Aviators Chapter 2

Stella pouted. “Jeff, quit being a wimp.”
 
“Shut up, we’ve never tried it this way before.” I was still tired from previous rounds.
 
“You need to be more adventurous! You can’t just keep doing the same thing over and over!”
 
I shrugged. “Don’t blame me if it hurts.”
 
“I can take a little rough-and-tumble. I’m on top this time.”
 
I begrudgingly knelt down and let my harpy girlfriend lean over me from behind. She adjusted her goggles and latched onto the edges of the sled with her talons.
 
Sledding. Serious business.
 
One glance down the hill was enough to give me shivers. Beyond the steep slope was a long winding path of white that lead through the woods past the outskirts of Unalakleet. The bright autumn day shed little light through the clouds overhead, but the white of the recently fallen snow warranted the use of eye protection.
 
“This might be my last one,” I said. “My legs hurt like hell.”
 
“From what?”
 
“We had to hike back here after every test run.”
 
“So?”
 
“Stella, we started just after breakfast and it’s almost lunch.”
 
“I know, but come on! Just one more try! The others are waiting at the end!”
 
“In case I don’t make it, I want you to know I love you.”
 
“D-don’t just SAY it out of the blue like that!”
 
I situated myself on the sled with a laugh and cracked my neck as if I knew what I was doing. “Ready?”
 
I didn’t need to look back to know her eyes lit up. “Ready!”
 
I hunched low on the sled, almost so low I couldn’t see over the front lip. Stella in turn crouched on my shoulders with her wings tucked in. I pushed off against the snow. Together we launched down the slope, the old-fashioned wood sled rattling every which way as we sped between the first pair of trees. Branches scraped past my peripheral vision as snow kicked up behind us, the white and black wooded landscape blurring everything but straight ahead.
 
Soon we came to the first turn: a mound of snow packed up against a pair of crisscrossed logs. Like a luge the sled reared up on one side and we made the turn, rough chunks of snow spraying the outside of the turn. When we lost speed I kicked at the ground. Stella, the lightest girl I’d ever known, remained perched low on my shoulders, a credit to her specie’s aerodynamics.
 
Snow kicked up every which way as we sped between trees and to the top of another hill. The final approach. At the top, Stella clenched her talons around my shoulders in excitement as I gave us one last kick for speed.
 
At the precipice we overlooked a huge body of ice that stretched as far as we could see in either direction. Our sledding path let out onto the iced-over river with four figures standing in the distance. Stella extended her wings as we descended the slope.
 
The sled lurched as we reached the bottom of the hill and sped onto the solid ice. We gained speed and lost friction as her wings created just enough lift to barely pull us and the sled above the snow. After a moment of false flight she pulled her wings back in. We skid frictionless across the river. My attempts to keep the sled straight were useless. Slowly rotating, we slid perfectly sideways along the ice.
 
As soon as I thought we reached some sort of stability, a single edge in the ice caught the sled.
 
We wordlessly soared through the air, the sled flying off to who-knows-where. As non-athletic as I was, I at least knew how to roll with a fall. Not this time. I tumbled head-over-heels across the frozen river along with Stella, who let out squawks with every flip and flop.
 
Finally, we slid to our respective stops in front of the family of four that waited for us. I had ice in my pants.
 
I raised my head enough to look at them. “Did you get that?”
 
Dan, the large man in overalls holding a camera, gave a bearded smile. “I got it.” Next to him was Beth, a very tall Oni woman clad in a thick Russian coat and an ushanka.
 
I breathed out a good long laugh. “Okay, good. I want off Stella’s wild ride.” Two pairs of powerful hands pulled me down with unbridled glee before I could sit all the way up.
 
“That was so cool!” Cried Michelle.
 
“Do it again!” Yelled Anna.
 
Four year-old twins. Red Oni twins with the strength to choke me out like a pair of champs. I didn’t bother struggling; I would only have made it worse on myself. I was too tired either way.
 
Beth watched us for a few seconds before clapping her hands. “Alright, kids, let the poor guy up.”
 
The tiny demons relented at their mother’s words and let go of me. They instead marched over to Stella. She let out a squawk as they body-slammed her in perfect unison. It didn’t take long for her to start fighting back with faux wrestling moves and kung-fu kicks. Better you than me, Stella.
 
I checked to see if anything was dislocated and said, “Thanks. I appreciate it.”
 
She pushed a lock of her short white hair out of her face with one hand and yanked me to my feet with the other. I flew a few feet before touching down. Though I was still wobbly I managed to stay standing.
 
