by N. Kaouthia
The Archive was a long, cylindrical room, completely bare except for the single black podium in the center. Daryl pressed his hand against the podium’s screen and a long list appeared, the screen pulsing at the edges. His fingers glided smoothly up and down the side of the list, the podium clicking and whirring gently beneath his fingers, and Daryl felt himself relaxing as the familiar numbers and names passed by his eyes.
He stopped the list as soon as he saw the name of his favorite video card. He rarely ever accessed it; he only let himself watch it as a reward for a good job in the office, but today had been so miserable that he had to watch it, if only to cheer himself up.
The videos always started the same way, so Daryl slid his fingers against the video panel until it was frozen at the green expanse of the jungle. “Full screen,” he said, and the lights flickered out. “Full audio simulation.”
A chair slid out from underneath the floor, and Daryl sat down, leaned back, and did a 360. The lights flickered out above him, and Daryl winced when the simulation blinked on, surrounding him. Daryl turned in his chair completely, staring at the Wall–a large, grey curtain that extended as far to the north and south as Daryl could remember.
He turned around again. That wasn’t what he was interested in. “Play video,” he said, and was pleased when he heard the metal groan of the Nebulosa beneath him. It lurched forward, padding through the jungle, and gaining momentum as it sped up.
Daryl watched the trees pass by, glancing behind him every now and then. Even as the distance between the Nebulosa and the Wall increased, it still seemed to loom over him, but once the Nebulosa came to a halt, Daryl paid attention to the front again, feeling his heart constrict in his chest.
He knew what happened, but it always made his throat tighten.
“Bird-People,” he mouthed, under his breath, as the Nebulosa moved forward slowly through the ruins. All along the ground were broke pieces of buildings and walls, and the Nebulosa always stopped to examine the gilded shawls, the quilts, the faded paintings, all in bright colors of birds long-gone, like peacocks or osprey or the bleeding-heart dove.
If old ruins were the stuff of legends, the Bird-People were mythological, and Daryl loved myths.
He’d really hit the gold mine that day. The Nebulosa had almost stopped completely, focusing in on blueprints, old machines, and Daryl’s fingers itched to reach out and run his hands along the paper, to hold it in his hands.
He turned in his chair, slightly, to look at the cabinet that had fallen over, revealing a treasure trove of cloaks and masks. If only field workers were allowed to bring things home, Daryl thought. I would be able to hold those in my hands . . .
Daryl closed his eyes, turning slightly, and when he opened his eyes, his heart stopped.
“Freeze,” he said, suddenly, and the movements around him stopped. Just in the corner, near the bushes but not out of sight, was a flash of green unlike the foliage around it. “Re . . . rewind thirty seconds,” he said, voice dry. “Play.”
The image flashed for a second, and Daryl kept his eyes focused on that area, his hands gripping his knees tightly. There it was, again, the same fleeting green shadow. Something.
Daryl’s stomach tightened. “Stop,” he said, again, turning back to the podium. His hands shook as he rotated the camera of the screen, double-tapping the green blur, zooming in. “Focus,” he mumbled, and the image blurred briefly, focused in.
Daryl let out a breath. The–the Bird-Person?–was wearing a green, golden mask, and those–those had to be hands. A long, billowing emerald cloak. Like a bird. Someone was really out there, in the wild. A Bird-Person, even. Even if the data was old, just that one flash . . .
“Computer,” Daryl said, his voice trembling, “isolate those frames and replay it.”
Daryl’s head swam. He was squeezing his fists so hard they turned white, and he felt everything in his body tense and freeze when he saw that same green shadow flash across the screen again.
Daryl swallowed, even though his throat was dry. “Um,” he said. “Er. Finish. Exit.” The video around him blacked out, and the lights blinked back on. He stood, and the chair folded away into the ground.
He knew what he wanted to do, and what he should do. He should tell someone. He should. But they probably already knew, they just didn’t say anything. It wasn’t important if someone was still out there. After all, those people had to be uncivilized, dangerous. Savage.
Daryl half-ran back up the stairs to the main building. He was breathing hard when he reached the door into the office, and he spent a minute there, breathing in through his nose, out through his mouth, and when he finally decided he was fine, he adjusted his black uniform and his hat and stepped inside.
It was hard. He could have run all the way back to the staff office, to the main secretary’s desk. “I’d–I’d like fieldwork, please,” Daryl said, trying to make his voice as steady as possible. “As soon as possible, even.” He gave the secretary his ID, his ticket to everything–bus lines, food lines, tailor shops.
The man behind the desk raised his eyebrows as he scanned his card. “Mr. Corais,” he said. “It’s been five years since you’ve requested field work.”
“Y . . yes,” Daryl said. “It has. I . . . I got tired of it.”
The secretary read the screen of his computer briefly, and then he looked up at Daryl. “You’ve been spending quite a bit of time in the Archive,” he said. “You do know the penalty for self-indulgence, don’t you? I’ll have to report this.”
“Yes,” Daryl said, feeling his face flush. “I–I’m sorry. I thought I was fine, since I’ve accumulated so many hours in the field . . .”
“Have you found anything interesting?” the secretary asked, pressing a few keys on his keyboard.
“No,” Daryl said, his heartbeat louder than his voice.
“Oh,” the secretary said. “Well, I’ll send in your request as soon as possible.”
“Th-thank you,” Daryl said. “I–I’m sorry. I won’t linger in the Archive anymore.”
“No,” the secretary said, pressing a small, red key on his keyboard, “you won’t.”
Daryl was too busy thinking about the jungle on the other side of the Wall to even bother with the secretary’s words.
Two days later, a secretarial robot visited Daryl’s cubicle. “We are glad you have returned to the service of the people,” the robot said, placing a folder on Daryl’s desk. “Enjoy the field work, Mr. Corais.”
Daryl’s fingers itched to touch it. Secretarial bots had never given him his field work (or any work) before, but it could have changed from when Daryl had been on the team. He waited until the robot was gone before he picked it up, trying to control himself, but when he saw the first page, his stomach dropped.
It was field work, just like he’d requested.
But it wasn’t the kind he wanted.
MISSION: Explore the Battlefield of the Last War.
Depending on the mission, the Nebulosa in the docking bay were fitted with the appropriate type of camouflage–usually the dark, thick layering of the jungle floor. It reminded Daryl of a four-legged swamp monster he’d seen in one of the Archives’ cards.
This time, though, the Nebulosa was its true color: silver. Daryl just stared at it, confused, until the foremen tapped him on the shoulder. “Get in so we can open the gate,” the foreman grunted.
Daryl walked up to it and opened the shaft into its ‘throat,’ where he could crawl upwards into the control panel. There, he found the full-faced oxygen mask and strapped it into place, relaxing when he felt the cool air flow in from the mask to his lungs.
