Frank tried not to jitter with impatience as the smallest bird hovered at the edge of the nest. Its mother was scolding and chivvying it from the air.
Frank could feel himself going cross-eyed.
Eventually the tiny bird gave a squeak and launched itself from the nest. It batted at the air, furiously, eyes squeezed shut. Then it seemed to realise that it wasn't falling. It snapped its eyes open and shot away.
Frank spat the empty nest out explosively.
'Ugh. Motherfucker.' He spat some more, scraping straw out of his mouth with one stone claw.
Ray collapsed back, giggling high and breathless. His horns shook through his hair.
Frank jumped up onto the highest stone ledge, pointing at Ray. 'Never. I am never falling asleep with my mouth open again, and fuck you.'
Bob grunted a laugh.
Mikey was kicking his hoofed heels against a buttress, idly flicking pebbles at pigeons when they tried to land. He looked up, raising his eyebrows. 'Oh, hey, Gee,' he said.
Frank looked up in time to see Gerard finish climbing out of the stairwell. He looked distracted as he came up to the railing, still breathing hard from the stairs. He eyes lit up when he saw them, though.
'Frank! You can talk again!'
'Birds,' Frank said darkly. He scrunched his face up. 'They have worse hygiene than you do, Gee.'
Gerard pushed back his manky locks, grinning. 'Still,' he said, leaning his patched elbows on the railing. 'It would be nice, wouldn't it? To be able to fly away? To see the city?'
Frank gave the city spread below them a doubtful look. The river was clogged with narrow barges, and the square before the cathedral was thronged with jostling crowds. Shouts reached them tinny and distant, here at the top of the Notre Dame, and the skyline was a forest of spiky church spires and poky little slums. Frank thought they were well out of it.
'Rats,' Bob said decisively. He crossed his arms in front of his chest, shifting with a scrape of stone. 'I bet there are rats down there.'
Gerard sighed, leaning lower on his elbows. 'I bet it's wonderful,' he said.
Mikey shifted, glancing at Gerard. 'You've got us up here, though,' he offered.
'Mm,' Gerard said, sighing again. Then he looked guilty. He straightened up as much as the hump would let him, his eyes wide and earnest. 'It's not that you guys aren't enough or anything,' he promised.
But Frank noticed, uneasily, that he hadn't lost the wistful expression as he turned to stare over the city once more.
Brendon coughed as he approached the figure in the bushes. 'Excuse me? I'm looking for – uh – Gabriel Sap–'
'Gabe,' came a man's voice from the bush. 'Fuckers, they never get it right.'
'Er – right,' said Brendon. 'Well – do you know where I can find him?'
'That depends.' There was a rustling; Brendon caught a slither of purple in amongst the greenery. 'Who's asking?'
'Brendon,' Brendon replied, wondering if he was ever going to get to meet the owner of the voice. 'I want him to – '
The rustling grew louder and the man dragged his head out of the bush, turning to look at Brendon over his shoulder. 'Hmm?'
Brendon felt the words dry up in his throat. The man had huge, full eyes that glowed black as he ran them down Brendon's body; his hair curled thick and dark around his ears and onto golden skin and – Brendon blinked – in ringlets around the two tiny horns on top of his head. His teeth were very white. Brendon swallowed and resisted the urge to pat himself down to check he was still dressed.
The man smiled, lazy and curving, and ran his tongue across his teeth. He got to his feet in one impossibly graceful movement. 'You want him to ... what?'
His voice was honey and wood smoke and wine, and Brendon's thoughts tore through a hundred fantasies before he shook his head.
'I want him to teach me how to be a hero,' Brendon said firmly. 'I have to take up my rightful place with the gods.' He held his breath.
The man's face fell. 'Not another one,' he muttered. He waved a hand at Brendon, looking disappointed. 'All right, kid. Turn around, let me take a look at you.'
Brendon frowned as he did so. 'Are you Gabriel?'
'Gabe,' the man said irritably. 'Okay, now ... show me what you can do with this.' He swooped under the bush and emerged holding two rather elderly swords by the hilt. He held one out to Brendon.
'Come on, kid. The Cobra won't wait forever.'