“Anything broke?” Dan asked. As he lumbered towards me I remembered how much the resembled a hairless bear. One that just ate a lumberjack and grew a beard. It was really no wonder he could handle so many Oni women in his life.
 
“Nah, I’m intact this time.”
 
Stella let out a cry as the twins worked their magic wrestling powers on her. Dan, perfectly on-point, ran up to the mass of girls and yanked his kids off Stella. With a girl writhing under each of his thick arms he carried them over the toppled sled. With boundless energy they leaped from his grasp and boarded the vehicle. They were soon rocketing across the ice with Dan pulling them along.
 
As Dan distracted the assailants I approached Stella, who was face down in the ice. “How’re you doing?”
 
She flopped over onto her back, still panting. “It was fun! Y’know, ‘til they got me in a back-breaker.”
 
I knelt down and offered a hand. “Want some help?”
 
She didn’t budge. “I’m good. Just gimme a minute.” Off in the distance, the twins let out joyful shrieks as their dad tromped across the ice. Beth and I decided to unpack lunch.
 
* * *
 
When the snowfall worsened, we packed up our things and left the river. Michelle, Anna, and Stella had to be carried back to the ATVs. After hours of playing they finally tuckered themselves out. The girls hitched rides with their parents while I carried Stella on my back through the windblown snow. She let out soft coos in her sleep, which I found to be adorable.
 
“Dan,” Beth said to her husband, carrying Anna under her arm like a sack of potatoes, “what should we do when we get home?”
 
Dan scratched his beard. “They can just take a nap in our bed.”
 
I adjusted Stella on my back and asked, “What’s wrong with their beds?” I recalled my last visit with the family when the twins showed off their new big-kid beds.
 
“They broke them.” Beth said flatly.
 
“Pfff, oh come on. How?”
 
Dan chuckled. “With wrestling practice.”
 
Looking back at the sleeping girls, muscled enough to break furniture and barely old enough to be in school, I didn’t want to imagine the carnage those beds suffered through.
 
“I see.” I made a mental note to add the twins to the list of “Things in Alaska that can Kill me.” They probably were probably around six or seventh place. Higher on the list were polar bears, weather, Dan, and Beth.
 
“But hey, are you and Stella thinking of getting a bed to share?” Beth asked. “You know, since you’re finally together and all?” Please, put more emphasis on ‘finally.’ “We could really use that bunk bed you have if you don’t want it anymore.”
 
I cocked my head. “I’ve been thinking about it, actually. Haven’t brought it up with her, though.”
 
“If you want, we could help you pay for a new bed if you’d be okay with giving your old ones to the twins. As long as you two haven’t been fucking on them, anyway.”
 
Blood rushed to may face and I was glad I was walking ahead of them. “We haven’t, really, no.” We’d only been dating for two weeks, after all. Even I was still getting used to thinking of us as a couple.
 
“Good news for us, then!” Dan guffawed with a slap on my shoulder. I felt a bruise forming already.
 
We came upon the ATVs at the edge of the woods. Our tickets home. “I’ll be sure to talk with Stella about it when she wakes up.”
 
One snowy ATV ride later and we parted ways at Beth and Dan’s home. Littered with machine parts and children’s toys, their front yard was a colorful and rusty showcase of their lives. By then the snow was coming down thick enough to coat the streets in powder.
 
“So you’ll think about the bunk beds, right?” Dan called from their front door.
 
I steadied Stella in the wind, “Yeah, I’ll let you know!”
 
Stella, though still groggy, caught what we said and looked up at me with her big dark eyes. “What about the bunk?”
 
On our way back to the cabin I told her how the twins needed new beds because Red Oni children. I talked about it in as positive a light as possible. It didn’t seem to take.
 
Wiping some snow from her face she said, “We built the frame ourselves, though!”
 
“I know, but we weren’t together back then. Our situation’s changed, so I think it’d be good to try something different.”
 
“I get that, but we shouldn’t just give it away.”
 
A gust of wind shoved a wall of icy needles into our sides. I caught Stella by the shoulder to keep her from getting bowled over. She hunched her shoulders and covered herself with her wings so just her eyes were visible above them.
 
“We’re not just giving it away. It’ll be for the twins, and Dan said he’d help pay for whatever we want.”
 
She sighed. “Would it be that hard for them to get new ones?”
 
I shook my head. “He said the cost to fly two new beds out here would be a lot more than one.”
 
