My Exploding Cat

Just stories and drawings really, no actual fissile felines.

Phoenix: Chapter 15

We rode in the car for four days. I fell asleep during the very last five hours, stretched out in the back, so Mark had to shake me awake when we pulled up near the Agency.

I was surprised. From Leslie’s descriptions of what the Agency did, I had assumed it would be an official-looking building, or a test lab. Instead, it looked like… a school. A really weird school, with stables in the back. Some of them had your normal farm animals, horses and stuff, but a bunch of them looked like they held more… exotic creatures.

We were pretty far away from the main building, hanging around for a few minutes and watching a boy riding a horse around the stable. His horse ran past a girl about Mark’s age in a purple dress she wore over jeans. The girl was saddling up—yep, that was a gryphon.

Sensing the future, Mark suddenly said, “I’d better go park the car. Meet you inside.”

“Mark,” Key said, “aren’t you going to introduce us to this young lady?” She was grinning.

The girl had materialized behind us, gryphon and all. “Sophie,” she said, because Mark was sort of frozen. “Oh, Mark,” she said. “It’s just Gavin. Look, you can give him a dog treat and he’ll be nice to you.”

“It’s not the gryphon I don’t like,” Mark protested, while Gavin snapped the proffered cookie from Sophie’s hand.

“He’s afraid of heights,” I explained.

“No,” Mark shot back. “It’s the depths I’m concerned with.”

Key pulled him into her, knocking him off balance, since Mark was so rigid. “Mark and I can walk. Fresh air and good ol’ horse farts never hurt anyone.” She started singing, “We’re off to feed a lizard, the wonderful Lizard of Oz!”

“Have you ever flown without using your own wings, Phoebe?” Sophie asked. She held out a hand to me, to help me get onto Gavin with her. “Hang on,” she said, and it was a warning.

It felt weird to fly while sitting. You got a lot of wind in your face, and you couldn’t look directly under you without falling off—not that that was an issue for me.

“We’re going to the research sector. Don’t ask me what they want to know, because I don’t know.”

“What do you do here?” I asked, feeling the need to make conversation with the girl who was piloting the gryphon I was riding, and whose back I was holding onto.

“Monster regulation,” she said, glancing at me and tossing another dog treat into the air. Gavin snapped it up expertly, which meant a bump in the ride.

“Like what?” I asked. “I don’t see any monsters anywhere.”

“That’s the idea,” Sophie said. “A few years ago, most people just teleported any monster they found into the Void Dimension. But now Daniel’s made that safe to live in, so people have moved in and there can’t be monsters there any longer, so I go and find them a quiet planet to inhabit. Or kill them. Depending on how they respond.”

“Er… why did Daniel make the Void Dimension safe to live in, then?” I asked, not sure what any of this meant but pretty sure it was complicated.

“Because if this dimension collapsed, the Void Dimension is next in line to be the lead-mirror dimension, and we can’t have an uninhabitable dimension as the lead-mirror. That would be bad. Don’t worry. It’s confusing.”

Gavin veered toward a certain building, but Sophie redirected him. “Not to work today, buddy,” she said, patting his neck affectionately.

We landed by the research building and found someone waiting for us.

“Daniel,” Sophie called. “They’re here.”

A guy about her age came running out from behind a building, followed by a gray cat. “Phoebe!” he greeted me, warmly. “Mark told me you were coming.”

His hazel eyes sparkled. I couldn’t help liking Daniel from the start. I had no doubts that he and Mark were good friends.

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Sophie asked him. “The…”

“Sophie, don’t be a pessimist! This is the Agency,” Daniel said. “You don’t need to scare her.”

“Yeah, it’s the Agency, she’ll be scared later anyway,” Sophie muttered, giving me her hands to help me dismount and forgetting that I had wings of my own and preferred to use them instead of sliding down a feathery (and furry) gryphon back. Gavin ruffled his feathers in the place where I had been sitting, rearranging them.

