by Daifuku Hoyako (惰猪腹 ほや子)
I woke up some place warm and bright, and that was the first wrong thing of the day. Campus housing was notoriously cold and dark, all those little huts stacked side by side on the edge of the island, the wind blasting between them fit to rip your wings right off you. The smell of yeast rose and expanded in my nose. Maybe I crashed in someone’s room. I rolled over and groped blindly for the release on the wind sash. Window open, I stuck my head out into the sunlight. It had that too-hot, too-direct feeling from thin air on a high-float sky island. I knew where I was. And I didn’t like it.
I opened my eyes. The grass under the window rippled as burrow rats ran through it, long bodies green on green, chattering in their little rodent voices. At least that was a familiar sight. Ma said they picked up a nest of them the last time the islet converged with one of the big city islands. I craned my head around to look at the domed roof. Smoke billowed out, streaming away as it got caught in the nearest long current. The ovens were on.
I slithered back onto the bed and sat up. My head hit the low, slanting ceiling. Rubbing it, I called back, “I am. Go away.” I rolled my shoulders. I was stiff from riding with the transport train, lashed to my suitcases and to a string of strangers playing follow the leader up-current. It was the only way to move all my belongings, but there was nothing duller or more dispiriting.
Derba pounded on the door again while I dressed. “Hurry up. And bring your wings when you come out.” I grabbed my wrinkled wings from the top of my stacked suitcases and stepped out into a cloud of yeast steam.
In the kitchen, Ma turned out loaf after loaf of bread. Her hands moved quickly, tucking edges under to form neat rounds and sliding them onto baking boards. She looked up, hands never slowing. “Good morning, sleepy head. The list is on the table.” I draped my wings over the back of a chair and picked up a sheet of paper. “Rycar is sick and Derba has the city delivery to take out.” She slid a full board of bread into the oven. “So you need to get the home deliveries.”
Derba walked in with a plate of toast. I had been away from home long enough to find the smell almost appealing. I stole a slice and took a bite before she could get it back. Nope, still dreadful. “I don’t work here,” I said.
“And yet you grace us with your presence,” Derba said. She held her toast between her teeth while she used both hands to slide trays of baked goods into a wicker pack. “I don’t have time to do Rycar’s job and mine.”
“I might have plans today,” I said, trying again to avoid the inevitable. I could feel my freedom drifting away, like a misjudged air current just out of gliding range.
Ma leaned over to kiss me on the cheek before she helped Derba into the straps of her pack. “You don’t believe in planning, remember? And it’s just for today, dear.” Derba stepped into the feet of her wings then pulled on the sleeves. Ma fussed under the pack with the laces. You had to put the pack on first, or the straps pinned down the fabric, but it made dressing a two-person job. “You’ll be done by midday,” Ma said and squatted to tie the laces on Derba’s legs.
“Besides,” Derba said as she twisted her upper body to test the balance of the pack, “you’re not paying Ma rent to stay here.”
“She invited me here,” I protested. But Ma lifted the pack that would be mine, so I gave in and slipped my arms into the padded straps. She helped me into my wings, the fabric bright orange where Derba’s were unbleached brown. “It’s a good thing I’m not tired from a long flight or this pack would seem really heavy.”
Out on the edge of our little islet, Derba leaned back into the launcher. Ma turned the huge wooden crank, the metal spring inside groaning under the building strain. The wind over the islet was easy, with a couple long currents above head level. I could see the slight distort in the air from a warm rising current a few yards off-island. I grinned at Derba in the ridiculous launcher and backed away from the edge. “See you later, sis,” I called.
It was hard to run with the pack on, but I got enough momentum for a good leap off the edge. I fell in a tight spiral, arms crossed over my chest and legs together. Then I felt the change in temperature and snapped arms and legs open. The strong current grabbed the webs stretched along my sides from wrist to ankle, smashed the air from my lungs with the first painful change in direction, and shot me back up past our islet. I heard my sister shout, “SHOWOFF,” then I found a long current going the way I wanted and I rode it out into the archipelago.
I landed at the last address with a stumble. I was a great flier, but that was without ten tons of baked goods strapped to my back. I had a crust of blood in one nostril and a scrape on my cheek from biffing it face-first on my first landing. As I walked up to the door, my legs shook. I needed to exercise more often. There was no one outside, so I went to the front door. Most of the regular customers knew the schedule and met me at the door with a harsh word about being five minutes later than usual. I had to wait about that long before anyone answered the door this time.
He looked at me over the tops of his glasses then refocused on the book in his hand. There was a streak of blue ink smeared in his pale hair. He had the scruffy look of someone who only remembered to look in a mirror every few days. “I’m very busy right now,” he said. The slip of paper from Ma said his name was Ethar.
“I’ve got a spice loaf and a half-dozen ring cakes for you,” I said. I loosened the left strap on the pack, which let me swing it around to balance on my hip. It was empty now except for his order.
He turned away from the door and wandered back into his house. He bumped into the corner of the kitchen table before he found his way to the chair. He had left the door open, so I went ahead and followed him. On the table, there were more books and several stacks of papers. He seemed to be in the process of writing something.
