Dirk sat in the living room, ignoring the football game on the TV in front of him while he listened to the noises in the kitchen.
Norma, the housekeeper his father had hired from the Philippines, was clanking plates into the dishwasher. Bridget sat at the kitchen table drawing pictures and chatting away to Norma, oblivious to the fact that the woman didn’t understand a quarter of what she said. With Bridget, that sort of thing didn’t matter. Cassie was in the kitchen as well, washing the china she didn’t trust anyone else to handle.
After the first couple days, their father had moved Aaron to a room in the house and had been purposely lax about guarding him. Aaron had agreed to stay, and his freedom was a test to see if, given the chance, he would bolt. So far he hadn’t.
His father had taken Aaron to the enclosure over an hour ago. They’d gone to feed Khan the turkey carcass but obviously, his father had more planned. It took about ten seconds for a dragon to eat dinner. They weren’t big on chewing.
Dirk tapped his thumb against the remote control, nervous for Aaron and irritated all over again that his father had abducted the kid.
It wasn’t just the wrongness of the kidnapping that bothered Dirk. He’d had an unwanted sense of responsibility thrust on him. Now he had to worry about Aaron, had to act as an intermediary, and most problematic, he had to figure out whether he should help the kid escape.
Back when he’d first seen Aaron, scared and trying to get away at the fair, Dirk had decided he couldn’t stand by and see his brother shanghaied. Dirk would just need to figure out how to help him get home in a way that didn’t implicate himself in the process.
But now he didn’t know.
Tori would help Dirk if he asked her. He could tell her to meet him somewhere and hand Aaron off to her. And he would get to see Tori again. Although with a twelve-year-old around, the meeting wouldn’t end like the last had.
Dirk smiled at the thought of their kiss. He could convince Tori to join him. He just needed more time. If he contacted her about Aaron…
But maybe it was pointless to even make those sorts of plans. Aaron didn’t seem all that eager to leave. After his first burst of outrage at being taken, his anger had fizzled into sporadic resentment, occasional homesickness, and a stubborn insistence that his cell phone be returned.
Most of the time, he seemed happy to be here. He was interested in the dragons, wanted to learn everything about them, and was almost equally curious about their father. Every time Aaron was with their dad, he peppered him with questions about his life, his likes, his dislikes, and his plans to take over.
Their father never answered questions about his attack plans, but over the last five days he’d talked more about himself and told more stories about growing up in St. Helena than Dirk had ever heard. His father lapped up the hero-worship.
Aaron loved the fact that he’d inherited superpowers, was in awe of their father and was more than willing to be bribed. But Aaron was also keeping secrets. Dirk could sense that. Aaron was a bad liar—too nervous, too unused to lying to be casual about it.
Some of the lies Dirk understood. Aaron had lied about where he’d lived to protect their mom. He’d lied about being an only child to protect whatever siblings he had. Dirk would have done the same thing.
But at other times Aaron seemed to be hiding things Dirk couldn’t even guess at. His deception was there in his questions, some lurking agenda that Aaron was always trying to shuffle away from Dirk’s notice. Every time Aaron called their father “Dad” which he’d done since the second day, there was a little bit of a lie mixed in with the word.
Which didn’t make sense because the one thing Dirk was sure about was that they shared a father.
Dirk set down the remote. Maybe he should go to the enclosure and see what was taking his father and Aaron so long. Before he got up, his father’s voice boomed through the kitchen. “You’re looking at a boy who can fly—not twenty feet, not thirty feet—but miles.”
“Oh, that’s wonderful!” Cassie said. When she talked to Aaron, her voice was always a little too sugary. She apparently hadn’t made up her mind about whether having Aaron here was a good thing or not and was overcompensating.
Bridget said, “Yay! When can you take me on a flying piggyback ride?”
“Not for a while,” their father answered. “He needs to work on his landings before we saddle him up and make him haul around little girls.”
“Can you take me then, Daddy?” Bridget asked.
Dirk hoped their father said yes because now that she’d gotten the idea of flying into her head, she wouldn’t be happy until someone took her. And Dirk was the only other someone who could fly.
“In a few minutes,” their father said, getting closer. “I’ve got to give Aaron something first.”
Their father sauntered into the living room and over to the end table where his tablet was charging. He unplugged it and handed it to Aaron with a flourish. “I’ve connected you to a site that you can use to call your mother and tell her about your new achievement.”
Aaron brightened. “Awesome! Thanks!”
Awesome? It was like the kid had already forgotten that talking to his mom didn’t use to be a privilege.
