Magic dogs get frantic when they're excited. Loving being together again, they chased each other around the room. Playing at fighting, they bumped and pushed. They snapped and snarled. They barked non-stop. They leapt in the air or rolled on their backs, or scooted their chins on the carpet, the pile now matted with fur, until at last too weary to move, they dropped where they stood and lay panting.
Harold had also collapsed in a chair, exhausted if not yet stress-free. While they were still playing he couldn't unwind, but once they'd settled, he also relaxed, no longer afraid for the furniture. Closing his eyes, he let his mind tune to the calm of the room between the worlds. It felt so good to be safe again, and to be going home.
He knew he must have fallen asleep since when he reopened his eyes, Angela was sitting beside him. Seeing him waking, she gave him her special warm smile, the one he'd so grown to detest. Suspicious, he waited for her to speak first.
“You were brilliant,” she told him. “We'd never have done this without you.”
Harold ignored the compliment, his mind already elsewhere. “How long,” he asked, “have I been gone from my world?”
His answer puzzled her. “Why ask that now?” she said. “We've just completed the mission. You should be enjoying our victory.”
Harold snorted before he said, “You know you answer every question with another question. Let's try this again. How long have I been gone from my world?”
A moment before she answered then, “About ten weeks I think,” her good mood starting to fade.
“What happened to my old life?”
“What do you mean?”
Thinking again with the question he said, “Please try for once to be straight with me. When you bullied me into this mission, I left behind a life of my own. What happened to it?”
Now she looked hurt, another expression he'd learned to distrust. “Why are you asking?” she said. “Don't think about the future right now. Now is the time to celebrate. You should be feeling elated.”
“Do I feel elated? I'm happy I'm still alive, if that's what you mean. I'm also pleased for the dogs, but at the end of the day, I never wanted to be here. Now that this mission's over, I just want to go home. I want to back to my previous life, so have I a life to go back to?”
“Why are you being like this?” she asked, her voice now heavy with disappointment. Harold ignored the display of emotion, asking again if he still had a job and a home.
“You didn't have much of a job to begin with. Why would you want it back?”
“Please answer my question.”
Next came the bad temper, her voice sounding clipped. “After four weeks of you gone without notice, your supervisor let you go. We used the damage deposit to pay your last month's rent. Your car and belongings are at my house. Now you know, so give it a rest.”
Harold went silent, lost in thought. His mind drifted back to that coach ride, the time she'd admitted the mission might cost him his life. It wasn't entirely hopeless, she'd told him. Just stay with the plan and he should survive.
And so he had. He'd done all she'd asked, and she'd got what she wanted, but what about him? Time to confront her. He summoned his courage and said, “How will I be compensated for my role in the mission?”
“Why would we compensate you?” Her shock seemed genuine.
“Since I never volunteered, I'm entitled to compensation.”
“When I told you about the mission, did you intend to volunteer?”
“Of course not.”
“In that case, you should have looked for payment at the time. It's too late now.”
This answer was classic Angela, and so was Harold's response. Lost for words, his face took on its signature look. His eyes empty, his jaw went slack. With a hint of tongue, his mouth hung open, formed to a perfect oval. All dialogue ceased while his mind re-engaged then, “Don't be ridiculous. You hijacked me against my will.”
Sighing, she answered, “It seems you're going to be difficult, and after all we've been through. Now, at our time of victory, it's sad you've chosen to be this way.”
Harold ignored what he knew was a misdirection. “I don't have a home,” he said. “Where will I live? You've taken all my stuff,” and as he was speaking, an idea formed in his slow-moving brain. He gave it words. “Why can't I move into your place?”
Angela didn't like that idea. “I'd have to say no,” she told him quickly. “My home just isn't suitable. It's not set up for anyone else to be living there.”
Because Harold's brain was running three sentences late, he didn't respond to her answer, saying instead, “Tell you what. With me being homeless through you, I want your house as compensation. Sign it over to me.” He said this like it was no big deal.
A pause then, “ I'm not sure I can do that.”
“I may need the house myself.”
“Why? Will you be living in my universe?”
“I might be,” she said, but again too quickly. An unforced error since both sides knew she was lying.
Slow-witted or not, Harold still noticed the opening. “I don't believe you,” he answered. “Your life belongs with the wolves in the Royal Mountains. You can't live there and still keep a home in my universe, so what you're saying doesn't make sense. Let's try this another way. What are you going to do about the dogs?”
A bold stroke but for once in his life, Harold set out with a plan. Ever since they'd arrived in the room, he'd watched the three brothers together, always a study in sibling rivalry.
