After work, I headed to my apartment in the complex, grabbed a quick meal, changed into casual clothing, and headed out to the shelter. Tuesday is my day to help with making the meal and tonight I was making black bean stew. It is a great way to get veggies and some protein, as well as a warm meal into those in need of it. It’s also got pretty cheap ingredients so the shelter can afford it, and it stores well so if we make too much, it can be pulled out again on a busier night. I learned the recipe years ago from one of my trainers. It has helped me through some rough patches.
I hustled down to the shelter. It was only about a mile from the apartment. A quick jog got me there in no time and served as some training.
“Hey there, Jerry,” I said as I entered through the back door. Jerry helped to found this place and runs the charity that provides supplies. He works here four nights a week.
“Hey yourself, Tony. Glad you’re here. I never could figure out how to get these beans done right.”
“You do just fine,” I told him smiling as I took over stirring the beans and adding spices.
He snorted and moved to the large wooden table where he began cutting up bread for distribution with the meal. We worked in companionable silence until the meal was prepped. None too soon either as the clocked chimed to tell us it was eighteen hundred. Time to open the doors.
Jerry walked over and opened the doors as Belinda and I waited at the serving stations. Tonight there wasn’t much of a line, only about a dozen waiting at the door. We served them as they came up to the line with a smile and a warm hello. Belinda is far chattier than me and she talked them up, being sure to make those who were regulars feel special as she remembered little details, and tried to get to know the new folks. As the line slowed down a bit, I felt eyes on me. I scanned the room but no one was looking. As new folks entered, the feeling stayed. After about an hour, I finally saw who was looking. A small pair of eyes peeked over one of the side windows. I could also see a set of horns on a bald head. Another gargoyle, but in miniature.
More people walked in and I smiled and served them. I kept expecting to see the kid, but he never showed. Sometimes I would look up and see him at the window, other times not. When we closed the doors for the evening and finished cleaning up, I took a quick walk around the building but I didn’t see the kid anywhere. This is not the greatest neighborhood, so I sent a quick prayer out to the universe to keep the kids safe. I hope there is someone looking out for him.
Things went on like that for about a month. Some nights I would see the kid watching, other nights he wasn’t around. The weather was starting to shift and I couldn’t stand the thought of a kid out on the streets without warm clothing or a warm place to sleep. Also, he wasn’t coming in for a warm meal even though it was free. Kid most likely had trust issues.
Finally, I broke down and talked to Jerry about it. I told him that I was going to take a break the next night I saw the kid and take some food outside. Jerry agreed to that in a snap. He hadn’t noticed and he was as unhappy about the possibilities as I was. When I took a break mid-shift, I walked a bowl of food outside to the window. Of course, the kid wasn’t to be seen. I put the bowl on the window ledge along with some bread wrapped in foil.
“This is for you, kid. You are more than welcome to come inside. No one here will hurt you.” I said, then turned and went back inside. I had really hoped to see, or hear him, but no luck. When I went back out as we were closing up, I did see the bowl was empty and the bread was gone. That was something at least.
For the next couple of weeks, whenever I saw the kid, I would repeat my actions, bringing food out to him and something he could carry wrapped in foil for later. One night I even packed some brownies I had baked that day. Kids should have treats now and again. I only ever saw the kid through the window though.
I heard that morning that we were due for a hard freeze overnight. I couldn’t get the kid out of my mind. This had to change. I needed to know he had a warm place to stay for the evening and warm clothing. Gargoyles may be tough but we aren’t immune to the elements. Cold is cold. I was determined to find him tonight and see that he had shelter.
He showed up that night and I was glad. I had been worried it would be one of those nights he skipped. The brownies the last time must have done the trick. I went out on my break as usual and put the food out, along with cookies this time.
“Kid, come on inside out of the weather. It’s supposed to get real cold tonight and I would like to know you at least have some warm clothes and a warm place to sleep. I promise, no tricks. I just want to be sure you’re okay.” I waited for nearly 15 minutes but he was a no-show. When I came back out later only the stuff wrapped in foil was gone. He must have grabbed it and ran rather than hang around to be caught out. Damn. I’d blown it. He might not show up again and I might never know if he was dead or alive.
