The Pearl Ch. 04byThistlethorn©
© Edited by Wicked
This is a copyrighted work of fiction. All rights reserved.
Dakota owned a very nice but practical car, the kind that got good fuel mileage and received high safety ratings from all the auto publications. It was clean, pale blue in color, with Mardi Gras beads over the rear view mirror and a few beanie babies lined up along the back window. She parked farther from the river than I expected, but the walk wasn't too bad. The more I moved in human form, the more I got reacquainted with it. I had become far more accustomed to the dragon form than I realized. Still, I was pretty sure I could hold this form for the evening at least. "You ever been to the Big Easy?" I asked, climbing in and indicating the beads.
"Yeah, I went down as a volunteer with the Red Cross after Katrina," she explained while starting the car. "Then I went down with some friends for the first Mardi Gras after Katrina."
"They let you help with the hurricane relief? Weren't you too young?"
"No, I was eighteen when Katrina hit; I was legal." She gave me a sidelong smile while pulling away from the curb. "Way to get my age, you sly dog."
"Yeah, I'm clever that way." Watching her drive, I couldn't help but think, am I clever enough to get in her pants? After what happened with the river during my shape-shifting lesson, I wasn't really all that surprised to have my thoughts go there, but I quickly shut them down. Dragon and human, I told myself sternly, not going to work. Damn shame, though, that smaller, more persistent and generally stupider head south of my belt responded. I was broken from my reverie by her cell phone landing in my lap.
"What's this for?" I asked, picking it up.
"Thought you might want to call some folks; let them know you're not dead."
I flipped the phone open. "There you go again, thinking of what I clearly should have."
While we drove to the restaurant I called my folks, who had been a little worried. They were relieved to hear from me and wanted to stay on the phone. I glossed over what was going on, school, work, and got off the line as quickly as possible. I also called my roommate who had been perhaps a little less worried. He stated he was planning to call the police if I hadn't shown up by the end of this week. Apparently, two weeks missing was his threshold for action. I asked when he would be around, since I had something to talk to him about. He said he would be around studying for that night. I muted the phone.
"Dakota, I hate asking, but could you help me with a few errands?"
"Sure, what do you need?"
"Stop by my job to pick up what is no doubt my final paycheck, then run me by my old place. I'll have to sign the check over to my roommate while I explain that I won't be living there anymore." I was none too happy about screwing him over, but didn't really have any choice. Dakota made a sympathetic face. "Of course. Not a problem. Sorry."
I let him know I would be there and hung up. We hit the restaurant where I worked prior to my assault at the river's edge. Predictably, they weren't very happy with my abrupt no call/no show resignation. I was coolly given my last check and shown the door. Stopping by my old apartment, I signed it over to my roommate while explaining something major came up, and I wasn't going to be staying there anymore. The check had some overtime, so he had my share of the next month's rent. Hopefully, he would be able find another roommate. The only things that were mine were some textbooks and clothes. I gathered them up and left. That part of my life was closed.
I dumped my clothes and books in Dakota's back seat and sat down, crossing my arms, a deep sigh escaping me. Dakota looked over at me. "I'm sorry," she said, consolingly.
"I made this choice. I'm not complaining. At least I got a chance to clear some stuff up. Thanks for letting me use your cell phone and running me around. Now, I believe there's this buffet somewhere?"
"Yeah!" she said, enthusiastically. As she pulled back into traffic, I felt one of her hands cover mine, the touch strangely electric. "And you're welcome," she said, her voice soft. It didn't take that long to get to the restaurant. The sign outside said, "The Dragon's Garden," and it was a really upscale place, with tremendous fish tanks in the waiting area and what looked to be a full service bar. It's main attraction was a buffet that wended along the back with everything from traditional Chinese staple menu items to sushi and a grill-to-order section. The dragon statue commanded the center of the restaurant, and everybody's attention, too. I began to wonder how much eating at this place must cost, but by that point it was early evening and I was starving.
We were seated with a view of the statue that we came to see. We quickly ordered our drinks and hit the buffet. It took a bit of concentration to retain the form with hunger gnawing at my insides, so I loaded my plate up, sat right back down and attacked the food as ferociously as I dared in public. Dakota, being a little more discerning in her food choices, joined me a few minutes later.