I bent to look at the cover of the nearest book while I set his order on the counter by the icebox. “Croal’s ‘Mythic Currents?’ That’s some unusual light reading.”
He looked up and smiled. It made him look about fifteen instead of, well, older, at any rate. “You’ve read it? Are you a student?”
“Not any more. I just graduated.” I reached to tighten up the loose strap but hesitated. He looked at me so intently, book propped on his hands, forgotten. If I went home now, all I had to look forward to was an afternoon of hanging around the kitchen. At best, I could take a hot bath for my sore muscles and a nap. “Think I could have a glass of water?” I asked. “It’s my first day working and I’m out of shape.”
“I have beer in the box,” he said. Then he thought of something, eyes snapping back to the book, and started flipping through pages. “Just hang–” He broke off with a look of fierce concentration on his face.
Never one to refuse hospitality, I pulled the laces free on my wings and shrugged out of them and the pack. The icebox had more than a student’s fare — beer, day-old bread, Glenroy cheese that never went bad, and a jar of pickled berries — but not much. I took out two bottles and popped the caps from both against the counter.
I sank into the chair next to him, letting the stripe of sore muscles from neck to calf relax, and pushed one bottle just close enough to be within sight, but far enough to not spill on the papers. “Where do you teach?”
“Retired, actually,” he said faintly. He was still too young to be retired. “I just write papers these days.” He tapped the pen on the table, adding to the existing cluster of ink stains there. He took a slug off the beer. Finally he looked at me like he had just noticed a stranger was drinking his beer at his kitchen table. “Do you remember the reference Delmort made to Croal in ‘On Legends Through History?'”
And it was wonderfully easy to pretend graduation had never happened, that I was not at loose ends and living at home, and just dive into the books. I knew the books, but Ethar might as well have written them. He spoke too fast and read three books at the same time. He mixed up his notes and changed subject mid-sentence. He argued history and mythology like they were life or death subjects. Eventually, he even asked me for my name.
Of course, that was not the last time I made delivery runs. Ma had no shortage of excuses to keep me in her employ:
“It’s just that this weather is so bad,” she shouted over the squall as she cranked the launcher. The grass was too wet to run on and the edges of the islet threatened to crumble under your feet in muddy avalanches. “It will take twice as long to get everything out.”
I double-checked the extra straps that kept an oilskin sheet over the pack. I lowered a pair of no-cloud goggles over my eyes. “This is the last time,” I said.
“The last time. Just as soon as the storm passes. That will only be a couple days from now,” Ma said as she pulled the lever. It was like being rabbit kicked in the back by a giant. The currents were crazy, crossing in all the wrong places. The forecasts in the paper were further off-target than usual. I sighed. Rain worked its way into my clothing, slashed in all directions by the constantly changing currents. Just a couple days, she said.
A week later, Ma put a huge cup of coffee in front of me at the kitchen table between batches of cake. “Are you feeling well?”
I sniffed the coffee suspiciously. “I was until a minute ago. What’s up?”
“Derba has a terrible fever. She can’t get out of bed at all. You were both out in that storm.” She put a hand to my forehead. I felt the grit of flour left behind. “You don’t have a fever.”
I dunked a ring cake in the coffee. “I’m fine. Which is why I’m–”
“Rycar can take the city delivery, if you’ll get the home run. You know the route by now.”
I wasn’t one for making long-term plans, but that did not mean I never did anything during the day. “Ma, I told you I was meeting the guys on town today.”
“Well, if you’d rather, that’s fine.” She set down the tray she had in her hands and picked up a different one. “You can take the city delivery.”
“That is not what I meant.” I groaned as she started filling the pack. There was no getting out of it. Again.
After a while, it just became a habit.
“When are you going to start paying me?” I asked as I shouldered an unusually full pack. There was no emergency. Ma had just put together a third pack without asking. Rycar had left before dawn to make the run into the city, where he hawked the goods in the city square.
Derba slammed the door on the oven. “You’re staying here for free. What do you mean, paying you?”
Ma laced my wings on. “You’ll make the bread sink,” she admonished quietly. “Dwin, if you want to work here full-time, we can work something out.”
“You’re not seriously going to pay him,” Derba said. “I’m paying rent on my room. How come he gets a free ride?”
“Would you stay out of this?” I shouted. “How come I have to take up half your work, if you’re doing such a bang-up job?”
“At least I can help on the ovens. The only thing you can bake is charcoal.”
Ma shoved us both out the door, still squabbling. “Help your sister on the launcher, Dwin. I have to take this batch out. Have a nice day, dears.”
I stumbled when I landed on Ethar’s islet, which put me just about through his front door; there was not a whole lot of land to spare. I could feel my brain and belly sloshing. Oh, yeah, I was drunk. Way drunk. Students know every feast day is really about drinking or getting laid or both. And on Wallace Day, everyone else agreed with us, at least about the drinking. For good luck, all guests are met with a special bowl of mulled wine on Wallace Day. Which meant I had just spent a couple hours making deliveries and enjoying all the good luck I could swallow.
