Ryanil slid onto the barstool, xir tail hanging down. How humans could sit comfortably on these, xe would never understand. To xir left and right, people were talking and laughing and, as usual, not noticing xe was there. Xe sighed, a wispy puff of steam escaping xir nostrils.
A faint shadow fell across the bar in front of Ryanil, and xe looked up into the kind eyes of a human. He—Ryanil thought the humans with fur on their faces were usually he—smiled. It startled Ryanil.
“What can I get you?” he asked.
“I…do not know.” Thus far, this person was the first one in six months to acknowledge Ryanil’s existence, let alone speak to xem.
The fur-chinned human nodded and turned around to do something Ryanil couldn’t quite see. When he returned, he had a glass of smoking green liquid. He plopped a wide-bored bendy pipe into it and set it in front of Ryanil.
“Learned how to make these from the locals when I was on vacation last year. I’m Jack, by the way.”
“Thank you…Jack.” Ryanil had learned human speech long before immigrating, but it was still sometimes a challenge to get all the words out in the right order. There were some things dragon tongues weren’t built for.
Jack smiled again and stepped over to the next waiting patron. Ryanil sipped the drink; it was very good. It reminded xem of a delightful concoction from back home, and it eased the loneliness a little. Xe wondered now about Jack’s “vacation.”
Ryanil finished the drink and slid a front paw into xir pouch to extract a gold coin. It was possible this bar didn’t take them, but maybe they would. The clientele seemed to be the sort Ryanil had learned sometimes humans didn’t like. This made no sense to xem. Then again, humans didn’t seem to notice xir at all, so perhaps it was simply another quirk of their species.
Jack returned to collect the glass. “Good?”
“Yes, thank you.”
“Did you want another?”
“No, one was plenty. Thank you again,” xe remembered to add. It seemed to be a human custom.
Jack leaned on the bar. “Down on your luck, eh?”
“Just…homesick, I think. Is that the right word? I miss the shores and the caves and my kind.”
“Yeah, homesick is probably how I’d describe it. Listen, there’s a theater not too far from here. I’ll give you the address. They’re getting ready for a dance performance tomorrow afternoon, and there will be lots of kids and creative people. I think you might have more success finding someone to talk to with that.” He scribbled something on a napkin and handed it to Ryanil. “I’d have thought you’d meet a few in here, too, but maybe not tonight.”
“I will look into this theater. Goodnight, barkeep Jack.”
He grinned. “Goodnight. Come back again sometime.”
Ryanil didn’t thank him again. Xe slipped off the stool and, paper clutched in forepaw, wandered out of the bar. On the sidewalk, xe looked at the address. It would require taking one of those underground transports, but from the sounds of it, that might be worth it.
Even on a crowded transport no one had paid any attention to Ryanil, not ever. Tonight was no exception. Xe made it to the theater without any trouble and nary a glance from passenger or foot traveler.
The theater was a large stone building. Ryanil stared up at it for several minutes, debating, before finally pulling open the doors and entering. Xir hind feet made little sound, possibly because Ryanil didn’t wear those clunky things on xir feet that the humans did.
Speaking of sound, there was quite a bit of it coming from behind another set of doors. It was a rhythmic thumping, sort of a tapping. Curious, Ryanil opened the doors.
It was dim inside, so it took a moment for Ryanil’s vision to adjust from the brighter lights in the other room. Once they did, xe could see clearly. There were rows and rows of chairs, all facing the same direction toward a raised platform. The platform was bathed in much more light than the chairs, in which a handful of people sat watching.
Onstage, those must be the dancers Jack mentioned. Ryanil didn’t know much about human forms of dance, only dragon. This was interesting. A line of smaller humans, all in identical black footwear, were stomping in sync with each other. A taller human had a gold-topped stick and was moving it in the same rhythm: ONE-two-three-four-five-six, STOMP-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap.
Ryanil watched for a while, listening to the upbeat music and the thunder of the dancers’ feet. Eventually, they paused, so xe looked around again. There was an even smaller human toward the back of the room, drawing and swinging their feet back and forth. Ryanil sidled closer, curious to see what the human was creating.
It startled them both when the small human looked up. They squeaked, and Ryanil stepped back. After several seconds of eye contact, which became uncomfortable, the human stood. They came over to Ryanil.
“Hi,” they said.
“I’m Caleigh. What’s your name?” They tilted their head.
“Ryanil.” Xe remained frozen in place. This was the second contact with a human all in the same night. It was a bit overwhelming.
“That’s a nice name. Are you a boy dragon or a girl dragon?”
Odd question. “Boys” and “girls” Ryanil knew to be terms humans associated with their young, but xe couldn’t begin to understand how they determined which one a child was.
“I…neither,” Ryanil said. “We have egg-layers and egg-fertilizers and some who can do both. No boys or girls.”
“Okay,” Caleigh said. “I haven’t decided which one I am yet either. A boy or a girl, I mean.”
“Do humans choose that sort of thing?” It would explain a lot.
“Not usually. Grown-ups mostly decide for you when you get born. Some people have to correct them when they get big enough. I don’t always feel like one or the other, but Mommy and Daddy say that’s okay. So do you get to pick one?”
