An Invitation To Love

BLURB
M/M | Fantasy | Dragons | threesome | polyamory
15,600 words | 45 pages (pdf) | short story
1st edition published by Storm Moon Press (May 11 2013)
 
written for Sarah, the highest bidder of my Hurricane Sandy Relief Story Auction at Babes In Boyland

An Invitation To Love

Dominick, a winged Phae with a severe stutter, feels more at ease speaking the Drachus sign language than his own Phae tongue. Acting as patron to his partner’s mating ceremony, he meets Lysander and Zachary, who seem to have a thing for redheads and don’t mind that he doesn’t talk. Even though Dominick believes it’s just a casual hookup, he can’t stop worrying he’ll mess up… or want more.

The Invitation:

Craw Nook’s leader Little Rock
requests the honor of your presence
to witness the mating of
Thumper
second in command to Little Rock
and his chosen first-mate
Buttercup
security officer
 
Their traditional six-day mating ceremony will start
on the eleventh day of this mating season
at the Gather Bench
in Craw Nook
 
For all presents, questions, and requests, please contact
Panic (patron to Thumper)
Dominick y Ejna of Ayneia (patron to Buttercup)

The Map of Craw Nook (and surrounding countries):
The Map of Craw Nook

EXCERPT

Standing on top of Owain ridge on the border between Ayneia and Craw Nook, I clutched Buttercup and her mate-to-be’s present to my chest. Moving to the edge, I spread my wings, catching enough of the breeze to let it lift me off… as soon as I was ready. I swallowed. Noises from the foot of the ridge, faint as they were, kept me from taking that final step. The hustle and bustle below most resembled blurry rainbow colored ants, but with less discipline. As Buttercup’s chosen patron, I should be mingling with the guests—a mix of Drachus, Ura, Ganesh, and Phae like me—but hunger and nausea threatened to turn my stomach at the idea of immersing myself in the crowd for her six-day mating ceremony. Maybe Mother had been right, and I should have declined the honor Buttercup had bestowed on me. But how could I? We’d been working together for close to seven years. I couldn’t abandon her now. Despite my shortcomings, that wasn’t who I was.

Flapping wings alerted me to approaching company, and I scanned the side of the ridge to find out where Buttercup would be coming from. Who else would look for me up here? My family lived a five-hour flight into Ayneia away. I couldn’t help but smile as I spotted her to my far left, climbing up against the steepest side of the mountain.

Buttercup was an average sized Drachus. She had an elongated head twice the size of mine, four hefty legs, a long pointy tail, sharp claws one didn’t want to be in the way of, and a wingspan large enough to shelter a small group of children against the rain. Her pearly pink scales glittered in the sunlight, set off by the dark pink coloring of her belly, her wings, and the tips of her ears and tail. We made quite a pair patrolling the borders between Ayneia and Craw Nook. Buttercup in pink, and me with my red hair, and red, yellow, and orange wings.

She loomed up in front of me, blocking the sunlight. I stepped back from the edge. She hovered a Drachus length away from me, her eyes thin strips of gold, seeming none too happy with me.

«I’m sorry,» I signed in Drachus, a one-handed sign language created to enable conversations with the nations surrounding their land. It wasn’t the Drachus’ native language. That consisted of many throat aching growls, grunts, and rasps impossible to emulate if one wasn’t built to produce those sounds.

Lips pressed tight, Buttercup shook her head. «You promised me you’d try, Dominick. No one expects you to speak anything but Drachus.»

Nothing I hadn’t tried to tell myself, but it didn’t make it any better.

«Come down with me. Thumper’s becoming impatient.»

Buttercup’s mate-to-be, and the formidable second in command to Craw Nook’s leader, Little Rock. His name never failed to make me smile. Partly because Buttercup once told me how he thumped his tail on the ground when he didn’t agree with something as a nestling, and partly because one of my sisters had a pet rabbit with the same name.

«I was working up to it.» Working up to facing such a large crowd and ‘speaking’ in public, even if signing in Drachus. But mostly, I’d been working up to facing men I’d want to talk to. Men who’d be walking the other way as soon as I opened my mouth, as soon as they heard me mangle my words.

Buttercup flapped her wings creating a gust of wind that blew me backwards. She snorted. «Working yourself into a frenzy, more like.» She turned in the air, spreading her wings and using her tail for balance. «Stop dawdling and fly down with me.»

Stamping my feet would make me resemble the juvenile she sometimes treated me as, so I lifted off and hovered alongside her.

«You’ll be fine, Dominick. Your Drachus is flawless.»

Buttercup knew better than anyone it wasn’t my Drachus I was worried about.

REVIEWS
Victoria Zagar at Infinite Love
"This is a free read from Storm Moon Press and I absolutely recommend it, even if you’re usually shy of M/M/M pairings. This is a great introduction to this kind of relationship as each character is patient with the others and there’s a real emotional bond between the three that never feels like it should be just M/M and never feels abusive or pushy. All three of these men clearly want this relationship and it shows. A great read."

Serena at Rainbow Book Reviews
"Interspecies relationships can be complicated enough due to different customs and/or expectations, but add a severe speech impediment, different languages, and a variation of ideas about mating and you have a true challenge. I love the fact that all these factors were what made the three men struggle how to relate to each other, not the fact they were gay or trying to be a permanent triad. If you like fantasy, if you enjoy reading along while trying to figure out the different species and their cultures, and if you’re looking for a read that is interesting and slightly quirky as well as hot, then you will probably like this free short story."

CHAPTER 1

Standing on top of Owain ridge on the border between Ayneia and Craw Nook, I clutched Buttercup and her mate-to-be’s present to my chest. Moving to the edge, I spread my wings, catching enough of the breeze to let it lift me off… as soon as I was ready. I swallowed. Noises from the foot of the ridge, faint as they were, kept me from taking that final step. The hustle and bustle below most resembled blurry rainbow colored ants, but with less discipline. As Buttercup’s chosen patron, I should be mingling with the guests—a mix of Drachus, Ura, Ganesh, and Phae like me—but hunger and nausea threatened to turn my stomach at the idea of immersing myself in the crowd for her six-day mating ceremony. Maybe Mother had been right, and I should have declined the honor Buttercup had bestowed on me. But how could I? We’d been working together for close to seven years. I couldn’t abandon her now. Despite my shortcomings, that wasn’t who I was.

Flapping wings alerted me to approaching company, and I scanned the side of the ridge to find out where Buttercup would be coming from. Who else would look for me up here? My family lived a five-hour flight into Ayneia away. I couldn’t help but smile as I spotted her to my far left, climbing up against the steepest side of the mountain.

Buttercup was an average sized Drachus. She had an elongated head twice the size of mine, four hefty legs, a long pointy tail, sharp claws one didn’t want to be in the way of, and a wingspan large enough to shelter a small group of children against the rain. Her pearly pink scales glittered in the sunlight, set off by the dark pink coloring of her belly, her wings, and the tips of her ears and tail. We made quite a pair patrolling the borders between Ayneia and Craw Nook. Buttercup in pink, and me with my red hair, and red, yellow, and orange wings.

She loomed up in front of me, blocking the sunlight. I stepped back from the edge. She hovered a Drachus length away from me, her eyes thin strips of gold, seeming none too happy with me.

«I’m sorry,» I signed in Drachus, a one-handed sign language created to enable conversations with the nations surrounding their land. It wasn’t the Drachus’ native language. That consisted of many throat-aching growls, grunts, and rasps impossible to emulate if one wasn’t built to produce those sounds.

Lips pressed tight, Buttercup shook her head. «You promised me you’d try, Dominick. No one expects you to speak anything but Drachus.»

Nothing I hadn’t tried to tell myself, but it didn’t make it any better.

«Come down with me. Thumper’s becoming impatient.»

Buttercup’s mate-to-be, and the formidable second in command to Craw Nook’s leader, Little Rock. His name never failed to make me smile. Partly because Buttercup once told me how he thumped his tail on the ground when he didn’t agree with something as a nestling, and partly because one of my sisters had a pet rabbit with the same name.

«I was working up to it.» Working up to facing such a large crowd and ‘speaking’ in public, even if signing in Drachus. But mostly, I’d been working up to facing men I’d want to talk to. Men who’d be walking the other way as soon as I opened my mouth, as soon as they heard me mangle my words.

Buttercup flapped her wings, creating a gust of wind that blew me backward. She snorted. «Working yourself into a frenzy, more like.» She turned in the air, spreading her wings and using her tail for balance. «Stop dawdling and fly down with me.»

Stamping my feet would make me resemble the juvenile she sometimes treated me as, so I lifted off and hovered alongside her.

«You’ll be fine, Dominick. Your Drachus is flawless.»

Buttercup knew better than anyone it wasn’t my Drachus I was worried about.

*~*~*~*

With the opening ceremony and the exchanging of the scales out of the way, without me having to say even one word, I escorted Buttercup to her chambers, where she would spend the next six days surrounded by a few chosen companions—two of her nest-mates. No one aside from me and her companions were allowed to speak to her directly. Nor was Buttercup allowed to see Thumper outside of the public ceremonies. Which was where I came in. As her patron, I was Buttercup’s representative in all matters. All discussions, requests, and questions would go through me. For today, my part was nearly done. Fingers crossed for no one to be asking questions while the pair healed from the ceremony.

Buttercup stood in the entrance of her chambers and smiled at me. A slimy concoction meant to help Thumper’s newly inserted scale attach itself covered part of her belly. I couldn’t help but shudder at the image of Buttercup ripping out her scale at the ceremony. They’d told me it would happen during the preparations, but I hadn’t been ready for how gruesome it was to watch. It was as if someone ripped my belly open. I shuddered.

Buttercup seemed to understand what I was thinking. «It’s not as bad as you’re imagining. It doesn’t sting worse than being prodded with a sword or arrow. It’ll be a bit sore for a couple of days. That’s all.»

I’d take her word for it. «Is there anything you need?»

