by shukyou (主教)
illustrated by veektro
“Only four crates, correct?”
Eryn nodded, then held up the small duffel he had clutched tight in his hands. “And this.”
The customs agent nodded and made a note of it. He had a severe face with bushy brown beard and eyebrows, both of which sprouted several small, downy blue feathers at intervals. Eryn had considered that kind of combination, which would have been both sufficient to the Reserve’s criteria and cheaper, but in the end, he’d decided that he couldn’t have been happy with that kind of halfway. The post-transition therapist had said it was a good sign that he was adjusting to a lack of body hair so quickly. Eryn didn’t miss so much as a follicle of it.
Nodding, the agent — whose uniform had the word TURGEI embroidered over the pocket, though Eryn didn’t know if that was a name or a designation — glanced over Eryn’s file and made a few more checks on the list. Eryn himself had double- and triple- and quintuple-checked everything before even calling to book the transit shuttle, but the scrutiny was still harrowing. Avian Reserves were among the most rigid and self-selective, and even knowing Paristu was more lenient than most didn’t make his stomach unknot.
Turgei at last shut the screen by his face. “Everything seems to be in order,” he said, giving Eryn a bright smile. He leaned forward on his perch and passed a data pad across the counter. “Welcome to Paristu. Been a while since we had a new member of the flock.”
Eryn felt his face color, and he looked down bashfully at his shoes — ones that covered still-all-but-completely human feet. He hadn’t meant to balk at the idea of leg surgery, but the doctors had sensed the hesitation and taken it off the table — that and any other bone-density modifications. Until such time as his dysmorphic state could be re-evaluated, Eryn was not cleared for flight.
Neither was squat, fat Turgei, apparently, though just behind the counter, Eryn could see beneath him powerful legs with great raptor claws that could propel even a rock-heavy body across great distances. There were Reserves where flight capacity was a requirement for admission, but the majority had accommodations for other interpretations. “I’m glad you were admitting,” Eryn said at last.
“Always admitting,” Turgei said with a wry wink. “Not your first choice though, aye?”
Eryn pressed his lips together and shook his head — right before he realized that he’d just insulted the man’s chosen home. “Well, that is — it’s very pretty here, and I like the–”
“A record’ll do that, it will.” Turgei gave the situation an appraising nod, one empty of judgment. Then he stretched and got off his perch, and when he stood, with his long brown legs extended, he was even a little taller than Eryn. “We’ve had a few come through in something like your position. We find recidivism rates are low, though. We don’t take the recreationally criminal. Just the desperate.”
That, Eryn though, was one way to put it.
The ride from the customs station into the residential area itself took ten minutes on a slow tram that began at ground level, where the shuttles could dock, and worked its way up toward the high canopy. Every so often, Turgei would point out some geographical feature or another, but Eryn could hardly focus enough to listen. He felt as though all that had been holding him together for the past two years had been sheer brutal anxiety, and now that it was gone, his muscles shook from an unfamiliar lack of tension. He was here, he was inside, he was accepted — and he was now going to have to focus very hard on making sure that the first impression he gave was not one where he vomited all over himself, the tram, and the only person in Paristu he knew. He focused on his breathing, glad that the vocal reshaping choices he’d made had been relatively minor and hadn’t impaired his lung capacity. Deep breaths, in through the nose, out through the mouth. He could do this.
When the tram stopped at a high, orange-painted platform, Turgei stood and Eryn followed suit, brushing his hands quickly over his head and arms to make sure sitting hadn’t gotten any of this feathers unfashionably far out of place. Some distant bustle and the whir of large machinery filtered through the air around them, but otherwise, the spring air was warm and quiet. “May I?” asked Turgei, and before Eryn could answer, Turgei had hefted up Eryn’s duffel under one powerful arm and started off across a thin suspension bridge. It was all Eryn could do to keep up.
Their destination wasn’t farther than the platform on the other side, but Eryn was out of breath by the time we got there. “Sorry, forget you’re still adjusting to a non-recycled atmosphere.” Turgei set the bag down and turned to the side of the tree the platform ringed, then cleared his throat and let out a low, distinct warble. A hidden panel flashed green and a door appeared where none had been before, revealing nice but ultimately anonymous quarters. “Well, here’s your place for now. Tomorrow, if you settle with someone, let us know and we’ll have your crates delivered there in a snap. Otherwise, you’re welcome here as long as you like, or until something else comes free, or you decide to make something better on your own.”
Something had been nagging at the back of Eryn’s mind ever since the interstellar transit had let him off into a world of bright blooms and new green leaves; he’d left a high summer that lasted most of the halfway planet’s year, but had been so focused on everything else that he hadn’t remembered not everyone else in the galaxy ran on the same schedule. “Tomorrow?” he asked, with a sinking feeling in his gut.
“Tomorrow.” Turgei nodded, then paused afterward and considered Eryn’s frowning face. “You know, Mating.”
“Starts tomorrow?” squeaked Eryn.
“And here I thought you’d arrived today on purpose!” said Turgei with a laugh, clapping Eryn on the shoulder. He had sharp blue eyes that matched the feathers in his hair, and a lovely smile, but he also wore a flat, wide metal band around the base of his neck that indicated he was pair-bonded . No wonder he sounded so happy about Mating; nothing was at stake for him. “No, tomorrow, though you can of course sit out if you like. Watch your first, see how things are, and then be ready for next year. It’s up to you.”
“We’ll see,” said Eryn with as much enthusiasm as he could muster. The whole idea sounded like a new way for him to make a mess of himself and everything else — but that sounded like an excuse for him to become a hermit, and the fewer of those he had, the better. Turgei explained a few more features of the living area, then told Eryn to call if he needed anything before taking off. The feathers on his arms were barely big enough to catch air for gliding, but a nearby tree had a rope lift that he rode into the upper canopy and out of sight.
When he was alone at last, everything was quiet — intensely quiet, in fact, for the first time in as long as Eryn could remember. He walked out the door again and stood on the railing, watching the late afternoon sun filter down through the highest leaves. A few real birds fluttered by, squawking and diving, and then they too were gone. Nearly two decades of growing up within stone’s throw of the shipyards, twenty years of a maximum-security penal colony, and two more years of working what shit jobs he could find to scrape up enough for his changes … and all for this stillness. The door panel still hummed if he put his cheek to it, and trams and trains ran to other place than just the customs office, but the rules in Paristu were clear: no elective internal circuitry. Life-saving devices were of course allowed, and he’d heard exceptions could be made for counter-gravity measures among some of the community’s richer members, but no scopes, no uplinks, no viewers, no feeds, and best of all, no inmate tracker tag.
The room was small, the obvious equivalent of an extended-stay hotel room, with one notable exception — instead of having a bedroom, a loft covered half the living area. There wasn’t enough space to get even the smallest amount of lift without disturbing everything else, so Eryn kicked off his shoes and climbed the ladder, then had to hold on tight when he realized what was up there. It was a nest, one made of strips of cloth and long pillows, with enough scraps piled in the corner to cover better than any blanket. He really was here. At long last, he’d finally made it.
He expected that the anxiety and terror would keep him staring at the ceiling until the wee hours of the morning, but as soon as he closed his eyes, he was sound asleep.
His first thought on waking was that he was still dreaming, having some incredible impossible fantasy that would end at any minute when the warden’s bell sounded. When what he heard instead was the gentle rush of rain through the canopy, he reached for the back of his neck and found only a fresh scar with nothing beneath.
He stretched out his arms and shook them, smiling as a shower of tiny feathers flew free and settled around his bedding. They were white, the fluffy undercoat to the dark brown that covered the crown of his head, the backs of his arms, the length of his spine, and his legs from his hips to his ankles. There’d been so many choices of color, none much more expensive than any other, but in the end, Eryn’s inherent shyness had pushed him toward the drabber end of his options. Brown, at least, might be mistaken for hair by a judgmental observer. Up close, no one would confuse the two, but at a distance, he could pass.
That had been before, though. Here, passing didn’t matter.
He had allowed himself a tiny bit of vanity, though, and as he pulled off the shirt he’d both arrived and slept in, he revealed it in all its matted glory: a bright red ruff from the center of his chest down toward his navel. He ran his fingers through it from his belly upward, preening it into a more presentable state. It tickled a little, but in a good way, and he turned his still-blunt human nails on the skin beneath to give it a good scritch. Heavenly.
Then he remembered Mating and his heart sank. He took several deep breaths and reminded himself that it wasn’t a big deal — even in the more traditional, bioauthenticity-focused Avian Reserves, Mating was more about social conventions and arrangements than permanency or even child-rearing. In Paristu, the literature had explained, it was more a combination of meeting new people and signing a one-year lease, with sexual and family arrangements to be determined by the couple absent outside rules. Eryn, who’d always been something of a romantic, had been taken with the pair-bonding ideals espoused by many of the other Reserves — but those reserves, understandably, had been less taken with his rap sheet.
And Eryn didn’t have a bower. He had a duffel bag and four crates waiting in storage. Sitting around and waiting would get him absolutely nothing.
He stretched his arms out to the sides, peered over the edge of the loft, and decided to take the ladder instead; he’d never get any lift over such a short distance. The rain outside had already begun to give up, letting daylight in between the damp green leaves. He watched the morning from his window as he ate a bowl of the granola that had been in the cabinets, a thoughtful bit of planning that worked regardless of whether or not the visitor staying there had undergone digestive tract modifications. Modesty compelled him to pull on a pair of dark pants and a plain white shirt before he went out; old habits died hard.
He stepped outside into a morning filled with noise. All the sounds of the forest were joined by distant music from at least three different directions. Through gaps in the treetops, he could see figures wind wide circles above the canopy, appearing and disappearing from view. He took a deep breath and spread his arms again, then tipped himself over the rail toward the ground below.
He didn’t panic like the first time he’d been sent to test his new gliding proficiency, but he definitely still made a spectacle of himself, tumbling down the air currents from platform to platform and landing in a half-sprawl on a bush. Three friendly elderly women helped him to his feet, clucking and fluttering all about how they’d heard their community was getting a new member but they didn’t know he was going to be so handsome! One of them literally clucked — she was a round woman with white feathers that shaded into rainbows at the tips, and she’d obviously had vocal surgery that colored all her words with a variety of avian trills and clicks. Eryn found her difficult to understand, but her companions seemed to have no trouble as they pointed him in the direction of various goings-on, then waddled off together on their way to the river. One of them even had broad, flat feet, and her floral dress lifted up in back to show a perky tuft of tailfeathers. And they looked happy.
