never laugh at live dragons


"Mama, look!"

Yue glanced up from weeding the garden and did a double-take. She stared for a moment in disbelief, and slowly but surely, she began to laugh. Joel stood with his galoshed feet wide apart, grinning at her. The frog in his hands looked balefully up, and the two of them were completely covered in pondweed.

"Joel!" She clambered to her feet, rushed over and scooped him up. He was getting heavier by the day, it seemed. "What have you done to yourself?" Joel giggled and the frog glared more balefully than ever.

"I catched him, Mama," he said proudly, clutching the frog close. "He was just sitting, right there in the grass, and I catched him."

"Caught him, sweetheart," Yue corrected fondly. Joel beamed, and even the feeling of wet, cold mud seeping into her clothes wasn't enough to dim the force of that smile, nor the surge of warmth that welled in her chest when she saw it. "You caught him, and that was very clever of you. Goodness, just look at what you've gotten yourself into." She allowed herself a moment of pressing her lips into his hair, and then set him back down. He immediately gripped onto the edge of her jacket, as he always did, and held the frog carefully in his other hand.

"And you didn't go any further than the pond, did you?" Yue asked, and looked him over with a critical eye.

Joel shook his head vigorously. "Promise I didn't," he said. "Didn't go past the dead tree, just like you said." Fortunately, it seemed he was telling the truth, and Yue knew her son generally wasn't a liar. Aside from being liberally coated in dirt and weeds, he seemed none the worse for the wear.

"Good." She smiled at him. "But now you need to take a bath - you're even muddier than a pig, and that's saying a lot.

Joel pouted. "But Baba said pigs are one of the cleanest animals," he said, stubborn. "So if I'm as muddy as a pig, I'm actually clean."

She chuckled again, and relished in the feeling grown only-too unfamiliar over these past few months. "You're getting far too clever for me." She held out her hand, and Joel happily took it. "Pig or not, you need a bath, and soon! I'm not letting you run around like that all day."

"Can Mr. Frog come, too?"

"Oh, alright," she said. "But not in the bath with you - the water will be too hot for him."

It was only after Joel was splashing cheerfully in the tub that Yue realized the frog had six legs.

Small and underdeveloped, to be sure, but definitely there. Nestled among the frog's functioning hind legs, they didn't seem to impede its ability to move - and wriggle vigorously, as she was discovering now. It didn't take long to give Joel the excuse that she was finding "Mr. Frog" some water, and she hurried to the kitchen and dropped the frog in the sink.

She got a knife. Returned to the sink and held it high, hand trembling. The frog glowered, but despite its general disposition of "just-captured-by-an-eight-year-old-boy-and-therefore-pissed-off", it didn't show any signs of being out of the ordinary.

After a few tense moments, she set the knife aside.

In their tiny bedroom, Wen tried to hide his book under his pillow as Yue came in.

"I promise I was resting earlier," he ventured.

Yue glared half-heartedly at him. "As you should be, but that's not what I'm here to talk about." She passed the Tupperware container with the frog inside to him, and Wen sat up straighter with a wince and took it. His eyes widened when he saw the frog, but otherwise he didn't react, and simply observed. The frog splashed in the inch-deep dirty tapwater, looking unimpressed.

"Joel got it from the pond," Yue said.

"It doesn't show any signs of being affected." Wen nudged at the frog's mouth with a finger and it puffed up and croaked loudly, making both of them jump. Wen's lips quirked a bit at the corners. "Seems like an ordinary frog to me, aside from… well."

"The legs," Yue said. She reached over and held up its left hind legs, though that only made the frog kick her away. "Isn't that one of the potential signs? And Joel said he found it in the grass."

"In the grass beside the pond," Wen reminded her gently. "Which is not an unusual place for a frog to be. And this particular mutation in frogs has existed, before. It's a sign of pollution in their ecosystem, but not necessarily of anything else. There are those old factories nearby, after all."

She pursed her lips. "And this frog is fully grown, or nearly so," she eventually said.

"Exactly."

They spent a minute or so, looking down at the cheap plastic container in Wen's lap. The frog had settled down in a corner, looking peaceful at last. Joel's cheerful voice chattering to himself, and the occasional splash, sounded from the bathroom down the hall.

Then Wen sighed. "I understand why you're worried," he said. "It could definitely be a sign."

"Or not." Yue said. "It could be nothing, like you said."

"I'm not always right." He shifted and winced again. One hand drifted to his loose cotton shirt, and tugged at the bandages underneath. "This should be proof enough of that."

"It's nothing," Yue said firmly. "It has to be. We were promised that this place was safe. We haven't seen anything to counter that theory."

She scooped the frog up in cupped hands and held it out. "It's just a frog."

Wen smiled, a bit ruefully. "Just a frog," he agreed, and kissed her when she leaned in.

"Babaaaa," Joel cried. "Why can't we?"

"Listen to your mother, baobao." Wen ruffled Joel's hair and Joel pulled away, scowling. "We're already allowing Mr. Frog to stay for the night. We have to let him go by morning."

"He'd make a great pet!"

"He belongs in the wild, sweetheart." Yue knelt down and met Joel's eyes. "He wouldn't be happy staying here with us. He needs a big place to swim and lots of other frogs to meet, and we don't have either."

Joel pouted, then sagged. "Can't he at least sleep in my room tonight?"

It took every ounce of Yue's strength to not immediately stiffen at the idea. "No, Joel," she said as evenly as she could. "Frogs are usually nocturnal animals, and he might make sounds during the night and wake you up. We have a nice tank already set up in the washroom, and he'll be much more comfortable there."