I walked right into Ethar’s house. Afternoons at his house, where he wrote and I read and we argued, had become as much of a habit as the deliveries. I untied laces as I walked, dumping my pack and wings in the kitchen. I did not see Ethar, so I put away his order for him. His work cluttered the table as usual and I picked up an open journal once I finished.
I heard him walk up behind me while I read the final copy of his last paper. “I see you put the section on Porin’s disappearing continent back in. Told you, it makes the whole point.” The heat in my belly reached out to touch his heat at my shoulder, drawing my off-balance body to lean back against him.
A silver bowl appeared between my unfocused eyes and the journal I struggled to read. Ethar sloshed the wine at me. “You’re supposed to drink before you come in.” A hot palm settled on the small of my back.
“Oh, hey, wine.” I took a gulp. Tingles of spice-heat spread through me. I burned everywhere Ethar touched me. “Do I count as a guest?”
“You do seem to be making yourself at home,” Ethar said. He took the bowl away before I could take a second drink. Following its path made my head pitch and wobble, but Ethar was right back with a steadying hand on my neck. His glasses had disappeared with the bowl.
Then he kissed me, which was neither unprecedented nor unwelcome. Except I hadn’t been thinking about my new, strange friend in these terms. He pulled back and that was a good thing, probably, except when my body moved with him on its own. “I’m glad you save me for last,” he said. “Even if my bread is stale by the time you get here.”
“Buh?” He kissed my mouth open with the same familiarity as my unannounced appearance in his kitchen. The scratch of his stubble felt unexpectedly nice. There was a line where it stopped and his lip started and I worried the spot with my tongue while I was still deciding if I liked any of this.
“So you don’t have anywhere to be, do you?” He unbuckled my belt before I answered, so I figured it was just a token question. And that meant we were staying in the kitchen, someplace safely casual. His fingers were a little cold against my belly. I imagined them tapping out a trail of blue ink, ever-present on his hands, from my navel to the base of my cock where they curled.
“Gotta give me time to catch up,” I muttered even as I thrust into his fist. Fair’s fair in these things and I needed to make it worth his while. I hauled his shirt out of his pants, making room for my hand against the hot skin of his ass. “Shouldn’t jump currents on a fellow like this,” I complained, but I pulled him flush against me, trapping his hand between us so my cock was squeezed and rubbed.
“Wait, here, I–” There was a parting stroke to my cock before his knuckles brushed my belly as he opened his pants as well. Then it was just heat on heat, the slick heads of our cocks sliding against one another while he wrapped both shafts in his ink-stained hand.
We rocked together and oh, that was me, squeezing his ass and pulling him closer. Maybe it had been longer than I remembered since the last time I did this, because I started the next kiss, clinging to his shoulder with my other hand, driving my hips forward desperately. I was so close and so hungry. I tangled my free hand with his, strokes dissolving into a mess of crazed touches. It could go on forever and it needed to end right now, because I was going to die if I didn’t come. Because I was going to crawl into his skin any minute now.
Then I came, eyes flying open, hands crushing him against me, unable to see anything but him. “Blue,” I gasped, because his eyes were ink-blue, locked with mine, and I had never noticed before. He came with a strangled sound that had been my own a moment before. His eyes never left mine.
Immediately, he put an arm around me, settling in, like he had not noticed we were propped up against his kitchen counter. But there was a mess of semen on our bellies, going cool already. I twisted away, stealing a dish towel to clean myself off, and when his hand lingered on me a bit too long, I just classified it as part of My New Friend and ignored it.
The dishes from dinner had been cleared and washed, so I settled at the kitchen table with a couple of books from my old classes and what I could find of my notes in the mess of belongings that never seemed to get unpacked since I moved back home. I had thought of something to share with Ethar the next time I saw him. I wanted to take some notes to save him time.
One of Ma’s baking sheets slid across the table in front of me and a drift of flour fell on it. “What are you working on?” Ma asked as she turned a mass of dough onto the sheet.
“Just a little project,” I said. I could not explain why I wanted to keep Ethar a secret. He was just a fellow, admittedly brilliant and just what I needed right now, but nothing so special. Our kitchen tryst changed nothing. If there was something bigger lurking there, I couldn’t see it yet. “A little late for baking, isn’t it?”
A lump of dough twisted between her hands into a long rope. Two more waited on the sheet. “It’s just for us.”
“Right, because we’re so low on bread here,” I said in an aggrieved tone. Growing up in a bakery that doubled as a house had put me off bread permanently. I could only ever seen bread in terms of how much work it took to make and how much money it could be sold for.
“Your sister and I still like it. It’s been a while since you’ve been here for dinner. I thought you might be avoiding us.”
“No more than usual,” I answered blithely, skimming my finger down a column of verse. Ethar was certain an artifact called the Cup of Palance was actually a geological formation found on St. Molli Island and I was certain there was a reference to it in the book.