She shook her head and pointed to her two nest-mates. «No. I’m well taken care off. Go! Enjoy the entertainment. I’ll see you in the morning.»

«Until morning.» I bowed my head and fluttered my wings in a formal Drachus farewell before walking back to the Gather Bench, an area enclosed on three sides by steep mountain walls, containing a raised platform, and used for all Craw Nook business meetings.

It dawned on me Buttercup wouldn’t see any of the entertainment. Such a weird thing. At our unions, the entertainment was a present for the beloved, while here they were to keep the guests busy during the course of the long ceremony. The loud rhythmic thrumming of Ganesh drums reached me long before I caught sight of the dancers on the platform. I settled down on one of the rock benches with a mug of selek, a warm, spicy Ganesh drink, and leaned back to enjoy the show.

The dancers were all Ura—a human technological nation along the Southwest Craw Nook border—yet the clothing was a mishmash of different nationalities. Brightly colored Phae scarves, heavy, leather, Ganesh skirts, and simple Ura t-shirts. I’d seen Ura dances before, but this wasn’t Ura as such. It contained plenty of traditional Ura steps, but I also recognized bits from dances my grandmother had taught me, as well as movements similar to the Drachus tribute to honor the rain. Amazing how they’d managed to fit it all into one fluid choreography.

As much as I enjoyed the show, it was the Ura leading them who caught my attention. He was no doubt the oldest of the group, but also the most elegant. Above average height for a Ura and muscular in a ‘just enough to show it’ way. His skin was darker than the rest of his group, but still rather pink. His short, topaz-colored curls sparkled in the remaining sunlight, highlighting his beaming smile. Ayn’s heat, he was gorgeous… and looking right at me. Breath caught in my throat, I sat up straight, following his every move. I couldn’t tear my gaze from him. He was graceful and in tune with the beat of the drums and the flow of the dance. Mesmerizing.

I blinked when something moved in front of my face. The stage was empty. Had I zoned out? Something moved in front of my face again. A hand. I followed it as it retreated to find the Ura I’d been staring at sitting next to me, smiling. I could barely breathe.

He was even more gorgeous up close, despite the laugh lines around his mouth and oval-shaped, dark eyes that held an amused expression as he peered at me. I couldn’t tell what color they were, but it didn’t matter. What was I going to say to him? How? “No one expects you to speak anything but Drachus,” Buttercup had told me. I raised my hand to sign a simple hello… until he spoke. Spoke, not signed. Spoke in Phae—my own language—on top of everything.

“The invitation mentioned a Phae patron, but I didn’t believe it until I saw you up there, earlier. Such an honor.”

I bowed my head. My hands were trembling, and the selek I’d drunk threatened to come up. I’d learned more about etiquette during the preparations of this mating than I had in my entire life, but I had no idea if it would be rude to answer in Drachus when he spoke Phae to me. I rubbed my clammy, trembling hands on my trousers.

“You’re Buttercup’s partner, right?” Gorgeous asked with only the barest hint of an accent.

I nodded. It was the least I could do.

“I bet you two make quite a sight up in the air. All those beautiful, bright colors.” He straightened and held out his hand in a Ura greeting. “I’m Lysander Crickett, by the way.”

Lysander’s hand was warm and steady in mine. No doubt he could feel mine trembling. He searched my face, waiting for an answer, and, against better judgment, I opened my mouth. “Do-Do-D—” Clamping my mouth shut, I jerked my hand back. I should have known. Nothing was ever easy. It was stupid to try when I’d never managed to say my name, or anything for that matter, without stumbling over it.

Before Lysander could react, I pushed myself up from the bench and stormed off, hands clenched, cursing myself in every language I knew for messing up. Making my way through the throng of guests, laughter followed me, but there were too many people around, too many sounds for me to be able to identify the laughter as Lysander’s. Others would have found solace from the noise in the guest caves, but being Phae—known for our excellent hearing—I could hear the laughter even within the walls of my chamber. I sagged against the wall inside my own private chamber and wanted to bang my head against it.

I had to open my mouth and ruin everything. Again. Could I survive five more days of this?

CHAPTER 2

Two hours into the pitry chase, I was still asking myself that same question. Not having slept well didn’t help, nor did the many guests approaching me with questions for Buttercup, even if no one talked to me in anything but Drachus. On top of that, despite there being more guests than I could ever meet, I kept seeing Lysander at every turn. Lysander and the Ganesh he was smiling at—a Liaison judging by his long black braid. Liaisons taught Drachus culture to visitors of Craw Nook and handled their visas. Most Liaisons were Ganesh, a human nomadic nation, because they’d been the Drachus’ first allies.

While I should be watching Buttercup and Thumper chasing their prey, a pitry bird, in the air above us, I found myself watching Lysander and the Ganesh instead, who seemed more interested in each other. I kicked the ground. I had no claim on Lysander, and yet, it stung that he had found someone new so quickly. A screech from the pitry tore my attention away from them, but while the pitry flew low over our heads, neither of the mates were close enough to reach it.

The pitry was one of the rarer species of birds inhabiting Craw Nook. A large, skinny bird that would never be enough for even a single Drachus’ meal. Of course, the chase wasn’t about catching food. It was about working together, about showing their peers, their nests, their guests, they were worthy to be each other’s mates. The pitry was also a symbol of fertility among the Drachus. Mates sharing one would be blessed with eggs before long. Buttercup often talked about wanting many. I could barely wait to be invited for the hatching of their eggs. Drachus nestlings were adorable, and Uncle Dominick had a nice ring to it.

While Buttercup and Thumper flew circles around the sneaky pitry, I made my way to the buffet. I filled a plate and grabbed a mug of selek before finding a bench in the shade where I could rest, yet have a clear view of the chase. If Buttercup and Thumper were unlucky, their pitry chase could last until deep in the night.

The hot grool, a Phae corn soup, was delicious; the spicy Ura tarkan bread brought a nice contrast to it. There’d been yen, a flat Phae bread we usually had with grool, but I’d wanted to try something from every nation. I was glad I’d taken a chance. If only I’d chosen a better spot. I’d managed to find a spot close to Lysander and his Ganesh friend. The more I tried to ignore them, the more I found myself watching them.

Lysander’s flowing, elegant gesturing with his arms as he signed contrasted the Ganesh’s sharp motions and clunky nodding and shrugging. The Ganesh was a head shorter than Lysander, tanned, stocky, and compact, and had large hands. He wore a leather skirt, too, but he’d donned a long, traditional Ganesh lambskin vest and simple tunic on top of it. Lysander wore a similar outfit to the one he’d worn the day before. Would his group be dancing today? I hoped they would. I liked their style.

The pitry screeched again. Buttercup closed in on it, with Thumper on the other side of it, keeping it from escaping. Just as Buttercup reached out to grab the pitry, it took a nosedive. Both Drachus followed into the dive, and I held my breath as they raced toward the ground. I counted the distance, the time they had left to pull up, chanting, “Now. Now. Now!” when they reached the critical point.

Buttercup pulled up, and Thumper made a sharp turn at the last minute that brought him in a path parallel to the ground. Neither had managed to catch the pitry, and it disappeared. My heart pounded in my throat, and I lost all interest in the chase. Buttercup had told me about the pitry chase many times. I knew it was a hard task, but I never could have imagined it would be this dangerous.

Taking my eyes off them, I found myself watching Lysander and his Ganesh again. They’d stopped signing and had switched to talking. How many languages did Lysander speak? Were they speaking Ura or Ganesh? I took a breath and focused on them as I tried to pick up their voices. Ganesh. They were speaking Ganesh. At least, it sounded like Ganesh. I didn’t know the language well enough. Even in a language I barely understood, the Ganesh’s deep, gruff voice sent chills down my spine. Lysander’s voice resembled his dancing—rhythmic and colorful. Why hadn’t I replied in Drachus when he spoke to me?

As gorgeous as Lysander was, the Ganesh had something about him I liked, too. He came across as the sort of man who liked to take charge. The Ganesh trailed his hand up Lysander’s arm, and I suddenly imagined them making out. I nearly dropped my mug, splashing selek on the ground. Gripping it tight, I coughed and quickly turned my head, ignoring the heat rising in my cheeks. Where had that come from?

I still didn’t have an answer to that when Lysander and the Ganesh approached me while Buttercup and Thumper rose high above us.

«How’s the grool?» the Ganesh asked with no introduction at all.

«It’s good.» What else could I say? It was my favorite food.

«Right.» He mumbled something in Ganesh to Lysander before taking the mug from my hand. «Let me get you another selek.»

He didn’t even wait for me to acknowledge his offer. I gazed at him as he walked away, his long, black braid swishing across his butt as he moved through the crowd. I swallowed. Lysander winked at me, and I dropped my gaze. What was I doing?

“He’s gorgeous, isn’t he?” Lysander asked in Phae.

What did he want from me?

“He thinks you’re hot.”

I stared at Lysander, my mouth open and my heart racing. What were they doing here? Not here at the mating ritual. Here, with me. I wanted to know, but my mouth felt as if I’d swallowed sand, and all I could do was cough. Lysander sat next to me on the bench and rubbed a warm hand across my back as I coughed. I leaned into the touch before I could stop myself.

“I’m sorry if I chased you away last night.”

Wait… What? I turned to face Lysander and blinked at him, opening and closing my mouth as if I were a fish on dry land. Apologizing for chasing me away? «Why?»

Lysander scrubbed a hand over his face as he shrugged. «Because I broke protocol and spoke Phae to you.»

«I stormed off.» A childish move my family would never have tolerated. Ironic, really, when they never expected me to speak.

«I put you on the spot.»

On the spot? Who had he been talking to? I raised my hand to ask when Buttercup’s scream pierced through the air.

