Something Like a Storm Petrel
rating: +17+x

SU 1923: Thirteen years before the Sun dies, a mage attends their graduation.

The sea was empty under the guise of being full. I drifted, legs stiff and tender from scrabbling in the wet, talons soggy and falling apart, body down waterlogged, beak crusted with saltwater held in my crop to stave off thirst, not swallowing lest this body’s kidneys be damaged and dehydration be made worse.

Drinking it slowly anyway. Little sips as this body withered.

The endless sun battered this body’s feathers. Not my own — mine were larger, sturdier. These primaries curled against the wood of the crate — something had snapped in my left leg, and I did not want to disturb it. His legs bent backwards anyway — without a connection to him, it was almost impossible for me to stand. And so I drifted. Water in Rook’s crop that I could not drink. Salt eroding keratin, bleaching the ruff around my neck that I admired so much in ravens.

Dizzy, lying down. Concussion. When I first shuddered coherent — from sparking the rune sequence silk-draped in wire under-through muscles supporting wings on my back, nauseating vertiginous shunting myself out of my own body and into this one — I dangled limp from Rook’s jesses while blood throbbed behind my eyeballs and a cold pinch snapped at the artery in my left leg. I screamed and scrabbled. A hood shoved over my eyes, face — now in the corner of the crate, fallen off in the scuffle.

Where was my team? My head swam — had they known which body I had taken? Had it died? I couldn’t feel it — alien sensation, that, not having the tether-link to myself. Not something I could control now, but a thought that bunched under my skin like instruments left inside after surgery. If I never accessed my body again — a terror I mared of nightly when I failed to sanitize my mind before dreaming — then I would need to learn my runes anew. Painful, but not impossible. Be thrown out of the college otherwise. Grey despair, claylike in my lungs, my keel.

But that assumed my person-body wasn’t alive anymore. Smoke-eyed, I flipped to my back, keeping Rook’s beak out of the water.

Last I had seen myself, Rook’s body — me inside — was held tight and smushed into a crate, broken feathers a static cacophony as my body — mine — crumpled.

And then it was dark, slats of light churning. Muted voices warbled. The box teetered — was it on the railing? A push, and I was too disoriented to shove the other way. Then I was weightless, and then the crate slammed end-first into the sea, and my beak cracked against the solid floor. From that hole, water pooled in.

Twisting lance in my lower belly — I bore down, and Rook’s feathers were sticky with black red and white. His throat made a noise and I shuffled deeper into the water, cleaning myself off. I tried not to think about what I had just done.

Here is the matter of living in another’s body. Rook’s implants — my implants, ones that I had stuffed his body chock-full of under the guidance of the veterinary guild of the college — rubbed hard against his bones, a thick scraping that I felt in his lungs and the airways of his bones. Swiss cheese. All too much like myself. All too much like—

I breathed, held it for four seconds, let it out over four, dropped my breath for an attempted four and found myself shaking and gasping at three because holy hell, this body isn’t built for that.

The sun baked hot, but its warmth was skin-deep. That is the nature of the Arwally. I shifted, feeling my feathers stick together and peel from one another like loose lizard scales gummed by fast-dry glue. I floated on my stomach, wings spread — it had been difficult, when I awoke in the deep end of the box, as all of my swim training had urged me to flip to my back and I took in far too much water into Rook’s body’s sensitive airways because Rook’s nostrils are on top. Had coughed up half a lung and felt Rook’s bones vibrate. And so now I was on my stomach, a crick in my neck from holding my head up, and I shifted in the salt and seaweed drifting in like I was a soup, and there was still the sun through the bars agonizing my eyeballs.

I breathed stubbornly. Naturally. Shifted again, and then again — I was jumpy, flighty. Rook’s heart beat too fast for me, his lungs needed too much oxygen for me. Was his body dying, or was I just nervous? Rook would know. He had lived in this body for most of his time since the day he was born. Either way, there was nothing I could do about it — if I was dying that was. Still…

I suspected it was too early, but I sent out a feeler of my own into Rook’s boundaries loaded with a prompt for recall, just as one does when trying to remember a song and only recalling the first four beats. I imagined a state of calm, and I sent this into Rook’s personal memory.

And I felt — felt, sickeningly so — this headspace bump up against a boundary-line of information, and in a fugue of morphine-psilocybin I read, The surface temperature of the Arwally Ocean is 11.6C. Nighttime convection currents off the shore of the college decrease average surface temperatures to 8.3C in the autumn cycle. Phytoplankton are estimated to have been introduced to this sea in SU 0219. They are eaten by conservationist blue whales, introduced manta rays…


Seven point seven gigawatts of energy are produced over the Eastern sea border by phosphorescent plankton alone. Thermal cables built to guide fliers at night are kept clean of debris and plant matter by crabs and lobsters and schools of rapid-evolution-chain fishes building themselves towards reliance on the deep-sea lines. Consequently, whalefalls are common on the surface of…


Sweet bliss.

When my eyes opened, it was with the exhaustion the sky experiences after a thunderstorm. I had not known how tiring it could be to keep one’s eyes shut, even when I knew snow blindness awaited me — how the mirrorish waves would eat, eat, eat away at this body’s corneas like so many flesh-bright fish, so eating they scared away the stars when the moon was low. Salt caked the nictitating membrane of my left eye — my head lolled against the boards of the cage and sea, and longing for her though I was eternally, she stung like acid. I stifled the urge to yawn.

Rook’s memory had come when I sedated him for memory storage. His very first, if the subject matter was anything to go by — basic planetary facts first. Interesting. But he had not stored his own memories then — these were my own, placed in his body for more accurate recall, so I would not have to deal with knowing unless I had to. And yet he had the experience filed under calming.

A wave lapped up into my beak and my nostrils. I seized, coughed violently — acidic salt burned in my lungs, aerosolized in my bones like mustard gas. I pulled myself up, out of the water , trembling, feverish crawls ruminating under my skin like earthworms in inch-deep soil. All calm I had mustered from Rook to while the time away was gone.

No sequences of mine. No skin to scrape. I crawled from the pitching water, shaking, a sea breeze acrid in Rook’s belly — or maybe that was the salt from earlier. Ah, regret, I murmured, and Rook’s body responded with violent spasms — rocking, I succumbed and found myself face-deep in the water and nostrils bubbling, vomiting beak-open under. Groggily pulled myself out, slapped a wet wing down and heard the primaries crack. White, then dark glossy raspberry crimson wept out from the raven-black.

Okay. Okay. I can work with this. But it wasn’t I who said that. I doubted I could. That was a fragment of memory.

Grimacing — or pulling facial muscles, few that there were — I slid Rook’s body up. What I wouldn't do to be in myself right now. Switching to his body had been a good idea in the heat of the hazing, but now that the adrenaline had worn off? Something told me that I wasn’t ready to have these thoughts. Self-awareness was unlike me — was this from Rook?

