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Two figures, a boy and a girl in their late teens, picked their way carefully through the abundant brush. Few trees dotted the area, but as if to make up for it, the ferns and thorns were larger than any the girl had ever seen before. Despite the size of the bushes, the smaller of the two was able to crawl through tight spaces easily, as if the plants moved out of her way when she approached. Her companion wasn't having trouble either, but the brambles seemed less likely to let him through, tugging at his clothes and scratching at his exposed face and arms.
The moon offered little light, and a soft breeze rustled the flora, making the night perfect for moving about undetected. Every few minutes the girl would raise her face to the wind. She would never tell her friend, but it smelt like the only home she had ever known. He never asked about her habit. As far as he knew, it was a hot summer night and she was trying to cool down. He didn't blame her. Their cotton shirts were sticking to them with sweat.
After a few minutes of silence the man raised his hand, causing his companion to stop in her tracks. He put a finger to his lips, to signal her need for silence, then scampered up the nearest tree. She could tell he felt at home above the ground, encompassed in the strong boughs. He wore a familiar expression as he easily swung through the branches,the expression of being at home.
The man perched himself on a branch that was a decent ways up. He was nearly as slender as she was, but he didn't want to push his luck and have a weak branch snap under him. They had come this far, an injury now would be devastating. He scanned the surrounding area for signs of life. Finding none, he lifted his gaze and instead looked for his home. A light bobbed in the distance. He smiled.
Unable to keep quite he called down to her. “I can see it! We are less than an hour from being in the zoo!” She smiled up at him, but her support was forced. He knew she was nervous about joining the zoo. He lowered himself from the tree as easily as he had climbed it and landed gracefully in front of her.
“Cat, you're sure I'll be welcomed?” She whispered, casting aside her taciturn ways and betraying the fear she had kept to herself the whole week they had been together.
He tried to smile at her, to comfort her, but he had so far proved that concern for others was something he was quite incapable of. “Your mother was an animal was she not?” He asked finally. She nodded. “And you've never felt at home in the open like the winds?” He asked. She nodded again. “Then I don't see what reason Dingo will have for rejecting you.”
She sighed. It was the same thing he had said when they first met. The same argument that he gave that convinced her to leave her home and join him. If you could call it a home. Her whole life was nothing more than moving around from place to place with her father and the rest of the winds. It was all she had ever known, but it never felt like home.
Her mind was still a whirlwind of emotions, but Cat had moved the conversation forward. “I'm just not sure about your name.” He said quietly. They had talked about it before, but she would never let him sway her.
“I am Bellis.” She replied hotly. “It's the name my mother gave me and you can't change that!”
Cat bit his sharp reply back. They were both stubborn creatures, leading to a few fights during their travels. “But a wild flower? I told you, you could at least pretend to be an animal-” He started.
“Dingo will understand won't he?” Bellis muttered mutinously.
As was part of his charm, Cat could tell a fight was brewing in her. He wanted to argue and fight until she admitted he was right, but he knew it would never work. Instead all he said was: “We'll see.” And let the subject fall away. Again.
The rest of their journey was in silence. Bellis let her anger keep her confident and fearless, but as the zoo walls came into view her anxiety returned like a calm after a storm. She looked up at Cat, but he seemed determined to avoid her gaze. She regretted fighting with him so much now.
Before long, the metal walls loomed over the unusual pair. Bellis had to lean back to take it all in. It looked like something her father had shown her in a story book before. It was obviously a pre-fall building, but it didn't look quite finished yet. Like someone had just started to build it when the fall happened. A loose sheet of plastic flapped noisily in the breeze. It almost looked like a ghost. A light bobbed in and out of sight, but Bellis knew it was just a guard with a lantern making his rounds. Down on the ground level the building didn't look anymore done, but at least it had walls and she supposed, a roof. This must be where the animals slept. While she was staring at the building, Cat began to speak.
“You remember what I told you?” He asked, turning on Bellis.