Buttercup and Thumper closed in on the pitry, fast. With Buttercup flying straight and Thumper sideways, they managed to close off any escape for the pitry with their wings. Thumper released a net from his right front claw. Buttercup grabbed it with her left, twisted it around the pitry, trapping the bird in the net. They came hurtling down with frightening speed, but at the last possible moment they dropped the net and pulled up again. The trapped pitry slammed down on the rock with a pitiful squeak. A clean kill. Thumper’s patron, Panic, picked it up and carried it off to be prepared.

«That was impressive.» Lysander said.

His hand rubbing circles on my back, the way he smiled at me, it all became too much, and I rose. «I need to tend to Buttercup.» If only to check up on her and take messages before leaving her in the capable hands of her nest-mates.

If Lysander was disappointed, he didn’t show it. «Will you come find us later?»

Us. He and the Ganesh. My heart clenched at the idea of meeting both of them, but my hand spelled «yes» nonetheless. What was I doing? Why was he interested in me? No one had ever been interested in me after I opened my mouth, and the Ganesh had barely spoken to me. What did he see in me?

*~*~*~*

A low growl rumbled past me. I blinked. Buttercup waved a claw at me. «You seem distracted.»

«I apologize.» I smiled at her. «Good flight. You two managed to impress. Well done.»

Buttercup beamed. «Thank you. That was so much fun. We were good together. Thumper had no trouble following my lead.»

«Ah, so that’s how it is.»

She stuck out her tongue. Such a non-Drachus gesture that I couldn’t help but laugh. She flicked my tunic with a nail. «He had some good suggestions as well.»

Of course. I hadn’t expected anything less. Thumper was a trained soldier, after all. Besides, Buttercup would never be able to stand a mate who didn’t take initiative. «I’m teasing you. You two looked great up there.»

That earned me a huff and a jutted chin.

«Any assignments for me?»

Buttercup shook her head. «Nothing for today. I expect you here on time tomorrow to escort me to the dinner.»

The dinner where Thumper and Buttercup would be sharing their catch, their pitry. The third ritual, halfway through the six-day ceremony, and the one I least looked forward to. Drachus did not cook their food. It would be messy. «I’ll be here.»

«Good. Now, go enjoy yourself while they…» she pointed at her nest-mates, «…rub my scales with niko, to make me all bright and shiny for the ceremony tomorrow.»

I winced at the idea of running into Lysander and his Ganesh again, and Buttercup must have seen something in my face, because she lowered her head, her gaze piercing me. «Something’s wrong.»

«Everything’s fine. No impossible requests, and preparations have been running smoothly all day.»

«Not with my mating ceremony. With you. Spit it out.»

I took a deep breath and told her about Lysander and the Ganesh, whose name I didn’t even know, about messing up, and Lysander’s strange invitation to meet up with both of them. Maybe she knew what to do.

«Two of them?»

«Yes.» Some Drachus had more than one mate, yet sex was a strictly two Drachus affair for them. Procreation was highly valued among the Drachus.

«Lysander Crickett? I know him. He designed our mating tapestry. It’s brilliant. He’s a talented designer. I didn’t know he danced.»

«A dancing designer with a knack for languages, apparently.» A gorgeous one at that. I sighed. I needed to take another peek at the mating tapestry, now I knew he’d made it.

«And this Ganesh? A Liaison, you said? You find him pretty?»

Not the word I’d use for either of them, but I couldn’t deny it. I nodded.

«Then meet them. You’ve nothing to lose.»

Nothing but my dignity.

CHAPTER 3

Buttercup tapped a claw against the rock when I arrived to escort her to dinner. «Guess I don’t have to ask you how your night was?»

I was late, as I’d spent most of my night tossing and turning again. Not something I was used to, but I’d brought it on myself. After leaving Buttercup last night, I’d walked to the Gather Bench, intending to join Lysander and his Ganesh friend, but I’d taken one look at them and chickened out. They’d stood close together, all cozy smiles and touches as they talked, and I hadn’t wanted to disturb them. At least, that’s what I told myself.

Buttercup narrowed her eyes at me before raising her head. «As much as I’d love to hear how you messed up, I have a ceremony to go to.»

The message was clear. She’d make me talk later. I bowed my head and motioned for her to follow me. As we made our way to the Gather Bench, Panic and Thumper approached from the other side. Panic slowed his pace so we would arrive at the center at the same time. While we led the soon-to-be-mates onto the platform, two Phae harpists and a Ganesh drummer started playing a traditional Phae wedding song Buttercup liked. The four of us took our positions on either side of Little Rock in a straight line and faced the guests. I nearly stumbled when I caught sight of Lysander and his Ganesh standing in front of the platform, smiling up at me.

I swallowed and straightened myself, fidgeting with my blue scarf as I tried not to look at them and failed. Buttercup tapped my leg with her claw, dragging my attention back to the ceremony and Little Rock, who’d started his speech. Didn’t take me long to zone out again. I was all too aware of Lysander and his Ganesh standing in front of me, leaning against each other as they watched me, smiled at me. Distracted me. If it weren’t for Buttercup giving me a nudge, I’d have missed my part in the ceremony completely. I walked to the side of the platform, picked up the large platter holding the pitry, and put it down in front of Thumper and Buttercup. «May this sacrifice bless Craw Nook with your young.»

Within moments, Buttercup and Thumper were devouring their pitry. By devouring, I meant tearing it apart, feeding each other pieces of its flesh, and spitting out the bones when they were done. Drachus weren’t known for neat eating. So different from what I imagined sharing a meal with my beloved would be like; a set table, lit candles, cutlery, and me staring into their eyes for hours on end.

Little Rock’s speech afterward was short and consisted of wishing us to enjoy the buffet, while the Drachus ate their dinner in seclusion. “Because of their vastly different diet and cutlery free dining.” As with the past few days, one of Buttercup’s nest-mates would take my place at her side.

Buttercup wasn’t ready to let me go yet. She grabbed the leg of my trousers with the tips of her claws and drew me aside. «They seem eager to have you join them.»

«You think so?»

Buttercup frowned. «You don’t?»

I shook my head, but then nodded and shrugged. «You know me. I keep thinking I’ll scare them off by opening my mouth. No one sticks around after that.»

Buttercup swiveled her head in Lysander and his Ganesh’s direction. I tried not to watch them as she studied them. Tried and failed. Neither seemed impressed by her presence, which was a novelty. As long as the Drachus had been our allies, most never got over their size or the fact that they could kill any Ura, Ganesh, or Phae with one sharp nail. Buttercup was my friend, arguably my best friend, yet I was still impressed.

«They don’t seem to bear you ill will,» she finally said. «Lysander Crickett seems impatient for you to join them, and the Ganesh isn’t fooling me with his composed stance.»

The Ganesh didn’t even know me. Yet, there they both were, smiling and waiting for me.

«Stop overthinking and try to have some fun.»

Fun. No expectations, no overthinking it. Just having some fun. Was that the solution? A growl from Thumper telling Buttercup to hurry dragged my eyes from Lysander and his Ganesh. I laughed. «Seems your mate-to-be is pretty impatient himself.»

«He tried to visit me last night. Patience has never been his strength.»

«I don’t know. He showed enough patience in asking you to be his first mate.» He’d been after her for two years, at least.

Buttercup’s eyes twinkled. «He needed to grow up.»

I snorted. Thumper was a decade older than Buttercup. Thumper growled again, and Buttercup grinned at me. A scary sight, a grinning Drachus. Far too many sharp teeth laid bare.

«Join your friends. I’ll be retreating after dinner, but will call for you if I need you.»

A clearer dismissal I wouldn’t receive. I bowed and fluttered my wings before turning away from her. Though Lysander and his Ganesh were smiling at me, as I walked down the steps, I couldn’t stop my doubts from running away with me. Could I let myself have some fun? It wasn’t as if I expected to ever meet either of them again. Didn’t mean I wouldn’t want to.

*~*~*~*

All three walls of the Gather Bench held large, lavish tapestries. I was only interested in the one hanging behind the platform, the mating tapestry. Buttercup had been right; it was gorgeous. A dark background changing from shades of blue at the top to shades of green at the bottom. Dark severe colors, broken by large swirls and curls in shades of pink. It screamed Buttercup and Thumper, depicting not just their colors, but their personalities as well.

“You like it?”

My heart pounded at the sound of Lysander’s voice behind me. Turning sideways to face him, I stumbled over a stray rock. He grabbed my hand and pulled me against him until I regained my balance. When he released me, a sense of loss came over me, and I had to suppress the urge to reach for him. Instead, I stepped backward, creating distance and trying to forget I wanted his touch.

Dinner had been an awkward affair. Both Lysander and the Ganesh—Zachary he’d said his name was—kept trying to talk to me, but I’d been too nervous. Even now, I could barely remember what they’d said. After dinner, Zachary had looked over to another table with a frown, whispered something in Lysander’s ear, and excused himself. I’d finished my food, and followed suit, despite Lysander’s protests.

I hadn’t expected him to follow me. Part of me liked it, but the other part… the other part was too afraid I’d open my mouth. «It’s gorgeous,» I finally said. Like you.

Lysander smiled and signed a «Thank you.» before looking me up and down. He raised his hand, but dropped it again as he shook his head and instead told me in Phae, “Your coloring would be perfect for a tapestry, you know. So vibrant, so alive.”

All my blood rushed into my head. My cheeks, my neck, even my ears were hot.

“You don’t need to be blocked.”

I didn’t need to be what? «Blocked?»

Lysander frowned. “Is that what I said?” he asked. “I meant…” He raised a hand as if asking me to wait. He mumbled something in Ura, nodded to himself, and signed, «Embarrassed. I meant embarrassed.»

That made sense. Not that I could help him with his Phae, that meant speaking, and I wasn’t going to fall for that trap again. He didn’t seem bothered by his mistake.

He reached over my shoulder and brushed his fingertips against my wings. “You’re exquisite, from your skin to your wings and your red hair. You redheads seem to have the most vibrant colors of all Phae.”

Like a fire warming up the room, Father always said, though he usually meant Mother. All the heat surrounding me now was the effect Lysander’s expression had on my cock, and nothing to do with my coloring.