Brendon swallowed and reached for the sword. He took a couple of breaths then attempted to swing it at Gabe. He missed by about three feet, the momentum of the swing dragging him around and making him stumble backwards and trip over his own feet. He ended up on his back, winded and staring at the sky.
Nobody said anything for a moment. Then Gabe came and stood over Brendon, gazing down at him. Brendon smiled weakly upwards.
Gabe raised his eyebrows. 'With the gods, you said?'
Jon pricked his ears up, whiskers quivering. Something wasn't quite right, something dangerous...
His mouth dropped open. 'Spencer,' he said in horror. Spencer turned to face him. 'Spencer, the train!'
Spencer stared at him. Then his face dropped and he leapt forwards to the kittens, grabbing Ryan by the scruff of the neck just as Jon got a paw under Brendon's middle and wrestled him between the slats of the ancient railway bridge. They fell to the supporting beams below with Brendon struggling to get out of Jon's grasp. Jon rolled his eyes and tightened his grip, nudging Brendon further against the wood.
'Hold still, kid,' Jon said over the rattling of the bridge. He nodded at the river below. 'That's a long way down and I'm not in the mood for swimming.'
Brendon pouted. 'But, Mr Walker –'
Spencer turned back from a mewling Ryan and narrowed his eyes at Brendon. Jon bit down on a smile; even with the shaking bridge, the set of Spencer's jaw was something to behold.
'Brendon ,' Spencer started sharply, but then the train hit the bridge and Jon couldn't hear anything else. He glanced down at Brendon and Brendon beamed at him, his body pressed close between Jon and the beam but still shaking manically.
Jon grinned at him and opened his mouth, but before he could say anything, Brendon's eyes went huge and terrified. 'Ryan!' he yelled, loud enough for Jon to make out over the noise of the train. 'RYAN!'
Jon jerked his head around and caught sight of Ryan hanging by a paw from the beam he'd been standing on with Spencer. Spencer was stretching desperately down to him but he couldn't reach far enough. Ryan was scrabbling for a hold but he couldn't quite make it, and Brendon was fighting tooth and nail to get out of Jon's grasp, yowling Ryan's name.
Ryan dropped with a cry.
Without stopping to think, Jon picked up Brendon in his mouth and leapt across to the other beam. He shoved him into Spencer's paws and threw himself off the bridge after Ryan.
The fall was over in a second. Jon yelled when he hit the water, because Jesus Christ was it cold. There was water everywhere, rushing into his mouth and his eyes and his ears, and for a moment he couldn't tell which way was up. Then he emerged, spluttering and out of breath.
'Ryan!' Jon shouted, paddling frantically to keep his head above water. 'Ryan, where are you?'
Jon jerked his head, hunting desperately for Ryan's dark body somewhere in the water and trying not to get sucked under himself.
He couldn't see Ryan.
'Mr – MR WALKER!'
Jon swore in desperation, swallowing a load of river water as he did so. Where was Ryan, where was he?
Jon's gaze landed on a tiny bundle of fur clinging to a branch and he lunged at it, splashing wildly through the water. After several long, horrible seconds of being submerged with no idea of which way to go, he made it to the branch.
Ryan blinked back at him, looking terrified. 'Mr Walker!'
'Ryan,' Jon panted. 'I said I didn't feel like – never mind. Are you –' he gasped a breath, hanging on to the branch with one paw, 'are you all right?'
Ryan made a face. 'Wet,' he said in a small voice.
'Wet,' repeated Jon. 'Wet. Okay, well. That's good. That's probably to be expected.'
Ryan blinked at him, eyes huge.
'Never mind,' Jon said. He scrabbled his way up the branch a bit and shook his head to get some of the water out. 'Okay. Time to get our paws back on dry land. Reckon you could swim it?'
Ryan glanced at the distant river bank and back again. He shook his head.
'Right,' Jon sighed. Spencer, he reminded himself. You want to get somewhere with Spencer. You need to save his kid, first.
He summoned up a smile for Ryan. 'Well, then,' he said cheerfully. 'Sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.' He paddled splashily to the other side of the branch and kicked them off towards the bank.
Victoria coughed, choking up water into the sand.
'You know,' she heard Gabe drawl from somewhere, 'you could have thought this through a little more. That whole trying to breathe underwater after you turned human thing, I mean.'