“However,” their father went on, “I’ll take the tablet back after I’m done with Bridget, so don’t waste your time calling your friends. They wouldn’t believe you about flying anyway.”
Aaron hesitated before putting in a phone number. His gaze went to Dirk. “If I make the call, will anyone be able to track it?”
His father picked up Bridget with one arm, making her giggle and grab onto his neck. “No need to worry about that. My IP address is automatically rerouted.”
Dirk answered the question Aaron was really asking. “No one will be able to tell where your mom is either.”
Satisfied with the answer, Aaron tapped in her number and flung himself on the couch, half leaping, half flying. He crashed into it so hard the piece of furniture wobbled and nearly fell over.
“No flying in the house,” their father called over his shoulder and left the room.
“Sorry, Dad,” Aaron called back.
Aaron turned his attention to the phone. “Hey Mom, it’s me. I’m fine—”
Dirk hadn’t expected that he’d feel a pang of anger when he heard Aaron say the word ‘mom’ but he did, sharp and strong. He wasn’t sure who the feeling was directed at—his father for not letting Dirk talk to his mother all these years and then allowing Aaron to do it after five days, at his mother for skipping out on his life and choosing to raise Aaron instead, or at Aaron for being the one that she chose.
Dirk was caught between the desire to storm out of the room and the urge to stay and listen to half of his mother’s conversation. She was so close. Close enough that if Dirk turned off the TV he might be able to hear her voice.
“I have no idea,” Aaron said. “I’ve only gone from the house to enclosure. The weather seems normal so I guess I’m not in the tropics or anything.”
Dirk turned up the TV a couple of notches. He didn’t need to hear his mother’s voice. He’d gone long enough without it, without her. And he was perfectly fine. Perfectly. Fine.
“It’s not like I’m locked up or anything,” Aaron said. “Everything’s cool. I’m learning about dragons and today I figured out how to fly. You should have seen me. I’d send you video, but I’m not allowed to take pictures of the dragons or myself flying.”
Aaron lowered his voice. “There aren’t any other houses around. And besides, if I did something like that he wouldn’t trust me anymore. I want him to teach me dragon lord stuff. I’m fine, really.”
Bianca must have instructed Aaron to leave the house and find help so he could go back to her. How sweet. How motherly. She was telling Aaron to leave but she’d made sure Dirk stayed.
Dirk turned off the TV and headed out to the front porch for some fresh air. His mother could tell Aaron how much she missed him in private.
Once outside, Dirk leaned against the porch railing and looked out over the mile of property they’d lived on since last month. All sorts of fresh air and he still felt like he was suffocating. The place didn’t feel like home. He hadn’t even unpacked all his boxes yet.
He tried to see the property the way Aaron saw it—the tangle of trees that surrounded them, an entire forest that ran up the surrounding hills. The carpet of discarded leaves browning on the ground around them. No sign of civilization. Aaron wouldn’t be able to escape without help. Fifteen-foot fences surrounded the property, the doors and windows were alarmed, and the yard was riddled with motion sensors. The nearest neighbors were miles away. If Aaron knew and planned to circumvent those things—which would be easy enough with the power of flight and a good excuse to go outside—he still wouldn’t make it far. While he’d been unconscious on the airplane, their father had injected a tracking chip into his left hip. As long as it was in place, their father would always be able to find Aaron.
Minutes went by. Dirk saw no sign of his dad flying with Bridget. The two must be on the other side of the property. Dirk had gone outside without a jacket and the cold November air was pushing through his shirt like it wasn’t there. He tucked his fingers under his arms to keep them warm and leaned against a porch column. He didn’t want to go back inside yet.
The door swung open and Aaron stepped out, tablet in his hand. “Mom wants to talk to you.” He held out the tablet.
For a moment Dirk just stared at it, anger fighting with a decade old longing to hear her voice. “She wants to talk to me?” he repeated, buying himself time to decide whether to not to speak to her.
What would she say? Did she want to apologize? Maybe she just wanted to ask him to help Aaron escape.
“Yeah,” Aaron kept holding out the tablet.
Dirk took it. He would at least give her the chance to explain why he hadn’t been good enough, why she’d chosen a baby she’d never even seen over him.
“Hello,” he said.
“Dirk, is that you?” He’d thought he would recognize her voice. He’d heard it enough times on the videos from his early years. But her voice sounded lower, breathier.
“Yeah, it’s me.”
She didn’t say anything else for a moment, and he wondered if he’d lost the call. Then he heard her crying.