“Your skin is beautiful, golden. Did you know red-haired Ura are mostly very pale and tend to have freckles?”

I shook my head. Patrolling the borders between Craw Nook and Ayneia, I’d met a few Ura through work, but I’d never actually been to Uraam.

“They are. Still gorgeous, though,” Lysander said with a wink.

If he had a thing for redheads, what was he doing with a black-haired Ganesh? Where was Zachary? Why did I care? Because they were gorgeous together. Because I couldn’t get rid of the image of them making out. I wouldn’t mind being part of that… as long as they let me stick to speaking Drachus.

Lysander closed the distance between us and put his hands on my shoulders. “Dance with me.”

Blue, his eyes were the dark blue of a clear sky at night, and his hands were warm. «What about Zachary?»

“Zachary had to attend to a friend who spent a bit too much time with the mull. He’ll join us later.” Lysander swung me around and pushed me toward the makeshift dance floor.

Mull was vile. Made from dark, tangy berries, infused with a bitter root, and drunk lukewarm, it wasn’t something I’d ever drink again. Once was more than enough. My stomach rebelled at the mere thought of it.

“Not a fan either?” Lysander smiled as he initiated a turn. “I prefer our beer or your orjile.”

I shook my head. Ura beer wasn’t bad, but I preferred our orjile. It was much lighter in flavor than mull, with a bit of a bite from a cinnamon infusion. For the duration of the ceremony, I’d best stick with selek. I needed a clear head.

Lysander was as graceful dancing with me as he had been during the routines with his group. He made it easy to follow his lead, even if I didn’t know the steps. My wings all but wrapped themselves around us in the dazzling turns he guided me through, before fluttering in the soft breeze as he slowed us down. I was breathless by the time the music stopped, but Lysander kept us swaying while we waited for a new song to start. He smiled at someone behind me. I tried to see who, but he kept me from turning my head. Fingers ghosted past my wings, and a familiar deep voice mumbled something in Ganesh. Zachary stood behind me, his lips close enough to tickle my wings as they moved. I shivered. Lysander answered Zachary in Ganesh and winked at me. When I didn’t react, he frowned and let go of me. «You don’t speak Ganesh, do you?»

«Not very well.»

«I’m sorry,» he signed. «I didn’t realize. I’m so used to switching from one language to another, I tend to forget not everyone does.» He turned me to face Zachary. «He doesn’t speak Phae.»

Pity, I quite enjoyed the sound of his voice. Zachary’s nose came up to my mouth. He was younger than I’d thought, despite the serious expression in his bright hazel eyes. He had a wide mouth, framed by the beginnings of a beard, and the lace of his tunic was undone. I wanted to run my hands through the dark curls on his chest.

«Hello,» I signed, lacking something witty to say.

At the same time Zachary raised his hand and signed, «You’re gorgeous.»

CHAPTER 4

Zachary was more interested in talking about Lysander and me than in telling us about himself. All I got out of him was that he was indeed a Liaison, regularly traveling through Craw Nook with groups of both Ganesh and Ura schoolchildren. His parents were traditional Ganesh, never content to stay in one place for long, and traveled all over the world. Zachary saw them once a year, if he was lucky.

He didn’t speak a word of Phae, but his Drachus was fluent enough, and his Ura wasn’t bad. Of course, I only knew enough Ura to use their security technology, even if Buttercup and I rarely needed it, and understood maybe every umpteenth Ganesh word if spoken slowly. No better excuse to speak Drachus and not have to explain to Zachary why I preferred it to my own language.

Strange how familiar it felt, talking to these two gorgeous men. No sweaty palms, no tight throat, no problems answering their questions or asking some myself. The more I watched their hands move, the more I wanted to touch either of them. I was all for getting to know each other, but what I really wanted was to watch them dance. Unfortunately, both Zachary and Lysander weren’t satisfied until I told them what colors my family’s wings were. It was the most asked question in any conversation with a Ura or a Ganesh, and with six siblings, the answer took time. They were both disappointed to hear Mother and I were the only redheads in our family of nine—turned out both had a thing for redheads.

Figuring out how to ask them to dance, I answered their questions and sipped selek. Suddenly, Lysander said he wanted to dance and grabbed Zachary’s hand. He tried to grab mine as well, but I held up my mug as an excuse to sit this one out. Lysander shrugged and dragged Zachary onto the dance floor, leaving me standing at the edge, free to watch them in motion.

Zachary’s moves weren’t as elegant and smooth as Lysander’s, but together, they made a beautiful couple. Pink-skinned versus sun-tanned, springy curls versus long, heavy braid. What Zachary lacked in elegance, he made up for by being completely in tune with the music. They were gorgeous together, and I couldn’t stop watching the way the sway of Zachary’s hips caused his braid to bounce against his butt. Ayn’s heat, why was I still watching them?

I put my mug away and joined them. Lysander pulled me between them. Their skirts brushed against my trousers as we moved to the beat of the drums. Their hands roamed my body and caressed my wings, hot and tantalizing. I wanted more, wanted them, and wanted them now.

«I guess we’d best take this somewhere private,» Zachary signed, his hand fluttering close to my face.

I swallowed but nodded and let him drag me off the dance floor. Lysander followed close behind. The heat of his body warmed my skin through my clothes even without touching him. Suppressing the urge to reach for him, I followed Zachary through the hustle and bustle of the party. Zachary stopped in front of the guest caves and kicked his foot into the ground. «I’m bunking with colleagues.»

Lysander sighed. «I share a chamber with my parents.»

«Guess it’s a good thing I’m a patron.» I pointed to a smaller entrance further down. «I’ve got a big chamber all to myself. Plenty of bedding, too.»

I wasn’t wrong about Zachary being one to take charge. The moment we entered my chamber, he told us both to undress while he lit the candles. Strange how even the idea of speaking constricted my throat and made me break out in sweat, yet undressing myself with two gorgeous men watching me made me shiver in all the right ways. My scarf drifted to the floor as I maneuvered my tunic past my wings. I had no patience to undo the laces. My shoes were easy to toe off, and I only needed to pull at the strings to drop my trousers. I was ready.

Lysander, on the other hand, swayed his hips to an imaginary rhythm as he unclasped his scarf and dropped it to the ground. A slow turn here, a smooth step there, and his t-shirt came off, revealing a smattering of chest hair I wanted to play with. He teased us, taunted us, entertained us. My mouth went dry as he danced around the chamber, lowering his skirt bit by bit.

From his spot against the wall, Zachary followed Lysander’s every move. Was he going to take his clothes off at all? Drawn in by Lysander’s graceful moves, I stopped caring by the time he’d finally taken his skirt off. He was gorgeous. I walked up to him and put my hands on his hips. His muscular body was like sunlight beneath my hands, warm and inviting. I loved the contrast between his pink skin and my golden brown. Zachary’s tanned Ganesh skin would fit lovely with ours.

«My turn to watch you dance,» Zachary signed as I looked over my shoulder.

Dancing naked was something Grandmother hadn’t taught us anything about. Lysander set the rhythm and led me through the steps. Hands closed over warm skin, legs brushed against legs, teasing and dragged out one moment, mere taps the next. We never parted farther than the steps required, and every time our cocks touched, no matter how slight, I shuddered.

My hands dug into Lysander’s flesh, trying to pull him closer, trying to prolong the contact, but Lysander shook his head every time. He smiled at me and refused to close the distance, even when Zachary’s naked body plastered itself against mine, taking care not to crush my wings, and fell into step. When had Zachary undressed himself? I forgot why it mattered when he pressed his hard cock against my butt. Zachary’s hands brushed against my wings, sending sparks through them and into my body. I shivered and pushed back. He mumbled something in Ganesh. Lysander’s smile widened as he dropped to his knees in front of me, grabbing my hips as he licked my cock from root to top before circling the head.

With a groan, I let my head fall back and my wings go slack to keep them out of the way. Zachary wrapped his arms around me, whispering Ganesh in my ear as he caressed my chest, my belly, and my thighs. He held me tight when Lysander closed his lips over my cock and started sucking in earnest. I cried out, shuddering and shivering, but unable to move. Zachary trailed his tongue from the top of my wings to my neck, blowing softly across the wet spot, still muttering in Ganesh. I didn’t care what he was saying as Lysander took me deeper, sucked harder. I was trapped between the two of them, mouth open, hands reaching for empty air. Gasping for breath, I came into Lysander’s mouth, and hung limp in Zachary’s arms when my knees buckled.

*~*~*~*

Waking up lying on my wings was nothing new. It had happened more times than I cared to remember, and it always took a while to lose the pinched tingling in them as I shook them out. Part of my wings was draped across Lysander, who lay plastered against my back. He was warm against me, and his breath tickled my neck and wings. Right. Wings, sleeping wings. I needed to deal with them before they became one large, prickling mass. Not that I wanted to leave the warmth of the bedding, of Lysander. I brushed my hand across Lysander’s hip and smiled. The night had been wonderful. Two gorgeous men crowding me in a jumble of entwined limbs, groping hands, rubbing bodies, and hot, messy kisses. On top of that, neither had pushed me to talk. What more could I want? I even learned some Ganesh commands in the process, all spoken in that deep, husky voice that made me shiver.

My wings protested as I hoisted myself off the bed, pulling at my back as I dragged them behind me. Pins and needles shot through my wings when I flapped them, and I bit my lip to keep from crying out. I should have gotten up earlier. Through the pain of the million pinpricks, I found a rhythm that jarred my wings least, yet kept them in motion. Every flap eased a few of those pinpricks, and I kept going until Lysander opened his eyes. He blinked and smiled at me, still half asleep. I stretched out next to him and molded myself against him, making sure my wings were out of the way. He wrapped his arm low around my waist, below my wings, and pulled me close to him. “Good morning,” he whispered in Phae.