"Are you okay?" she asked quietly.
I looked up. "Yeah, why?"
"You tore through the buffet in record time. I wasn't sure you even looked at what you were piling up on that plate."
I scarfed a little more of the food down before responding. "Sorry, but when I get hungry, I get really hungry. That whole dragon thing: bigger body, need more energy to power it. Being so hungry was beginning to chip away at my concentration."
"Oh, don't want that," she said.
I simply nodded my agreement while finishing what was on my plate. After the second plate I wasn't anywhere near full, but was satiated enough to be a better conversationalist than merely inhaling my food.
"Sorry about that," I said.
"Don't be. That's the reality of the situation; I get it," she smiled warmly at me. Man, she was beautiful when she smiled like that. I grabbed my napkin and wiped my mouth to make sure I didn't have teriaki sauce dripping from my chin. "So, what did you think of the food?" she asked, her smile becoming a grin.
"Believe it or not, I did taste it. It was very good. I assume that's the statue?" I asked, gesturing.
Dakota nodded, taking another delicate bite of her food. I got up and took a closer look while getting another plate. She was right; it did sort of look like me. The statue was a large piece, about five feet high, on a two-foot pedestal. The dragon pranced on one front leg with the other upraised. The body curled around and up with its back legs resting on the coils of the body. A gleaming, perfectly rounded pearl shone from its upraised claw.
"Impressive," I said, sitting back down. "Isn't it?" Dakota agreed. "This place has been here for a while, but I just came out today for the first time with some girls from one of my classes."
As I prepared to continue my dinner at a more normal pace and ask Dakota about her classes, I felt my pearl lurch suddenly. I gasped and my hand went to my stomach as I tried to figure out what was going on.
Dakota looked at me with concern. "Is everything all right?"
"I'll let you know as soon as I do." I rubbed my stomach and tried to determine what might be the matter. My attention was drawn immediately to an Asian man sitting a few tables over, glaring daggers at us. Instinctively, I didn't stare or lock eyes, but I let my gaze move over him and continued a casual perusal of the rest of the area. I brought my attention back to Dakota.
"Don't look, but there's a guy giving us the serious hairy eyeball," I explained.
"That's what made you look like that?" she asked. "I thought you were going to be sick!"
I continued massaging the area where my pearl lived. "I felt it in my pearl, and it's not a pleasant feeling."
Dakota continued working on her dinner, appearing nonchalant. I could sense her tension, though. "If you feel it in the pearl, could it be another dragon?"
"That's exactly what I'm thinking."
Dakota finished with her plate. She placed it on the edge of the table, then casually got back up for more. She arranged her path to pass directly in front of his table. I did my best not to watch. His intense stare never wavered. Dakota returned with a plate of food.
"You're right; he's definitely staring at you. When and how did you jack off in his Cheerios?"
"I wish I knew."
Dakota looked thoughtful for a moment before asking, "Do you suppose it's a territory thing? That might explain the enormous dragon statue."
Damn, but she had a way of coming up with things. Not just another pretty face and fantastic body, I realized with a rush of heat, but I forced myself to focus. "'Hey, look! I'm here!' It's possible. I really don't know if dragons are territorial or not, though."
"Well, how do you feel about your spot on the river?"
"It's not just one spot. It's the entire river, and I'm bonded to it." Even I could hear the faint pride in my voice. Huh.
"I remember you mentioning that. Did you find out more about it?"
"I did, but can we go into that later?"
She nodded. "Sorry. I was just wondering if the river was a territory thing in the 'Mutual of Omaha - Wild Kingdom' sense?"
I couldn't help it; I broke out laughing. "If Marlin Perkins comes within one hundred yards of me, I'm out of here."
Dakota favored me with her musical laughter again. "No, no, it would be that poor camera man. He was always sent to investigate the local wildlife while Perkins was talking. You know, 'Let's observe while Jim goes down to film the lions hunting!'"
"You know they had him heavily covered under Mutual of Omaha," I observed between gasping laughs.
