get your own bottle. And then I saw it in the sky, far away, and the next time I went it came and spoke to me. And I found the cave. Look. I got this," and he thrust his left hand forward. He hadn't taken off the ring. He couldn't bear to, even though it broke his heart to look at it. The claw, too. "Adam said it was all right that I took it because I left him my compass. He must have known it was his ring when he saw it. He said it was just stuff." There didn't seem to be any point refilling the glass when he could just drink from the bottle.

"You saw a dragon? A real, live dragon?" That was Chris, and he was doubtful and envious all at once. His thoughts were going really fast. Lance couldn't keep up, but he didn't want to. Chris could think what he liked. This wine was really good.

"Of course a real live dragon," he said. "It spoke to me. It was surprised. Especially when I peeled. It rained," he explained, "and my clothes were all wet so I tried to dry them by the fire. And then it wanted, it wanted to…I can't. I can't."

"A dragon talked to you," JC said, and it sounded like he believed it. Sort of. "What—what was it like, the dragon?"

"It was beautiful," Lance said, sulkily. "And evil. No, not evil, really, but it thought I was stuff. It threw my matches on the fire."

"It didn't think you were a person?" JC seemed to be getting it. "Did it—did it hurt you?"

"It wanted to," Lance said. "It was going to, only another dragon came, a black one, and they fought and the black dragon won and it was Adam."

Chris and JC looked at each other. Lance wasn't sure what they were thinking, it all seemed kind of blurry, but he didn't really care. He felt a bit strange.

"I think you should eat something," Chris said, and put a heaped bowl in front of Lance. Pasta, and tomato sauce, and colourful squares of peppers, and peas, and onions, and other things. It smelled tempting, and Lance picked up the fork that had mysteriously appeared next to the bowl, and took a bite.

The three of them ate in silence for a few minutes. Chris's thoughts were still whizzing, apparently he was wondering if Lance was losing his mind, which was charming. JC's anxiety was definitely permeated with wonder, so it felt like he believed it. That was good. It was good to be able to tell them, even if he couldn't tell them about—it was good that they knew. JC set a tall glass of water on the table, which was silly because he had a whole bottle of wine to drink, except the wine bottle seemed to be empty now and Lance was still thirsty, so he drank the water.

"You're telling us that dragons are real, and that you met one." Chris was making quite an effort to sound calm.

"Two," Lance said. "Try to keep up. The golden one, and the black one that's Adam. I knew he was hiding something, right from the start. Never guessed he was a dragon, though."

"Dragons are real, and Adam Lambert is a dragon," stated JC. He got up and busied himself with the kettle.

"Ask him," Lance said. "At least, I don't think he goes around telling people, but it's true. I suppose that's where he got the boots. His own skin."

"What I'm not getting," Chris said, "is why you're so miserable. I'd have thought a boyfriend who was a dragon would be your dream come true."

Lance would have thought so too, once upon a time. Eight days ago, he would have thought so, too. Eight days ago, before a dragon had overwhelmed him with its mind and filled him with terrible images of his own torture and death. Eight days ago, when he hadn't realised that having a dragon's thoughts beating down on your brain was unbearable, impossible. But how could he explain that? He didn't understand it himself, and they weren't receivers so how could they possibly get it? And why were his cheeks wet?

Chris passed him a Betty Boop-patterned handkerchief. Lance wiped his face, and blinked.

"Here. Have some tea," said JC. He was radiating concern and tenderness, comforting as a hand-made blanket.

The tea was foul, but Lance drank it anyway.

Lance was feeling a bit more in control of himself now he'd had something to eat, and remembering why he usually didn't drink except after meals. Not being alone with his thoughts didn't hurt, either. He loved Adam, and he couldn't bear to be near Adam, and he was going to have to learn to live with that, but he also had friends who were good people and who cared about him and… about… He stared at JC, then at Chris. Yes, it was definitely there. He'd been too sunk in self-pity, and then too drunk, to pick up on it before, but it was definitely there. No wonder they'd been having a meal together.

Aside from a pang of envy, he was glad for them. If two of the nicest people he knew could be happy with one another, the world was a better place.

Chris was watching him in what seemed to be admiration. It seemed they shared an opinion of JC's tea, and likewise, neither of them was going to tell JC how vile it was. "We brought pastries," Chris said. In his mind was extreme eagerness to eat said pastries, so Lance smiled and said they were the best friends ever, and Chris brought out a box in the Fatone's colours and the pastries were, naturally, delicious.