A grumble escaped Stella’s lips. “Can’t they just take care of themselves?”
 
“Hey, where’d that come from?”
 
“Sorry, it’s just… We’ve had those beds basically ever since we met. I don’t want to just give them away right now.” A mix of frustration and happiness bubbled in my stomach.
 
We approached the front door, Stella taking the lead. Once inside the freezing cold cabin I flipped on the lights and shook off some layers of snow. Stella did the same, clearly shivering. We silently hung up our coats and turned on the radiator to make our home livable once more.
 
I was the first to speak up again. “To be honest, Stella, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about getting a single bed.”
 
She rolled the thought around in her head for a second. “You’ve never asked me to share with you before, though.”
 
That was true; we hadn’t slept in the same bed yet at all. We sometimes cuddled in the afternoon, and she was adorably embarrassed whenever we did, but went to our separate bunks at night. I wasn’t about to let up, though.
 
“But don’t you think these twin size beds are a little cramped? Especially with how you won’t share your covers with me.”
 
She lifted up her wings and let them slap down at her sides in annoyance. “You just had to bring it up again.” Shit. “I told you, it’s a territorial thing. I haven’t shared any of my stuff with anyone since I was a kid.”
 
“I know I said I wouldn’t ask about it. But Stella, would you tell me what all that means? Because I still don’t really get it.”
 
She rolled her head back and forth in thought. “Asking me to share a bed with you is like asking me to make a nest with you.” Her eyes never stopped looking off to the side. “That’s real real important to harpies. It means something serious. Like, move-in-with-me serious.”
 
A disgruntled laugh escaped me in disbelief. “We already live together, don’t we?”
 
She shut her wings closed around her shoulders. “Yeah, but it’s a whole different thing. There’s a difference between sharing a house and sharing a bed. Right now, my covers are my nest and Unalakleet’s my territory and you’re—” Stella hid her mouth behind her wings and looked as far away from me as possible without turning. She was trembling. My heart skipped a beat at the thought of what she was about to say.
 
Digging her talons into the floor, she lowered her wings and blurted, “And you’re not my pair yet!”
 
I couldn’t tell if her words were a punch to the gut or a tentative marriage proposal. I caught nary a glimpse of her face before she ducked back under her wings. With pause in my steps, I approached her and gently pulled her wings down again. She just stared at the floor with embarrassed frustration.
 
“So, you don’t want to sleep together with me at all because I’m not your pair?”
 
“I—!” She stopped for a second, still flustered. “Of course I do! Don’t put words in my mouth. I-I have needs, too, you know.” She kicked at some clothes on the floor. “But I like it higher up on the top bunk, too. Getting a new bed would bring it lower, wouldn’t it?” Smooth change of topic.
 
I looked her right in the eye and placed my hands on her shoulders, our faces lingering inches apart. “I want us to have a sleeping arrangement that both of us want. I want to share a bed, but I won’t force you if you’re not ready. If you’re for sure not, then I can tell Beth and Dan they’re on their own.”
 
She frowned slightly. “I want to, Jeff.” Her wings found their way around me as she nuzzled my chest with a red face. “It’s embarrassing as hell, but I want to c-cuddle and stuff, too. All this stuff about territory is pure stupid instinct. I can’t help it most of the time. But I don’t want to give up something we built together, either. Remember? We ordered the wood for the frame and built it ourselves.”
 
“Yeah, I remember. Just took us a day to make it, too.” I gazed over to the frame, built with solid wood supports and immovable bolts and barely shook with my entire weight. As I looked at it, an idea surfaced. I mentally kicked myself for not thinking of it earlier. “If you want to keep what we built, then can’t we just keep the frame and give the twins the mattresses? Then we can just mess around with the frame so it can hold a bigger bed instead of a twin size.”
 
She cocked her head again. “Can we make the frame hold it up real high?”
 
“If we can make a bunk bed ourselves then I think we can make an elevated regular one, too.”
 
“That… actually sounds pretty cool.” Breaking away from me she started milling about the cabin with an intent look on her face. “That’s, like, building-a-fort-in-the-living-room cool! If we keep the frame, I don’t really mind giving the rest to the twins.”
 
My mind started working, too. “And actually, with just one bed higher up and the lower one out of the way, we can probably move some stuff around and free up space. My desk could fit under it if we do it right.” A fancy desk lamp that I could latch onto the bed frame would have been nice, too.
 