Erase that, said words oft repeated but never remembered. But there was nothing to store it in — my mind had jumped to my sequences, the ones on my sides, by impulse. But I was not in myself.

A second, smaller pool of bile rose to corrode Rook’s beak. In his mind, I drifted. Staring holes in the sun, Rook’s body shuddered.

I missed the sky being blue.

When I got back to my own body, I would feel my limbs. Appreciate them. I would see with sub-raptor sight, stretch my fingers. Enjoy them. Shower. Feel the breeze on my bare flesh. Shave. Eat and feel food fill my stomach, slide down my throat. Exercise. I would massage the ever-present morning stiffness from my supracoracoideus, groom the knots from the oversized tertials bridging my secondaries and my torso — huge and oily, iridescent blue-green on black. My feathers, not Rook's, though he was patterned the same as I. Stretch and feel my skin shift over muscle, hairless. Taste the sun.

I would tend to Rook. What little time I spent in his body already was terrible for him, but this? The body, the sea, myself — he would be ruined. Sequences notwithstanding.

I would preen him. I would wash him. I would wrap him in towels to dry him, and I would warm him in crooks of Eha. I would carry him in my falconry sling until his muscles — assuredly torn, from how I inevitably overused them when in his body — were strong enough to bear movement again. I would inscribe new runes for him, and I would wrap them about his ankles and insert them oh so gently beneath the skincover of his skull in fine metal slips. I would bolt the largest through his patagium beside his wing slips like a gift tag. I would make him stronger, wiser, give him more space in his own battered mind. This would not happen again without warning.

Something in me wearied at the upgrades to come. Rook was not at fault for how I treated him, and I was so brash with him. He needed gentling to handle my abrasive presence.

I wished I could exist by his side without harm.

”I’m so sorry,” someone said. But it wasn't me. ”She told me it wasn’t toxic. I've eaten it before — I didn't think to check and oh, you're going to be okay, right? I'm just so sorry. Please forgive me. If there's anything I can do…"

I turned to my side and pressed the pain-relief button. Sweet morphine. And a quiet space, briefly, but she didn’t go. She grabbed my shoulder, fingers — six of them; I knew who this was — freezing briefly on the double-muscled trapezius, muscle thickening and bordering the sockets of my secondary scapulae. Not yet feathered, not yet connected. I took a deep breath, winced as it pulled my ribs, opened my eyes, rolled to face her. One arm beneath me the whole time, keeping the tender sockets from pressure.

“I really am sorry,” she said. “It was your turn, and you’re hard to find. My team put persin in the rain.” So that’s how they did it — poison by proxy. At least it was during surgery.

She stared at me. I could have laughed, but my lungs weren’t up for it. I flopped down, spent.

Why was she still here? It wasn’t for comfort. An awful peace offering, this, if that’s what this was. At least it was better than boredom — my books were in the dorm, and I had no marker or wire to practice sequences with. My eyes drifted. Jasmine held one arm behind her back. Her sash, purple like lilacs, was braided about her waist — she had done that on our first day, I recalled, and was reprimanded for it, but she kept it.

She crouched to eye level, focusing. Her arm came around, and blue-black eyes that I would recognize anywhere stared back at me. “I brought Rook,” Jasmine said. “He was in the aviary — the one outside the veterinary hospital. We cleaned out his system. No long-term damage.”

She stared, trying to catch my eyes, but my gaze was only for Rook. He perched roughly on her bare fist, claws embedding in her skin, like he knew. I reached out my hand.

Jasmine did not move. Nor did I. Rook flew to my fist, seeing the exchange on our faces. His feathers warmed my hairless skin. When he was settled — under my chin, he had never been this close before — I finally took my eyes from him. Felt his sequences warm against my throat. Relaxed into the dark water.

“You can go,” I said. And then, as morphine dulled my central nervous system, as the hospital clock ticked over to the new hour, as I loosened for the first time in days, I offered, quietly but heartfelt: “Thank you.”

A peace offering of my own.

The dregs became octopus suckers as I pulled from the entrapment of memory. I scooted away, and they were gone.

I breathed slowly, memory catching at these ribs. Spine — spine — tugging, waves rocking it loosely under my skin. Bones like a spatchcocked turkey not yet removed. I lay there, breathing shallowly that smell that ravens are predisposed to love, and gave a rattling grunt when, to some emotion dulled by waves and nausea and memories of morphine and time, the rotting-wood box slammed against something solid. Recollection still working its way from my system, I slid forward, corpselike and boneless in the box with its pool of dead water. I swore I could still feel the sockets on my back — empty, brand-new, open to the world. I had buried this memory for a reason. It didn’t serve me to remember when I couldn’t fly. But now I was in a body that only remembered the times I wished to forget. The walls had broken down.

I breathed. Rook’s lungs flexed in his chest. I was not in the hospital. There was no Jasmine at my side. There was no waiting for the sockets to dry. There was no waiting for my turn in the surgical bay, weeks from then. Here, now, there was only salt and the resignation that I had to move. An open box before me. The consequences of time passing, finally catching up to me.

Almost disappointing that I had to act, now. That I could not lie down, lose myself in memory — I truly did have the control to keep myself from them, but pain was preferable to boredom. Or perhaps that is what I wanted to tell myself, believe myself strong. The more hurt I experienced now meant the more relief there would be when I returned to my body. To its memories. Relax and die.

Five hundred kilometers away is an observatory, said a whisper. Familiar, grating. Myself.

I plan to work there when I graduate. The best minds in transformation, psychological dampening, and translation are there. There are rumors of a project that will cement the Waygate system, make it accessible to all — some of my graduating class have people there, and being students they are less obliged to keep their mouths shut. And even when they do, the walls listen.

Now, why had I forgotten that? The logic wasn’t here, only the knowledge. Remove the thought, keep the result was my strategy for building myself — I knew this because it was in Rook’s memory storage, and I knew that it was also in my own. Knew that too. I must have forgotten and re-learned it, and the second time around decided to keep it.

My body — Rook, in my body, with arms and legs and hair on the head — if he escaped the rehearsal, if my team found him, if he remembered how to walk and sign and follow the link between us, if he was able to re-learn all of the things that took ages for us to use and certainly longer for someone shoved into…

My heart sank. I was lucky — Rook was a pleasant body to be in, relatively. A few kinks here and there, but his muscles worked. Implants didn’t hurt too much. Mine, though?

Mine was a body running more on runes than biofuel. Muscles chock full of metal made flexible so even more sequences could be fitted over and inside the fibers. A back more scar tissue and xenografts than skin. Wings spanning longer than I was tall. My body. How embarrassing.

