The Dragon's Key: Chapter 1

Cassius shoved his dirty clothes into the hamper. The knocking at the door was growing more annoyed. "I'm coming, I'm coming!" he shouted, though he wasn't. He grabbed another armful of clothes and dumped it in, then slammed the top closed. He ran to his door and opened it.

"Took you long enough," Kaida said as she walked into the apartment. She noticed his slightly quick breathing and raised an eyebrow. "What were you doing?"

He closed the door. "Nothing, just putting something away."

She kicked her shoes into the corner and began looking around. "So, this is your apartment, huh?" She poked her head into the kitchen and spotted the food cooking on the stove. "Ooh, what are we having?"

"Spaghetti," he said, watching her face with interest.

She nodded and kept looking around. "Not bad, not bad." She wandered down the hall and peeked into the bathroom. "What, did you clean the entire place just because I was coming over?"

"Huh?" he feigned. "Why would you say that?"

"I can still smell the Clorox," she said with a smirk. "And besides, I know you're not this neat. I have known you since we were five."

"Yeah, but only for half that," he said. "I can make a mess if you'll be more comfortable with it."

"No, that's fine," she chuckled. She poked her head into his bedroom. "Nice bed. Big, comfortable looking. You could use some posters or something on the walls though. The whole place looks boring."

He shrugged. "I only go in there to sleep," he said. "Besides, what would I put up there?"

She shrugged back at him. "Something from a band or a TV show you like. Hell, even a comic book or something. Just to break up the white walls."

"I'll think about it," he said. "So, what do you think of the place?"

"It's nice! Almost too nice, if you ask me," she said. "How can you afford this on the library computer lab salary?"

"That pays surprisingly well. And this place is surprisingly cheap. Living in the middle of nowhere helps keep costs down."

"I guess it explains why you've been here for..."

"Three years now," he said. "I can't believe this is the first time you've ever come over."

"I'm a busy woman, Cass," she said. She flopped down on his couch and kicked her legs up over the armrest. "Besides, a quiet night at home isn't my thing. If we're going to do something, I'd rather go out."

"Yeah, I know," he sighed. "What made you finally decide to come over and hang out?"

"Eh," she sighed, burying her head back into the couch pillows. "Andy's got his friends over and they piss me off, so I had to get out of there. I wish his friends weren't so stupid and loud."

He pulled her legs aside and sat on the couch, letting them drop back across his lap. "Hey, its your own fault for letting him move in after you'd only been dating for three months."

She scooted back and sat up so only her feet were touching him. "Well, I needed someone to help pay the rent. And his place was awful. Imagine this place, but half the size with the bedroom and living room rolled into one. Oh, and the kitchen is actually a hot plate on the table. Besides, if I get tired of him, I can kick him out."

"Just like you did with Ryan. And Oren. And - "

She threw her hands up. "Ok, ok! I get the point. My rotating cast of live-in boyfriends has been neither stable nor particularly useful. But they keep the place clean, pay half the rent, and feed my cat while I'm on trips."

"You know, I could do that," he said.

"Yeah, remember how well that went? I came back, the food was all over the place, your arms were covered in scratches, and I think you were in anaphylactic shock."

"Well, yes, it would suck balls, but I would still do it," he said. "You're my best friend. I can bite the bullet and take care of my best friend's horror pet once in a while."

She chuckled and lightly slapped him on the shoulder. "And how long, exactly, would you stay my best friend if I kept asking you to do that, huh?"

"I am pretty sure I would stay with you through anything," he said with serious conviction.

She tried to hide a smile by turning away, but Cassius spotted it. "Well, you know - " she started to say, but the beeping of Cassius's oven timer interrupted her.

"Food's ready!" he said. He hopped up off the couch, leaving her to exhale with relief.

"This is actually really good," Kaida said as she slurped up sauce-covered noodles. "What sort of sauce is this?"

"I made it myself," Cassius answered, which made Kaida's eyes go wide. "I got the recipe from my grandmother. It was actually easier than I thought it'd be."

"I didn't know you cooked," she mumbled through a half-chewed mouthful.

"I don't, not really. Normally, I go out to eat, or I just heat up a can of soup and make a sandwich or something. Nothing that requires too much work."

She smirked and swallowed. "Lazy bastard. You should cook more, this is really good. I mean, fantastic. You'll have to give me the recipe."

"Sure, I have it written down somewhere. I'll e-mail you a copy." He speared a meatball and popped it into his mouth. "So, how was Brussels?" he asked.

She swallowed another mouthful and shook her head. "It was alright," she said. "I got to see some of the sights. Most of the time I was tagging along with my boss, doing what he told me. On my one free day I did get to tour the Grand Place and the Royal Palace. I wanted to see the Royal Crypt, but we were busy when it was open. And honestly, aside from those two touristy things, I didn't do much. Mostly stayed in my hotel, had room service for breakfast and dinner, and then went out to work. Being able to travel around the world on business is not as amazing as everyone thinks. It's ten hour plane rides and jet lag."

He chuckled. "Well, not everything can have the glamor of the Greenbelt Public Library computer lab. Yesterday, I chased off two teenagers trying to look at porn and helped an old lady figure out how to send e-mail! That consumed an entire thirty minutes of my day, the rest of which was spent playing solitaire and watching videos online."

She sighed and leaned back. "At least there's no pressure there. Sometimes, I think my work's going to make me go prematurely gray." She wound a long lock of black hair around her finger.