Unacceptable. Completely unacceptable. This was going to end tonight. I wanted answers. I began the hunt. I had some pretty extensive training in finding and tracking, and this was a kid after all, how tricky could it be. First I examined the wall. One of the perks of being a gargoyle is the ability to climb sheer surfaces. I could see small dents where the kid’s fingers had clung to the wall so up I went. He’d spent some time on the roof. This is probably where he waited once I came out to give him food. I was able to track him fairly well using a combination of sympathetic magic and instinct. About a mile away, on the roof of an old apartment building, I saw what was probably the housing for an elevator engine. The door didn’t shut quite right. Looked like it might if it had been yanked from its hinges and set back right.
I slowly approached the door and knocked. I expected a startled reaction from inside but the kid came barreling through the door knocking me flat with the door on top. I jumped up and gave chase. The kid looked to be about eight or nine, wearing summer clothes (just like I was afraid of). He could glide really well given the size of his wings and he really knew these rooftops. If he lost me now I would probably never see him again.
“Please!” I yelled. “Just stop a minute and talk with me!” I have no idea if he could hear me or not, but he seemed to slow just a hair. Keep talking, Tony. “Hey, my name is Tony and I’m the guy that’s been bringing you your private meals at the food bank. I just wanna talk!”
The kid started to circle glide. “Okay, so talk,” he growled. “I just wanna make sure you have a warm place to sleep tonight and see if you have clothes for the cold. I have some spare gloves and a hat plus a few blankets. I don’t really have any clothes, but I’ll help with that too if you’ll let me.”
“Why would you do that? Why would you help me?” he snarled and pleaded all at once.
“Look at me kid. We goyles have to stick together. You came to my food bank. You shared my food. Now I need to make sure you’re gonna be okay.”
“You’re not my dad,” he muttered.
“No. I’m not. Right now, I’m not your anything, but I would like to be your friend.”
“I don’t trust you.”
“I didn’t think you would. At this point, it would be dumb to trust me. Still, it’s a good offer if it’s for real.”
“Let’s go back to your place and get your stuff. We can wash it, and you can have a nice hot shower while it gets clean. We can talk about the rest in a warm place. Okay?”
“Okay. I’ll follow you so I can keep an eye on you.”
“Fair, kid, fair.”
“Toby, not kid.”
“Sure thing. Good to know you, Toby.” Well, that settles it. He’s a he. I hadn’t been entirely sure until then.
I turned my glad back to his building. I wasn’t quite high enough when I got there so I climbed the rest of the way. The kid had landed at the top. Show off.
“Do you want me to get your stuff so you’re not in there while I’m out here? Or don’t you trust me with your stuff?” I asked.
“I’ll get it, but don’t come too close to the door. I’ll hear you if you do.”
A few minutes later the kid, Toby, came out with a small bundle.
“Where to?” he asked almost shyly.
“Just follow me.”
I glided to the face of my building. Toby stayed near me but not too near. I landed on the broad balcony outside my place, and unlocked the door, opening it for him. He looked a bit stunned.
“Your place has a landing balcony and an outward-facing front door.”
“Yeah? I am a goyle. I want my flying guests to have a way in.”
The kid dipped his head and took a step back.
“Come on in and let’s get your stuff, and you, cleaned up. Okay?”
He nodded, not meeting my eyes, and headed inside. He seemed to shrink into himself as he entered.
I lead him over to the kitchen island and nodded to a stool there. “Have a seat. Let me see if I can find you something to throw on so we can wash your clothes, then some food and a shower, or bath for you.” I said as I hustled into my room. I knew nothing I had was going to fit the kid, but I found some old sweatpants with elastic at the ankles and a drawstring waist, and a t-shirt. “Here, put these on,” I said tossing him the clothes I had found. “Sorry. There’s no underwear that’s going to fit you, but you can go commando while yours wash and dry.” The kid just looked at me a little stunned.
“Oh, sorry. The bathroom’s that way. You can change there and then I’ll show you how to wash a load…unless you already know.”
The kid just gave me an odd look and headed for the bathroom. When he came out, I had started shaping up some burgers and fries. The kid could use the protein and carbs. I walked him over and showed him how to use the washer for his things and we got a load started. It was a very small load. That wasn’t going to do at all. “Okay, let’s get your hands washed and you can help with dinner.” Again, that inscrutable look. I set him to chopping veggies for a salad. He didn’t do a bad job. He didn’t do a good one either, but it was pretty good and got the job done. When all was ready, we sat down and ate. He dug in like he hadn’t eaten in a week. I know he’d eaten at least a couple of days ago. How sad is that?