After that they moved to the couch, and once the dogs were properly distributed over everyone's feet and Chris's lap (Lily, always the flirt), Lance decided to address the issue that was now burning in JC's mind so clearly that JC's natural shields weren't anywhere near hiding it—what were dragons like. He told them about his first visit to dragon country, and showed them the claw. He told them about finding the cave, and seeing the golden dragon in the sky. He told them about the hoard in the cave. He faltered over the encounter with the golden dragon, and how Adam had rescued him—he couldn't talk about it, he just couldn't—but did his best to explain how it felt to have a dragon's thoughts overruling everything in his head. How it was impossible to resist and impossible to live with it.

They were both quiet. JC got up and went to the kitchen, presumably to make more disgusting tea. Ah, well. The motorised rush of Chris's thoughts was quietened to a hum of disquiet and sympathy. Lance hoisted Jackson onto his lap, and the little dog stood up—ow! mind the delicate bits!—and licked his chin a couple of times before settling comfortably. The dogs were all radiating gentle, undemanding love and contentment. They helped, they helped a lot.

When JC came back, he'd made hot chocolate, and even discovered Lance's marshmallows.

Chris received his drink with relief. "You are the best," boyfriend ever, Chris's thoughts continued, quite plainly. Lance suppressed a grin.

"So," Lance said, feeling that a complete change of subject would be a good idea at this point, "how's it going with Britney?"

They both had plenty to say on that subject, so Lance just settled down to listen. The conversation helped him to corral his dragon-related thoughts into a tiny pocket of his mind, where he had some chance of ignoring them. He could be honestly happy about the success of his two placements, which were working out spectacularly well. Chris was loving his job, JC was delighted with his new role as artistic mentor.

"And Britney's been seeing that Timberlake boy," Chris said, fondly. "He's a good kid."

"Romance is in the air, apparently," Lance said as blandly as he could, and did not smirk as the two of them looked at each other sappily.

"Uh, since you mention it," Chris began, but Lance, suddenly weary, held up his hand.

"Look, guys, there's something I need to tell you, but could we do that in the morning? I think I might be able to sleep if I go to bed now. Will you stay? The spare bed's all made up, and you won't mind sharing, will you?" Disingenuous of him, but from Chris's reaction, not at all unwelcome.

"You don't wanna tell us now? Get it off your chest, whatever it is?" JC suggested.

"No, not now. I'm still a bit drunk," he said. Besides, he'd need to work out what to say. They deserved to know, but… "If there's anything you need, help yourselves, okay? You know where stuff is." Chris, at least, had stayed with Lance before.

He went to bed.


The next morning Lance awoke with a warm body on either side of him and an array of dogs about his feet. It was ridiculously hot in the bed. He definitely had not gone to bed with Chris and JC… no, there it was, the memory of nightmare, and being rescued and cuddled by both of them, rushing in to his room in their boxers. Okay, that was embarrassing. He looked fondly down at them both. It was strange to see Chris so peaceful, not to hear his mind racing. JC's eyelids flickered, but did not open. He was still fast asleep.

Lance eased himself out from between them, and the dogs followed him hopefully to the bathroom, and were waiting for him when he emerged. He took them downstairs, sorted out their breakfasts and scrambled some eggs. The mild ache in his head reminded him that it was a bad idea to eat nothing all day, particularly if you then drank whatever tasty alcohol you could get your hands on, so he drank a glass of water and half a bottle of orange juice.

There was still no sign of movement from upstairs by the time he'd finished his breakfast, so he left a note on the counter and took the dogs for a walk. It was a grey morning, slightly oppressive. He wondered if it would be raining in dragon country, or brightly sunny, and was very careful not to think of too many right angles. He couldn't go back.

JC and Chris were polishing off toast with jam when he got back, and there was a fresh pot of coffee, so Lance sent the dogs through to the back garden and settled down to make his confession.

"I've been lying to you," he started.

"Not about the dragons!" JC sounded horrified, and rather upset.

"No, not—nothing to do with dragons. It's about me. It's about what I can do. I, um. You've heard of empaths?"

"Sure," Chris said. "People who can tell what other people are feeling. It's why you're so good at your job, right? You're an empath?"

"I've sometimes wondered what that would be like," JC said, "being able to understand what other people are feeling without having to guess. It must be awesome."

Lance was startled. There was pride coming from Chris, and triumph in his own guesswork, but apparently he wasn't the least bit worried about Lance being an empath. And JC seemed pretty calm about it, too. Of course, empathy was probably the most well-known gift around. Empaths got all the best press—for being great therapists, tender nurses and the like. Lance suspected empathy was even rarer than people thought. He'd met a fake empath once. She'd had the most amazing reputation, yet her thoughts were all cynicism and not a trace of a true gift. He hadn't said anything, because how could he? He was something different. "Yes, but, um. That's not all. Empaths only get emotions. I get… more." He looked at them. "I can get thoughts, too. Not—I don't go sneaking into your minds, I can't hear your secrets or anything, but. I'm a receiver."