“I know you’re mad at me for making you work here. It did end up being more than just this once, huh?”
I didn’t look up from the book. “Noticed that, did you?” Ma and I didn’t snipe at each other the way I did with Derba, but it wasn’t all sugar between us either.
“I want to hire someone full-time,” she said. I looked beyond the book to watch as she pinched the ends of the three ropes together. “But I can’t seem to get the money together.” She braided the dough, stretching each rope a little as she went to make the braid tight.
“So I got recruited?” If I sounded bitter, I didn’t care. I had imagined, after graduation, I would travel, see the whole archipelago and beyond. Have adventures. Selling bread did not fit anywhere into that. “How much does it cost to pay Rycar?”
“We’re making enough to pay for Rycar. And Derba, mostly. She has me take a little more out of her pay for rent some months, but we don’t talk about it.” She pinched the end of the braid closed.
“What are you going to do?”
She draped a towel over the loaf. “Give things time. Bread needs time to rise.” She set the loaf near the oven where the air was warm. “We’ll make it some day.”
“I’m not going to spend my life delivering bread!” I slammed the door to my room in Ma’s face. I could hear Derba banging around her own room as I paced. Derba picked a fight almost every day lately. Just because she wanted to fly the same routes every week for the rest of her life, I was expected to do the same.
That was what I needed. To fly. It was dark out, a dangerous time to fly, but I pulled on my wings, yanked the laces tight, and climbed out the window. I would not give Derba the satisfaction of seeing me running away. Out on the currents, I still could not really enjoy myself. I could not trust the hot rising currents to stay strong as the night cooled off, so I did not dare do the pointless but relaxing stunts I wanted. It came as next to no surprise at all when my aimless drifting took me in the direction of Ethar’s home.
He set me up at the table with a beer and pushed aside some of his papers to put a plate of reheated curry in front of me. He knew I was hungry before I did, which was sometime after the first three bites I took.
“I was supposed to go out to the Kimble Ruins today. I told her a week ago they were opening it to the public. Then Ma says, oh, but the wedding is today,” I said around a steaming forkful of mushy carrot. “So I have to spend the whole day flying five dozen tartlets from home to the temple, where she’s baking them for the guests.”
“What about your sister?”
“She had to do all the home deliveries — you know, her job — and Rycar still had the city ones to do. Plus, Derba had to work the ovens with Ma after her run was finished. Meanwhile, I’m playing errand boy and I don’t even get paid.”
Ethar took a sip of beer. “You could refuse,” he suggested calmly.
“When she tells me she can’t afford to hire anyone new until she gets more clients and she can’t get them until she has more workers? She’s my mother.”
“Now, I just want to blow off some steam.” I followed him when he took my plate to the sink, too wound up to sit still. “Hey, I know. Let’s go see that new club on Mt. Quorry Island. You and me, a night on the town.” My mind flashed on a series of improbable scenarios of sex, violence and alcohol.
“I don’t think so.” He dried his hands on a towel and tossed it aside. When he settled against the counter with his hands braced on the edge, I could see where the water had spread the ink stains on his fingers into a splash of color across the back of his hand. “I’d rather stay here.”
“There’s nothing interesting to do here,” I complained.
He looked at me like I was really thick, which, hey, unfair, but there was affection in his eyes and the curve of his mouth. Then he took his glasses off. I knew that move, the image returning to me with a sucker punch of spice and alcohol heat to my belly. As far as blowing off steam went, that worked for me. I hooked a finger in the waistband of his pants. That totally worked for me.
The man was nothing if not hot, I thought as I tucked my arms to drop out of the long current I had been riding. Especially since it was impossible to tell how old he was and how he gave me that look, like he knew something I didn’t and was going to have a good time teaching me. Being with him was fun, even apart from the sex.
I landed and went into a smooth jog. I hardly noticed the weight of the pack any more. Ethar seemed to like my improved muscle tone as well, I thought and blushed. I blushed harder when Lady Mer opened the door because my thoughts were definitely not on work right then.
“But we aren’t expecting you until tomorrow,” she said.
I looked into the open pack. She was right. I had the jumbo cake the Teperaths had ordered, not Lady Mer’s usual dozen ring cakes. “Shit. Uh, sorry, ma’am. My mistake.” As I took off again, bracing myself for a scolding when I finally got to Teperath’s, I thought, work and I were not even in the same air system together.
Ethar shut the door behind us. I felt like an intruder as I stood by the bed, my erection complaining about the time it took to change venues. Ethar touched my shoulder, guiding me to sit on the edge of the mattress. Compared to a quickie in the kitchen, this spoke ominously of meaning. He moved my hands up to his collar, though I was sure I had been going for his belt. The brushes of his fingers on my hands, tracing the lines of bone and vein, made demands I did not want to fulfill. Buttons undone, I scraped thumbnails over his nipples and curled palms against the muscle there. His chest hair, sparse and fine, was darker than that on his head and showed the first faint signs of going gray.