“Mark and Key are here as well,” I said.

“Key?” Daniel asked, suddenly puzzled. “I’ve worked with her, but I thought she vowed never to come near the Agency again.”

“She also vowed not to leave Mark. I thought she was joking,” I added.

“Well, then,” Daniel said, grinning. “I’m not surprised. Actually, I never thought the two would meet, really. But Mark does get around a lot.” He appeared not to notice when the gray cat jumped onto his backpack and climbed up his shoulders to sit.

“Is this Messenger?” I asked. “I’ve heard about her.”

“Yes, this is Messenger,” Daniel said. “I’m surprised you can see her. She’s in a hiding state now. What did you hear?”

“Mainly that she’s weird,” I said. Messenger—it looked like she smiled then.

“She works hard for that reputation,” Daniel said. “Cats like to be left alone.”

Mark and Key rode up on a golf cart.

“Where’d that come from?” I asked.

“We needed the GPS to navigate this place,” Key said.

“I hot-wired it,” Mark said.

“Hop on,” Key said.

We did—Daniel, Sophie and I. Messenger took a flying leap from Daniel’s backpack and landed on the roof of the golf cart.

All somehow crammed on, Mark steered the cart away.

“I didn’t know you could hotwire a golf cart,” I said.

“”You can with this one, apparently,” Key said, “because he did it.”

“Crazy.”

“Which entrance am I looking for?” Mark asked.

“The one with the green door,” Daniel said. “I think.”

“You think a lot, Daniel,” Mark teased.

I couldn’t help feeling a little content with Daniel around and Mark and Key happy and devoid of world-destruction-creating robot parts… and frankly, the fact that Leslie wasn’t there evaluating things was kind of a relief. I mean, I liked her, but she was too… unpredictable, and she liked to assess my feelings.

“Are we going to be staying here?” I asked Mark.

“For a while, at least,” said Daniel cheerfully. “But before you try and run off to see where you’ll be staying, there are a few more people you should meet.”

“Is Hannah here today?” Sophie asked.

“Nah, she’s off tending the unicorn,” Daniel said. “It was getting dirty, and Hannah’s the only one it trusts. But Winnie’s here. She’s right by the door, actually.”

“Dr. Wynne,” Sophie greeted her, climbing off the cart.

“Hey, Winnie,” Daniel said, getting off too. Mark shut off the cart and hopped off; Key and I followed him down.

Dr. Wynne was a tall Latino girl, well kept and very, very pretty. I knew a lot of boys who would stutter in front of her, but Daniel talked easily to everyone, it seemed, and Mark was generally unflustered.

“Come on in,” she said. “Phoebe! How nice to meet you.”

Does everyone here know my name? I wondered, shaking Dr. Wynne’s hand.

“This is the research center,” Dr. Wynne said. “You’d be surprised at all the crazy stuff that happens here.”

“I bet Mark and Key would love to explore the shop,” Daniel said. “I’d be glad to show them around.”

“That sounds nice,” Key said.

“You all right here, Phoebe?” Mark asked.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” I said.

“I doubt there’s anyone here who doesn’t know about you, Phoebe,” Daniel said, grinning. “You’ll get a warm welcome here.” He, Mark and Key wandered off.

“Do you want to see our magical plants or animals?” Dr. Wynne asked me.

“I’d like to know why I’m here,” I said.

“Well,” Dr. Wynne said, “you’ve been having magical troubles, haven’t you?”

“Yes,” I said, “but I thought that was the Epselans’ job.”

Dr. Wynne paused. “We’re not even sure what happened to them. We haven’t heard from them in a month, and we usually get their weekly newsletter.”

“I thought they weren’t the weekly newsletter type,” I said.

“They have one,” Dr. Wynne said. “But you two travel so much that the Epselans have given up on trying to find your address. If rumors are true, I have reason to hope that another organization has given up finding you. Only to hope.”