I smiled, too lazy to move my hands, too happy to ruin it by opening my mouth, and answered him with a kiss instead. Lysander liked his kisses rough and deep, like a fight—a mock fight—and he didn’t care who ‘won’.

A sudden, loud snore echoed through the chamber. It startled me at first, but then Lysander started laughing against my mouth, and I couldn’t help but laugh as well. Behind Lysander, Zachary lay on his back, one hand trapped underneath Lysander, a blanket covering his legs, and his mouth hanging open as he snored. He occupied most of the bedding and was a heavy sleeper and irregular snorer. Several times, Lysander and I had been woken up by his snoring, only to find ourselves pushed off the bedding. We had tried to shove him over, but it had been useless. He managed to spread himself out every single time. In the end, we gave up and snuggled together to save space. Which hadn’t been a bad way to sleep, just… unfamiliar. I hadn’t shared a bed in a long time.

“Maybe we should wake him up,” Lysander whispered before brushing his lips along the pointy tips of my ear, and down the rim to nip at my earlobe.

Maybe we should. As I leaned over Lysander, a Drachus growled my name outside my chamber. I turned my head to find Panic in the entrance. I sighed and asked what he needed.

«If you don’t hurry up, you’ll be late.»

It couldn’t be that late, could it? My chamber was too far into the caves to be able to tell how high the sun had risen, but the sounds from outside indicated it wasn’t as early as I thought. How long had we slept? Buttercup would kill me if I was late.

I thanked Panic and turned back to Lysander. Zachary was still deep asleep. I didn’t want to go yet, but I had to.

“Go on. We’ll see you on top of the ridge.”

He had no idea how badly I needed to hear he wanted to see me again. We had a wonderful night, and yet, somehow, I’d been certain it would be a one-time thing for them. I was glad I was wrong.

I dragged myself off the bedding and washed in the small well in the corner of the chamber. Ignoring my rumpled clothes on the floor, I grabbed a clean set, a white set with a traditional Phae design embroidered around the edges.

“Don’t you have anything in black?”

I laughed. «I wear black when I work, never at a party.»

“I bet you look even better in black.”

«You’ll have to watch me at work if you want to see me wearing it.» Too soon, too bold, too… I was about to apologize, when Lysander cocked his head and smiled at me.

“Might just have to do that.”

He sounded sincere, and I wasn’t doing myself any favors by thinking he was indulging me. “Take it as it comes,” Father had said to me often enough. Yet, not once had anyone given me hope for future encounters. Not in such gorgeous wrappings, either. Until now.

Lysander sat up. “Go! You don’t want to be late.”

I stepped into my shoes and went outside. My wings were still a bit tingly, but not badly enough to stop me from flying. As I flew toward Buttercup’s chambers, I could see many of the guests already gathered around the platform. Little Rock stood in a corner, talking to his third.

CHAPTER 5

It was dark by the time the ritual ended, and I talked to Buttercup as she waited for Thumper to finish his meeting with Little Rock and Panic. Finishing today’s challenge meant Buttercup and Thumper were granted an hour in each other’s company. Chaperoned, of course, for which Panic had volunteered.

Drenched in sweat and looking tired, Buttercup grinned at me, baring her teeth.

«What?» I asked her.

«You were glowing when you picked me up this morning. I thought it was the light, but it isn’t, is it?»

«What glow?» I watched the Ura aircrafts drop off the guests who couldn’t fly after a long day spent on top of the Owain ridge, watching Buttercup and Thumper being put through their paces.

«The one saying ‘thoroughly mated’.»

This was the first thing she thought after a day of suffering through exercises testing how well they worked together? I shook my head.

I’d enjoyed seeing Buttercup and Thumper at work. Without me holding her back, Buttercup had flown faster than she usually did. They’d been a beautiful sight, flying side by side, wings stretched out as they’d soared over the trees. I’d wanted to cheer them on, like the rest of the guests had, but as their patrons, Panic and I were part of the jury assessing their skills. It wouldn’t have been appropriate.

«Well?» She tapped one of her claws on the rock.

«All right. Yes, we had sex. Happy now?»

Buttercup beaming looked even scarier than her grinning. «Good boy.»

I bit back a retort and reminded myself it had been a hard day for her. It’s a mating they’re proving themselves for, not a war, Little Rock had said in his speech. Yet, the challenges had been tough, and it was no wonder Buttercup’s eyelids were close to drooping.

«Are you seeing them again?»

I silently urged Thumper to hurry up with his meeting before Buttercup got me talking about my insecurities again. It wasn’t as if those hadn’t been torturing me all day. I may not have had much time with the watching and judging, and Lysander and Zachary may not have been standing close, but they had never been far from my mind.

Buttercup nudged me with her head. «I’ll take your lack of attention as a positive thing. Go. Check on your playmates.»

Playmates sounded innocent, casual. It didn’t ring true to me, at all. I didn’t want to imagine not having Lysander and Zachary around once the mating ceremony was over. How did I find out if they wanted to see me again? Would it even be possible? We didn’t exactly live close. I cursed. I needed to put those ideas out of my head and enjoy the moment. No strings attached. We only just met. Yet… «They both have a thing for redheads.» That was a sign, right?

«Everyone’s drawn to the fire,» Buttercup said.

I snorted. It was a line of one of Father’s favorite poems. I’d read it to her once, because Drachus didn’t read or write. “We have no need for all that”, Buttercup had told me when I asked if she could. The poem was about Drachus breathing fire, not about a Phae’s fire-colored wings. Seeing a Drachus turn dead trees into ashes with one breath was as fascinating as it was scary. «Most turn and run when they see fire.»

«Drachus’ fire, Dominick. Not radiant Phae like you.» Buttercup turned and walked off to fetch Thumper, not prepared to wait any longer.

Radiant? Me? I shook my head. There were far more radiant Phae in my own family. My youngest sister had the most gorgeous yellow and light green wings. I was still staring at Buttercup when a hand touched my shoulder. I’d have jumped if not for the warmth spreading through my body. I turned and smiled at Lysander and Zachary, both wearing similar smiles on their faces.

Zachary held out a mug. «Thought you might be thirsty.»

Our fingers brushed when I took the mug. Images of last night shot through my mind as I inhaled the scent of selek—roasted carob, cardamom, ginger, and other notes I didn’t recognize. «Smells so good. You’ll have to tell me what’s in this sometime.»

Zachary smiled and nodded while I cursed myself for the unsubtle dig at his plans for our future… Let it go, Dominick!

«Did you know mating was so much work?» Lysander asked.

«Not until Buttercup asked me to be her patron, no. So much effort to be wed. All we have to do is propose and ask the mother’s approval.» The Phae were matriarchal like the Ganesh, but unlike the Ganesh, we weren’t limited by our gender when vying for jobs. Ruler was the only position men could never fill, of family or tribe.

«You think this is hard. Try a traditional Ganesh union. Three months of traveling with your intended and a chaperone, to visit the temple at Enesh and ask for permission to join.»

«I take it the chaperone is there to make sure the intended don’t have sex?» Lysander wrinkled his nose.

Zachary nodded. «And to keep them from killing each other. These days, we have a less traditional version as well, but many orthodox Ganesh still follow the old rules.»

«Would you?» I asked.

«And have no sex for three months? What do you think?»

«A small sacrifice to gain true love,» Lysander said with a dramatic gesture.

Zachary snorted. «Coming from one of the Ura, who don’t even all marry before shacking up.»

«I didn’t say Ura were perfect, but I’d give up sex for three months if that meant I’d end up with the person I love for the rest of my life.»

«Would you risk it if you knew your request might not be granted?»

Lysander opened his mouth, closed it again, frowned, narrowed his eyes at Zachary, and shook his head. «You’re joking.»

«Of course I am. The journey itself is the test, much like the Drachus six-day mating ritual. Some couples don’t complete the journey and break up.»

Why I imagined the three of us traveling with a chaperone to the temple, I didn’t know, but I thought we’d be all right. We’d be cranky about the lack of sex, though.

So much for putting those thoughts out of my mind.

*~*~*~*

From mating ceremonies to family, from work to our favorite places, we talked about anything and everything as guests danced around us, eating and enjoying their own conversations. By the time our stomachs reminded us we needed sustenance, evenfall was upon us and there were few guests left at the Gather Bench. We hurried to the buffet and filled our plates before it closed.

Instead of having our dinner there, Zachary took us near the pond to a secluded spot he’d discovered while swimming with his colleagues the day they’d arrived. Large, overhanging trees shielded the spot from onlookers, and the ground was mossy and soft, if damp, but Zachary had grabbed a blanket from his own chamber for us to sit on. Lysander had brought a candle.

Trying to balance our plates on our knees as we ate and signed at the same time was awkward, so we ate our dinner in silence. It gave me the perfect opportunity to study them. They looked different in the flickering light of the candle. Or maybe spending the night with them had skewed my image of them. It didn’t matter. I enjoyed watching them, enjoyed the way they were gazing back at me.

I had barely put my plate aside when Zachary pushed me back onto the blanket, sending pins and needles through my wings. He glared as I raised myself up, but relented when I shook out my wings, straightened them, and lay back down. In one fluid move, he rose to his feet, dropped his skirt, and took his tunic and vest off. I couldn’t take my eyes off his cock, hard and tanned like the rest of him. From the corner of my eye, I caught Lysander undressing as well. I sat up, but one raised eyebrow from Zachary had me lying back down. The Ganesh command I expected to follow remained unspoken. Zachary moved behind Lysander instead, running his hands all over Lysander’s chest and stomach. Lysander turned his head toward Zachary and kissed him. Their sloppy, open-mouthed kiss made me hard, made me want to join them.

I put my fist in my mouth to stop myself from moaning when Zachary wrapped his hand around Lysander’s cock and dragged it from root to tip. Lysander rose up onto his toes, still kissing Zachary. Ayn’s heat, they were hot together. I loosened the string of my trousers and grabbed my own cock. A growl from Zachary made me pause, but the heated expression in his eyes went right to my cock. I wasn’t letting go now. He was on me in an instant, pulling my trousers down, slapping my hand away, and draping himself on top of me, my wrists clamped in his hands. His cock was hot, warm, and damp against mine, and I wanted more. I arched into him, but he pushed me flat onto the blanket with a single shove, rubbing our cocks together. His braid fell across his shoulder and brushed against my ribs. I shuddered and arched into him again.

