Azure spread her wings wide, catching a light updraft as she flew over the dense forest to the safety of her cave. She’d had a fine time chasing aircraft, popping out of clouds and surprising them as they went by. It was a difficult game since most aircraft were far faster than she, but it gave her something to do and it was always fun to imagine the looks on the little human pilots’ faces. She knew they’d be unlikely to report anything. Dragons didn’t exist, after all. They’d probably lose their jobs if they said anything, or at least get a hard looking-at by some highly papered psychologist. So she was safe to play her harmless games. Even so, she didn’t like to be seen in one place too often. Could her hard, blue scales turn a rifle shot? She wasn’t sure, and she didn’t want to find out.
Azure tucked her wings in and dove for her cavemouth, backwinging at the end to break her fall. This was more work than a slow glide but left less of a chance for observation. She went into the round, smooth tunnel, her wings brushing against the sides. She slithered, lizardlike, down the narrow passageway until she got to her sanctuary, a large, crystal lined cavern. It had smaller rooms to the back but the big dragon preferred this chamber. Here she kept her collection of oddments, and slept, and thought, and dreamed.
Someone had been in here.
There was a scuff mark on the floor, and her fine touch screen telephone was slightly displaced on its shelf. Odd, none of her gold Libertads were missing. But someone had been in here. She snorted, then breathed deeply to catch any scent-clues she could. She sniffed carefully around each display area, leathery blue nostrils flaring. There. There it was. Another footmark, and a handprint – the dilicate scent of human skin-oil hadn’t yet faded. And a woman, if she didn’t miss her guess. She furled her wings, ensuring once again that all her precious pieces were safe. The tip of her tail twitched. Would she have to find a new home? Only time would tell. She would wait, very quietly, for her visitor to return.
Over the next seven days, Azure left her cave only to hunt. She remained watchful, keeping quiet, willing her came to seem empty and uninhabited. It was an old trick. The same ability that let her communicate, also let her project feelings into other minds – and now, she projected quiet and loneliness. She insinuated a tinge of intrigue, too, so that a halpless wanderer might be unaccountably curious. She wanted to know who this visitor was, who dared to walk into her stronghold and then didn’t steal a thing. Azure’s long years had left her prey to boredom and curiosity.
Finally, Azure was rewarded. A dark haired female human clad in baggy, bepocketed black pants, a charcoal gray T-shirt, sturdy sandals, and a ragged canvas knapsack grunted and climbed into view. She got to her feet as she reached the cave lip, dusted off her knees, and looked around. Eyes and mind bright with curiosity that matched Azure’s own, the young woman – no – girl – ventured inside the cave.
What happened next startled Azure out of her scales.
“Hello…” the girl called out. “I mean no harm, O Dragon.” And then the girl stopped, hands on hips. “I know you’re in there.”
It was too much. Azure extended her long, sinuous neck and regarded the girl as she stood silhouetted against the cavemouth. She inhaled deeply, taking in the human-scent. Apprehension, curiosity. No ill intent.
For her part, the girl looked into the dragon’s large, green cat-eyes and wondered what lay behind them. A real dragon? Here, in her dull, prosaic world? She’d acted on a hunch. She couldn’t believe she’d been right.
“All right, let’s have your name,” said Azure softly. She knew most of the Little Folk couldn’t bear her voice above a murmur.
The girl stood up straight. “Nanase.”
“Azure is mine,” said the dragon, “for obvious reasons.” She rustled her wings, rearranged her tail. “What brings you here?”
Nanase swallowed hard. “I hike in these woods,” she said. “And somebody told me about a cave. I– like to explore.” And I always just knew there magical things here, she thought. But I was thinking about little stuff. A tree that looks like it has a face. A cluster of mushrooms in a fairy ring. A pure white deer. Little stuff. But as much as she had wanted to believe the half whispered folk legends about this particular wood, the reality was much greater than even her wild imagination.
“You like to explore.” Azure intensified her gaze. “And do you know what I like to do?”
“No.” Nanase shifted her weight on the stony ground.
“I like to chase airplanes,” said the dragon. “What do you think of that?”
Nanase couldn’t help it. She started to giggle.
“Well? What do you think?” Azure wasn’t sure why she cared, but she wanted to find out more about this slip of a girl.
“I– think that’s awesome,” said Nanase, giggling harder.
“Why do you laugh?” Azure sat back on her haunches, arching her neck so that her pointed was mere meters away from Nanase.
Nanase spread her hands helplessly, her fear forgotten as she struggled to explain. “It’s just… funny. A pilot flying along, maybe drinking coffee, but everything’s perfectly normal. And then this… big blue dragon comes flying by, calm as you please, and…” she giggled again. “It’s just funny.”
