"The beach?" I asked, settling in the sand with Naomi. She'd taken us to the beach after the night with our families came to an end, and I had to admit that I was surprised. "I never imagined you'd be a beach bum."
She gave me a smile, her mask long gone, leaving behind only her raw beauty. "I'm not, but I love the beach. Besides, living with John, Allenia, and Watson, next door to my parents, in the same building as Dragon Tail, in a town where every magical being knows my name..." I grew exhausted just listening to her list, and couldn't imagine living with that as my reality. "It's about the only place I can be alone." She leaned back then, laying on the sand without a worry. I could see that she'd let out all of her tension then, and it was a beautiful thing to watch. I felt much the same, the pressure and frustration of the past few months gone and leaving me at ease and comfortable. Here, in the sand, beside Naomi, this was the best I had felt in a very long time.
"Do you settle in the sand, or swim?" I asked, looking at the crashing of waves. I could swim, but the idea of swimming was never something I really looked forward to. Especially on the beach, where sand and saltwater tended to get everywhere.
"Dragons don't really swim," She said, making me let out a breath of air in thanks. "But, I have been known to enjoy sinking."
"What?" I asked, surprised. What did she mean sinking? "Naomi- you-"
"Calm down!" Naomi said, sitting up and turning to face me directly. "It's not dangerous, though I can't really do it with humans around. That's not why I wanted to bring you here."
"Oh, good," I said, glancing at the waves casually rolling in front of us. "Why did you bring me here?"
"We need to define our relationship," She said, and I could tell it was taking a great effort for her to look me in the eyes while she did. She ran an entire species, and yet confronting these emotions was daunting to her. The hardest part was over for me, we were together, and I found comfort in that. For her, though, this was the difficult part. "You're a rogue harrold, and I'm a dragon leader at the beginning of a huge movement. I won't run, but I can't ask you to open yourself back up to the magical community."
She grabbed my hands as if to prove that she was here. I immediately felt the rush of warmth that Naomi always brought, the warmth that brought out the part of me that I had buried deep. The part that controlled magic, the part that challenged the thoughts of a tyrannous church and grinned while he did it.
"I-" I looked at the waves, the sound of their movement repetitive and calming. As she'd spoken, she'd brought me back to reality. Back to the world where I avoided magic, and Naomi was magic. I'd left the magical community for a reason, and now, sitting next to her, I was being pulled back in. I knew she could never leave it as I had, she could never quit and leave behind all of the people depending on her. The heat of the magical burn from the spell gone wrong flashed from my memory, I couldn't return to the Church. I wouldn't. Joining the Jones family would be, in essence, choosing another side.
I knew of other Harrold's, rogues who stayed in the magical world. They did not live in peace, because they'd chosen a side that wasn't the Church, and for that, the Church would never leave them alone. Joining the Jones family, joining Naomi, would be signing myself up for a life where I was constantly fighting. The Church wouldn't come for just me, they'd come for everyone. Naomi, Isac, Brandon, Melanie, Claire... Everyone. The idea of little baby Alexander pulled into the crosshairs was too much for me.
"The Church will hunt the entire Jones family down if I join," I said, unable to look Naomi in the eye. Unable to see the face of my victim- maybe the easy part wasn't over yet.
"The Church will try," Naomi said, showing me the famous dragon defense. Her voice called me to her, and I looked her in the eyes. Beside me her eyes were lit, she was fierce, and even knowing the full power of the Church, I pitied anyone who tried to cross her.
"I-" I started, but I had no idea where I was going with it and dropped off. What could I say? Could I really do it, damn my soul mate and her family because of my selfish desires?
No, I couldn't, I never could. It was too selfish, and cruel. If I was going to stay with Naomi, my soul mate, my match, I would have to return fully. I would have to admit what I was and fight for myself and those I loved. No longer could I hide away with Ben and Bale, annoying Kirk with my inaction. I couldn't accept Naomi, couldn't combine my life with hers until I accepted myself. Accepted who I was- a harrold. A strong harrold. A magical being who controlled the magic around him with only his thoughts. An ex-Church member who thought for himself.
"Yes," I said, squeezing her hands when I did. "I'll return to the magical community and dedicate myself to you and everyone you love."
Naomi's eyes were soft, and I realized then that she was tearing up. She smiled then, leaning forward and wrapping her arms around my neck to pull me into a tight hug. I held her strong, pulling everything about her into my lap and letting her flame warm me against the chilly breeze. She was curled up in my lap, her head resting on my shoulder, and I knew at that moment that Naomi was strong. She was stronger than anyone I had ever known, and she protected everyone around her. For that, for the love I had for her, I would protect her.
"Can you tell me what soul mates are?" Naomi asked gently, her tone surprised me. We had sat, her in my arms on the beach towel, for a while without words interrupting it. I wondered what she felt like, mated to a Harrold, did she feel like she was betraying dragons? I didn't have any reservations about sharing what soul mates were, and I had made my peace easily enough with our bond, but I didn't feel any loyalty to the Church. Unlike me, Naomi did everything for her community, for the Council she ran, for the inherited responsibilities she had gotten like her mother before her.
