Far below, tiny houses dotted the flat land and rivers wriggled along like so many worms. Leopold only dared a peek every now and then. Mostly, he kept his focus on Joy’s feathers or on the shapes of the fluffy clouds that were far too close for comfort–just as long as he didn’t have to look down. Joy chattered and sang the whole time, but the howl of the wind in Leopold’s ears made it impossible to hear anything. Honestly, he was glad for it. The last thing he needed was the bluebird’s bubbly voice grating on his nerves and breaking his concentration.
Leopold thought back wistfully to the nap that had been cut short, and to the lovely green food surrounding him on all sides. His own supply of crunchy leaf bits was running dangerously low. That would never do. He considered ordering Joy to make a quick stop so he could restock, but decided against it. Headquarters didn’t summon an agent directly unless it was important and time-sensitive. Otherwise, they’d just send communication the usual way–locust by day, firefly by night.
Another gust of wind thrusted Joy sideways, making her tilt over a little more than Leopold would have liked. He gripped his makeshift harness with his two front hands, while all remaining hands clutched fistfuls of feathers. The earth below rocked and swayed until he thought he might be sick. As Leopold pulled himself upright again, he glimpsed a dense wooded area just ahead. In the midst rose a tall tree, far larger than the rest. Leopold sighed with relief. They were nearly there.
“Woo-hoo!” shrieked Joy as she dove in a tight, dizzying spiral. Leopold squeezed his eyes shut. He preferred not to witness the ground hurtling toward him like a giant shoe.
There was a sudden jolt. Joy had spread her wings again to slow her speed, and they landed gracefully on a wide branch of the enormous tree.
“Here you are!” Joy announced.
Leopold didn’t reply. He dared not open his mouth yet for fear that more than just words would come out. Quickly, he slid down his silk thread and onto the firm, solid branch. After taking a few steadying breaths, he said grudgingly, “Thanks.”
He marched past Joy towards the trunk of the tree, where a small tunnel led inside.
“Don’t mention it!” sang Joy. “And, Leo?”
Leopold halted and turned slowly, counting under his breath. He just wanted to get inside and find out what was going on. “Yes?” he said with forced politeness.
Joy hopped closer to him, leaned down confidentially and whispered, “Try to act a little more serious once you’re in there.” She started giggling uncontrollably and ruffling him up with her wings.
“Pff! Joy, stop! Stop!” Leopold sputtered as he swatted at her. “STOP!!”
Joy finally backed away, her eyes still twinkling. “Yes, sir,” she teased.
Leopold turned back to the trunk and climbed into the dark tunnel before the bird could delay him again. “Bye, Lord of the Long Faces!” Joy’s voice echoed down the tunnel after him.
The daylight that illuminated the entrance slowly faded away as Leopold traveled deeper and deeper inside, leaving him in darkness. He felt his way along carefully. At last, a dim white light glowed just ahead. He headed toward the light until he stepped out of the tunnel and into a spacious room. After dusting himself off with many hands, Leopold squinted in the faint light. One door stood in the opposite wall, with a sign on it that read, “Arrivals.”
Leopold crossed the room and started to push open the door.
“‘ey, Leo!” a voice behind him shouted.
Leopold looked over his shoulder. Above the tunnel entrance, a ledge jutted out of the wall. A firefly sat upon this ledge and gazed down at Leopold with a wide grin.
“Hello, Marco,” Leopold replied.
Marco leapt into the air with a laugh, making the shadows around him shake and distort on the wall. “I thought it was you, you ol’ crawler! ‘ey, Tony!” he called across the room. “Tony! Wake up, ya lazy bum! Look who’s ‘ere!”
A small head popped over the ledge above the Arrivals door and looked down at Leopold. The firefly blinked his sleepy eyes several times. “‘ey, Leo,” Tony said groggily. He let out a long, loud yawn. “‘s been awhile. Whatcha been up to?”
“I’ve been on leave for a few weeks,” said Leopold.