Stella jumped up on her bunk and gazed down at the rest of the cabin like a queen overseeing her land. “And we can have one of those fireman poles you slide down when you’re in a hurry! And a projector that projects onto the ceiling across from the bed! And a couch! And a bigger kitchen when we save up enough! And—”
 
“Okay, slow down.” I plopped down in my own bunk and gave the frame around me a look. “Might as well start measuring and planning now if you want to do all that.”
 
She leaned over the side, her hair billowing down and a big smile on her face. “You mean we can have the bigger kitchen and everything?”
 
“Why not? You pay rent, don’t you?”
 
Silently Stella hopped down from her bunk onto mine and crawled over to me on her folded wings. She leaned in close with a look of disbelief in her eyes. “I think I love you, Jeff.”
 
* * *
 
Over the course of the next week Stella and I used our free time to take apart and rebuild the wooden frame of our bed, when the weather allowed. We got the measurements online for a Full sized bed and stared on our work. The twins had to sleep with their parents for the week, since the futon we ordered wouldn’t arrive ‘til later. As promised, Dan paid for the cost of the original twin beds to go toward the futon.
 
The shortest route to deliver it was from Anchorage to Bethel. I asked Boss to let me pick it up myself.
 
The evening of the pickup I helped a pair of Yetis from the Bethel ground crew, Sasha and Boo, carry the futon and other freight into my plane. The two of them worked part time for Alaska Search and Rescue. They must have had a shift earlier in the day, since they forgot to take off their Alaska SAR scarves. Though they were just fine, the gusting winds stung my nose and made me lean into the wind to stay upright. Despite the harsh weather they didn’t let me do any of the heavy lifting myself. I instead directed them.
 
The pair slid the futon through the double side doors of my plane before stacking everything else around it. They knew how to gingerly handle things more than twice my weight but needed help finding the center of gravity in the plane. Too much to any direction and any attempt to take off would end in disaster. Ordering them around felt like operating heavy machinery. Heavy voice-activated machinery.
 
“Okay, that’s it!” I called through chattering teeth as they placed the last box of food in the aircraft.
 
Sasha, the fluffier one, silently walked up and hugged me close. Her massive arms perfectly walled me off from the wind and pulled me into her soft warm bosom. As a pilot I often received such hugs during the cold months. She lovingly warded off the cold and warmed me up for a few pleasant seconds before letting go.
 
“Thanks, Sasha,” I said, my teeth no longer chattering. Boo, the healthier one, twiddled her thumbs on the other side of the plane. She made poor attempts at looking uninterested, even casually crossing her legs.
 
I walked over to her through the wind and stretched my arms to either side. “One for the road?”
 
She immediately brightened and put on such a smile you’d never think she felt neglected. Boo made sure to hug me real good before I hopped back into my plane.
 
The skies were much less warm and fuzzy.
 
Visibility quickly dropped by the time I reached cruising altitude. The once-white clouds turned abruptly to dark gray and the windblown snow turned to piercing ice. I had to stay in contact with Unalakleet through the radio to keep myself on course. Through my general anxiety about the flight, I wondered if Stella had to stay in another village again.
 
Two hours later and I was on my final approach. Twelve hours total of flying that day and I was glad to touch down without the wind messing me up again. Without the aid of Yeti women in Unalakleet, we instead relied on our mostly human ground crews. Plus one-woman-army Beth, who heaved the futon onto one shoulder and casually grabbed a huge box of Cup-a-Noodle in her other hand. She was clad in the usual work clothes of the rest of the ground crew, albeit ones for someone eight feet tall.
 
When she grabbed it I called after her, “Did you and Dan pick up the mattresses this morning?”
 
Without turning around she shouted through the wind, “Yeah, the kids are probably breaking them in half as we speak!” I wondered to myself how her and her husband’s financial situation was holding up.
 
As soon my plane taxied inside the hangar, courtesy of Beth and a fat steel chain, I called Stella on the radio. “Jeff-O to Stella, do you copy me?”
 
It took a few seconds for her to respond. “I copy you, Jeff. Hoo. What’s up?” Was she panting?
 
“I just pulled in. Guess what I got?”
 
“Oh! It came in today? I’m, uh, I’m at the gym, so I’ll meet you on the hangar floor!”
 
The gym was a small room attached to the pilot lounge, so she didn’t take long. I stood beside the rolled-up futon, watching the ground crew put away the last of the cargo as I waited. Soon I saw a blur glide through the rafters overhead.
 
My jaw went a little slack when I looked up.
 