“Wait,” Daryl said, glancing at the control panels and the buttons. “This is an older Nebulosa. I don’t remember–”
The foremen ignored his complaint, and the platform underneath the Nebulosa slid forward through a tunnel with fluorescent light bulbs all across the ceiling. Every fifteen seconds, a gate locked behind the Nebulosa, until finally, it was outside.
Daryl sat there, staring through the visor of his mask at the old controls. The Nebulosa’s controls changed every couple of years, even if its exterior appearance didn’t change, and Daryl recognized these controls like he recognized the back of his hand. These were the same controls the old Nebulosas had had when he was still doing field work.
Why would they give him an older Nebulosa? Daryl felt his heart tighten and constrict, and he slammed his fist down on an empty panel, swearing loudly. The Nebulosa rumbled underneath him.
Daryl sighed. Getting angry wouldn’t help. No matter how much he wanted to go back and demand a newer model, the gates wouldn’t open until he had spent two hours in the Old Battlefield.
Daryl began testing out the controls. It took him ten minutes to get the Nebulosa moving, and even then, it creaked and whined under the controls he’d pressed, limping forward. It isn’t some old refurbished model, Daryl thought. It’s really an old model . . . like they haven’t touched it in years.
But once he re-familiarized himself with the controls, the Nebulosa began to warm up. It moved more swiftly, breezing between the trees like a natural animal. Daryl’s hands fell instinctively against the controls, just like old times, and he directed it toward the Battlefield.
He knew that he would have liked to have been sent to the jungle instead of the Battlefield to see if he could see that emerald blur again, but he couldn’t stray from the path. All of the Nebulosa’s tracks were recorded into a computer, and if Daryl spent his time doing other things, they would pull the Nebulosa back into the Wall, and he would lose his job altogether.
The Battlefield couldn’t be missed. The jungle tapered off, and the Nebulosa’s steps slowed down as the ground solidified. Daryl paid more attention to his surroundings, glancing around as the Nebulosa plodded between the red-earth rocks.
Even now, he wasn’t sure what kind of information to collect. Agents were rarely ever sent to the Battlefield, mostly because there was nothing there. The Battlefield was so stripped of any evidence that a battle had ever happened that when Daryl first saw it in training sessions, he wasn’t sure why it was called that until the instructor had described the global impact of bombs.
It hadn’t scared him back then, and it still didn’t. Daryl knew that the only people who were a threat to society were those in the Wall, and they were immediately put out as soon as the government found them. The only other people who could possibly be threats were the Bird-People, but they didn’t have the technology the Wall’s government did.
Daryl knew he could glorify the Bird-People all he wanted, but just looking at the landscape, Daryl knew how horrible life would be if he didn’t live inside the Wall. He couldn’t imagine living in the wild every day of his life, worrying about the animals that hid in the bushes.
The Nebulosa came to a sudden stop. Daryl furrowed his brow. He pressed some of the buttons, trying to get it moving again, but it lowered itself down to the ground onto all of its legs, and the visor of his mask turned black.
Daryl broke out into a cold sweat. First, the Nebulosa was an old model, and now he was trapped in the middle of nowhere? “Calm down,” he said, and it assuaged his fears a bit to hear a voice, even if it was his own. He yanked the mask off, wincing at the bright light that suddenly hit him, and entered in a code for contact to the Wall’s gate operators.
The communication panel beeped steadily for a moment, but no one responded. He tried again. Nothing.
Daryl stared at the small, beeping light. They were ignoring his request for help. They were going to strand him in the middle of the Battlefield, outside the Wall, outside safety.
The world had abandoned him. Kicked him out. No, Daryl thought. He’d gone willingly. The moment they gave him the mission, he’d gone out to the docking bay and gone into the Nebulosa . . .
Daryl sighed, feeling a little light-headed already. He put his face into his hands, hunching over in the seat. How much time did he have to live? No time? All the time in the world? Did he–
Daryl jumped. What the–? What was going on outside? It sounded like all the explosions he’d seen in the documentaries, like someone was attacking–
The Nebulosa rattled, struck by a foreign object, and Daryl held onto the armrests of the seat, cursing the fact that he was blind while inside the Nebulosa. Since the mask wasn’t working, he couldn’t even see outside.
The next explosion was louder this time, closer, and then, all of a sudden, the Nebulosa shook, tilted to one side, and Daryl’s body was thrown against the side of the small compartment. The lights inside flickered rapidly, and the panel underneath him cracked under his weight. He heard the buzz of the electricity, and then the lights went out, leaving Daryl in darkness as the Nebulosa smashed into the ground.
Daryl felt the glass above and below him break. Various pieces of the panel dropped out. He had to cross his arms over his face, and he was lucky enough not to feel anything slice into his skin.
He waited until everything was quiet until he uncrossed his arms.
I’m still alive, Daryl thought.
Daryl furrowed his brow. He was still alive. Wincing, Daryl climbed out of the control panel down to the ladder. He groped around for the handle and pushed it open, climbing outside into the open.
Nothing. Everything felt normal. Daryl pulled himself out even further, sitting on the edge of the doorway, taking deeper breaths. It just felt like normal oxygen, even if smelled like dust and sand. His body was taking it in normally.
“You’re just going to sit there?”
The moment Daryl flinched and turned toward the sound of the voice, a gloved hand pinned him down by the neck against the metal surface of the Nebulosa. Before Daryl could even try to push the stranger away with his hands, the stranger slammed his feet onto Daryl’s hands, and Daryl could only bite back a scream.
“You should have run,” the stranger said. Daryl stared up at a green and gold mask, and even from there he couldn’t tell what color eyes the stranger had. “Who are you?”
Daryl swallowed. The emerald cloak the stranger wore hooded his head and slung neatly around his shoulders, hanging over his body. It was the same deep, rich color Daryl had seen in the memory card, and Daryl wondered vaguely if this was the same living creature he had seen. But it wasn’t a creature.
It was a man.
“Answer me,” the man said, grinding his feet against Daryl’s hands.
Daryl winced. “I don’t mean to do you harm,” he managed. “I just. I wanted to explore the jungle, but they sent me here, so I came, like they asked, and–”
“You came just like they asked,” the man said, “without even questioning them. I should just put you out of your misery right now.”
“Bird-People,” Daryl blurted out, and felt his pale face flush. Now the man would definitely think he was crazy.
The man’s grip on his neck loosened. “. . . what?”
“I wanted–I wanted to see the Bird-People,” Daryl said. “In one of the memory cards I saw this moving green blur behind the Nebulosa and I thought–maybe someone–a Bird-Person–”
“And you told them that?”
“No,” Daryl said. “I just requested a field mission. I hadn’t done one in so long . . .”
The man stepped off of Daryl’s feet and pulled him up to a sitting position. “They sent you here to die, whoever-you-are. They don’t send any of their machines to the Empty Lands unless they don’t need them anymore. If you had discovered evidence that one of us still existed, they didn’t want you to know.”
“Y-you’re–so you’re a Bird-People. Person.”