“It's all you talked about all week.” She replied casually. Be strong Bellis. He would say. Show any fear and they will act on it.
He smiled. “Good.” Then he rapped his knuckles on the stone wall. A part of the wall slid back, revealing dark blue eyes.
“Cat?” A voice called from inside. Bellis could see the surprise in the blue eyes. “Man, you've been forever!” The door slid back, and man stepped from the passage beyond. He was tall, much taller than either Cat or Bellis by at least a foot. His dark gray hair was slicked back, and he had a long nose, almost giving the impression of a bird.
Most unsurprisingly Cat smiled and replied to his friend. “Heron! I met someone while I was out.” His words were casual, like he often went out for a month and came home with strange girls.
Heron had looked at her a few times, but Bellis could tell he was keeping it down to a polite interest for his friends sake. Now he stared at her unabashedly. Bellis shifted on her feet in attempt to hide her discomfort. The confusion on his face was visible. “A wind?” Heron whistled. “Dingo's been kind to the strays, but you brought in a wind this time?”
“She's no wind my friend.” Cat said, turning so he too could take her in. Her dark ginger hair, her green eyes, her light complexion, with a splatter of freckles. “Her mother was a animal.”
“Just her mum though?” Heron asked suspiciously.
“My father was a wind.” Bellis said quickly. She didn't want the first animal she met to think she was trying to hide something. “But I know my mother was an animal, and I never felt like I belonged with them.”
Heron smiled lightly, and Cat's amber eyes glinted in the dull light. There was an air of relief about them, making Bellis felt like she had passed some sort of test.
“She does kind of remind me of Fox.” Heron said. “It seems like something that vixen would do.” Then the two animals burst into laughter. “Go on.” Heron said finally, allowing Bellis and Cat past him.
They stepped over the metal thresh hold into the hallway beyond. It was a welcome sight after all the traveling they had done. The walls were wooden, and covered with colorful paintings. An occasional torch was put up between them to give light to the hall. A red rug led away from the door, to the end of the hall. Or at least what looked like the end, Bellis figured the hall simply turned and escaped from view.
“Come on then.” Cat said happily. At least one of them felt like it was all going to be fine now. As they walked Bellis started to notice the doors. They were all down the hall, though it seemed like they were doing their best to blend in with the paintings on the wall. She tried to take in everything, but there was something that Heron had said that was bothering her.
“You knew my mother?” Bellis asked looking up at Cat.
“No, I didn't.” Cat said without breaking his stride. “I'm barely older than you are, I was just a baby when Fox left. Besides, she may not even be your mother.” He added dismissively.
“But Heron said I was like her!” Bellis shot back. This time Cat turned on her.
“Heron was just trying to be nice, and you shouldn't us him as a judge for the rest of us.“ Cat snapped. “I don't understand why they have him on guard rotation, but that's nothing I have a say in.” And he turned back around and marched on.
Just as Bellis started to follow him a nearby door opened, letting out young woman with a simple white dress, sharp brown eyes, and blue dyed hair.
“Is that my Cat I hear?” She asked in a high pitch voice. Without even noticing Bellis was there she let out an excited chirp and threw her arms around a surprised Cat. Bellis raised her eyebrows.
“Hello Hummingbird.” Cat managed to sound happy to see the girl. “Look, I'd love to stay and catch up-” he pried her arms off of him. “-but Dingo is expecting me with the newest animal.”
Hummingbird didn't seem to hear anything but her name. “Oh wow you have been gone for so long! Two raids without you, it just wasn't as much fun as it should have been!”
Bellis felt a chill. She had been in a raid once, as the victim. Bellis had been very young so she didn't remember to much of it. Just, the panic and the pain. The winds running for their lives, or fighting for the little they had to protect. Her father helping the rest of the day, resetting broken shelters and trying to find out if all of our friends had survived. Again Bellis felt a jolt of panic for what she was getting herself into.