It was Stella, adorned in nothing but a pair of baggy cargo shorts and a black and yellow sports bra. Her (repaired) radio was strapped to her belt as usual, with the cord of her headset snaking up her bare glistening spine. Though she was as thin as most other harpies, she sported some impressive muscle tone that you just didn’t see very often among her kind. I was most impressed with her flat and inviting belly, complete with a navel that left a shapely crevice up her midriff. Some of the ground crew took notice of her and let out some admiring whistles, giving me a feeling so complicated.
 
Stella greeted me with a smile, oblivious to the attention, and pointed at the futon with a wing. “Is that it?”
 
The hangar was probably below freezing. My first instinct, besides to stare at her glistening shoulders and midriff, was to take off my coat and drape it around her shoulders.
 
My next instinct was to kiss her hello. “Hi.”
 
Despite receiving a jolt of surprise, she kissed me back. She looked at the floor with a small embarrassed smile when the ground crew whistles resurfaced. I could have sworn I heard Beth’s voice echo from somewhere in the back of the cargo area.
 
I played it off as best I could. “Yeah, just brought it from Bethel. So, uh,” I did my best not to stare, “want to get dressed and help me carry it home?”
 
“I don’t gotta change, let’s go!” She shuffled the coat off her shoulders and tossed it back to me.
 
My brow furrowed. “Uh, no? The storm’s getting bad, so let’s get you in something warmer.”
 
My girlfriend rolled her eyes at me. Ouch. “Jeff, it’s a five-minute walk. Come on, it’ll be fun!”
 
I wanted to say something, but then remembered with whom I was about to argue. Defeated before my argument could be made, I shook my head and put my coat back on. No way was I going to let her freeze half to death and leave myself too cold to carry her back home. Without another word I picked up one end of the futon while Stella lifted up hers and supported it with my shoulder. She did the same. Together, it was a lot lighter than I thought it would be. Or maybe she was just that much more fit than I was.
 
The instant we stepped outside Stella let out a shout. “Woo! Fuckin’ brisk!” Snowflakes pelted us from all sides, the gales swirling around us in twisters.
 
“How you doing back there?” I called.
 
“Shut up and march!”
 
Despite the wind, or perhaps in spite of it, Stella and I used all our strength to run through the storm as fast as we could. Passing by other villagers who procrastinated in boarding up their homes for the winter, the package sped through the wind like a missile on our shoulders. Some minutes later we were in front of our cabin.
 
Stella did a chilly dance back and forth as I took the keys out of my pocket. “H-hurry up!”
 
Oh boy. “Sorry, Stella. Having trouble finding the right keys!” I clumsily jingled the keychain in my hands, tossed it between them, flipped them over one hand and into the other, and looped them between my hands behind my back because why not?
 
“Quit being an ass!” She kicked at me with her talon, coming up just short thanks to the length of the futon.
 
The door unlatched with the turn of the key and she shoved the futon and myself inside, nearly knocking me over. As I got my bearings she had already floated over to the radiator and flipped it on. I shut the door and saw her overcome with a chill that made her hug her stomach and bend forward. A thin layer of frost had developed along the lining of her sports bra; leftover sweat.
 
Sliding my arms out of the sleeves of my coat I leaned down and brushed the frost off Stella’s back and covered her with the coat from behind. She flinched at the contact before sitting cross-legged on the floor, using the garment to catch as much heat as possible from the radiator.
 
I knelt down behind her. “Sorry, that was mean.”
 
“You’re a jerk,” she said into the radiator.
 
“I’m a jerk.” When I saw her still shivering, I snuck my arms under the coat and wrapped them around her belly. Though her skin was cold to the touch she quickly warmed up against my hands.
 
She turned to me with an indignant look. “If I had hands I’d put them down your shirt.” I laughed and hugged her tighter. One of my fingers grazed her belly button and made her shiver again.
 
It begged the question. “Hey. You were born from an egg, right?”
 
She tucked in her chin breathed warm air down her modest cleavage. “Yeah, why?”
 
“Then why do you have a belly button?”
 
She tilted her head back and forth in thought. “I dunno. I was born with it.”
 
“But… you came from an egg.”
 
“Yeah.”
 
“You do know what belly buttons are for, right?”
 
“Uh…” she trailed off for a moment. “Attracting a mate? And keeping him?”
 
She had me there. Belly buttons are damn sexy. I kissed her nape. “So were you showing off to me back in the hangar?”
 
She sighed at the contact. “Maybe.”
 