“Is that why I’m here?”

“No.”

“Can you help me?”

“That… depends. On what you need.”

I met her eyes, stopped walking. “I need my phoenix side not to take me over.”

Dr. Wynne buried her face in her hands. She was silent for a moment.

Seriousness.

“I don’t know anything about Epselans,” she said. “I deal with magical anomalies.”

“You’ve got me right in that category, then,” I said.

“No!” Dr. Wynne said. “You are not an anomaly! You’re a created Epselan. You’re… intentional.”

“Is that bad? What do you mean?”

“You’re not an anomaly,” Dr. Wynne repeated, flicking her shoulder-length dark hair. “You’re intentional. Someone decided that it would be a good idea for you to be a phoenix Epselan before they knew how it might effect you.”

“I’m not sorry for it,” I said. “I just need a solution.”

“No, hon,” Dr. Wynne said. “You need a solution. There’s no just about it.”

“Is it bad here?”

“Would you run away if I said it was?”

“Maybe.”

“And if I didn’t tell you?”

“Definitely.”

“Well,” Dr. Wynne said, “it really depends on what kind of bad you’re looking for.”

“Any kind.”

“On that basis, the whole world is evil.”

“Bad that’s going to affect Mark and Key and me.”

“I can’t tell you,” Dr. Wynne said. “I’m just a magical veterinarian. I’m not going to be working with you, I’m afraid.”

“Mark and Key?”

“Will be treated as honored guests and will have access to all the computer parts they can carry and all the Cheeto and banana sandwiches they can stomach.”

Silence.

“Is that an attempt to compensate for something.” It was a flat statement.

“Are you questioning Daniel’s hospitality?”

“Are you trying to guilt me into not asking? You have to run out of money at some point. Why spend it on us? You won’t tell me what’s going to happen to me. Maybe you don’t know, but you probably have some kind of idea.”

“Look,” she sighed. “We’re just… nice. We have plenty of money stored away. We make our own computer parts and, for that matter, Cheeto and banana sandwiches. Everyone who comes in here gets treated nicely unless we have a very good reason not to do so, and Mark is Daniel’s friend. Just because they’re being treated well doesn’t mean that you won’t be. I know you’ve hung around that ‘rebel’ group, but the rumors about us aren’t necessarily true. We don’t kill off unicorns for food. Look, we’re not after Key, even though she’s magically unusual. We want to know about you.”

“Why?”

“So that the rest of the world can know that you’re not going to massacre them in their beds! So that you can know what’s going on with your magic! We need to ensure that every dimension is almost equally magical so that one doesn’t slip and turn into the Void Dimension… again!”

“I thought Daniel fixed that.”

“Dimensions are nearly infinite. You can’t count them, you can’t prove that they don’t go on forever, but we have reason to believe that they do eventually stop. So we need to make sure that as few as possible collapse.” Dr. Wynne kept walking.

“What do I have to do with that anyway?” I asked.

“You are a gigantic source of magic,” Dr. Wynne said, “being both a mage and one of the most magical creatures in existence. You can put the magical weight on this dimension and cause all the others to lean in on it, and that causes problems for us.”

“Us?”

“The Agency. The magical botanical center is right around the corner. Want to see?”

We stopped wandering around the Agency’s brightly painted halls to stand at a mint green door. Dr. Wynne picked up a big stick from an umbrella stand nearby and handed a second to me.

“None of these plants will be hurt if you need to use it,” she said, “so don’t be afraid to.”

She opened the door.

It was a good deal like your average greenhouse. It smelled wonderful, and there were plants and flower from floor to ceiling, and not much for walkways in between the giant tables of pots and foliage and blooms.

The difference was apparent when one of them tried to sniff Dr. Wynne’s shoulder. She smacked it with her hand instead of her stick.

“Don’t try to use your stick with these,” she warned. “It eats them.”