So, for that matter, did everyone else at the center of the festival grounds. While some opted not to participate in the actual stated purpose of Mating (particularly prepubescents and pair-bonders), everyone, it seemed, had turned out to appreciate the party. He saw Turgei across the crowd, and Turgei waved back, then said something to a tall pink figure with a ferociously long neck, who waved as well. Probably his mate, judging by what Eryn could see of the similarities between the rings around their throats.
Eryn really had picked a hell of a time to show up. Paristu’s population cap was set at a thousand, but there were fewer than six hundred individuals living there, counting children — several of whom were running around the forest floor, chasing one another and screaming with laughter. A few had avian traits, evidencing how just how deep their parents’ modifications had been written, but most looked liked human children playing dress-up, with feathers woven through their hair and stitched into their clothing. An adult here and there might warn them to slow down or be careful, but most just smiled as the little ones barreled through.
He’d known all this about the Reserves before showing up, of course, but knowing and experiencing were two different beasts. It was loud and delightful and warm and free, and Eryn found his knees starting to give out, so he found a seat at one of the tables placed throughout the clearing. Tears bit at his eyes, and as he fought them back, he heard a voice from the other side of the table: “Are you the new guy?”
Startled, he turned to see a young woman sitting there, nursing an infant. She had the most glorious plumage he’d ever seen, green and almost metallic in its sheen over most of her body, then shading red over her belly. It took him a moment to realize he could see this because she was completely naked. When he gave a little nod, she laughed. “Ketzi’ah,” she said, extending the hand that wasn’t holding the baby. “Call me Ketz.”
“Eryn,” he said in reply, glad to leave his name at that. He shook her offered hand, then pointed to the infant. “Is that yours–” he started to ask, then caught himself and shook his head. “Sorry. Stupid question.”
“Not stupid at all!” She had an angular, bony face that wasn’t quite beautiful, but the feathers made her features striking. “This is Peep–” She raised the infant’s hand and made it wave, though the baby in question was far more interested in the large breast in front of it. “And Peep has not had a naming ceremony yet, so it’s Peep for now. And yes, Peep used to be living rent-free in my vagina, but decided about three months ago that the world might be a place worth checking out, didn’t you?” Peep ignored the question. “We’ll wait a couple years before we see about working off some of his debt, won’t we? Yes we will!”
Eryn laughed at the joke, then took a closer look at Peep, who was bundled up in a brown wrap but whose exposed skin appeared otherwise ruddy and mammalian. “Is Peep, um….” He wavered, not knowing how to phrase the question inoffensively. “Like you?”
Ketz gestured up and down at her own features. “Cosmetic, not genetic. I was actually born here. Peep’s a third-generation Parisite, as it were, and as human as I was when I was born. We’re sticking with that, and with ‘he’, for now, and we’ll change as necessary. That’s what we do here.” She rubbed her own green-feathered hand over Peep’s bald head, and Eryn could see that though she’d had some clawlike modifications made, her talons were filed down to nothing; he guessed that made handling a baby a little less treacherous.
“So you grew up here,” Eryn repeated, and when Ketz nodded, Eryn looked around at the festival proceedings before sighing. “Can you, um … I mean, are you…. Do you have any tips for this?”
Ketz laughed, a sound accompanied by a trilling note from the back of her throat. “It’s a little crazy, isn’t it?” she asked with a smile. “Well, most everyone here knows where most everyone else lives by now, so you’re going to have to do a little guessing. There’s eleven other central gathering places like this — most are in easy gliding distance, but the ground tram can take you to any of them — and this is what you’ll find there during the day. This part’s for everyone; even the people who work remotely off the Reserve take these days off. Around early afternoon, people will start to clear out. The ones that have their homes already will go back and open their doors. Look for shiny things: little lights, reflective streamers, even little bells in the trees around their front door. That’s a sign that people like you should start to go see what’s out there.”
Having not dated in almost twenty-five years, Eryn was suspended between enthusiasm and terror — but as it was little different from his mental state for the past two solid years, he saw no reason to let that get in his way. “And I can just … go in?” he asked, worrying at the tiny feathers on the backs of his knuckles.
“If a door’s open, that’s a good sign. You still might knock first. Or warble a few times. Whatever’s most comfortable for you.” Ketz took a corner of Peep’s swaddling cloth and ran it across his face, then turned him so he could see out over her shoulder. Now that Peep wasn’t nursing, Eryn could see his beautiful brown eyes, wide and attentive. “And then you go in, you have as much fun or as little as you want, and you two see if you want to give it a go for a year.”
“What, um–” Eryn knotted his hands together. “What if I don’t find anyone for the year?”
“Oh well,” said Ketz with such a casual shrug that Eryn could tell she wasn’t just lying to make him feel better. “Plenty of people won’t. Some don’t even try — my first two years, I just went and tried things out, knowing I was going to keep living with my parents. You can stay where Turgei put you as long as you want, or you could start working on getting your own place. And it isn’t as if, say, you meet someone nice in a couple months but you have to wait all year before you can live together. This is just to shake things up, to move the world around. Change, remember?”
Eryn nodded. “Thanks, that … really does make me feel a lot better.”
“Glad to help out!” Ketz gave him a wink; her brown eyes were the same as her son’s, only hers were ringed with a halo of bright gold. “Don’t stress. No one else does. This is all fun! Don’t take anything personally. Unless someone says they like you, I mean. Then you can take that very personally.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” A thought crossed Eryn’s mind, and though he might not have been so bold under other circumstances, well, she did say it was all fun. “Are you, uh, keeping your door open?”
She laughed again, a gentle counterpoint to the band on the other side of the clearing. “My mate and I are taking this year off,” Ketz said, and when Eryn looked at her bare collarbone, she brushed at the feathers there. “We’re not bonded, and we don’t know if we’re going to take that step, but we’re enjoying raising Peep together. He said he might go out for a night, but tonight at least he’ll probably just stay in with me and keep an eye on this little guy.” As if on cue, Peep took that opportunity to spit up, and Ketz sighed, though she never stopped smiling. “And I should probably go wash that off. It was lovely meeting you, Eryn, and I hope you have a great time.”
“It’s all fun, right?” Eryn said, giving Peep a little wave as she stood to go.
Ketz gave him a steadying pat on the arm. “That’s the spirit.”
Talking with Ketz had made him feel better, and spending the day meeting people and eating a little bit of everything in sight had brought back his earlier feeling of great contentment. The coming of dusk, though, had begun to shade that contentment toward anxiety, especially as he’d started to see individuals walking and winging away from the group. He’d waited until the fireflies had started to flicker in the darkness between the trees, then had decided that it was now or never. He might fail, but he was going to fail trying.
Part of his day had been spent talking to one of the few non-avian individuals allowed to live in Paristu, an elderly architect who’d married in and been allowed to stay after his mate’s death, who was more than happy to regale Eryn with detailed discussions about where houses could be built, where certain folk with certain modifications tended to prefer, the concerns inherent in putting that much stress on trees, and so on and so forth. He’d discussed habitation considerations in Paristu and had identified three arboreal strata: the ground-level and subterranean dwellings, the mid-tree homes, and the treetop nests. Eryn had three nights, so he figured he might as well start from the bottom and work his way up.
Dark fell fast at ground level, to where Eryn could still see brief patches of blue high above him when the footlights came on, illuminating the paths and shining on the houses. He stood there in a clearing for a while, perched on a stump, and preened at his wings while he watched everyone go by and tried to gather his courage.
When the therapists had rejected him for procedures in his teens, every one had said the same thing as they’d passed back the forms unsigned: Modifications weren’t a shortcut to self-love. At their simplest, they were decorative, tweaks temporary and reversible to achieve a desired short-term aesthetic effect. Less commonly — and more complexly — they were intended as permanent changes to make external qualities match a person’s internal sense of self. Time and again, he’d heard them say that as long as he obviously wanted something out of the transition that he wasn’t going to get, no one would even so much as prescribe hormone therapy.
He’d hated them for it at the time, of course, and they’d all been right. He’d been angry and confused already at twelve, and by the time he’d made it to the consultation process at fifteen, he’d been ready to rip out of his own skin without caring what he put on in its place. They’d red-flagged the way he’d been unable to decide — he’d told one doctor he’d always wanted gills and fins so he could live in an Atlantean reserve, and had sworn up and down to a different doctor the next week that it had been his lifelong dream to have inorganic limbs and genitals. If he’d undergone the modifications at sixteen that he had started at forty-one, he would have still been the same ball of untargeted fury, only one covered in feathers. He didn’t want to thank prison, but there were times he almost couldn’t avoid it.
Even so, as he sat on his haunches, taking deep breaths, he wasn’t yet comfortable in his own skin. He felt plain and frumpy and awkward, and he almost gave up and went back to his quarters because of a deep-seated certainty that every open door would slam as soon as someone saw his face on the other side of it. But Ketz had told him it was all for fun, right? Just a good time to meet new people. Nothing personal.
He walked along down the paths, looking at the different houses he saw there. Some had been cut into the trunks of huge trees, some were free-standing structures, some hung suspended from higher branches, some stood on tall stilts, and a few even burrowed down into the ground, giving no outside indicator of their dimensions. It was one of these that first caught his eye, a wooden gate covered in iridescent streamers and spinning chimes, the path behind it leading down into the earth. Eryn took a deep breath and stepped forward.
A pair of eyes shone in the darkness, startling him for a moment before he saw the body they belonged to. He was a short, young man with long, thin limbs and speckled brown feathers that began halfway down his pointed nose, then ran back along his brow ridges and the rest of his back. He was very handsome and very naked, and his strong, feathered thighs became stilt-like legs at his knee, stretching down into black-taloned raptor feet. “Hi,” he said, beckoning Eryn closer with tapered but still-human fingers. “You’re the new one, aren’t you?”
Eryn nodded and gave a little wave. “Eryn,” he said. “I’m … not sure what I’m doing.”
“That’s all right, Eryn,” said the man, taking a slow step forward. “I’m Shakun, and I’m good at it.”
“Hi.” Eryn waved again, feeling awkward but not knowing a better way to respond. “I like your house.”
Shakun broke into a wide smile. “Would you like to see the inside of it?”
Well, here went nothing. “Yes, please,” said Eryn.