Daryl stared. The emerald cloak dropped down past the man’s ankles, and now that Daryl had a real chance to look, the color was even more distinct than in any pictures Daryl had ever seen. The man’s shirt was the color of the setting sun on the horizon: a dark, dark orange-red. The pants he wore were a subtle off-white, and Daryl wanted to reach out and see if it was as soft as it looked.
“If you’re done staring,” the man said, “we can move on to more important things.”
“Oh,” Daryl said, flushing slightly. “I’m sorry.”
Daryl jumped when the man suddenly sat down next to him. He’d moved so fast Daryl hadn’t even seen him even begin to move. “So, er–you’re a . . .”
“Yes,” the man said. “I am a Bird-Person. I’m Quetzal.” He leaned in toward Daryl, and Daryl leaned away even as he gazed into Quetzal’s chocolate-brown eyes. “What did they call you back in the Wall?”
Daryl frowned. “Daryl. What are you looking at?”
“Hm . . .” Quetzal leaned away and stood. “Well, goodbye then.”
Daryl raised his eyebrows. “You’re leaving me here?”
“Did you expect me to stay and cuddle?” Quetzal shook his head. “Just because you happen to be curious about the world outside the Wall doesn’t mean you don’t love the Wall.” His voice became sharp, like the edge of a knife, and Daryl frowned at his sudden iciness. “I could never help someone who works willingly for that government. Separating people because they want freedom. We’re not savage because we don’t want to be boxed in.”
“But that’s the only thing I know,” Daryl said. “You could teach me.”
Quetzal stared at Daryl, and then he held out his hand. “You’ll have to follow me as closely as you can. There are still some explosives that could be set off here. Not as big as the ones your machine set off, but ones small and fast enough to kill you.”
Daryl nodded, taking Quetzal’s hand and standing up. “Okay,” he said. “I’ll be careful.” He frowned. “But why wouldn’t they want me to know about you and the Bird-People?”
“Because,” Quetzal said, drawing out the word. “They don’t want you to know there’s people who want better for you.” He tugged on Daryl’s hand, pulling him closer, and Daryl noticed that Quetzal wasn’t much taller than he was. “Let’s go.”
Daryl looked around. There wasn’t a ladder for them to go down . . . and the other half of the Nebulosa looked completely demolished. The legs had been blown off, leaving only sparking wires and loose gears. “Where are we–”
But Quetzal didn’t wait for him. He dragged him down toward the head of the Nebulosa and pulled him down the twenty feet to the ground, not even caring when Daryl flailed and screamed. All Quetzal did was hold him close to his body, and helped him land on both his feet when they hit the ground.
“Don’t move,” Quetzal said. “This whole area is a minefield. If you’re with me, you’ll be safe.”
“You’re going to kill me,” Daryl said, covering his face with his hands.
“If I wanted to do that, I would have left you back up there.” Quetzal took Daryl’s hand and began dragging him through the Battlefield (the Empty-Lands?), and occasionally, he said, “Don’t step to your left,” or, “Make sure to avoid that,” or, “Step on this rock here,” and Daryl listened to everything he said.
“You just follow orders so well, don’t you?” Quetzal asked, looking over his shoulder at him, and Daryl could swear Quetzal was laughing at him from behind the mask. “You haven’t even asked me why.”
“Why?” Daryl asked.
“Because you looked funny doing it,” Quetzal said.
Daryl furrowed his brow. “I thought you were protecting me!”
Quetzal was silent after that, and Daryl began looking around more, paying attention to their surroundings instead of Quetzal’s flowing green cloak. He wanted to stop a few times to look at bright things on the ground, but Quetzal stopped him every time.
When they reached the forest, Quetzal knelt down in front of him, pulling his arms around his neck. “What are you doing?” Daryl asked, his arms now wrapped around Quetzal’s neck.
“Carrying you back,” Quetzal said, tucking his arms underneath Daryl’s legs. “You’re too slow.”
Daryl closed his eyes, his cheek against Quetzal’s cloak. He didn’t fall asleep, staying awake instead to listen to Quetzal’s faint and gentle breath.
The City was hidden in a thicker part of the jungle next to a spring with clear, fresh water, and Quetzal let him off briefly so they could both drink from it. Daryl tried to ask him questions, but Quetzal ambushed Daryl as soon as he asked and carried him on his back to the clearing where the City had been built.
“They’re just ruins we refurbished the best we could,” Quetzal said.
“There’s no one here,” Daryl said.
Quetzal chuckled and let Daryl onto his feet. He stepped away from him, back to Daryl, and tilted his head back.
A high-pitched, tremulous wail emerged from Quetzal’s throat, like the sound of an alarm, and Daryl watched in amazement as people–cloaked and masked as well–emerged from the ruins, long poles in their hands (spears? Daryl thought) and approached Daryl and Quetzal, closing in like a mob.
Daryl stepped toward Quetzal, crouching down a bit beneath him, and Quetzal’s “call” stopped. He turned toward the group that had approached. “Don’t worry,” he said. “He’s safe.” Quetzal removed a small, box-shaped object from inside his cloak. “One of the gate-operators attached this to his Nebulosa. He’s safe.”
What? One of the gate operators–?!
“We’ve received others from the Wall before,” Quetzal said. “Why should this one be any different?”
A murmur passed through the Bird-People. “Show us your face.”
“They mean you, Daryl,” Quetzal said, stepping aside.
Daryl stared into the faces of the Bird-People, and they stared back into his. Each one of them was different, none of them quite the same. It relieved Daryl a little, even, to see that none of them looked nothing like Quetzal, which meant it had been him all those years ago, tracking Daryl down.
Quetzal cleared his throat. “He was sent to the Empty Lands, then they must have declared him a threat.”
“Um,” Daryl said, meekly, “I’m Daryl Corais.”
A chuckle shook the crowd. Daryl fidgeted when a woman, dressed in duller colors and mask-less, stepped forward. “He has an open face,” she said, and held out her hand. “Amazilia,” she said. “If you need any help, you can come to me.”
“A-all right,” Daryl said, shaking her hand. “Thank you.”
The crowd started to disperse now that the novelty of Daryl’s arrival had ended. They occupied the streets, walking toward other buildings. It felt the same, like Daryl was on a crowded street in the Wall.
“Goodbye, Daryl,” Amazilia said, waving to him, and Daryl waved back as she blended into the crowd. He turned to Quetzal, who was talking to one of the other Bird-People, then abruptly turned away, cutting the other man off.
“We need to get started right away. Stop wasting time,” Quetzal said, and Daryl started to say something when Quetzal snatched Daryl’s hand and dragged him through the dusty streets, into one of the ruined buildings, and up a set of rickety, squeaky stairs.
“This,” Quetzal said, pushing open a heavy set of double, wooden doors, “is a library. And these are books. So. Now you’re going to learn.”
Daryl stared. Back in the Wall, all of the floors had been white tiles and smooth, white walls. He hadn’t had a chance to glance at the inside of the building with how fast Quetzal had dragged him inside, but now that he was at the library, everything seemed . . . so different. The room didn’t smell fresh and empty, but it smelled like–like something else.
