Vibeke looks up from her laptop when she hears the door opening. Mary and Justin scramble through the door, Mary’s hands full of plastic bags with takeout from a local Chinese restaurant. Justin runs towards the couch and flops down on it next to Vibeke. He’s an enthusiastic child but Vibeke is glad that he isn’t a hugger. Chocolate from a candy bar is spread around his mouth and his fingers look no better.
“Hey,” Mary says, placing containers with food on the coffee table. “Did you bring work home?”
“No, I was just reading up on some things.” Vibeke puts the laptop to sleep before Mary can get a closer look at her search history. She doesn’t want to explain why she looks at news site about dragons and missing children and if men with wings can really fly. That last search term especially had some disappointing results.
“Constanza came to my store again today and brought me a new line of make-up to test run,” Mary says as she sits down on a chair and picks one of the containers. “Wonderful stuff, especially for your skin color, I’ll bring something over tomorrow for you to try. And I had to show Grace again how to lock the store and arm the alarm. She’s always so worried that she might get it wrong but she already knows it just fine.”
Vibeke feels with Grace, she would be the same way if she worked with Mary. She would be terrified of making mistakes and disappoint her. Mary is such an amazing woman. She runs a drugstore, franchised but with enough independence that she can make it her own store and she specialises in having the best make-up for brown and black skin. Constanza is a sales representative that loves to use Mary’s store for test runs of new brands and lines. They also seem to have a good personal connection and Vibeke just waits for the day when Mary will invite Constanza over for dinner.
“I got you some spring rolls too by the way.”
“Thanks.” Vibeke doesn’t need to ask what else Mary has gotten for her, she always gets the same. Duck and vegetables in peanut sauce is her favorite and once she had settled on that, she always picks it. She misses her mother’s cooking and the turkish spices sometimes but she can’t deny the convenience of Chinese takeout food.
“Did you wash your hands, young man?” Mary asks and Justin dashes off with a guilty smile. As soon as he’s out of earshot, Mary turns to Vibeke and lowers her voice. “Is everything alright, honey? You seem so distracted.”
Vibeke tries to calm her features and smiles at Mary. “It’s nothing, I just have a lot on my mind with the move and the apartment.”
“Honey, I know that a decision like that doesn’t come to you easily and we’re really glad that you’re here.”
Mary knows her well. She still can’t quite believe that she helped that dragonman in the yard without making a list of pros and cons first.
“Also,” Vibeke says quietly, keeping an eye on the hallway for Justin coming back, “the thing with the missing children is worrying me.”
“Oh god, I can’t even think about that,” Mary whispers. “Justin told me that one girl didn’t come into Kindergarten today and the first thing I thought was that she has disappeared but then he told me that she got the flu.”
Justin returns from the bathroom, his T-shirt soaking wet and babbling something about the faucet attacking him. It speaks for the state of Vibeke’s frazzled mind that for a moment she wonders if that truly happened.
Later that evening, when the food has been cleared away, Justin put to bed on the air-mattress in Mary’s bedroom and Mary has given up on watching TV without dozing off and joined her son, Vibeke starts up her laptop again. The last page she has looked at, a collection of myths regarding dragons and men with wings pops up in it’s ghastly, late 90s design. She tries to ignore the flashing animations and texts but ultimately has to give up. All the flashing threatens to give her a headache. The site only lists fringe conspiracy theories anyway and has nothing that can convincingly explain to her why a man with wings needed her to put a bandaid on him.
She finally gives up on her research and goes to bed herself. Her mind is running through everything that happened in the last few days but despite the worries piling up in her head, she falls asleep after a short while.
After what feels like a few seconds, she sits up in her bed with a start. A noise, like a crash, has woken her and she’s not sure where it has come from. Another crash seems to come from the floor above her and she runs out of her room and up the stairs before her thought processes have even started. When she has reached the top of the stairs, her mind finally catches up with her and she stops mid-step.