We moved the laundry from washer to dryer after dinner, then I asked, “Bath or shower?” “Uh. Bath I guess,” he replied. I took him into the guest bath and showed him how to set the water temperature and plug the tub. I gave him soap and set out a towel for when he was done. “Just put the sweats back on for now. Take your time. Enjoy it. Come on back out to the living room when you’re done.” “Okay.” I heard the bathroom door lock behind me. Fair enough.
Nearly an hour later the kid rejoined me in the living room. He was wearing his clothes and brought his meager pile of folded laundry with him. “Thanks for everything,” he said. “I’ll be seeing you.”
“Hey! No. I brought you here to stay the night. It’s way too cold out for anyone to be outside tonight.” I blurted out.
“Mister, I don’t know what your deal is, or why you are being so nice to me, but I can take care of myself. I have been doing it for a while now, and I’m okay.”
“You have been doing it. You have been doing it very well. That doesn’t mean you should have to though. Look, I don’t know your story, and I’m not gonna ask. I’m sure it isn’t pretty. One thing I do know though, and that’s that none of us can do this alone. I sure didn’t. There were people who helped me out and I try to give back when I can. That’s why I work in that food kitchen. You are an amazing kid to have done so well. I want to help. You’ve trusted me this far. Trust me for the night at least. Please.”
The kid spent a few minutes just looking at me. I had no idea what was going through his head. My only experience with kids was on disastrous volunteer effort with @[Edwin Marsh](person:aeae5a65-183b-4c4c-8b18-b557ba815c36), and his young wing. I shudder just thinking about it.
“Alright. One night.” he finally answered.
“Great. Here, I’ll show you where you can sleep.” I walked him down the hall to the spare room. I made sure he had an extra blanket and walked to the door. I’m going to do some reading in the living room. You are welcome to join me or just stay here whatever suits. Tomorrow I’ll make you a good breakfast and maybe we can talk some.” I told him. Again, I heard the door lock as I left.
The next morning when I woke the kid was gone. The bed was neatly made and there was a note that read thanks. Damn.
I spent the next week looking everywhere I could think of, and knowing I wouldn’t find Toby. I was really upset. I hadn’t had a chance to offer Toby any warm clothing, or anything. It wasn’t as cold as it was that night but it wouldn’t be long before it was. I was, honestly, a bit frantic. Jerry tried to put me at ease, telling me that I had done all I could. I couldn’t help but feel I’d approached Toby all wrong.
Seven days later after another fruitless search, I dragged myself home only to see a small bundle by my door. No. It was Toby all curled into a ball!
“Toby! I am so glad to see you.” I said. It was all I could do to keep my voice even and not reach out and hug the damn kid.
“Tony. I…I need a place to stay.”
He sounded rough. I wanted to ask a million questions, but I was afraid of chasing him off again. “Sure. Come on in.” I said holding the door open.
“He heaved himself up and slowly walked inside.”
I wasn’t sure what was up, but I know that warm water heals a bunch, and food most of the rest. “Bath first I think. Let me get those clothes and a towel.” I said, bustling to get the aforementioned items. I took the things to the bathroom and he headed that way slowly. I was really starting to worry. “You okay, Toby? Do you need some help?”
“I’ve got this part, Tony. Thank you.” And he softly shut the door on me and I heard the lock click.
In my family when something is wrong it’s time for some chicken noodle soup. Luckily had some baked chicken in the fridge so I pulled some together quickly and got it simmering to let the flavors mingle. It really should simmer for at least an hour but I didn’t think the kid could wait that long. He looked to be on his last legs and I didn’t know if he was sick, tired, hungry, or what.
Forty-five of the longest minutes of my life later, the kid showed up in the kitchen. That was when I noticed the chips and rough spots on his head and arms. Now we gargoyles don’t bruise; instead, we chip or get rough patches. Toby had been beaten, and pretty badly at that. Like regular humans the wounds heal in time; however, it’s much harder to tell if there is internal damage or not because our skin is so tough. “Who did it?” I asked.