“I’ve never really–held a book,” Daryl said. “They always just gave us those cards, and they would show us the text, and–”
“It’ll be much more satisfying,” Quetzal said, adjusting his mask with one hand. “You actually get to hold the text in your hands and turn it.” He walked over to one of the bookshelves and pulled a book out, dusting it off with his hand, and held it out. “Let’s start with some contemporary, and then we’ll work our way back to the classics.”
Daryl gingerly took the book, weighing it in his hands, staring at the cover.
“You’re supposed to open it,” Quetzal said, turning it to the first page. “And read the words.”
Daryl started reading, frowning at the fact he was touching the book, that he could touch the text, and he looked up when he heard Quetzal chuckle slightly.
“Sit down,” Quetzal said, pushing Daryl over to one of the wooden chairs. “If you need any help, you can ask me.”
Daryl read the first fifteen pages without much of a problem. When he reached a word he didn’t know, he asked Quetzal, and Quetzal would tell him the answer, and Daryl would go back to the pages of the book, devouring them like a madman.
When Daryl handed the book back to Quetzal, Quetzal put a hand to his mask and sighed. “You’re done already?” he asked. “Well. I guess we’re moving on to other books . . .” Quetzal had been sitting down in one of the chairs for the past two or three hours, his head tilted forward, arms on his lap, tilted to one side.
“Wait,” Daryl said. “About the book . . .”
Quetzal answered any questions Daryl had, his legs crossed, leaning forward to listen to Daryl every time he spoke, and his responses were slow and calculated.
It went like that for the next two hours. Daryl would read a book, finish, and then turn around and ask Quetzal any questions he had about the book. Quetzal would answer him, patient, and then Daryl would turn back to another book to read.
It was . . . strange. The Wall had always been Daryl’s protector, but the books he read always talked about the shadows it had cast over the world. Every book he read talked about the dangers of the wall–the censorship, the secret police, the restrictive learning, the uniformity. Daryl wondered how different the Wall would look now if he were to go near it, but now that he was a “fugitive,” the self-defense system on the Wall would probably kill him before he even got the chance.
Daryl would have liked to continue reading into the night if hadn’t heard a boom in the distance, like the sound of the padded feet of the Nebulosa against the jungle floor. “What was that?” he asked.
Quetzal looked up. “Dinner call,” he said. “We should get ready.” He got up, adjusting his cloak, and Daryl followed suit, stretching his numb, tired legs. “I’ll have to find you a place to sleep for the night . . . it can’t be at my place.”
“Oh,” Daryl said. “I can just sleep in here.”
Quetzal glanced at him out of the corner of his eye. “No,” he said, after a moment of silence. “I’ve changed my mind. You’ll be more comfortable at my place.” He began walking toward the doors again. “I’ll let you wear one of my outfits for tonight, but without a mask. You’ll just watch.”
“Watch what?” Daryl asked.
Quetzal grunted. “We don’t have a lot of things to entertain us,” he said, as they walked down the stairs again. “A lot of the electronics were destroyed, and any that survived have broken. It’s been too long, and the gate operators of the Nebulosa can’t allow us anything without the Snake knowing.”
Daryl was only half-listening. He was taking a look around now that he had time, and frowned as he realized how old everything was. “Is the whole City like this?” he asked. “Very . . . old?”
“Some of the other cities–”
“What?” Daryl said. “There’s more?”
“There are many cities,” Quetzal said. “Spread far and wide. This is the closest one to the Wall. Other cities keep their distance and are also well-hidden, so that the Nebulosa don’t find them. We all report to the main city several miles from here.”
“There really is a whole other world . . .”
Quetzal pushed open the door to the building, holding it open for Daryl, and he stepped outside, looking up at the bright, blue sky, shadowed slightly by the leafy canopy. “What is it like to live out here?” Daryl asked.
Quetzal was already walking away. “I don’t know. What’s it like to live inside the Wall?” he asked.
Daryl had to jog to catch up to him. “Why is everyone outside now?”
“We can hear the Nebulosas explode,” Quetzal said. “They hid until I came back with a report.”
Daryl had more questions, but Quetzal’s shoulders were lowered and his feet dragged slightly on the ground. He waited until Quetzal’s steps sped up again, his head rising and bobbing as his eyes lit up.
Daryl looked in the direction of Quetzal’s eyes. “Is that your home?”
“Yes,” Quetzal said.
Quetzal’s home was very tiny, bordering the edge of the trees. It had one single, broken window, and the roof was thatched with green leaves. Vines with fat, wine-colored orchids grew over the walls, and green moss covered the door in patches. “I take care of the plants myself,” Quetzal said, before Daryl could ask. “It gives me something to do when I’m not with the others.”
Daryl frowned when Quetzal just pushed open the door. “It’s not locked?” he asked, peering inside.
Quetzal had disappeared into one of the adjoined rooms (a closet?), so Daryl couldn’t hear his answer. Daryl sat down on one of Quetzal’s wooden chairs, feeling dwarfed by the colors of the room. Quetzal’s walls were a dull, faded blue, and Quetzal had hung cloaks and washed out pictures from books everywhere. Quetzal’s bed sheets were a black fur, thin and smooth, and Daryl almost reached out to touch it.
“Here,” Quetzal said, returning from the closet. He handed Daryl a long shirt and a cloak, both of which were the same color as Quetzal’s outfit. “Wear this tonight,” he said. “If any of the women ask you, tell them you don’t know what’s going on. I have clothes that are less . . . colorful–you can wear those on a normal basis, and I’ll wash your clothes in the stream for you every week.”
“Where are we going from here?” Daryl asked.
“Just to the City Square,” Quetzal said, turning away from Daryl. “There’s a platform, and everyone is going to get their dinner rations.”
Daryl replaced his shirt with the one Quetzal gave him, but he didn’t know how to put on the cloak. “Um.”
Quetzal glanced over and sighed. He walked over and took the cloak, wrapping it around Daryl’s shoulders, and tied it in front. “I won’t do this again for you,” he said, “so I hope you were watching me.”
“Er, well, yes,” Daryl said.
Quetzal turned away again, and Daryl’s eyes widened when he saw the mask slide up over Quetzal’s head. He wanted to edge around and look at Quetzal’s face, but the moment he moved closer, Quetzal lowered the mask.
“Let’s go,” Quetzal said.
“Did something happen?” Daryl asked. “To your face?”
“What?” Quetzal said. “My–what? Because I–no. No, I just don’t want–I mean. No. Nothing happened.”
“Oh,” Daryl said.
“I just like keeping my mask on,” Quetzal said, but Daryl couldn’t believe him.
Before they arrived at the city square, Quetzal showed him the stream where everyone bathed and places to relieve himself, in case he needed it, and Daryl just nodded along, distracted by the edges of Quetzal’s mask. What did he look like? Why didn’t he want to show Daryl his face? He knew Quetzal knew he was staring, but Daryl didn’t care.