Victoria coughed some more. She lifted her head with an effort, spitting a nasty glob of something seawater-tasting onto the sand. Seawater had never tasted bad before. Hell, seawater had never tried to kill her before. She struggled up onto her hands. Then she turned and glared at Gabe. 'Shut up and help me,' she snapped.
Tried to snap. No sound came out because ... oh. Yes. She'd given up her voice. Victoria stared at Gabe blankly, her fingers pressing against her throat. The seagull shifted onto one leg, looking almost sympathetic.
Right, so. This was going to be worth it, it was, she just had to get the right attitude.
Gabe hopped closer. He ruffled his feathers up and turned his head to the side, black eyes regarding her. Victoria took a second to realise that he was leering.
She glanced down at herself, registering the nakedness for the first time. Then she whipped out a hand, grabbing Gabe around the chest. She dragged him over and brought him up to eye-level. His feathers were fluffed up around her hand, his eyes staring. He squeaked. Victoria kept her gaze as meaningful as she could.
'Right,' Gabe said after a moment. 'Yes. So. We'll find you something to wear, then.'
It took a ridiculously long time for Victoria to manage wrapping herself in the torn sail that Gabe found and dragged over to her, hopping from rock to rock and cursing through his beakful of canvas. Canvas was not meant to be worn, Victoria was almost positive about that, but that was only half the difficulty. The other half was that, oh god, she couldn't stand up. She tried, but her legs just didn't work, and she ended up tangled in sail and cord and no, just no. When the sail was finally wrapped around her and tucked in, badly, Victoria dropped back to the sand and flopped onto her back. It probably wouldn't hold, but she'd had enough.
'Vicky-T!' Gabe hissed. 'Incoming!'
Victoria lifted her head tiredly. A second later she jerked upright, clutching the sail to her chest. Staring at her from the bottom of the rough stairs cut into the rock face, a riding crop stilled against the knee of her breeches, was the princess. Her hair was a tangled swirl of gold escaping from her hat. Her mouth was open.
After a second Victoria realised that she was staring and just smiling, helplessly. She snapped her mouth shut, blushing. Then she lifted her hand and gave an uncertain wave.
'It's you, isn't it?' Princess Greta said, coming nearer. 'You're the girl who saved me. I remember ... I remember your hair, I think. I think I remember your voice.'
Victoria stared, her smile sliding away for the second time. Her voice. Uh huh.
Greta frowned. 'It was you, wasn't it? Say something. I'm starting to worry that I'm imagining you. Everybody else thought I was imagining you, you know.'
Victoria swallowed. Then she touched her throat, her eyes apologetic.
'Oh.' Greta's face closed over for a second, disappointment clouding her features. 'You can't talk? I guess ... sorry, that was silly.' Then she tilted her head. 'You're lying there shipwrecked, and you've totally been waiting for me to offer to help you up this whole time, haven't you?' She dropped down, slipping her shoulder under Victoria's arm and staggering back to her feet. 'Sorry,' she said, grunting with the effort. 'I'm not usually that slow.'
Victoria's knees buckled and she grabbed at Greta's shoulders. Her hair fell in her face and she peered through it at Greta's face, suddenly very close. She bit her lip.
Gabe, perched on a rock a few feet away, gave a caw that sounded like a crude suggestion. Victoria tried to free one of her hands so that she could gesture at him behind Greta's back, but it turned out she needed both hands to hold on.
'Oh, hey,' Greta said, her voice worried. 'Is there something wrong with your legs?'
Yes, Victoria thought despairingly. The seawitch gave me faulty ones. Or ... god, did humans get training in how to use them, or something? Like a manual of some kind?
Greta adjusted her weight, holding Victoria more firmly around the waist. 'This would work so much better if your legs weren't twice as long as mine,' she muttered.
I didn't ask for endless legs! Victoria wanted to wail. I would have been happy with little stumpy ones that didn't collapse all the time!
She gave Greta an appealing smile.
Greta coughed. 'Um,' she mumbled, 'trust me, that wasn't an insult.' She adjusted her hold around Victoria again and grinned, her cheeks a bit pink. 'Come on, let's get you to the palace.'