“I'll be in the next one.” Cat promised. “But I have to go see Dingo now.”
“Oh you just have to come in!” Hummingbird was determined to ignore his every plea. “Minx had her baby, it's a girl-”
Bellis cleared her throat loudly. Hummingbird stopped talking, and Cat gave her a look mixed with thanks and panic.
“And who are you?” Hummingbird asked nastily, still unwilling to take her hands away from Cat. She looked like she could be very pretty, if she wasn't wearing such a superior expression.
Bellis stood up as straight as she could. “My name is Bellis, I'm here to see Dingo.” She added as much loathing as she could muster into her words, hoping she could be intimidating. Hummingbird gave her another nasty look.
“What kind of an animal is a Bellis?” She asked in a waspish voice. Bellis felt her face flush. Cat had known what a Bellis was.
She ignored the felines panicked face and decided to be rash. “It's a wild flower you bird brain.” Bellis snapped. She could tell immediately it was the wrong thing to say. Hummingbird's face lit up with a malicious glee, while Cat covered his face without looking at her.
“You brought a weed?” Hummingbird squawked loudly.
Her face flushing, Bellis took a step forward. A weed was she? A familiar pounding started in her ears. Bellis wanted to hit every part of the girl in front of her that she could reach. She took another step, unwilling to hide the dangerous gleam in her eyes.
Before either girl could start throwing punches, Cat was suddenly in between them. He had disentangled himself from Hummingbird's hands faster than Bellis thought possible, but he was there. Cat grabbed a hold of Bellis' hand and pulled her away from Hummingbird's reach. He didn't stop until they had turned into the second part of the hallway.
“This is no garden!” Hummingbird was still screaming in her high pitched voice. “A weed like her won't be able to grow!” More doors were opening at the sound of Hummingbird's voice.
“It's great to be home.” Was all Cat said, before pulling open another door. This time the door led back outside, into what could pass as a courtyard. The grass was short and brown, but Bellis could tell the heat of the summer was drying the lawn out. She noticed suddenly that it hadn't rained at all while they were traveling. Perhaps this region was suffering a drought? There was a shallow dent in the ground that would have been a pool in any other season. There was a stone path, lined with tall torches, that led to a second door across the yard. Two bored looking men were sitting just outside it, tossing dice in the firelight.
The first looked up as Cat shut the door behind them. He smiled in a goofy way. His hair was a wild nest of bright blonde hair, just as his partners was the opposite. Cut so short Bellis couldn't tell what color it was. The second man didn't seem to be quite as happy to see them.
“Hey Cat!” The blonde boy shouted, quickly getting to his feet. Bellis watched the second man flip a die while he thought no one was looking. She felt a rush of dislike for him.
“Macaw, “ Cat greeted his friend with a strange handshake Bellis had never seen before. “You and Komodo on guard duty tonight?”
“No.” Komodo said in a bored drawl. “We love sitting out here sweating our clothes off for no reason.” The dislike deepened.
“Ignore him.” Macaw said in an apologetic voice to Bellis. “He hates it when he gets picked for guard duty.”
“Doesn't everyone?” Cat muttered.
Macaw ignored him. “Who's your pretty friend?” He asked, keeping his eyes on Bellis, but talking to Cat. For some reason it didn't bother her. Though, it could just be because he called her pretty.
“She's someone I picked up to meet Dingo, so don't get to friendly until he says she can stay.” Cat replied sharply. “So could you let us in?”
Macaw looked crest fallen to be rejected so quickly, but he and Komodo stood up and allowed them to pass without another word. Cat tugged at the large gleaming handle on he door behind them. It clicked into place after a moment of fighting. Bellis felt her heart start to pound as the Cat swung the door out.
