A/N: Okay, so, if you can get through my love of flashbacks to flesh out the world and characters in maybe not the most relevant way, I can promise promise promise that there is danger at the end.
Callum MacKenzie really hadn’t been certain that would work. He’d noticed from the friends Josie made – loud-drunk artsy types who always strolled around campus after the pubs had closed singing joke songs about various members of staff, or other education establishments in the country – that she valued confidence in the people she associated with. Asking her out straight up had been a risk – you never knew when a young woman would take offence to forwardness – but it had paid off.
He had wandered around the West End, scoping out which restaurant to take her to, which one would be most to her taste, for hours. Of course, this had included a fair amount of skulking in side streets whenever he spotted anyone who might take offence to his presence. He didn’t want any more drama.
He sighed as he pushed open the door of a small Italian place on Byre’s Road. It hadn’t always been this way.
When Callum was young, his imagination had brought him friends. Kids had come to him with their hopes and dreams and he’d drawn them pictures, or written them stories, all about what their lives would be like when they one day achieved them. This had been a small business, with lunch snack based profit margins, that had been established one day after a potential bully asked why he was sitting with his nose in a book rather than playing football with all the other boys. Luckily, the questioner had caught sight of Callum’s current drawing, become entranced, and asked if he could draw him winning the world cup. Callum happily obliged, and for the next term of primary school, he could barely go a break time without a new commission coming up.
The novelty had worn off eventually, of course, but by this time he’d had enough friendly, or friendly adjacent conversations with his clientele that he was on at least decent terms with most of the school. This was how he learned for the first time that people liked them once they got to know him.
Drawing was central to his life by the age of fourteen, when it came time to figure out what he’d do with the rest of his life. And his by-then friend Adam, the boy who’d asked him all those years ago why he didn’t play football, had suggested that maybe he should apply to art place in Glasgow. Callum’s parents hadn’t been willing to fund him drawing pictures of dragons for four years on end, but he’d found a course in graphic design at Glasgow University, enrolled, and found during the first semester that there was plenty of time for sketching between classes, and plenty of people in the city who appreciated his work.
But halfway into his course, the War had begun. He’d tried to keep himself entertained in the mess halls and the barracks by drawing what he saw around him, but it was all too grey, too olive. This was useful pragmatically speaking, since all he had access to was a small amount of charcoal with which to shade in any shapes he drew. But a black and white dragon was better than even a properly coloured in soldier anyway.
Callum’s obsession with dragons had begun after the end of the period drawing his classmates and their dreams. At the age of eight he figured he’d drawn human beings in every situation there was to draw them – ballerina, knight, three different kinds of lorry drivers for some reason – so he’d moved on to fantasy. He drew fairies, witches, centaurs, satyrs, griffins. But even these were grounded to some extent in reality. They were human shaped – or half human shaped. Or their two halves were one real animal and another real animal.
Dragons were of course a bit lizard-like, but they were far too enormous to be confused for a gecko, as long as he included the dragon flying over a stormy mountain for scale or something. Yes, he answered when people asked, they were also quite similar in idea to dinosaurs. There were four different classmates he had to inform that nobody had ever seen a dinosaur for sure, as they were all dead. That made dragons the furthest removed creatures from real life in existence – or sort of existence.
Callum remembered a night right in the middle of the misery. One of the privates, Josie’s brother Eric, had just been promoted, and was now sitting apart from the rest of them. Two of the remaining privates were getting in a food fight with each other, so Callum figured he could get away from them and cheer up Eric at the same time. He slid down the mess hall bench and tapped Eric on the shoulder.
“Alright, man?” Callum asked. “How’d you score this gig?”
Eric’s eyes darted towards the guys having the food fight, who’d lowered their spoons and were glowering at Callum, who was now officially fraternising with the enemy – their superiors.
“I, uh, I think they liked my attention to detail. I take orders well,” Eric said, taking a spoonful of his gruel. It was the first spoonful Callum had seen him take all lunch time.
Callum twisted around so that his back leant against the table and he was able to stare out of the tent towards the soldiers training in the field. He extended his legs and crossed them over, lounging with his weight on one arm on the table.
“Fair enough, fair enough,” he said. He lowered his voice. “Look, I know you’re sad about the other guys not wanting to talk to you anymore, so I have something to show you. Have you ever considered ways to keep yourself entertained?”
Callum reached into the breast pocket of his thick woollen army coat and pulled out a folded piece of paper, his faithful ticket to friendship since primary three. It was a picture of just a dragon, no background, and he was halfway through shading it in with the most detail he’d ever managed.
Eric’s eyes widened. “Very realistic.”
“You think so?” Callum asked, turning to face him.
Callum was sure Eric squeaked, but he covered it up with a cough. He stood and said, “I, uh, have to go. Those men are holding their rifles all wrong.”
Callum gaped at him as he jogged off, dawdling around the soldiers whose rifle holds were perfectly fine. He stuffed the drawing back in his pocket, betrayed finally by its power after a thirteen-year-streak of reliability. With his brows furrowed so far his head hurt, he shunted himself back down the table to the other privates, who took one look at him and walked away.
But he didn’t abandon his dragon drawings, or start taking commissions to earn the favour of his colleagues. This wasn’t school anymore; nobody but the Germans would beat him up and they’d all just have to get on with it. He slept every night thinking of dragons, thinking of the way their wings folded and their eyes gleamed. He thought about the rumours of telepathic communication with their riders during the Great War. Everyone knew one of the history lecturers had ridden a dragon in the Great War, but nobody knew which one. He’d look out for that when he got back.
Callum found he had wandered right into Kelvingrove Park with his head in the clouds. He found his feet on the soft grass of a steep hill before he knew what was happening. The path zig-zagged back and forth across the hill, a much less steep climb, but sometimes thinking about dragons, or the war, made him want to move, get his blood pumping, tire himself out.
He found himself in a thick cluster of trees, and decided to wander around between these for a while. He took note of the branch layout of each tree; he’d challenge himself to draw them from memory later. But his concentration was broken by the sound of voices.
“Sorry again,” a female voice said.
Callum whipped his head around, glancing from tree to tree, but didn’t see where it was coming from. A moment later, Josie bloody Alexander popped into sight, right from thin air, and her brother Eric beside her. Callum darted behind the nearest tree just as some other shape appeared, but he was so determined not to get caught stalking again that he kept his body plastered to the other side of the tree, not moving a muscle.
“It’s fine,” Eric said, “There’s nobody around. And it’s happened now, okay? Calm down. We’re better off down here than up in the sky. And hey, I lost track of time to. And didn’t you as well, Dragon? Just so excited to be out and ab- Oh, God dammit!”
“Don’t let Dragon hear you swear, Eric,” Josie teased. “And okay, it’ll just be five minutes to recharge then we’ve got a whole other half hour of invisible flight. Admittedly after that we really ought to get him home for the night.”
They were both silent for a few moments, during which time all Callum could hear was his blood in his ears. He thought about poking his head out, but he had no way of knowing if they’d be looking his way. If he was right about what he thought was around there, it wouldn’t matter. They’d be so desperate for him not to turn them in that they wouldn’t even ask if he’d been following them. But he could be wrong? It could be a nickname for their dog or something. Or a small personal bi-plane or something.
He took a deep breath, realising a moment too late that deep breaths tend to be quite loud. But when his left eye emerged around the side of the tree trunk, they were facing away from him. They were facing a dark green dragon. Goddam stupid Josie bloody Alexander had a dragon.