It should have moved him. And maybe it did. But it also frustrated him. You were supposed to comfort crying people and he wasn’t ready to do that yet. She hadn’t given him any sort of explanation.
“Sorry,” she said. “It’s just that you sound so grown up.”
He recognized her voice then, the lilt of it. “Well, it’s been twelve years.”
“I know. And I’ve thought of you every single day.”
Thinking of him was probably easier than being there for him. “Have you?” he asked.
“Of course. And every birthday I wondered where you were and what you were doing.”
Well, that made two of them. She wasn’t apologizing and she wasn’t explaining. Man, that meant she just wanted to ask him to help Aaron.
“I want to know everything about you,” she said. “What’s happened in your life?”
A memory flashed through his mind from the night she left. He hadn’t understood what her absence meant back then, only that his father was really angry about it. His father had picked up Bianca’s china cabinet and flung it into the dining room wall. The cabinet had cracked, shattered, and then lay in a heap of splintered wood bits of dishes.
Dirk knew the broken glass was dangerous, but he’d seen an undamaged teacup resting in the wreckage. He’d wanted to save it for his mom. After his father stormed out of the room, Dirk waded through the shards. A jagged piece of wood scraped across his ankle and when he put out a hand to steady himself, he sliced his fingertip. But he didn’t cry out because he knew if he made a sound, his father would return and take the cup from him.
He’d hidden it in his toy room and waited for his mother to come home. He’d figured she would be upset that his father had broken her dishes, but Dirk would be able to produce the cup and make her happy again.
Eventually Dirk forgot about the cup. Years later, one of the housekeepers found it and brought it to the kitchen. As soon as his father saw it, he threw it in the trash. Dirk hadn’t protested. By then he’d realized he couldn’t make his mother happy.
With the tablet in his hand, Dirk could find no words to say to his mother about his life. He stepped away from the porch column, ready to go inside. “I don’t want to take up your time. Aaron only has a little while to talk. I’ll let you get back to him.” He handed the phone to his brother.
Dirk knew he shouldn’t leave Aaron outside, unsupervised. He would be too tempted to listen to their mother’s advice and make a break for it. If the kid wanted to run, he needed to know what he was up against and do it right.
As Dirk opened the door to go inside, he said, “Don’t go anywhere. You’re not supposed to know this, but you’ve got tracking chip in your left hip.”
There. He’d done his duty by his mom. He’d helped Aaron so he didn’t make a mess of his escape.
Dirk went inside, marched upstairs to his bedroom, and stayed there the rest of the night.
The next morning while Dirk was still asleep, his father strolled into his bedroom and announced, “I’ve got work to see to. Take Aaron out on the grounds and help him with his flying. He’s got a lot to learn. He should practice most of the day.”
Dirk didn’t get up, didn’t even open his eyes. One handed, his father picked up the side of the bed and toppled Dirk onto the floor.
There were definite drawbacks to having a parent who got extra strength every time he visited the dragons.
Dirk groaned and sat up. “Fine. I’m awake.”
“Good. Aaron just got up too. Make sure he has breakfast before you go out.”
Ten minutes later, Dirk was dressed and downstairs in the kitchen. Bridget had made toast and was putting a thick layer of jam on her bread. Aaron was sifting through the cereal cupboard. “Don’t your parents believe in sugar cereal?” he asked Bridget. “Why does every box in here have the word bran on it?”
Dirk opened the fridge, took out a piece of pumpkin pie and an apple, then motioned for Aaron to follow him. “Come on. We’ll eat while we walk to the enclosure.”
Outside, clouds covered the sky, a white backdrop against the gray-brown of the trees. Their bare branches reached upward, skinny and scrawny and brittle. Everything looked dead, but it wasn’t. The trees were just smart enough to keep their energy deep inside where winter couldn’t destroy it. They learned they didn’t have to fight the cold, they just needed to endure it.
As Dirk headed down the stairs, he handed Aaron the pie. “Breakfast. It’s the most important meal of the day.”
Aaron narrowed his eyes at Dirk. “You know you’re a complete jerk, right?”
Dirk switched the hand he held out. “Fine. Have the apple if you want it.”
Aaron took the apple but hardly seemed to notice it. They headed across the wet layer of leaves toward the enclosure. “Do you know how long Mom has waited to talk to you? Do you know how badly she’s wanted it? You didn’t even speak to her for an entire minute. What’s wrong with you?”
