“Stella, you have to get up.”
She called from inside the plane, “Mm, no. Carry me.”
I was already stuck carrying our luggage. “I’m not taxiing the plane to the cabin.” Setting our two suitcases, a duffel bag of necessities, and a guitar case onto the hangar floor, I hauled myself into the plane. Some crumbs from chips and crackers crunched under my boots. Stella sat sprawled across the two front seats of my plane in feigned exhaustion. A talon stretched across the gap between the front pilot seats and flopped across the armrests.
“Come on, let’s get home.” I reached down and stuck a hand into the opening in the front of her jacket. “Or else.”
She peeked out from under her wings at the feeling of my hands on her belly. “You wouldn’t.”
“Yeah, I would. If it means I don’t have to carry my stuff, your stuff, and you, home.”
“You don’t have the guts, buddy.”
Really, she should have expected the result of that little exchange.
Her own breathless laughter was her undoing.
It didn’t take much more than the tickles and a slap on the ass to get her up and walking home with me. Luckily, the wind and snow was a walk in the park compared to earlier in the winter. At the very least, we didn’t have to lean into the wind so far we were horizontal. It was February first, our first night home since last year. So, there were about six weeks between us and work starting up again. I had plans layered on plans of things to do before then. Some winter cleaning, guitar practice, some gym time, maybe a candlelit dinner or two, and of course all the love-making our private cabin could contain. I was particularly looking forward to that last part.
At the front door, Stella hunkered down between her wings. “Open, please,” she said with a shiver.
I flicked the keys out of my pocket. “Got it.”
The temperature inside was almost the same as the outside, though devoid of wind. Stale air stuck to the inside of my nose as I carried our luggage inside. Specks of dust floated around as Stella turned on the ceiling lamp.
“Let’s get the radiator going, huh?”
Though we were gone for more than a month, we somehow left loads of clothes and knickknacks all over the floor before we left. Stella’s radio sat lopsided in the corner by her hamper, a couple of my belts hanged off the head of the bed, and we left a couple of bath towels off the rack. The windows, boarded up from the outside, let in none of the wavering winter glow. To me it felt like a little time capsule of how we lived two months ago. Evidently, we were both very messy.
While she turned on the radiator, I took off my heavier layers and unwrapped the mail we got from the hangar. Off-season or not, someone always needed to get mail somewhere. There was a Christmas card for me from relatives, some mail saying I qualified for “Monstrous Savings,” and a big beige envelope for “Stella Smith.” It slipped my mind that she was given such a basic name when she was taken in as a hatchling.
“You got something in the mail,” I said on the way to the radiator. Like usual, she hunkered down in front of it and held her wings to either side to contain a bubble heat for herself. Quite selfish, really.
She stood up and, instead of taking the envelope, slid her wings and the edges of her coat around my torso. In a hug that pressed all the warmth she gathered into me, she said into my chest, “Mm, I’ll look at it later.”
A thick swell of heat spread through me as she wrapped her wings around my waist. “Well, okay.” I tossed the envelope onto my desk. Stella stood up on the tips of her talons and kissed me, listing back and forth in the warming cabin as our lips stayed locked together. The tension I developed in my shoulders from flying home eased up. A deep breath and I could smell Unalakleet again. More importantly, I caught the lingering scent of shampoo and sweat from Stella’s hair and clothes.
Bliss. Truly, this was bliss.
Stella sighed, still sticking to me like glue. “It’s great to be back.”
“Yeah.” The hum of the radiator reminded me of the silence I used to bear with when I lived alone. If it weren’t for Stella holding onto me so close, my thoughts might have gone astray somewhere. My heart beat hard in my chest, and I realized she flattened her ear just above it. “Do you put your head there for a reason?” I asked.
“Hmm. Nah. I just like it.” With that, she buried her face in the folds of my sweater. As quick as she came, she let go and hopped over to my desk. My front became awash with the chilled air once more, much to my disappointment. She looked over the envelope in her claws. “It’s big~. Who’s it from?”
At least she left her spot by the radiator for me to take over. “I didn’t see.” Ah, delicious warmth.
A scream erupted from her before I could get comfortable. “My agent got me a response from ASARA!”
That’s right, she did have an Extra-Species Employment Agent. Her agent must have found her job in Unalakleet. It took me a few seconds to remember that “ASARA” was an abbreviation I heard often: Alaska Search and Rescue Association.
I jumped to my feet with a start. “Seriously? What does it say?”