He did not stop me this time when I unbuckled his belt, just dropped his hands to my head. That was the first demand I felt I could meet. I took hold of his cock as his pants slid unnoticed to the floor, held it firm with fingers wrapped around the base and my thumb tucked just below the head, and licked. My mouth was full of his salt and the lingering wheat tang of our beers and for a second I thought I would never be rid of the taste and smell of grain, of bread. Then he put his hand on my face, palm pressed to my cheek so he could feel himself moving in my mouth, and I caught a whiff of metallic ink. It was him. Just him.
I pulled back and slowed down. The anger and the boredom and the restlessness faded with that realization. The rest of my life could not reach me here. I had him to myself and it became too much immediately. I sucked him down again as far as I could go. I wanted to swallow him whole, get us off fast and get out. But the hand on my face moved to my hair and pulled me away. “Wha?”
“Not like that,” he said. I had a half second to be offended — what, I wasn’t good enough? — before he pushed me back onto the bed and said, “I want something more tonight.” Discomfort started to edge up into panic. I had nothing more to offer. He pulled my shirt right over my head, the buttons going tap-tap-tap against the end of my nose. The warm look that greeted me when I could see again was not something shared between two ordinary friends. My pants joined his and he joined me, straddling my hips, my legs still dangling off the edge of the bed.
I wanted to say something, I was sure, but he bent down to kiss me. The new angle made our cocks cross, bump, rub each other. It was all I could do to bite and suck at his mouth against mine. I ground up against him, only too happy to get off like that, just two points of contact and miles of safely empty air. “What did you have in mind?” I asked breathlessly, responding hours after he said anything. The edge of the bed pressed into the backs of my knees. “And could I get the rest of the way onto the bed before we get to it?”
I scrambled around when he moved off me, laughing softly. The pillow was thin and, laid flat like that, Ethar loomed over me when he straddled me again, reaching over to the night stand. He pressed something into my hand where it lay helplessly on the bed. A jar, cool and heavy. “You up for it?” He shifted so my cock rubbed behind his balls and between his cheeks, which was difficult to say no to.
The honest answer was too complicated, so I opened the jar and dipped my fingers into the cool oil. Ethar’s intense gaze coated me more thoroughly than the oil. Ethar reached for it, but if I let him slick me up, I would never last. And amid all the confused impulses, there was a steady throb that said lasting a bit longer was a really good idea. I knocked his hands away with my wrists.
He sighed when the first finger slid into him. He moaned when the second joined it. He bucked when I made it three. “For pity’s sake,” he said in a whine, “are you always this thorough?” Hearing that voice, the one he used when I refused to let an argument drop, brought back the intense knowledge that this was Ethar, no one else, here with me. My hands slipped when I put them on his hips as he lined up and sank onto my cock, forcing me to hold tighter until it felt like we would both come away bruised.
He flexed his muscles and rose off me in one smooth motion. My hips followed without hesitation. Everything was hot and slick and I had no complaints at all. It seemed I was alone in that, though. “Come on, work with me here,” he growled. I pulled him down hard to meet my next thrust, but even as he groaned, he said, “I don’t do this with just anybody.” The thought of him doing this with someone else sent an unexpected, rancid curl of jealousy through me.
“What do you want me to do, discuss your next paper?” I asked. My voice cracked in a soundless chuckle as it finally, finally sank home: this is Ethar and this is me and what we do is talk and argue and linger together. I pulled him down for a kiss, driving out every particle of air from between us, sealing us together. “Right, sorry. Didn’t mean to take so long.”
Then I rolled us, pushing his leg up and sliding back into him when we lost contact. “Did you read Morjen’s rebuttal of your last one?” I kept the strokes deep and slow as long as I could. How could I have ever thought there was a reason to hurry? “You have to do something to shut the man up,” I said.
Ethar met me thrust for thrust, hands scrambling sharp-nailed over my shoulders and chest. “He’s a prat. He never even read the original Porin, just the translation.” I was almost jealous of the effect Morjen seemed to have on him, as he bucked against me, mouth open but still smiling. Then, with a hand on his own cock, he said, “Co-author it with me.”
At least he let us stop talking long enough to scream when we came.
There were screams in the house when I reached the door and whoops and howls of laughter. The two boys who answered the door were red-faced and breathless, which was a feeling I could relate to. “She’s not home,” one said when I asked for their mother. “But she left money for you.”
“Can I get the bread?” The other one asked, reaching for my pack.
I turned so they could open it; it saved me the trouble of messing with the straps. “Two loaves of bread. They’re on the bottom shelf,” I told them.
They were rough with the pack and it jerked on my shoulders. “Got it,” one said. I could feel them make a haphazard effort to close up the pack. Then they slapped a wad of bills in my hand and slammed the door. The howls started up again. I shook my head. Cute kids, but I wouldn’t trust them home alone until they were thirty.
It was not until I got to my next stop that I discovered they had taken a whole tray’s worth of cookies and left the bread behind.