“I have never heard of anyone who did.”
“Are you all by yourself?” Caleigh peered past Ryanil.
“Yes. I came here without my family.” It brought back the sadness even stronger.
Caleigh relaxed, and it occurred to Ryanil they might’ve been worried about getting eaten by a mob of dragons. Humans did have some strange notions.
“Did you have a, um…not boyfriend or girlfriend. Mate?” Caleigh asked.
“I did not. I was not old enough.” Ryanil leaned down a little to study the child. “You do not look old enough either.”
“I’m not.” Caleigh giggled. “My brother has a boyfriend, but they’re both grown-ups.” Their mouth turned down. “His boyfriend is sad a lot, kind of like you are now. He’s real nice, though. He brings me treats and says I’m a cool cat.” The smile returned. “Cian says he needs lots of love while he gets better from…something. I can’t remember what.”
Ryanil didn’t quite know enough about human customs and relationships to know what Caleigh meant by “boyfriend” or half the other things they’d said. Xe did understand sadness, however, and felt a pang of sympathy for whoever this person was.
Caleigh was talking again. “That’s my brother on stage. Half-brother, really. He has a different mom, who lives in another country. My biggest sister is dancing. She’s the one in the middle.” They pointed at the platform then lowered their voice. “I’m really supposed to be sitting quietly like Daddy said to. You’re a lot more fun than coloring pictures.”
“I…really?” Ryanil wasn’t sure xe was terribly interesting, but the child seemed to think so.
“Yeah. Want to see what I drew?”
Ryanil looked. It was a picture of the dancers, even xe could see that much. Xe ran one clawed digit over the drawing, admiring the way it captured both the power and the grace of the people. Xe looked up at the platform and watched for a bit, enthralled by the way their feet clacked against the floor. Ryanil wished xe could do it too.
Caleigh’s gaze was on Ryanil when xe turned back around, their head tilted and eyes slightly narrowed. “Want to go closer?”
They moved forward quietly. Caleigh sat back down in one of the cushioned seats, but Ryanil stood in the aisle. At some point, Caleigh went back to drawing, while Ryanil continued to enjoy the performers.
Xe lost track of time and only began noticing again when the dance was over and people began filing out of the theater. Ryanil looked down at Caleigh.
“I should go.”
“Wait,” Caleigh said. “I want you to meet my family. I know they’ll love you.”
“Uhm…” Ryanil didn’t know how to explain that they probably wouldn’t see xem.
“Stay here.” Caleigh slipped out of the seat and went in search of the others.
They returned, tugging on two older children’s hands. Ryanil shied away, but the older two, like most humans, didn’t seem to register xir presence.
“There are no such things as dragons,” the tallest said with body language even Ryanil could read. Adolescence was apparently universal.
Caleigh turned to the other one. “You believe me, right Cathleen?”
“I believe you think you saw a dragon, sure.”
While they were discussing it, Ryanil noticed the oldest child’s shoes. Black, made of something that looked like hide, with more than one kind of fastening. They were nice, and up close, Ryanil could see the parts of the shoe that made noise on the platform. Xe wished xe could try them on and test them.
Caleigh noticed. “The dragon likes your shoes, Cadence,” they said.
Cadence made an exasperated noise. “I think they’d be a little small on a whole dragon.”
“I already told you, the dragon’s only as big as Cian.”
“Speaking of, here he comes.”
This was the man Caleigh had called her brother. He looked quite a bit older than the other three but still a young adult. He made some motions with his hands that puzzled Ryanil. It was apparently another human form of communication because Cadence made some hand motions back.
Caleigh glanced at Ryanil, picking up on xir confusion. “I was just telling the others about the dragon, Cian.”
“A dragon, eh?” He smiled and ruffled Caleigh’s hair.
“The dragon liked your dance and wants to learn how.”
Cian looked simultaneously amused and surprised, and Ryanil was again struck by the similarities in how humans softened around their young, indulging even their fantasies—which Cian, like the others, clearly thought this to be.
“Yeah? Well, you tell your dragon to get some jig shoes and come to class one of these days, okay?”
Caleigh smiled. “I think the dragon heard you.”
Cian laughed. “All right. That’ll need some awfully big shoes, don’t you think?”
“Silly. The dragon is only your size.” Caleigh looked down at his feet. “Hm…maybe just a bit bigger. Dragon feet are wider and have bigger toes.”
“Sounds perfect. Maybe we should get someone to custom make a pair of dragon-sized jig shoes. Meanwhile, your dragon should come see the show tomorrow afternoon.”
“It’s here in this theater at one,” Caleigh helpfully informed Ryanil.
“All right,” Ryanil replied.
Cian took Caleigh’s hand. “C’mon, let’s get you back to Mom and Dad. I’m sure they’ll want to hear all about your new friend.”
“No, they won’t,” the one called Cathleen muttered, but Cian shot them a glare.
They all turned around and began walking away from Ryanil. Caleigh glanced over their shoulder and waved, so Ryanil waved a clawed forepaw back. Just before Ryanil went the opposite way toward the doors, something made xem pause.
Cian glanced at Ryanil as soon as Caleigh’s back was turned, and he winked.
Perhaps Ryanil would come to the show after all.