He looked like he was going to deny knowing what I meant, but then he said, “A gang. A bunch of toughs. I was camped out in their territory and they ‘don’t like your kind.’ They decided to make me leave. It could have been worse.”
“Well, you walked away, so yeah, it could have been,” I said, pushing the soup in front of his seat at the island. “Toby,” I said not meeting his eyes, “I have been worried sick about you for the past week. There are so many things I want to say and ask. You have no reason to trust me, or even to agree to what I am offering, and I won’t force it on you, but I would really like for you to stay here, at least until we can decide what to do from here. I don’t know what that looks like. No offense, but you are still a kid, and that does put limits on the options. I would just really like to know you have a safe place and that you’ll stay there.”
“Okay, Tony,” Toby said and slowly started on the soup.
“Yeah. I’ve been running and running. I’m tired and scared, and you seem nice. No promises that I’ll agree to whatever scheme you cook up, but I’ll stay awhile. I’m not gonna freeload though. I will do laundry, and help clean, and if you show me, I’ll help cook too.”
“Sure, kid, sure.”
The next morning the door was still closed and I heard what I thought was breathing in the room, so I picked up the phone and called work. I told them I needed a personal day. In all the years I have been working here this may be the first day I’ve taken off. While no questions were asked, I knew there would be an inquisition later. My co-workers care.
I started making breakfast. Eggs, toast with butter, and bacon. Not knowing how Toby liked his eggs I opted for scrambled. The smell probably woke him because a few minutes later he stumbled into the room and took a seat. “Scrambled okay,” I asked over my shoulder. “Yeah,” he grunted back. I finished fixing it all and set it down with some tea at his place and took mine standing up so I could see him. He still looked pretty rough today. We at in silence. After he had finished and we had cleaned up and put the dishes in the washer, I motioned him onto the couch.
“Okay, I’m not good at this sort of thing so I’ll lay out the things I am thinking about and we can go from there. Please, just hear me out.” He nodded and stayed quiet. “I want to take you to see a doctor. We don’t know how beat up you are, and there could be real damage judging by your face.” The kid sort of drew back inside himself, but I barrelled on. “Then I would like to get you some warm clothes. Even if you leave, they will be yours.” The reaction was no worse than when I said doctor. “And finally, I want you to consider applying for The Rookery Academy.” I stopped there though there were a lot of things I wanted to say.
I waited quietly for his response even though it was killing me. Eventually, he lifted his eyes and said, “First I’d better tell you something I don’t think you get.” Huh? Not the response I expected. “I’m a girl.” Okay. I know this sounds cliche, but truly I could feel my jaw hanging open and the wheels turning in my head. I closed my mouth and looked at him…er…her.
“What are your preferred pronouns?” I finally braved.
She laughed. It was like night and day. It was full and rich and filled with life. What an amazing sound! “She and her, please,” she replied.
“It doesn’t change anything. Rather it changes a lot of things, but none of the things I said.” I told her. “I still want to take you to see a doc. Even more so actually. You still need warm clothes, and you should still consider The Academy.”
“I’ll bite. What is The Rookery Academy?”
“As a winged individual, you are entitled to training at the Rookery Academy. They will teach you to use your wings to the best effect, and if you and your family agree, you can get your full education through them. There is no charge for this. When you graduate, you’ll most likely be offered additional education and/or employment.”
“You sound like a brochure.” she laughed again. “There’s just one problem with that plan, Tony. My parents want no part of me so they ain’t gonna give permission. They may not even admit I’m their kid unless it gets them something.”
Deep breaths, Tony, deep breaths. “Understood. We can talk through that later then I guess. Will you agree to the doctor and the clothes?”
“Yeah, okay, I guess.”
“Great. Let me call to get an appointment, and depending on when it is, we can decide what to do next.
The day passed in a blur. I got her an appointment at the clinic early. I might have pulled in a few favors. The x-rays showed only bruising. We gargoyles are tough after all. Doc Shamus said she just needed rest and Tylenol if it started to hurt too much. He said it was okay to use heat today. I took notes.
Then we hit the first-floor mall next door. I generally lean to practical and sturdy clothing. Since we were in a Rookery building, the stores all catered to wingers. I had her pick a few pairs of pants and shirts, and a winter coat, gloves, and hat. I turned her over to the woman who was helping us with the undergarments. I know when I’m ignorant. I sat in the chair by the dressing room and heard them giggle. I wonder what they were talking about.