Her alula fumbled with the giant envelope, shaking uncontrollably as she tried to pry it open. “I don’t know! Just gimme just a— Oh, come on— Ha!” A claw finally sliced off the top of the envelope. Acting fast despite her shaking, she slid the papers contained onto my desk. She took the top sheet and held it up as best she could. “Uh. Okay. Ahem. ‘Stella Smith,
‘I am happy to inform you that, thanks to your history and experience in practiced manual flight, ASARA has considered you for a paid position as a Search and Rescue flyer.’”
Before either of us could read the rest, she thrust her wings toward the ceiling. “Yes!” There was a lot of text left on the first page alone, but she was happy enough to pass some of her excitement on to me. It was of course in the form of a hard tongue-tying kiss that pushed me back into a bed post. She pulled back a moment later and went back to the sheet. The who, what, where, when, and how were all unanswered, after all. I wiped my chin and calmed my heart as she read the rest to herself with beaming eyes.
“What’s the rest say?” I asked.
Her eyes darted back and forth across the sheet. More than the news itself, I wanted to see her reaction. Her smile faded the more she read. By the time she finished, she wore a complex mix of a frown and wide eyes. I couldn’t tell if she was excited or sad.
“I, uh,” she started, only to clear her throat. “I won’t be working in the Norton Sound area.”
My heart dropped into a pool of fear in my stomach. Leaning over to look at the paper, hands on her shoulders, I skimmed through the text. A paragraph explained the selection process based on her history and job experience, plus an apparent need for further training in extreme environments. One abbreviation caught my eye: NSB. I heard of them before, but it took a bit to click.
I couldn’t look at the paper anymore, gently curling my arms around her neck. “North Slope Borough.”
Stella let the sheet drop from her claws and held onto my arms. “Yeah.” I felt a kiss on my sleeve. “They need a replacement flyer in Barrow.”
The weight in my stomach dropped further, making me hold her tighter. It was a good position, almost equal to being a Search and Rescue pilot. A good position in the most northern city in the United States, 500 miles away from Unalakleet.
A few pecks on the top of her head. “That’s great, Stella.”
She sniffed loudly and buried her eyes in my arms. “Yeah. It is.”
We settled down after a minute and climbed up onto the bed. With my back against the wall and her sitting in my lap, she flipped through the documents given to her. With a pen in hand she signed various pages as best she could with her alula. The cabin was the quietest I’d experienced in a long time. Scratches of her pen and the occasional slipping of paper strung across the silence, background noise on a vinyl record. A part of me wanted to liven the mood. Maybe I could have played something on the guitar Nell let me have. But I didn’t want to leave her. Every moment with her suddenly felt precious.
“Does it say when you need to leave?” I asked.
Her shoulders tensed up and her pen stopped signing for a moment. “Uh,” she mumbled and searched through the sheets. “They want me to start training up there on March seventeenth. They want me moved in a week before that.” That was barely five weeks away. Just before we normally would have started work in Unalakleet. “They’re getting housing ready for me, and there’ll be a six-month probation period for training. I guess I’ll be moving in a little before training starts?”
“Those six months would cover most of the weather Barrow gets throughout the year.” Beyond the Arctic Circle at the ass-end of nowhere. Less than 10,000 people lived in the space of nearly 100,000 square miles. Of course, that gave them plenty of space to get lost or stuck somewhere.
She dropped the piece of paper back onto the scattered pile before her. “Yeah.” A sigh escaped her and she leaned back against me. Her weight against my chest was almost surprising. Using me like a pillow, Stella let herself slouch until her head rested on my stomach. “This’s hard.” Her wings folded across her chest in frustration. “I thought maybe Nome or Bethel might’ve needed some help, but I guess Barrow really needs someone. My agent’s gotta go through ASARA, so they end up deciding where I’m needed.”
I ran my fingers through her hair, and she turned and nuzzled my hand like she usually did. We could have dealt with Nome or Bethel. They’re just an hour-long flight from the hangar. Weekend visits would have been easy. Trivial, even. I would have gotten to visit Sasha and Boo if she went to Bethel, too. But Barrow? The weather wouldn’t improve up there for a few months and, with such a large territory to cover, who knows how long she’d have to be on standby in case of incidents?
With a start, she pulled herself up from my lap. “Jeff?”
“I’ll finish this paperwork tomorrow. Let’s go to the gym.”
We shared a silence as she glided down from the bed. “This’s a bit sudden,” I said.
She already took off her clothes and wrenched open her suitcase looking for her sports bra and shorts. Not that I minded her taking off her clothes at the drop of a hat, but still. I’d never seen her in such a hurry to do something.