“Were you trying to seduce me all those times you’ve worn your gym clothes at home, then?” I joked.
 
“Pff!” She bent over in a fit of laughter. It lasted much longer than it should have. “Seriously? After all I— man, who’s dense now?”
 
My cheeks lit up. “Wait, for real?” I recalled all the other times she wore such scant clothing at the gym. At some point in the last year she stopped wearing a tank tops and started wearing the sexier midriff-bearing numbers. As I thought about it she seemed to make a point of letting me know she ordered them back then.
 
I buried my face in her shoulder. “Damn it, you could’ve been a bit more direct about it!”
 
“Whatever, Mr. Love Letter.”
 
“Stella please.”
 
“No no, listen. The first time I tried showing off a bit? I gave you the best goddamn bedroom eyes I had. Nothin’.”
 
“What, did you practice in a little mirror?”
 
She froze. “Uh, the— ahem— the bathroom mirror, actually.”
 
The image of her posing and winking in the mirror flashed through my mind. It damn near made my heart stop. “That’s adorable!”
 
“Screw you!” She pulled the collar of the coat up to cover her face.
 
I yanked it back down with one hand and snuck in a kiss. “How does caribou stew sound for dinner?”
 
Whatever flush she had in her cheeks disappeared at the mention of food. “That sounds awesome!”
 
I cut up some of the leftover caribou meat from last month and dumped it in some broth along with veggies. My only hope was that the rubbery meat would be softer if it soaked for awhile. As the smell and heat of the stove filled the cabin, Stella started tearing the plastic wrap off of the futon. Using her talons like daggers, the stuff flew off in ribbons. She buttoned my coat at the top and used it as a cape as she tore apart the packaging. It didn’t take her long to unroll it in the middle of the room.
 
As I worked at the stove with our small cupboard of spices, she poked her head under my arm to look at the pot. Her eyes became blank and followed the ladle as I stirred.
 
“Jeff this looks so good how do you do it can I eat it now?” Her mouth hanged open ever so slightly and I could have sworn I saw tears welling up. This girl and her food. Harpies in general, really.
 
“It’ll be done in a bit. ‘Til then, would you mind setting up the bed? I’ll help with the sheets and junk later.”
 
“Copy.” Her eyes never left the stew as she slowly removed herself from under my arm. While she milled about behind me I added some carrots and potatoes to the pot. She couldn’t eat them if her life depended on it— carnivore and all— so I added just enough for myself.
 
A few minutes later and I clanged a spoon against the pot. “It’s done!”
 
“Give please.”
 
With a little jump I turned to see Stella standing next to me, eyeballing the pot with an old cracked red bowl at the ready. I saw she managed to haul the futon halfway onto the bedframe and at some point donned a black tank top.
 
I hesitantly poured some food into the bowl and handed her a spoon. “What’s got you so excited? You usually save this kind of enthusiasm for chicken.”
 
She scampered off to my desk and sat on the chair before shoveling a chunk of meat into her mouth. “I had to skip lunch today.”
 
“Whoa, what? Don’t you need to eat a lot just to get through your mail route?”
 
After some impressive chewing she set her spoon down and looked away. “I, uh. I fell behind schedule today.”
 
“You can’t just skip meals, though!” It probably came off harsher than I intended.
 
“Hey, it’s fine! I had some jerky at noon and now I’m eating delicious stew. Problem solved!” She scooped another spoonful into her mouth.
 
I poured some for myself and leaned against the counter. “Well, try not to make a habit of it. Skipping meals can’t be good for you when you have to fly so much.”
 
She nodded and said through another spoonful, “I know. I just need to fly better. Might ask for more hours soon.”
 
I furrowed my brow and finished chewing. “Right now? In this weather?”
 
“Yeah. Can’t just work at the gym to fly better. Gotta get banged up and achy the right way and actually fly more.”
 
Achy? “Fair enough, but the winds’ll knock you out of the sky if you get too tired.”
 
She gave me a look, as if I didn’t understand. “And that’s why I’ll ask for more hours. If I work harder it won’t happen again.”
 
“Yeah, but aren’t you already working five days a week outside of winter?”
 
She chewed at me with a raised eyebrow. “Yeah, but pilots already work longer days than me. You fly me for an hour before I start, and I get home an hour or two before you land.”
 
I shrugged my shoulders. “Because your job’s harder than ours. And Boss probably doesn’t want to overwork you. We press pedals. We turn rudders. Not you. You’re basically running a marathon every day.”
 