Shopping always wears me out. We headed home and I had her wash her new things and put them away. “Okay. I need to know more about you in order to help you from here. Tell me about yourself. How old are you? When did you have the change?”
“I am ten. I changed a little over a year ago,” she said, looking away. “I loved my life, Tony. I miss my mom and dad.” Tears started forming in the corners of her eyes. Unsure of what to do I started to move closer but when I saw her start to shrink away, I stopped myself.
“I’m here to listen. Cry if you want to. I’m sure you’ve been through a lot. I know I cried a lot.” I said trying to find some way to provide comfort.
“It’s not fair. Everything was going so well. I love my family. We were happy. And then this!” she said, gesturing to her body. “When I started to change, my parents took me to all kinds of specialists trying to cure me. I went to doctors, a million doctors. They poked and prodded. They took me to church to pray over me. They finally took me to The Burning Tower and left me for weeks on end where they did ceremonies and enchantments and poked and prodded. My parents got more and more distant. When they finally got the news that no one could ‘fix’ me, they stopped talking to me. They started talking about me in front of me saying things like wondering if they could find a ‘discreet’ boarding school to send me to, or simply hire an au pair and set us up to live someplace out of the way. They even mentioned your Rookery but it was dismissed because it would be too visible and embarrassing. They had found a boarding school in the middle of nowhere that they were going to send me to. They didn’t even ask me. So I left. I’m sure they’re very relieved. Now they don’t have to be embarrassed by me. Why don’t they love me anymore? What’s wrong with me?” she started sobbing.
I took the risk and grabbed the box of tissues on the end table, sat next to her, and held her until she cried herself out.
“Toby, there is nothing wrong with you. Some people just cannot handle the change that’s happening in the world. They are scared and feel threatened and they do crazy dumb things like deciding to send their kid off just because they are different. I can’t pretend I can make any of that any better for you. You’re strong and I know you will find a way through it. I am here to lean on and help you how I can. Would you like to hear my story?”
She nodded, so I told her how I had gotten to where I am today. She was vulnerable and shared her pain with me, and she deserved the same in return. When I was done, she gave me a hug.
So much sharing wore us both out so I ordered in a pizza. Pizza makes everything better, at least for a short time. We chilled and watched TV and talked about what foods we like and light-hearted stuff. I offered her my old eReader to use. She was thrilled and we sat in companionable silence for a while until I had to address the last remaining issue.
“I can take to tomorrow of work again, but I am going to have to go back to work here soon, and no offense cause you’re very mature, but you are too young to be home alone,” I said, looking her in the eye.
She sighed deeply, and said, “you said I could stay.” Tears started to well up.
“No, no! That’s not what I was saying. Of course, you can stay. I want you to stay. I am saying that I want to see about enrolling you in The Academy.”
She still looked a bit sullen, and resistant. “How about we make a deal. We’ll go for a visit tomorrow. If you hate it, we’ll come up with something else, but I know you’re gonna love it. Deal?”
I sent her off to bed, and made a call to @[Sals](person:3a601b94-f359-48a0-95b1-60daaa805c8d) .
“Hey, Sals. I need a favor.”
“Does this have anything to do with you taking today off to take a young gargoyle to the medical wing and to go shopping with, uh, her?”
“Sals did anyone ever tell you that you can be super creepy.”
“Yeah. All the time. I enjoy hearing it though.” I could swear I heard her chuckle…but maybe I was imagining it.
I shared what I knew with Sals. As usual, she said little, mostly grunts to let me know she was still listening.
“We will reach out to her parents, and get the necessary permission and signatures. You take tomorrow off and show her around. Get her used to the place. Bring her up to meet me at 1330 sharp.” Sals said, then hung up.
I headed to be secure in the knowledge that it would all be handled from here.
In the morning we took our time and had breakfast. At around 0900 we headed down to The Academy. We headed for Ms. Felicia’s office. I expected a wait, but we were ushered in immediately.
“Hello.” Ms. Felicia said. She is a winger, no shock there. She Has the most lovely pale yellow wings with blue undertones. She’s almost always wearing a smile. When she’s not, you’d better watch out. She has been at The Academy for a long time She started as a teacher and slowly took on more responsibilities until she became the head of The Academy. “You must be Toby,” she said extending her hand to Toby. Toby looked at me and then shook Ms. Felicia’s hand.