Worth it, Victoria thought to herself again as they set off. She stumbled and gave a soundless squeak as she clutched onto Greta's shoulder. She scowled in determination. It will be.
Ryan scrambled backwards up the broad branch. 'Okay,' he said. 'Okay, easy, easy now.' He grabbed hold of the rim of his safari hat and pulled it down more firmly.
The guy in the – god, in the loincloth – quirked his eyebrow. He was frowning and turning his head from side to side. He looked ridiculously confused by Ryan's presence, which was completely not fair, since he was the one who had just snatched Ryan out of the air and swung him through the trees and dumped him here and, look, Ryan was still a bit shaken. Shaken was allowed.
So was breathing fast. Ryan's eyes skittered down his rescuer's bare chest to the – the loincloth – and back up. Vine swinging, Ryan thought after a distant moment of staring, was really fucking good for your abdominal muscles, apparently. He dragged his eyes back to the guy's face, embarrassed.
His rescuer was still frowning. He dropped his hands to the branch and leaned forward, and he was kind of – grunting a bit? Maybe he was trying to talk?
Ryan gave a small wave. 'Um. Hi.'
The guy reared back, staring at Ryan's hand. Ryan looked at his palm, then slowly lowered it. After a second the guy crept forward. Dark eyes regarded Ryan curiously from under a shaggy brown fringe.
'I'm – I'm Ryan.' Ryan wasn't sure why his voice was suddenly hoarse.
Slowly, his rescuer picked up Ryan's hand, examining it. He pressed their palms together. Ryan could feel calluses against his skin. He watched, his eyes painfully wide, as the jungle man's attention moved from his hand to his sleeve. He seemed enthralled by the material. It was just cotton, a cream jacket, just completely normal. The guy dropped the sleeve and ran his hands over the blue scarf Ryan had tucked into his collar, his hand skating warm over Ryan's heart. Then he frowned and popped open one of the buttons on Ryan's shirt.
'Woah, okay!' Ryan scooted back further, his breath coming fast. 'We're not that friendly yet! I don't even know your name!'
The jungle man frowned at him. 'Name?' he repeated. The word was guttural, but his voice was deep and – and kind of nice. Ryan didn't even know what he was thinking.
'Name,' Ryan repeated firmly. 'I've told you mine. I'm – I'm Ryan Ross.' He put his hand over his heart, pressing. 'Ryan,' he said again. 'Um.' He put out his hand, gingerly, and pressed it flat against the guy's bare chest. 'Um?'
The jungle man narrowed his eyes, lifting his chin and staring at Ryan with confused suspicion. He looked from Ryan to the hand on his chest and back again. Ryan lifted his other hand and pressed it to his own chest again, over his scarf. 'Ryan,' he repeated. Then he pressed against his rescuer's chest once more, tilting his head to the side in a question.
The guy smiled suddenly, understanding. 'Brendon,' he said. He was still smiling, huge and bright and it was like the sun coming out, like the sunshine this deep jungle never saw.
The archer let go of his arrow, and the whole world fell quiet.
Jon caught his breath. Will it make it? he thought into the silence, will it make it, will it make it, will it –
The arrow sliced sharp through the air and hit the wood, splitting the Sheriff's arrow in half in a cloud of colourful feathers. Jon watched with wide eyes as the brighter arrow peeled tortuously slowly away from the board, drooping to either side of the other archer's dark one.
In the moment of silence, the archer turned to the stands. He saluted sharply, then swept his cloak over his shoulder and bowed low.
Jon coughed behind his hand.
As one, the crowd rose to their feet and roared. Whistles and shouts and clapping and bells rang out in echoes across the stands until Jon felt the wood vibrate under his feet, every man, woman and child cheering in thunderous approval. Jon grinned, unable to help himself.
After several long minutes of applause, the archer bowed again, flourishing his cloak and letting it billow in the wind as he dipped to the ground. The crowd shouted in appreciation, stamping their feet and waving.
The archer allowed the noise to continue for a moment then held up his hand. When the stands finally fell quiet, he turned towards the platform Jon was standing on behind the prince. He dipped his cap under the hood.
'Yes, yes, well done, sir archer,' said the prince, frowning. 'That was – well. Gabe?'