With her top tossed aside she faced me with her claws on her hips. “I’m out of shape from vacation. And you need to get some muscle on your widdle noodle arms!” She puckered her lips and wiggled her wings around for emphasis. Her fitness level didn’t look much different to me from last year, to be honest. She still had a womanly six-pack and biceps that put me to shame. Although, I couldn’t help but laugh when I saw her nipples harden from the cold. The radiator was good, but not that good.
Regardless, we probably needed some positivity. “Girl, I don’t got no noodle arms.” I climbed down and searched through my dresser for a pair of shorts. There was only one pair, flattened and wrinkled at the bottom of the drawer.
“Izzat right?” Stella called as she spanked me with a wing. I jumped, but I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy a good Stella spank every now and then. “If you can beat me in arm wrestling by the time I leave, I’ll call you Mr. Universe for the rest of my life.”
My laughter rattled the metal cone of the ceiling lamp. “That sounds perfectly fair.”
* * *
The main hangar was closed for the off-season, but an outdoor set of stairs led up to the gym on the second floor. The big metal door leading to the hangar remained locked and chained until Boss himself came to open it, but select employees had keys to the gym and lounge. Stella was one such employee. I was just glad it only took her a few minutes to find it among her mess before we stepped out.
Boss didn’t mind us using the space heater tucked away in the corner as long as we unplugged it before we left, though it didn’t take much to heat up the little room. The whole gym was maybe the size of two of our cabins set side-by-side, with the tiny locker room taking up a third one. Four treadmills, a set of dumbbells, a lifting bench, and a few arcane-looking exercise machines were all it had. I think the water in the water cooler was a month old, too.
Stella was already stretching by the time I took off my coat and put on a pair of cross trainers. I helped her out a bit by letting her place a talon on my shoulder and lean forward. Though I already knew how flexible she was, I never watched her stretch in her workout clothes before. Not getting a hard-on from her bare midriff and shoulder blades was a challenging exercise in and of itself.
I started on the treadmill after she taught me some stretches and helped me warm up. All I got to do for the next twenty minutes was jog on and off while she got on the pectoral-oriented exercise machine. The one with two pads at roughly head-level that you push together with your arms. It sure seemed important for harpies.
Through the mirror in front of me I saw that she was listening to her music player. Judging by the look on her face, she was either angry at the weights or so pumped she wanted to headbutt something in the face. I wished I had my own music player to get angry to during my workout.
After the treadmill, I was panting and sweating more than I had ever since I moved to Alaska. The back of my throat quickly dried out halfway through my series of jogs. Being out of shape sucked.
“Come on, Get it together, man,” Stella said, stroking the tips of her feathers up and down my back. I held myself up with my hands on my knees. “Don’t do that. Arms up.” With a series of pokes with claws up my back she straightened me upright. “Hands behind your head. Take deep breaths.” I did so. It felt like I was in high school P.E. again. “Yeah, good. Get a drink of water when you catch your breath and we’ll move you to some weights and some other junk.” She made it sound so easy.
The weights weren’t much easier on me. Stella adjusted the weight of the overhead pull bar for me until it was just barely within my means. She all but abandoned her own workout to make sure I did everything right and didn’t get hurt. At one point she yanked on the bar to keep me from straining myself, as if she knew exactly when to jump in to help.
Next came crunches. Without going back to her own routine, she got a mat ready for me and held my feet down as I did a few sit-ups that were much more difficult than they should have been. I was really sweating by the time I did a few sets of ten reps. My hair matted against my forehead and dripped liquid heat down my temples by the time I finished the same amount of push-ups.
“You done with those?” she called from the dumbbell rack. A twenty five-pound weight was clutched in her talon and raised above her shoulder. The rack was used for balance.
Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t conjure an image of myself lifting the same weight with one limb. “Yeah. Did my best to do it like you said.”
Setting down the weight, she hopped and skipped over to me. When she reached me she leaned down and gave me a quick kiss. “If you do all that again you’ll get something better.” Again she looked at me with those lovely sly bedroom eyes. The ones she probably needed to practice to get right. “You wanna take a break first?”
I pushed a plume of warm breath into the air above me. “Yes, please.”
Fifteen minutes was just enough time to catch my breath before she got me onto the treadmill again for ten more minutes. She seemed to trust me to do my own reps at my own pace after that while she got back to her own workout. All told, I was exhausted after the first hour at the gym, after doing everything Stella suggested. She insisted I rest and take a shower in the locker room while she finished up. There were only three shower stalls with flimsy little plastic curtains around them, but at least the water heater worked. Always important. The water washed away my sweat and grime and helped sooth my muscles.
By the time I finished wetting my hair (I didn’t bring any shampoo), the locker room door clattered open. Familiar scrapes of talons traveled across the linoleum floor, stopping just outside my shower curtain.