Now past the first thrill of reunion, the needy Raj had gone trolling for praise at saving his brothers' lives, but was meeting instead their graceless rejection. Rex was being snarky with Roy, and Roy had called Rex a traitor. Harold could tell that any good feelings would shortly be lost, and they'd revert to their earlier bad-tempered ways. One thing was certain. They'd never survive as a pack.
Angela hadn't been watching. Caught unprepared, she was forced to ask, “What do you mean? What about the dogs?”
“How long before they start fighting again? They're all buddy-buddy right now but they haven't changed, have they? Look at them. They're almost like they were before. You must remember the trouble they caused. They almost destroyed two kingdoms.” He gave her a moment for thinking then said, “You know you'll have to break up the pack.”
Weighing that notion had Angela slow to react, allowing Harold to ask the dogs about their plans. She readied herself for the answers.
Alpha dog Roy, as bossy as ever, announced he wanted the role for which he'd been bred. He'd be Arabella's new master of wagons, happily ordering people around while taking credit for any successes. This seemed a vocation well matched to his talents. Angela would speak with the queen.
Rex, the always defiant one, preferred to live in the Royal Mountains, running and hunting with the pack, like he imagined when first he'd learned of his heritage. It also didn't hurt with being seventh in line to the throne. However he might behave, he'd keep his status among the elite. Abrasive or not, Rex had royal blood. Angela would see to his integration. Now for Raj.
She wasn't eager to hear from Raj, afraid he might have mind of his own. Intending to be proactive she asked, “How would you like to live in the Royal Mountains?”
“Aren't they kind of dangerous,” said Raj, “and wouldn't Rex be living there too?”
These were legitimate questions. In the course of the mission, Raj had endured too many adventures. He'd also spent time with his brother. Politely, he declined. Many unpleasant things, he told her, lived in the Royal Mountains, things that now included Rex.
That option rejected, she changed her approach. “Perhaps,” she said, “you'd like to go back to living with Walter?” But at the mention of his former owner, Raj's lips took on the grin that any dog owner would recognize. Instantly moving her hand away, Angela asked, “Where else might you want to live?”
“If I'm to stay in this universe, I'd like to live with you.”
She tried not to blanch. She didn't mean to offend the dog, but that was out of the question. While she cared deeply for Raj, hers wasn't the sort of affection that led to any commitment. She much preferred to be loved by all and obligated to none.
“While I'd like to have you with me,” she told him, “I don't see how it would work. I'm always on the move, you see. I couldn't give you a proper home.”
Worried where this was going, she next tried heading him off. “You don't want to live with Harold, do you? You know if you live in Harold's world, you'll lose all your magical powers, becoming just an everyday dog. You wouldn't want that, would you? You wouldn't be able to speak anymore, or build any magical hedges. And without any magic, your life will be so much shorter. That's not for you, is it?”
In fact, it was. “I see no point,” he answered her, “of living more years if they're somewhere I hate, or having special powers if they're the only reason I'm wanted. Harold stood by me long before he knew my real nature, so if he's still willing to take me back, that's where I'd like to be.”
“But why would Harold take you back? You were an awful nuisance.”
“That's not for you to say, is it? Let's ask Harold what he wants.”
And there it was at last in Raj's own words. How must he change for Harold to want him back? He would stop with his insanity. He would not misbehave in the car. He would come when called and know his place. He would not get bored and rip things apart. He would stop chewing on furniture.
“No problem,” said Raj and he meant it this time. In the course of the mission, he'd learned a great deal about himself, but so also had Harold. No longer a doormat, this new Harold had expectations, and Raj was okay with that.
“Sure,” said Harold, but what would Angela do to help? Raj was her responsibility, and if she wanted the dog rehomed, that wouldn't come free. Harold wanted the house.
She blustered and grumbled but Harold stayed firm. They bickered for hours but finally, she gave in. With little left of her wonderful smile, she signed the deeds with a magic quill pen and following that, they parted.
Before he could leave, she said she was saddened their time together was ending so badly, although she could understand why. He stared at her without speaking, then bundling up the deeds to the house, walked to the end of the red-tinted room.
Easing his way past the fine oak table and leather-bound chairs, the glass chandelier and the red velvet drapes, he stood in front of the gilt-framed mirror, the one that joined this room to his world. Curling his fingers in Raj's coat, he counted to three.
They stepped into the mirror together and entered a blackness so heavy, it seemed to have weight. Again he endured that feeling of speed and of rushing through space. A minute or so and the light returned. They stood in the kitchen of Harold's new home.
Slowly regaining his bearings, he wondered how long since last he'd last had a meal. Hungry, he ransacked the kitchen but found it unstocked. There was a packet of stale oatmeal cookies, and that would do for their dinner. During the mission, they'd eaten far worse.
Exhausted but happy, the two of them slumped on the chesterfield, mindlessly watching TV. And that was where the story ought to have ended.