Inside was far grander than anything Bellis had ever seen. Perhaps it just seemed that way in comparison to the ruinous state the rest of the area was in. Three of the walls were painted in a deep blue color, just like the ocean. The last wall, the one in the far back looked like it was painted with gold. On one of the blue walls was a long table, heaped with succulent looking roast bird and plates of ripe fruit. Staring at it made Bellis realize just how hungry she was. They had had enough to eat during their journey, but it wasn't anything as grand as this. Across from it a small group of animals were playing with a laughing baby. The mother, a beautiful woman with dark brown hair, looked up when the door opened.
In the far back, in front of the golden wall, there were two men sitting at a sturdy wooden table, talking to themselves in low whispers. The men were similar in stature, tall and well muscled, but one was bright blonde and the other had black hair. Yet, that wasn't the thing that set them apart. The blonde man looked up at Bellis and Cat and smiled. He wasn't wearing the same dull cotton clothes the rest of the animals had. He had a dark jacket made of a material Bellis had never seen before. It looked like leather, but somehow it gave an aura of strength and intimidation. His pants were sandy yellow, and covered in to many pockets to count.
When he stood up the rest of the animals stopped talking. Even the baby stopped it's giggling. Dingo spread his arms wide and let out a short bark of laughter. “Cat my boy! I was worried you had gotten lost.”
Cat grinned, looking the most pleased Bellis had seen him yet “You can't get rid of me that easy.” He purred. Cat motioned for Bellis to follow him, and he crossed the room in a few happy steps. Bellis followed in a slower pace. She felt the eyes of the animals on her, but she crossed the room with as much confidence as she could.
“You find the winds easy enough don't you?” Dingo asked, patting Cat roughly on the back. “And I see you brought us another stray.”
This time Cat was less excited about replying. “I almost reached the next region before I found the north winds.” He said slowly.
Silence followed his words. Bellis looked around the room quickly. Dingo and the animal still sitting at the table both looked concerned by the news. The woman holding the baby didn't seem quite as surprised, though she didn't look particularly happy either.
“The next region?” The dark haired man asked. He stood as well. “They can't have traveled that far Cat.”
“I hit the sea long before I found them.” Cat replied. His voice seemed defensive. The other man's doubts meant more to him then Bellis would have expected.
“Wild dog-” Dingo said sharply, turning on his third in command. “I believe him. I'm not happy about it, but it's true then.” He sighed and sat back down. “The winds are blowing out.
Bellis blinked at him. She had heard rumors back when she lived with the winds. Rumors that the world wasn't what it used to be. Most of the winds were frightened, some left to join the metals. Her wind leader, a man by the name Solis, refused to bite into the hysteria growing around him. Bellis couldn't help but admire him for it. He would often get cross with her for her short temper, but Solis had nothing but the best interest of the winds in his heart.
Dingo looked up suddenly, all worry in his face gone. “On a much brighter note, you have brought home another animal.” He said brightly. Dingo looked her over carefully, and his face seemed to fall slightly. Bellis could tell he was reaching the same conclusion Heron had arrived at. “She's not a wind is she?”
Cat turned to look at her with an encouraging smile. “My name is Bellis.” She said as confidently. “I may not be all animal, but I'm no wind either.”
Dingo regarded this. “You left family to come here?”
“A father.” Bellis replied.
“And how many years are you?”
“Eighteen.” She felt flushed telling him her age. It had always seemed like a private thing with the winds. “Old enough anyway.” Bellis added.
Dingo smiled suddenly. “So they have no right to come after you.” He leaned back. “Bellis is it? What sort of name is that?”
Bellis hesitated and looked over to Cat. He didn't meet her eyes, as if hoping she could come up with something better than 'it's a wild flower you bird brain!' this time.
“I know what a Bellis is.” Wild Dog said suddenly. “It's a type flower isn't it?” He looked at her with a disdainful expression. “You didn't even bring an animal this time. You brought a plant!”
A few of the animals behind her laughed. Bellis jumped suddenly. She had forgotten they were there. Dingo looked like he was chewing on this new information, and to her dismay, Bellis noticed that Cat looked as nervous as she felt. Maybe Dingo would be the same as Hummingbird was. Maybe he didn't think a flower could grow in a zoo.