The closer they got to the City Square, the louder the drumming grew. “It’s just so that people don’t miss dinner,” Quetzal said. “A reminder.”
The City Square wasn’t really a square, but more like a very large circle with a square pit inside it. In the middle of was a large, square platform, made and supported by wood sticks and brick that had been carried in years ago to create it. “The food tables will be over there. You’ll have to get in line,” Quetzal said, pointing with one hand. “I’m not going to be with you at all once the feast starts. I’m going to be on the platform.”
“Why will you be on the platform?” Daryl had to squint to see now. The sun had started to set, and while there were torches erected at every street corner, it was still hard to see.
“You’ll see,” Quetzal said. The pace of the drums changed, and Quetzal turned. “I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”
Tomorrow morning? Daryl frowned, crossing his arms over his chest, and tensed when he heard his name called out. He turned, half-expecting it to be someone who would hassle him for being alone, but it was Amazilia, the woman he’d seen earlier. “Hi,” he said, trying to smile.
“Did Quetzal leave you?”
“Yeah,” Daryl said. “He said he had to go.”
“Oh,” Amazilia said. “Well, they’re going to light the fire now.” Daryl turned back to the platform, jumping when a fire leapt up from the square, its blaze burning brightly. “We should sit down nearby so we can get a good seat.”
“What are they going to do?” Daryl asked.
“Oh, you should wait and see,” Amazilia said. “Look, they’re getting up on the platform now.”
Daryl stared at the Bird-People, dressed vibrantly in all the colors imaginable, that stepped onto the platform as one, each of their movements synchronized. Quetzal was one of them, his movements stiffer than the rest, and Daryl had to tear his eyes away from Quetzal’s shimmering cloak.
Now a group of people had gathered around the City Square. Some of them were in line for the food, while others had settled around the platform, but not close enough to touch those on the platform. Others were grouped together to watch from a distance.
Amazilia wanted to be closer, so Daryl followed her until she was satisfied. “I just want to see them,” she said. “I usually stay with some of the other women, but I’d like to sit with you today. How is Quetzal treating you?”
“Fine,” Daryl said. “But I’ve never seen his face.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Amazilia said. “Quetzal’s shy.” She smiled. “He’ll show you eventually, I’m sure.”
Daryl frowned, but he didn’t have time to say or think anything. The rhythm of the drums shifted, and Daryl heard another instrument join in, something high-pitched and trilling. For the strike of every drum, the men on the platform slid along it, their hands slicing through the air. Each one had a different movement, had a different pattern, but they all moved in time with each other and the drums.
“They’re dancing,” Daryl said, eyes widening. “Quetzal’s dancing.”
“Sort of,” Amazilia said, laughing. “He doesn’t really dance. He just pretends to dance.”
Daryl flinched when the drums started an insane, impossible rhythm, and then all of the dancers gyrated to the same beat. When the music crescendoed, they glided across the platform, but when it decrescendoed, their movements became slower, wider, arms like graceful swans upon the stage, their shadows flickering on the dusty ground.
Whistles and clapping sounded from the surrounded crowd, and Daryl withdrew his attention from the dancers to pay attention to the people. The majority of the audience who clapped were women, all dressed in dark colors.
“Why do the women wear dark colors?” Daryl asked, as the drums spiked, and he winced.
“What?” Amazilia said. “I can’t hear you.”
“Why do the women wear dark colors?” Daryl asked, louder.
“To look more attractive!”
“Oh,” Daryl said. He glanced back at the platform, and when the drums faded away, leaving only the tremulous sound of the other instrument, now a repetitive bell sound, the men stepped down from the platform, their chests heaving. There was a unanimous cry from the crowd as the men started walking over to certain women, repeating a small dance in front of them before dropping down to one knee.
Daryl looked for Quetzal. He wasn’t hard to miss, but Daryl was surprised to see that Quetzal was also in front of woman–a slender, graceful form cloaked in a white dress with a black train, her black hair framing her face. He knelt before her, his cloak glittering in the firelight.
“Oh,” Amazilia sighed. “He always goes to her. I wish he would pick someone new.”
Daryl tensed when she reached down to his face, stroking his hair, and winced when she touched the edge of his mask. “What is she doing?”
“Saying yes,” Amazilia said. “Didn’t he tell you anything?”
“No,” Daryl said, as the woman pushed the mask over his head and bent down next to him. Daryl had to look away, and noticed that other men had also had their masks removed, the sweat running down the sides of their faces, but next to the women they had courted, they looked smug and satisfied. “Is it like a marriage?”
Amazilia laughed. “No!” she said. “It’s a . . . service. Or entertainment. The men try to impress the women, and then they go home together if they’d like to be friends or–well, more. If they want. The woman who picked Quetzal is Ciconia.”
“Oh,” Daryl said. “Well. I’m going back to Quetzal’s home now. To sleep.”
“You’re not going to stay for food?” Amazilia asked.
“No,” Daryl said. “I’m not really hungry.”
When Quetzal returned home in the early dawn, Daryl was awake. He couldn’t sleep, even when he had lain down in Quetzal’s bed. Instead, he sat down in one of the chairs Quetzal had–a rocking chair, and let it swing him back in forth in a soothing pattern.
“Welcome home,” Daryl said, as Quetzal pushed open the front door.
Quetzal froze. He was wearing his mask, but he had thrown his cloak over his shoulder. His shirt was wrinkled, and his pants looked like they’d been pulled up in a hurry. “You’re not asleep.”
“I couldn’t sleep.”
“Oh,” Quetzal said. “Well. Thank you.” He stared back toward the closet. “You should have stayed and talked to Amazilia. She saw me this morning and said you left in a hurry after dinner, without even eating.”
“I wasn’t really hungry,” Daryl said, rubbing his eyes. “Are we going back to the library?”
“Yes,” Quetzal said. “If that’s what you want.”
“It’s what I want,” Daryl said. “I just want to read . . .”
Quetzal walked over to Daryl, fixing him with a deep gaze that Daryl felt even with the barriers of the mask, and put his hand on his shoulder. “All right,” he said, stroking his hand up Daryl’s neck.
“Did you have a good night?” Daryl asked.
Quetzal pulled away. “Yes,” he said, shortly.
Those were the last words they spoke to each other that day. When they arrived at the library, Daryl read the books but had no desire to discuss them anymore with Quetzal. Quetzal didn’t push him to discuss. Daryl left twice to wash in the stream. Sometimes Quetzal left as well, while Daryl was reading, and Daryl was glad for the solitude and sudden silence. The wonder of the words seemed more powerful when he wasn’t worried about Quetzal standing there.
When dinner arrived, Daryl went with Quetzal to the City Square and ate some food. He didn’t stay to watch the performers. Instead, he wandered the empty city streets, running his hands along the old ruins. He meandered along the babbling stream and strolled along the banks, listening and watching the animals that came by–blank panthers and spotted leopards, singing birds that crooned in the moonlight. When his feet started to ache and his eyes started to droop, he went back to Quetzal’s and slept.