With her spoon she pushed an errant carrot slice aside to get to the meat beneath it. “Boss is too responsible.”
 
At that I paused. He didn’t let me fly recklessly either. “Right?”
 
She giggled and took another bite. “Hey, can we get some bird meat from one of the hunters? I’ve been craving it lately.” I cringed as she chewed and spoke at the same time.
 
With the subject changed, I dropped the issue. “We can do that.”
 
Dinner proceeded with the usual how-was-your-days between us and a few give-me-more-foods from Stella. It wasn’t a very big pot of stew, so we finished it rather handily. I washed the dishes, and she dried and put them away.
 
The time came to finish setting up the bed. I lifted the lower end while she perched atop the frame and guided it into place. The red futon itself was pretty thick once it was unrolled, and it fit the frame like a glove, if a little loose.
 
As soon as it was in place, Stella belly-flopped onto it and spread her wings. “It’s so big~!” As I tossed our pillows up there, all I heard was a series of yelps. The sheets came next, followed by out wadded-up blankets and comforters. Once it was all on the bed I climbed up some of the framework to get up myself. It didn’t budge an inch, the rivets and bolts holding fast. Strangely, it felt much higher off the floor than I thought; we were easily able to touch the ceiling.
 
Emerging from the pile of bedding I tossed up, Stella went right to work putting on the new sheets. She used her talons to stretch the elastic edges over one end of the bed while I balanced on the frame and dressed the other side.
 
Once it was set I tossed both pillows in the corner and fell back on them. Crossing my legs and resting my hands behind my head, I looked over the rest of the cabin from an angle I’d never seen before.
 
“We did good, Stella.”
 
Stella gave a muffled “Mhm.”
 
When I went to grab one of my blankets and cozy up, it snagged on something. It was Stella. In a small swirling nest comprised of both our blankets and comforters, she held it fast with her claw and budged not an inch. How she made it in just a few seconds, I might never know. She sat with her legs tucked under her and one of her wings covering her head and body. I belief the term for covering herself in such a way is called “mantling.”
 
“Comfy?” I asked, neither of us letting go of the black and red checkered blanket.
 
“Mhm.” I couldn’t even see her face tucked under her wing.
 
Letting go of the blanket, I crawled over to her, the varying pressure on the futon jostling her around a bit.
 
I leaned in close to her wing. “Can I come in?”
 
“M-mm.” Her head shook from side to side under her feathers before she proceeded to wriggle herself deeper into the nest of cotton. “You won’t fit.”
 
I resisted the obvious “That’s what she said” joke and whispered, “Then you’ll just have to come back out.” I thrust my arm under her wing, my fingers seeking any bare skin they could find. She lazily tried to twist around under her wings to get me off, but only got so far before I gripped her by the waist and tickled.
 
“Ah! No!” She laughed aloud as she finally deigned to use her arms to push me back. “Don’t you do it you fuc—Ahaha!” Stella pushed away with her legs, so I dove after her, both of her wings in my face trying to get my wriggling fingers off her belly and away from her underarms. Luckily for me all her strength was lost and rerouted into laughing, like flipping a switch. As I fell after her onto the pile of bedding, I wrapped my arms around her and nuzzled my stubble up against her bare side. Her tank top had rolled up a bit from the wrestling, showing an ample amount of skin.
 
“Got you out of there,” I teased, kissing her stomach a few times.
 
“H-hey! Quit it…” Panting and still laughing a little, she smacked my head with a pillow. Her resistance soon faded away with a sigh. “You’re such a cheater, man.”
 
I paid no heed to the pillow and worked my way up her front, planting kisses as I went. “A cheater at what?” More and more I tasted the salt on her skin leftover from her workout.
 
A shudder flowed up her back and my lips met with goosebumps. She sighed, “Everything.”
 
“Uh oh.” One of my hands reached up her back and slid under her tank top, eliciting a sharp breath and embarrassed smile from my girlfriend. “Can’t have that.” My thoughts soon turned to how far we planned to go that night. I had protection in the drawer of my desk. It was something she discovered the first day she moved in, much to my embarrassment at the time. If she still remembered, she was probably thinking of the same thing. Having our first time on the first night with our brand new bed sure sounded memorable enough to me.
 
“Jeff?”
 
My hands stopped and I turned to look at her. Stella’s hair was disheveled from the roughhousing, leaving several stray strands of hair and her ponytail loose. Her wings came down to envelope me in a gentle embrace instead of covering her face, which was smiling and red. Good Lord what a sight she was.
 