“You only left a father with the winds?” The dark haired woman had stood up and approached them. “What about your mother?”
Bellis looked back. The baby was left in the arms of a younger girl, who was cooing at it, trying to keep it silent. Up close, the woman was prettier than Bellis believed possible. Her shining dark brown hair fell in a perfect frame of her face. Her eyes were large and light brown, and filled with love. Her dress was different from the rest of the female animals. It was a light green and strapless, as opposed to the white gowns the others wore.
Her voice caught in her throat. “She was an animal.” Bellis said quietly.
“Bellis is a very pretty name.” The woman said kindly. “Your mother gave you a way out. Not to be an animal like her, but not homeless like the winds are. Something new.”
“What are you saying Minx?” Dingo was sitting forward in his chair again. He turned his gaze from Minx to Bellis, and back.
“That we should let her in.” Minx said simply. “Time's are changing. Cat told you that much. We should change with them or we risk losing ourselves.”
“She's no animal.” Wild Dog said furiously.
“She deserves a chance!” Minx spat back, her sudden fury making the rest of the animals jump. Bellis tried to imagine why Minx was so determined to protect her. “Did you forget that we gave you a chance? Your Sons? Half of the animals here? We need to adapt to the changing current, and if growing flowers is the only way to do it, then so be it!” She finished with a huff.
Wild Dog sat back in his chair, his mouth open wide. Bellis got the feeling that Minx didn't shout often. Though it seemed to be more than just that. She had scratched a subject that was obviously skirted around so often Dingo forgot he needed to do something about it.
The room was silent for another moment, then the baby let out a small whine. Minx suddenly forgot she was angry, and turned around to return to her child. As she took the bundle from the other girl's arms, Dingo let out a sigh of defeat. “She can stay in the empty room near Spider.”
Cat let out a excited laugh and threw his arms around Bellis. She was too surprised to respond. The animals were looking at her with a large range of reactions. The young girl who had held Minx's child looked pleased, yet few of the others did.
“And Cat?” Dingo added, before the pair could leave.
“Yes?” Cat asked. His voice still high with excitement. Bellis could tell that nothing would be able to make him upset now.
“Might as well grab some food on your way out. You two must be starving.” Dingo said with a sly grin. Cat laughed again and pulled Bellis with him to the glorious table. Upon reaching it, Bellis began to wonder about her sense of smell. How could she not have smelt this, while she was standing a few feet away? Her mouth began to water, and she wanted to just take in as much food as she could. Cat gave her a nudge to the side, and picked a single fruit for himself. Only one? Her face asked the question for her. Cat gave a slight jerk of his head that she guessed was a nod. Bellis bit her tongue in annoyance and took a plump green and orange fruit she had never seen before.
As they walked through the room, Bellis turned and looked one last time at the animals gathered. Some smiled back at her. Some just frowned. Minx waved slowly.
This was going to be Bellis' first night as an animal. The sudden realization hit her hard. From here on out she would have to fight for her lively hood. The nomad lifestyle of the winds was behind her. Bellis gulped lightly. She could do this. She had to.
Macaw greeted them happily. He had been listening in, and the fruit in Bellis' hand was enough to convince him of her acceptance. He congratulated Bellis, and was in the process of telling her where his room was when Cat took her hand again and dragged her away from him.
He lead her back the way they came, this time taking a different hall Bellis hadn't noticed earlier. Only a few torches lit this hall, and as it progressed, it seemed to get grayer and less welcoming. Cat stopped in front of a particularity dull door. He pointed behind him. “Spider lives in this next room. She's not exactly an idea roommate, but she's better than Hummingbird or Rabbit.” He didn't explain this bit of information. Instead he pointed further down the hall. “Go that way and take a left, and you're in the men's wing. I don't recommend going there unless you have to.”