Lysander said something in Ganesh, which I couldn’t blame him for, since Drachus was impractical from where he stood behind Zachary. Zachary gave a short answer that sounded like “Yes” to me, and Lysander grinned as he knelt behind Zachary. His hands brushed across the insides of my thighs, urging us both to spread our legs.

Holding up a small flask, Lysander peered at me over Zachary’s shoulder. Oil. I nodded. As if I’d say no, now. The oil was slippery and warm as it dripped into my crack. Had he been carrying it around all day or had he picked it up along with the candle?

While Lysander tortured me by dipping his finger in and out of me, not deeper than his knuckle, Zachary held me still. I bucked against him, but he wouldn’t move.

“Za-Zah—” I tried. With my hands trapped, my voice was all I had.

Zachary gazed down at me, eyes half closed, and smiled. “Gorgeous,” he said in broken Phae.

I shivered against him as Lysander’s finger finally sank deeper into me. Zachary smiled even wider. “Gorgeous,” he repeated, and kissed me.

His tongue was as warm as Lysander’s finger. Even their rhythm was the same, despite Lysander adding another finger along the way. In, out, in, out, slow, quick, slow. It made me dizzy for more. The kissing stopped, and the fingers stilled. I opened my mouth but needn’t have worried. Zachary let go of my wrists and repositioned himself, trapping my cock between our stomachs. The stretch of him pushing into me burned, but when Zachary stopped, I shook my head, wanting him to go on. A tiny smile curled his upper lip. He leaned forward and kissed me as he pushed deeper, swallowing my moans, my breath.

He stilled and raised his head at the same time something brushed against the inside of my legs. I could barely see Lysander, even if I tilted my head, but Zachary’s halting movements and sharp intake of breath were all the clues I needed. My trapped cock appreciated the image of Lysander sinking into Zachary. Unable to move, I watched Zachary, reveled in the expression on his face. Part pain, part pleasure, all want. I tugged one of my hands free and grabbed him by the back of his neck, pulling him down for a kiss—rough, messy, and delicious.

Lysander moved at a crawl at first, pushing Zachary a little deeper into me with every move. I wanted to scream for him to hurry up as much as I wanted him not to. When Lysander finally picked up the pace, I swallowed Zachary’s moans, and he swallowed mine. Every time I tried to reach my cock with my free hand, Zachary slapped it away and kissed me again, deep and rough. Being denied was frustrating and hot at the same time.

“Pl—” I tried, mumbling against Zachary’s lips. Hurry up. “Ple—”

Zachary shut me up by fucking my mouth with his tongue, but he did worm his hand between our stomachs and wrapped it around my cock. I fell apart at the first touch, screaming my release into Zachary’s mouth. Tiny shocks echoed through my body as Zachary kept fucking me. Too sensitive, too much, but so good I never wanted it to end.

Zachary came with a strangled moan and slumped down onto my body, his hands grabbing at the blanket as he panted into my ear. Lysander’s eyes were closed and his mouth hung open, his movements frantic and unsteady. When he finally opened them, his expression was so exposed, so revealing, I wanted to grab him and pull him down on top of us. I wanted to kiss him. Instead, I raised my hand and reached for him. He caught it in his, leaned down, and kissed my palm. Even as I closed my eyes, I could still see the way he stared at me, and my hope of something lasting flared up again.

CHAPTER 6

Flying in the shadow of one of the highest mountains in Craw Nook, I followed Buttercup, Thumper, and Panic toward the third set of empty caves we were visiting. Today’s ritual was all about finding a home for Buttercup and Thumper. The first one didn’t have enough chambers for Buttercup’s liking. The second one didn’t catch enough sunlight. Though I enjoyed exploring more of Craw Nook, my mind was with Lysander and Zachary. Were they still asleep? Or were they enjoying themselves without me? I bumped into Panic, imagining them in the throes of passion, and had to pull hard on my wings to veer right and avoid being knocked down by Panic’s tail. It had been tough to leave Lysander and Zachary this morning. Dressed and ready to go, I’d wanted them to wake up so I could wish them a nice day, kiss them goodbye. I sighed. If only today’s ritual hadn’t taken me this far away from them.

The Drachus started their descent, and I followed and landed next to Buttercup in front of two large cave entrances. A curved ridge separated the two from any possible neighbors. On the edge of the ridge a forest began, creating a nice secluded area in front of the caves. Buttercup and Thumper went inside the left entrance. I stayed outside to admire the area. Only a few Drachus were about, trimming trees and picking fruit. A number of small critters were running around as well. Drachus snacks, Buttercup called them. Everything smaller than a sheep was called a snack.

When I entered the cave, the communal chamber, Panic was leaning against a wall, soaking up the sunlight as he picked his teeth with his claws. According to him, this was the most boring part of the ceremony. I didn’t agree at all. I enjoyed exploring caves. This one had several openings leading off the communal chamber. How many families lived here?

«Which one are they checking out?» I asked Panic.

«The far left.»

I fell in love the moment I entered the first chamber. The chambers were oddly shaped, yet inviting and cozy, including one with a little stream running through it that I dubbed the bathroom. I’d been thinking of settling in Craw Nook for at least a year or two, but my family wanted me to stay with them. They thought I’d be too isolated here. They didn’t understand that was part of why I liked the idea so much. This cave would be brilliant for me. For Buttercup, not so much. I looked at the caves from a Phae point of view, not a Drachus one. Compared to the ones we’d seen already, this one was on the small side for them, even if I could easily see myself living here. I didn’t want to leave, but I wasn’t the one looking for a home today. Didn’t stop me imagining large drapes covering the openings as we were on our way to the next cave of the day, or figuring out which chamber would best suit a bed fit for three. I shook my head. Would they even want to visit me?

A few Drachus nestlings were playing outside the fourth cave. I couldn’t remember seeing nestlings at any of the other caves. Was it a plus or a negative for the mates-to-be? A plus, it seemed, since both Buttercup and Thumper cooed over them as soon as they landed. Thumper and Panic played with the nestlings while Buttercup and I walked through the caves. The chambers were not as quirky as the other cave, but the layout was clear, and roomier. In the back, we found a large open cave with an indoor pond they shared with their neighbors. Buttercup loved it, and when Thumper finally joined us, he seemed pleased with it as well.

With Thumper and Buttercup talking to their prospective neighbors, I found myself outside with Panic, waiting for them to return. «How common is it for outlanders to move into Craw Nook?» I asked.

«You mean Phae like you?»

I shrugged «Or Ura or Ganesh.»

Panic lowered his head and frowned. His bronze eyes followed the young Drachus as they played. «There’s a Ganesh settlement not far from here, though they rarely stay in the caves, they prefer their tents. Don’t know any Ura living here, but I’ve known some to stay in their aircrafts overnight. You’d need to have Little Rock’s permission to claim a cave. I can arrange a meeting with him, if you want.»

«That would be great. Thank you.» I hadn’t realized Urash, the only Ganesh settlement within the Craw Nook borders, was this close. That would mean I could have non-Drachus company if I made my home here.

I wanted to ask Panic more questions, but Buttercup and Thumper exited the caves with a smile, and announced they’d claimed the cave.

«Congratulations.» I said, but they’d already disappeared back inside.

«Now what?» I asked Panic.

«Now, you and I go back and tell Little Rock and the nests of their decision.»

«We’re not supposed to leave them alone.»

Panic winked at me and pointed at the Drachus playing in the grass. «They’re not alone.»

My hand froze in mid-air, and I was torn between my duties and what he was implying.

«Trust me,» he said. «It’s tradition to claim the cave. If you know what I mean.»

I could have done without imagining that, but I got the point. «All right. Lead on. I’ll follow.»

Panic shook his head. «Climb on. We’ll be faster.»

I wasn’t going to say no to a lift. It wasn’t often a Drachus offered to carry someone.

«Can we visit that last cave again?»

Panic’s eyes narrowed. «You’re serious about settling here.»

My mother had said the same thing when I told her I wanted to be a security officer. I’d been dead serious then, too. I wanted that cave.

*~*~*~*

Though I was disappointed neither Zachary nor Lysander were in my chamber when I returned, my mind was too full of ideas to search for them. Instead, I sat on my bedding with paper and a graphite stick to sketch the cave and the chambers. The sizes were probably a bit off, but, with the caves being Drachus sized, there was no chance of not having enough space. With four chambers off the large reception chamber, I had plenty of choice for bedrooms. I could even turn one of the other chambers into a cozy living room and leave the reception chamber for all the cooking and whatnot. I was still drawing when a pair of arms snaked around me from behind. Ganesh was whispered in my ear, but the only thing I understood was “Hello.” I dropped my drawing, turned in Zachary’s arms, and signed a reply.

Zachary smiled, brushed his lips against mine, and stepped back. «What are you doing?»

I picked up the drawing and sat on the bedding, waiting for Zachary to join me. «These are caves we visited today.»

«You’re drawing them for Thumper and Buttercup?»

«No. For me.»

«You claimed the cave?»

«I hope Little Rock will allow me to.»

«You want to live here? In Craw Nook?» His expression didn’t betray whether he thought it was a good or a bad idea.

I told him my plans, told him it would be closer to work, that I’d been thinking about leaving my family home for a while now. I didn’t tell him I wouldn’t mind company. It wasn’t as if we’d keep in touch after the ceremony ended, was it? Which was why Zachary suggesting he’d come visit me knocked me over.

«You’d do that?» I asked him before I could stop myself.

«Have we not been courting?»

We had been what? «Courting?»

«Yes. Did Lysander not explain?»

