The wall is uneven under my feet, and I have to step over the occasional bunch of flowers or stray branch from a bush, but it gives me an excuse not to see Alex coming. Not surprisingly, he's whistling under his breath, the same tune he always whistles when he's nervous. "Hey, Alex."
"Hey, Abigail. You got my message."
"No, Mum just threw me out the door and ordered me to walk through the manor grounds for no reason."
Alex ignores my sarcasm. "I suppose you know what I wanted to talk about."
"You really wanted to talk about something important?" I know, of course; but that doesn't mean I want to talk about it. "I thought my mum made that up."
He laughs. "Your mum would have made up more than that." It's true; my mother thinks we're dating, and has been anxiously awaiting some sort of proposal.
I roll my eyes. "Mum is a hopeless romantic."
"Hopelessness aside, I did sort of want to talk about the future. Junior's future, that is." Now I know he's serious; we've fought over whether to call our pet 'Abigail Junior' or 'Lexi' since she hatched.
I jump down from the wall, clearing the ditch easily. "I'm not going to change my mind."
"I go to my mother's in two days, Abigail."
"You said you were coming back."
"For the summer, yeah, but next year we're both leaving – you're still planning to go to London for uni, right?"
"Yeah, I can stay with my aunt there. It's cheaper." Cheaper doesn't seem like such a good reason, not when I could be close enough to come home on the weekends. But the weekends aren't really enough time to take care of Junior, anyway.
"Abigail, it's not that I want things to change; it's just that they aren't going to stay the same, whether we want them to or not, you know? And if they've got to change anyway, then it ought to be something we've planned."
We've had this conversation before. As usual, I start walking away, realizing only after I've taken those first few steps that I'm heading for the pond.
"Abigail. Abby, come on." Alex is following me, I can tell by the way his voice stays right behind me. I break into a run. "Abby!" He catches my arm, pulling, and my momentum swings me around to face him. For a moment we look at each other, and then Alex's exasperated expression blurs into tears. He awkwardly wraps an arm around my shoulders. "Abigail...."
"I've raised her from an egg," I sob, as if he hadn't been right there with me when we first spotted her in the brush at the bottom of the garden wall, that day all the upper classes at our school got together to clean up the ha-ha for the manor. "She's my baby, I can't just dump her in a lake somewhere."
"A loch, not a lake," he corrects gently. "I think we should take her to Loch Ness."
"Loch Ness!" That's way up in Scotland. "You just want to be famous. The guy who hand-raised Nessie."
"No, I don't!" Alex sounds hurt, and I sniffle back my tears – and my anger. "I think she'll be safer there. Nessie is a tourist attraction, not a big scary monster. Anywhere else, people are likely to be scared of her. Here they're likely to be scared of her!"
"It isn't her fault they're prejudiced against dragons--"
"Abigail, can we please have a practical and realistic discussion that does not involve reassigning blame that properly belongs somewhere in medieval history – or the word 'species-ism'?"
There's a long pause as I pull away from his arm and wipe my face. "Okay."
"Good. So we can't keep her; there's no place for a sea dragon in a big city, and I think my mum and your aunt would probably notice if either of us had a dragon in the bathtub."
"She's not a sea dragon. She lives in a pond."
"A freshwater dragon, then. The point is, even if you take her with you and put her in the Thames or something, she'll just scare people. I know she won't mean to–" he adds hastily, and I close my mouth again. "—But she will. It's not a thing a dragon can help doing."
"So you want to dump her in Loch Ness, where she doesn't know anyone and the other monster might try to eat her."
"Abigail, she ate an entire cow just last month. Nothing but bones, remember? Stop worrying; I'm pretty sure she's part piranha."
"She is not," I replied indignantly. "And you can't prove it was her. Those bones were so cracked even Mr. Jacobs couldn't have identified them. And he shouldn't be letting his cows drink out of her pond anyway."
"Abigail—" Alex stops and sighs. "Look, if cows keep disappearing, that pond is going to stop being 'the cursed, haunted manor pond' and become 'the pond everyone is hunting with Moby-Dick-sized harpoons to see what's eating the cows'." There's a pause; I sigh, and when Alex speaks again, his voice is softer. "I'm sorry, but I've hand-raised that dragon too. She needs a bigger pond, or a lake, at the very least."
"But... Loch Ness."
"Not if you really want her closer to home; but I think it would be safer for her there. Especially if she gets any bigger."
After a moment, I nod reluctantly. "Okay, but I'm coming with you."
"Abby, I don't think –"
"You'll need someone to sit with her and keep her wet while you drive. And she's too big for the jar." We'd passed her back and forth in a glass jar the first two weeks after she hatched, before she got so big that we moved her to the pond.
He sighs. "We'll have to hurry, then. My parents still aren't speaking to each other, but they'll notice I'm missing if it takes me more than a day to get to my mom's house."
In the end, we leave early, before either his dad or my parents are awake. It's an uncomfortable ride, squashed into the back seat of his tiny car with too much dragon and heaps of sopping wet towels, but I'm still reluctant to see it end. Junior isn't at all hesitant, though; she slides into the water with a happy hiss, and playfully splashes it back at us. I wade in after her, just to my knees, even though one leg of my jeans unrolls itself and drops into the loch.
Of course, that doesn't matter when Junior turns around and noses me in the stomach with her snout, just as I've leaned over to roll my trousers back up. I land with a splash that soaks most of my t-shirt as well as my jeans. Alex helps me to my feet, trying not to laugh.
It's hard to believe that this monstrosity is the same dragon I hand-fed worms, back when we thought she was just a strange bird that liked to swim. I scratch her behind her jaw and in the soft, fleshy places along her back. Her wings never quite developed the way we thought they would; instead, they turned into flippers. But Junior is still the most beautiful dragon I've ever seen.
Not that I've seen any others.
All too soon, Alex clears his throat and announces that we have to get going. I blink back tears and nod; time to be grown-up about this. She'll be okay. The other monster will love her, and if it doesn't, hey, she's part piranha, right? It'll be okay.
Alex pats my shoulder. "How much you want to bet that there'll be some new sightings of the Loch Ness Monster, caging treats from visitors?"
"And eating cows," I add, grinning despite myself. "Don't forget the cows."