“Tony.” Ms. Felicia said with a dip of her head.
“Ms. Felicia.” I returned.
“Well, Toby, I don’t know what Tony has told you about The Academy, but I personally think it’s a great place, as do most of our students. I know Tony was one of our star pupils in his day graduating in record time. We have structures for our classes that we call wings. While you are expected to learn basic life skills, we also want you to have the opportunity to explore less mainstream interests. We have classes on magic, though most wingers can’t do magic, some can and we want to ensure the best education. We have, of course, music and art, winged acrobatics, distance flying, martial training for the Courier track, and so much more. While you are assigned to a wing, your individual classes are at your own pace and interest. Once you are ready you can pick a specialization and we will do our best to ensure that you are successful in your long-term goal even if The Rookery has no part in it. We have many entrepreneurs of whom we are very proud. An example would be Shelly’s Boutique, which if I am not mistaken is where you got those fabulous boots!
What I would like to do, if you are amenable, is to take some time to show you around the facilities, the flying arena, the classrooms, the studios, the dorms, etc. Around noon we will head to the cafeteria for some of our award-winning cuisines, and then I believe you are to see Sals at 1330. You won’t want to be late for that!” Ms. Felicia could be a whirlwind on her favorite topic.
“Uh. Okay.” Toby said, moving a bit closer to me and grabbing my hand. Wow. She grabbed my hand. That felt really good. I may have let a small smile show.
We followed Ms. Felicia on the whirlwind tour. We were introduced to a number of faculty and students. We saw all of the amazing things The Academy has to offer, and we ended up in the cafeteria right at noon. No shock there, Ms. Felicia had made the schedule and we were one hundred percent on time.
At the cafeteria, there was a low buzz of conversation. There was some amazing soundproofing done in order to keep the normal roar of a school cafeteria down. The room had round tables that would accommodate about six comfortably. We found an open table, after waves and greetings to Ms. Felicia as we passed by other tables. We sat down and pushed the button in the center of the table. Holographic menus appeared in front of each of us with today’s selections which were, as always varied. Wingers, as a general rule, are vegetarians or vegans, but gargoyles, for example, are not. Individuals can do their own thing, but physiology plays a part as well.
“Pick whatever you want, Toby. It’s all gonna be phenomenal.” I told her.
“How do I…”
“Oh, just touch it on the menu. It will then ask if you have any special requests. If you do just use the menu keyboard to make your selections.”
“Okay. Can I have a milkshake?”
“As long as you have some real food to go with it.” I smiled.
“Sure thing!” she replied and got busy ordering.
Her excitement made me smile and I caught Ms. Felicia looking at me with a smile of her own. Okay, so I admit it, I was doting a bit, but she’s a good kid!
Our meals were brought out by none other than Chef Igneia herself. I could feel the surprise on my face. Chef never left the kitchen even if his staff was all hand-selected to her specifications. Plus she was obviously excited because her hair was flaming a bit. Good thing the chef’s hat is fire retardent.
Chefs eyes narrowed in on Toby, and she tried to shrink into me.
“You!” she shouted. “You are new. You ordered this?” she said holding up a milkshake. The waiter behind her was all eyes and ears at this unusual turn of events.
“Y-y-y-yes.” Toby managed to squeak out from the crack between my arm and my wing.
“You are new here. You’ll be starting soon?”
“You will start soon, and you will sign up for my culinary classes. You have a refined palate, a bit uneducated, but you have promise, which is more than I can say for most of the patrons here.” That last bit was undoubtedly directed at me. Igneia never felt that condiments were necessary on her food. I beg to disagree.
Toby looked over at Ms. Felicia who nodded with raised eyebrows, then at me. I shrugged. “Sure. If you want to.” I said.
“It would be an honor chef if I can come here that is,” Toby replied.
Chef Igneia looked at me, then at Ms. Felicia, then said, “You. Make it happen.” turned on her heels and headed back for her kitchen after placing the shake gently in front of Toby. The waiter, still hovering, finally stepped forward and delivered the rest of our order.
“What kind of shake did you order?” I asked a heartbeat ahead of Ms. Felicia.