'Yes,' gritted Gabe. He bared his teeth in a mock smile. 'Well done. You've won your prize, I suppose.'
'Oh, yes,' said the archer cheerfully. 'But I'd like to choose a different one, if that's okay.'
Jon groaned silently and the crowd hushed, astonished. What man in his right mind would turn down a kiss from Lady Greta?
The prince coughed. 'And,' he said, 'exactly what would you ask for in place of a kiss?'
The prince was clearly delighted at this turn of events. Jon smirked in spite of himself and to his surprise, caught Greta hiding a smile behind her hand.
The archer sounded surprised. 'Oh, I still want a kiss,' he replied. 'Just not from Lady Greta. No offence, my lady.'
'None taken,' said Greta. Jon glanced at her and she shot him a grin, lips twitching.
'Then,' said the prince, 'who do you choose?'
'Gabe Saporta – our good Sheriff.'
Jon swallowed a laugh. For once, both Gabe and the prince were too shocked to find a word to say in reply. They stared at the archer with open mouths.
The crowd had other ideas. After a moment of shocked silence, an angry muttering stirred the stands at the insult to Greta.
The archer ignored the muttering as he stepping forwards. Jon couldn't help himself; he darted a glance under the hood and grinned when he caught a wink.
At last, Gabe smiled. Interest gleamed sharp in his eyes together with something Jon couldn't identify. Gabe inclined his head.
'Why not?' he said lazily, walking down the steps. 'It is your due.' He ran his eye down the archer's tall, slim body. He stepped forwards and dipped his head, pressing his lips firmly to the archer's. Jon sighed when the archer lifted his fingers to Gabe's head and pulled him closer, tilting his head to get a better angle. He pushed his leg between both of Gabe's, only drawing it back when Gabe dragged his head away.
'Hmmm,' Gabe said. 'I've had worse.' His voice was unsteady.
The archer barked a laugh. 'Oh?' He leaned forwards and whispered something in Gabe's ear, then turned his head and pressed a lingering kiss to his cheek. Gabe froze.
Jon groaned. This was not part of the plan, not even close, and when they got back he was going to kill –
Gabe huffed a laugh and grabbed the archer, pulling him close and crushing their mouths together. He walked him backwards, keeping his mouth firmly pressed to the archer's and his fingers at the hood, until they were both pressed tight against the platform where the prince was sitting with Greta, Jon and his entourage of guards – close enough that Jon could see when the archer's knees buckled. Gabe grabbed him and pulled him upright again, both of them moaning loud enough that Jon swallowed and made himself look away, just for a moment.
He looked back again when the prince cleared his throat. Gabe had the archer's head dipped back onto the platform and was running his tongue up his neck. Jon bit his lip.
'I think that's enough,' said the prince abruptly. 'The prize was one kiss.'
Gabe paused with his lips pressed just below the archer's ear. 'Of course, sir,' he answered without moving. Jon frowned; there was something in his voice ...
Gabe whispered in the archer's ear then grabbed him as he attempted to reel away; too late, Jon saw Gabe's hands under the hood and he leapt forwards with his hands on his sword. Before he could reach the two men, Gabe dragged the hood down, drawing his sword and slipping the blade under a tanned, scruffy chin. 'My lord,' he said in a strangely flat tone. 'May I present William Beckett, more commonly known as the criminal, Robin Hood?'
Jon sent a helpless glance at William even as he tried frantically to think of a way to save him. William's gaze brushed past his to the prince with a defiant look in his eyes.
As the population of the stands leapt to their feet, shouting and running across the grass towards William, Jon overheard Gabe remark, 'Sorry, Bill, you're just not my type.'
'No?' William replied. Jon shivered at the dark lust in his voice. 'I don't believe you.'
He was laughing as the guards reached them and pulled him away from Gabe's grasping fingers.
'Pete.' Patrick flicked his fins and stared the other fish down. 'Jellyfish. Seriously. They sting. You can not have never met a jellyfish before.'
Pete looked down at his stung fin; up at Patrick, down at the fin again, back up. His eyes shifted evasively. 'Maybe? I don't remember.' His eyes darted to the tiny blob again. 'It's not cute?'