If Rook performed a miracle, then he would speak to my team. They would find me. I would stumble gratefully into my arms, and I would deactivate the overheating sequence on my spine to stop the sodium potassium gate action sequence overcharged to work as a total cut-and-swipe of minds. I would stagger to my knees, unused to my body again. My lower back would smell like pork. My cohort would be there. I would lie back for a while, pick up Rook in his searaggled body. Kiss M. Red, because holy hell I loved that man and wouldn’t let myself remember it — I was in Rook’s body now, though, and he remembered for me. It would be windy, a good day for flying, but Rook would be cradled against my chest in my falconry sling and I would be too exhausted to take the wind in my wings. We would go to the cathedral, the only thing I remembered from where we were going today and what we were doing, a shockingly short distance, tend to our scrapes and bruises before the— whatever it was that we were doing there. I hadn’t put that in Rook yet. But we would finish that, laugh it off over dinner the next morning, and say at least you weren’t assassinated or at least you were just kidnapped because that possibility had been equally likely. For all of us.

We would attend classes the next day. Continue life.

And at some point, I’d dissect the memories I had made as Rook, keep the parts I could learn from, and store the rest in his storage banks. I couldn’t remember the first time I had edited my memories, but this was the easy way out. It was good for me.

”Ah, the hazings,” said a voice tasting like pandan. M. Red. Don’t worry about it.

Hazings. A running joke at this point, because either you laugh and move on or you cry and drop out. The joke went that the college didn’t need to thin us out because we would do it for them. “Cute name, that,” said that pandan voice. ”Doesn’t quite cover the meaning.” He had people in the college, information sources. Knew a little better than I what to expect, how to act, whom to please and how to do it. He remembered everything he was told — remembered my name and face the first day we met, brushing against each other, and I had embarrassed myself asking for his again the next day.

His family were scientists, he told me, taught him theory, taught him medicine. Over dinner, in a velvet-red oilslicked wooden gym and student theatre training space and cathedral all rolled into one, he taught me too. Chicken, thyme, the stars, a new moon through the stained glass — in murmurs, lest the walls hear, I learned from him how to use Isc the way he did. Caught my breath as he slid the starts of his modified implants under my skin, ripples catching on ligaments that held the skin down. His personal way — never taught anywhere else, all experimental. New rune theory. We didn’t even know if it would work, then — all the knowledge I gained to make them work since then was extra study. On the stage, cross-legged, both our torsos aching and rod-straight from the back-to-back surgeries we had had that morning, my arm wrapped in bandages to hide the blue metal. Staring at him, beautiful, dark skin warm and soft. No wonder he went to yellow team, that he remembered everything he heard, but he listened more than remembered, around me. That was when I fell in love with him, I think.

Focus, said something. Perhaps it was the sea. Briefly, I cracked an eye, golden honey salmon sunset, checked my distance from shore using my eyes and not my positional sense — not there yet — and closed it again.

The college provided a limited resource. The bomb threats never stopped, and neither did the hazings, and inter-team scuffles were all but encouraged to keep us in shape and socialized. Peace was rare — I kept the feeling in Rook for a reason, I remembered now and only now. There were too many times—

First of Autumn, the red triad dosed themselves on nightshade and jumped in the lake. Second of Autumn, the other remaining blue member flew to the South tower and imperfectly teleported off the balcony. Third of Autumn, Jasper broke her shoulders and collarbone in a midair collision with a solid wall of air, and the last four yellow members brought me to the very surgical ward I had just left to assist. Her bones were clean shorn through at the base, yanked from their sockets and powdered, gelly-like moving from being attached by muscle and loose ligament. I conducted her surgery under the supervision of her advisor. The advisor’s name was—

implants heated to a sickly glow when we tore them out, titanium as they had to be. The cut-off hunks of attached meat warmed my hands through the thin blue neoprene gloves—

— this had happened before. Drunken rambles, medical mishaps, mental breakdowns. A whole floor of the hospital strewn with canisters of neurotoxic hallucinogens, and our chemical team — purple — filtered the air in focused waves, worked their sequences hot enough that they were treated for internal burns afterwards. Scorched pig smell when they were opened up inside—

—But that was before. My cohort had no idea where I was.

with a scalpel colder than skin.

I just had to hope that Rook could find me.

Memories. A turbulent flood. Worry, tightening my chest. But I am not one to worry.

Half-unconscious, I plunged my face into the stagnant freezing seawater and inhaled the sea.

Rook’s body jerked, heartrate spiked, breathing blanked — my mind was too much for his circuitry, spilling over into the data storage I had interwoven in his muscles and bones. His brain’s leftover impulses, ones I could not and would not override — for that was what was keeping his heart and lungs occupied — stayed on. And as with a patient coming out of a coma they arose to reclaim the consciousness I had stolen through messy nothing-gibberish, his body fought to clasp hands with my mind — stress with cool temperatures, delight with blood glucose, so on. I couldn’t let that happen — when I returned to my body, the less alike I was from myself the less my sequences would recognize me, work for me. The cold water shock made activity recede, gave me space, and I swear I could see his vision clear.

Beautiful, Rook’s sequences were. I had known this before, when retrieving my data in prior shared senses, but this was more personal. An invasion, like being shot through the glass of an aquarium where previously I had only looked through.

My mind churned. I watched the sunrays drift like moths to the opposite slats, splinter. I had woven my memories into Rook. I had shed them, stuffed them into the runic form of a false living brain for Rook to carry so I could access those memories when needed and never else. This was expected, normal. No mage of Rela made it through the college without scratching out half their time — I just did it while allowing someone else to remember for me. Remove the process, leave the results. Gaping holes in life are normal.

But what happens with the inversion of that? If you are placed in a body only recalling the parts you had forgotten?

The answer: Try to avoid remembering too much. Survive until help arrives.

The box rocked. The sky was a thick purplish-yellow. Rook’s hearing filtered in the crashing of waves and the dull rhythmic scrape of crate against rock like wood over bone. Gulls wept overhead, and Rook’s belly clenched — some not-so-distant stimulus-response that I was now subject to.

The box passed a long building with fragrant balconies, and I remembered. Our hospital was not sterile — the purple teams kept it like that. All rich-stained wood panelling, live plants, sticks of incense, little darkened bottles of scented oils. IV bags hanging from quiet golden ceiling hooks, and this room smelled like oranges. The setting sun columned through half-cut curtains straight onto Jasper’s sash, deep crimson aerial-quality silk.

”Are you feeling better today?” My chart did not move from my hand. I held myself stiff, formal in my medical lilacs. I would not make it in purple team, and this was my last season of residency, but I kept up appearances. Slacking off, even for teammates, meant poorer care. Not fair to them.

”No." Her skin held the marks of a thermal student, peeking out from beneath the heavy wraps. ”No, I’m not okay.” Her voice was made of feathers, blasted from the air, hung on to my skin with tiny frail hands. A pen scratch, and she was scheduled for a lung check. The room smelled like burning glass, not oranges. My mistake. “We…”

The lights buzzed. Her head hit her pillow. ”…I just finished my team’s exam.” Words crawling out to die. “Thermal signatures recognition.” Loathing telling me this — despising weakness.