“Chocolate with a swirl of raspberry compote, cinnamon, and thinly sliced chocolate shavings,” Toby said, slowly returning to her chair from her safe position at my side.
“Ooh! That sounds great. May I try?”
“Me too?” Ms. Felicia asked.
We both took up our spoons and took a sample. That was about the best milkshake I had ever had in my life! I wanted more, but I knew I could order it myself, and I was afraid to order it at the moment. I didn’t want the Chef coming out again.
“Wow.” Ms. Felicia said. “That’s awesome! That may just be the best shake I’ve ever had. Have you had it somewhere before?”
“No. It just sounded good and I saw each of those items on the menu in other dishes so I knew they had them.”
“Well, you do have a gift!” Ms. Felicia laughed. “Chef only takes one or two into her class a year. I’ve never heard of her asking for a specific student before. I guess we’ll have to get you to agree to come here to keep her happy. If we don’t we’ll all suffer through basic food for the next semester.”
I saw the doubt and fear enter Toby’s eyes and she lowered her head just a bit. I could tell she had doubts. I just hoped we could work them out.
We spent the rest of the mean quietly enjoying the food and talking about some of the more interesting classes The Academy offered. Ms. Felicia had to remind me of some of my more spectacular failures while at school. She’s been in the wing with me and had seen some first hand. If gargoyles could blush I would have been red from my forehead to my neck. It had Toby smiling though, so it wasn’t all bad.
I heard a soft chime from my wrist and looked down. “Ah, we need to finish up, Toby. It’s time to head up to the office to see Sals.” I announced, my stomach flipping a little. I love Sals. She is the best boss a guy could ever want. She was demanding and expected miracles, but at the same time she never expected anything you didn’t end up being able to deliver, and she always had your back. Always. I just hoped she could come through on this.
We took our dishes to the washing station and sent them through, then headed for the door. Once we reached the door we said our goodbyes to Ms. Felicia and I told her we would be in touch.
“I wanted to show you the place, so we’re going to take the elevator up to the gardens and then walk or climb from there,” I told Toby.
We hopped on and rode up to the 5th floor. When the doors opened it was like we were in a different world. This floor was open from here to the offices far above. Around the inside edge was a series of ramps leading upward without railings. As you looked up you could see wingers soaring, gliding, and flying both up and down the empty column, landing on the ramps and entering and leaving rooms. Laid out around us was a beautiful garden filled with trees, bushes, and flowers as well as benches and open grassy areas. There were walkways and grated areas with updrafts being generated to allow for easier flight. No matter how worldly you are, it’s an amazing sight. This is where the winglings learn to fly, where those who have graduated and accepted employment can choose to get an apartment and a general gathering area away from prying eyes for those who prefer that. Toby looked pretty impressed.
We headed up the walkway slowly circling higher and higher. It was a nice climb and it gave us some time to talk. I kept it light. I love Sals to the ends of the Earth and back, but she intimidates the heck out of me and just about everyone else. I really didn’t want to freak Toby out by freaking out myself.
Sooner than I was really prepared for we reached the office area. We came up the ramp of course but you could see the center entrance for regular fliers right in the middle. I waved at a few I knew but didn’t wave them over. It didn’t do to be late when you had an appointment with Sals.
We arrived five minutes early, as I had planned, and took seats outside the office. She’d call when she was ready. I saw @[Courier St. Claire](person:eee17246-af44-4570-b135-1cdeadd72052) coming out with a somewhat chastened look on his face, as much as that kid ever looked chastened anyway. He saw me and winked. Yep, it was an act. I knew it, he knew it, and Sals knew it, but we all let it slide because…well, because we’re all family.
“Tony, Toby, come on in,” Sals called.
We went in. She gestured to two seats in front of her desk. Sals’ desk is in a large open office with access to the floor entrance and the external exit. There were other desks around hers, hers is back against a wall, but in the center of the comings and goings. At first glance, you wouldn’t find Sals imposing. She has beautiful cocoa skin, disarmingly auburn hair, and owl wings. While one looks normal and powerful, the other appears burnt and the flight feathers have not grown back. She kept it pulled in tight to her body. She could, and did still move it, but the best she could do was a short glide rather than the beautiful soaring flight it was no doubt able to sustain at one point in her life. I often wondered why she didn’t get it healed. I mean, we have healers on staff, but as far as I know, no one has gotten up the courage to ask her. For that matter, no one that I know has any idea what happened to her wing either. If you find out, please let me know!