I shook my head. Lysander hadn’t mentioned courting at all. I would have remembered. Did courting mean the same for a Ganesh as it did for a Phae? Zachary stood and paced in front of the bedding, fists balled and jerking his head with every Ganesh word he spit out, too fast for me to pick up even a single word.

When he stopped, he bowed his head as he took deep breaths. He let his hands drop by his side. «I assumed…» He sank to his knees in front of me and gazed up into my eyes. «It was never my intention to seduce you without your permission to court you.» He swallowed. «I wouldn’t have slept with you if you’d said no. I…» He sighed and sat back, a sad expression in his eyes. «It’s not the Ganesh way.»

My heart pounded in my throat. I was speechless. There was a difference. No Phae would bother to request a courtship until after having sex at least once. Compatibility was key to a healthy relationship, I’d been taught, and a healthy relationship included sexual compatibility.

«Will you permit me to court you, Dominick y Ejna?» he asked. He rubbed his hands on his skirt.

I wanted to pinch myself, to check whether I was awake or had fallen asleep on the bedding. This was my dream come true. Instead, I grabbed his hands and pressed them to my cheeks. They were clammy. It was reassuring Zachary could be nervous, too.

“So…” I burst out without thinking. In Ganesh. Torn between going on and shutting my mouth, I took a deep breath, and another one. I wanted to try. How hard could it be to say yes? “So-so-so-so. M-m-m-mei. So—” I closed my eyes and tried to slow my breathing down. As hard as it had ever been, much harder than I’d hoped.

Zachary pulled my head close to his, but I didn’t open my eyes. “Open,” he said in heavily accented Phae.

I obeyed and found him smiling at me. «Thank you for trying. Thank you for accepting.»

How could I not smile at that?

He lay down next to me and pulled me on top of him. «So, can I visit you in your cave?»

He swallowed my laugh with a kiss.

*~*~*~*

Plastered against Zachary’s back, listening to him snoring, I couldn’t stop smiling. Courting. I was courting a Ganesh. I had a boyfriend. Those words were running through my head until Lysander entered much later. He smiled at me and shucked his clothes.

“Did you two have fun?” he asked as he approached us.

His voice echoed through the chamber, loud enough to wake Zachary, who turned his head, saw Lysander, and threw himself off the bedding. He tackled Lysander to the ground, grabbed him by his shirt, and shook him as he screamed at him in Ganesh.

For a moment, I just sat there, frozen, staring at them while my heart raced, before shaking myself out of it and scrambling off the bedding. I tried to pull Zachary off Lysander. Zachary shook my hands off, still yelling at Lysander, who lay on the floor, eyes wide and mouth open… in surprise, not fear.

Because Zachary wouldn’t stop screaming, I had to resort to grabbing his braid and pulling it tight. Zachary stilled and turned his head, and in an instant the fury left his eyes and his hand froze mid-air.

I sank to my knees and wrapped him in my arms. He leaned his head on my shoulder and glared at Lysander, who softly spoke in Ganesh. Zachary shook his head and bit out a curse. Lysander swallowed and tried again in the same soft voice. A pleading voice. He reached out and laid a hand on Zachary’s arm. When Zachary didn’t slap it away, I knew he accepted whatever Lysander had said. It didn’t stop him from growling something at Lysander, who immediately turned to me.

“I’m sorry, Dominick. I misunderstood. I—”

Another growled word from Zachary, one I understood. He didn’t want Lysander to speak in a language he didn’t understand.

Lysander raised his hand and repeated what he had said in Drachus. «I’m sorry, Dominick. I misunderstood. I thought Zachary said he wanted to do you. Do and court sound so similar in Ganesh, and I… I have no excuse. I was wrong. I’m really sorry.»

I nodded, not sure what to say. From what Zachary told me, he felt he had defiled me, both of us, by not asking our permission first. Or, in this case, having asked but not received, because Lysander misunderstood. While I appreciated Lysander’s apology to me, what was going to happen wasn’t in my hands.

Zachary took my hands in his and kissed my palms before rising to his feet. As Zachary turned away from us, Lysander closed his eyes and took a shuddering breath. “I’m sorry,” he whispered to me before rolling over and pushing himself to his feet.

His eyes betrayed his intentions, and I tried to grab his hand to stop him, but Lysander was fast. He ran out of my chamber, out of the cave. I rose to follow him, but Zachary stopped me. «Let me. It hasn’t dawned on him I asked to court him as well.»

As Zachary went after Lysander, doubt set in. Lysander was a free spirit, doing things he liked, traveling where he wanted. What if he had understood, but never intended to give his permission?

CHAPTER 7

The last day of the ceremony, Zachary and I awoke entangled in each other’s arms. Lysander wasn’t here. Zachary had talked to him for a long time, even about my plans to claim a cave. They’d managed to smooth things over, but Lysander hadn’t rejoined us. He’d said he needed time to think. He hadn’t said why. We both missed him.

Panic had arranged a meeting with Little Rock, and I couldn’t wait, but we had a ceremony to go to first. I kissed Zachary and dragged myself out of his arms. The floor was cold as I hurried to the well for a quick wash and dressed. Zachary rose from the bedding when I slipped into my shoes. Still naked, his cock swung freely as he walked up to me, and if I hadn’t needed to go, I might have sunk to my knees for him. I wouldn’t say no to a kiss, though, and a kiss I got. By the time I reached the Gather Bench, I was still panting. Ayn’s heat, that man had a mouth on him.

The last day of the ceremony was all about the actual mating. There would be no public sex, something I’m sure would disappoint some of the guests, but I wasn’t one of them. Before Buttercup and Thumper could disappear for said mating, they appeared before the guests one last time for the closing ritual.

Panic and I stood with Little Rock as he held his speech. In front of the platform, a large number of Drachus stood in two rows facing each other. At the end of the line, Buttercup and Thumper were waiting. Little Rock welcomed the guests as both rows of Drachus opened their mouths and created an arch of fire. Step by step, Buttercup and Thumper walked through the arch while Little Rock performed the mating speech, though I couldn’t see them until they were halfway through. I held my breath as Buttercup’s tail caught fire, but one of the Drachus creating the arch was quick to blow it out. And again, when Thumper raised his head too high and his ear came in contact with the fire arch. Three months of traveling with no sex sounded much better than walking underneath a fire arch. Then again, I wasn’t as fireproof as the Drachus were.

They reached the platform and stopped. Both mates lowered their heads as a sign of loyalty and obedience to their leader. Little Rock rose on his hind legs, flapped with his wings, and let out a loud, growled affirmation of Buttercup and Thumper’s mating. Buttercup and Thumper turned to face the guests and raised themselves on their hind legs as well, showing their bellies and the scales they exchanged on the first day.

Just like that, their six-day mating ceremony was over.

Growls and cheers rose up as everyone congratulated the new couple. Panic and I both took flight and hovered in the air until Buttercup and Thumper joined us, and we set off for their new cave.

«Panic told me about the cave you want to claim,» Buttercup said as we took our leave at the cave. «It’s a great idea. I have no doubt Little Rock will grant you permission. Most of the security council considers you half Drachus anyway.»

I placed my hand on her cheek. «Thank you.»

«What about your men?»

My men. My heart skipped a beat. Never had anything sounded more right. Was I selfish for wanting both of them? «Zachary can’t wait to visit me.»

«Not Lysander?»

I sighed. «I don’t know,» I admitted, and then told her what happened. «We’re hoping to talk to him before he leaves.»

Buttercup lowered her head to touch her cheek to mine. Her scales were cool against my skin. I patted the side of her neck and wished her good luck and many eggs.

She chuckled. «Good luck to you, too. I won’t wish you eggs, but I hope when we both return to duty, you have good news for me.»

So did I.

On our way back to the Gather Bench, Panic and I flew past the cave I hoped to claim. I didn’t go inside this time. I hovered in front of it, taking in the scenery and preparing myself for my meeting with Little Rock. We stayed until Panic uttered a sharp growl and scowled at me, and, with one last glance at the cave, I turned around and we flew back to the Gather Bench.

*~*~*~*

The interview with Little Rock consisted of questions like “How many rabbits did I eat in a moon?” to assess how much of their produce I’d be consuming. He also wanted to know if and what I planned to import from Ayneia, and if I intended to start a family here. I blinked, and he explained he meant inviting men to live with me. I told him I hoped to, refusing to acknowledge that it might be ‘man’, not ‘men’. To which he stated they’d have to apply for permanent permission. It sounded fair enough. My stomach clenched when he said the decision wasn’t up to him. He could only grant me temporary permission. Giving me permanent permission was up to the neighbors. Why did I think one interview would be enough? When I asked how long I’d have to wait, Little Rock laughed. He’d already let the neighbors know we’d be by to visit them today.

Five families lived in the two cave systems, a mix and match of old and young. It was polite to meet with and speak to all of the families separately, and I ended up repeating the same story and answering the same questions five times. Afterward, they had me wait for the better part of an hour while they held a meeting. Would they accept me? Would they deny me? I could do nothing but worry as I wandered around what I hoped would be my new home, stroking the walls. Not even imagining how it would look once I’d moved in took my mind off that meeting. When Little Rock entered the cave, his expression blank, I thought my heart was going to burst. Until he signed the word «Accepted». I couldn’t stop smiling then. And after he left, I lay down in the middle of the cave and gazed at the ceiling as I let it sink in that I had a home. The sun stood high when I finally left.

Zachary flew into my arms when I returned to the Gather Bench and congratulated me with a kiss that took my breath away. He’d pestered Panic for answers when Little Rock had returned without me. I sighed into his mouth as he wrapped me into his arms. I was going to miss him, despite knowing he’d be visiting me as soon as he could.

«Come on.» He finally let me go. «You have to tell Lysander.»

Lysander and his group were performing on the platform. He appeared tired, and though he must have seen us, he didn’t look our way even once. «Maybe we should give him more time,» I suggested, but Zachary shook his head and sat on a bench across from the platform.

