For my very own Catherine

When once you have tasted flight, you will forever

walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there

you have been, and there you will always long to return.

— Leonardo da Vinci


Gazing out at the quiet lake, I know the risk is worth it.

The water is still and smooth. Polished glass. Not a ripple of wind disturbs the dark surface. Low-rising mist drifts off liquid mountains floating against a purple-bruised sky. An eager breath shudders past my lips. Soon the sun will break.

Azure arrives, winded. She doesn’t bother with the kickstand. Her bike clatters next to mine on the ground. “Didn’t you hear me calling? You know I can’t pedal as fast as you.”

“I didn’t want to miss this.”

Finally, the sun peeks over the mountains in a thin line of red-gold that edges the dark lake.

Azure sighs beside me, and I know she’s doing the same thing I am — imagining how the early morning light will taste on her skin.

“Jacinda,” she says, “we shouldn’t do this.” But her voice lacks conviction.

I dig my hands into my pockets and rock on the balls of my feet. “You want to be here as badly as I do. Look at that sun.”

Before Azure can mutter another complaint, I’m shucking off my clothes. Stashing them behind a bush, I stand at the water’s edge, trembling, but not from the cold bite of early morning. Excitement shivers through me.

Azure’s clothes hit the ground. “Cassian’s not going to like this,” she says.

I scowl. As if I care what he thinks. He’s not my boyfriend. Even if he did surprise attack me in Evasive Flight Maneuvers yesterday and try to hold my hand. “Don’t ruin this. I don’t want to think about him right now.”

This little rebellion is partly about getting away from him. Cassian. Always hovering. Always there. Watching me with his dark eyes. Waiting. Tamra can have him. I spend a lot of my time wishing he wanted her — that the pride would choose her instead of me. Anyone but me. A sigh shudders from my lips. I just hate that they’re not giving me a choice.

But it’s a long way off before anything has to be settled. I won’t think about it now.

“Let’s go.” I relax my thoughts and absorb everything humming around me. The branches with their gray- green leaves. The birds stirring against the dawn. Clammy mist hugs my calves. I flex my toes on the coarse rasp of ground, mentally counting the number of pebbles beneath the bottoms of my feet. And the familiar pull begins in my chest. My human exterior melts away, fades, replaced with my thicker draki skin.

My face tightens, cheeks sharpening, subtly shifting, stretching. My breath changes as my nose shifts, ridges pushing out from the bridge. My limbs loosen and lengthen. The drag of my bones feels good. I lift my face to the sky. The clouds become more than smudges of gray. I see them as though I’m already gliding through them. Feel cool condensation kiss my body.

It doesn’t take long. It’s perhaps one of my quickest manifests. With my thoughts unfettered and clear, with no one else around except Azure, it’s easier. No Cassian with his brooding looks. No Mom with fear in her eyes. None of the others, watching, judging, sizing me up.

Always sizing me up.

My wings grow, slightly longer than the length of my back. The gossamer width of them pushes free. They unfurl with a soft whisper on the air — a sigh. As if they, too, seek relief. Freedom.

A familiar vibration swells up through my chest. Almost like a purr. Turning, I look at Azure, and see she is ready, beautiful beside me. Iridescent blue. In the growing light, I note the hues of pink and purple buried in the deep blue of her draki skin. Such a small thing I never noticed before.

Only now I see it, in the break of dawn, when we are meant to soar. When the pride forbids it. At night you miss so much.

Looking down, I admire the red-gold luster of my sleek arms. Thoughts drift. I recall a chunk of amber in my family’s cache of precious stones and gems. My skin looks like that now. Baltic amber trapped in sunlight. It’s deceptive. My skin appears delicate, but it’s as tough as armor. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen myself this way. Too long since I’ve tasted sun on my skin.

Azure purrs softly beside me. We lock eyes — eyes with enlarged irises and dark vertical slits for pupils — and I know she’s over her complaints. She stares at me with irises of glowing blue, as happy as I am to be here. Even if we broke every rule in the pride to sneak off protected grounds. We’re here. We’re free.

On the balls of my feet, I spring into the air. My wings snap, wiry membranes stretching as they lift me up.

With a twirl, I soar.

Azure is there, laughing beside me, the sound low and guttural.

Wind rushes over us and sweet sunlight kisses our flesh. Once we’re high enough, she drops, descends through the air in a blurring tailspin, careening toward the lake.

My lip curls. “Show-off!” I call, the rumble of draki speech vibrating deep in my throat as she dives into the lake and remains underwater for several minutes.

As a water draki, whenever she enters water, gills appear on the side of her body, enabling her to survive submerged…well, forever, if she chooses. One of the many useful talents our dragon ancestors assumed in order to survive. Not all of us can do this, of course. I can’t.

I do other things.

Hovering over the lake, I wait for Azure to emerge. Finally, she breaks the surface in a glistening spray of water, her blue body radiant in the air, wings showering droplets.

“Nice,” I say.

“Let’s see you!”

I shake my head and set out again, diving through the tangle of mountains, ignoring Azure’s “c’mon, it’s so cool!”

My talent is not cool. I would give anything to change it. To be a water draki. Or a phaser. Or a visiocrypter. Or an onyx. Or…Really, the list goes on.

Instead, I am this.

I breathe fire. The only fire-breather in the pride in more than four hundred years. It’s made me more popular than I want to be. Ever since I manifested at age eleven, I’ve ceased to be Jacinda. Instead, I’m fire- breather. A fact that has the pride deciding my life as if it’s theirs to control. They’re worse than my mother.

Suddenly I hear something beyond the whistling wind and humming mists of the snow-capped mountains at every side. A faint, distant sound.

My ears perk. I stop, hovering in the dense air.

Azure cocks her head; her dragon eyes blink, staring hard. “What is it? A plane?”

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