Oh, crap, Chris thought with crystal clarity, and then, That's crazy. Lance knows what I'm thinking, and he's still my friend? "So you know what I'm thinking—"

"And I'm still your friend. Yes. No, of course I don't think you're a lunatic. Yes, I can hear what you're thinking right now, trombone playing orangutan, okay, I take it back, you are a lunatic."

JC was a lot more dubious about it. "Are you really saying you can read my thoughts?"

"Not yours," Lance told him. "You have a natural shield, all I get from you are emotions, like a regular empath would." The relief that followed that was a little bit dismaying, but he couldn't blame JC for not liking the idea of a receiver. Lance wouldn't want to meet one, either. "I don't pry, I don't try to get inside your heads, either of you, but sometimes it, uh, makes things easier, because I know a bit more than you tell me." He was getting a parade of most peculiar images from Chris. "Would you stop doing that?" Chris couldn't help being obnoxious about this stuff, but there was only so much Lance's techniques could do to protect himself, and he was getting a headache. Cut that out! he thought, as loudly as he could, but naturally it didn't get beyond his own skull.

Ah, but it's fun! Chris thought. Seriously, I can communicate with you like this? How awesome is that?

"Not fucking awesome at all, Chris, you're making my head hurt. And in case you hadn't noticed, it's all going one way which is not what I'd call communication." That set Chris's thoughts spinning, but in the more usual way, which he could cope with. "Mostly I try not to listen, except professionally, because it really helps me to get people placed if I know what they really want to do and what the clients who're hiring really want me to find. Chris is unusually open," he explained to JC. "But I, er, picked up on the two of you last night. You felt all… glowy." JC did spare Chris a glance of helpless affection at that, even though he was still uncomfortable. "I thought you should know."

He let them both think it through for a few minutes, toying with the idea of escaping to the simple comfort of his dogs, out in the garden, but deciding in the end that whatever his friends might want to say to him, they had the right to say it.

In the end, it was Chris who spoke up, and he was trying, clumsily, to keep his head quiet as he did so. "We knew you had a gift," he said. " I mean, we thought you were an empath, because I'd never heard of anyone being able to read minds, not really read minds. But it's okay. Like I said, you know what I'm thinking and you're still my friend."

"Thank you for telling us," JC said, a bit formally. He was still processing, Lance knew, and that was fair enough. "I never really thought about it, but when Chris said—well, it made sense. I am kinda glad you can't hear my thoughts," he admitted. "But I don't think you ever took advantage, not in a bad way."

"And it's not like other people can't tell how JC's feeling by just looking at his face," Chris said. His thoughts were a jumble of worry and embarrassment, now, as he was beginning to think through exactly what Lance's special ability might mean.

"You don't need to be ashamed of anything," Lance told him. "You're always totally honest. There's no conflict between what you say and who you are. Plus you think so fast it doesn't really register before you're on to the next thing. Just don't send me any more animal pictures, okay?" For a disturbing moment, a rhinoceros in a French maid's uniform paraded through his mind, but Chris thought Sorry, sorry! and quietened down again.

"So why are you telling us this now?" JC asked.

Lance sighed. "It's because… it's because of Adam, I think. I tried to tell you last night, but maybe it's easier for you guys to see why I can't be with Adam when you know I'm a receiver. Chris just now was making me dizzy, but when Adam is anywhere near me he takes over my mind, his thoughts, his emotions, there's no room inside my own mind for me. I can shield against regular people, put up a mental barrier so their thoughts don't come in, but a dragon is too powerful for my shielding. I have no defences and I can't, I just can't deal with it. So I have to get over him."

"Was that what you were dreaming about last night?" Chris asked.

"No, that was…" He couldn't tell them, not that. "Dragons are—they aren't like us. I was so frightened. Powerless, you see? I don't think Adam would do that to me, but he could, and there wouldn't be anything I could do to stop him."

To Lance's surprise, JC got up and wrapped his arms around him. A moment later the comforting warmth of Chris enfolded him from behind.

It really helped, having friends.


On Monday morning, Lance apologised to Lisa for making her life miserable for the past week, and set to work with a vengeance. He invited a bunch of applicants back for getting-to-know-you drinks. He made a concerted effort and a lot of phone calls to find more clients looking for new talent and new staff. He smiled, he shook hands, he took notes and he revamped his agency's advertising to bring in even more clients and applicants.