The noises come from Justin’s room and they are eerily familiar. She wills herself to move again, quietly creeping forward, her mind helpfully listing all the dangerous things she could find behind Justin’s door. Two fighting dragonmen are at the top of that list.
The door bursts open just as she she comes close and Leelan crashes down in front of her feet. She is pretty sure that her heart has stopped beating. Plastic tarp is ripped in pieces opposite the door and flutters into the room in the cold wind. A huge shadow flies out through the hole and takes part of the scaffolding with it with a wing.
Leelan groans as he pushes himself up from the floor. “The child, where?” he calls out to her and Vibeke moves faster than she thought possible. The door to Mary’s bedroom is closed. Vibeke fights the urge to push the door open to storm into the room, she forces herself to twist the knob slowly and opens the door quietly. The air mattress is empty and Vibeke feels dread fall in her stomach like a block of ice.
She scans the room and sees a bump next to Mary in the bed. Relief makes her knees buckle, she has to hold on to the door frame as the room seems to spin around her. Just to make sure, she tiptoes over to the bed and looks that it is indeed Justin there in the bed with his mum. As quiet as possible she tiptoes out again and closes the door behind her.
Leelan stands in front of her and in a surge of emotion she throws herself at him and hugs him. “He’s fine, he’s sleeping in the bed with Mary.”
“That’s … good,” Leelan says hesitantly. He raises one arm and carefully places his hand at the small of her back.
Vibeke becomes aware that Leelan holds himself unnaturally straight. She had not even thought about it that he could feel uncomfortable from her enthusiastic hugging. “I’m sorry,” she says and untangles herself from him. The scent of his skin still hangs in her nose, something like smoke and leather.
“You don’t need to be sorry; I was just not prepared.”
Vibeke feels herself blushing and walks past him towards Justin’s thrashed room to hide her face from Leelan. “He came back for Justin, didn’t he?”
“So it seems.” Leelan comes up to her side and she’s keenly aware of his presence. “I felt that something was happening. I tried to be here before but…”
“Before? Before it happened?” she asked.
“Yes, but I was too far away. It took me too long to run here –“
“Wait, before it happened? Like with time travel?”
“In a way, yes. But hitting a specific point in time makes it harder to fix the place where I land.”
That sounds vaguely familiar and she decides to ask him about it later. “You felt something was happening? How?” For a moment she wonders if this is what having a soulmate feels like but she discards that idea as nonsense she picked up from reading too many fanfics.
I’m going insane!
“I can’t explain. It was quite disorienting.”
She puts her hand on his naked arm, feeling the soft scales give under her fingers. “You saved Justin again, thank you,” she says, failing at keeping the tremor out of her voice. She can’t help but let her fingertips dance over his skin. The scales shimmer under her touch. They are soft and flexible, the edges slightly firmer than the rest. It doesn’t feel as alien as it should and she presses her fingers down more, watching the colors change under her touch.
A sharp breath from Leelan wakes her from her reverie and she rips her hand away as if his arm bit her. “I’m sorry, I…” she looks up and sees him smiling at her. Relieved that she apparently didn’t commit a terrible faux-pas, she smiles back at him. “Yeah, I don’t know why I… sorry.”
“No need to be sorry,” he says. His voice is warm and she can hear his smile even as she looks down to her feet.
“What are you going to do now? Will he come back?” she asks to take her mind off the feeling of his skin.
“The Gerlen? I’m not sure. I had hoped that I scared him away for good the first time but this was obviously not the case.”
“What about the other children?”
She looks up and sees genuine surprise on his face. “Yes, there are more; children keep disappearing. The FBI is already investigating it. I wanted to tell you all day but you didn’t give me a sparkly phone.”
“A sparkly phone?”
“Nevermind, I just had no way to contact you and I’m sure these things are connected and I thought I’d never see you again, you just showed up like that with your wings and everything and then you’re gone and I guess I have to thank that Gerly there for bringing you back –” she has to take a breath and it thankfully lets her brain catch up with her babbling. She shuts her mouth and decides to never say anything ever again.