I was too entranced in the heat of the shower to think the obvious. “You need something?” I called above the noise of the water. Stella yanked the curtain aside and stepped up behind me. On my back I felt her forehead rest against my skin.
The water cascaded downward, both of us unmoving. “You okay?”
She mumbled something into my back.
“Uh. Could you say that again?”
A ragged sigh slithered from her throat. “I’m gonna shower with you ’til I move out. Now wash me!” Shoving a soft green loofah I’d never seen before into my hands, she turned away from me and let the water flow down her back. It must have been from Nell’s place or bought just before we left Anchorage. The thing looked brand-new.
To be honest, I was already getting hard at the prospect of washing her. “Whatever you say.”
Stella raised her wings straight up, giving me a good place to start after getting some body wash into the loofah. As soap suds gushed from the green thing in my hands I ran it across her back and shoulders. From her fit, angular shoulder blades I traveled down the curvature of her back. She wriggled around a little when I passed her waist, reminding me how ticklish she was. White suds dripped down her tail feathers, hips, and thighs, dispersing in the water around her talons. I could have easily instigated hot shower sex right then and there.
Instead, I brought the loofah around front and quickly stroked it up and down her belly. Tickles were just as fun.
“Wha- ahahahaha! Hey!” Her balance wavered, but I kept her aloft with my other arm around her narrow middle.
“You wanted me to wash you, right?” If she saw my smug grin she probably would have kicked it off.
“Pfff, you ass! Q-quit i- aha~!” Though it took some effort on her part she twisted around and put her folded wings against my chest. With my arms around her, she gaze up at me with blushing fondness as water streamed down our warmed skin. I would have had to bend my knees a bit to kiss her if she didn’t stand on the tips of her talons first. The cleaning implement dropped from my hand so I could feel the skin of her back with my hands, slick and hot.
Between kisses she muttered, “I’m gonna give you a brutal workout now. God knows you need it.”
“Hey, there’s one muscle group I’m working pretty regularly lately.” I bit her lip, eliciting a laugh from her.
“You should work those muscles with me. Make ’em even stronger.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
Between her shining firm flesh and the steam from the water raining down on us, I was more than ready.
The door screeched open, sending a shocking note through the locker room and making us jump. Our heads turned toward the door with wide eyes. Frozen mid-step and hunched down in the doorway was a white-haired red oni. Beth, our neighbor. Her thick winter coat tucked under her arm, she wore a sports bra that barely contained her bosom.
We stared at each other for a moment. A shade of red very similar to Beth’s skin filled my face and, I’m sure, Stella’s. The seconds felt like minutes.
The red oni smiled such a knowing smile that it made me want to break my hand on her face. “I’ll just leave you kids alone.”
Beth backpedaled out the door and let it close after her. It made perfect sense that Beth would continue her workout routine in the off-season. Stella would probably have joined her if we didn’t go out traveling. Wow I was getting lightheaded.
I grumbled and put a hand on my face to hide my embarrassment. Stella crouched low and covered her head with her wings so I couldn’t see her. She kept herself covered as I led her away from the shower by the shoulders and started drying us both off. Her whole body had turned a light shade of red by then. Apparently he shock was just too great for her tiny body to handle.
“By the way!” Beth called through the door. We didn’t answer, but she didn’t need that. “Welcome back, guys!”
The worst part? That door was the only way out.
Stella couldn’t look at me without blushing her head off when we went to bed later.
* * *
My dreams that night were, to say the least, believable. It was one of those dreams where you wake up, go about your routine, and then wake up for real. I was in the hangar by the time my eyes actually peeled open. Compared to the bright outdoors of the dream, the cabin was dark and chilly. My naked arm sat across the right side of the bed. She wasn’t there. Her scent lingered, as did her warmth, but I was alone under the covers.
I checked my phone for the time. 6:08 AM. It was about time for us to get up anyway.
As my eyes grew used to the dark, I noticed a bit of light from below the bed, crawling up the space between the mattress and the wall. Then my ears picked up the soft scribbling of a pen.
Leaning over the edge, I saw Stella sitting at my desk hunched over her paperwork. “Morning.”
She didn’t look up, and instead checked something between two sheets and wrote something down on another. “Hey.”
The radiator hummed among the scratches of ink on paper. “You okay?”
She let out a tired, almost annoyed-sounding, sigh. “Just want to get this done.”
After securing my loose underwear such that my junk didn’t hang out, I climbed down the side of the bed. I figured I shouldn’t disturb her and headed for the stove. The bacon in the fridge was probably still good; a grand first breakfast back in Unalakleet. But I guess we didn’t have any milk for cereal. I threw out the last few eggs we had before we left for our trip, too. We needed to restock on basically everything.
