Not even noon yet and already doctor Trent Kingston was nursing a headache.
His last two cases were the result of bad ownership—people not paying attention to their own Bonded dragons—rather than actual illness or disease. It drove him nuts.
Cases of accidental neglect were sadly not unusual with Common dragons: Though dragons were mostly small (with a few notable exceptions) as a result of being domesticated thousands of years ago, they were so wildly different from cats and dogs that a first time owner easily ran into problems.
The same excuse didn’t hold for a Bonded dragon owner. Bonded dragons formed a lifelong link with their chosen person. Feelings, images, and even simple phrases could be mentally passed back and forth between them.
Trent’s last client, Miss Fitzgerald, should have known that her Bonded dragon was experiencing abdominal distress. She had said her own stomach had been hurting! She blamed it on rich food—of which, she had shared with her dragon.
Safe in his office, Trent let out the exasperated breath he had been holding. Luckily Miss Fitzgerald and her dragon, whimsically named Jubilee, would be just fine. Trent would have his nurse send in a prescription for dragon-grade laxatives at the pharmacy. By tonight, both would be right as rain.
After typing a few notes in his customary shorthand (the nurse would translate it into the chart later), Trent stood and walked down the hall to the exam room. No doubt, next patient was waiting.
The nurse on duty, Naomi, was walking his way. She quirked a smile when she saw the thunderous expression on his face.
“You’re in luck,” she said in a sing-song voice. “Your favorite client is back. Exam room two.”
Trent’s building headache gave one last throb before he realized Naomi wasn’t being sarcastic. It was as if the clouds parted in his mind. Instantly, his mood grew brighter. “Already? Has the scale rot progressed?”
She shook her head. “No, he has another new one. We’re probably looking at a fracture in the primary flight bone, but don’t quote me on that. I’m just a vet tech.” She gave him a sarcastic smile.
Trent’s usual nurse—a licensed RN—had been out on maternity leave. Naomi was incredibly competent, but her vet tech classes had focused on treating dogs and cats. Dragons were a different kettle of fish. Their human bond-mates even more so.
Nodding, Trent took the chart from her. His heart thumping, he stepped into the exam room.
The man sitting in the chair with a small dragon cradled in his arms looked up at him and smiled.
Cole Lambeth was a regular. He had a reputation around Winchester Bay as a man who would take in problem cases—Common dragons who refused to bond with their owners, or who’s caretakers became too sick or infirm to keep their pets. He took in abandoned dragons, too.
Cole was of average height and build, with sun-kissed skin. His eyes, however, seemed to hold his heart. Cole showed every emotion in his eyes. Right now they were filled with concern, which lightened to relief upon seeing Trent.
Firmly, Trent reminded himself to be professional. Of course Cole was glad to see him. He deeply cared about the dragons he took in. No surprise he wanted his newest charge to feel better.
“Who do we have today?” Trent asked in greeting, setting the chart to the side and extending toward the suspicious dragon to sniff.
The dragon was a common, at least ten years old by the growth which put it a little larger than a house cat. Its hide was mottled blue and gold like a macaw. It sniffed at Trent’s fingers, and then suspiciously tasted the air with its forked tongue.
“I found him clinging to my kitchen window this morning,” Cole said ruefully. “Surprised the hell out of me when I was making coffee.”
Trent smiled for the first time all day. Cole had that effect on him. “Sounds like your reputation for taking in dragons is spreading.”
Cole shook his head. “I don’t think he was dumped off… I think he was attracted to the others in my aviary.” He shifted the dragon to better show off its left side. “The thing is, he hasn’t tried to fly, and he’s holding his left wing a little low.”
Trent nodded. “Let’s get him to the table and see if he’ll submit to being handled.”
The Blue and Gold was biddable enough, and allowed himself to be transferred to the exam table. Trent carefully manipulated the left wing, watching closely for any sign of pain. Dragons could strike as fast as snakes when they wanted. He felt along the length of the wing for bumps, breaks, or hot spots.
He knew why Naomi had guessed there was a break. There was a pea-sized lump at the end of the primary flight bone—the longest bone in the wing structure—but it seemed to be an old injury. The Blue and Bold didn’t flinch when he pressed around it.
The dragon did wince when Trent got to the base of the wing, where bone met shoulder.
Without having to be told, Cole patted the dragon’s head and murmured encouragement to it. With his other hand, he carefully controlled the dragon’s neck so it wouldn’t snap around and bite Trent. He had great instincts on how to handle dragons.