When he got home, he took the dogs out and then settled in to work out how to improve his magnificent indexing system, something he'd been meaning to do for months. And he read his book about Kaluza-Klein theory until the physics started to make sense, and did not write to the authors to advise them to look at JC Chasez's new sculptures.

It set the pattern for his week.

It worked, during his waking hours. He was too busy to think about Adam more than, oh, five times an hour, too busy to take notice of the empty ache in his heart. At night, though, his bed felt too big and he kept reaching for someone who wasn't there. The nightmares woke him in the small hours, and he'd sob into Dingo's neck, and try to find that image at the edge of his mind, the tranquil lake in the mountains, peaceful, cool, green. When he could picture it clearly, it helped, just a little. If he could imagine himself there, the flames were easier to quell.


"Are you planning on eating today?" Lisa asked him on Friday, jerking him from the midst of an indexing binge. It was nearly two-thirty.

"I guess I should," he said, ruefully. He wasn't hungry, didn't seem to have any urge to eat these days, but he knew he ought to. "I'll head down to Fatone's." He ought to see Joey. He ought to tell Joey what he'd told Chris and JC, and he wasn't looking forward to it.

As Lance walked into the restaurant, Papa Fatone greeted him, frowned, and escorted him personally to a booth hidden away behind a half wall. A few moments later, Joey set down a glass of house lemonade and slid into the seat opposite him.

"How are you?"

"I'm good." No, Lance realised, that wasn't how he'd meant to start the conversation. The habit of a happy answer was hard to break. "How are you?" He knew Joey knew he wasn't 'good', and Joey knew that he knew, but Joey went along with it for the moment, and told Lance about that thing Kelly said a couple of days ago to a group of Round Tablers that had made them all laugh and give her a record tip, and about the thing his Mom had done with the pastries and the coffee liqueur, and about how his little girl was pretending to read books now, the ones she'd learned by heart.

Lance listened, and sipped his lemonade. "Wait," he said, "aren't you supposed to be working?"

"Lunch rush is over," Joey said with a shrug. "And you need the company. Haven't seen you in here for a while, but when your boy turned up last week he didn't stay for a meal, he just bought a bunch of pastries and disappeared on his motorbike like a bat out of hell."

Adam and his motorbike. Yes.

"Does that mean I'm getting a plate of chocolate cream puffs and cannoli?" Lance asked. He wasn't really in the mood for sweet things, but they were supposed to make you feel better, weren't they?

"Oh, it's way too serious for that," Joey said, and he didn't sound as though he was joking. "Lance, what happened? What went wrong? I thought, well. I thought you were kinda starry-eyed about him."

Lance laughed. "Kinda. Yes." He took a deep breath, about to embark on the story again, but Papa Fatone arrived and presented him with a dish and a fork, and Lance looked down on a crusting of melted cheese, and stuck his fork into what turned out to be the best macaroni cheese he'd eaten in his life. He felt vaguely disloyal even thinking it, because Mom made awesome macaroni cheese, but this—perfect texture, thick, creamy sauce, and some secret ingredient of Mama Fatone's devising that gave it just the tiniest kick, it was perfect. It reminded him of home, and being cuddled.

When Lance looked up, Joey was placidly eating spaghetti and meatballs.

He actually did feel better. It must be a blood sugar thing, Lance decided. He ran his finger round the dish to make sure he'd swiped every last smear of that delectable cheese sauce, and told Joey his story. It was easier this time, probably because he wasn't alcohol-fuddled and had rehearsed it carefully in his head. Joey listened intently, and made no protest, however unlikely it all seemed.

"So," Joey said. "Dragon. Huh. I guess that's why he was impossible to read." He sounded, if anything, pleased to have an explanation for the failure of his own gift. Lance decided that was reasonable.

"And I didn't know how lucky I was that he was shielding," Lance said, trying not to sound gloomy.

"That part I don't get," Joey said. "You said you get his thoughts now, and his emotions. Isn't that what you wanted?"

"Never wish for what you want," Lance said, "you might get it. I don't just hear him, his thoughts are right inside my head, and when he's there I can't hear myself think. There isn't room. It's… horrible." Then, of course, he had to explain that he was a receiver. This was the part that had really worried him, but Joey was surprisingly calm about it. Of course, Joey knew that it wasn't a character flaw, having a gift, and that nobody got to choose whether they had a gift at all or what kind it might be.

Joey promised not to tell anyone, and went back to the problem of Adam. "But his shield was so strong," he said, "can't he just put it up, like, at half-strength? You'd be okay with that."