I made another note. The one for self-inflicted burns. Through the memory, in a soaking cold place where my nostrils burned with coagulated salt and my lungs wheezed with every stridorous breath, I recalled: at the time of this memory, I had wished I could erase my knowledge of my own thermal test. Burning myself while dosed high out of my skin on memophenidates. Later, I had erased that knowledge, but not before the aftershocks of remembering — of knowing — had embedded themselves into other, less troublesome memories. Hence this memory being stored in Rook, even when it would serve better to keep in myself.

Rook’s body could not cry. That was what I learned then.

”Did you pass?” said I in the past. “The test.” My skin did not crawl in sympathy.

Her eyes did not open. If they did, I knew they would be crusty red — the effects of dry heat from the inside. “Yes.”

“But you’re not here for that.” Her chart said her whole arm was ruined. Gouges like a turkey ripped apart at a feast. Swathes of charred once-skin like a battlefield.

Her face did not slacken, did not tense, did not budge. Her eyes did not open still. But her lips parted, and I leaned close.

“I don’t think I can feel temperature anymore.” So quiet. Vulnerable. “On my arm. I can feel pain, pressure. But after I finished the exam, before I came here, I was making dinner for my team — they were still in the hall — and I slipped and hit the pan. All along my palm, my wrist, whole forearm.” Yes — that matched to the first injuries, but not the rest. I waited.

Now her eyes opened. “I couldn’t feel anything. On the place where—” she gestured towards her bandages, and I remembered angry blackened holes all the way to bone, like a hive of tiny bees had made their home inside. Her face twisted. “The burn. It hurt on my hand. My wrist. Really hurt. But on…”

She couldn’t say it. I waited.

“It didn’t hurt there. It felt room-temperature. Not even just pressure — it felt normal. ” A deep, shaky breath. The bed sagged. “And so I pressed it again, against the pan. Logically, from the test, I knew logically it, the pan, was a hundred forty nine Celsius. It hit the memories from the exam perfectly. But it didn’t hurt. I couldn’t feel the heat at all.

“It felt good. Hurting myself.

“And so I held myself to it again. And just to check, I took my other hand, my fingers, pressed those against the pan — burning hot, I couldn't keep them there at all. I thought about coming here at that point, because my arm, the one where— … —had happened was bleeding now, but when I walked to the door I found myself walking right back to the stove. It was off now but still hot, and I took the pan off and held myself against the coils.”

She gave a half-choked sob, a frantic laugh. “I’m so sorry. It felt good, Corcus — sorry, uh—” I waved it away. Continue. And she did.

“It felt so good, doctor. I just held myself there. The room smelled like pork. The windows fogged from the moisture, and it still didn’t hurt and it felt wonderful. Endorphin rush, like when you’re running and your lungs feel like torn tissue paper. The rest of me was heating up — my blood felt wrong, coming back up my arm in the crook, but I didn’t care. The skin was reddening around the… place, but that made me even more euphoric. It’s sick, I know but it was so exciting. I don’t know why it felt so good, doctor, and doctor, I want to do it again right now.

She saw my face. She met my gaze, half-smiled, but the rest of her was fifty miles away. “I won’t. I know.”

I waited. And there was a silence. But after a minute, I sighed and hoped she didn’t hear it, and I asked her quietly, because we were still inches apart, “Why did you decide to come here, in the end?”

Her eyes rolled shut. Pain, delirium, euphoria in memory made concrete through the memophenidates residual working their way out of her system. “I don’t know when the spike on the stovetop embedded,” she said conversationally, “but eventually I saw that. I guess at that point I realized I needed treatment. I hadn’t even noticed how the rest of me looked like—” Shredded chicken. “I’ve dealt with pain before. I could manage. No heat, remember? But it didn’t stop bleeding, and it was too deep for cauterizing. So I’m here now.”

She gave me a long look, eyes focusing at last on me, the room, the present. “Don’t tell my team.”

I gazed at her. Oh, Jasper, I thought, and finally the mental blockade I had made came tumbling down, because my control over Rook’s sequences and mine was nowhere near as fine as it needed to be. Stripes of burning irons, pinprick needlemarks in a grid like an allergy test, or cooking meat by spiking it on the sharpened rods of a heat sink, hit me like a truck, and I rubbed my arm where I had barely passed my own thermal exam. Memories too full of Rook for the memophenidates to work right.

”I’m sorry,” I said in reflex. Memory greasing the words. It was the wrong thing to say — stupid, stupid, stupid. Knew I’d see it in my supervision notes later this week. But Jasper — no, my patient — didn’t stir. The EKG slowed, steadied. She always did run high — her body compensated by dropping half-dead when she found it in herself to rest. That is what I learned most of all on residency.

”Good night, Jasper,” I said. Too familial, too close. But it was worth it for me.

I left. I never saw her again.

Until today, two or so hours ago. I hadn’t even known she was alive. Jasper. I shook my feathers, exhausted — my body drooped, almost splashed into the water now filled with mucousy feces like half-cooked egg whites in ramen. My talons were nubs. Saltwater had softened the keratin beyond belief; it was like my fingerbones had been exposed, and now had fallen out. My body scratched desperately at the softening border of the crate, feeling the tissue-paper wood falling apart, and I only knew this because I could feel it.

The walls of the cage were walls. The walls of the cage were wood. The walls of the cage were bars. The walls of the cage were trunks. The trunks had space between. The trees loomed.

Around me, the world melted. I was distantly aware of my — Rook’s, Rook’s, Rook’s — body biting the wood around the hole, swallowing it away. Distant syllables caught over shoreline rocks, swallowed by waves. One was my own.

Wood splintered in a thunderous crack. The hole was big enough

The forest was filled with fire.

to pull myself through.

A gaping gash in the world like the punch of a golden eagle’s fist through a handler’s palm stood in the air, tethered by nothing.

I hauled Rook’s body forward, shivering wildly as I pulled myself-him from the water — why is it so painful to be removed from that which cools? Is it the numbing? My feathers—

Matted forest duff, thrown through the gap, hits something solid. Jasper side-eyes me, scorched skin healed marbled cherry pink, makes a signal, and her red team — their sashes vibrant like a sunset, bright still from their very first sequences ever written (hanging on their legs in messy black-bruised concentric rings on a line) — walk away. Heatwaves stalk their footprints.

—burned as I extricated my wings from the acid soup that was once separate forms of me and the Arwally sea. And so slowly, choking back hunks of plywood as I bit my way through the softening box like a parrot,

Their reports all name no Waygates found in the woods.

I hauled myself from the sea, threw a wing over the gap in the wood, thumped my weight down, and the box split with the falling-shreds of a rotten log.

The world swam. I pushed Rook’s body up with the elbows of my wings and staggered out onto the rocks and sand. I wished I could groan. It’s one of those self-soothing behaviours. Not knowing how wonderful it is to stretch, to feel your own skin, to make all those unconscious little noises until you can’t anymore. Or perhaps that was the thirst.

I didn’t even want water anymore. Just knew that I needed it, and that not wanting it anymore was cause for alarm. Some part of my medical classes—


point seven seven two four five three eight five zero nine zero five five four six…

”Please stretch.”