I fell asleep to Ethar’s voice whispering ideas and quotes from the major poetic works. It was a lot like being back in a lecture hall, especially the falling asleep part. Then it was abruptly, viciously morning and I had another wave of confusion as I tried to remember where I was and why there was warm light slanting across my face. I rolled over and buried my face in the nearest soft object, which was Ethar’s ribcage, smelling faintly of soap.
“Good morning,” he said from somewhere above me. I cracked an eye open. The mess of books and papers had migrated from the kitchen to the bed. He sat with a book open in his lap and the blankets draped low on his hips. “Do you still have access to the university library? There are a few books you could pick up for us.”
I groaned and flopped over onto my back. “What? Yes. Why?” I could smell coffee. I had never noticed there being anything to drink in Ethar’s house but water and beer. My stomach growled. How late was it?
“Here,” he said and a meat pie hovered over my face. Food that did not come from my own home. I could have kissed him, but it would require getting up. The night before was still lost in a dream territory, but my body was singing the exhausted praises of kisses and what followed after. “Can you pick them up after work?”
The haze of sleep evaporated as I bolted up, dislodging a stack of papers into a slow avalanche. “Work! I’m late!” I bit the meat pie out of his hand and lurched from the bed. Clothes. Where were my damn clothes? Everything was still strewn on the floor from the night before. I yanked on clothing, barely noticing if they were his or mine. I gulped the pie down in three bites without using my hands.
“You left your wings in the kitchen,” he reminded me. Then he rolled over, letting the book tip out of his lap, and looped an arm around my neck. I started to pull away, mindful of my complete lack of time to spare, but all he did was give me a lazy kiss before rolling away again. “Never mind about the books. We can talk later. Have a good day.”
I mumbled something back and ran out to get my wings. I was lacing them up in the back when the night before really came back and hit me. Ethar was– He obviously loved– And I– I froze. When the hell did all that happen?
When I finished telling Ma the many and various ways in which I had messed up that day, she patted my hand. “Dear, I love you, but I’m thinking of firing you.”
I shrugged. “That’s okay. The pay is crap anyway.” We were both hunched over our cups of coffee, trying to warm ourselves in the suddenly cold kitchen. The ovens were off for the day.
“What happened to get you so distracted?” Ma asked.
I didn’t want to just say, I got laid last night and now I’m having a proper freak out over it. Besides, it wasn’t the sex throwing me off; it was everything else wrapped up with the sex. “I met a guy,” I finally said. I dug a wad of bills out of my pocket. The tips were the best thing about the job, apart from Ethar and the regular flying.
“The one you’ve been spending so much time with lately?”
I looked up from counting the money. “How’d you know?”
“Sweetheart, I know how long the deliveries take and since there haven’t been any complaints from customers, that means you stay out late somewhere else.”
This just reinforced my feeling that everyone was two steps ahead of me. “It just started out as small talk when I delivered to his house. He’s a retired teacher. It’s not–” I started to say it wasn’t anything special, which it turned out was a rotten lie. I had expected the kick of heat and affection and friendship to disappear whenever I left him. “He’s nice,” I said awkwardly.
“Ethar used to teach at Meifeld Prep,” Ma said. It was no surprise she knew about him. The ones who deliver the food and the post always know everything. She poured more cream in her coffee and stirred it with a finger. “I don’t think you should see him.”
“I think it’s too late for that. He might sort of love me. Maybe. The whole thing kind of jumped currents on me.” I was not prepared to say what I might sort of feel for him. It was bad enough that once I noticed him, really noticed, there was no forgetting.
“He’s not a good match for you.”
I rolled my eyes. “What does that mean?”
“Oh, I don’t mean anything against him.” She flattened a wrinkled bill with her palm, not looking at me. “It’s just, well, you like to travel so much and he. He doesn’t, obviously.”
Ethar wasn’t the only one jumping currents. “What are you talking about?”
“Ever since the accident, he hardly leaves his home. He’s brilliant, of course, so the university was happy enough to give him grants for research.”
“For the papers. Yeah, I know.” I almost said, we’re going to write one together, except now that sounded like the most transparent euphemism. “What accident?”
“It was, oh, ten years ago now. Your school was on the other side of the archipelago, thank heaven. This was before they started to require the buffer poles on all public islands.”
“I remember that. We did a fundraiser at school for the … The survivors.”
“The school collided with Mt. Quorry Island. It was leveled. They said storms had pushed it off-course.”
“He made it out alive,” I said. I felt like I had stepped into a ghost story. The next time I went to his home, there would just be an abandoned building and rotting loaves of bread.
“Yes, he did.” She patted my hand again. “But he’s still just surviving. He can’t love anything but survival.”
I stood on the edge of Ethar’s island for a long time, just looking around and waiting. In the distance I could see the other islands of the archipelago, single land masses floating freely with a cluster here and there of islets strung together by ropes thick as a man’s thigh where rich families had ancestral homes. A few had a starburst set in their edges, shock-absorbing poles to prevent accidents like the one Ethar had been in.
Between the islands, just blue sky gone white at the edges. Somewhere down below there was a sea and an island floating in water instead of air. We told stories of that island since forever. People like Ethar, like me, studied the stories.