“Good, because I’d like you to see it.” But before Eryn could come closer, Shakun held up a hand. “You’re new, so you don’t know me, but here’s what the people who do know me know: I love visitors all year long, but I live alone. So if you’re looking for something long-term, you should probably keep on looking, but if you’re in the mood for fun…?”
On the one hand, Eryn was a bit disappointed — he had already been thinking about how nice it might be to live underground, how cool it probably was in summer — but on the other hand, he was relieved to shed the pressure of having to interview a potential year-long roommate at the same time he had sex for the first time since before he was locked up. “Fun sounds pretty good right now,” Eryn said, and he was relieved when Shakun held out his hand for Eryn to take.
Inside was the definition of cozy, with windowless walls and rooms so short that even Eryn, who wasn’t particularly tall, had to duck in places. As soon as they were in with the door shut, Shakun hopped up on a small perch and began kissing Eryn. Despite his short stature, he was definitely in control, and when he grabbed the hem of Eryn’s shirt, Eryn was only too happy to comply.
Here again, though, the low ceilings became a problem, as Eryn raised his arms and felt them hit packed sod. “Sorry,” he said, but Shakun just laughed and hopped over to the nest that took up half the main room. If he really did live alone, he hadn’t been kidding about visitors, and could even have enjoyed them four and five at a time. Eryn followed suit and lay down across bundles of cloud-soft rags. This time, when Shakun grabbed for his shirt, Eryn could accommodate the request vertically.
As Eryn’s chest feathers popped into view, Shakun grinned. “Oh, very nice,” he said. “I’m a bit drab myself, I know, but I do love a man who can sport some color.”
Eryn laughed, feeling his cheeks go as red as his breast. He’d had legions of doctors poke and prod at every inch of his body, before, during, and after the procedures, but it was a very different experience having a partner appreciate it not medically, but aesthetically. “I was afraid it might be too much.”
Shakun clucked his tongue. “I say, if you’ve got it, flaunt it. It’s a nice little surprise.”
As Shakun opened Eryn’s pants, Eryn’s cock popped out, stiff and ready. He’d considered a number of genital modifications throughout his life, especially in his teens, but had come to the conclusion that as body parts he’d come equipped with went, he liked just fine being a man with a single plain human penis. He was especially enjoying it now as Shakun took his own single plain human penis — though unlike Eryn’s, which rose from bare skin, Shakun’s was ringed at the base by downy feathers — and rubbed it up against Eryn’s.
He’d been warned before that sometimes people with Avian tendencies didn’t tend to kiss, and Shakun seemed thusly disinclined, but he brought his face up to nuzzle against the side of Eryn’s jaw and neck, which made Eryn whimper. He raised a hand to do something, anything, he wasn’t quite sure, but Shakun took his free hand and guided Eryn’s arm back to the nest bedding. “Let me take care of it,” he said, pinning Eryn’s legs down with his powerful talons. “Consider it a welcome-to-the-neighborhood present.”
As presents went, Eryn had received few better. He turned his head, letting Shakun have access to the side of his neck, and sank his face into the bedding. It smelled of sex, but in a warm, well-washed way, and he felt the anxiety slip from his bones as Shakun stroked them together. Maybe he would come back and visit. This was high-quality hospitality.
Eryn whimpered as Shakun’s hand pulled away, but Shakun just smiled and drizzled a slick lubricant over Eryn’s cock before settling forward and sitting on it. The heavy feathers around Shakun’s thighs meant Eryn couldn’t see exactly what kind of hole he was penetrating, but it was warm and inviting, and that was all he cared about. He lifted his hands again and this time Shakun took them, lacing their fingers together as he bounced up and down on Eryn’s cock; his own thumped Eryn’s belly every time he came back down, leaving a puddle of precome trailing to the bottommost point of Eryn’s red feathers. It was debauched and he was fucking someone he’d literally never seen before ten minutes ago, and everything was great.
At last, the combination of heat and friction and the ache in his muscles from long-held tension began to build, and Eryn swallowed hard. “I’m going to come,” he said, his throat so dry that the words came out ornamented with trilling notes.
“Shoot it inside me, handsome,” Shakun said, and Eryn needed no more encouragement. With a cry that sounded embarrassingly like a squawk, he arched his back and came inside of Shakun, gasping and thrusting as Shakun’s hips didn’t stop pumping. At last spent, he fell back against the nest and watched as Shakun grabbed his own cock. “Can I shoot it on your face?”
It was a question Eryn had never been asked before, but he saw no reason to refuse, especially given the intense brand of hospitality Shakun had shown him. “Sure,” he said with a nod, and then Shakun was doing exactly that, spilling ropes of hot come all across Eryn’s face and into the feathers at what had once been his hairline. Eryn laughed; it was gross, definitely, but also fun.
At last, Shakun collapsed beside him and burrowed his arm into the bedding, moments later producing a clean towel. “Here you go,” he said, handing it over for Eryn to clean himself. As Eryn scrubbed the soft cloth at his soiled skin, Shakun stroked his side. “So, like I said, welcome to the neighborhood, stop by anytime.”
Eryn laughed again, happy in his post-orgasmic haze. “I really needed that.”
“I could tell.” Shakun carded his fingers through Eryn’s red feathers, ruffling them and smoothing them again in soft waves. Eryn had had his chest stroked before, but this felt right.
Closing his eyes, Eryn took a deep, peaceful breath and let it out through parted lips. “This is … very different. From out there,” he added, gesturing somewhere in the vague distance of the parts of the universe not contained in Paristu. “But I could get used to it.”
“How many other Reserves have you been to?” asked Shakun, who looked surprised when Eryn shook his head. “Really? Here’s not where most people wind up on their first try.”
“I’m guessing most people don’t have criminal records,” Eryn offered, waiting to see if Shakun would take the news badly. It didn’t seem likely, but he’d been wrong before.
Fortune was smiling on him, though, as Shakun just laughed. “No, they don’t. You lucked out, though. This is the best, so far as I’m concerned. I tried three others before I wound up here. Never fit in. The ones focused on only admitting ‘good breeding stock’ are creepy, and bioauthenticity is — pardon the pun — for the birds.”
Eryn laughed in kind, but the laugh turned into a yawn and Shakun patted him on the head. “I’m sorry,” said Eryn, “I don’t know why I’m so sleepy….”
“I take it as a compliment to my skills, don’t worry.” Shakun nuzzled their noses together, a gesture downright innocent in its affection. “I’ll point you back toward your place, if you want, or you can stay here and doze, if you don’t mind that I woke at sundown, so the night is still young for me.”
“I may just head back,” said Eryn, “but … thank you. Is it weird to say this meant a lot to me?”
“Not weird at all.” With a wink, Shakun hopped to his feet, then held out his hands and helped Eryn stand as well. “Or completely weird, but we’re all weird here. We’re no one’s first choice, when we should be everyone’s. But we’ll keep it to ourselves and have fun without the killjoys.”
In the full dark, everything looked unfamiliar, but Shakun sent Eryn down a short path that wound up at a lift; at the mid-level of the canopy, Eryn began to recognize things a little better. He made his way toward the tram station and was at his quarters soon after, then barely dragged himself up the stairs to the nest before falling over. His last full thought before he went to sleep was that he hadn’t put back on a stitch of clothing after stripping down at Shakun’s place, and he’d made the whole trip back naked. He was surprised at how happy realizing he’d been comfortable enough to do that made him.
The next morning, Eryn couldn’t quite make himself forego pants, but he did leave the house minus both shirt and shoes in the grey early morning light. He stood on the platform and waited for the tram, and when it arrived, he got on with no particular destination in mind.
As a general rule, no one built Reserves in ugly places, but Eryn couldn’t imagine many places more beautiful than Paristu. The long sub-tropical island on which it had been established nearly a century ago spanned nearly twenty thousand square kilometers, though most of it was uninhabited. It was a volcanic island, though not so much as a wisp of smoke escaped from the central mountain. Eryn could see a few large eyries established in the sheerer walls of its face, though he could see no infrastructure for reaching them beyond a winding dirt road that snaked up the rocky sides; they were for residents capable of flight.
The tram turned with the island and ran down to a beachfront area, so he got off and wandered for a while among the people there, all of whom were celebrating Mating in much sunnier public venues. He’d never considered any seabird-specific modifications for himself, but he was impressed by the people with slick feathery coatings who jumped from the rocks and jetted through the clear blue waters below. He was glad he’d kept his human feet, because the sand felt wonderful between them. And a pair of lovely young women sunning together gave him bright, approving smiles as he passed by.
No one on the beach recognized him on sight as the new resident, though everyone he talked to had heard one would be arriving. The beach was a bit more isolated, the server who brought him his lunch had explained, and there were things about the environment that weren’t always hospitable to others with more arboreal-dwelling modifications. News traveled, but slowly.
Picking sand out of his feathers, Eryn had no problem understanding why this place wasn’t for everyone. Though returning there for short visits sounded nice, he made no plans to stay around after nightfall and try for more permanent residency.
The tram wound its way around the far side of the island at a leisurely pace. As they turned around the southern coast and the ocean became a narrower strait, Eryn could see in the far distance the topmost spires of a metal city and the streaks of transport vehicles that darted through its airspace, steering far clear of the skies around Paristu. Some few Parisites — and that had been a less-than-affectionate name from the unmodified mainlanders a century ago, though reclaimed by the residents of Paristu so long ago that few but those who wrote the brochures remembered its insulting history — commuted to the mainland on rare occasion, but most never left for non-emergency reasons. He’d barely been here two full days and couldn’t imagine ever leaving.
He spent the rest of the day wandering around the other arboreal community hubs, finding them all more or less like the one near his current residence. Lost in his own thoughts, he didn’t notice how turned around he’d gotten until he crossed the bridge he thought would bring him back to the tram station and found nothing but a circular platform that branched out toward a dozen or so different homes. A few were dark and some were lit but unadorned, but one was spectacular — shards of reflective glass and metal hung from the branches around it, giving it a beautiful, deadly curtain — and its door was wide open. At least he could probably ask for directions there, and whatever else might happen after that, he’d just have to see.
There was a single figure seated at a table just inside the door, one so beautiful Eryn lost his breath. Most people who underwent avian modifications did have a specific bird species in mind — Eryn’s own red breast was evidence enough of what he’d been thinking — but usually they were tempered with choices and changes that kept the overall effect from being too obvious.