There weren’t very many plants around that one.

But further in, some sang, others grew visibly, and a few had odd effects on the observer.

“This one,” Dr. Wynne said, “is a Calleflower. It automatically knows the name of the person who stands nearest it, and starts shouting it.”

The plant didn’t stop yelling “Phoe-be!” in its… well, reedy voice until we moved far away.

“Oh, here’s one we use a lot,” Dr. Wynne said. “Its pollen relaxes most species. We use it a lot in medicines and when we’re caring for the animals.”

She held up a blossom for me, and I smelled it. It was extremely sweet, and very strong. I blinked. It was the strongest feeling in the room, and it made everything else feel a little inconsequential and happy.

“Wonderful, aren’t they?” Dr. Wynne said, smiling faintly. “I’d say that’s not the last time you’ll be seeing these. No real side effects, either, except a little sneezing.”

Dr. Wynne took the flower with her. The pollen’s effects, taken in its not-so-concentrated form, wore off five minutes later.

“And these are the oxygen flowers,” Dr. Wynne said, showing me a room full of large, pale blooms. “We get a lot of requests from Sophie for these. She needs them for long gryphon rides. And some of the athletes like them when they’re getting short of breath. The medical staff uses them for hyperventilation, too. Very useful.” The doctor took one of those with her as well.

I also saw the waterleaves, looking like big green canteens hanging from a plant.

“Good thing we don’t have to worry about drought with the Storm Anoki around,” Dr. Wynne said. “They need a lot of water in to have all that water hanging out. Pruning them without causing a flood is a trick in itself.” Wynne collected a few of these. The stalks dripped like leaky faucets.

I saw berries that provided a full meal in a few bites, plants with sap used for assassins’ poisons (mainly used as the alternative when Sophie or one of the others had a monster that didn’t want to “relocate”), and even a few plants that followed orders, which were watering all the other plants. There were sunflowers that gave off a light of their own, and vines that knitted themselves together so that in a few weeks, you had an afghan or a blanket. There were fruits larger than bowling balls, which never went bad. There were seeds you could plausibly use as bullets and grenade coconuts that exploded when they were smashed. If there was a war or—shame on Mark—a zombie invasion going on, this was the place you wanted to be.

Dr. Wynne collected samples from quite a few of these plants: a sunflower torch, a vine of feedberries, even a wood-nymph plant. She put those, along with the canteen leaves, oxygen flower, calming bloom and a whole gamut of other magical plants into a sack she produced from her lab apron pocket. She handed the sack to me.

“I’m sure you’ll need these eventually,” she said. Then her phone rang, and she pulled it out to flip through the text messages. “Mark, Daniel and Key are playing with Legos.” She showed me a picture.

“You need to get to your room,” she said. “You can’t be carrying all those around everywhere.”

Especially not since I now had a giant Frankenstein melon that went bad about as fast as Wonder Bread. I wasn’t very big on the idea of carrying it longer than I had to. Dr. Wynne had carried it through the botanical center, but she had visible muscles.

Dr. Wynne led me through the other side of the greenhouse and out a door. The white sunlight looked odd after being in the greenish light of the greenhouse, and it felt cool out there with the lack of insane humidity. I kind of missed the heat. It felt good in the botanical center.

“Remember,” Dr. Wynne said. “You carry authority here. You’re both an honored guest and invaluable to the world of magic. You can choose one of a lot of environments to live in. We don’t know where you want to stay yet, but you’re one of a kind, so there’s no special category for you.”

“So?”

“So… we have tall towers for fliers, we have forest houses, we have places where the climate is controlled so that it’s hot or cold. We have housing underground. We have islands, don’t ask how. There are castles that sit in midair and rock with the wind, and yet are totally stable. We have housing underwater, in the sea nearby. We accommodate the needs of selkies, pegasi, gryphons, dragons, all kinds of Epselans, Anoki, elves, wood nymphs, fairies, shapeshifters, naiads, Dobhar-chú–or water dogs/otters–mermaids, pixies, lake monsters, a Cerberus, and even some Adar Llwch Gwin, which are magical birds that understand human languages. And in all this, you don’t have a habitat of your own because we’ve never seen you before, so you’re going to have to find one.”