“Ah, taking some time off? Ya lucky bug, you!” said Marco. “Do anything exciting?”
Leopold chuckled. “Nah, my job’s exciting enough most of the time. I just relaxed at home, kept watch over the neighborhood, you know.”
“Boring!” sighed Tony.
“Yeah!” said Marco. “What’s the point of that?”
“Hey, I told you. I get my fill of excitement here. But I don’t get the chance to just relax like that very often. It was long overdue. Now I’m refreshed and recharged and ready to take on the world!”
Tony snorted. “Ya gonna take on the world all by yourself?”
“Of course!” Marco said sarcastically. “Have you forgotten about Leo’s secret super powers?”
“Haha, very funny,” said Leopold. “Well, speaking of taking on the world, Chief is expecting me so I should probably get going.”
“Wha’?” cried Marco. “Whatcha doin’ hangin’ around in ‘ere if Chief’s expectin’ ya?”
“Talking to you, obviously.”
“Excuses.” Tony shook his head slowly.
“Yeah, exactly!” said Marco. “Excuses. Get goin’, boy! Shoo!”
“Alright, alright. See you two later. Stay out of trouble!” said Leopold.
“Us? Trouble? Who does he think he’s talkin’ to?” Marco demanded.
Leopold grinned to himself and opened the door, stepping through into the Arrivals Station. A throng of workers and agents bustled across the room from other arrival entrances, all heading in the same direction. Their voices blended together, magnified by the echoes into a deafening roar. Leopold merged with the crowd and headed toward the wall of doors on the far side of the room. Overhead, a ring of fireflies stood at their posts, lighting up the room.
“Leo! Leopold!” A voice rang out behind him. Leopold looked around, trying to see who was calling him. A round, beaming face poked out over the crowd. “It is you, buddy!”
The caterpillar forced his way through, earning several angry glances from disheveled strangers.
Leopold smiled back. “Hey, Henry! Good to…see…you…” his voice trailed off. He stared at his old friend, mesmerized. Having given up trying to force his way through, Henry suddenly spread two magnificent orange and black wings and flew over the crowd. He landed gracefully beside Leopold, who could only stare open-mouthed.
“Wow,” Leopold breathed, pointing at the beautiful wings. “What’s this?”
Henry swelled with pride and gave a few flaps of his wings in demonstration. “Like ’em?” he said.
“Hey!” shouted a beetle who had to duck to avoid getting smacked in the head. “Watch where you’re flapping those things, won’t you?”
“Sorry,” said Henry. He winked at Leopold. “Promotion. You’re looking at a Senior Guardian now!”
“A couple weeks ago,” Henry explained as they started walking again. “Chief called me into his office one day, told me to take some time off to grow my wings.”
“That’s great! Congratulations, Henry–or is it ‘sir’ now?” Leopold said with a grin.
“Well now, I do rather like the sound of that,” laughed Henry.
They reached the wall of doors, and Leopold followed Henry through the one labeled “Main Offices.” Rows of desks stood in neat lines down the length of the room. The door closed behind them, muffling the roar of the crowd. In the offices, only a low buzz of conversation hung in the air.
“Going to see the Chief, I presume?” asked Henry.
“Yep. Just got called in. Do you know what it’s about?”
Henry’s face became uncharacteristically dark and sober. “Best to wait till we’re behind closed doors.”
Leopold cast a sideways glance at him, but didn’t push the subject. Now his curiosity was killing him. What was going on?
“The others are probably here already,” said Henry.
“Others?” asked Leopold. “How many agents are assigned to this case?”
Henry avoided his eyes and said in a hushed voice, “A fair few.”
They halted in front of the door at the end of the room bearing the sign “Edward J. Mantis, Chief of Operations.”
Henry leaned close and whispered, “I suggest your prepare yourself.”
Leopold blinked and stared back at his friend. “Prepare? For what?”
Without answering, Henry rapped against the door. From within, a low, grim voice called. “Enter.”
Henry pushed open the door and motioned Leopold inside. “You’ll find out soon enough.”
To be continued…