The person who lived here was simply a peacock, and a male-patterned one at that, despite enormous bare breasts and soft, featherless jawline that indicated femininity. Despite disparaging comments about bioauthenticity, even the most gender-flexible people he’d met thus far in Paristu had tended to stick to one side or another of sexual dimorphism — and generally only dimorphism, something else that made Avian Reserves in general seem a bit quaint to the outside world. But Eryn did not know what at all to make of the person in front of him and was helplessly intrigued.
The figure stood, and what Eryn had taken at first to be a long feathered skirt was in fact a patterned tail so long it dragged along the floor. Matching feathers sprouted from their head ridge and trailed down both back and front, at once highlighting and concealing a large, flaccid penis ringed by multicolored feathers. The overall effect was a bit overwhelming, and Eryn found himself gripping the edge of the door frame. “Did Shakun send the new boy here?” asked a soft, sweet soprano voice. “Is it my lucky day?”
“Shakun,” said Eryn, latching on to some part of this he could understand. “I was — I mean, I met him last night, but he didn’t….” Eryn cleared his throat. “I’m a little lost.”
The peacocked owner of the house laughed at that, but the sound was kind. “I suppose more luck was involved than I thought. I’m Crista. Miss Crista today, though not always, so it never hurts to check.” Crista extended a delicate hand, and after a moment’s befuddlement, Eryn took it and kissed it. With a pleased smile, Crista lifted her other hand to cover her gold-painted lips. “He said you were cute, but he didn’t tell me to expect such plumage.”
Eryn’s eyes darted to his chest, and he blushed. “It was just — it seemed like — well, you’re beautiful,” Eryn said, taking the opportunity to deflect the conversation back toward his host.
“Aren’t you sweet?” Crista swished her hips, fanning her long tail feathers out behind her; their tips brushed across the polished wood beneath them as she swayed. “Well, lost boy, I can point you the way back home, or you can rest here for a while and see what develops.”
Even though he still didn’t know what to make of the fabulous creature before him, Eryn was tired from traveling around all day and starting to feel the tender parts on his cheeks and nose where he’d spent a little too much time in the midday sun, so stopping for a while sounded like a plan. “Sitting might be nice,” he said, and he thanked her as she motioned to a chair that was mostly a soft, donut-shaped pillow atop a tall stool; he couldn’t quite pull his feet up beneath him, but he suspected people like Shakun would have been more comfortable that way. Thinking of his previous night’s host, Eryn turned toward the kitchen area and asked, “How do you know Shakun?”
“He and I, we get around,” Crista answered, placing Eryn’s glass of water on the table in front of him. “He’s nocturnal and I’m an insomniac, so our paths cross often. And I won’t brag and say I know everyone here, but I try to make it so everyone knows me, and I figure the reverse is only fair. I’m seventy-eight years old this past winter, but my memory hasn’t gone anywhere.”
Eryn didn’t choke when she said her age, but it was a close call. Wide-eyed, he leaned in — and how he could see the lines around her eyes and mouth, the curves at her jaw beneath bright feathers where age had softened her flesh. “You don’t look seventy-eight,” he said.
“Bite your tongue,” she clucked, using the feathers of her forearm to give him an affectionate chiding cuff upside the head. “I look exactly like seventy-eight looks on me. I have earned seventy-eight, every inch of it. You may, however, say I wear it well.”
“You wear it very well,” Eryn corrected, his hasty tone earning him a kind laugh. “You do. I’ve never seen someone like you before.”
“Nor are you like to again.” Crista stretched out her long arms in front of her, smoothing her feathers back on each in turn. “When I told the surgeons what I wanted done, they said, now, Crista, that’s not very practical. I said, to hell with practical! I am a musician, and we are tired of practical before we even open our eyes in the morning. And once my late father was late enough not to tell me no, I got what I wanted.”
The mention of her father struck a nerve deep in Eryn, somewhere so deep he would have been able to pass over it without notice had he not been so worn from a long day of motion. As it was, he only felt a brief jab, but it stuck in his craw, unwilling to be banished by happier thoughts. “I met a lot of people today, but I think you’re the first one who’s mentioned anything from before they got here.”
“Are you surprised?”
Crista shook her head. “Don’t be. No one winds up here because they loved too much what they left behind. I can joke about it now; I’ve had time. But for most of us, talking about before would be like telling people you meet about a stranger. You don’t come to a Reserve unless you’re ready to stop being whoever it was you were. …Oh, dear, are you all right?”
Eryn lifted his hand to his face and was surprised to find that his cheeks were wet. “No, I’m fine, I–” His protest was cut off by a sob, and his shoulders were shaking. He tried to explain to her that this was strange, that something must be going wrong, but his breath hitched every time he opened his mouth to speak, and he couldn’t stop crying.
“Oh, sweet boy, it’s the crash. Come here.” She stood and held her arms out, and he fell into them, embarrassed by his sudden and inexplicable but unable to resist the offer of comfort. “Everybody does it, it’s okay.” Cradling him in her arms, she led him over to a hammock large enough for both of them, and once she had him in, she climbed in next to him and covered him with her wings. Pressed against her breasts and cradled in the dark of her embrace, Eryn wept without knowing why or feeling obligated to stop.
It was a lot. It was, in fact, more than he’d ever let himself think. He could find a home with someone else or he could stay a hermit his whole life, and he could stay the way he was or he could go back under the knife until he was more avian than Crista, but it was his choice. He was free. Stepping out the front door after twenty years of confinement had felt like little more than a transfer to a new prison, one with bigger walls and better-concealed guards; this was free. He’d told the therapists he’d processed everything just fine, and he’d honestly believed he had, but every sob that racked his frame exposed him for the liar he was.
At last, it began to pass, and Eryn found every breath a little more under his control. “Crash?” he asked, his mouth tucked up against the soft curve of her neck.
“No one’s ever prepared for this,” Crista said, stroking his back. “But the think they are, and they come, and then there’s a point where it all just washes over them. For some, it’s when the shuttle lands and they see everything. For most of us, it takes longer. I was here a full two weeks before I woke up one morning and realized … I didn’t have to do any of it anymore. I didn’t have to be the good child everyone expected me to be. I didn’t have to be anyone but myself. I then proceeded to hide under the covers and bawl until dark.”
That surprised a laugh out of Eryn, one that felt good after all the tears. “It’s a…” He took a deep breath and held it as long as he could, then exhaled it into the soft puff of her breast feathers. “It’s a big change for me.”
Crista’s fingers found their way up his back toward his neck, and he jerked when they touched the place where once he’d worn the flashing tracker meant to mark him as an inmate, and then an ex-inmate. “How long?” she asked.
“Twenty years. Should have been fifty, but I confessed right away and got control of myself while I was inside, and that counted for a lot.”
Her fingertips traced the patch of scarless skin; she must have known from a previous acquaintance where implants like that were put. “Do you want to say why?”
He didn’t, not particularly — and yet what she’d said about introducing a stranger had resonated with him. He’d spent two years ashamed and trying to avoid it, but she was right: those actions belonged to someone who no longer existed. “I killed two men. In a fight.” He took another deep breath and considered the rest of the statement carefully, then pressed on, afraid if he’d stop, he’d never get it started again: “Because I was young and stupid and angry. My stepfather and his best friend, who were assholes, but that’s not a crime bad enough to deserve having your head bashed in. And for me, it was the biggest wake-up call in the world, just … oh, here I am, nineteen years old with blood on my shoes, I guess my life is going in the wrong direction. I just would give anything to have clued into that before picked up that pipe.”
As he spoke, Crista stroked the back of his head, and when he finished, he wanted in silence for her to push him out of the hammock or politely edge away or do something to indicate what a dealbreaker this was. Instead, when it was clear he’d finished, she hugged him closer, until he was pleasantly semi-smothered in her breasts. “I can see why wings would be appealing,” she said with a trilling little laugh.
“I’m nothing if not obvious.” Eryn relaxed a little and draped an arm across her waist, making their embrace more mutual and less parental. “I just wanted quiet. I spent my first two decades shouting and the next two trying to survive being shouted at. The choice to leave all that wasn’t a hard one to make.”
Crista nodded, and in that moment Eryn knew she understood — in fact, he knew that everyone there understood, whether he told them what had happened or never mentioned it again, what it was to have a past worth leaving behind. There’d been a knot in his stomach the whole time, a great big what if they know? hiding and gnawing and wearing him down. And why shouldn’t he be afraid of their knowing? That secret was why every place that wasn’t Paristu had rejected him. But then again, as he was fast learning, Paristu was unlike every other place.
At last, Crista pressed a kiss to the tip of his nose, to where Eryn could feel a smear of lipstick left behind. “Please don’t take this the wrong way, because I know it’s the holiday and there are certain expectations, and I’d love to get more intimately acquainted with your tail feathers. But I’m old enough to know when boys need sex and when boys need soup, and right now, I’m thinking you are a boy who needs soup. Am I right?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Eryn agreed with a bashful smile.
After a large bowl of potato leek chowder, Eryn was feeling much more like his usual self. After three large bowls of potato leek chowder, half a loaf of barley bread, and a few shots of whiskey, Eryn was feeling much more like his usual self, and full and slightly drunk to boot. He and Crista didn’t have sex after all, but they wound up in the hammock again, alternately making out and telling funny stories until well into the evening. Eryn didn’t even realize how worn out he was until he felt Crista poking him in the arm, asking him how he’d liked his little nap. She gave him the rest of the loaf of bread and a good long kiss, then pointed him in the right direction and sent him on his way.
The walkways were all but empty at this time of night, though Eryn could hear some people passing below and flying high above. He stopped at one of the more exposed platforms and looked out over the island, marveling at the night sky. He’d never seen this many stars planetside before; even the occasional light from the trees and the glow from the far continent couldn’t drown them out. A meteorite streaked across the atmosphere, and Eryn thought to make a wish before he realized he didn’t know what he had left to wish for.
“Lovely night, isn’t it?” asked a soft, deep voice from behind him, and Eryn just about jumped out of his skin. “Sorry, sorry, didn’t mean to startle you.”
“No, it’s all right, I–” Eryn looked around, then frowned. “Where are you?”
“Here,” he heard from slightly to his right, and the figure that stepped forward was so covered in sleek black feathers, it was no wonder Eryn hadn’t seen the voice’s owner. In the dim glow of the platform’s central light, Eryn could make out the shape of a slender young man with a strong jaw. He might have been dressed, but if he was, his clothing was the same shade as the rest of him. The wings that proceeded from his arms were enormous, far larger than for cosmetic purposes; this man had been modified for true flight.