«No. More time means more time for him to think and less time to talk before we all have to leave.»

Zachary had a point. We couldn’t wait too long. But what if Lysander didn’t want to talk to us?

Lysander twirled on the platform, moving his arms up, palms touching in a classic Phae praying gesture. My mouth went dry, and I sat on my hands to stop myself from reaching out. I sighed. Maybe I was greedy, but I didn’t care. I wanted them both. Lysander didn’t walk away when he was done, but walked straight toward us. We moved aside and invited him to sit between us, but he shook his head and sat on the ground instead, cross-legged, elbows on his knees and head resting in his hands. He didn’t say anything at first, barely even looked at us. His lips were moving as if practicing what to say. And then he raised his head.

«I can’t offer either of you anything.» He took a couple of deep breaths. «I never planned on being this attached, because all anyone ever wants is for me to be with them, always.» Lysander shuddered. «I can’t do that.»

«Courting is not an engagement, Lysander.» Zachary knelt down. «Or whatever you Phae and Ura call it. I was joking about you Ura shacking up without marrying.»

«I know, but…» Lysander sighed and turned to me. «Zachary told me you wanted to claim a cave, talked about staying with you, and it sounded so good. But I can’t bear to stay in one place. If I stay anywhere longer than a fortnight I feel I can’t breathe, and all I want is to leave.»

I reached out and caressed his cheek. He was shaking, and his expression was haunted. It was hard to take in. He’d seemed confident and care free when I’d met him. «Father always says, ‘Take it as it comes’. I’m not asking you to move in, but I’m hoping you’ll come visit me. Once, twice, every other moon. You can come and go as you please. My home will always be open for you.» I smiled as I glanced at Zachary. «Both of you.»

Zachary put his hand over my free one and smiled back. «We’re courting. It’s a given.»

Lysander was still shaking but the haunted expression had lessened somewhat. «You’re serious. You’d put up with that?»

I nodded. «Very serious.» I’d love to have them both with me permanently, but between our jobs and where we lived, we’d have to take what we could get. «Besides, you’ll have to visit me if you want to see me wear black.»

Lysander laughed before turning serious again. «Like I said, I never planned on getting this attached. There’s something about you two that makes me want to try.»

Zachary’s sigh echoed mine. He twirled the end of his braid between his fingers when I met his gaze. Lysander rose and held his hands out. Zachary shrugged at me and took one of them. I took the other and let Lysander pull me up from the bench. He smiled. «Did I mention I have my own aircraft?»

Zachary huffed. «I’m not surprised. You Ura love your technology far too much.»

Lysander winked at me. “If I offered to have my pilot fly him to you, he wouldn’t mind our technology so much,” he said in Phae.

I shook my head and laughed as Zachary swatted Lysander’s thigh for speaking Phae. He cursed when Lysander jumped out of his way, which only made me laugh harder. He lashed out at Lysander again. This time, Lysander grabbed his hand, pulled him against him, and whispered something in Ganesh before kissing him, hard. Zachary melted into him and snaked his arms around Lysander’s waist. My heart raced as heat radiated through my chest. They were gorgeous together, and they were making me horny.

Waiting for them to finish was beautiful and frustrating at the same time, and I almost forgot what I wanted to say when they ended their kiss and turned to me, eyes half lidded. I coughed and swallowed. «As much as I’m enjoying the show, maybe we should continue this somewhere private.» Grabbing their hands, I led them to my chamber, ignoring how my cock brushed against my trousers with every step.

They ganged up on me as soon as we entered. Zachary trailed his hands across my stomach as he pushed my tunic up. I stifled a moan when he brushed my nipples. He grinned and pulled my tunic free from my wings and over my head. Behind me, Lysander smoothed my fluttering wings, taking care not to pinch them before pressing himself against my back. He brushed his fingertips along the rim of my trousers until he reached my stomach, and then untied the string. My trousers slid down to the floor, and I was once again trapped between leather skirts and fabric. Leather skirts were perfect for hiding a hard cock from view, but not from touch. I shuddered. Zachary kissed me, his lips still swollen from Lysander’s kiss, and I could taste both of them on Zachary’s tongue.

“Want us to make you come like this?” Lysander whispered in my ear as he gyrated his hips, causing a wonderful friction against my butt.

I panted into Zachary’s mouth. I didn’t care what they did, as long as this never had to end.

EPILOGUE

I’d checked my cave a number of times yesterday, and yet I went through all the chambers one more time, checking I hadn’t left anything Drachus nestlings could choke on. Buttercup, Thumper, and their five nestlings would be arriving any minute. It was the nestlings’ first long-distance test flight today, and I couldn’t wait to have them here. Would Buttercup approve of the nest I created for them in my spare chamber? Or would she think Uncle Dominick pampered them too much? Not that I had anywhere else to stash the bedding that had become obsolete when my family had brought me a proper wooden bed a moon ago. It was more than big enough for three. It had been a chore to fly it here, but with some Drachus contacts, they’d managed. The smell of oak reminded me of home, and the mattress was to die for. I sighed. A nice, thick, handmade mattress instead of the thin bedding I’d bought when I moved in. I loved that bed, and I had no doubt Lysander and Zachary would, too.

Speaking of which…

Zachary’s arms slid around my waist. He and Lysander had been dropped off by Lysander’s pilot an hour ago. I leaned against him and sighed. It had been two moons since their last visit. Plenty to do around here, so I didn’t have time to feel alone, but that didn’t stop me from counting the days until their next visit. This time, they were here for a full fortnight. Perfect timing, with Buttercup’s maternity leave ending at the same time.

“Why don’t you want us to see the bedroom, Dominick?” Zachary whispered in my ear in Ganesh.

My Ganesh still wasn’t all that good, but it wasn’t the first time he’d asked since he arrived. We were both learning each other’s languages. It was hard work, but with a teacher like Lysander, learning was fun. His lessons were very creative.

“Se-se-se-secret.” Another thing Lysander helped with. Turned out there were therapists in Uraam specialized in treating speech problems. I learned not to expect miracles, and still preferred signing to speaking, but I tried. Mother had been in tears when I’d said “Hello” during their last visit instead of the funny wave I used to greet them with.

“When can we see?”

I turned in Zachary’s arms. «When our guests have gone home.»

He frowned. «But they’re not even here yet.»

«I know,» I said with a grin. I wormed out of his embrace as high-pitched screeches reached my ears. «They’re here,» I signed to Zachary as I ran outside.

Lysander stood in the grass, squinting against the sunlight. They might be within hearing distance, but there was nothing to see yet, not even if I squinted my eyes. The three of us waited and watched, until finally…

“There,” Lysander screamed in Phae, jumping up and down. “They’re coming.”

They were, though they weren’t much more than bumpy shadows amongst the clouds.

Zachary laughed at Lysander’s antics. “Not if you scare them away.”

I snorted. «They’ll think he’s prey if he keeps that up.»

Lysander stopped and narrowed his eyes at me, probably wondering if I was joking.

«We might be bigger than sheep, but that doesn’t eliminate us as food. They’re nestlings; they don’t know the difference, yet.»

«They know their Uncle Lysander.»

«Not from that distance, they don’t,» Zachary chimed in.

As if on cue, the first bumpy shadow broke free from the clouds. Judging from its size, it had to be Digger, the eldest. Buttercup came soaring past him with a warning growl. Digger growled something back in a cute, high-pitched voice that sounded nothing like the apology his mother no doubt expected. Shaking her head, Buttercup landed with her tail turned toward us, keeping her wings spread and ready to catch her nestlings.

Digger, stubborn as he was, bypassed his mother’s wings and landed without fail on all four feet in front of Lysander, flapping his wings with pride when he managed to stay upright.

«Well done.» Lysander petted Digger on his head.

Digger’s grin was almost as scary as his mother’s.

One by one, the rest of the family landed, and soon, jumping, running, rolling, and growling nestlings invaded my home and did their best to find things to play with, no matter how carefully I’d put them away. Five adults should be able to keep five nestlings in check, right? Wrong. We spent almost an hour chasing them until they had run themselves out of energy and fell asleep in the nest I’d created.

We spent the rest of the afternoon catching up with Buttercup and Thumper until they had to wake the nestlings up for the flight home. Their nap had recharged their energy, judging from the way they were jumping and bumping against each other on the grass as we said our goodbyes. This time, they’d be traveling on their parents’ backs, though Digger didn’t seem overjoyed by the prospect.

We cuddled the nestlings and wished them all a safe trip.

«Thanks. Aside from Digger’s defective ears, I expect no trouble,» Thumper said. «He’s worse than Buttercup.»

Buttercup lightly swatted her tail at Thumper. «He’s a menace,» she admitted, «but with him around, I don’t fear the others getting lost. He always knows where home is.»

We stood shoulder to shoulder as they flew off and waved until they were nothing but dark shadows among the clouds again.

“It’s good to be home,” Lysander said in Phae as we went back inside.

Both Zachary and I stared at him.

“What?” he asked.

«It’s good to be home, you said,» I told him.

Lysander grabbed our hands and held them to his cheeks before signing, «It is. You two are home to me. Don’t think you’re not because I’ll be screaming to leave in a fortnight. No matter where I am, you two are my home.»

Maybe we both did know, but Lysander had never told us in so many words before now. My heart burst with joy, and I smiled at them before stepping up to Lysander and brushing my lips against his. Zachary’s arm went around my waist as he joined us, and I turned my head to kiss him in the same way. Holding each other tight, we stood with our foreheads touching and our hands entwined.

I’d missed them when they weren’t here, but for the next fortnight, they were all mine, and I wasn’t going to waste even one minute with them. It was time I showed them our new bed.

*~*~*~*

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

A big thanks to my critters—Jarsto, Terry, and Patricia—for helping me polish this story,
to Aija for helping me solve some issues early on,
and to Sarah for handing me the ingredients to write this story.

 

An Invitation To Love © 2013 Blaine D. Arden. All rights reserved

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