Cat then opened the door, and ushered Bellis inside. “Unless Hummingbird woke them, Most everyone else should be asleep. We can't all be nocturnal.” He smiled at his own joke. Bellis had barely heard him.
She had a room. A permanent room that was all her own. She could paint flowers on the wall, and not see them get torn down when they moved a month later. She could hide things she found in odd places. She could get dressed on privacy. She started around dumbstruck. There wasn't much in the room now, a wooden chair, a mat with a raggedy looking blanket, and a dirty window, but Bellis felt a strong attachment to it already.
Not wanting to intrude on her tender moment, Cat backed up to the door. “I guess I'll just leave you to it-” He started.
“You're not staying?” Bellis asked quickly. Her face flushed quickly when she saw his surprised reaction. “I mean-” She stuttered.
There was a short awkward silence. Bellis had grown so used to them being together over the past week, that the sudden thought of being alone scared her. Cat seemed to understand though. He smiled slyly. “Just for tonight. Any longer and the animals will talk.”
Relief flooded Bellis. She felt a little guilty, for any trouble he might get into, but he seemed willing to get her through her first night. Cat showed her how to peel away the skin to get to the soft orange flesh inside. While they ate Cat talked about all the animals living in this zoo. He talked about every one, their relationships, their personalities, and their jobs. She learned that Cat's brother, Coyote, was a bit of a prankster and she should avoid him when she could. That Turtle was the resident healer, and Adder was his assistant (don't let her age fool you, she's incredibly bright.). That the twins Guppy and Koala fought often, and were generally noisy at all times.
He had just started talking about the girls Macaw had dated in the past when Bellis thought of something.
“What did Minx mean when she was talking about Wild Dog having a second chance?” She asked suddenly. Cat, who had been ticking off names with his fingers stopped suddenly. She saw apprehension clearly on his face.
“It's a long story.” Cat warned.
“We have all night.” Bellis replied quietly. She wasn't feeling tired at all. Bellis was still feeling the lingering joy of being accepted by Dingo.
Cat sighed. “Back when I was born this zoo was in bad shape. There was only about twenty animals. The leader in that day was Gator. He tried to hold us together, but it wasn't easy when he had no real control. After one raid, Dingo brought back an injured child. It was clear from his name that he was an animal that had been living with the winds. Scorpion was the first. A woman named Caribou volunteered to make it a permanent part of our zoo. So we started letting in all lost animals, and started to go out of our way to find people in need. Wild Dog was opposed to it at first, and he and Gator fought about it, resulting on him, and his family, being thrown from the zoo. After Gator passed And Dingo took over, we were welcomed back.”
“We?” Bellis asked. Cat gave her his best sly smile.
“Wild Dog is my dad.” He said, a bit unnecessarily. “We were let back in, but the refuges never stopped coming. And we never turned them away.” He stopped and smiled at Bellis' expression. “I guess you could say we're more of a shelter than a zoo.”
“No, I would never say that.” Bellis breathed. “Just, you didn't seem too open to welcoming a wind.”
“But you're not a wind.” Cat reminded her gently.
“I'm no animal either.”
“No. Maybe you're something better.”
The silence returned, but it wasn't as bad this time. Bellis felt her face flush, She mindlessly began licking the juice off her fingers. It really was an excellent piece of fruit.
“You might as well go to sleep.” Cat said after a few minutes of the silence. “I'll wake you if anything interesting happens.” Bellis nodded her gratitude, and curled up on the mat. She realized that she really was quite exhausted, and the bed was extremely comfortable despite it's looks. Bellis fell asleep quickly. Cat took a knife out from his pocket and began to clean it. He tried not to look at her. He thought of Hummingbird who would be upset if she knew where he was staying that night. He thought of his parents, awake in a different part of the building. His brothers, well, he really had no idea what they were up to. Cat smiled, then looked down at Bellis. He had started something, that much was sure. He had started something that might go ahead and change his way of life. And what he realized, staring down at Bellis, her orange hair hanging loose around her face, was that he was glad he did it.