"Apparently he can't, because we're what he calls heart-mates. I don't even know how it's supposed to work. I just know that he can't shield from me, and because he's a dragon his mind is just too much to take," he shuddered, "and I—I never in my life intentionally sent a thought to anybody, but it seems he can hear what's in my head. Worse than that, I don't know if he receives all my thoughts, or only the strongest ones. He said he only gets the ones I send, but I don't know how to send them, so how can I even tell if I'm doing it? Maybe he's hearing this conversation, because it's pretty damn intense for me. Does that mean it's strong enough to send? I don't know. And I don't want to make things worse for him. He's lonely right now, he's sad, I can…Huh. I can feel it. There's a part of my mind that can feel it, even though he isn't here."

"Are you sure it isn't your own sadness you're feeling?"

"No. It's Adam. We're linked." Lance hadn't recognised it before, but it was true.

Joey was silent for a bit. Lance could feel him turning things over in his mind, but he'd never gotten detail from Joey .

"What are you going to do?"

Lance almost laughed. "What can I do? I'm going to… go on. I've been moping long enough, and it doesn't help. Nothing's going to help. I love Adam, and he's a dragon and I'm afraid of him. I want him, and I can't stand to be in the same room as him. I'm going to have to get over him, aren't I? I mean, what else can I do?"

Joey's brown eyes were full of sympathy, but he had no better solutions to offer.

Papa Fatone brought them both coffee, fragrant and strong, and a chocolate truffle for Lance.

"If food could cure what ails me, this would probably do it," Lance said, when the lingering richness of chocolate had at last faded from his tongue. Perhaps he should have tried to share that with Adam. The image of a golden dragon man gobbling his chocolate bar flashed into his head then, and his mouth tasted of ashes.

Joey hugged him as he left, and told him to come back as often as he needed.

* * *

Adam's first record was on the radio now, doing well. Lance tried at first not to listen to it, but however busy he was he couldn't stop thinking about Adam, and hearing Adam's singing did not seem to make things any worse. He couldn't help but take notice of Adam's success, climbing the charts, selling well, touring. The little piece of Adam in his mind was triumphant, excited—and still lonely, still full of the same sadness that pervaded Lance's own life. Now Lance was getting used to it being there, he found it almost comforting, and at the same time alien, intrusive, unfair.

He wanted Adam to telephone again, but repressed it fiercely in case Adam was receiving his thoughts. Whenever the yearning overcame him, he took pains to stamp it out and declare to the inside of his skull that he did not want to talk to Adam. Inevitably he did a lot of declaiming inside his head, which was tiresome and distracting, and it was really annoying not to know if it was necessary. Sometimes he tempted himself with the idea of asking Adam about it, but then he had to tell himself no, he did not want to talk to Adam, he had to move on, and the whole damn cycle of thinking and counter-thinking went round the loop again.

Adam didn't call, so maybe he got the message. And Lance wanted so much to hear his voice.

Life went on, as life tended to do. At least his friends knew the situation, and they did their best to help. He took Lisa along to Fatone's for an early evening meal so often that Joey started bringing her salads instead of lasagna; Chris and JC would meet him at the weekend and take him off to watch football matches—the crowd's emotions were simple and fervent, and it was nice to be swept along by something he actually could shut out if he wanted to—and to see tiny bands performing in bars (a couple of which he decided to recommend to some of his promoter acquaintances), and once, to a peculiar modern dance… thing with masks and feathers and performers who moved their limbs in ways he'd never seen human beings move before. Lance enjoyed that one enormously, because Chris's outraged mental commentary was probably the funniest thing he'd ever experienced.

Chris and JC had plenty to talk about to take his mind off his own troubles, which he appreciated. Chris's plans to start his own garage were on hiatus for now, as he was thoroughly enjoying his involvement with Britney and her boys. JC was diffident about discussing his art, hesitant to mention something that would remind Lance of dragon country, but Lance wasn't having that, and once he got JC well and truly started on the subject there was no stopping him. Preparations for his and Britney's show at Gallery D were well in hand, so there was quite a lot to say. Lance was proud of both of them, and proud of his own part in getting them there.

He did not see much of Britney herself. She was spending a good deal of time with Justin nowadays, which according to Chris's reports made her glow with happiness. So it came as quite a surprise when she called to invite him to spend Sunday at her place. Just a few close friends, and he could meet Justin. He didn't need to be in her presence to hear the happiness in her voice when she mentioned Justin's name. Lance envied her briefly, and told her he'd love to be there.

*Show up around midday, we'll eat and talk, and just chill,* she said. *Kevin has the boys that weekend, so it'll be quite grown-up.*

"Chris will be there, though," Lance pointed out, and she laughed.