It went on for a couple of weeks. Daryl would read, hand the books to Quetzal, and Quetzal would hand him another. They spoke only when they needed to, and when Amazilia saw Daryl at dinner, she would comment on how tense he was. “Are you all right?” she asked. “You look like you haven’t had a proper rest in days.”
“I haven’t been sleeping very well,” Daryl said.
Amazilia gave him a powder to drink before he went to sleep. After that, he didn’t have any problems waking up after Quetzal came home, rumpled and masked, only half-awake.
But it meant Quetzal slept frequently when Daryl was reading. Sometimes Daryl would find himself stopping at the middle of a chapter or a page to stare at Quetzal’s lax form. He’d catch himself, feel his face go hot, and turn back to the page, but after that his concentration was shot for the next ten minutes.
One evening, in the middle of the dance, a loud BANG sounded in the distance. Everything exploded after that: people panicked, rushing back to their homes, and the men on the platform quickly doused the fire before running away. Daryl almost moved toward the crowd, but Amazilia pulled him with her just as he saw Quetzal making a beeline toward Ciconia.
“It’s a Nebulosa,” Amazilia said. “So we have to make sure the city looks empty for now. Just in case they find us.”
Daryl slept in Amazilia’s house that evening, on one of the chairs. She tried to make him sleep on the bed instead, but he refused.
The next morning, when Daryl trekked his way back to Quetzal’s home, he still hadn’t returned, so Daryl went to the library by himself and picked random books off the shelf to read. The words slipped lucidly from his mind, and after the fifth book he settled for looking for books with the beautiful illustrations, the art books that Quetzal rarely gave him.
Daryl didn’t know when or how, but while he was reading, Quetzal had slipped into the library and fallen asleep, stretched across one of the couches. Daryl was surprised to see him there, but he wasn’t surprised that Quetzal hadn’t greeted him upon entering.
He couldn’t resist. He wanted to know what it felt like to be Ciconia, taking Quetzal’s mask off, what it felt like to see Quetzal’s face, to see his smile.
Daryl laid the book he was reading aside and dusted his pants off as he walked over to Quetzal.
Daryl wondered frequently why Quetzal always picked Ciconia to court. With all the time Quetzal spent with Daryl, he wondered how just one night with her, every night, was enough. Did he dream about her while he slept in the library?
Daryl slid his fingers along the mask. It was smooth and wooden, like someone had just made it yesterday. His hands touched the underside of the mask, and he could feel his heartbeat, loud and fast as the beating drums he heard at night.
Quetzal opened his eyes.
“Sorry,” Daryl said, flinching away, and walked back over to his books. His heart beat even faster now, and his throat was stuck. The room felt hot, unbearable–there were too many people in it. Daryl didn’t belong. “I need–I’m going to–welcome back.”
“Thank you,” Quetzal said. “What were you doing?”
“Wasn’t it obvious?” Daryl asked, almost sprinting toward the double doors. “I tried to take your mask off.”
Daryl couldn’t get out of the building fast enough.
“Daryl,” Amazilia said. “Do you really want to live here?”
“If you have any visitors after dinner, I’ll sleep in the closet,” Daryl said, picking at the fabric of his–Quetzal’s–pants. “Or wherever you want. I just need a new place to sleep.”
“What happened with Quetzal?” She handed Daryl a plate of sweets she had bought from the market, and he took them gratefully.
“Nothing,” Daryl said, staring down at his knees. “Are Quetzal and Ciconia involved?”
“They’re childhood friends. They could be lovers, but Quetzal’s very private. When he turned of-age to participate in the evening dances, he didn’t want to. But he does anyway, because that’s what everyone requests of him.”
“Are you jealous?”
Daryl’s head snapped up. She didn’t look like she was joking. In fact, she looked like she was genuinely curious about the question. “I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve never been jealous before.”
“When you think of Ciconia and Quetzal . . . do you get angry?”
Daryl frowned. “Sometimes,” he said. Then, “Yes.”
Amazilia pursed her lips. “Well,” she said. “If you want to live here, you’ll have to do me a favor, first: meet Ciconia.”
“Just go and meet her,” Amazilia said. “I’ll go with you.”
Daryl protested, but Amazilia ignored him as she put on a cloak and walked out the door. In the end, he walked with her to Ciconia’s house, a dull, dilapidated place.
Before they even knocked, Daryl could hear her voice–and Quetzal’s.
“–infiltrate the Wall.”
“Is that why you’re unhappy?”
“I won’t let myself be hurt like that again.”
Daryl frowned at Amazilia’s hesitation to knock. It wasn’t right to eavesdrop on someone’s private conversation. He leaned over her shoulder and banged his fist on the door, and the room fell silent just as Ciconia was saying, “Pain is a risk you need to take.”
Ciconia opened the door a crack. “Oh, Amazilia,” she said. “And Daryl! It’s nice to meet you!”
“It’s nice to meet you too.”
“We just thought we’d come over to meet you,” Amazilia said. “Daryl wants to get to know everybody. He’s been cooped up in the library too long.”
“Oh, how nice of you,” Ciconia said. “Why don’t you come inside? Quetzal’s here, too, if you don’t mind.”
“Of course not,” Amazilia said, starting inside. “It’s always nice to see him, even if he’s not talkative.”
Daryl frowned, standing in place, and Amazilia stepped out, again, standing next to him. “Does he come to your house often?” he asked.
“Um, usually,” Ciconia said. “After dinner, of course, and he usually stays the night. He hasn’t been visiting as much since . . . . well, since he’s been taking care of you.” She smiled, tucking a strand of her hair behind her ear. “But he likes coming over to keep me company.”
“Oh,” Daryl said. Amazilia had stopped, her eyes focused on him, but she didn’t say anything, and Daryl looked anywhere but at her or Ciconia.
His frown deepened when Quetzal, voice muffled by the distance between him and the door, said, “Is that Daryl?”
“Yes,” Ciconia said, looking over her shoulder, her smile widening. “It’s your friend . . . . why are you putting your mask back on?” She rolled her eyes, looking back at Daryl. “Sorry,” she said. “You know how Quetzal is. He’s so shy around everyone.”
“I’m not shy,” Quetzal said, appearing in the doorway next to Ciconia, mask on, and Ciconia looped her arms through one of Quetzal’s. “Hello, Daryl,” he said, very carefully. “How are you?”
When Daryl tried to meet his eyes, Quetzal looked away. “Hello,” Daryl said, as civilized as he could be, even when he wanted to yell at Quetzal. He tried to catch Quetzal’s eye again, but Quetzal merely turned his head away, toward Ciconia, so Daryl said, “You’re very beautiful, Ciconia.”
Ciconia smiled, flushing a bit. “Thank you,” she said, and laughed when Quetzal pulled his arm out of her grip and slid it around her waist.