Eryn shook his head. “It’s all right, I was just … lost in thought. And a little just plain lost.” He’d kissed and laughed most of the whiskey out of his system, but he could still feel the way it softened the edges of his perception. “No, I know where I’m going. I think. I’m Eryn.” He extended a hand.
The man paused for a moment, shifting his shoulders, then brought his arms forward, leaving the wings still attached to his back but otherwise behind — oh, then those must have been prosthetics of some sort. “Ahn,” he said with a smile. “You’ve got a little gold paint on your … your everywhere, really.”
Embarrassed, Eryn slapped a hand to his face while Ahn laughed. When his palm came away gold-smeared, especially around his mouth, Eryn sighed. “Would you believe, attacked by a peacock?”
“Crista?” asked Ahn, and Eryn nodded. “He does tend to leave a mark.”
Eryn frowned. “She said she was Miss Crista today.”
Ahn smiled and stepped over to the railing Eryn was leaning against, then peered out over the dark landscape. “And did you and she have a good time?” The dark ridges of his brow wiggled suggestively.
Despite wanting to say yes and perhaps salvage some of his dignity in front of this new acquaintance, Eryn sighed. “I mean, yes, eventually. But I cried a lot.” Eryn saw Ahn’s eyes widen, and he hurriedly waved his hands to indicate that whatever Ahn was thinking, he shouldn’t be thinking it. “Not like that. We were talking, about here and about before, and … she called it the ‘crash’? If that means anything?”
Ahn nodded, and his smile shaded from suggestive to sympathetic. “It’s tough,” he said, placing a hand on Eryn’s shoulder. “Not being here; that part’s easy. But believing that you deserve to be here — and that no one’s going to come and drag you back — that can take a little longer.”
“Yeah,” said Eryn, nodding. He looked at their shared point of contact and smiled. “Everyone here is so nice.”
Ahn let his hand trail up Eryn’s shoulder and down his back, until he snaked it around Eryn’s waist and they stood side by side, looking out over the treetops. “We all understand,” he said, looking up. Two figures circled and teased at one another high in the sky, lit by the half-moon that had begun winding its way up over the far horizon. “And we’ve all been judged. So we haven’t stopped judging, but we mostly keep it to ourselves.”
Eryn laughed and let himself lean into the touch, putting his head against Ahn’s shoulder with a sigh. “I feel like I’m not doing this right.” When Ahn made an inquisitive noise, Eryn clarified: “Mating. When I interviewed with the other Reserves, their representatives always made it seem like such a big deal. Pair stability and base societal units and biological essentialism and … other things. Tradition, I guess. And here I am, and last night I found someone who’s not interested in the long term, and tonight I just sobbed right through my opening gambit, and maybe I’m just not cut out for companionship.”
“Big deal.” Ahn shrugged, a gesture Eryn felt more than saw. “You just got here! Don’t put that much pressure on yourself. Nobody else is going to. We all tend to be bad about coloring inside someone else’s lines.”
That should have been comforting, but instead Eryn could only sigh again. Ahn gave his waist a little tug and pulled him so that they were chest-to-chest by the railing, with Ahn sandwiched between it and Eryn’s body. “I just … don’t want to seem ungrateful by screwing everything up,” Eryn said.
“If that’s what you’re worried about, then stop.” Ahn stretched out his arms and slipped his hands into the grooves on the prosthetics. Eryn had seen diagrams of rigs like that before, but had never been up close to one. He brushed a hand along the long pinfeathers and saw Ahn shiver with pleasure; oh, so these were the kind that transmitted sensation. Ahn returned the gesture, stroking the feathers of Eryn’s arms and getting a knee between Eryn’s thighs, making it Eryn’s turn to shiver. “Are yours rated for air time?”
Eryn nodded. “Not a lot,” he said, eyeing Ahn’s wings. “Not like yours. No real lift. Short-glide capable, mostly.”
“Then I know just what you need,” Ahn said, wrapping his arms around Eryn’s waist. He leaned in so close that Eryn thought they were going to kiss, but then Ahn thrust himself backward over the railing, falling out into open air and taking Eryn with him.
Sheer panic gripped Eryn’s heart, and for a moment he was certain they were both dead. Only an instant or two later — though those were instants that felt like years — he felt his body being thrust upward, kicked away into an updraft by Ahn’s powerful legs. By instinct he hadn’t known he had, he stretched out his arms and caught the air current, stretching his legs out behind him for what stability he could muster.
Ahn, on the other hand, kept on down in free-fall, and Eryn had the second heart attack in as many seconds as he saw Ahn’s body disappear with only the faintest ripple of the canopy below to mark his passing. And then he was back, shooting upward like a black bullet, flapping his amazing wings as he disappeared against the starry sky. Eryn didn’t see anything else of him, but he heard that great flapping sound again, and then a pair of clawed feet had the waistband of his pants, pulling him aloft for longer than he would have been able to manage on his own. They skimmed together over the treetops, ripping through the warm night until Eryn’s eyes began to water, and he couldn’t tell if it was because of the speed or sheer delight.
At last, he felt himself let go just in time for him to glide to a semi-graceful landing in a lower clearing. His hands gripped the nearest handrail and he doubled over it, trying to catch his breath. His feet had left the platform fifteen, maybe twenty seconds previous, and it had all happened too fast for him to process more than the sensations of falling and rising. His knees shook like leaves in a high wind. He hadn’t died. Not even a little bit.
Gliding, the doctors had been very clear about, was for small descents at altitudes where a perfectly human body could survive the fall. There were rules aplenty about it, condensed into convenient phrases. Short Distances Only. Keep Low, Keep Control. No Unnecessary Risks. Always Look Before You Leap. Better Safe Than Sorry.
He jerked his head back upwards, but Ahn was all but gone now, more sound than sight in the air above him. Eryn raised a hand of — goodbye? gratitude? — which he didn’t know if Ahn could see, and after a few tense minutes his heart rate slowed to something manageable and his knees no longer felt like they’d been replaced with kelp. He felt like crying again, like screaming, like throwing up, like climbing back up there and doing that whole stupid thing again. So this was freedom. He’d never known.
Silhouetted against the slowly rising moon, Ahn’s lean figure turned once, flapped hard, and was gone.
Eryn’s third morning, he took much more slowly than the other two, in no small part because crying, drinking, and free-falling had really done a number on him the evening before. He woke, squinted at the morning light, bundled back into his nest, pulled his feathers over his face, and slept until noon.
When he finally decided to get up properly, it was only to find bits of gold smeared over various bits of everything, and though it made him smile, it also made him look a fright. He caught a glimpse of himself in the bathroom’s small mirror and laughed at the mess sleeping had made of his crest.
Then he stopped, and waited a beat, and looked back again. He’d seen himself and laughed. Not felt disgusted, or disconnected, or anxious — he’d seen his reflection, and the only thing he’d thought was how silly he looked when his feathers were paint-smeared and out of place. He didn’t know how or when, but it was as though someone had slipped in during the night and replaced the face he had with his face. They looked the same to the casual observer, but they couldn’t have been more different.
Even so, it was a face in need of a good wash. His quarters came equipped with a shower stall, one big enough to fit two fairly substantial people, but what Eryn wanted was a bath. Fortunately, he’d come to the right place.
Advocates for any type of modification with specific biogenetic roots were quick to point out that just because someone had chosen to adopt traits of a particular animal or animals did not make that person the same as that animal or animals, and thus it was offensive to refer to, for instance, residents of the Subterranean or Colony Reserves as ‘bugs’. Usually right after, they would remind the general population that it was similarly offensive to assume that those same individuals, whether living on a Reserve or in mainstream society, would adopt the behavioral traits commonly associated with those animals; one of the first major Modification Rights cases won had been an antidiscrimination suit brought against a company by an employee with canid modifications, who cited how jeir coworkers kept throwing sticks and telling jem to fetch.
But even big birds loved baths, and Paristu had been built with that firmly in mind. Several slow-running rivers coursed throughout the island, and near the beach he’d seen a few dedicated pits of fine-grain sand. However, only a five-minute walk from his front door — a shorter trip with some well-timed glides, though Eryn was still a little too hung over to trust himself to even the briefest of air time — was a fantastic set of bathing pools carved into the side of a large rock outcropping. There were ten in all, each one larger and lower than the last, with actual soap-and-water bathing only occurring in the one at ground level.
Eryn stepped into this one and sighed as the sun-warmed water covered him to just above his knees. Several parents were there as well, bathing their various children while socializing with friends. He sank in to his shoulders, then took a deep breath and plunged his head under. In no time at all, he was clean again.
Feeling fresher now, he climbed up to the higher pools and found one empty, so he stretched his arms out along the sides to dry and stretched out the lower parts of his body underwater. The current that ran in one side and out the other caught him in its constant motion, nudging him from side to side with its ebb and flow. Water dripped down from where he’d once had hair, tracing occasional trails across the bare skin of his cheeks that evaporated in the sunlight. This was the life.
“Thought I saw you here,” said a familiar voice, and Eryn looked up to see a round, familiar figure perched on the pool’s edge. “Mind if I join?”
“Please do!” said Eryn, grinning as Turgei settled himself in with a considerable amount of splashing and fluttering. “It’s nice here.”
Turgei dunked his head under and stayed down for several seconds, then emerged again with a loud, merry exhalation. “Now that hits the spot! So how’re you getting on? Settling in all right? Meeting some nice folk?”
To say the least. “Everyone here is great,” Eryn said, nodding. “Just … great. I don’t really have any other words for it.” He gazed over the side of the pool, down to where a couple of adults were trying to corral about thirty laughing children. Eryn didn’t have much experience with the young for a variety of reasons, but he wished them well with that. “So … how would I go about looking for a job here?”
Turgei’s fluffy eyebrows raised. “You know you don’t have to, aye? It’s not a requirement.”
“No, I know.” Reserves that had non-communal wealth systems were few and far between. “I want to, eventually. Schedules are good for me. Even a little bit of structure. It’s nice right now, but I know after another week of this, I won’t know what to do with myself.”
That made Turgei laugh and smack the water with his palm. “Smart man! Lots of people come here and think, this is it, I’ll never have to work again. Most of them, at most two weeks before they’re looking for something to do. That’s why I turned to the customs officer on duty when I got here and asked, how do I learn to do your job? Six years later, I’m still here.”
“Only six?” Eryn asked with a frown. He’d already learned from Crista how bad he was at estimating ages, but Turgei had to be at least Eryn’s own age, if not older.