"Yeah," I answered instantly, not realizing until that moment how much I needed to share with her. "Soul mates are, like," but how did I describe soul mates? They simply were, and being asked to describe them was much like being told to describe a color, or telling someone how to spell a single letter. "Are you familiar with what humans call soul mates?"
"No," Naomi answered, shaking her head. "False magic doesn't interest me."
"Okay, um," I said, grinning at her prompt response. "Well, humans will say they've found their soulmate. It's like saying they've found their number one match, the one person on earth made just for them. For harrold's it's kind of similar, it's finding a soul whose magic resonates with yours. It's sacred and powerful. It's the one time even the Church has to admit that emotion fuels magic."
She nodded, working through what I told her. When she looked ready, I continued. "As far as what happens, I really don't know. Soul mates are sacred, but they're also secretive. Were I still in the Church, we would go to the local priest, but obviously, we're not going to do that." My jaw was set as I spoke about the Church, already defensive. What about Mates, are we going to go to the Council?"
Naomi grinned, "Yeah, actually. I'm one of the two leaders in the Council, mating with someone is information I would need to share, but I can put it off a little..." She frowned, and I wondered what she was thinking about. "The normal circumstances, it wouldn't be a problem, but in these..."
"These?" I asked, getting the impression that Naomi knew something I didn't. "What do you mean?"
"You're not a dragon," She said without preamble. "And you're not associated with the Church. If I tell people you are human then it will cause problems. I'm already labeled as a human lover, and I'm expected to have an heir..." She trailed off, melting sand with her finger as she traced lines in the space between us. "When I don't lose my flame, they'll know, and telling people I'm going to lose my flame is a problem in and of itself."
"Then we tell them that I'm a harrold," I answered, touched that she'd thought through me staying in the dark. She'd even considered it, and even after finding that it would be impossible, was still dedicated to figuring it out.
"That's barely better," She groaned, causing me to laugh again. She was stressed, and I understood why, but I had accepted that others would be less than happy with the news. Come what may, I didn't care. "People will figure out that you're the one who changed Claire and doubt my judgment. Not to mention that we're about to go to war with the Church-"
"-Wait- what?" I asked, floored with the calm certainty that she was going to war with the Church. Announcing it like the weather. It brought me out of the calm happiness I had been in only a second ago. "You can't- they will demolish you."
"They will demolish idiots," Naomi corrected, not wavering or questioning in the slightest. "I have no intention of allowing my family or any of the Reserve's under my control to be reckless. It doesn't change the fact that mating with you will cause people to doubt my judgment with Church dealings. I'm already having enough troubles with my immediate family- not to mention the Gimenez family."
"Well," I said, worried to see her so tense. Watching her struggle under the weight of her responsibilities wasn't something I had any desire to do. "Maybe I can help."
She let out a soft chuckle, "Yeah, I wish." She sighed, looking out at the moon over the sea. "I don't think it is a good idea to lie and say you're human, but it's up to you."
There it was, the question of the night. Thinking of the night spent with our families at Dragon Tail made it easy to fall into the magical world again. Then came reality, the truth of what choosing a side would mean.
It fell down to a simple question, was Naomi worth choosing a side?
I sat at the beach, fighting my desire to run and jump deep into the sea, waiting for Sam to answer. We both wanted to be together, wanted to accept our connection, but it was more complicated than that. Neither of us could drop the life we had been living to be with the other, and neither of us could accept the other while living our lives as we had.
"I'll have to tell your family," Sam said, his face concentrated. "But... the council..."
I bit the inside of my lip, and habit I'd never possessed before, as he spoke. He was right, he could have to tell everyone. I couldn't lie to my family like that, even a lie of omission. If I was mated, especially since I was accepting that mate, then I needed to tell them. Unfortunately, the same rang true for the council. They would find out about it, and while it wasn't required, sharing huge like events was courtesy. The damage it would do, whether or not it was technically wrong, was not damage I could take now. That didn't mean, however, that he needed to go before them. I would never allow my mate to be interrogated like that.
"There is no need for you to meet the council," I said, stern in my conviction. "I will tell them though, that I've mated."
"Will the Church find out if you do that?" He asked, clearly worried about it. Despite that, the Church potentially finding out was the least of my concerns.
"Possibly," I answered honestly. "I can't swear anyone to secrecy without raising more than a few flags. There is a lot going on now, so the Church finding out we've mated is the least of my worries. The Council is meeting in person soon to discuss revealing ourselves, then I have to go to all of the reserves..." I trailed off, thinking of the long two weeks, or more likely month and a half, that I had ahead of me.
"Reserves?" He asked, wondering what they were.