“Hi, Sals,” I said as we took our seats.
“Tony.” She said looking at notes on her desk. Her eyes lifted and she looked right at Toby. “You must be Toby,” she stated the obvious. “Welcome to The Rookery.”
“Uh, thanks,” Toby replied tentatively.
“I know you haven’t had much of a chance to look around today, but you have some decisions to make, so I’d like to hear what you think of the place,” Sals said.
“Now Sals…” I started.
“Zip it, Tony. Toby and I are having a nice chat. We’ll let you know when you’re invited to join.”
I think I expected Toby to retreat into herself, or shy back from Sals’ brisk manner. Instead, I saw her eyes light up and a smile play across her face.
“Well, since you asked. I find the place to be well thought out and crafted for the specialized clientele. I think the food is far above standard for the accommodations and the employees are friendly and all seem to enjoy their work. I’d say you are running a top-tier company.”
My jaw was starting to get sore from hitting the ground.
“Thank you. I pride myself on doing just that.”
“You know who my parents are, don’t you,” Toby stated.
“I do. We need to get right to it. I’m sorry, but we don’t have much time. I have been given until 1600 to make whatever arrangements we decide on here. I am quite certain that you don’t want to return to your previous living situation. Let me assure you that no matter how we proceed, that won’t happen. You are one of us, and you will be cared for accordingly. Do not let that worry cloud your judgment. I have been told that The Rookery can ‘do with you what we will’ if you agree to legally change your name and have the court documents sealed for 75 years. If you in any way violate that name change, all bets are off. The Rookery would fight that, of course, if you feel it’s a fight you would like to have; however, I have to tell you that we might not win.”
“Of course, you wouldn’t win. It doesn’t matter. I am more than happy to agree to their terms.” Toby replied bitterly.
“I know it hurts, and I ain’t gonna lie, it always will, but you’re strong and you will get through it,” Sals said it in that way she has that simply doesn’t allow room for argument. Me, I was totally lost at this point.
Toby’s resolve came back onto her face. “So what are my options since I have agreed to their terms?”
“You will definitely need to enter The Academy. What you’ll take and for how long will, of course, be up to you. I hear you’ve already charmed Chef. That’s impressive. I think you’ll fit right in.” Sals smiled. A genuine, light-up-your-face smile. Wow. Toby smiled too, and said, “Yes. I would like that. Thank you.”
“Now you have to decide the big stuff. You’re a bit young, but you’ve faced the world on your own already, so I’ll give you the choice. Do you want to live in the dorms with a bunch of kids your age, or do I stick this big rock with you?” Sals asked.
I started to lean forward but one look from them both saw me retreat again. A man has to know when he’s not in charge and this was just such an occasion.
“If Tony is okay with it, I would really like to stay with him.”
They both looked at me now. “Of course, she can stay with me!” I blurted out before my brain fully engaged. Does that make me a dad?
“And now for the bigger question,” Sals said turning back to Toby. “And yes, Tony, this is for you too, but I want Toby’s thoughts first. Toby, would you like to take Tony’s last name and have him as your legal guardian? If not, you can choose whatever name you want and the corporation can be the guardian, but I think it makes for a more personal touch, and since he did let you follow him home…” There was a definite twinkle in Sals’ eyes. I *think* she was teasing…
“Uh, Tony, what is your last name?” Toby asked.
“Vinzenni,” I replied.
“Toby Vinzenni,” she said. “I like it. Tony,” she suddenly got shy again, “would it be okay to use your last name? Will you be my guardian?”
I was complete and utter mush. I had melted completely when she used my last name and then she asked. She had to know, but she asked anyway. “Toby, I would be honored. I haven’t ever done anything like this, and I have been told that I’m lousy with kids, and I will do my best to do right by you.” I said.
She turned to Sals. “Done then. I have no idea how you managed any of this.” Toby stood from her chair and approached the desk. She stuck out her hand. “My name is Toby Venzenni, and I am pleased to meet you, Sals.”
“Likewise,” Sals said taking her hand and shaking it. Both ladies smiled.
“Okay, I have arrangements to make and paperwork to get signed before 1600. Get out!”
I am a guardian. I am Toby’s guardian. She will be staying with me!