“Sometimes it takes some of us a little longer to figure out what we want.” Turgei locked his fingers and stretched them out in front of him, smiling as the joints made merry cracks. “But let’s see here: We’ve got a few people here who commute, if that’s your thinking…?”
Eryn shook his head a bit more forcefully than he’d intended, then caught himself and smiled. “Not anytime soon, at least. What about here?”
“Right plenty to do here. Skilled or unskilled?” Turgei scritched at his beard, then shook the feathers that had snagged in his fingertips over the pool’s edge; they caught in the breeze and fluttered gently down.
“Pretty unskilled.” Eryn shrugged, thinking back over his own educational and employment histories. “I’ve never been the world’s best student.”
“Construction’s almost always busy. Horticulture, too. Someone’s got to keep the trees off the monorail. Work on the solar array, if you’re not afraid of heights, though it’s hell getting up there if you’re not flight-rated. Those are community jobs, though; there are always individuals looking for help. People are always looking to get something cleaned, something built, something taken from one place to another. Find a place at one of the eateries someone’s got going already. Kids and the elderly, someone’s got to keep both eyes on them.”
Eryn laughed quietly, looking down at the water’s rippling surface. “Don’t think they’d let me around the kids.”
“And why should they not?”
“You’ve seen my record. Respectable places of employment don’t want to hire murderers, especially not when all it took to know was just to look at me.” Eryn wiggled his fingers by his temple in what he hoped was a sufficient mime representation of scoping technology. He’d only had two years of experience with it himself, since the technology hadn’t become widespread until after his conviction, but it had been long enough to learn how much he didn’t care to be that exposed to casual inquiry. He supposed it was fine enough for most people, but he wasn’t most people. “If I’d tried getting a job working with children, they would just have called the police right then and there and saved everyone the trouble.”
Turgei listened, nodding sagely, but with a wrinkle of concern creasing the skin between his eyes. He kicked his feet, splashing for a moment. “I’m going to give you a piece of advice: The faster you stop being beholden to the rules you think you were supposed to follow out there, the better off you’ll be.”
“Last I checked,” said Eryn with a sad smile, “you’re not supposed to kill anyone anywhere.”
“Well, no, you have a point there.” Turgei kicked a spray in Eryn’s direction, peppering Eryn’s far arm with droplets of water. “And if we thought you were likely to do it again, we never would have let you in the front door. It’s a community decision, after all, who gets to be here. Not just my call.”
“A co–” Eryn’s voice caught in his throat. “Does — are there — did you all — who knows?”
“Anyone who cares to, I suppose,” Turgei answered with a smile, laughing a little as Eryn sank down into the water nearly to his nose. “The committee, of course, but you’ve probably seen already how word travels around here.”
That, he certainly had. “Who, um … who’s on the committee?”
“It’s a different set for every application. For you…” Turgei hummed thoughtfully, scratching at his beard. “Me, of course. Nanco. Témoc, I think. Brenna. Arias and Elias, the twins with the pink crests, did you meet them the other day?” Eryn shook his head, still trying to wrap his head around the idea that his criminal history might well be common knowledge — that it had been common knowledge, in fact, since before he’d gotten there, and that he’d had no idea because no one had treated him like that. “They’re good kids, they are. And there was also Gwally, Thorana, Shakun–”
Eryn made a sound of recognition, then pinkened when Turgei gave him an inquisitive look. “We met. Shakun and I. The other night.”
“Oh, good, he’s a hot one,” said Turgei, laughing as Eryn sank deeper into the water. Eryn wasn’t embarrassed, exactly, but … well, it was hard to put a finger on precisely what he was feeling. It wasn’t as though anyone here was shamed by sex or nudity, but even so. Shakun had known everything. Eryn, on the other hand, had had no idea. “At any rate, I think Ntala and Wolf were part of the decision, too, but I’d have to dig up the list to be sure. There’s always around fifteen, too, so I’m missing a couple at least.”
With a sign, Eryn sat up enough that his mouth was just above the surface of the water. “So … the takeaway here is that there’s no way to not have people know about all that?”
“No, you silly goose,” Turgei said, making the insult sound somehow affectionate. He scooted over close to Eryn in one ungainly, splashing move and draped an arm around Eryn’s shoulders. It was awkward but so sincere that Eryn melted right into the touch. “It means fifteen people saw everything there was to see about you and said, our home would be worse off if he weren’t a part of it.”
“Oh,” Eryn said, and the syllable stirred the water below his lips before both moved on.
He’d read a fair amount about the atmospheric patterns in and around Paristu, and had even been able to remember that the jet stream often brought down gales from the north, ones that could blow through in a matter of minutes. But he hadn’t really understood just what the heavens could dish out until he’d venture up to the high canopy level, turned around, and found himself with ten seconds to run before a sheet of water rushed up and swallowed him.
Eryn had only ever lived on climate-controlled planets before, ones where rain and sunshine happened like clockwork, where winters stayed just this side of too cold and summers scorched in the day but calmed down at night. Paristu’s wild weather was, therefore, a shock and a half to his system. Great struts held the trees — some hundreds of feet tall — stable from the ground to a fair way up the trunk, but at this height, the only way to keep things from breaking was to let them bend. The high suspension bridge shook and shuddered, and as many times as Eryn tried to remind himself that he was capable of making a soft landing in an emergency, he couldn’t make that thought reassuring.
And then it was over, almost as soon as it had begun, before Eryn could even get to the nearest protective overhang of leaves. He stood and watched the dark, low clouds move off into the distance, taking their downpour with them and leaving everything behind almost the same as it had been before.
The ‘almost’, of course, came from how everything was drenched now, especially Eryn, who had taken such great care with preening and fluffing and smoothing and then fluffing again his feathers before coming out on the last night of Mating. He’d even been bold enough to venture forth without a stitch of clothing on, though now he wasn’t sure whether to be grateful for or regret that decision. He’d spent so long getting ready, only to be gobsmacked by a rainstorm.
And he had been interested in getting ready and getting out, even though Turgei had told him that not only was he welcome to stay in that place for a while, but someone else had just vacated a ground-level dwelling just the right size for a single guy like him, if he wanted. As nice as that really did sound, the best Eryn had been able to give Turgei was a definite maybe. He might be a disaster at this whole Mating thing and wind up spending the rest of the year by himself in a hole in the ground, but damned if he wasn’t going to give it one more good try.
Wetted so thoroughly that every step sent another tiny shower down around his feet, Eryn saw an open door nearby, one that belonged to a nice-sized treetop dwelling. The central part of the house was nestled under the overhang of high boughs, supported on stilts that ran upward from the trunk, and several smaller rooms and wings branched off to the side, probably evidence of more recent construction. A few bits of shiny streamers still hung around its eaves, leading Eryn to conclude that the rest had probably been ripped away in the same storm that had left him such a sad, sodden mess of feathers. He hesitated for a moment, then pushed ahead up the front walk. Maybe pity would get him somewhere. Or maybe they’d just lend him a towel.
The inside of the house was warm and bright, but there was no one to be seen, and Eryn stood there for several seconds, unsure what protocol demanded in a situation like this. Finally, he gathered all his courage and rapped at the open door. “Hello?” he asked, at what he hoped was a polite volume. “Excuse me?”
Two heads popped out at the sound of his voice, one from a doorway on the left, and one from a doorway on the right. The one on the left was black, so black it could blend in against the night sky, and the other was a bright, metallic green. “Eryn!” they both said in unison, then looked at one another, surprised.
“How do you know him?” asked Ahn, cradling a gurgling, happy Peep in one arm.
“We met at the fair. How do you know him?” asked Ketz, wiping her hands on a dish towel.
“Last night on my way out.” Ahn looked at Eryn for a moment before his eyes widened. “And you’re soaked!”
“On it,” said Ketz, already hopping up to a cabinet carved into the side of the wall. She swung it open, and Eryn could see inside piles of folded, stacked linens — including, thank heavens, towels.
Ahn gestured him forward with his free arm. “Come in, come in!” Despite worries about dripping all over the floor, Eryn stepped inside, though he didn’t make it more than a few paces from the door before Ketz was around him with two towels, one she tossed over his head and the other she wrapped around his waist. “Those squalls will get you,” Ahn said, bouncing Peep on his hip. “They blow through around dusk, so you never want to be too far out in the open unless you can see the whole clear sky.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” said Eryn, drying his face and crest. No matter what a fright his feathers had been when he’d woken up that morning, he could tell without looking that this was miles more embarrassing. He looked back and forth between his two hosts for a moment before sighing. “I’m sorry, I didn’t — I saw the open door and–”
“Oh!” Ketz looked at the entrance. “No, I burned a bit of dinner an hour ago. I was just airing the place out.” Eryn took a few sniffs, and he could smell the truth of her statement coming from the general kitchen area. “Such a nice night out, even with the rain, I forgot to close it.”
“There’s–” Meekly, Eryn pointed in the general direction of outside. “Some little streamers…”
Ahn looked over at Ketz. “Corvin?”
“Probably,” Ketz agreed with a nod. “We’ve got a neighbor on the windward side who really goes all out for Mating. I bet some of that got blown over.”
Eryn felt about the size of a snail. “Oh,” he said, the noise barely a chirp. He caught his lower lip between his teeth and let out a sigh, unable to meet anyone’s gaze. “So, um, I’ll be going now — Corvin, you said the name was?”
The horrified looks on Ketz’s and Ahn’s faces were immediate and unanimous. “No, no!” said Ketz, grabbing the towel around Eryn’s waist as though he might fly off at any moment, while Ahn just shook his head. “No, not Corvin. She’s a bit, well … she’s very nice, but–”
“She’s not your speed,” Ahn interrupted. “She gets … clingy.”
“Attached,” Ketz offered.
“Smothery, that’s it.” Ahn nodded. “Very sweet, likely to hug you until you suffocate.”
“And we wouldn’t want that.” Ketz gave Eryn’s cheek a pat. “So stay for a bit and dry off, at least, before you go out on the prowl again. Have you eaten?”
Eryn opened his mouth to lie and say he had, but his stomach gave him away instead with an audible growl. “Oh, I’m–”
“Sit,” said Ketz, in a tone that let Eryn know she was going to be a great mother, when it came to discipline if nothing else. “I’ve got grilled fish and the part of the flatbread that didn’t get too close to the burner. Is that something you’d eat?” It was, and despite all his desperate desire not to impose, Eryn couldn’t help nodding. “Great, you boys go sit down, and I’ll be back in a flash,” she said, heading off to the kitchen.