I put a pan on the stove and peeled some raw bacon off the block. “Hey, let’s go to the store in a couple hours. Jimmie’s store should be open around then, right?”
The scribbles behind me continued. “Uh huh.”
Playing hard to get? “We have a whole block of this. How many do you want?”
“I’m okay, thanks.”
With anyone else, I would have let that slide. More bacon for me. Not everyone eats a big breakfast in the morning, or even at all. Sometimes I left with just a piece of toast and ate something else on my plane. But Stella? Breakfast was tied with the most important meal of the day, tied with lunch and dinner.
I took the pan off the stove, turned off the burner, and left the strips on a plate. My footsteps stomped heavy on the floor with purpose as I approached her at my desk. Hands on her shoulders, I started massaging her with my thumbs.
“Wha— ooh. Ah! What’re you doing?” A shiver drove up her back.
“Seriously, are you okay?”
“What? I just want to get done with—”
“I know what you said. But I didn’t hear an answer. Are you okay?”
Seconds passed as I felt at her taut muscle through her skin. She stared straight ahead at the wall beyond my desk for a time. The lonely hum of the radiator momentarily sent me back to my lonely dinners, making me hope I didn’t have to suffer through a lonely breakfast while she was still home.
Finally, she tilted her head and pressed her cheek to my knuckles. “I don’t know.” She set the pen down atop the scattered papers and grasped my hand in both claws.
“Why’s that?” I drew a few fingers across her skin and felt at the tops of her claws.
“I mean. Uh. I’ll be leaving real soon and all. So, I’ve been thinking. It’ll be real hard to see each other, if at all, so wouldn’t it be easier if we, you know.” She couldn’t seem to finish her sentence, but I had a sinking feeling about what she was going to say. “We could j-just break up.”
Taking my hand from her claws, I plastered my palm across her face and pulled her back with a yelp. The chair tipped back a little as she looked up at me with wide eyes. Light rings of pink around her usually bright eyes confirmed my suspicions.
I said, “Nope,” and kissed her between my fingers, upside down. Through her surprised gasping lips I continued to talk. “You’re right. It’d be a lot easier to do that. But I thought you didn’t need any of this ‘easy’ crap?”
“Mmn-nuh. What?” She certainly didn’t resist.
“Your words, not mine.” I took the chair in both hands and turned her around to face me. My arms flanking her on the seat back, I leaned in and made sure she looked at me. She turned her head left, and I wormed back into view. She turned right, and I did it again. Eventually she just closed her teary eyes tight and covered her face with feathers. She truly didn’t want me to see her like that.
Leaning in, I said, “I love you.”
A muffled moan sounded from beyond the wall of feathers. “Shut up, man.”
“Come on, you were all ready to go out and do stuff with me last night. Nothing’s changed.” My hands gently sidled along the coverts of her wings, eventually getting to the top and pulling them down from her face. Stella stared at her lap with a little shine of moisture around her eyes. “And it won’t change when you leave, either.”
“It’s gonna suck.” She refused to look up, but it was progress.
“I know.” I kissed her forehead, to which she winced as if in pain.
“We won’t see each other that much anymore.”
Hands on her cheeks, I tilted her head up and wiped her tears with my thumbs. “And when we do it’ll be ten times better.”
A tearful, yet indignant, sniffle and she batted my hands away. She stood up with a start, wings on her hips and eyes on the floor in thought. One of her talons itched at the back of her other leg.
“Damn it, Jeff,” she muttered.
“I’m not sorry.”
“I thought real hard about this already.”
“If you have to think about it that much it’s probably not a good idea.”
She sighed, pumping her wings against her forehead. It was subtle, but I was sure I heard a tiny sob from my girlfriend. My gut dropped. The hunger I felt when I got out of bed was gone. I wasn’t sorry, but I sure felt guilty for making my girl cry.
“So,” I said, “how about you take a break from those papers while I make you a delicious bacon breakfast? We can talk about the nitty-gritty stuff later.”
A few sniffs and a deep sigh later and she turned back toward me, wearing a sincere good-morning smile. “Sounds like a plan.” She didn’t seem to mind the tears she was wiping away.
* * *
Our routine for the rest of February quickly reached an equilibrium of activity. We both got up, made breakfast, partook in various indoor activities, went to the gym, made dinner, and went to bed. It being winter vacation, and we being out of DVDs to watch, I picked up Netflix. Stella blasted through the first season of Adventure Time in three or four days. She convinced me to move the TV to the foot of the bed so we could cuddle.
