There was a dragon in the school parking lot, between two busses.
This would not normally have surprised or dismayed Juniper. She was used to dragons – not at school, of course; dragons, like most of the very large and very small races, had their own schools. But it was Jimmy, who had been so cranky about Miryam, sitting there on the asphalt looking like a very large decoration. And next to the Smith’s oldest-in-nest, Juniper’s big brother Jin. What was going on?
“Hey, peanut,” Jin called, before Junie could make her escape onto the bus home. “Come over here.”
Peanut. She glared at him, but he was in charge when there wasn’t a parent around. Not that that was in any way fair, but, of course, parents didn’t look at it that way. “I’m going to miss my bus, Jin.”
“It’s all right. Mom and Dad are inside talking to your teacher.”
“To Miss Milligan?” She quailed. “What did I do?”
“Relax, kiddo. It’s not you. I mean… c’mere.” He hugged her suddenly. “Look, I went through the same thing. The parents just don’t pay attention, because things were so much different when they were kids.”
“Oh. My. Gawd.” The voice came from somewhere behind Juniper. Miryam. Miryam, and, from the sounds of the giggles, Ashley and Ally, two of Miryam’s friend. Junie did her best to ignore the girl, but Jimmy was snorting steam clouds. “What. The Hell. Is that?”
Juniper stiffed. “Jimmy…”
“It’s all right,” Jimmy rumbled. “They’re hatchlings. I understand.” The dragon lifted its head to regard the bullies over the top of Juniper. “But your parents said I could give you a ride.”
“A ride?” Miryam and her friends were still behind her, staring at the dragon they swore didn’t exist, but a ride? “In the air? A real ride?” That was more important than being proven right. That was more important than anything in the whole wide world.
“In the air. Not a low-earth-orbit or anything, but a real ride.” Jimmy’s jaw dropped in what only looked like a smile if you knew what you were talking about.
Behind them, Miryam was talking about Juniper being a horrible show-off. But it sounded as if she and the others were backing away, too. Jimmy laughed.
“Hop on, Junie. It’ll be fun, and we won’t even get in trouble.”
She glanced at Jin. He wasn’t going to be sad, was he? Jin was no fun when he was sad.
He was grinning at her, though. Grinning was good. “Go on, Junie. We worked hard to get Mom and Dad to agree to this – don’t waste it. Here, I’ll give you a hand up.” He picked her up like she didn’t weigh anything at all, and set her up on Jimmy’s back, into a sort of leather car-seat-like thing. “Buckle up, here, and here, and here.” He was buckling her in, even as he said it. “And hold on tight, okay, Junes? Don’t let go.”
“I’ll be fine,” she muttered. Miryam was still watching, Miryam and her stupid friends.
“Thinks she’s too good for the busses, silly little trash girl and her trashy friends,” Miryam-the-perfect was sneering. Juniper paid lots of attention to the buckles and handle, so that she wouldn’t cry. Or shout. Miss Milligan got very upset when she shouted.
Jin smacked Jimmy’s flank gently. “She’s all set, bro. Be careful with her.”
“Don’t worry one bit. Hold on tight, Junie.” Jimmy’s wings flapped hard against the air, and he took off. Below them, as the school dwindled away, Juniper could see Jin walking very slowly towards Miryam and her friends.
Audrey and Sage allowed Miss Milligan – “please, call me Samantha” – to lead them into her tiny office and try to seat them before they disabused her of the illusion that she was in charge.
Sage started. He refused, politely, the seat that was offered, preferring to stand, like a retired officer, hands clasped behind his back, between the women and the door. In his long duster, with his long goatee, Audrey imagined he must look rather intimidating.
As she had done more than a few times before, she set out to counter the image, pulling a tea pot and a thermos of hot water from her bag, as well as a tray of cookies. She unwrapped the cookies and, carefully making sure the young teacher could see her hands the whole time, measured the loose-leaf tea into the pot and added the pre-boiled water.
“Tea?” she offered, smiling benignly.
“Ah, yes, I suppose. Mrs…”
“Please, call me Audrey. Audrey and Sage is fine. Cookie?”
“Yes, please. Audrey, then, this is about Juniper. She’s a very bright girl, when she applies herself. But she has a very overactive imagination – these are very good cookies, thank you.”
“An overactive imagination? I’ve never found it excessive when she’s at home.”
“Oh, it can be easy to miss things like this if you’re not trained in it, but when we see her every day, the way a teacher does, it because much more evident. Juniper has been making up stories, making her life seem more interesting than is feasible, for attention.”
“What sort of stories?” That was Sage, in his cool, calm, investigator voice. It clearly ruffled Miss Milligan.
“Stories about eating dinner with ogres, about discussing politics with pixies…”
“You do know,” Audrey interrupted, “that we live in Smokey Knoll?”
“Well, I know Juniper goes home on the Smokey Knoll bus route. But lots of families live in the hills around the Knoll. It’s a big neighborhood.”
“Not around the Knoll,” Sage explained, with quiet precision. “In the Knoll.”
Miss Milligan, in the process of picking up her cup of tea, set it back down again, carefully. Audrey, to encourage her, picked up her own tea and sipped it.
The teacher was still staring at them. Her hands shaking, this time she did sip her tea. And then gulped it.
“Humans don’t live in Smokey Knoll,” she whispered.
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