Lance arrived precisely at midday, and Britney greeted him with a huge smile, particularly when he handed over the basket of flowers—white lilies and yellow roses—and the chocolates he'd brought along. He was interested to see inside her house, he'd never been there before, and it had a lot more personality than he'd been expecting. Not a professionally decorated, bland place at all, there was colour everywhere, and an array of art on the walls that included Britney's own work, several pieces by other artists, and framed crayon drawings obviously done by her kids.

"Chris and JC aren't here yet, but they won't be long. Come and meet my Justin." Her thoughts were bubbling with happiness. Lance hoped Justin Timberlake deserved it. He remembered the concert, the talented singer with the peculiar glamor and that unconscious need for adoration, and was interested to see how it all translated when he wasn't performing.

"Hi." A little bit uncomfortable, on edge, eager to please. And a lot of natural charisma. Lance found himself smiling back into very bright blue eyes, shaking the offered hand, and telling Justin that he'd enjoyed the concert. That was a good start, and settled the guy a bit. Britney explained what Lance did for a living, and that led to a promising line of conversation about the vagaries of the music business, while she excused herself to get water for her flowers. Justin's gaze followed her as she left the room, as though he couldn't quite bear not to have her right there next to him. It was entirely in tune with the feelings that Lance was receiving from him, which was good to know. Someone in Britney's position had to be careful where she bestowed her heart, but she seemed to have picked a good one—and, he supposed, Justin Timberlake had fame and fortune in his own right and didn't need to exploit a girlfriend's.

A burst of laughter from the kitchen signalled that Chris had arrived, and he erupted into the sitting room a moment later, greeting Justin casually enough to indicate that they knew each other quite well. JC followed with rather more dignity, and Justin handed round beers to all, just as Britney came back with a platter of fried shrimp and said they should help themselves. She watched eagerly as her guests took their first mouthfuls, and beamed at the ensuing compliments. "Lynn taught me how to cook them," she said. "Justin's mom. Oh, excuse me," and she was off to answer the door.

When she came back, Britney was followed by a short man whose dark hair was pulled back in a ponytail. Lance recognised him, of course, and after a second it all clicked into place—Howie was the gallery owner who'd be displaying their work a couple of weeks from now.

It seemed Howie and Justin had already met, and JC, obviously, but Britney presented Chris as "the guy who runs my life for me" and then introduced her new arrival to Lance with what felt like a flourish.

"Good to see you, Howie. You're looking well," Lance said, lightly.

"You, too," Howie said, but Lance could have seen the shade in his eyes even without the corroboration of Howie's dismayed thoughts. Did he really look that haggard? Maybe he should break out the concealer next time he left the house.

"You guys know each other?" Britney said. She sounded disappointed.

"We, uh, had a fling a while back," Lance explained, and was disconcerted by her mental response of Rats! I thought they'd be perfect for each other. He might have expected Britney to be matchmaking, he supposed. People in love always thought everybody in the world should be paired up, and he hadn't explained the Adam situation to her. Well, it was a kind thought, and at least he wouldn't be the only single person in the room. "I'm assuming you're the D of Gallery D? How long have you had your own gallery?" Britney fluttered back to Justin's side, and JC came over to join Lance and Howie's conversation. Lance didn't even flinch when Howie began to praise JC's current works, and agreed—quite calmly, he thought—that they were unique.

They had a hearty meal of ribs and fried chicken with corn on the cob and freshly baked rolls (JC's offering, apparently kneading dough gave him a chance to meditate), during which the atmosphere settled into comfortable friendliness. It was all very… affectionate, Lance thought. What with Britney and Justin being besotted with one another, and JC and Chris much the same only with the added spice of Chris's salacious thoughts every time he looked at his lover, Lance was feeling very much alone. He did his best to shield his head—nobody needed to know that much about JC's skill at blowjobs—but even so, the room was redolent with emotions. Particularly when Howie admitted he'd just started seeing somebody, an artist by the name of AJ, which caused JC to sit up in surprise and ask if he was talking about the AJ who produced those huge, vigorous abstract canvasses. Which apparently he was.

Still, there weren't many better cures for loneliness than good food and the company of friends. A pity Joey and Kelly couldn't be there too, but it was too much to expect that Britney had made friends with either of them. Certainly not with Kelly, he thought, realising that Britney had managed to surround herself with men. It looked as though Lisa's assessment had been spot on.

At about three, Howie stood apologetically and explained that he really had to be going. After that, Lance felt distinctly more isolated, as Britney snuggled herself into Justin's lap in the big, circular armchair and Chris and JC lolled together on one couch while Lance sat alone on the other. He considered leaving, but he wouldn't be any less lonely by himself so it seemed counter-productive, and when Britney urged Justin to fetch his guitar, he was glad he'd stayed.