As time passed, my guitar skills grew almost to novice level. Whenever the urge arose, I planted myself in my office chair, legs crossed, and started strumming a simple tune. After searching through the plethora of songs my brother sent us, we found a number of acoustic songs we could perform together. Of course, when I say “perform,” I mean “stumble through.” Whenever I messed up, she helped me tune the strings to get the notes right. In a way, I improved much faster with Stella than I did with Nell.
Due to the majority of our “jam sessions” involving love songs, our clothes fell off more often than not.
Love-making sessions were sprinkled liberally throughout our schedule. It didn’t particularly matter when we did it, but we both felt the urge more often than we used to. One or two times per day became the norm. Though we started out trying a variety of positions and places, we eventually gravitated to the bed. Things felt simple up there. With only the ceiling and walls to be seen, fewer things distracted us from each other. Our love-making became much less rough-and-tumble. They grew longer, slower, and more intimate every day. At some point it just turned into cuddle fucking. It occurred to me that we were calming down from the initial jolt and coming to terms with our eventual parting.
February 28th. Boss sent out prep schedules for all the returning pilots and ground crew. Much work needed to be done before we went back into full operation. Despite the lack of full-time pilots, we received a package in the mail the day before I was to scout for possible glacial landing strips.
The day was very much over, and the small package was most likely the last delivery.
“Stella?” I called. She was sprawled on the bed, still naked under the covers from our earlier session while I took the time to visit the hangar in case of mail.
I only got a tired mumble from her as I took off my coat, covered in snowy white dust.
Lifting the cardboard box and tape up to her, I rattled it slightly. “You got something.”
She had a glazed-over look in her eyes as she peeked over the edge. After a few seconds she took it in her claws and sat cross-legged on the bed. With my heavier clothes removed I climbed up to join her. Her claws tore the package to pieces until a smaller and much nicer-looking cardboard box remained. It had the logo of a popular mobile phone service plastered on the side.
Stella’s tired eyes recovered their waking attention with a few hard blinks. “Oh, right! I ordered this when we got back.”
Our eyes met, but hers darted away. An awkward grin grew on her lips. “I want to be able to call you and text you and junk after I leave.”
One week until then.
Inside the box was an old-style flip phone. It possessed a sturdy number pad, an up-to-date OS, a belt holster, and a a thin retractable cable that attached to the bottom of the phone. Everything a harpy needed to use her phone without dropping the device on the ground or having to reach inside a pocket to get it.
“Your birthday’s in June, right?” She asked, hopping down to a pile of clothes to get dressed.
“Yeah, why?” It occurred to me that her birthday was in July.
After tucking her wings through the arm holes of a tank top, she looked up at me. It only just then hit me that it was one of my own tank tops, so loose over her shoulders that the sides of her boobs stuck out. “I bet you never got girls’ numbers that much, so I’ll give you mine as an early birthday present.”
Ouch. “Oh, is that how it is? You think I’ve never gotten a number before?”
Next she slipped on a pair of shorts. No underwear. “Have you?” Damn it, I was getting horny again already.
“Back in the day.”
She hopped up to me and climbed the rest of the way onto the bed. “What days? I wanna hear about your ‘romantic conquests.’” Flipping her phone open, she turned it on and started setting it up.
I smiled. “Well. Let me tell you.”
We sat across from each other, my back propped up against our pillows, and her back propped up against a pile of comforters. Our bed was short enough to let our legs entwine in the middle. Her talons were close enough to my hands that I started massaging them. I got no complaints from her; just a knowing grin as she crossed one talon over the other.
The bottoms of her feet were rough to the touch, with ridges and scratches all over from a lifetime of running, flying, and adventuring. Feeling the taut muscle beneath the skin with my fingers as she clenched and unclenched gave me a new appreciation for the strength of her talons. Dark ebon claws, each as least two inches long, curled downward at the tip of each digit. Except for one. It looked like shattered marble where it broke off during the accident, like a once-immaculate statue was struck too hard. I noticed her sigh and slouch a little when I massaged that particular toe.
It took a minute or two before I started talking again. “Back when I first started college, I went to a sort of orientation get-together thing in the dorms. I didn’t know anyone, but college girls are nothing if not eager.” Her talon twitched a bit and her eyes glanced at me from her phone. “Long story short, it was an alcohol-free party with alcohol snuck into it.”
“So yeah, I got pretty tipsy and ‘got to know’ a girl there. I forget what her name even was, but I got her number somehow.”
“Jeez. Did you always kiss girls you didn’t even know?”
“It was just the one time, but oh, we did more than kiss. I lost my virginity to her while she celebrated being a college girl.”
She threw her head back in laughter. “Oh my God, for real?”
“My dad was right to tell me to carry a condom when I left for school.”
