Old-fashioned bells over the cornershop door jingle-jangle as Innes pushes through.
Punky, perched on his shoulder, squawks a few discordant notes back at them.
"Save the avant-garde for the shower, Freddie Mercury."
The little red dragon, a bit longer than but about the same weight as the average housecat, nips his ear.
"Best behavior! We're on the job."
Punky sniffs, settles for tightening his tail around Innes' neck.
"Do I hear a dragon and his person?" singsongs a voice from beyond the shelves.
"You called, we came," Innes hollers back.
A red-haired woman, a young-at-heart fifty-ish, skips out, beams at them, and greets, "It's great to see you again!"
Innes raises an eyebrow. "It's only been six months, Miss Lennon."
She pouts, hands on hips. "That's not long enough for me to be happy to see you?"
"I guess not?"
"Glad you see it my way." She grins. "Now, if I know you, you want to get right to work."
"You do indeed know me."
"It's over here." She bounces a turn and weaves between aisles of snacks and staples to a curtained doorway at the back of the little shop.
"My dispatcher didn't give me much to go on. What're we looking at?"
"A bloody huge dragon."
"Define 'huge' for me."
"Size of a train car."
"Yeah, naw. Pull the other one, Cherish."
"I'm not kidding. There's an honest-to-heaven great western water dragon through that door." She points to the curtain.
Innes stops and crosses his arms over his chest. "Now, just why would I doubt that?"
Cherish sparkles mischievously. "Because I'm infamous for my bullshit?"
"That'd be it. So …?"
"There's a great western water dragon through there."
Innes lowers his chin, drawing his eyebrows into a straight line.
Cherish bats her eyelashes.
"Only one way to find out, I guess."
"That's the spirit! After you." She bows him through.
The world lurches and Innes' ears pop and ….
Punky squawks as he digs his claws into Innes' shoulder to keep his perch.
Innes stumbles to a stop in knee-deep grass and cautiously straightens up. "You've a pocket world in your cornershop."
"I do! Isn't it grand?" Cherish spins in a complete circle, arms thrown wide.
Flat land covered with waves of thick green grass spreads out around them, punctuated by the occasional twisted pine, under a deep blue sky dotted with little fluffy clouds. A warm, salty breeze plays in their hair and clothes.
"It's proper lovely."
Something snorts in the middle distance.
Punky perks up, peers like a meerkat in the general direction of the sound.
"They're here!" cheers Cherish.
"Your storage room pocket world has ponies."
"Kelpies, actually. We've caught them transforming a few times."
"Must've been a chore getting them in here."
Cherish starts them down a path of flattened grass. "We didn't move a thing. They just showed up. We figure there's another entrance somewhere, but we haven't found it yet. Probably because the huge dragon runs us out of the water if we try poking around under the surface."
"Great westerns'll do that. You don't mess about in their water."
"You could've warned me sooner."
"I didn't know you were dealing with one until—" Innes pushes up his sleeve and checks his watch. "—about a minute ago."
"So, this place is new?"
"Opened exactly a week ago."
Innes stops short, blinks rapidly. "How'd you find it that fast?"
Cherish grins, totally cat-with-a-mouthful-of-canary, and says, "Remember that widger you took out of the Loch Tay school and gave to my da?"
Innes blinks some more.
Cherish rocks on her heels grinning like an axe-murderer.
"This … you did this?" he squeaks.
Punky nuzzles his temple.
Innes pats his head 'thanks.'
"We did! Don't worry! We got all the proper signatures and such-like first." Cherish smiles wider. "It took a scrapheap's worth of metal, but it's completely worth it, yeah?"
"Yeah …." Innes shakes fluff from his head. "You opened a pocket world. On purpose?"
"We did." She offers an arm. "Come on. You've still a dragon to deal with."
"You weren't kidding? There really is a dragon in here? Still?"
"A great western water dragon, even. If Da knows what he's talking about. Come on."
Innes links his arm and lets Cherish more or less tow him along the dead flat path.
Kelpies—mostly brown, but a few with large motley patches of white across their backs and shoulders—lift their heads from grazing and watch them pass with wary eyes.
Punky chirps and waves at them.
They snort, flick their tails, and return to their meals.
"Those kelpies don't look much like any I've seen before. Aside from being horsey, of course."
Cherish laughs. "Yeah, too tall and trim for the island kind, too short and scruffy for the highland type."
"My thoughts exactly."
"Well, like I said, we think there's a second gate into this place and they could be from anywhere, but they're friendly so we're not looking them in the mouth too much."
Innes nods. "Wise."
A white sand beach scrolls by on their left.
He bobs his head toward it. "That'll be popular if you start letting folks in."
"Definitely. No need to go to Spain for the sunshine any more with this in our backyard."
"You monetize the place and you'll make a mint. Put the travel agents out of business, too."
"Naw. The plan's to make it a free family nature park."
"Generous of you."
Cherish shrugs. "We agreed it was the right thing to do with it. Our guarantors like it, too."
"Your da must be going soft in his old age."
She laughs. "He's always been this way. Just putting on an act."
"It's a very believable act."
"I'll tell him you approve."
"Yeah, you do that."
They go quiet and Innes listens to the tweeting of birds and the sound of waves on sand as they round a gentle bend.
A bit further and a red stone wall creeps into view.
They keep walking and the wall resolves into a great western water dragon sunning all twenty meters of her red-scaled self on the strand.
Innes stops to drink her in.
She's red all right, with a purplish undertone and flecks of gold in her scales, and she watches him with a slitted, golden eye. Her wings are folded tightly to her back and her broad, flat head rests on the sand between her five-clawed forelegs.
"That is indeed a great western water dragon," says Innes.
"She's friendly, if you want to go closer. Not nearly as standoffish as Winterbite."
"Winterbite's a great northern. They're aloof sorts."
"Of course." Cherish gives Innes a gentle push. "Go introduce yourself."
"Yeah, I should do that."
Cherish shoos him along.
He floats down the rest of the path and across the sand to the very edge of the dragon's reach and bows.
The dragon lifts her head, assesses him with an eye nearly the size of his head, and tastes the air with a forked tongue.
Punky tucks as much of himself behind Innes' head as he can fit.
"You are a right beauty, ma'am. That you most certainly are."
The dragon folds her forepaws and smugs a bit.
Innes smiles with covered teeth. "Where are my manners, ey? I'm Innes, Earth-side dragon handler, and this is my partner, Punky." He pats his companion on his scaly head. "We are over the moon to make your acquaintance."
The dragon huffs a greeting.
"What should we call you?"
The dragon points a clawed toe to a cluster of plants with teensy white flowers and bright red fruits.
The dragon squints, inclines her head like the royalty she is.
"Hello then, Strawberry."
Strawberry returns the greeting with a puff of warm breath.
Innes controls the urge to explode into a shower of happy glitter, instead allows his insides to melt into the happiest of warm goo.
Strawberry settles back down, lets her eye drift shut.
Innes takes a deep breath, then says, "I suppose I should let you sleep in peace, but, if you'd like any help from us, send word with Cherish and we'll come running."
Strawberry huffs acknowledgment.
"Quality. Thank you, Strawberry." Innes bows again, then plods a turn and drags himself away from the beach, a tight rein on his desire to squeal and hop up the trail like a schoolgirl and embarrass everyone