We were both laughing hysterically when a hand slammed down onto the table making the plates jump and the glasses jiggle, as well as forcing us both out of our shared moment of revelry. For a split second I thought the other dragon had come over for a confrontation. But when I looked up, a young man about my age was looming over the table. He had sandy brown hair, a handsome face and was fairly well built. The look of him said he was the kind of guy who knew it, too. Though he was smiling, there was a threatening undercurrent to it. I immediately went on guard, even more so than with the dragon. He turned his attention to Dakota.
"Hey, honey, who's your new friend?" He asked the question with feigned disinterest, but the danger remained. Dakota noticed it, too.
"Oh, hey Chad. This is my friend Sebastian." She motioned to me with her hand, but never took her eyes from Chad. "And I have a name. I assume you remember it?"
His smile almost wavered. "Dakota," he said.
"Oh, I wasn't sure. Since we only went out three times I wasn't sure if you committed it to memory."
This time his smile did fall. "Yes, we were going out. And then I get a call saying you're out with another guy."
"No, I didn't say we were going out. I said we went out. I wasn't aware we were exclusive." I could tell Dakota was getting peeved with this guy. I couldn't blame her. I didn't like the feeling I was getting from him at all. It set my metaphorical hackles up and threatened to bring some very real hackles out. I noticed the area around us go silent and could feel the others diners staring. Chad leaned in close to Dakota and grabbed her arm with one hand, bracing the other on the table. "I think we need to discuss this elsewhere."
"Let go of me," she snapped. That was all I needed to hear.
I slammed my hand down on his bracing arm, which abruptly bent at the elbow. He stumbled as his center of gravity suddenly shifted, but kept his balance. He looked down at my hand and then glared at me. I didn't move my hand.
"She isn't going anywhere with you." My pearl was burning with an intensity I hadn't felt before, and I could feel the dragon move just under my skin, the way the top of a pond moves when fish swim close to the surface. I knew I was walking a razor's edge, but this guy just made me want to smack the shit out of him.
The tension around us in the restaurant was practically palpable. It was like the diners wanted a little show to go with their chicken chow mein. I could feel the energy building around us from their hunger -- not for food, but for violence.
"And what're you going to do about it?" he asked threateningly.
My pearl flared up and the charge ran throughout my body, but I held the human form. I could feel a growl building in my throat, and my voice sounded strange to my ears. "Heaven help you if you find out."
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Dakota's expression turn to alarm. She shook his arm off of her and stood up. For a moment, I thought she might go with him, but she got between us instead.
"Look, I'm having dinner with a friend. You're not invited. Deal with it. Or not, but if you don't get out of here, I'm calling the police." He glared again at Dakota. When he looked back to me, there was still malice and spite in his eyes. As I looked deeper, though, I saw something more - something akin to panic. I reached out with my dragon senses and pushed it hard. He backed away, glared one more time, then left. I watched him go, still wanting desperately to go after him and hand him his ass.
Slowly, the excitement and tension sifted away. The kitchen staff brought out fresh trays of General Tso's chicken and beef with broccoli, and the heavy scents of Chinese peppers and tangy brown sauce became far more tempting than what was happening at our table. As the other conversations in the restaurant resumed, Dakota sat back down and got my attention.
Before I could say anything she tersely whispered, "Your hair is changing color from brown to white."
That snapped me back. I slumped down in my seat and focused on the human form and calming down. After a bit I grabbed some of my hair and pulled it in front of my face. It was brown.
"Is it all back to brown?" I asked.
She nodded, looking relieved. "I was afraid it wasn't going to stop there. What was that about?"
I sighed deeply. "I'm not sure, but I think it may not have stopped if you hadn't got between us. Who was Cap'n Happy there, anyway?"
"His name is Chad," Dakota said, looking in the direction he left with a mixture of anger and embarrassment. I suddenly wanted to see her smile again.
"Oh, Cap'n Chad Happy. Chappy, perhaps?" I interjected.
She smiled all too briefly. "Yeah, I met him at a mixer the first week of classes," she continued, her smile disappearing. "He seemed nice enough, and we went out a few times. But like I said to him, I didn't think we were exclusive."
"He didn't get the memo."
"Well, that's just it. I thought the memo went out when you became exclusive. Until then, the field's open."