"Pfft. You're twenty-five and don't have a gray hair on you. You've got nothing to worry about. But me..." He ran a hand through his curtained blond hair. "My dad was bald at thirty five. I've got something to worry about."

"You know they say baldness skips a generation."

"And my granddad on my mom's side was bald at forty. So I'm screwed from both directions." She giggled, then nearly choked on her food, but took a drink and waved Cassius off then started to giggle again.

Then she sat up bolt straight with her eyes wide.

"What's wrong?" Cassius asked in alarm.

She jumped out of her seat and dashed for the door. "I need to - " Before she could finish, the door crashed open. A tall man with cropped red hair in an orange fur-lined coat burst into the apartment. He was bedraggled and breathing heavy, with sweat pouring from his forehead - not too surprising considering he was wearing a fur coat in the middle of summer.

Kaida froze and Cassius yelled. "Hey! What are you doing?"

The man briefly turned and looked at Cassius, then returned his attention to Kaida. He dropped to one knee in front of her. "Princess Kaida!" he said in a refined voice. "I have finally found you."

Kaida's eyes remained wide as saucers. "What are you..." she began, before swallowing hard. She shook her head and turned to Cassius, who had retreated to the kitchen and grabbed a broom and wielded it like a bat. "Who are you?" she asked the man.

The man looked up in shock. "Why, Reynard Baye, Princess!" the man yipped. "I have been looking for you. We must - " He sniffed the air and Cassius thought the man's ears twitched. "No time," he said. He turned away from Kaida to face Cassius. "You will have to do."

Like a blur, he grabbed Cassius's wrists and yanked the broom out of his hands. "What are you - " Cassius started to scream, but the man suddenly kissed him. Cassius started to struggle, but after a brief moment, all of his strength left him. A metallic taste flooded his mouth and a burning heat began to travel down his throat. The man let go of him and he crumpled to the floor.

"What did you do!" Kaida yelled, running over and dropping down next to Cassius.

"I am sorry, my Princess," Reynard said with a deep flourishing bow. "I cannot remain behind. Know that what I do, I do for the good of all nagual!" He then bolted out of the apartment, slamming the door behind himself.

Kaida began to follow after him, but she froze again. Cassius began to cough and pushed himself off the floor. "What did..." he muttered. "Where did that guy go?"

"He went out the door," Kaida said, her voice an uncharacteristic soft quiver. Cassius hopped to his feet and ran to the door. He threw it open and was met with a thud. He looked out and saw a police officer running down the hall. Another was sitting behind the door, groaning to himself.

The one on the floor, a tall man with a pocked face, glared up at him. "What the hell are you doing, you fucking idiot?" he asked.

"I'm sorry, I - " Cassius began as the officer narrowed his eyes dangerously at him.

"Hey!" the other officer, who was already at the end of the hall yelled. "Get your ass up and come on! We're losing Reynard!" The second officer was black, with a thin goatee and angry eyes.

The first officer yanked himself to his feet by the door handle. He glowered at Cassius and hissed, "You're lucky!" before running off after his partner. Cassius barely had time to realize it, but both looked like they were wearing police officer costumes instead of the real deal.

Cassius was about to yell after them about Reynard, when Kaida grabbed him and yanked him back into the room. She slammed the door shut and bolted the lock. She was as pale as a goth girl and her hands were clenched.

"We have to call the police," Cassius said, turning toward the phone. Kaida grabbed his arm and yanked him back. "Aaah!" he shouted as pain shot through bicep.

"Sorry!" she yelped and let go, leaving behind harsh red marks. "But don't call anyone!"

He rubbed his arm and quirked his head to the side. "Why?" he asked. "Did you know him? He seemed like he knew you!" Suddenly registering Kaida's fear, he sucked in a breath. "Are you alright? Are you in trouble?" he asked.

She seemed about to say something, but then took a deep breath and ran a hand through her hair. Almost immediately, her color returned and she calmed. "I'm fine," she said, her voice carrying only the faintest hint that she wasn't.

"Are you sure?" he asked. "I'm going to call the police."

"No!" she shouted. She looked him straight in the eyes and grabbed his shoulders. "You can't call the police."

"What?" he asked, suddenly feeling light headed. "But that guy... He broke in and..."

"He didn't do anything," she said, very calmly. Her voice was soothing.

He rubbed his throat. "He kissed me and I felt..." He couldn't turn away from her. He couldn't turn away from her eyes. Each small fleck of color in her dark brown eyes seemed to be perceptible to him. His head was swimming. He was swimming inside her eyes.

"Nothing happened, Cass," she said, softly. She slowly let her hands slip off his shoulders, brushing against his arms, before falling to her sides. "Do you understand? Nothing happened."

"I..." he muttered. His thoughts were like jelly, oozing through his brain, not quite congealed. "I guess I should..."

"Just forget everything happened," she said, this time more forcefully.

His head snapped up. "Yes, nothing happened," he said, with conviction. She sighed and broke eye contact with him. He blinked and felt slightly woozy. He sat back in his chair and put a hand on his forehead.

When he looked up, he saw Kaida sitting across from him, eating her spaghetti. "You were saying?" she asked.

He looked down at his plate, then back at her. "I, uh... I don't remember," he said.

She smiled at him. "I think you were telling me how your date went with Tricia," she said.

He didn't remember talking bringing that up, but he shrugged and started talking. "Well, I guess it went alright, but there just wasn't any sort of connection," he said. After a moment, he had forgotten that anything seemed strange at all.

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