Patrick sighed and tried not to let his voice sound too fond. 'Yeah, okay, no. So we don't touch those. We're lucky it was only a little one. We might have ...' He trailed off, horror creeping over him as he realised that the sea around them was filling up with dusky pink shadows, beautiful and deadly.
'Oh wow.' Pete spun on his tail, staring around. 'Oh wow, Patrick, are you seeing these? These are seriously trippy. I wonder if – ooh, hey, I bet I can –'
'No!' Patrick darted after him. 'No! Pete, focus!' Patrick shied away from a vicious trailing tentacle. They were everywhere. There was no way they were making it out of this alive, oh god. 'Pete! Come back!'
Pete popped up around the edge of a pink bringer-of-death. 'No way, man,' he grinned. 'You should see this shit, this is wicked. See what I can do!'
He darted up, tail flashing. Patrick darted after him in time to see Pete drop on his side onto the cushiony top of a jellyfish, bouncing away onto another top and back again.
Patrick stared at him. Pete bounced higher, laughing. 'Awesome, right?' he called. 'You need to have more fun, Trick!'
Patrick blinked several times. 'They ... don't sting you when you only touch the tops,' he said. 'I know that. Of course I know that.' Then, 'Wait!'
Pete had bounced away, ricocheting through the bobbing jellyfish. 'Three in a row!' he shouted back. 'You can't beat that!'
Patrick shook out of his stupor. They were dead, they were so dead, except that maybe they were not quite dead yet. 'Okay!' he yelled. 'I have a game! Pete, let's play a game!'
Pete was instantly back at his side. 'I love games,' he said. 'Patrick, tell me your game.'
He was still bouncing. 'All right!' Patrick said quickly. 'The game is a race. Out of the jellyfish school. Wait!' He snagged Pete's tail as Pete's eyes lit up.
'Hey hey hey, no cheating,' Pete objected. 'I am going to win this, you have no idea, I was built for speed.'
'No, no, wait, the game is that you have to bounce on top of the jellyfish, right, only on top. You can't touch the tentacles or you're disqualified!'
'Got it,' Pete said, still bouncing. 'Tentacles, tops, don't cry when I win!'
Patrick launched himself forward a second after Pete did. The jellyfish tops were incredibly easy to bounce on. Patrick really, really wished that he could control where he bounced to, but he was alive, they were both alive, and he was having fun, really he was. He squeezed his eyes shut for a second. 'And by disqualified I mean dead!' he shouted.
Pete laughed from somewhere ahead. 'I am whipping your tail here.'
Patrick laughed, surprising himself. He put on an extra burst of speed, dodging crazily around trailing pink fronds. 'You think that!' he shouted. 'You're going to be eating my bubbles, speed boy!'
Pete laughed from somewhere off to the side of him, crazy-delighted.
Patrick whooped, overtaking him. A moment later he rushed out into clear sea. He skidded to a stop, staring. Then he spun around, whooping again. 'And the clown fish delivers a beat-down! Give it up for the master of speed! Pete, you should –!'
He broke off, staring around. His voice sounded small in the vast blue. 'Pete?'
The jellyfish cloud stretched in front of him, rose-coloured and innocent-looking. There was no hyperactive blue fish bursting out of it. There was nothing.
'No.' Patrick hugged his fins. 'No, oh no. Pete!' He stared around frantically. The best friend Patrick had ever made, and he'd let him get electrocuted by jellyfish.
'No, not happening,' Patrick said. He drew his fins in tight and threw himself back into the pink cloud.
'Spencer? Spencer. Spencer!'
Spencer wrinkled his nose. Why was Ryan shouting? Spencer was sleeping, and he didn't get to do that very often. He was always busy zipping around Ryan, trying to make sure he didn't get hurt.
Spencer cracked his eyes open, rustling his wings irritably. Seriously, what –
He blinked and tried again to move his wings.
Something glinted in the corner of Spencer's eye, the morning light sparking off rose crystal. Ah, he thought. The poison. I drank the poison. That's what was making it hard to move.
It was probably why Ryan was shouting, too. Spencer turned his head a little on the pillow to look at him and Ryan stopped shouting abruptly.
Don't worry, Spencer thought at him. You're okay. He nodded his head at the crystal goblet. I drank it for you.