It wasn't so much a private concert as a singalong. Britney was content to gaze at Justin and listen, but Lance, Chris and JC all found themselves joining in quietly as he sang—pop songs, standards from years past, and several numbers Lance recognised from the concert. There was no glamour over Justin today. He was just enjoying the music and eager to share it. Every so often he'd look at Britney and a softness would come over his face, and there was adoration in his thoughts, and Lance had to pull back into himself even more to protect himself from the feelings in the room. And why did all the songs have to be about being in love? There were so many great sad songs they could sing.

Adam sings sad songs, he thought. Adam can sing anything. If Adam were here with him, sitting next to him, he could be so happy, he could—it did not help at all, so he forced himself to pay attention to the music.

"Guys, you won't know this one," Justin said. "Baby girl, this is for you." He strummed an introduction and began to sing. "If I had a pair of wings, I'd pick you up and fly you far away from here, And you'd put your worries upon my shoulders, my dear…"

Lance felt a tightness in his chest as though a fist were gripping his heart. The simple words came at him from nowhere and pierced all his defences, and his loneliness welled up and threatened to spill out and flood down his cheeks. Wings, wings, far away from here, and Adam would want to ease Lance's burdens, and how was he to bear it all alone like this?

"… there's only one thing that would do, I'd fly away on this pair of wings with you…"

How could Justin have known, to write such lyrics? He didn't know, he couldn't know, but Lance's beloved had wings and if only, if only—he didn't want to do this alone any more. He wanted to fly away with Adam, anywhere, he wanted to be with Adam even if it killed him because living like this, this was half a life.

He couldn't take it any more. He had to get away from the song before he burst into tears. Lance stumbled out of the room and fought his way outside. The late afternoon sun was low in the sky, and he was reminded of that dragon silhouetted against the light, his first glimpse of Adam, though he hadn't known it.

I want him, he thought. I want him. He can fill my head up, I don't care. Adam, Adam! he called, I need you. I'm so lonely, Adam. Please, please come. He swiped at his water-filled eyes, and when his arm dropped, Adam was there and Lance walked straight into his arms and oh, it felt so right. So strong, so solid in his grasp. Lance hid his face in Adam's neck and breathed him in, and with Adam's hand petting his hair he pressed tight, as though they could be joined into one person. How many problems that would solve, Lance thought with grim humour.

Already Adam's feelings filled his head, love and loneliness and misery and surprised delight that Lance wanted him there, and it was all so familiar, exactly what Lance felt anyway only twice as much, filling his mind and leaving him no room for logic. Worry, too, that Lance was so desperate he'd called for Adam, and worry that Adam's very presence was painful. Which it was, only not so much as his absence even if Lance's head was beginning to ache. "Help me," he whispered. "I can't bear it. Take me away." Echoes of Justin's song came back to him, fly you far away from here, and when Justin finished singing Chris and JC would come outside in search of him and he didn't want that, couldn't stand their helpless, useless sympathy. He thought—or perhaps Adam thought—of the lake in the mountains. "Yes, there, take me there," he said. "Is it real?" Did you send me the images?

"Yes," Adam said. "Here, climb on my back." He eased out of Lance's embrace and turned, and Lance held onto his shoulders and Adam swelled, and Lance was rising up, impossibly up, until he was high on the back of a black dragon, high as Britney's house, and great wings swept the air on either side as they rose up and forward and through too many right angles in one go, and the house and grounds below were nowhere as the black dragon flew towards the mountains of dragon country.

Lance's mind seemed to freeze for a moment, this was so much more than his wildest dreams that he couldn't take it all in, but he breathed deep and clung to what he could reach of Adam's mighty shoulders, lying along the dragon's obsidian spine between its wingshafts so that he could feel the muscles beneath him bunch and spread as the wings smote the air. Flying. Flying! Oh, it was beautiful, glorious, up and up into the vivid blue sky and towards the mountains shining in the golden sunlight of late afternoon. For an instant, Lance remembered the golden dragon's rapture as it flew, but Adam's joy pushed the golden one out of his head, and Lance couldn't tell if he was full of Adam's joy or his own, because he was flying on a dragon, really flying, and there was no room for anything but ecstasy in his mind. Flying is wonderful, Lance thought, let's do this for ever, and Adam agreed with him, or maybe it was the other way round.

They were so very high up, the tall slopes falling away beneath Adam's mighty wings, a sharp ridge ever closer ahead. Lance was vaguely aware that his hands were cold, and he shivered. Soon, Adam assured him, we'll be there soon, just need to clear this mountain then we can descend. You can make a fire, Lance thought, and Adam breathing fire didn't frighten him as it should have done, because Adam was his, his heart's mate who would never hurt him. I love you, he thought, and Adam thought it too.