—remained with me, screaming.

I opened one huge feathered limb and almost fell over.

My center of gravity was new to me, wobbled, and I flung out the other wing in reflex. The rustling of feathers, familiar from my work with my assigned bird, was a staccato impression of a coffee blender. Akin to shouting, in the socked-feet-murmured-words of the past three weeks. Newborn muscle grafts strained. My surgeon watched as I wove on my feet — I wished I had taken the cane proffered earlier — and Jasmine caught my arm as I toppled backwards, then released it when I screamed — incisions on my chest still too new, too fresh, connecting my sternum, shoulders, and mess of a back.

The nurse behind me landed their hand between my second shoulder blades, feathers and skin beneath their palm. Nervelines and embroidered sequences crackled, lightning-quick, and I stood bolt upright, shoulders aching, legs buckling, yet standing under the new weight of myself. Heartrate controlled.

I lasted twenty-seven seconds before I fell face-first onto the floor. Nobody caught me.

The pain hit as I crawled through the sand. Like a person with no hands I was, dragging my primaries and tail, using the elbows of Rook’s wings to shuffle myself forwards with no recollection of having started the action. Loping along like a seal — one bitten in half by a shark. My vision was blurry, and my head ached in the shape of my other body’s skull. In my sidevision I watched a wave take the box, emptied of my Gravis-lightened self, and treat it as one does an apple tree too old to bear fruit.

Watching the phantom crunches and splatters of feathers — mine — from the box, imagining my own death without imagining: standing there, leaning on one folded wing like a crutch, ice chip sensation in my salt-torn crop — seeing splatters pink-foam the waves, watching a single severed talon roll across the rocks, then dissipate to undergo a different sort of mutilation, eyeballs splitting like grapes in thumping crushes — took time to tear myself from.

”Sick, morbid fascination. A poor fit for the cohort.”

”He’ll learn to hide it.”

And I did. There were slip-ups, of course, but I learned to put on a pleasant face, keep a half-smile on in public. In my second year, when I was assigned to blue team — scouting, reconnaissance, mobility, support — I showed joy, despite knowing that it had been my future since I walked in the door at the recruiting agency. I talked to other people, didn’t tell them how I hated myself. I brought people over for dinner. I took good care of Rook — that was genuine. And—

That’s where the memories of this body ended, stuffed into Rook so I wouldn’t have to face them, could continue acting in new ways without the burden of knowing why. It was easier that way. The memories of everything else, whatever happened after that, were in my other body.

I closed Rook’s eyes. Metal tugged under his skin, there on the rocks and sand — the first I had felt of Rook’s runes since I landed in his body, sequences aligned to him and not I by intention so I would not mix up our signals when looking through his eyes. This one was unknown to me right now, though. Memory of what it was stored in my other body. Rook knew, not I, and for the first time today I directed attention away from the memories I had stored in him and towards his. Rook was private, I knew, and I didn’t want to disturb that peace, but…

It took time to parse the memories — his memories, voiceless because words were his second language, recollections of orienting his head towards the direction of the metal tug, slow blinks, feathers ruffling, heart slowing — to remake something which slotted right in the gap I had in my own memory — the memory I had stored in my body. I breathed, when it was done, and reviewed.

The metal tug meant that my body — mine — was nearing.

My breathing slowed, a parody of the memories I had just found. I relaxed, there on the beach, as I now knew Rook was wont to do. I kept my feathers out of the salt, spread them in the heat that finally soaked the first bit into my bones. And I waited.

Something told me that time was supposed to pass much faster than I was letting it.

”Today is the 19th of Autumn.”

Those who knew what this meant pretended they didn’t. Gravis free-fallers shifted, hiding the sequences in their coats. Opa lighters pressed themselves a little deeper into their seats, scattered in hard-to-see clusters around the room. The remains of blue team, individuals, laid our free hands over our birds. For security.

Eha burners stood in ranked squares, a sea of crimson sashes. Somewhere below, I knew, was Jasper.

“Today,” the speaker said, “you will link to starpower.”

“He’s down here!”


A scattering of stones. Or maybe bombs rocking a stadium. I blinked, and three figures — one with a wide lilac sash belted over a mint patterned tunic, one with the longest albatross wings I had ever seen dragging the ground, and—

I stared at a person black-winged, swallowtail tailfeathers dragging, olive green-bruised and clotted, shirtless skin showing matted scar tissue, overdeveloped grafted muscles, a tiny belted silver bell with a clapper on, and all other skin scored in implanted runes blue-tattooed with modifiers thicker than water, and an ugly face with sharp blue eyes and a crooked nose.

Is that me? I didn’t look in mirrors often. It must have been — Rook’s body stilled at the sight of it.

I stared, and my body stared back. Feathers shifted. A boot crunched.

I blinked.

I stumbled, and I was freezing cold. A warm hand rested against my bare chest, and the buzzing in the world stopped. Numb. A series of clicks. The hand was the only thing supporting my limp body, and I trembled as fingers ghosted over the sequences embedded in my sides, just under the pits of my wings. A low murmur I couldn’t quite parse — my eyes crossed, trying to adjust for a beak that wasn’t there to occlude my vision — and the hand vanished, and I tumbled into the sand.

A feathered bundle, burning hot, placed at my side. It burrowed into the crook of my arm and stilled. Rook.

Uncomfortable but me, I rested there in the sand with a nagging feeling that I had done this before. Something smelled like pork — and then a memory triggered, and with that cascade of hybrid information I opened my eyes, salt on my tongue. Dregs of who I had been in Rook’s body, no link to myself, filtered through, a kestrel and a gyrfalcon. Trying desperately to merge.

Not working yet. A memory recently smoothed by cognition’s river suggested to me that it would take time for my memory sequences to recognize me again. Dizzy. But I had no time for that.

I picked myself up. Gooseflesh pimpled my bare chest, and without a word I fired up the heating sequences carved against my ribs, melting my heart and its container of blood from the inside. Rook went into my falconry sling, limp and exhausted — his sequences weren’t built to carry all of me, had cooked him when I transferred back. He needs an upgrade. This thought was familiar, like I had had it before. I would consult the memories he left in my head later — I assumed he had, based on how I lacked most of everything that had transpired when I was in his body. But not right now, when the dust was still settling.

I recalled entering his form, severing contact with my own, and then opening my eyes at the beach. Perhaps I had bounced, simply short-circuited my sequences and couldn’t remember, but that was unlikely. A good learning experience then, this was, and one I would take time to dissect later, when I was ready to experience what had happened to me. The memories would wait for me in Rook’s storage.

“You okay?” Jasmine asked. Ah. I was still kneeling down in the rocks and sand. Stood, brushed my hands. She stayed at my side. Something flickered in my mind — a gap, familiar, one recently opened in my conscious awareness. I must have remembered something about her recently.

I did not consult Rook for the memory.