I heard the roll-snap of a wind sash opening behind me. Ethar called out, “Are you going to stay out there all day?”
I flinched. I did not want to turn around, but he would never hear me if I just shouted out into the wind. “Come out here,” I said. I felt irrationally betrayed by the realization that we were probably as ill-suited as Ma claimed.
A minute later, he opened the door. “Is something wrong?” He had a hand on either side of the doorway.
He really won’t come out, I thought. He’ll just stand in the doorway forever. “Come out here,” I said again.
He disappeared from the doorway. Guess that answered that, I thought. But then he was there again and pulling on a pair of shoes even as he walked out across the spit of grass between the house and the edge. He smiled when he reached me, a little shy and nervous. “Your sister said you traded routes with her.”
“She was here?”
“A man still has to eat, even if you don’t come around anymore.”
“I went by Meifeld Prep the other day,” I blurted out. “There’s a memorial with a chunk of the old building next to the new school. It said you saved a bunch of students.”
He nodded, not at all upset, like he had been waiting for me to say this all along. “I helped a few out of the rubble. I haven’t seen it since they rebuilt. Not quite ready for that.”
“Is it true you never leave here?”
He shrugged and rubbed at a spot of ink on the knuckle of his middle finger. It said something about how far gone I was that I found it sexy. “I get food delivered. The post takes my papers to the university and delivers the journals when they come out. Now and then I get someone to drop off books I need. I’m not a hermit.”
“But you’re here. Every day.”
He took a step closer to me and brought a hand up, but did not touch. “You used to be here too.”
“I don’t want to get trapped here for the rest of my life.” But the more he talked and just stood there smiling, the less true that sounded.
“I’m not the man who lived through the crash. That’s why I don’t go back there. There, I’m still that man who carried a dead child out of a collapsing building.” He stopped and looked out over the edge like he could see it right in front of him. The plaque had not said anything about the kids he saved dying. “I didn’t want to get trapped either.”
“So who are you now?”
“I’m the one who drinks beer with you on hot afternoons. I’m the one who lets you proofread his papers and make ridiculous, insightful changes. I eat bread your mother bakes and I feed you reheated take-out when you need to escape the house. I’m the one you made love to, once you stopped panicking,” he said with a bitter-sweet grin to make my heart race.
“I thought I knew what was going on.” I turned the idea around in my head, trying to figure it out. “I didn’t think there was anything to know about.”
He put a hand on my neck and kissed me, sweet and easy. “You can,” he said softly, “be remarkably thick sometimes.”
Work had been slow lately; my delivery runs were short, when they happened at all. My body had gotten used to the work though and I found myself lying awake at night, incapable of shaking off my unspent energy. And while Ethar and I were settling back into our routine, I was not ready to go another round with him, no matter how well I slept afterward. So when I heard someone moving around the kitchen beyond my door, there was no point in rolling over and pretending to go to sleep.
Derba sat at the table with a wooden box in front of her. She was combing her fingers through the contents and sighing. She looked up when I sat down, scowled, and looked away again. “Go back to sleep.”
“Not tired. What’s with the jewelry?” I asked as she lifted up a gold chain so it shone in the dim light.
“Picking out what I can stand to sell.” She dropped the chain off to one side.
“You hard up for money?”
She closed the lid of the box and folded her arms over it. With her head resting on her arms, she said, “You are so dumb sometimes.”
Rising to the bait might have earned me a good fight, which might tire me out enough to sleep. But she seemed so sad, so quiet for her. “So I’ve been told. What’s the money for?”
“Ma wants to hire someone to do a second city run. But there isn’t enough money.”
“She won’t let you pay for something like that. She only charges you rent because you insisted on it.”
She used a fingertip to drag the chain across the table, pushing and pulling it into blobs and spirals. “If we don’t get more customers, we’ll have to close up. Weekly orders are nice for steady money, but they barely pay for themselves.”
“It does seem like the word ‘profit’ has gone out of style around here.”
“So quit bugging Ma about paying you. It really gets to her and it’s not like you’re going hungry or something.”
I nodded and pushed the chain into the shape of a cloud. “Yeah. I guess so.”
“You’re the one with the fancy degree. Can’t you think of something?”
“Because mythopoeic studies are just what you need to run a business,” I said. “I guess I could take up tutoring. We’re all always done by midday.”
“Except Rycar. He gets decent business at lunch time,” Derba said. “Could we…” But I tuned her out. Lunch time. Maybe…
After everything that had happened, I thought it would be rude to just walk into Ethar’s home, especially at dawn. Though we were spending time together, our confrontation about the accident had not solved anything. He was, if not a hermit, at least earthbound; I was, if not a drifter, at least restless. Now, standing at the door, I felt like I was about to do something momentous. I wiped my sweating hands on the fabric of my wings.
Ethar answered the door rubbing sleep from his eyes. He was more stubbly than usual. “Hello again,” he said. He smiled vaguely. I hadn’t realized how much that smile, that smell of ink, and that easy familiarity had become part of my daily routine.