“I wanted to come back,” he says quietly.
Vibeke waits for him to continue but he seems to be lost in thought. Her naked feet are getting cold. She clears her throat to remind Leelan that they’re still standing in the dimly lit hallway in front of Justin’s thrashed room.
He suddenly seems to wake and takes her arm to pull her along down the stairs, his wings tucked tight to his back. He whispers urgently, “I don’t know what it is but something is going on with my world and your’s and the Gerlen and the children and I don’t understand it. I need your help.”
“My help?” she calls out, glad that they don’t stand in close to Mary’s door anymore for she surely would have woken up by now. “I know even less about all this than you.”
“But you saw that connection, and there are children of your kind involved. What if I find them and they run away scared because I look like a Gerlen to them?”
“Will they hurt them?”
“I don’t think so. The Gerlen were never aggressive. We lived peacefully with them for generations. They never did anything like this. They were never…” he stops himself and Vibeke wonders what it is that he doesn’t want to say.
“But I… I don’t know how I could help you; I can’t fly, I can’t fight. I do spreadsheets, you know?”
“No, I don’t think I do,” he says.
“Well, spreadsheets, it’s a software for calculations on a computer. I guess you don’t have computers in your magic dragonland?”
A grin plays around his lips. “No computers but what we have is magic; it involves no iron and electricity but the strands of eternal connections within the realm.”
“Yeah, I know even less about that. What could I possibly help you with?” Vibeke shakes her head. “And I can’t just leave. Mary will worry and I have to go to work…”
“We’ll jump back, you won’t be gone for long.”
“Didn’t that just a few minutes ago not work?”
Leelan sighs and his wings shrug. “It usually works better, maybe the injury still hindered me.”
“But I can’t just… I can’t, I’ll only be in your way,” Vibeke says, fear crushing her voice.
“Please, help me find the children of your kind,” Leelan pleads. “I think you need to be there.”
“If you start with a fucking prophecy now, I’m gonna punch you,” she spits out, the flare of anger chasing her worries away. “I’m not here for some ancient plan I’m supposed to fulfill.”
Leelan smiles brightly at her and she feels her knees go weak. If only he would stop looking so gorgeous.
“There is no prophecy,” he says, “but we believe in strands of eternity, of destiny, connecting through space and time. That’s what brings us our magic. I don’t know for sure but I feel like our destinies are connected.” He takes her hand and looks her in the eyes. “You need to be there, I’m sure of it.”
“Shit, fuck, no!” Vibeke feels hot fear crawl up her back. “I don’t know, I – ” She stares at him, at the conviction in his brilliant eyes, and swallows her fears. “Okay, I’m coming with you.”
He turns around and walks towards the door. “Good, let’s hurry then.”
“Wait,” Vibeke calls after him, “I need to get dressed first.”
“You look fine.”
She looks down at her pyjamas with the colorful comic figures printed on them. “Am I going to enter a world where everyone is wearing pyjamas?” In her mind a row of men and women in red starfleet uniforms walk towards the transporter platform and she shakes her head. “Nevermind, I’d rather have some real pants. I’ll be right back.”
Leelan bows his head. “I’ll wait for you outside.”
Vibeke watches him walk out, his wings spreading out when he is through the door and she hurries into her room to throw her things into a backpack before her mind can catch up with the insanity of the situation.
Vibeke sets her backpack down behind a few bushes and trees next to a park. It makes a rather loud noise and she smiles an apology towards Leelan. She only packed the things she deemed to be absolutely necessary but she wonders now how many people would have packed toothpaste, deodorant, a flashlight and a collection of pens and notepads for a trip to a magical dragonland.
The portal is nothing but a faint vertical line wavering in the air. It looks quite disappointing; she expected more colors and glow and maybe ring of plasma flames like in science fiction movies. This line is so faint she would have missed it if Leelan had not pointed it out to her.