The wind chewed salt-scars in my cheeks. I did not look up too quickly — my vision was still recovering, unblurring. The unconscious adaptation to a new set of eyes had stayed with me. Would take a few minutes to adjust back. “Where-?” I rasped to the wind. Coughed. My vocal cords were rough, singular, and my lungs did not expel the correct amount of air to make it through the sentence. I tried again. “Where are we?”

“Down by the water.” It was still Jasmine who spoke. M. Red stalked closer, done glaring at the brimming sunset, but let her finish. “Just down from the West tower. We’re only a little ways off from the cathedral.” She grimaced. “I should’ve anticipated this. I’m sorry. I should have had us arrive together.”

I nodded.

“You idiot,” M. Red rumbled. His coat flapped heavily. Sliding metal inside. The weight in my sling shifted and I knew Rook was listening, watching. “You didn’t need to do any of this. We could have helped you. Now we’re late, and we’ll have to explain to the other teams when we get back why we couldn’t make it to the rehearsal.” His face contorted, but it was an expression of exasperation, not hate. Subtle, but I knew the difference. “You might not know this about yourself, and I’m only telling you because— ” he eyed Rook solemnly “—I don’t believe you will remember me saying this.

“I know you don’t want to leave the college. You haven’t said it, but I see it in you.” He stared straight into Rook’s eyes, and I made no move to hide him. He was speaking to Rook so he would remember this for me. “If you want to stay, is self-destruction really what you want to do to make it happen?”

I looked straight past him.

He turned. “Do you remember what you did to get here?” he asked. Entirely different, like it was someone else who spoke. He had straightened, was supporting me in standing now — arm through mine, crooked. One finger hooked into the metal spining the edge of his coat — not Gravis cut, but quietly the same thing on the inside — at hand level.

A memory came freely, one with edges made sharp — I must have tried to access it earlier and failed. Flying to the pavilion, my feathers slick with fancy scented oil, my draping clothing musty from the closet. Greeting the newcomers politely, syllables falling easily off my tongue, noting my teammates where I could. Mishmash of colours, sashes predominantly yellow and sagebloom purple, one lilac — hello, Jasmine. A few reds, habitual protection of the right arm matching. Three blues counting myself — counted by the disappearance of an indigo scarf between one blink and the next, the shock of turkish blue in a coat slipping around the corner, and my own braided blue-black hair and painted undersides of my feathers. All colours to show, tonight. Taking a proffered glass and switching Rook to my wrist, stepping deftly out to the balcony. Sipping nightshade-laced huckleberry wine. Overlooking the Arwally sea: more oilslick than water, by the coast. Gorgeous at sunset, a painting of all colours, kaleidoscopic sea outshining the sky. And feeling a shove, a blush of belted deep crimson aerial-quality silk, a torn memory of an arm like turkey breastmeat, and a densely patterned dagger shoved through my open lips.

Remembered my body crumpling, and an overwhelming burnt toast reek as my body seized. My sequences, still firing, recalled someone else opening my eyes, and my hands curling on themselves, firewire triggers braided into my wrists sparking to rose gold, and the lines following to my back, and inside my skin the Isc memory-sensation-perception sequences flaring to 104° Celsius.

M. Red sat close enough that I could feel his body temperature. When he deemed I was back in the present, because he always knew, he added, “And then you stood. Rook was gone when we arrived. You were signing to your attackers that you knew nothing of the Ways, and that you were not a useful hostage.” He gave me a sharp look. “I didn’t catch your logic.”

I swayed on my feet, taking it in, glad he was holding me up: I couldn’t tell which way gravity was at the moment. His language was a pointed reminder. To my body’s piecemeal memory — Rook’s wordless recollections tugged from my body’s sequences — my morning had gone like this: memories flashing — empty, severed — wide eyes, fingers — not feathers, pleading — primaries dragging, holding up, praying — muted colours swirling, balancing — jarring, legs wrong way around — wobbling, banister holding — skin open, fabric rustling — purple — flash searing, team hello hello — this way, follow me. And then my sequences switched over, ticked up, and found that my mind was not my own. There, they stopped.

I leaned against M. Red. He opened his mouth. Syllables fell out. I blinked.

We were walking back, Jasmine supporting one arm with her shoulders lest I pitch forwards and an arm hooked under the base of one wing lest I fall sideways. Familiar, uncomfortable, brought back memories that Rook held tight even as I reached for them. The conversation had moved on and so had I; I must have stored the last minute away. Thought-stopping is a cognitive control skill useful in halting chains of thought that may spiral, Rook provided with ease.

Is that what this is? I thought, and then I knew I would not be thinking that if I had not spent the last two hours in Rook.

“They took your coat, by the way,” Jasmine continued. She was right: I was freezing. Jasmine’s arm wrapped around my back, under my scapulars, fingers tangling in the downy underfeathers persisting through the scar tissue — ticklish, intimate — and all I could think was we’re not together anymore. I did not pull away, though. That would be rude. “I think they thought you were M. Red.”

I felt the gaps of the associated memories, mind still raw and too aware of the holes I had wrenched open from my brief vacation from myself. But those memories, whatever I had accessed straight from the source in Rook, stayed stored safely in the banks. No regret here, when Jasmine’s arm left my back — warmth lingering, an echo, an afterimage, aftershock. No pain. Only a lingering sense of exhaustion, and a wet sense of unwanted saliva against my lips.

I walked on my own. Uncomfortable in my own body. Muscles shifting under hairless skin, lungs swelling and contracting like the billows of a forge. Shivering from contact with myself. I needed somewhere warmer. Safer. Who is mine? M. Red strode on ahead, and I knew he respected me too much to break my walls down when I was hurt. He had done that already, when I was dosed on morphine and half-conscious after my finishing surgeries to rebuild my body. No secrets kept between us — and so he knew the immense guilt I would feel should he support me now. Thank you, I said even as he did not look at me, even as I wished he were by my side. And so, with long practice and no better ideas, I heated up the sequences on my sides — burn-sensitive skin aching — and before I could rethink it, took refuge in Rook’s eyes and traded in Rook’s skin. Dizzying vertigo, and then I was safe, cradled, muzzy-warm and soft, slow rumble of my body’s chest against Rook’s sling: the slow sway of breathing. Rook took the initiative, bodies and not memories shared, and traded for my eyes, frosting my primaries with steam. My body could pilot itself a little on its own, but right now I wanted to drift off, not think about myself. He knew this, took control of my legs so I wouldn’t trip. I needed to rest. And Rook let me have it.

This is what happened before, some memory not stored in one individual body murmured. Losing yourself on the balcony. You saw the attack coming. Your cup was poisoned — you tasted nightshade on first sip, yet kept going. You wanted to suffer. What is wrong with you? What are you punishing yourself for?

These memories passed through me, and then wound into Rook’s skin and wire sequences like a cobra to a basket.