“I can’t stay long. I have to get into the city today.”
“Traded routes again?”
“There’s something I, well, we are trying to do.” I picked at a loose thread on my wings. “I’m not good at planning. I’ve been told by reliable sources that I’m thick-headed. But I don’t think I can walk away when I know someone needs me.”
“I’m not sure I understand,” Ethar said, but he leaned away so that I could walk in if I wanted to. I really wanted to.
But I had made a decision. “I just wanted to let you know that I would be busy for a little while. And to ask if it would be all right to stop by once things settle down.”
“Thank you for telling me. I want to get your take on a new paper that’s come out. Before I write another.”
“I’d like that.”
“Then I look forward to seeing you again.” It was all terribly formal, yet anticlimactic at the same time. He held his hand out to shake and when I reached out, he pulled me in for a kiss, laughter in his eyes. It had been weeks and if I thought I enjoyed his friendship before, it was nothing compared to the need that came after. “Good luck with your project.”
I saw him watch me from the doorway as I took off. Even as I headed into the city, it felt like all the currents led back to him alone.
I hung up my wings on the peg behind the display case and slid the pack onto the counter. Derba had the tag-along box half unpacked into the case. On top of the case, there was a tray of bite-sized pieces of cake. “Oh, samples,” I said as I popped one into my mouth.
Derba stopped arranging cookies to smack my hand away when I reached for another. “Those are for customers, not brothers who ruined a whole batch of cakes by letting the tag-along smash into a lamp-post when he landed this morning.”
“It’s not my fault,” I said. “Ma needs to put all the fragile things in the pack. Let the crusty breads go in the tag-along.” I stacked said breads into a cloth-lined basket and slid it back into the case. “They can handle a few bumps.”
“Or you could just learn to fly better.” Derba nudged me in the ribs and grabbed a tray from behind me. Since the shop opened, she had been in an intolerable good mood. My brotherly inclination to torment her could hardly stand it.
“Do you have enough for the rest of the day?” I asked. I had plans and they depended on getting out of the shop by lunch.
“I don’t need you to make another run, but I could use some help here.”
“Oh, sure,” I said. “What can I do?”
“Stop making that sad face, for one,” Derba said. “We get a big rush at lunch time. If you could slice the cheeses in the icebox for sandwiches, it would be a big help.”
I took three big rounds of cheese from the box and pulled a knife from the rack. The shop had been open for two weeks and I still had not had time to see Ethar again. It had taken all our savings and most of Derba’s jewelry, but we had pulled together enough to rent the shop front for one month. Rycar had all the home deliveries to do, Derba minded the shop, and Ma baked three times as much as she had before. And I spent all day flying, which suited me fine, even if I did have to cope with the tag-along slowing me down.
“I counted up the money last night,” Derba said suddenly.
“Don’t you do that every night?”
“We’ve made enough to cover next month’s rent.”
“In two weeks?” Derba bounced over to hug me, giddy and ripe for teasing and all I could feel was relief. It was better than we had hoped. It was, compared to how we had been doing with the home deliveries, something of a miracle.
“Pretty soon, we’ll be able to hire someone to replace you,” Derba teased.
“Right, right. Someone who can fly properly.” I was surprised by how little the thought cheered me. I flew all day, had next to nothing to do with customers or bread, and once things settled down, I could spend as much time in the city as I wanted. For steady work, this was not awful.
“That’ll give you more time with that boyfriend of yours.” She laughed at my surprised look. “Yeah, because Ma was going to not tell me about it.”
I brandished the knife in her general direction before going back to cleaving off wedges of hard cheese. “I would have time to take lunch to him now, if you weren’t intent on working me to the bone,” I complained.
A breath of cool air ghosted by as the door opened. “Welcome,” Derba called out. “What can I get for you?”
“Do you still do home delivery?”
I dropped the knife and turned. I knew that voice. Ethar leaned on the display case, sharing a grin with Derba. “You’re here,” I said. “But, I mean, you’re here.” Seeing him in wings was a deeply weird experience. I didn’t know he even owned a pair.
“I told you, I’m not a hermit,” Ethar said. “Besides, a fellow gets hungry when no one brings baked goods to his house any longer.”
“I thought you said Rycar was doing all the deliveries,” I said to Derba. She and Ethar both shook their heads and laughed at me. “Oh, you were thinking of me.”
“Yes, rather often in fact,” Ethar said.
“Get him out of here,” Derba said. “He’s totally hopeless. He can’t bake, he can’t fly. Ma would fire him, but she’s not paying him yet anyway.”
She didn’t have to tell me twice. I grabbed my wings off the wall. Derba shoved a paper bag into my hands once I had them laced on. It was cool from the icebox. I looked inside: two sandwiches. “That’s coming out of your wages,” she said.
“I don’t get wages, remember?” I grabbed Ethar’s hand and pulled him over for a kiss.
“So, does this mean I can get lunch delivered at home?” Ethar asked as we left the shop.
“I’ll expect a good tip,” I said. I squeezed his hand. “But I think we can work something out.