“Uh… got a tree?” I said.

“We want you to get good sleep around here,” Dr. Wynne said. “I suggest the highest tower of the castle in the increased-heat climate.”

“Not too hot,” I said, “or I’ll turn totally phoenix. It’s happened before.”

“We want things to go wrong,” Dr. Wynne said. “We want to see your problems so we can trace the magic and find out what’s happening.”

“Well, you’ve found your way,” I said. “Let’s go.”

I was ready to walk, but Dr. Wynne pulled a whistle from her apron and blew. The note was surprisingly musical. From the east, two small dragons appeared, a gold one and a black one.

“Anatola, Nevin,” Dr. Wynne greeted them. “This is Phoebe. Could you show her to the Rapunzel room?”

“Sure,” the gold dragon, Anatola, said. “Best if you ride on one of us first time, Phoebe,” she added. “Most dragons would snap a bird out of the sky for lunch without regard to its species. We’ll get word around, though.”

The black dragon, Nevin, lowered his neck for me to climb on. When he spoke, his voice was melodic. “You can only get in and out of the Rapunzel room by flight.”

“Or hair,” Anatola added.

“If you’d rather stay somewhere else, let someone know,” Dr. Wynne said. “I need you back here by 6:00 for dinner, because I don’t think you want dragon cuisine. And if any of the dragons do try to prey on you, give them a zap on the nose with your wand and they’ll get the picture.”

Nevin and Anatola took off. I could see Anatola’s face from my perch on Nevin’s shoulders, and it reflected everything I felt about flying. The dragons stretched out on the air, free and circling to look and navigate.

“We’re going somewhere, Ana,” Nevin reminded the gold dragon.

“That’s right.”

Then she flew over some big trees, and everything suddenly got really hot and nice. Anatola blew a smoke ring.

“Not hot enough out there,” she said.

It was hot here, and the trees and plants thrived and spread just like in the greenhouse. There was a castle to the north with about a million different towers and bridges between them, big bridges. There were stables, and smaller houses surrounding the giant castle, and a lot of forest still not cleared. It was beautiful. The Agency knew how to landscape.

Nevin took me to one of the very tallest towers, in a back corner of the castle overlooking the forest. There were no bridges, but there seemed to be an attic and a little balcony, where Nevin dropped me off. He and Anatola said goodbye and flew off, leaving me with my sack of plants and a tower to explore.

The inside of the room was clean and warmly lit. The stone walls had white blankets draped over them to keep in the heat. There was a white bedspread and rug, a chest, and a desk with a pretty good chair. And—good—there was a bathroom. I’d had my doubts, but with several thousand mages and way, way more sentient magical creatures, there wasn’t a whole lot that couldn’t be done. Putting a bathroom in the Rapunzel tower? No problem.

I put the sack of plants in the chest, wondering where my suitcase—and the rest of my clothes—had gone, and what I was supposed to do now. It was only 4:30, and I didn’t need to be back with Dr. Wynne and the others until 6:00, so I decided to explore and hope I didn’t get lost.

I flew back along the path the dragons had used to bring me, tracing it back to the botanical center. But instead of entering the greenhouse, I flew along another path, toward the stables I’d flown over on Sophie’s gryphon. Maybe Hannah and her unicorn were there.

I landed in the area and was immediately spotted by a boy who looked about fifteen years old.

“Hey, you!” he said, running towards me. “I heard you were around here!”

“Yeah?”

He stopped running. “You can talk,” he said in amazement.

“Well spotted.”