"Fine." Joel seemed resigned at first, but quickly forgot his grudge when Wen produced a battered copy of The Hobbit seemingly from thin air and distracted him. With Joel thoroughly occupied by Bilbo and the Company's adventures in Mirkwood, Yue took the container and discreetly left the room.

She'd been surprised to find a fish tank in the old shed behind the house, to say the least. Still, it was undamaged, and readying it for its new guest had been straightforward enough. Several hours had passed since Joel brought the frog back from the pond, and it was entirely unchanged, down to the same unimpressed look on its face. She placed it inside the tank, and it thrashed around in the water a bit before settling.

Wen was the one with the biology degree, but she was just as much a scientist as he was. Besides, it didn't take a scientist to figure out the obvious. It was a bullfrog, an American bullfrog, with the species' distinctive stripes and yellow belly. It puffed up again and croaked at her. She laughed, but it came out as a hollow, reedy sound.

"Just a frog," she said aloud. "We are safe."

She couldn't find it in her to believe herself.

They ate dinner that evening at the rickety table in the kitchen. Wen's appetite had improved, and his colour was better. The food sat warmly in Yue's belly. Joel drank down three whole bowls of soup, and nothing happened.

Yue and Wen sat with Joel nestled in between them, and together, they read two chapters of The Hobbit aloud to him. They did all the voices, and added facial expressions to match. Joel laughed so hard he nearly rolled off the bed, and nothing happened.

Joel was put to bed, and nothing happened. Yue changed Wen's bandages, and nothing happened.

Yue was woken in the middle of the night to muffled thumping down the hall. She thought it was Wen at first, sneaking to the toilet and falling over, but she felt his warm body beside her when she sat up.

Down the hall. The bathroom.

Her heart leapt into her throat and she heard Joel scream.

Light was flooding out from under the bathroom door when she staggered into the corridor, immediately wide-awake. It flickered, once, and she screamed, too, tearing down the hall and flinging the door wide open.

Joel, who had been pressed against the door, fell into her arms, sobbing. Broken glass was scattered all over the cracked tile floor, glinting under the dull light of the ancient fluorescent bulbs. The remnants of the fish tank lay shattered on the counter, exploded outwards. The frog was nowhere to be seen, and in the bathtub, a shadow snarled.

She caught a glimpse of horrifically writhing limbs and glaring yellow eyes, far, far too many eyes, and wrenched Joel away from the sight. "Don't look!" she commanded, and Joel's breaths whistled in his chest as he cried.

From the bathtub there came a rasping groan, long and low and almost mournful. Then the shadow suddenly grew, twisting and morphing in unspeakable ways, too fluid and quick for the eye to catch. The groan wrenched into a shriek, and the limbs reached out. She clutched Joel to her chest and shielded him with her body until -

Bang! The limbs jerked and fell back. Bang! bang! The shadow screeched again, and thrashed agonizingly. Another shot finished it, and its voice trailed off into a whine as it slumped bonelessly into the bathtub. Yue stumbled away, still holding Joel to her chest, and caught Wen's arm before he could collapse himself. He gripped the shotgun with white-knuckled fingers, and red was beginning to seep out through the pristine white of his bandages.

They had no need to discuss what would happen next. Yue fumbled for the lighter Wen passed to her, and giving Joel to him, she entered the bathroom and set the body alight. When dead, the remnants of what it had been could be more clearly seen - a webbed foot here, a long, black protrusion of a tongue still twitching from between clenched jaws there. She knew not to look too closely.

"The supplies," Wen said through gritted teeth. "They're all in the shed out back."

"We don't have the time." Her chest ached to say it. "The damned thing's shrieking would've alerted every other one in the area to us." She pulled Wen's arm over her shoulders and, hefting the still-weeping Joel in her other arm, barrelled her family down the creaky stairs, through the foyer, and out the door. Their van, thankfully, sat quiet and unoccupied in the front yard, but she knew they didn't have much time. Within seconds Joel was clutching at Wen desperately in the backseat as if his life depended on it, and perhaps it did. Yue started up the van and threw the gear into drive.

The road was unpaved and rattled her teeth with every bump, but she didn't stop. In the rearview mirror she could already see them emerging from the woods behind the house - foxes, badgers, deer with rotted pelts and broken antlers and always, always those clustered, twisting limbs, those horrifying, countless eyes. She turned on the headlights and immediately illuminated a human-shaped figure before them. The van barrelled right through it, and she knew that to halt now would mean the end of them all.

"Joel," she said. "It didn't get you?"

"No," came the choked reply. "No. Mama, what happened to him? I just wanted to check on him. I just wanted to see -"

"Yue," Wen said sharply. "He's bleeding."

"The glass," Yue said. "Only the glass. It didn't get the chance to touch him."

"Mama?"

Yue turned a sharp corner and the whole van shook as they ran over something else on the road.

"Mama, you're bleeding."

The back of her shirt, as she now realized, felt wet, as did her right shoulder. A sharp, unpleasant sting was creeping up her spine and down her arm.

"Yue," Wen said. The stunned disbelief in his voice was palpable.

She breathed in, unsteadily. Blew it out in a rush. "We have a half-tank full of gas. There aren't any more gas stations left on this side of the Atlantic, so our best bet is to seek out other survivors. We'll be driving through the night."

"Yue," Wen said. Then Joel: "Mama."

She steeled herself. "When the time comes," she said, "you'll know what to do."

Yue gripped the wheel with sweaty palms and tried not to be afraid.


A/N: A recent thing I wrote in response to a prompt from user stormy's one-shot challenge on CS: "Look at what you got into."

Thanks for reading! :)