In my mind, the field became an awesome spring meadow, then abruptly shifted to her lying naked in a bed of little wild flowers in that awesome spring meadow. I shut that fantasy down before I got to what I wanted to do to Dakota-as-nymph in the meadow. Here she was, barely chasing off some chest-beating Neanderthal, and I'm running through positions to achieve deepest penetration in my head. I'm so not winning any sensitivity awards.
"I'm sorry that had to happen on your first night out as a human," she continued, giving me something else to focus on.
"It's not your fault. I don't assume you texted him." Belatedly, I thought of the other dragon, but he vanished sometime during the altercation. "Looks like my other fan also left. Between Chappy and this other dragon, I'm just making new friends all over the place."
Dakota smiled again. "Just don't invite me to the play date, OK?"
We finished dinner, Dakota's three plates to my eight, and settled up our bill. I saw the check and my jaw dropped. Yes, it was a buffet - a $25.00 per person buffet. Drinks not included. Then she placed a carry out order for three servings of dumplings for Chang ("Well, they are very good," she pointed out,) and left an extra large tip because she felt bad about the trouble with Chappy.
"God, Dakota, I'm going to bankrupt you yet. Don't you know any cheap buffets?" I asked after we left.
"Yeah, but not with big ol' dragon statues. Clearly, they have to pay for the amazing décor. Consider it a donation to his vanity," she suggested, climbing into her car. I chuckled as I climbed in on the passenger's side.
"So, what do you think is going to happen with him?" she asked, driving back towards the river.
"I don't know," I admitted. "But Chang's staying around, so I imagine he'll help with anything that might go down."
"That's good, I think he could handle anything. In just that little bit of time I spent talking to him, I could understand what you meant when you said you couldn't explain him. He's completely unlike anyone I've ever met, but he feels like someone I've known for years. Like an uncle, in a way." She paused here for a moment. "A really big, powerful uncle."
I could see that. "Don't forget scary," I added.
"Well, I didn't find him scary. But then he wasn't angry with me."
We both looked at each other as the same thought hit us. I said it first.
"I wonder if that's what crawled up the other dragon's ass? The same thing Chang was pissed about."
"But wasn't Chang the one who created the pearl?" she asked. I nodded. "Then he has a vested interest. What's this guy's hook?"
"Again, I wish I knew. But hopefully, Chang can shed some light."
We arrived at the river. I got out of the car and was surprised when Dakota did, too, carrying the take-out bag. Then I smiled.
"What, walking me home?" I asked.
"Sure," she said, coming over the stand beside me. "Heaven knows you can't go ten feet without getting into some kind of trouble."
I took her arm. "Sad, but true," I conceded. Her touch had an immediate impact on me. I felt an almost electric thrill go through me, originating from the pearl and shooting outward. We started walking toward the river, and I focused on putting one foot in front of the other as I absorbed the sensation. Neither an unpleasant feeling nor an overwhelming one, it was actually quite the opposite. I started thinking how nice it was to have Dakota around.
We were almost to the river when I realized we were being followed. I stopped and purposefully looked behind us. I wasn't surprised to see Chappy. While we were away from the road or sidewalk, we were at a more open section and there wasn't a lot of cover. He had nowhere to hide and stalked directly over to us. He glared down to where I had Dakota's arm hooked over mine. I didn't drop her arm, nor she, mine. Apparently the panic from earlier had subsided, and he seemed to have something to prove. "So what's this about?" he demanded.
At this point Dakota did drop my arm to rest both of her hands on her hips. Though it was full dark, I could see her expression clearly, and she was not happy. I grabbed the take-out bag before Chang's very tasty, very expensive dumplings got turned into so much fertilizer. "It's exactly what I told you. I was having dinner with my friend Sebastian and now we're going for a walk along the river."
"Just walking?" he asked meaningfully.
Now she crossed her arms, looking all the more pissed. "Yes, because nothing gets me hotter than leaves, dirt, small rocks, and crayfish in my snatch. For heaven's sake, I have a house. Besides, what business is it of yours, exactly?"
"We're not done from the restaurant. I want to know what's going on between you two."
Dakota heaved her arms up in the air in frustration. "We're friends." Dakota moved a hand between the two of us. "He and I aren't dating." She then motioned between herself and him. "The same as you and I are not dating. Get it yet?"