“Sorry,” he said.  “Sometimes we get unusual magical creatures in here and all they can do is sway and make little chirruping noises.” He imitated one, bobbing and swaying a little. “Chhhhhirrrup!”

I laughed a little. “Who in the world are you?”

“Xavier. Who are you?”

“A really messed up Epselan. Also known as Phoebe.”

“Nice to meet you, really messed up Epselan also known as Phoebe. Why are you here?”

“Because dinner isn’t until 6:00?”

He laughed. “How old are you?”

“Thirteen. You?”

“Fourteen. Are you here to see Hannah?” he asked.

“I’m here to kill time,” I said.

“Thyme? I dunno. We have mint plants, but they’re really hard to kill. You’ll have to search for thyme. Come on, let’s just go see Hannah and her unicorn.”

“Oh, all right.”

Xavier led me to Hannah, who was busy mucking out one of the stables.

“You looking for me or the unicorn?” she asked.

“Just killing time,” Xavier said.

“There’s only mint,” Hannah said.

Hannah looked like she might have been Irish, or Scottish, or somewhere in between. She was short, and had red hair and gray-green eyes. She was also strong-looking, and seemed to be used to working with a greater or lesser amount of magic.

“Magic can scare some of the creatures,” Xavier said, reading me.

“Go look at the unicorn,” Hannah said. “I’ll be in after fifteen.”

I spent another hour exploring the stables and looking at the different magical creatures while Xavier wandered off to give a few more their dinners. Then it was time for me to find my own dinner, and I said bye to Xavier and Hannah to fly back to Dr. Wynne.

She, Mark and Key greeted me as I landed neatly on the grass.

“Daniel went off to do something more interesting,” Mark said. “Always does.”

“He had business to deal with,” Key corrected, punching Mark on the arm.

Dr. Wynne only watched me.

“Dinner’s back in the main hall,” Mark said.

“Come on, I’m starved,” Key said.

“Me too,” I said.

“Let’s go.”

Mark had been provided with a key to the golf cart this time. If you could have put the pedal to the medal on a golf cart, he did it, and soon we were… well, it has to be said, plodding along at maybe fifteen miles an hour, which was probably about as fast as it would go anyway.

“Turn there,” Dr. Wynne instructed.

With Mark, of course, the goofy-teenage-guy effect never really wore off, so he waited until the last possible second to turn, and then did so abruptly, just to see if he could get the golf cart up on two wheels. It didn’t, of course, because we could have easily been overtaken by a bicycle and the cart itself was about as heavy as a cube of Styrofoam of about the same size. But the effort was there.

The main building of the area was… big. It echoed, and voices bounced off of the arched glass ceiling of the eating hall like a great cacophony of… noise. Just noise.

The food was good, but oddly enough, it wasn’t quite as good as the stuff the rebel group dished up. I had thirds. Mark had fifths. We were starving.

“Is the Rapunzel room suitable?” Dr. Wynne asked me.

“It’s great,” I said. “It’s really nice back there. But I still don’t know where my suitcase is.”

“It’s back in the car,” Mark said, scraping up the last of his lasagna.

“Sophie can take you back out there to get it,” Dr. Wynne said.

“No, I’ll do it,” I said. “But I need the keys.”

“On your own?” Dr. Wynne said. “Flying back with a suitcase?”

“Sure,” I said. “My wings are strong enough.”

“All right then,” Dr. Wynne said, and Mark handed me the keys. I picked up my plate and put it back with the dishes, and left for the car.

I couldn’t get over how pretty the whole place was. I mean, I knew it had been built with mages who had no idea what a budget was, but still. It had to have been a lot of work.

“It’s the biggest in the US,” said a voice I recognized, to my left. I glanced up and saw Xavier on a gray pegasus. “The Agency base. It’s the biggest. It’s the best. It’s the coolest.”

“No kidding,” I said, eyeing the pegasus. He looked back at me. I could have sworn that the horse smiled. “Don’t tell me you’re another mind reader,” I added.