Daryl tried to smile, but he couldn’t help but wonder if Quetzal and Ciconia had ever kissed. He’d rarely ever seen his own parents kiss, but when they did, it was always with love. Did Quetzal and Ciconia love each other?
Quetzal only ever danced for Ciconia, always for Ciconia, and Ciconia always accepted and took his mask off. No one else ever tried to approach her at night, and Quetzal never strayed from his path from the platform to Ciconia.
It had to be love. They probably kissed at night, held each other, touched.
“Are you okay, Daryl?” Amazilia asked.
“I’m . . . I’m not feeling very well,” he said, turning his head away. “But it was very nice meeting you, Ciconia.”
“Thank you,” Ciconia said, beaming, and as Daryl made his way back to Amazilia’s house, he felt his heart squeeze in his chest, like all the liquid and blood in his body were being drained out.
He planned on staying at Amazilia’s all day, but when she returned she couldn’t squawk enough at him. “I can’t believe you just left like that,” she said, but when she saw Daryl, curled up on one of the chairs, eyes half-closed, her sharp frame relaxed. “Daryl,” she said. “Why don’t you come with me to the dinner tonight?”
“I don’t really want to go,” Daryl said.
“If you don’t want to sleep at Quetzal’s, you’ll come with me,” Amazilia said.
Daryl couldn’t think of anything worse than sleeping at Quetzal’s. What would he think if he went to his house? Would Quetzal take Ciconia to his home this time? “Fine,” he said, getting up. “But I don’t want to wear the cloak Quetzal gave me.”
“All right,” Amazilia said, walking over to her closet to get a grey-green cloak. “It’s sort of like Quetzal’s, but this is all I have. It was my sister’s. Would you like to wear a mask as well? So Quetzal doesn’t recognize you? He might still, but now you won’t be able to tell for sure, if that makes you feel better.” Daryl just nodded. She took out a black mask from the closet as well, handing it to him. “Here you go. It used to be Cygnus’s, but he’s dead now . . .”
“Oh,” Daryl said. “What happened?”
Amazilia shrugged. “They sent him over the Wall.” Beat. “He used to be very good friends with Quetzal.”
Daryl didn’t know what to say, so he just slipped the mask over his face and waited for Amazilia to get ready. He waited for her outside, looking out of the holes in the mask. Inside, it smelled like pages from the books he read: musky and dry, but well-loved by hands and eyes.
Amazilia didn’t take very long. The walk to the City Square didn’t take long either, and Daryl tried not to actively seek out Quetzal with his eyes but failed. He had taken his usual place on the stage, but Daryl noticed that his opening movements were different from the other nights. They were less tense and more graceful, but still practiced and contrived.
“I’m getting something to eat,” Daryl said, and walked over toward the line.
When he came back, the dancers had started their routines. Daryl tried to focus on the other dancers, but his eyes kept flickering back over to Quetzal and the way the flames licked his feet and body.
“Stop staring,” Amazilia said. “Could you be any more obvious?”
Daryl flushed. He pushed the mask up halfway to eat his food, but he still snuck long glances at Quetzal’s sleek form, and felt his chest tighten and constrict when he reminded himself it was all for Ciconia, not him.
When the drums faded, Quetzal stepped down from the stage, his feet wobbly, and Daryl could see the patch of sweat dripping down his neck to his shoulders in fat, shiny beads.
Daryl flinched. His eyes widened.
Quetzal wasn’t walking toward Ciconia.
Quetzal was walking towards him. He glanced to his side, to make sure he was right, that Quetzal wasn’t walking toward Amazilia–but Amazilia had moved several feet away and Quetzal was still staggering toward him.
Daryl started to say something, but Quetzal dropped down to one knee, his head raised, eyes locked straight onto Daryl’s.
“Daryl . . .”
Daryl didn’t respond.
Quetzal lowered his head. “If that’s how you feel, then–”
“Are you asking me to take off your mask?”
“Yes. If you want.”
Daryl hesitated. Then, just as he saw Quetzal’s shoulders tense, he reached out, touching the smooth surface of the mask. “I want to,” he said. “If you let me.”
His fingers paused at the edges, and Quetzal said, very quietly, “Don’t reject me,” so Daryl slowly pushed it over his face until it rested on his hair.
The sight of his face caught in Daryl’s throat, and Daryl almost wanted to step around and shield it from everyone else. He just wanted this moment to be his and only his. “Um,” Daryl said, staring, unashamed, his eyes running down the long, sharp slope of Quetzal’s face. Quetzal’s skin was dark even in the firelight, and Daryl wanted to reach out and compare the contrasting colors of their skin, to wipe the sweat from Quetzal’s face.
“Don’t just stand there and stare,” Quetzal said, his mouth twitching upwards, just a little.
“Oh.” Daryl’s face burned. “Um . . . I’ve never had anyone–what do I–”
“Go home with me,” Quetzal said, standing up.
“Okay,” Daryl said, and Quetzal took his hand.
They walked to Quetzal’s house in silence. No one said anything as they left together, even though they watched as Daryl followed him obediently, Quetzal’s mask in one hand and his hand in the other.
Quetzal sat down on the bed the moment they got inside, tugging his cloak free and placing his shoes underneath. He sighed. “Leave your shoes by the chair,” he said. “I hope you enjoyed the show. I had to make a new routine just for you.”
Daryl flushed. He stroked the edge of the mask, and then placed it down on a chair as he slipped out of his shoes. “You did?”
“I did,” Quetzal said. He held out his hands, and Daryl stepped closer, until he reached out and touched his fingertips to Quetzal’s. “Were you jealous of her?”
Daryl swallowed and licked his lips. “I don’t know,” he said.
“She was Cygnus’s sister,” Quetzal said. He frowned, suddenly. “Wearing that mask . . . what did Amazilia think she was doing?” He took Daryl’s hands in his and pulled him down on the bed next to him. “He left his things with Amazilia and left over the Wall, and then he never came back.”
Quetzal leaned forward, till his forehead touched Daryl’s mask. “Will you take it off for me? The mask? You’re not Cygnus. You’re Daryl.”
Daryl leaned away and took the mask off. He wiped the sweat off his forehead with his sleeve, and Quetzal reached up to undo his cloak. “Why didn’t you tell me anything?” Daryl asked. “About Cygnus. And Ciconia.”
“Because,” Quetzal said. He put his hands on Daryl’s shoulder. “I kept thinking about Cygnus, and I couldn’t bear the thought of both you leaving. Ciconia comforted me, but it wasn’t enough.” He let out a breath. “I like you, Daryl. More than I’d like to admit.”
Daryl wanted to ask more questions–he wasn’t going anywhere, was he?–but Quetzal leaned forward, pressing his mouth to Daryl’s in a hard kiss that tasted like salt and fire as Quetzal’s tongue probed Daryl’s open mouth. His hands pushed up Daryl’s shirt, stroking his skin, and Daryl shuddered and shivered suddenly, moaning in surprise and lust as Quetzal’s fingers brushed lightly against his nipples.