“I think this is the problem,” Trent said as he carefully manipulated the shoulder again.
The dragon let out a high whine. Cole shushed him, shooting a concerned glance Trent’s way.
“All done,” Trent promised. Turning away, he reached to the nearby treat jar and pulled out a finger-sized lump of jerky. A reward for being so good.
The Blue and Gold took the treat as his due and scarfed it down.
“Well, he has an appetite,” Trent remarked. “That’s good. Hunger is the first thing to go when they’re badly injured.”
“What do you think is wrong with him?”
“The bone’s not broken. The pain is localized here.” Trent carefully touched above the joint. “Which is mostly muscle.” With his other hand, he grabbed the ID scanner from the shelf and waved it down the length of the scaly back. The scanner chirped as it found an RFID tag. Someone had microchipped the dragon.
Trent tipped the scanner to the side and watched the owner’s information pop up on the screen. He let out a low whistle. “Says he’s registered in Manhattan.”
“Oh, thank goodness,” Cole said with so much relief that Trent looked at him in surprise. “He’s a sweetie, but I don’t have room in my house for another abandoned case.”
Trent carefully didn’t ask how many dragons Cold did have. The county had an upper limit of five unless the household was also registered as a rescue or shelter. He cleared his throat. “If I had to guess, his family took him on vacation from the east coast. Little Norman here—” the dragon visibly perked as Trent spoke his given name, which had been listed along with the owner info, "—accompanied his family on vacation. Someone thought he would be okay without an air-leash, but the Pacific winds were more than he could handle. He got carried away, hurt himself, and ended up at your house when he smelled your aviary.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time,” Cole agreed. He scratched under Norman’s chin and Trent tried not to watch in envy as the dragon submitted to it. Then, a frown creased Cole’s brow. “It may take a few days for the family to arrange a pickup. The county shelter is closed today.”
“We can keep him here overnight if needed. I can contact the owner,” Trent said smoothly. “I’m fairly confident it’s just a muscle strain, but I’d like to observe him for a few hours, just in case. His family can pay for an additional x-ray if they want.”
Cole let out a relieved breath and Trent wondered how full his house really was. Trent hastened to add, “Don’t worry about this appointment. I wouldn’t charge you for a consult.”
Cole’s expressive eyes showed a mix of gratitude and worry. “Thank you, but are you sure…?”
“It’s my time. I can give it away for free.” That wasn’t the truth, but Trent’s boss and owner of the clinic was a veterinarian who worked exclusively with cats and dogs and didn’t often look at time sheets. Trent would log this as his lunch break.
For a moment, it seemed Cole was considering arguing but didn’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth. He sighed, stroking Norman’s blue and gold head.
“We have an opening for a nurse’s assistant,” Trent blurted.
Hand stilling, Cole shot him an arch look. “Don’t you have to have a human medical degree to work with dragons?”
“Only the Bonded and Generational dragons. Eighty percent of my clients are Commons, like this guy.” The thought of seeing Cole every day—never mind that it would be in a professional environment—had words tripping off Trent’s tongue. “Plus, you get an employee discount on all services…”
Cole chuckled, but there was no amusement in the sound. He looked down. “Thank you, but no,” he said quietly. “I’m… I’m really trying to earn a license to open a shelter. My current job doesn’t pay great, but it gives me flexible hours.”
It wasn’t hard to keep the disappointment off his face, but Trent had a lot of experience hiding his emotions. He had to, as a doctor. “Well, the job’s yours if you ever change your mind.”
They stood like that for a moment, gazing across the small exam table at one another. There was a world of feeling in Cole’s eyes, though for once, Trent could not identify it.
Then Norman cheeped and bumped his head against Cole’s chest. The other man startled, then continued to scratch under the dragon’s jaw. “Don’t worry,” he said in a soft, loving voice, “We’ll get you reunited with your family soon.” He looked up at Trent as if hoping he would confirm it.
“Yes,” Trent said. “Next call I’m making is to their family. Do you want to stick around, in case they’re still in town?”
“No, I do have to get back to work.” Cole gave Norman one last scratch, then very reluctantly stepped away.
Dragons were perceptive creatures—there was a debate how much the Commons understood without a mind link to a human, but Norman at least seemed to understand this was goodbye. He made a low crooning sound as Cole left the room and closed the door behind him.
Trent placed a comforting hand over Norman’s back. “I understand how you feel,” he said softly.