We arrived at the pavilion, splendid and sorry. M. Red, perceptive as ever, elbowed my arm when we arrived at the door, and I reluctantly pulled from Rook. Squinted. Huge velvet red curtains assaulted my vision, fronted by billowing dark jade green and sunny yellow and albino feather white announcing, Cirque du Raelan: One-Night Cabaret. I had flown right over this setup and gone in through the roof, when I arrived here this morning to mingle and — arrive on the beach exhausted and frail, later.

I shook the memory out of myself. M. Red glanced at me, sensing Isc, but didn’t press. Long wings folded, black velvet suit pressed, ever-present saturated yellow sash that commanded less student and more professional a guardian spirit about his waist, he checked his badge at the door. Stiff-shouldered guards in Opa-laced armour brushed us inside — we were hosting foreigners for the very first time, and the academy greased its gears. Inter-world student trade, said the brochures Rook’s vision snagged for me, and a switch clicked back into place in my brain like a stone dropped into a pond: I was back in my bones and body, braided memories in my wingbones and separated in Rook’s finally recognizing my mind’s presence as its own. I understood: time spent away, even an hour, had diminished myself from recognition by my own sequences. But now some thought or action had aligned me with myself, and I was back.


The person I had been on the beach slid off me like sleet from cormorant feathers. In retrospect, the slicking of time had been nice. Nice to not be myself, nor responsible for who I had been before. Only me. But now I could remember my name. Knew what I was, what my role called for.

I wondered if Rook felt the same. And then I stopped wondering. It’s good to be back.

Ushered inside, single file. Jasmine behind me, too close, and I sent dry heat into the air stirred by my wake — knew she didn’t like it, didn’t ask why. She backed away.

Inside, too many people. Glasses clinked, shoes stepped, clothing rustled, performative laughter and too-wide glittering eyes. M. Red eyed me, unobtrusive moved to my side — but a click of memories stored to Rook, not myself, and we were backstage, curtains slipping shut behind me, and we were in a room packed with students in various stages of undress, eyes ducked for all. Tanlines and rippling pink scar tissue, not embarrassed in the slightest, M. Red offered an open wing to curtain me. I hesitated, shirtless with my thumbs hooked in my salt-stiff trousers, shook my head. And then I blinked again, dressed in my costume with Rook on my arm with a wing extended, painting his primaries electric cyan with my free hand. The air smelled like rosin. My eyes and arms were Rook’s, at the moment, but I flashed him a grateful smile. M. Red and the others were lost in the fabric and paint-soaked crowd.

All is well. I didn’t know which one of us said it.

Curtains in ten, said a caller over Isc. The message rippled in bones through the room — I called the sequence-residual into my sequences, extending it, admiring. This was beautiful control of signalling here, and used for the smallest task — with my work, I could give an aneurysm or an unknown sensation, fifty-fifty, when I didn’t know the recipient. This must have been an alumnus of the college, for their skill, brought here — this was like using Tyrian Purple on disposable tissues.

Curtains, they had said. Tonight was a performance. Rook supplanted my memory, open channel to what I had thrown from my short-term yesterday: Patrons, our audience, were from schools outside of our own. Seeing if we were worth a knowledge exchange, what we could bring to their understanding of science, psychology, art, history. Auditing us. Even now, likely, Rook sent with words. A brief overlay of my vision to his: he looked towards a black glass half-dome set in a bone-coloured ring on the ceiling — security camera, Rook sent next, words read individually from a page on a textbook I had never bothered to open.

What would I do without you? I asked. Chest warm, despite the icy thick of others, the touch. I brushed past an Opa graduate, half-visible and huddled against a yellow teammate, felt an electric ripple over the pinching sequences in my arms when I got too close. Made it past, though.

Rosin, gymnast’s chalk, silks braided and bunched from storage ready to be hooked and flown from. A whirlwind of colour huddled over itself — all of us. But jovial though the room looked, I simmered. Threats of Eha flaring burns into the floor and Isc distortion jumps, Gravis thumping blood. Our college kept us from each other, rightfully. This was an unusual situation, new to us, with so many mages in a single space: church-encased training hangar built for a team, this was, and now used for packing a cohort. Rook sat on a well-worn beam above, providing me my location in the boiling throng through relational sense.

”Inter-universal relations are vital for the college’s continued success,” supplied Rook in a professor’s recital. He had sensed my rehashing of the old argument, wondering why we had to do this. I felt him chuckle, a raven’s deep awk-awk-awk.

The paint Rook had applied to my body had dried — I felt this from the flaking, intentional: the oil-base gummed at the breaks to cement the inks on my form like desert sandstone, craggy.

An Opa mage stood without being seen, brass bell jangling over the din. The room swirled in murmurs, whispers, movement, the press of bodies brushing by. Most had finished their painting and preparations now. I felt no need to paint my feathers — spied M. Red and Jasmine by a wide rusty cedar beam, her tipping his russet-striped albatross wings in peach-cream and snow-white and sage-green, arranging a performer’s eyespots on the backs. I looked away — my chest had worms inside.

Eyes followed me as I paced the edge of the room. The Isc sequences in my forearms could collapse a nervous system. Eha-captured and Opa-warbled heat boiled over the crowd, light shimmering like through faceted gem blockades heated by summer, and those who didn’t have reinforced skin or bound rigging or biological wings or Gravis coats — few people, maybe one or two with the proficiency not to drop out — had rune-dense swords bared, sequences in each fold, impossible to make without years of life eaten by the metal. It was a ceasefire in this room, for the time — too many casualties, too improper to fight in high density, not in front of the assessors, but all weapons were drawn, seen or not.

Perhaps that was what some teams would perform for the assessors. Parts of the cohort were missing: people were lining up, gathering, and spaces were made for people who were not there. One mage in particular, yellow vest and cardinal-red feathers, stood solemn and alone: I remembered her — her team had been reduced to one and herself in her second year. Brilliant flier pair, the two — I knew them from this training space. And now it was just her. I had suspected on the balcony, but now I knew: I was not the only one who had been attacked this morning. The air in the space above was shattered, like looking through broken glass, and finally the penny dropped: I gazed upwards, and saw that the air was fractured in shapes and sizes suggestive of Opa-hidden bodies.

In the corner, Jasmine stepped from M. Red’s wings. He folded them gingerly, careful with the paint. I would comb it out this evening, I knew — his back warm, head resting against my chest, hair tickling my neck, eyes closed. I much smaller but beneath him anyway.

Rook made a questioning prod at my body’s reaction to the recall, and I nudged him away. A flutter tasting of salt welled up in my throat — a memory not quite divided between bodies. Love you.

So I decided. M. Red’s memories would stay with me.

One team, three crimson sashes and a yellow, swung on the aerial bars a storey above. I didn’t need the practice. A brush at my body’s memory, and I found stored safely the performance my team had decided on. Right now, I was my team’s information gatherer — back in my role, memories separated wholly. I was me again. Or at least I felt like it.

On the balcony, I was. At the edge of the curtain where we had walked in the greenroom before, eye to the crack, I made the smallest velvet part to see the main event.