Daryl tried to kiss back, awkwardly pressing back with his tongue, but when he moved his nose bumped with Quetzal’s. “Sorry,” Daryl said, when Quetzal winced and pulled away. Daryl covered his face with his hands, feeling his face flush from shame instead of the heat, and Quetzal laughed in his ear instead.
“Don’t worry,” Quetzal said, taking Daryl’s hands away from his face. “Have you ever–?”
“Don’t worry,” Quetzal said, turning to take off his clothes, and Daryl spied a bright scar on his back.
“What’s that?” Daryl leaned forward, brushing his fingers against it, and Quetzal shivered and hummed. “How did you get this?” Daryl asked, but he didn’t expect an answer, not when he leaned forward, kissing at the scar, sucking at it, licking along it, and Quetzal groaned and arched his back into Daryl’s eager mouth.
He turned around and undid Daryl’s pants, sliding them down, smirking when Daryl whined deep and low in this throat. “Better?” Quetzal’s mouth pressed up right against his ear as he fell back against the bed, taking Daryl with him.
“Touch me,” Quetzal said, grinding his hips against Daryl’s, and Daryl rocked to the rhythm of Quetzal’s body.
“I don’t know–wait,” Daryl said, his hands sliding along Quetzal’s skin, all his boldness suddenly gone. “Wait, Quetzal–”
“I want you,” Quetzal said, and Daryl almost came right there, Quetzal’s dark eyes fixed on him, only for him. “Daryl, touch me.”
Daryl ran his hands up Quetzal’s sides, up Quetzal’s thighs, stroked him gently, and Quetzal thrust up against him, panting and gasping. “I don’t know–what do I–” Daryl fumbled for the words, his face turning hot, the need burning in his body.
Quetzal ended up on top of him, legs straddling his hips, making Daryl’s erection slick with his hands as Daryl tried not to buck up against Quetzal’s body. Quetzal soothed his worries with his hands and mouth, kissing his neck, his shoulder, his arms, his fingers, anything he could reach, and Daryl couldn’t stop gasping Quetzal’s name against the back of his hand.
“Daryl,” Quetzal murmured, leaning over to kiss him, Daryl’s breath hitched and his heart felt like stopping when he was suddenly enveloped by heat, by Quetzal’s heat. “Daryl,” Quetzal repeated, moving up and down on top of him, and Daryl thrust up against him, his hands on Quetzal’s hips, and Quetzal tightened around him, speeding up, his mouth licking and kissing Daryl’s neck, his mouth, and Daryl’s body tensed, his breath stopped, his hands tightening against Quetzal’s skin, and Quetzal whispered a final, “Daryl,” that made Daryl’s vision go white, his eyes slam shut, and the only thing he could hear was how hard and fast his heart beat, filling his ears, and the hard, throaty moan from Quetzal’s mouth told Daryl that he was done, too.
Daryl managed to open his eyes, peering at Quetzal, who carefully and gently pulled himself off of Daryl. “Quetzal,” he said, reaching out to stroke his face, and Quetzal leaned into his hand.
“We need to get cleaned up,” Quetzal said.
Daryl stared at him.
“What?” Quetzal said, sleepily, rubbing his eyes. “We’re both a mess.”
Daryl couldn’t help the weary laugh that bubbled out of his throat. “Let’s wait till tomorrow.”
Quetzal frowned, but he lay down next to Daryl and wrapped an arm around him. “I don’t like washing the sheets twice a week.” He turned his head away, suddenly, and sat up. “Do you hear that?”
Daryl jumped when a hard knock sounded on Quetzal’s door.
“Wait here,” Quetzal said, rolling out of bed. “Go to sleep.”
“I’ll wait,” Daryl said, but he fell asleep soon after, his dreams restless and full of grey.
In the morning, Daryl woke up alone. He rolled over, expecting Quetzal to be there, but he was met by air and blankets. “Quetzal?” he called out, not opening his eyes.
Daryl frowned. Nobody? He opened his eyes and sat up, rubbing his eyes with his hands, blearily looking around. “Quetzal?” He swung his legs over the side of the bed, ready to get up and find him, but then he heard the front door swing open and Quetzal’s footsteps.
“Oh, you’re awake. Quetzal entered the room, undoing his cloak and dropping it to the ground, taking off his mask. He sat down next to Daryl and stroked his hair. “How are you doing?”
“I’m fine,” Daryl said. “Where did you go?” He frowned. “What’s wrong?”
Quetzal sighed, running a hand through his hair. “They want you to help infiltrate the Wall in two weeks,” he said. “They’re trying to organize a coup d’etat, and they want it as soon as possible. There’s a group in there . . . they’ve been sending messages . . .”
Daryl was quiet for a moment, and Quetzal said nothing, just sat there. “When do I get to come back?”
Quetzal’s mouth twitched. “I don’t know.”
Daryl put his chin on Quetzal’s shoulder. “Oh,” he said.
“You already decided you’re going,” Quetzal said, his hands clenched into loose fists. He drew his shoulders up to his ears.
“I know things that will help.”
“You don’t know that,” Quetzal said. “It might not work. Then you’ll be with the other group, and then . . .” Quetzal’s hands fell limp on his lap. He whispered something Daryl couldn’t hear, and then he said, “If you go over there, you might not come back. Ever.”
Daryl took Quetzal’s hands. “Come back to you?” he asked, and hurt flashed through Quetzal’s eyes.
“You can’t communicate with the Bird-People when you’re over there,” Quetzal said. “It’s not the same when you’re not face-to-face.”
“I know,” Daryl said. He stroked Quetzal’s hands, trying to soothe him, but Quetzal pulled his hands away and brushed his hands through his hair.
“If you know so much, why don’t you just tell the leaders instead of going over there?!” Quetzal stood, walking over to the closet. He stood in front of it, shoulders up near his ears, and then, suddenly, he deflated and hung his head. “You won’t be safe.”
Daryl bit his lip. “Well . . .”
Quetzal returned to the bed, sitting down next to him. “Well?”
“You could . . .” Daryl sighed, and then he took a deep breath and said, “Come with me.”
Quetzal turned. “What?”
“Come with me,” Daryl repeated, with more force this time. When Quetzal began protesting, he shushed him with a soft kiss that made Quetzal’s shoulders relax. “You’ve taught me so many things. This time, let me teach you.”
Quetzal closed his eyes and leaned his head against Daryl’s. “This place is all I’ve ever known.”
Daryl kissed him again. “Please,” he said. “You’ll be safe if you’re with me.”
Quetzal’s hand slipped into his. “I said that to you once,” he said.
“I’ll let you order me around some more,” Daryl said.
The corners of Quetzal’s mouth twitched. “Even if it makes you look funny?”
Daryl smiled. “Even if it makes me look funny.”
“Hm . . .”
“But no more jumping off Nebulosas,” Daryl added quickly, and when Quetzal laughed, Daryl knew he’d won.