“Is this the portal you used to get here?” she asks Leelan as he walks towards the line. He is considerably faster than her and she has to put in a few running steps to keep up with him.
“Yes, now hurry,” he says, pointing to the line in the air.
“Why?” Vibeke has to catch her breath, the air pleasantly cool when she breathes in. “You just said, like ten minutes ago, that you can go back in time and return here just a few minutes from now. Why the hurry then?”
“But I can only go to a place in time after this moment of us going through the portal. And the longer we wait, the greater the risk of Mary waking up.”
“Good point.” Vibeke looks at the wavering line and takes a step towards it. “So how…?”
Leelan takes her hand and pulls her along with him. “Just come.”
She forgets to worry about her hand sweating in his as he disappears in front of her very eyes, only his hand sticking out of the slit in the air. He pulls and she stumbles right into the wavering line.
She can’t see but she feels the portal washing over her like a curtain of prickly coldness. She doesn’t move her feet but something pulls her forward and now she can see a light approaching her, getting bigger and bigger and swallowing her up and her ears pop as the cold curtain seems to close behind her with a sigh. She stumbles onto a field of soft moss.
Leelan still holds her hand and brushes something green from her face. Her legs are wobbly and she is glad to have his support. Apart from liking that he holds her hand.
The air is warm and has an incredible scent to it. It’s almost textual, soft and sweet. Something brushes over her arm, innocent and tender.
She looks over her shoulder and sees the branches and vines of the plants reaching for her like living things. The vine brushing her shoulder begins to wrap itself around her arm, pulling at it. Vibeke rips away in panic and stumbles into Leelan’s chest.
“The plant… did it just grab me?”
“Yes, our plants are more awake than yours. Most of them are friendly though, just curious.”
“Most of them?”
A voice from down at her knees says, “Just like people, most plants are good company but occasionally you come across a bad element.”
Vibeke looks down and sees a tree stump on knobbly green legs, beady eyes blinking at her out of slits in the bark, a smile forming almost where one would expect it in a face but the lips are made of bark. A mint-green leaf bops on its head and he has a long branch extended towards her that she recognizes as an arm after a moment.
Vibeke stares. Her hand grabs Leelan’s vest for support and she keeps staring at the barky smile. “Is the tree stump talking to me or am I losing my mind?”
She hears Leelan snicker. “That’s not a tree stump. That is my friend and servant Verkesh. He’s a treetroll.”
Vibeke takes the offered hand-branch and shakes the twig-like hand. The four appendices move like little skeletal bones and she almost shrieks. Her other hand is still holding on to Leelan’s vest and she isn’t sure if her legs can hold her weight.
“Are you alright?” Leelan asks.
“I’m not gonna faint,” she says, trying to convince herself. “But I think I need to sit for a moment.”
“You can sit on me, my lady,” Verkesh says.
“Oh god, I would rather not, if you don’t mind. I don’t think I can handle sitting on you and talking with you at the same time.”
“Yes, I understand.” Verkesh leans forward for a moment in what is probably supposed to be a bow. He gestures towards a row of boulders, surrounded by small white flowers. “If you would follow me, my lady, there is a soft patch over there and you can lean against the rocks to rest.”
“Yes, thank you, that sounds good.” She follows the little troll, only vaguely aware of Leelan holding her arm. She sits down on the ground, surprised by the softness of the moss. The flowers lean towards her and a vine stretches over the boulder to her shoulder. She jerks away from it.
“I’ll tell the plants to give you some space, my lady,” Verkesh says.
“Oh thank you,” she says, “I think you’re going to be my new best friend. And please don’t call me lady. Call me Vibeke.”
She isn’t quite sure but it looks like Verkesh’s bark changes colors for a moment. Vibeke takes a deep breath, taking in the spicy air and waits for her heartbeat to slow down.