“Another?” he asked, looking quizzical. “You’ve met telepaths before?”

“Mind readers and telepaths aren’t the same thing,” I said. “And I know one of each.”

“I’m no mind reader,” Xavier said. “We do have one or two around here, but they’re pretty uncommon. Why are you out here?”

“I just want my luggage,” I said.

He laughed. “You mean they didn’t shove a whole wardrobe in your face and insist that you don’t pay?”

I grinned. “The order must have come in late.”

I spotted the car. One advantage of flying is that you never stand around in a parking lot muttering “I swear I parked it somewhere around here” and frantically poking the unlock button and hoping you hear something. I dived towards it. The pegasus dived, too.

“What are you doing?”

“Helping.”

I unlocked the car, pretty annoyed that this boy wouldn’t just go away and take his flying horse with him. Okay, it was a cool animal, but Xavier was still annoying.

He likes you, said a foreign part of my mind. It sounded so ridiculous that I almost laughed.

“What?” Xavier asked, dismounting and trying to follow me to the trunk with an absent, slightly worried smile. I shook my head. “What?” he prodded.

“Nothing,” I said, then added, “Your pegasus is trying to sniff your pockets. I think he wants a dog treat or something.”

Xavier absentmindedly pushed the pegasus’s nose away, reached into his pocket, and flipped it a dog treat.

“Why do they all eat dog treats?” I asked. “Isn’t there something they like better? The Agency doesn’t seem to be too concerned with expenses.”

“Well, they don’t need to be concerned there, do they?” he said. “It’s run by mages who are owed favors by people in hundreds of different dimensions. Sophie gets rid of two dozen monsters on a calm day and the people there would pay her thousands of dollars’ worth of money for each one, if she’d take it. It’s just that all the animals seem to like dog treats. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s something in the flavor. I’ve never tried one to find out.”

“I just don’t see why a pegasus would like something that’s meat flavored,” I said, pulling my suitcase out of the trunk. “Wouldn’t he rather be eating carrots?”

“No, he doesn’t like carrots at all,” Xavier said. “And these are cheese flavored. He likes cheese. And he needs the protein, anyway.”

I closed and locked the trunk and wrapped my skinny arms around the suitcase, spreading my wingspan to take off. “You might want to back away,” I warned.

“My hair’s not going to get any messier,” Xavier said, mounting his pegasus anyway. “Silvester could take that suitcase for you,” he added.

I shook my head and took off. “I don’t think Silvester would like a trip with the dragons, do you?”

“Oh, are you staying in the old Rapunzel room? I thought that long-haired girl blew it up after she hooked her hair to a tree branch and climbed down it. She had to use a sharp rock to cut it free, but she escaped and threatened to kick that visiting prince in the… in the…”

“No, it’s still there,” I said, carefully not answering his question. Silvester and Xavier caught up with me.

I adjusted the suitcase in mid-flight, trying to keep a good grip on it.

“You sure you don’t want us to carry that part of the way?” Xavier asked.

“I’m fine,” I said, shifting its weight.

“Really?”

I stopped for a minute to glare at him. “Really.”

“Really, really?”

“Really, really.”

“Really?”

“I don’t think that word means what you think it means.”

“Good movie.”

“Yeah.”

He finally shut up.

We met the end of the stables, and where I had to continue to the dragons’ habitat, he was more likely to want to land. But he didn’t.

“Didn’t you kind of miss your turn there?”

“Nah. Silvester needs his exercise. I’ll show you the other pegasi later, if the Agency higher-ups don’t have you all cooped up. Then you should see the selkies. Not many people know what they are, and they’re really cool.”

“What are selkies?”

“Changelings. Not shapeshifters, those can take any form. But the selkies are either human or seal. Of course, that’s not terribly exciting to you, but they are another creature,” Xavier said.

“Are they as insane as Epselans?”