Ahn gestured to one of the benches on either side of a dining table, then sat down opposite him, sitting Peep up in the middle; Peep wasn’t quite big enough to hold himself up on his own, but Ahn’s strong, broad hand supported his back and neck with no effort. “I didn’t know that you and she….”
“Two years, almost exactly.” Ahn put his free hand near Peep’s lips, and Peep gummed at his fingers. He wasn’t wearing his prosthetics at the moment, though when he turned to the side, Eryn could see the hardware implanted into the middle of his back where they attached, metal circles ringed with black down. “And it was a year ago we decided we’d get to work on making one of these, didn’t we?” he asked Peep with a laugh. Peep seemed to take this as a challenge and tried to fit even more of Ahn’s knuckles into his mouth. “That’s my little fledgling.”
“But you’re not….” Words were difficult for Eryn this evening, so he gestured to the blank space around his own collarbone, indicating the blank space around Ahn’s.
Ahn shrugged. “Not yet. Maybe never. It sort of implies a level of exclusivity we’re not ready to declare. Not that there are laws against it, but once you’re ringed, people tend to think twice about making a move. I’d rather just have them think once.”
It was a simple enough thing to say, but something about the tone of Ahn’s voice made Eryn’s heart skip a beat. He cleared his throat and put it out of his mind, though, as he reached for Peep’s toes. Peep’s skin was brown, but the soles of his feet were bright pink. Eryn knew he must have been around babies before at some point in his life, but he couldn’t quite remember when. They were very small, babies, very small and oddly proportioned, and they made frightful noises, but he was helpless to resist Peep’s overall cuteness. “So, uh, have you thought of a more permanent name for him?”
“We’ve thought of something like fifty,” Ahn said with a laugh. “Though I keep saying we should give up and just keep ‘Peep’.”
“No we shouldn’t,” said Katz, waltzing back in a with a plate in her hand. “‘Peep’ is what my mothers called me and all the rest of my siblings until we had our naming ceremonies. If we kept calling him ‘Peep’, it’d just get confusing next time someone else had a baby.” She set the plate down in front of Eryn; the smell made his stomach rumble again and both his hosts laughed. “Dig in.”
Eryn didn’t need to be told twice. The fish was perfect and he never would have known about anything burning from the way the bread tasted, and any concerns he’d had about the awkwardness of eating alone lessened when Ketz picked up Peep and brought him to her breast to nurse. The air around them still hung muggy and wet, but between the towels and the breeze running through the house, Eryn got at least somewhat dry as he ate. He wasn’t certain his pride had been salvaged, but the rest of the experience was going to an overall better place, and that counted for a lot.
Ahn tore off a corner of the flatbread and popped it in his mouth. “So, how’s Mating been going for you?” he asked, leaning over the table.
“Um.” Eryn took the excuse of a mouthful of fish to dodge the question for the length of time it took to chew and swallow, but he couldn’t avoid it for long. “Not … great.” They laughed and Eryn sighed a little, though while smiling. “Not not great. But not exactly what I’d been led to expect my performance should be. Talked to Turgei today about maybe getting a job, though.”
“A job?” asked Ketz. “What kind?”
“I–” Eryn swallowed again. “I don’t know. I don’t exactly have a lot of work experience that translates here. Why, what do — do you two do anything?”
Ketz looked down at Peep and smiled before answering: “I’m a painter, though I’ve been a little busy of late. Illustrations, mostly, for writers on and off the Reserve.”
“I actually compile flight data.” Ahn patted his now-bare back. “I’m part of a team that’s trying to design a better system, one to support even flyers with non-aerated bones. I’ve got about a dozen wing sets that deliver telemetry to a mainland engineering lab. What we’re really focusing on right now is the balance between the aspect ratio and the wing loading, and whether the new generation of biometric haptic feedback circuits improve or actually impair the user’s–”
“He flies around like a maniac all day,” Ketz said, looking sweet and innocent as Ahn mock-scowled at her for interrupting. “And he crashes like a maniac too.”
“You crash?” asked Eryn, thinking of how their shared plunge from the night before.
Ahn gestured up and down the length of his body. “Please note all the parts are where they should be. All the non-optional ones, anyway,” he added, shooting Ketz a wink.
“I’m just lucky they didn’t agree to aerate your skull,” Ketz answered, reaching over to give Ahn’s forehead a knock. There were four major ways to reduce bone density in a human who wanted a body modified to be rated for flight, and all four had given Eryn chills when the doctors had described them. Aeration had seemed a reasonable way for others to reduce their bone density, maybe, and it sure sounded better than either type of skeletal replacements or removing certain bone structures altogether, but the warnings about corresponding fragility had put Eryn right off. He’d be content with drifting to the ground at his own slow, sturdy pace, thank you very much.
“Anyway,” said Ahn, shooing her hand away with a grin, “I don’t crash that much, and when I do, that’s good data too. I’d also really like more weight-variable information, so if you ever want to try a tandem fall again…?”
Ketz’s eyes widened. “He was the one you took over the rail? You are such an asshole.” She looked down at Peep as he pulled away from her nipple, fussing and twisting in her arms. “What’s that? Are you agreeing? Are you agreeing that your ba is an asshole?”
“His ba is a complete asshole, and would also like a beer.” Ahn stood and ran a loving hand over Peep’s head, messing up his wispy hair. “Would his ma and new friend like beers as well?”
“Love one.” Ketz stood and let Anh give Peep a kiss on the crown of his head. “I’m going to go put him down, but I’ll have it when I get back.”
“You got it,” said Ahn, giving her a kiss at the corner of her mouth. They were about the same height, though Ahn’s breastless, slim-hipped figure must have put him at about half her bodyweight, even without factoring in any alterations made to his skeletal structure. It was hard to say which one of them Peep looked more like, or if he even looked like either of them at all, given what they’d chosen to do to themselves. That, the literature said, was part of why the reproductive rate was so comparatively low among individuals with significant cosmetic-only modifications — it could be hard not to see your old face in your offspring’s new one. “Eryn?”
“Huh?” Eryn snapped out of his fog. “Oh. Beer? Yes, beer. Beer would — thank you. For beer.”
Ahn laughed and gave Eryn’s still-damp crest feathers a good ruffle, messing them up in all new ways. “Right back,” he said, striding off.
And thus Eryn was left alone in what he was coming to realize — now that he’d traded most of his initial anxieties for a newer, less distracting set — was a very nice house. It wasn’t particularly spacious, and was more a case study in clutter than anything else, but it was comfortable and it felt good. Everything was warm, bright wood, and the light from unseen sources lit the walls with a happy orange glow. Occasional strong winds made the structure sway, but he never felt unsafe.
No, he’d have to tell Turgei that a home on the ground just wasn’t for him. He could wait, he could stay, he could be patient until something opened up around the tree level, but even in Shakun’s wonderfully cozy burrow, Eryn had felt the faintest panic-edge sensation of being trapped. He was sure Turgei would understand his refusing what was a very generous offer. There was, after all, a reason he’d chosen wings.
When Ahn returned with three beers, he sat on the same side of the table as Eryn, not across, sidling up to him so they were all but hip-to-hip. “You’re cute, you know,” he said, tipping his beer bottle so it made a quiet clink against the lip of Eryn’s. “In a sort of quiet, terrified way, but I like that.”
“You must, if you push people from high places a lot,” said Eryn, staring down into his beer and seeing if he could hold back a blush by sheer willpower. Why hadn’t he had those blood vessels surgically removed?
Ahn laughed and put a hand right between Eryn’s shoulder blades. “Not a lot.” He traced a figure-eight pattern along Eryn’s back, circling the same two spots where his own prosthetics attached. “Just the people who look like they need a push. Which, at the time, was you.” His fingers were warm as they ruffled up beneath Eryn’s feathers, caressing the skin beneath. “You need another one?”
Eryn took in a deep breath and let it out through pursed lips, considering the weight of the question, the weight of his past, the weight of his own flightless body. “I used to be easy to push. Too easy. Got me in a lot of trouble.”
“Then you just need better influences,” said Ahn, leaning in.
Eryn jumped, spooked, as the door to the far room opened and Ketz walked in, but Ahn didn’t pull away, and Ketz didn’t look surprised at all to see them so close. “Okay!” she said softly, rubbing her hands together. “He was awake and moving around for most of the day, so he should sleep through the night. Babies aren’t always good at knowing how to butt out when it’s Adult Time.”
“Are you still thinking about going out?” Ahn nudged the one beer left untouched over in her direction.
“Not if he’s thinking about staying,” said Ketz, pointing to Eryn as she sat down on his far side. She took the bottle of beer and placed it between her breasts, letting the condensation from the cold bottle dampen her feathers there, and smiled. “I wouldn’t mind a night out, but I won’t say no to a night in.”
“Um,” said Eryn, which was about as coherent of a response as he could manage. He looked from Ketz to Ahn and back to Ketz again, at once hoping and dreading that he understood exactly what they meant. Open relationships were one thing, but the coupling paradigm was so prevalent in everything he’d learned about Avian Reserve cultures that the idea of being a third wasn’t upsetting to him personally — it was just something he’d never considered might be an option. But with warm bodies on either side of him, it was becoming a more plausible possibility at every moment.
Ketz smiled and put her hand on Eryn’s thigh. “Your choice, of course. If this isn’t your speed, say the word and we’ll all fly off to different things.”
“Can I make a guess?” asked Ahn.
It took Eryn a moment to realize the question had been directed toward him. “Guess?”
Ahn poked him in the middle of his back, then snuck his hand beneath Eryn’s fingers and ran them up his spine, making Eryn shiver. “I guess you’d really like to stay but are worried about too many other things to just say ‘yes’. So what you need is that push.”
Despite his nervousness, Eryn laughed, though the neck of the beer bottle caught most of the sound. “Maybe,” he said with a little shrug, hoping it was enough.
It was. Ahn gave Eryn a little shove in the middle of his back, right into Ketz’s waiting arms, and she grabbed him on either side of his face and kissed him hard. She had a sweet little mouth, but that little mouth hid little teeth, and she wasn’t afraid to use them to grab at his lips and tongue. A pair of strong arms wrapped around his waist from behind, petting at his belly, and Ahn’s mouth kissed at the curve of his neck, right where his plumage gave way to skin.