“He’s either a real smart guy or can see the future. Come on, who else did you date?”
I tilted my head and moved on to massaging her other talon. “You’re real curious about this all of a sudden.”
She shrugged. “So?”
Fair enough. “Alright. Anyway, I got her number, but I couldn’t even read it. Never saw that girl again. But I was a lovesick fool, so I tried finding dates wherever I could. Met a lot of women, but nothing seemed to stick. After my first time I thought college made things easy.” I unconsciously rolled my eyes at myself when I remembered a few of them. “This one time, I met a girl online. She seemed cool, so we met at a café.” Stella seemed interested, but continued to mess with her phone. “But when we tried talking, we couldn’t find a single subject to carry the conversation. She just left at some point.”
Stella clenched her talons in anger. “The hell? She left?”
“When I was in the bathroom. Guess I wasn’t interesting enough.” Remembering it made me wither in years-old shame.
“No, screw that. I bet she was the uninteresting one.” She avoided eye contact and bit her lips. “Did you ask any of the, uh, more exotic ladies?”
Ah, that was why she wanted to know. “Plenty were willing to hang out or be friends with me, but I’ll be honest. I wasn’t very interested.” That sure put a frown on her face. “But I’ve met more of them in the last couple years than I ever did in college. We only had about fifty students like that.”
“None like you.” I couldn’t help it. It was the perfect chance.
Her lips pursed and her slouch deepened until her phone blocked my view of her face. “Don’t be doin’ that crap. I’m nothing special.”
But she did slip-up her accent again. To match her new slouched position, I slouched more as well. One of her talons sat neatly on my stomach while my legs both sat off to her side atop a fold of blankets. Seeing her face framed by two talons in front of me, a thought came to me.
Placing my palm in the center of her leathery talon, I let my fingers slide between the digits, holding tight. She immediately sat up in surprise.
“Uh,” she couldn’t seem to find the words. “Wh-what’re you doing?” When I tightened my grip, her talon reflexively closed around my hand. The tips of her claws grazed my skin. “Come on, my feet’re dirty. Don’t.” She blinked hard a couple times, as if dispelling some dampness.
I rubbed a finger up and down a digit, making her shudder. “You haven’t been out of bed all day. Your feet are clean as can be.”
Taking a deep breath and letting it out in a huff, Stella set her phone down and crawled toward me. She glared at me with reddening cheeks. “Sit up.”
I did so, putting my back against the stack of pillows. Reminding me of her flexibility, she brought her knee to her chest while still gripping my hand above the sheets. Some adjusting later and she sat on my lap with her other talon hooked around my side. As if knowing our cues, I put my free arm around her waist while she wrapped her wings around my neck. I kissed her neck once, but she pulled down and buried her face in my collar.
“I’m cold,” she muttered. “Warm me up, ‘kay?”
There was a pause before I kissed her ear. It was hot with the blood rushing through it. “You feel plenty warm to me, but if you insist.”
“I do. You’re my personal heater.” Another kiss to her ear made her draw in a sharp breath as I pushed her head aside with my lips.
Her neck and shoulders opened up to me, covered only by the strap of the tank top that was far too big for her. Her spine curved back with my free hand supporting her just above her tail feathers. Beneath her skin I could feel the strong chest muscles around her breasts with my lips, twitching with anticipation between each kiss as my nose nudged between the loose folds of fabric. Stella’s breaths soon became hot enough to see in the air. Feeling her chest rise and fall against my cheek was making me heat up as well. Her heartbeat was faster than any human heart I’d ever heard.
All the while the talon in my hand trembled, as if trying to fight the urge to clench my fingers as hard as they could. The needle-point tips of her claws scraped against the back of my hand with every sigh.
After a deep breath through my nose, taking in the scent of her sweat, clothes, and the sex we had that morning, I rested my head against her. “I love you.”
Seconds passed and she sat up again, wings encompassing my head and messing up my hair. “I know. I love you, too.”
“It’s fine, by the way.”
“You can hold my hand tighter if you want.”
A breath caught in her throat as if she never expected me to offer. “I don’t want to hurt you, though.” Despite her words, I felt her careful grip close in around my hand. She never clenched hard enough to break skin, though I could feel her pent-up longings in her trembling talon.
“Nah. You’ve given me plenty of sexy scratches on my back ever since we got home.”
“Never on purpose! And don’t ask me to stab your hand!”
I planted a kiss on one of her breasts. “You’re adorable. But you know, the scratches add a real kinky side to things when we fuck.”
“Uh. I-I guess?”
“Here.” I released her talon and grasped four of her digits sideways. “There.”