Some of what he was saying seemed to get across to Ryan. Instead of looking comforted, though, his face went white and he fell to his knees by the bed. 'You drank it?' he asked in a strained voice.
Spencer frowned. That wasn't any better than the shouting. Now he could barely hear Ryan.
A jolt of pain jerked Spencer's stomach and he coughed in a rush of air and fairy dust, hard. He curled himself up into a ball and tried not to think.
A long, long moment later, he noticed Ryan's voice again. 'Spencer,' he was saying in a panicked voice. 'Wake up. Please. I can't – Spencer, you can't just, just – open your eyes, I need you –'
Spencer sighed and opened his eyes blearily, just as he felt Ryan's hands curve close around him. They were safe and warm and smelling of the oak tree, like always.
'Spence, wake up,' Ryan begged, holding Spencer so close that Spencer could feel his wings stir in Ryan's breath. Then Ryan lifted him up and Spencer wanted to laugh, because did he really think Spencer was going to be flying anywhere like this?
Ryan didn't open his fingers, though. He said something too quietly for Spencer to understand, then cleared his throat. 'Please,' he started in a jagged voice, then stopped and cleared his throat. 'Please – if you believe in fairies, clap your hands.'
Spencer huffed in surprise. How did Ryan know?
'Please!' said Ryan. 'Please, if you believe in fairies, clap your hands! I need to save – to save – Spencer, your wings, what, what – '
Spencer frowned. His wings? He concentrated hard on moving them and eventually felt a shower of dust around him, but – ah. It wasn't dust, it was ash. They must be losing their glow.
'Please!' Ryan cried. 'Clap your hands!'
There was a hiss of pain, and Frank snatched his hand back.
'Hurts,' the beast said.
Frank rocked back on his heels, the washcloth dangling from his hand. Gerard peered down at him from under inky, shaggy tangles, his eyes anxious. He flexed one enormous paw on his knee. Frank eyed the claws warily.
'Sorry,' Frank said. He leaned forward again, dabbing cautiously at the long tear in the beast's fur. This time Gerard actually growled.
'It's not even that bad!' Frank exploded. 'Those creatures hardly touched you!'
Gerard's head jerked up, his eyes dark. 'I was mauled by wolves! Saving you! Because you ran away!'
'Well, you should have controlled your temper!' Frank shouted. He jumped to his feet. 'You have these – teeth! And claws! And you go around roaring at people!'
'Oh.' Gerard looked abashed. He subsided into his huge chair and heaved a sigh, peering down at Frank through black tangles again. 'I didn't know you were scared of me.'
Frank shifted, feeling his cheeks go hot. 'I'm not,' he muttered. He dropped back to his knees, wetting the cloth and dabbing at the cut again. 'I might have been startled.'
Gerard hissed again at the pressure of the cloth, giving Frank a reproachful stare. Frank rolled his eyes.
'Also, they were kind of little wolves, Gee,' Frank said. 'Like, puppies.'
Gerard stared at him. Then he slumped, propping his chin on his hands. 'Ow,' he said. He scowled, turning his head away. 'No wonder you're not scared of me. They were savage.'
'Puppies,' Frank said airily. He ducked his head to hide his grin. 'I could have taken them on my own.'
He wet the cloth again, wiping the last of the matted blood away. Gerard whined pitifully.
'It was maybe kind of cool when you spun around and threw three of them against a tree, though,' Frank said meditatively.
Gerard lifted his head. 'Yeah?'
Frank giggled. 'No, yeah,' he said. He tilted his head up, grinning. 'Yeah, no, totally.'
Jon turned to see Brendon tripping over his paws towards him, his tail wagging frantically and his nose creased up in excitement. He skidded as he reached Jon, sliding on his stomach across the marble floor and ending up somewhere near Jon's feet.
Jon grinned down at him. 'Hey.'
Brendon scrambled upright and bounded forwards, nudging his head under Jon's chin. 'Hey!' He let Jon nip his ear affectionately then backed away just enough to be able to make eye contact with him. 'I found a puppy!'
'We live with ... ninety-seven other puppies, B.'