Dirk took a bite of the pie, felt the tang of cinnamon on his tongue. “My problem is I’m scarred from a bad childhood. You see, my mom left me when I was six.”
“Only because Dad wouldn’t let her take you. She didn’t want to lose you.”
“She didn’t lose me,” Dirk said. “I didn’t wander off in the woods. Kids aren’t like car keys and spare change that you misplace. She took off. She’s got to live with that now. I can’t undo it.”
Aaron stared at him, dumbfounded, noting not just Dirk’s words but the emotions behind them. Apparently it had never occurred to Aaron that Dirk would feel so strongly about being abandoned.
How nice to be twelve and think your parents loved you.
“It wasn’t like that,” Aaron said, begrudgingly taking a bite of the apple. “It wasn’t her fault. You should talk to her.”
Dirk bit into another piece of pie, but hardly tasted it. “Maybe next time when you call her.” He only said this so Aaron would drop the subject.
“She didn’t want things to be this way,” Aaron said, but he didn’t push the issue. Not while they finished the walk to the enclosure or trudged down the stairs, even though his sullen footsteps said it hadn’t completely left his mind.
The two went into the enclosure to charge their powers, then Dirk flew with him around the property showing him how to dive, turn, and land. Before their powers wore off, they flew back to recharge them. At noon, sack lunches waited for them at the enclosure door.
Aaron was a quick learner. Mostly because he was fearless. He didn’t worry about knocking into trees or hitting the ground wrong during a landing. Speed didn’t faze him. By the end of the day he was bruised, cut, and had done considerable damage to some trees, but he’d learned a lot—enough that it would be easy for him to fly off the grounds and go halfway across the state before his powers wore off. Had to be tempting. The idea tempted Dirk sometimes, and he didn’t have as many reasons to run away.
Before going back home for dinner, Dirk took Aaron to some thick branches in an old maple to rest for a bit. Dirk liked this spot. From it, you could see a stream that cut through the forest. Some still-green bushes lined the water, stubbornly refusing to abide by the rules of autumn.
He and Aaron would have to head home soon or Cassie would complain about them coming late for the meal. She had a thing for punctuality. But Dirk had to take care of one thing first. “You heard me when I told you about the tracking chip, right? You realize if you take off, you’d better find a way to gouge that thing out first or Dad will track you down. And when he finds you, sunroofs will be the least of your worries.”
“Yeah.” Aaron flicked a piece of bark with his fingernail. “Thanks for the warning.”
Dirk waited for the obvious question, but it didn’t come. “You’re not going to ask me how to get it out?”
Aaron shrugged. “I don’t want you to think I’m planning on leaving. You might tell Dad.”
Aaron was testing him, trying to see how loyal Dirk was to their father.
“Actually, I wouldn’t tell Dad, because then I’d have to admit I told you about the chip in the first place. He wouldn’t be pleased with that.”
Aaron’s gaze darted to Dirk. “Is he keeping you here somehow? Is he forcing you to do what he wants?”
How should Dirk answer that question? Should he mention that he’d tried to run away last year and his father had sent a dragon to bring him back? Should he admit that the only reason his friends were still alive, especially Tori, was that Dirk was doing everything their father asked him to do?
Dirk leaned back against the tree trunk. “Nah, I just like Ferraris.”
Dirk felt the flash of disappointment—disgust really—that went through Aaron. Well, fine, let the kid be judgmental. That was easy when you were twelve. Besides, it wasn’t like Dirk wanted Aaron to look up to him anyway. He wasn’t role model material.
Aaron shifted on the branch. “Won’t EMP from the dragons destroy the chip?”
“I’m sure it’s been radiation hardened.” Instead of explaining the science behind that, Dirk just said, “Which means, no. An EMP won’t affect it.”
“So,” Aaron said slowly, “just out of curiosity, and not because I’m planning on leaving—how do I get the chip out?”
“I don’t know.”
Aaron swore and shook his head.
Dirk laughed, not because it was funny, but because Aaron had taken such careful precautions to guard his emotions when he insisted he didn’t want to leave, and then had completely ruined the effect by swearing in frustration.
“Can you tell where it is?” Dirk asked. “Do you feel the chip?”
“I can’t feel it, but I know where it is. There’s a red bump on my skin that didn’t use to be there. But I can’t just go digging around in my hip with a knife. What if I hit a major vein or something?”
“Research tracking chips,” Dirk said. “Maybe we could find a way to block its signal or something.”
Aaron tilted his head. “You would help me leave?”