"They're where smaller dragon families live," I explained. "A necessity to avoid exposure, most dragons are required to live on a reserve, though larger families like the Jones' or the Copper's and families like the Fords' that are small but fall under a large family live wherever they've been settled. We have the reserves split up between myself and the other leader of the council, anything to do with the reserves of their inhabitants is my responsibility."
"So you're going to be gone, again?" He asked, his tone guarded. I felt what he felt entirely though, a desire I'd never had before to ignore the world and just stay with Sam. The idea of going so long without him physically hurt, and I felt the chill that had completely thawed away with him by my side return.
"You could come with," I offered before thinking. For the first time in a very, very long time I felt a light blush hit my cheeks.
"It's only February," He said, sounding almost defeated. "I still have three months of school."
I couldn't ask him to quit his work, it meant so much to him. Even if I could, Claire was only still in school with the humans because of Sam, and I couldn't steal away her enjoyment because of my own selfish desires. After everything, all of that drama, and when we finally accept our bond we get pulled apart! It wasn't fair, I didn't ask for much. I didn't ask for a mansion or a gaggle of loyal followers, heck, I had never asked for time off, never whined, ever, and here I was being pulled between my responsibilities and my mate.
I must have been crying because Sam reached his thumb out and wiped my eyes, his tender gesture making my heart swell. This was so unlike me, and I felt ashamed. I needed to be stronger, for my family, for my obligations, and for Sam.
"I'm sorry," I said, forcing the tears back in. "I shouldn't-"
"You have to be strong, and I get that," He said, looking at me intensely. "But... Naomi, I already told you, you don't need to put up a front with me." I gave a smile, leaning into him and glad that I was in the safety of his lap and arms. It was my own little tiny bubble. "Don't worry, we'll be fine, it'll be different this time." I could tell he was worried too, but couldn't stand to face him. I'd been the one to leave last time, leave him wondering and leave him scared. I looked out to the ocean as he continued, wondering why it was so intent to be between us. "We'll talk still, we can email or chat, and it'll be over before you know it."
I nodded, thinking about it. Were he there I would barely see him anyway. This could work, we could do this. We were together now, a mated couple, and that meant the world. In silence, we accepted that truth, comforted in each other's presence and warmth.
"We still have tonight," I said, looking at his face. "I'm not gone yet."
He nodded, thinking before he spoke again, "Do you want to hear a story?"
"Of course," I answered, thinking of the stories he told me on our first date. The amusing tales of incoming harrold to the human community.
"We were in school and one time I tried to change the name and handwriting on Bale's homework to be mine." He said, leaning back with his arms supporting him. "Instead I accidentally changed every single scrap of homework to be mine." He grinned at the memory, "When the teacher got upset with me, thinking I'd snuck into her classroom and done it as a prank, I tried to convince her that I should get extra credit for every assignment. Instead, she suspended me."
I let out a laugh, thinking of a young rebellious Sam that pranked teachers. "And you became a teacher?"
"And you're the same person you were in your teens?" He asked, mimicking my astounded and amused tone.
I thought back to being a teen, new on the council and arguing with Sarah more and more every day. "Other than brandishing my wings a lot more and arguing with Sarah..." I trailed off, "My childhood ended when my wings began, I had a role to take as the eldest woman in the Jones family." I could feel my mask coming back on, a reflex when my emotions were too open. I forced it away, knowing I didn't need it. Not around Sam.
He looked sad for a moment but pushed on regardless. "What do you mean?"
I knew he was talking about my wings and had easily changed the direction of the conversation. I had no desire to spend the night moping, so I accepted it. "Well, unless I'm trying to scare someone, I usually keep my wings covered." We both took a moment to remember the night he went to Casabelle's home to tell us that he had unlocked Claire's dormant dragon. "It's a matter of modesty and keeping dragons secret. When I was younger I was a lot less worried about it, running around without a care in the world."
"Can I-" Curiosity seemed to be getting the better of him. "Can I see your wings?"
I didn't know how to answer. I knew he didn't just mean the runes on my shoulders, and even if he did... Those runes were sacred and personal, sharing them with someone was a pretty large leap. He didn't simply want to see me with my shirt off, he wanted to look into the runes themselves. More than that, he wanted to see my actual wings. Wings hidden by magic, wings I had never shown another living being...
"-I want to," I said, interrupting him when I decided. "You're my mate," I said with certainty, standing up and helping him join me. I began to feel a childlike giddiness as I lead him to the home that used to house Claire and her parents. It wasn't far, and I'd gone there without thinking, seeking the privacy of the empty home. Every cell in my body hummed in anticipation, and once we could no longer be seen from the beach my arms wrapped around his neck and pulled him into a kiss. My fire lunged up and roared when I did so, demanding I get closer. He was my mate, and I wasn't ignoring that ever again.
Author's Note And that's it! Naomi and Sam are together! The story is finished, but if anyone is interested in the series this book is written in, go ahead and follow it even though it's complete. I'll post an 'epilogue' of sorts when I'm ready to post up the first book. Thank you to everyone who read this short story, I appreciate your time. I hope you all have a wonderful day!