Brendon nodded his head furiously. 'But I've never met this one before!' He yipped to illustrate his point, tail still wagging from side to side, then started trying to clamber up a nearby sofa. He heaved himself up then poked his nose over the edge to look at Jon.
Jon wuffed to cover his smile. 'Does this puppy have a name?'
Brendon stilled. Then he slid down the arms of the sofa and landed back at Jon's feet. 'Ryan,' he said reverentially from the floor.
Brendon stayed still for a moment, a far-away look in his eyes, then seemed to come to himself again. He shook his head. 'Come on!' He bounded around Jon and butted his head against his back legs. 'You gotta come meet him, Jon!'
Five minutes of sliding down banisters and around table legs later, Jon found himself standing in between Brendon and two other puppies – one of which seemed to be slinking behind the other as much as Brendon was with Jon.
The other puppy rolled his eyes and walked up to Jon. 'I'm Spencer,' he wuffed. 'Hi. That's Ryan. He's just being an idiot because B– uh –' Spencer cut himself off as the other puppy yipped loudly; Jon caught his eye over Spencer's back. Ryan looked down at his feet at once, ears twitching.
Brendon was trying to ease Jon forwards with his nose. Really, this was brilliant.
'Hi,' Jon said cheerfully to Spencer, 'I'm Jon. I guess you know Brendon, he's just being weird because – '
Brendon tumbled out in front of Jon at the same time as Spencer managed to drag Ryan by his ear to stand beside him. Jon bit down on his smile as Brendon and Ryan stared at each other; Ryan looking like a spindly colt about to flee, Brendon with his tail wagging and, Jon thought, barely a nudge away from leaping on Ryan and attaching himself to him forever.
Ryan's ears quivered and he looked down at his paws. He mumbled something that might have been Brendon's name then dared a glance back up. He smiled hesitantly.
Brendon beamed and jumped forwards. 'Ryan!'
Jon grinned at Spencer and padded over to him as Brendon fitted his head under Ryan's chin. 'Are you new? I don't think I've ever met you before. I'd have remembered if I had. I'd definitely have remembered. And, uh ... ' Jon trailed off, unsure of how much to say.
Spencer shot a glance at him. His nose was creased up in the same way that Brendon's did when he was amused about something. 'And Brendon would have told you straight away, right?' He nodded over Jon's shoulder at the other two.
Jon looked. Brendon was batting at something in the air at head height, telling a story in a series of animated wuffs, but Jon wasn't sure if Ryan was hearing any of it. He was gazing at Brendon with wide, shining eyes.
Jon turned back. 'Right.'
'We're from the pet store,' continued Spencer, 'we were the last ones to arrive. Is it nice here? All we've had time for is meeting Brendon, and then all I've heard is things like – like 'the sun learning to smile', and 'barking that sounds like music', and -'
'Sp–' Ryan's voice was cut off as Brendon batted a slightly over-enthusiastic paw at him, but Spencer stopped talking all the same, turning instead to smirk at Jon. He had interesting-shaped spots, Jon thought, trying to eye Spencer's fur without being too obvious about it. They were paler than Jon's – and definitely Brendon's, which were already so dark they were almost blue, in the right light - but dark swirls and loops were starting to come through.
Jon shook his head and grinned back at Spencer. 'You'll like it here. Roger and Anita are cool – for humans – and Pete and Patrick are really cool – for grown-ups – and we have fun with all the other puppies, so. Not quite as much fun as Brendon and Ryan are having now, though.'
'Good thing we made it here, then,' Spencer said. 'I never liked the pet store much, anyway.'
'Yeah, and that whole thing with – with Cru–'
'Jon,' Brendon interrupted. Jon and Spencer looked across to see him curled up with Ryan on the bottom step. 'We agreed we weren't going to talk about that ever again, remember? It's over now.' He wriggled. 'And Ryan and me are cold, so you should be over here with us.' He grinned wide at the two of them.
Spencer wrinkled his nose and immediately jumped up to them, treading on Ryan's ear and making him whine. Spencer worked his way under Ryan's stomach, his tail wagging. Brendon barked delightedly and licked him on the nose.
Jon blinked. He padded over, regarding the three of them.
Brendon was right. It was over now, and there were better things to be doing.
He gathered his hind legs and jumped up to join the others.