She avoided eye contact, her talon grasping safely over my fingers. “I’m sorry about the scratches, by the way. You just make me so-“
“I don’t want you to go.”
I’ll be honest, I wanted the conversation to stay lighthearted. I didn’t mean to cut her off, either; the words came to my lips from deep down, all of a sudden. It was my most selfish wish, and it being a reality would crush her dreams. I knew it, and so did she.
“I’m Sorry,” I muttered.
“I know.” She slowly nuzzled her cheek against my hair, petting my head with a wing. “But I want us to try the long distance thing. I mean. I got a phone now, right? Can’t be that hard.” Even I sensed the youthful optimism in that statement.
“If you give me your schedule when you start, I’ll ask Boss to move mine around so we can have the same days off.” More than that, a part of me wanted to follow her to Barrow. They needed bush pilots up there, too, but transferring a pilot to another area wasn’t as easy as all that. I had a plane. Fuel expenses. A flight route to manage. The slack left by Stella could be filled by the pilots much easier than if they lost me. We just needed to carry a few more letters and make a few more stops. And each one would remind me how far away she’d gone.
The petting stopped, only for her to squeeze me tighter against her chest. “I know.” Her talon released my hand. Both legs hooked around my waist and locked together at my back. Her heartbeat against my ear slowed to a steady, almost pitiful tempo.
I wanted to ask for a moment to think by myself, but the words never came. Knowing me, I probably would have thought too hard on it. Aside from light conversation during meals, flirting during sex, and her singing while I played guitar, we silently enjoyed our remaining days together in the cabin.
* * *
Winds blew gray icy dust across the tarmac. There was only a haze of light showing through the clouds, but it was clear enough to fly. February and March were the months with the most people returning to inner Alaska. Many don’t prefer to stay during the winters, making our work cut out for pilots like myself. Pre-season work was more or less complete. The hangars were prepped, wings de-frosted, the runway cleaned of debris, and the paperwork streamed through the office.
As a dozen other passengers stepped onto the Beechcraft 1900D, a much larger plane than mine, I hugged a harpy inside the opening of my coat. Her luggage was already in the cargo hold. Several minutes passed already, but neither of us said a word. Instead she basked in my scent with deep longing breaths against my sweater, ingraining it in her mind like a fingerprint. Slick jets of windblown snow battered my back, but I did my best to shelter her inside my coat. It almost felt as if she would stay if I did a good enough job at keeping her warm and safe. At the same time, I knew she didn’t need me for that.
The last of the other passengers were getting situated when she pulled her face out of my chest with a deep breath. “I’ll text you when I get to Barrow, okay?”
I forced a smile. “Okay.”
“I also stole one of your shirts.”
I laughed for real. “Okay. That’s fine. I took one of yours, too.”
Leaning down to kiss her, she met me with one that put the movies to shame. As the snow and winds chilled my limbs, the point where our lips touched turned hot and humid. She broke it off before I did and looked up at me fondly.
“Love you,” she mumbled.
“Love you, too.”
Wind washed across my front when she pulled away.
The engine roared to life as she climbed into the plane. I didn’t want to stand out in the cold to watch her leave, so I walked inside the hangar. Among the hustle of the ground crew I decided not to look back. A feeling in my gut told me we didn’t need to be dramatic about the growing distance. After all, it was only physical distance, right?
The noise in the hangar tended to calm me. I wanted to look back at the leaving plane, but judging by the absence of the grind from the engine, it was already gone. The familiar faces and equipment around me reminded me of seasons past. At the same time, they reminded me that the coming season wouldn’t keep the most familiar face among them.
My preparations for flying my first freight next week were already finished. The gym sounded boring, nobody I wanted to speak with was in the lounge, and Boss wasn’t even there. I decided to head home.
Before I could reach the door on the opposite end of the hangar, a heavy gloved hand set itself on my shoulder. “Where you going, Jeff?” I turned to see Beth, clad in her brown and sturdy coat with fur around the hood. She said goodbye to Stella before we stepped out onto the tarmac.
“Just going home. I want to rest up for tomorrow.”
“I’m about done here, too. Wanna wait a few minutes? You can come eat with us tonight.”
Seeing how much Michelle and Anna have grown over the winter sounded appealing. They were probably as tall as me. And probably in need of some playtime.
“Alright. What’s Dan making?”
Beth shrugged. “No idea. I’m the one who usually cooks.” She leaned in and whispered, “And between you and me, he kinda sucks. The girls ‘n I don’t have the heart to tell him.”
I couldn’t help smiling at the thought of Dan, the huge lumberjack-looking manly man, struggling at a stove trying to make food for his family. “I’ll see if I can show him a thing or two.”