“Tell me, Nanase, what do you do other than hiking and poking your nose into people’s lairs?” It had been a long time since Azure had spoken to anyone besides herself, and she found she liked it.
“I read a lot, and I hike, like we talked about, and I collect rocks, and I play games, like flight simulators. And sometimes I write.”
Azure nodded. “What is a flight simulator?”
Nanase explained to her bemused hostess, then finished up with “it’s a lot cheaper than really flying, though that’s what I’d rather do.”
“It’s a strange thing, really. “Azure blinked slowly as she considered. “Humans allow noisy, smelly aircraft to fly all over the sky, and yet we dragons (assuming I’m not the only one) have to hide away in caves for fear of being hunted.”
“You should register with the aviation authorities,” laughed Nanase. Then she grew serious. “Wait, why not?”
“I have the uncomfortable feeling that you just had an idea,” said Azure, “and I find that I am too curious to tell you to stay silent. Come, let us go into my cavern. I’ll light a lamp and we can be comfortable. Then you can tell me all about your idea.”
They went farther into the cave, and Azure lit a large, battery powered lantern she’d filched form an unguarded campsite. The batteries were fading but it still shad a yellow glow.
“I can tell you must be lonely,” said Nanase. “So how about if you would be able to go out, and fly, and meet people, and people have to accept you as an aircraft?”
“I must admit, that sounds enticing,” said Azure.
“I’m not sure how yet, but what if we could get you registered with the FAA, and maybe paint a number on your tail, and put little lights on your wings, and show you how to fly with aircraft?”
“We would need a way to communicate,” said Azure.
“We could fit you out with a radio.”
“How shall I maniplate it with these claws? How would I talk on it, when I speak mind to mind? How will I read your little maps, to see your invisible boundaries in the air?”
“I suppose you could have a rider to do those things,” said Nanase.
“A rider like you? You, who fly flight simulators and thus know about all these things?”
“I’m afraid of heights,” said Nanase, looking at the stony ground.
“That can be overcome,” said the dragon, surprising herself with her own gentleness. “The important thing is, for this plan to work, we need someone who can read maps and use a radio and tell me where it is safe to fly. I must be careful, after all, if I am going to show myself after all this time. Are you that person? You need not answer immediately.”
Nanase thought about it for a moment, then her curiosity got the better of her. “Just how old are you, anyway, Azure?”
The sinewy reptile went over to one of her display shelves and retrieved a round, intricately painted ceramic pot. She brought it over for the girl to examine. “This artifact is over a thousand years old, and I found it when it was new,” she said. “I’m an inveterate collector and I have traveled these continents since I was a hatchling. I have nuggets of Inca gold, carved walrus tusk, bits of Hopi turquoise and Arizona copper. Money of all kinds. Samples of electronic devices. Stones both raw and cut. Some of my earliest finds are over three thousand years old, and so, I am just a bit older than that.”
“Wow,” said Nanase. There was nothing else to say. Then, “I’ve thought about it. I want to help you, if you want my help. It’s not right for someone who’s been around as long as you have, to have to hide from creatures like me.”
Azure heard the unasked question. “The beginning of trust is the demonstration of trustworthiness, little one. I am speaking to you because you discovered my lair, explored it, and yet did not take even one tiny nugget of gold.”
“It wasn’t mine to take,” she said earnestly.
“Exactly.” The claws of Azure’s right hand drummed playfully on the floor. “That is why I will ask your help, and I will compensate you properly for that help.”
“Compensate?” asked Nanase.
“Compensate. Along with a few trifles that I know you will find of value, I intend to compensate you with something few humans have ever found – true freedom.”
Nanase had no idea what that meant, but she nodded eagerly at the mention of “trifles” from a powerful creature who used precious stones as playthings. “Okay, where do we start?”
Azure laughed, filling the cavern with echoing mirth. “Bravely put!” She snaked her arrow-tipped tail over toward Nanase. “Perhaps some paint on this, as you said? Or shall we find out the number for this Eff Ay Ay you speak of?”
“Maybe we won’t bother with the FAA,” said Sanae. “But I’m going to have fun making all the stuff you are supposed to have aboard an aircraft to be legal.”
“Such as?” Azure’s tail twitched like a cat’s.
“Such as an operating manual, and a registration, airworthiness certificate (you can probably certify that yourself), a weight and balance chart, and all kinds of other stuff! Maybe even an emergency locator transponder, and how about an altimeter so I can tell how high we are?”
Azure talked with the girl for what seemed like hours. This was starting to be a rather fun and entertaining game.