Dirk didn’t answer for a moment. Over on the stream, images of tree branches rippled along the surface of the water, refusing to stay still and straight. “Dad wants you here so you’ll help with the dragons. That way instead of attacking with two dragons, he can attack with three. He wants it so badly he thinks he can make it happen. And maybe he can. If he can’t convince you that revolution is needed, or buy you off with promises of power and mansions, then he might abduct a few of your friends or family and threaten to leave them in the dragon enclosure. He has ways of getting what he wants.”
Dirk had expected Aaron to be repulsed by this statement or if Aaron really had begun to idolize their father, defensive on his behalf. But Aaron didn’t even register any surprise. He already knew what was expected of him in the revolution and apparently, he’d worked out the consequences if he didn’t help.
“Personally, I think you’re too young to be involved,” Dirk went on, “and even if you weren’t, well, if Dad has to coerce you to stay here and take part, you’ll be more of a danger than an asset. If you’re a danger, we should let you leave before you can do any damage.”
Aaron tilted his head. “So, are you saying you’d help me leave or just that you’d tell Dad that he should let me go?”
Committing to that answer was best done in degrees, carefully, in order to hide the truth from their father as long as possible. “I’ll decide that when you tell me you want to leave”
Dirk could feel Aaron drawing back. Hiding behind his walls again. He stared at the fallen, decaying leaves instead of at Dirk. “I don’t want to leave, but I still want to know how to get rid of the tracking chip. It makes me feel like I’m cattle or something.”
“Yeah, I know. After I found out about your chip, I did a thorough check on myself, just in case.”
Aaron’s gaze returned to him. “Find anything?”
Dirk sighed for effect. “My muscles are so massive, it’s hard to find something that small.”
Aaron rolled his eyes. The kid was too used to being the top dog at his school—confident he would always be the strongest and the fastest. Dirk had been that way too until he’d gone to camp and met the Slayers.
“Think you could take me on?” Dirk challenged.
Aaron at least had the intelligence to shake his head. “Nah, but someday I will.” With a smile, he added, “and I’ll win.”
Dirk took Aaron’s arm and held it up, comparing their biceps. “Well, today ain’t that day. Break is over. Practice your diving on the way back to the house.”
On Saturday, Dirk went to the mall by himself. He told his father he was going Christmas shopping, and he did pick up some presents to make the story believable, but the real reason he’d gone was so that he could buy a new phone. One his father wouldn’t know about. That way he could set up a new account on the dark web for Tori and him to talk, and he could use this phone to access it. His dad wouldn’t be able to snoop on his conversations with Tori anymore.
That night when he got home he went into Vesta’s enclosure to tell Tori what he’d done. The fledglings didn’t have large enclosures like Khan and Minerva. Their habitats were only the size of a basketball court—large enough for them to fly around a bit but small enough for them to understand that they lived in captivity, that they were dependent on humans, and should obey their rules.
Asleep, Vesta looked like a rhino-sized boulder. She didn’t stay that way for long. As soon as she caught Dirk’s scent, she lifted her wings, spreading them like enemy flags raised before a charge. *Her gray scales hung on her loosely, like armor that was too big. She was still growing so fast that her body overcompensated by giving her room.
Before she could shriek, he took control of her mind and put her back to sleep. It bothered Tori to hear dragons screeching, and Vesta was still young enough that she challenged anyone who came in her vicinity. She hadn’t learned yet that there was no point fighting a dragon lord.
Besides, Vesta was finally getting big enough that every once in a while her shrieks produced EMP, and he didn’t want to risk having her fry his new phone. The dragon’s EMP was a good thing, in that regard, actually. Dirk was sure his father didn’t bug the room.
Dirk sat down next to the sleeping dragon, using her side as a backrest. An uncomfortable backrest at best. Her scales were too hard.
“Tori, I’ve set up a new site where we can talk—it’s untraceable so you don’t have to worry about me finding you and I don’t have to worry you’ll send the Slayers after me.” He gave her the address and password. “My dad hacked either your account or mine so we can’t use our regular site anymore. At least not for real conversation. You should still contact me on it every once in a while so my dad doesn’t figure out I’ve got a new site and start looking for it.”
Dirk put his hands behind his head. “You could go on and on about how awesome I am. That would be believable. You could also tell me how much you miss me, that sort of thing.” He repeated the address and password a few more times, then waited a couple of minutes to see if she wrote anything to him. She didn’t. But that wasn’t entirely a surprise. Sometimes she was at places where she couldn’t access the internet. She would write to him eventually, probably by tonight.