The main room was a two-storey open hall encompassing the second and first floor, indoor balconies at the edges. All old wood and climbing chalk, stainless brass and newer gleaming steel rivets fastening the wood, battery-linked Opa spotlights and windows blocked out. Heavy oxygenated-blood-red curtains waterfalled an illuminated spring-wood stage at the front, where we would perform. The space looked off without the safety net and ropes and wires strung up — this place put me at ease, Rook’s eyes in my own flickering between the stages and structural pillars and handholds we used in our flight classes. That pillar there was inked at the top with gravity runes for lightening the body, back when I was still undergoing surgery. The cloth pouch up there held a communal chemical battery stash under the chalk. The ropes that way were wrapped with tape enough to bandage yourself, should you need it — fliers with extra supplies from residency, like myself, kept them filled. This space was meant for Gravis and Isc mages, fliers — Eha and Opa mages were characterized as wrathful, running hot on passion with hate and love, and this space held few. The air here, dusty and salted, unsupplied and creaking with the wind, brought wings and coats — Isc and Gravis — on equal terms, gave us mutual appreciation for each other’s acrobatics. A sort of peace. A sanctuary.

And now everyone else was here. Tearing my mind from memories — finally, ones that were mine, not just embroidered and bumped against in my sequences. It was with reluctance, then, that I returned to the present.

In the only space I had truly felt at home at in years, below where the net usually hung, the throng of audience acquired alcohol and mingled, a few settling into their chairs — thin-backed contraptions, meant for extra appendages and back-positioned heat runes that burst on contact. Some audience stayed standing.

Strings played. The crowd was a sea of black and white, far from the red-yellow-royal-blue-and-purple I was familiar with. Behind me, the staging room grew quieter. Eha melted-glass burned at my nostrils. I glanced through Rook’s eyes, found nothing out of the ordinary, continued because something bothered me about the audience. It took only a moment of watching further before I realized: the foreigners looked like us. Two arms, two legs, five-fingered hands, two eyes, twin-nostriled noses, mouths. Almost identical. But these people had no wings, no Gravis coats, no hazy shattered-air Opa over their skin or deadly Eha miraging where ambient air met their climate-controlled sequences, dormant and waiting for action. No runelines ridging their skin, no tattoos overlapping, no cryobranding whiting out half their hair. And these people sat freely, like their bodies were meant to be lived in. And in the shadows, when the foreigners moved it was like they stopped being individuals, flowing together like water. Nobody telling them to do so. Like people was more than a term for many individuals grouped.

They moved like the duets we had in this space between fliers: some Gravis mage and myself dodging and weaving, wings versus gravity acceleration and falling sideways. Those specific times when my opponent and I fell in sync and slid barely by, centimeters ruffling feathers and hair, bamboo or live-blade training swords just grazing but each twisting only as far as we had to, thinking together without the need for Isc. But more.

Not to mention that the people of the audience had no weapons.

Holds barred, Rook observed, seeing through my eyes. I nodded. But it wasn’t the same holds-barred as my people — we were only holding back now lest we kill us all. This was cohesion of an unprecedented scale. I considered the cohort behind me, our loose draping clothes and bare feet, aversion to touch and glittering threat of runes on our skin for all to see. I considered our audience, stiff-postured and relaxed-faced, clothing tight to accentuate rather than hide the body, threat display made not through weaponry but the flagrant lack of it. Walking, talking, moving together. Did they care for each other?

I considered this, and then I did not consider it.

Salt from the beach itched in Rook’s feathers. He blocked down my sense of his skin. I’ll be fine.

Fine? Something nagged at me, there. A heaviness in my heart like I had—

Do you want to know? asked Rook.

“Yes,” I breathed.

And Rook began without preamble, I would preen him.

A wash of salt-bitten skin, eyes scrunched wrinkly from osmosis, feathers sloughing off — floored me. I pulled myself from the curtain, knee bruising where I hit the floor, hands aching in shock, and I would wash him, Rook continued in my voice. I struggled to stay conscious.

I would wrap him in towels to dry him, and I would warm him in crooks of Eha. A sense of warmth, pride, heavy weight in his chest like a rock: some memory affecting me that Rook blessedly clipped from the recall. I would carry him in my falconry sling until his muscles were strong enough to bear movement again. When had he left from the sling? Was he strong enough now? I would inscribe new runes for him, and I would wrap them about his ankles and insert them oh so gently beneath the skincover of his skull in fine metal slips. Rook’s voice was perfectly flat, not changing this part of the recall in the slightest. I would bolt the largest through his patagium beside his wing slips like a gift tag. I would make him stronger, wiser, give him more space in his own battered mind.

Finally, Rook finished, This would not happen again without warning.

What had happened without warning? What had made me think this?

Rook dropped down from the rafters, He laid his face against my bare painted collarbone, his wings draped over my back. His mind warmed in the neural circuitry overlaying mine. You chose to forget, he said.

I did not ask him to have me remember. Weariness threatened my sanity like drowning. “Thank you,” I murmured at last, and moved him to my arm, slipped fully back into the staging area, into the crowd, looking for Jasmine — ah, there she was. Waiting by the side, in the lineup, saving a spot for us, and dark mercury flooded my vision.

I made it twelve steps before something in my chest collapsed. Rook took my sense of time by the throat, and then at last M. Red was at my side, arm linked with mine, huge albatross wings smooth-groomed, secondaries painted red and yellow, royal blue and purple, the colours of the college, half-folded and shrouding us from the crowd. We had moved to the middle of the room. His hand clasped my left, and the other rested at my shoulderblade, elbows bent like we were dancing, fingers wrapping over but not on the memory sequences perpetually overheating at my wing bases. He knew me so well. People were giving us space — they knew him. Knew my beloved.

“You did it again,” he chided gently. Stroked the feathers at the base of my neck. “Overworked yourself. You should be resting.”

I leaned into his touch with a staggering moment of warmth, safety, peace. Rare intimacy in public, mutually discouraged lest something like my earlier near-murder be made targeted — right now, I didn’t care.

The air trembled. Flushing softly pink, in the middle of everyone, M. Red turned and placed a chaste kiss against my temple. “Talk later,” he murmured.

The music, thready from the performance stage, swelled. The audience outside stilled, the noises I had long since tuned out deafening in the quiet. The same Isc caller as before, far stronger than I, announced to us in the feather-rustling, metal-clinking, fabric-sweeping, hair-ruffling, skin-warmed, breath-dense silence: Positions.

M. Red and I clasped hands and went to join the lineup.

Tonight, we would put on a show.

I can’t believe this started as a Jojo fanfiction. This was supposed to be a nice break from my usual stuff, clean out the system before I dove back into my usual nonsense. I tried so hard, and ended up writing Mages of Rela instead. Oops! Also, every time I tried to cut down on page count, it got stronger and longer. OOPS! Also, every time I said, “I’m just going to take a look at the page to refresh myself,” I ended up writing more. OOPS! Also, every time I wrote a little dialogue, the characters got stronger. OOPS!


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