“I don’t know,” Xavier admitted. “I don’t know a lot of Epselans. You’ll have to tell me.”

Now we were approaching the barrier where things got hot, but Xavier kept going. “Good practice for Silvester. He’s not too keen on heat, because of all the fur and feathers, but he’s not exactly afraid of the dragons. Maybe intimidated. But it’s the heat he doesn’t like.”

“I have feathers,” I said.

“But you’re a phoenix,” Xavier pointed out. “You like heat.”

“And this is Maine,” I said. “Not exactly the heat central of the world.”

“This place is magically climate-controlled by the mages and the dragons,” Xavier said. “The fact that it’s cold outside just makes it a bigger shock.”

He had a point.

I flew around the south side of the castle to the southeast Rapunzel room, and set down my bags.

“It’s only 7:45,” Xavier said. “You want to”—

“Only for a little while, okay? It’s getting dark.” He really could have done a better job of concealing his enthusiasm.

“But you want to,” he pressed.

“All right, fine, I want to,” I admitted.

“Come on, Phoebe,” he said, grinning more broadly than anyone I’d seen all day. “We have a pegasus waiting!”

The pegasus was big, and strong enough to hold two people at once. This was fortunate, because my wings were tired after carrying what had been, against my protests, an extremely heavy suitcase. Not only was Silvester strong, but he was much faster than I was, and we were back at the stables in five minutes. Xavier landed him neatly and gave the pegasus a dog treat before tying him to a nearby tree.

“Come on,” he prompted, jogging off toward the stables again.

How does he do that? I wondered. Xavier had just gotten off a horse, and had started running immediately. It took me a few seconds to accept that I had stable legs before I followed.

“This is Currey, and this is Seraphina,” Xavier said, showing me two more pegasi. Currey was a palomino, and Seraphina was more of a chocolate. Both had gigantic wingspans and a generous amount of room. Xavier gave each of them a dog treat, and Seraphina nuzzled his hair. He ducked.

“I don’t think we’re going to be seeing any selkies this time of night,” Xavier said. “They’ll probably be back in the water by now.”

I stroked Currey’s nose, and the pegasus leaned into my touch.

“Oh, he likes that,” Xavier said. “You want to try flying one?”

“Um, okay.”

Xavier took Currey out of his stall and put a thin saddle on him, then did his reins and led him outside.

“I’ll sit behind you to help,” Xavier said. “You hop on in front, there.”

I obediently mounted the pegasus, and Xavier mounted behind me.

“All right, take this,” he said, handing me the reins. “Now…” He started instructing me on how to make Currey take off.

This pegasus liked me. I don’t know why, but he did, and was extremely obedient to whatever I wanted him to do. I figured it probably had something to do with Xavier behind me, or maybe that I smelled like feathers or something. Maybe it was that I liked Currey back.

I hung around for another forty-five minutes, and then it got dark. Anyway, I was tired and really did need to get to bed. Xavier put Currey back in his stall.

“…Thanks,” I said.

“Got any bags you need help with?” he joked, walking back outside with me.

“You still don’t believe me, do you? Well…” I grabbed him around the waist and took off.

“You are strong,” he said in surprise. I circled back and landed again.

“Mostly my wings,” I said. “The phoenix is a lot stronger than I am. I’m a wimp.”

“Stronger will,” Xavier said.

“Stronger will to get in bed,” I said.

“Who’s stopping you?” Xavier started to untie Silvester from his tree to take him in.

I could have been poetic, or taken this literally, or even sarcastically. I was too tired. “Ciao.” I waved bye and left.

Back in the Rapunzel room, I stood on the balcony with a mug of hot chocolate the food fairies left for me, feeling like one of the angels. I looked out over acres of forest and a giant city, full of dragons and maybe even a pegasus, and I laughed.

I started singing.

This entry was posted on Thursday, October 20th, 2011 at 2:07 am and is filed under Phoenix. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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