A great sweep of wings and they were up and over the high ridge between the mountain peaks, and below them Lance could see a green valley and a lake as blue as the sky, just as he'd seen it in his mind, and Adam's wings sailed out so that they glided down—Lance could sense the dragon's flight muscles, wing-bones set in perfect arcs, the necessary placement of wing-tips to steer, he participated as Adam picked the spot where he would land, and he knew each careful, instinctive adjustment as angles altered, tail braked and limbs braced.

They were down.

Then that strange deflation as the dragon turned back into the man and Lance found himself clinging to Adam's back, but only for a moment, as he slid to the ground and Adam turned to hug him close, and Lance tucked his frozen hands under Adam's T-shirt, and there was a squeak of protest but oh, that was nice and warm. How do you have clothes on? Lance asked, and Adam struggled to verbalise some very peculiar instincts and eventually gave up trying to put it into words.

"I just do," he said. "It's way more convenient to wear them than having to carry them around…" Lance?

This is new, Lance thought, because his head was perfectly his own, except that there was a part of his mind that was now fully Adam, safe and secure, and Lance knew that he could think his own thoughts and share anything he chose to share and that the terrible pressure would never come back.

Adam's wonder shone inside his mind. This is how it's supposed to be, Adam realised. I didn't know.

Lance carefully found his hands a new place to settle, and grinned at Adam's wince. "You have such a nice, warm tummy."

"Oh, way to make me feel all manly and butch!"

"I think we equalised when we were flying," Lance said, seriously. "We just—it was so wonderful, I think maybe we felt just the same so we kind of, somehow, got sorted out."

"If I'd known, I would have flown with you ages ago."

"Also," Lance admitted, "I was fighting you before, because of, well." He let Adam glimpse the flames for a moment before he snuffed the thought.

"The golden one."

"Mostly, yes, but you know, you are much more powerful than me. I was scared of you."

"I was pushing, I think. I was so desperate for you to—but you're not scared any more, are you?" Adam said, almost shyly. They sat down side by side to gaze out over the tranquil water.

"Never again," Lance said. "And we have to fly together, like, all the time, because that was amazing."

"Yeah." Essence of dragon. Best thing in the world.

"Although… how come you didn't just transit straight here?"

"Oh!" Adam said, startled. "I didn't—I didn't think of it. I always fly here. I love the view from way up above the ridge, you know? How the lake stretches into the distance, it's just…"

"It's the most beautiful place I've ever seen," Lance said.

"Plus, I guess, once I'm in dragon country, I want to fly."

"That I totally understand," Lance said, and lowered himself to lie flat on his back and stare into the still-bright sky. "I think I'm going to need flying gear. Gloves, anyway." He received an image of himself helmeted and in goggles, like an aeronaut, and giggled.

"I won't peel again for ages," Adam said, "but when I do, you can get a really cool jacket."

Lance laughed.

Adam curved over him possessively, and Lance reached his arms up to pull Adam down. There was something even better than flying, they found, now that their telepathic bond enhanced their physical senses.

"We'll have the most beautiful babies," Adam said. They were lying naked beside the lake after a brief and rather chilly dip.

"Of course we will."

"No, but we will!"

"Er…" Do you actually know how human beings work?

Adam looked at him, reprovingly. "Not as humans, obviously. But I'm sure I can lay eggs. I mean, I know how."

"Oh. My. Lord."

"But there's no hurry," Adam said, and wrapped his arms tighter. Lance, boggled, just held on and tried not to think about it. He'd probably be ready to father a clutch of scarlet dragon babies one day, but… not yet.

"I suppose," he said, reluctantly, "we ought to go back." Chris and JC will be worried about me. And they'll be so pleased to see us now that it's all right, we should give them that. They've been very good to me.

Adam stood. "We can transit straight there. It'll be quicker."

"Did you ever go back for the snowglobe? I'd like it back."

"I have it in my suitcase." It reminded me of you. "Anyway, you don't need it any more, not now. Come on."

"Actually," Lance said, "I think I'll get my clothes on first."

"Ah," said Adam. "Yes."

"And you should probably put that out before we leave." The sun was well down, and the pink in the sky was fast fading to purple, so they'd needed the warmth. The black dragon put a large foot onto their little bonfire, extinguishing it most efficiently, and then Adam was Adam again and pulling on his boots.

"Come on, then," Lance said. He took Adam's hand, looked around one last time at the valley, and thought himself back to the world he'd grown up in, and Britney's garden. Time to show off his handsome boyfriend.

With his heart's mate at his side, he would always be able to return to dragon country.


There is a sequel, Perceptions of Reality.


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