Eryn didn’t know where to put his hands, so he settled for Ketz’s breasts, and from the noise she made, it was the right choice. Of course, from the way it made Ahn freeze, ‘right’ was relative. “Let’s move this somewhere we won’t wake the baby,” he said over Eryn’s shoulder, and Ketz mouthed ‘oops’ with an insincerely sorry expression before standing and reaching for Eryn’s hands. He placed them in her clawlike ones and she tugged him to his feet, the dragged him forward toward a small flight of stairs that led to an upstairs nook. This house really was amazing.
Ahn slipped right up the stairs behind him, grabbing hold of Eryn’s ass and shoving him upwards in a way that made him stumble right into Ketz, who took the collision into a tackle and pulled him forward. The loft was too small for standing, but Eryn could kneel and still have some clearance before his head hit the ceiling, so he positioned himself as upright as he could, trying still to seem like he had some sort of control over the situation.
He didn’t. Ahn toppled him and climbed astride his waist, grinning. He was light, unbelievably light, but even that slight pressure against Eryn’s body felt good. “As secondary sex characteristics go,” said Ahn, ruffling Eryn’s chest feathers, “you have definitely hit on what I like.”
Eryn looked over at Ketz, whose own body was bright red from just beneath her breasts on down, and Ketz laughed. “That is exactly what I thought the first time I saw you,” she said, poking Eryn in the arm. “Better go tell Ahn he’s got another red breast to ogle.”
“You make me sound like such a pig,” Ahn said, though he was still smiling.
“You are a pig.” Ketz rocked up on her knees so she and Ahn were face-to-face. “A pig that flies.”
Ahn made an oinking sound, and when Ketz giggled, he kissed her and groped her breast with the hand that wasn’t resting on Eryn’s chest, holding them steady. Eryn felt his cock rise and throb against Ahn’s body, right into the soft black feathers that obscured most of his body’s finer details, especially those between his legs. The scene before him was definitely arousing, but he wanted more, so he lifted his hands and put one against Ahn’s thigh, then curved the other around Ketz’s shapely ass, just beneath her tail.
That broke Ahn and Ketz’s embrace, and they descended, laughing as they fell on either side of him. Ketz smiled and gave Eryn a nudge toward Ahn, so Eryn rolled onto his side and into Ahn’s arms. Ahn kissed him greedily, his mouth far rougher than Ketz’s. What he lacked in mass, he made up for in sheer ferocity. Ketz’s arms wrapped around Eryn’s chest, stroking his belly and teasing at the tip of his cock with her fingertips, though never making more than the briefest contact. Content to pay the gesture forward, Eryn slipped his hand between Ahn’s thighs and slid it upward toward the juncture of his legs, happy to explore — and then baffled when what he found there seemed to be a mass of feathers with nothing but smooth, unfeatured skin beneath.
His surprise must have been evident, because Anh laughed and Ketz peeked over Eryn’s shoulder to see what was going on. A moment later she sighed and kissed Eryn’s ear. “Don’t mind him,” she said, her voice the epitome of affectionate patience. “I think startling people is one of his kinks.”
“I resent that implication,” said Ahn, who took no further steps to deny it. “One of the most important steps in preparing for regular flight is removing excess weight, up to and including organs you weren’t using. You wouldn’t believe how many lungs I don’t have.” He took Eryn’s hand and returned it right to where it was, guiding Eryn’s fingers back and forth against the featureless skin there. “Still feels good, though. Don’t stop.”
Eryn didn’t. Ahn was quite possibly the battiest, most reckless person he’d ever met, and he was loving being at the mercy of it. He ground his hand against the pubic bone he felt beneath Ahn’s skin, smiling as Ahn sighed and closed his dark eyes, sinking into the touch. A minute or so later, Ketz pushed his hand away and instead replaced it with her own; she wrapped it around Eryn’s cock and used that to grind up against Ahn’s body. Ketz laughed as both men sighed and grabbed for one another, kissing deeply as Ketz pleasured them both. “This is a neat trick,” she said to no one in particular.
It was Ahn who broke the embrace first, nudging Eryn back onto his back and brushing a hand up Ketz’s arm. “Feel like taking a ride?” Ahn asked with a smirk.
With a wicked laugh, Ketz looked down at Eryn’s cock in her hand. “Feel like lending a hand?”
“Always,” said Ahn, shuffling so he was sitting upright. Instead of going for Ketz, though, he slipped his arms around Eryn and sat him up as well — though that was a bit more of an awkward shift, given how Eryn’s arousal had left him somewhat worse for wear in the limb control department. At last, they worked Eryn onto his back in Ahn’s lap, until his head was resting against Ahn’s chest. Ahn planted a kiss atop his head, and Eryn smiled.
Ketz took her place astride Eryn’s hips and rubbed the tip of his cock up and down the folds of skin between her legs, until they were both wet and sticky together. Ahn stroked Eryn’s chest the whole time, and despite earlier comments about lungs (or lack thereof), Eryn could feel the tidal rise and fall of Ahn’s breath. “Are you seated comfortably, gentlemen?” she asked, looking at them both.
Ahn nodded and Eryn managed, “Yes, ma’am.”
“So polite,” said Ketz, and she shifted her hips forward so that her pussy swallowed his cock, taking it into her warmth and wetness in a single definitive move that made her breasts bounce when she hit bottom. She gasped as she did, then grabbed for Eryn’s hands and leaned forward into them, until her large, hard nipples caught between his fingers. By reflex, he squeezed, and little droplets of milk beaded at the tips. Ketz hissed a little, but didn’t draw back. “Careful,” she warned, her voice soft, “somebody’s getting his teeth already.”
“Sorry,” said Eryn, relenting and pawing at her breasts more generally. She smiled at that, so he did it again, leaving his hips still. Ketz was in charge here, and as a guest, he was more than happy to abide by house rules.
Ahn ran his hands up and down the backs of Eryn’s arms, ruffling and smoothing his feathers with each stroke. His arousal was difficult to gauge by standard genital cues, perhaps, but perfectly clear from his sharp, shallow breaths. He caught the curve of Eryn’s ear between his teeth, giving it a gentle tug and a lick before biting again. Eryn shivered and twitched as Ketz moved her hips, riding him with visible pleasure.
He’d thought her striking when he’d met her, but hadn’t let his imagination go much farther than that, slotting her into the realm of ‘probably unattainable’ for an innumerable list of reasons. His own sexuality had always been a bit catch-as-catch-can (despite twenty years when catch couldn’t), but he’d always had a soft spot — or perhaps a hard one — for breasts and hips and thighs. Ketz had all of those in abundance, and right now they were all concerned with the mechanics of bouncing on his cock. He squeezed her breasts again and grinned as this time the noise she made was much happier.
Ahn kissed his way down Eryn’s cheek and throat, nuzzling skin there in a way that made Eryn whimper. “I think he’s getting close,” said Ahn, speaking to Ketz even though all the words came out flush against Eryn’s skin. Breathless, all Eryn could do was nod, to which Ahn laughed. “I think he’s very close.”
“Then don’t hold out on my account,” said Ketz, grinding her hips against Eryn’s body, and there was just no way Eryn could have resisted that. He made a valiant effort toward keeping his performance going, but to little avail — after barely a minute more of Ketz’s athletic bouncing and gasping, Eryn came right inside her, shooting off hot and hard. Ketz laughed as he did, the sound happy and trilling. It was good to feel like this, and even better to make someone else feel that happy.
As the world came back into focus, though, Eryn heard a sound that wasn’t laughter — it was pain. He was afraid for a moment that he’d injured someone somehow, but what he heard from Ketz and Ahn instead were not complaints, but long sighs. “I got him,” said Ahn, slipping out from under Eryn’s splayed body. “But don’t you dare start up again without me.”
“Of course not.” Ketz blew him a kiss as she climbed off of Eryn’s softening cock. Ahn mimed catching it as he trudged down the stairs to the rest of the house, and Ketz flopped down next to Eryn, snuggling up next to him. She ran her fingers through his red feathers and smiled. “You’re pretty good at that, you know,” she said with a grin.
Eryn shrugged, feeling bashful again now that the proceedings were at a halt and he seemed to be the only one who’d gotten off. “Didn’t do much.”
“Sometimes that’s the best. Let someone else do the work.” Ketz nuzzled his cheek. “Though I wouldn’t say no to turning the tables. Or a repeat performance right here tonight. …Or in the morning. Or tomorrow night. Or any time I wanted it.”
This was the first time Eryn got a chance to look around the space they’d occupied and realize that it wasn’t Ketz and Ahn’s bedroom — he hadn’t realized it at the time, but that must have been the room where they were keeping Peep, and though he’d only seen bits of it through the doorway, it had been cluttered and filled with the accoutrements of shared living. This was emptier and far less personalized than he’d expect from a long-term sleeping arrangement for two people. It was, in short, a guest nest. “Oh, I–” Eryn cleared his throat. “I mean, shouldn’t Ahn….”
“Trust me, he’ll love the idea.” Ketz laughed. “Someone around to help take care of the place and listen to him yap about aerodynamics? Like all his dreams come true.” Before Eryn could answer, she patted his chest. “Think about it. No rush — the offer doesn’t expire on the stroke of midnight, and it doesn’t tie you down here until next year if you do say yes. The last thing we’d want to do is clip your wings. But it might be nice, having someone else around.”
Nice, indeed. A home like this, a family ready to take him in — ‘nice’ didn’t begin to cover it. “I’ll think about it,” he said, and he meant it.
“Good.” Ketz kissed him on the cheek, then at the corner of his mouth, then finally on his lips, deep and slow. “Because that was very nice,” she murmured against his lips, slipping her hand down to Eryn’s still-slick cock — which despite its earlier exertions was already making its interests in round two known.
“You two are such jerks,” Ahn grunted from the staircase as he popped his head up and saw their twined bodies. “I get diaper duty and you two start fucking again. Typical.”
Ketz rolled on her back with a laugh, spreading her legs wide. “You poor thing. Come here and I’ll make Eryn kiss it all better.”
As Ahn laughed and tumbled toward them, tangling them all in the soft nesting sheets around them, Eryn couldn’t help thinking about what it would be like to have this every morning, every night. Change was necessary — that’s what Ketz had said they did in Paristu, and she’d been right. Maybe this change would be good, and so would all the changes after it. Maybe all this was worth being brave. Eryn reached his hands out and grabbed warm, feathered skin, then shut his eyes and jumped.
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