When the witch found the dragon, it was attacking a grape.
This was only possible because the dragon was not much larger than a grape itself, but she still had to do a double-take to be sure the object it was fighting with such animosity was in fact inanimate.
She crouched to eye-level with the tabletop and squinted at it. The dragon sank its tiny fangs into the grape’s skin and gave a great tug, succeeding only in throwing it and the grape into a backwards tumble. The tiny green reptile rolled to a stop with its whole body wrapped around the grape and shook its head ferociously, managing to pull its teeth out but also launching the grape across the table. It gave a mighty roar of anger (about as loud as a mouse squeaking) and stalked after it, tail swishing dangerously.
‘Do you, uh…do you need help?’ she offered.
The dragon froze mid-prowl and whipped its head around to look at her, looking so offended she almost apologised for asking.
‘I mean, erm…I could peel it for you, if that’s the problem.’ She wasn’t sure it was getting the message. One could never tell how much human language these little creatures picked up by hanging around the magic labs. Some understood only such essentials as “scat!” or “oh fuck, that sure did just explode”, while others could hold entire regal conversations — if they deigned to interact at all.
This one looked like it was deciding whether she was worthy. Finally, it sniffed daintily and flicked its tail, scales clacking together. ‘Little monster is my prey, and you can’t have it. Found it first. Will devour it!’
‘Oh, sure,’ she agreed. ‘But, uh…you know it’s a grape, right?’
Wrong thing to say. It glared at her and then bounded away to the other end of the table, where it slithered up to the grape and pounced on it with a gleeful snarl.
Grape and dragon promptly rolled off the edge of the table.
The witch quickly hurried around to that side, alarmed that it would be stepped on. The labs were bustling with shoppers stopping by to watch demonstrations this time of day, and a tiny dragon wouldn’t be easily visible on the blue and green tiled floor.
‘Horrible! Dirty!’ The tiny dragon was screeching at the top of its lungs, latching onto its prey for dear life. It would have been hard to hear anyway, with all the noise of the bustling labs, it still took several seconds to locate the screaming creature.
She scanned the pattern of the tiles for it and sighed. ‘Oh, hold on, we mopped this morning.’ She cupped her hands around it and deposited it into her coat pocket, an indignity the dragon endured only with more screaming.
‘An outrage! The indignity! Put me down!’
‘Shh,’ she advised. Lab workers were strongly discouraged from bringing creatures into the back rooms, which was where she was heading, picking her way through the crowded front lab. ‘Just stay in there, okay? Pockets are good.’
‘FUCK POCKETS!’ came a muffled screech.
‘Oh, you can curse. Wonderful.’
The dragon seemed to take this as an actual compliment. ‘Am multitalented. Can also compose poetry.’
‘Really? Can I hear some?’
‘No. For dragon ears only.’ It sounded viciously pleased to hold this over her head. The bulge in her pocket prickily rearranged itself, and she thought it might be trying to gnaw on the grape.
She felt herself smiling even as she tried to squash her mouth into a straight line. She liked this little bad-tempered thing, even though its spiky feet were digging into her thigh.
In the much quieter back-room kitchen behind the lab, she transferred the wriggling, scaly handful from her pocket to the table. The dragon hissed out a few more insults as it got up and straightened itself out, but its jaw fell open when it finally took in its surroundings. She’d set it down next to the fruit bowl.
‘There you go. Food mountain.’
The dragon’s shock didn’t last long. Abandoning the grape, it scraped and scrabbled its way up the side of the bowl and from there onto an apple, its claws leaving tiny puncture marks as it hiked to the top of the arrangement. ‘Food mountain!’ it crowed gleefully, eyes shining in triumph.
She watched it turn in a circle, surveying the feast. ‘But… cannot eat it all,’ it observed after a while, crestfallen. ‘Human-sized. Big shame.’
‘Don’t you have nest-mates who can help you with it?’ she asked.
‘No nest. No mates. No nest-mates. You’re rude.’ It flopped down ungracefully, wings spread out flat on the apple like it was trying to hug the entire much-larger fruit.
She gave it a moment to be dramatic, and then offered it the grape, minus the peel. ‘You seem to have a good grasp on human-speak.’
It grabbed the grape without so much as a thank-you. ‘Yes. Have composed poetry in both Dragonese and Humanese. Not for humans to hear, though.’ Bragging clearly cheered it up a notch.
‘You mentioned. I can’t hear very well, anyway.’ She pulled up a stool and sat down. ‘Actually, I’ve been looking for a helper.’
‘An assistant,’ it growled disdainfully. ‘An attendant. An aide.’ Clearly a proud creature, not used to subservient work.
She watched it bury its snout in the grape, juice dribbling down onto the apple it perched on. ‘Yes. A hearing aid. How would you feel about having a job?’
It smiled craftily. ‘Would feel positively, if job comes with chocolate chips.’
‘It could,’ she grinned. She had some friends who employed bird-sized dragons as messengers, but this was the first time she’d heard of one negotiating its salary for itself. ‘It certainly could. What’s your name?’
‘Peep,’ it preened its scales. ‘It is self-explanatory.’
‘Don’t worry, I got it.’
Peep muttered doubt that humans ever got anything, but she thought the tiny, prickly creature might be warming up to her.