With a sigh, she said, “You know how I grew up in foster care?”
 
Usually a touchy subject. “Yeah. In New York, right?”
 
“Right.”
 
“Why do you ask?”
 
She shrugged her shoulders. “Feeling talkative.” Stella didn’t speak about her life in the Lower 48 very often. I snuggled up and rested my head on her chest for the occasion.
 
“The orphanage was pretty nice. I had a lot of friends there. But we didn’t really have much money. Everyone had their own stuff, and I was real protective of everything I had. A lot of the other kids slept together to stay warm, but I always slept by myself. Because, you know, it was my little nest. My territory. I never shared anything with anyone. It’s what made me feel safe when I was growing up. Because when I was in my territory nobody could mess with me. That’s what I thought. Even when I got my first semi-serious boyfriend.”
 
Uh oh.
 
“I was stupid back then. I never even guessed couples usually shared a bed before they got married or chose each other as their pair. I got really scared when he mentioned it. Like a ‘How can I find a boyfriend like this?’ sort of deal.” She took a deep breath. “You’re the second guy I’ve ever had a relationship with.”
 
With my ear against her chest I listened to her heart. It was quickening. “You scared to sleep together tonight?”
 
She swallowed. “A little.” When I tried to lift myself off of her, she gently pulled me back with her outstretched wings. “I’ll… try it, though.” She trembled against me. Having me so close against her was like stripping herself naked. Her heart beat ever heavier against my ear. Of all the things to scare the woman I loved, it was physical intimacy.
 
I lifted myself from her, this time with her letting me go. Holding myself up with one arm, I looked over her. She tried to nonchalantly calm her breathing, but the blush and glisten of sweat on her cheeks gave her away immediately.
 
“You don’t have to force yourself,” I said, as much as I hated to say it. “If you’re not ready, then—”
 
She frowned and took a deep breath through her nose, puffing up her chest and feathers. “If you’re trying to make me take it all back after I went and said it, I’ll kick you outta bed!”
 
I let out a laugh. “There, that’s better.”
 
With another fresh shade of red, she muttered. “I-it’ll be with you, so…”
 
Her words echoed between my ears. She gave me such a privilege I didn’t even know I had. Something she’d never do with someone else, she’d make an exception with me. I felt some tears well up in my eyes when I realized it all, but managed to play it cool.
 
I muttered, “We both get up early tomorrow, right?”
 
“Yeah.”
 
“We should get ready for bed.”
 
“Yeah.”
 
We wordlessly set the rest of the bed together. I tidied up the cabin, making sure to double-check for the condom, while she fixed her hair and did her best to brush her teeth. Her best was not enough. By the time I climbed up to the bed she was already laying down facing the wall. With her wings tucked up in front of her it looked like she was already asleep. Seeing her in nothing but her underwear and a fresh tank top excited me to no end.
 
Following suit, I lay down behind her, enjoying her scent as I approached. A bouquet of winter, sweat, and a hard day’s work made me kiss the top of her head. With one arm I pulled the covers over us, and the other I hooked around her stomach. She shuddered slightly, to which I gave another gentle kiss of reassurance on the head. The scent of her hair rushed through me like a wave of nostalgia that flashed her first day in the cabin through my mind.
 
“Hey.” I whispered.
 
She pushed her face into her pillow. “Hey…”
 
I put my other arm around her waist as well. “How is it being the small spoon?”
 
A chuckle escaped her despite her efforts to quash it. With a shiver she said, “I can get used to it,” and wriggled around a little to get comfortable. “It’s nice and warm, though.” I felt one of her talons slide up against my leg. She was damn dexterous with those things.
 
Hugging her close, I said, “We should cuddle more often.”
 
“Since when do guys like to cuddle? That doesn’t sound manly at all.”
 
“Contrary to popular belief, we like having women pressed up against us for extended periods of time.” One of my hands slid up her belly and carefully traced every curve of her skin I could reach. It was all I could do to keep myself from hugging her as hard as I could.
 
She adjusted, her midriff moving beneath my fingers. “Mm. You’ll have to teach me all the best ways.”
 
“I am qualified to teach several cuddling techniques. Check my Degree. It says so.”
 
Stella let out a big wide yawn, stretching out her legs and wings before letting them flop down onto the bed. “Maybe tomorrow, then.”
 
As I made myself comfortable, Stella stopped talking. The only sounds I heard were the light rustles of sheets and the soft birdlike coos from the woman in my arms.
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