Aviators Chapter 9

“So,” I said, “was that all you meant when you said you wanted to ‘mark your territory?'”
 
Stella sloshed around in the foamy water, adjusting herself before leaning back against my chest. White fluffy bath bubbles. Her idea, not mine. But it was a good idea. A very, very, good idea. Steam steadily rose from the linoleum tub and gave shape to the light overhead. Thanks to the curtains our little private party was cast in a soft yellow twilight.
 
She smiled. “Maybe. Could mean anything I want.”
 
“You sounded so very concerned earlier about the succubus, too.” I slicked back my hair with one hand to get some strands out of my eyes. “Were you that worried about my bones?”
 
“Just let me know next time you go out in the city on your own. I’ll do the rest.”
 
If I didn’t already have a renewed hard-on from the whole “taking a bath with my girlfriend sitting in my lap” thing, that would have done it. After the second round, however, it was starting to hurt. I guess we weren’t going to break our record that day. Meanwhile, Stella let her injured talon rest along the rim of the tub to dry out, which would have given me prime real estate for viewing between her legs if I sat on the other side. Oh well. It was time to rest, not screw.

“So I’ll know it when I see it?” If only I had a glass of wine or something to swish around in my hand. “I’ll hold you to that.” Too bad the phone was in the bedroom, or I totally would have ordered room service to get that bottle.

She sidled up against me, letting her wet hair stick to my chest. “Look forward to it.”

“Should I be worried?”

“Don’t be, you’ll love it. Promise.”

Flirting aside. When we weren’t talking, she sometimes looked off into the distance at nothing. It felt like her vacant expression and long stares were calling to me for help. Or maybe those were my white knight tendencies talking. In either case, I didn’t want to use a succubus’ advice as my first plan of action to pull my girlfriend out of the dumps. Or did I already do that by sexing Stella in the shower?

Either way, time to approach things delicately. “So hey, Baby, are you tired?”

“Hm? Oh, no. Not really.” She smirked. “What, you want to go again? We’ll just get all pruny.”

“Sorry, not that.” As much as I would have loved to. In an hour, anyway. The mind was willing, but the body was soft and bruised. “You’re just looking a bit out of it lately, that’s all. Thinking about stuff?”

Our shared bath water sloshed around as she rolled her head back and forth, like a spoon stirring a pot. At once, she leaned forward and dunked her head underwater. Before I could admire her flexibility for keeping her talon up while bending forward so far, she pulled her head out in an explosion of bubbles and water. Some gobs of foam got on my face. Then her hair slapped me in the nose.

She turned and laughed. “Ha, sorry!”    

“It’s fine.”

As I wiped the bubbles away, she seemed ready to talk. “Yeah, uh. Sorry if I’ve been a drag since yesterday.”

“What, after the fun we just had? You’re not being a drag at all. You’ve been normal, I think. But…”

She couldn’t wait for me to continue. “But what?”

“We’ve lived together for more than a year. I’d like to think I know the signs when something’s bugging you.”

Stella gave me that look. One side of her lips pulled up, and one brow raised up with her eyes half-closed. The one that said, “Oh, come on, Jeff.” At least she didn’t actually say it.

I coughed. “Okay, uh, would that have sounded better if I said that I’m magic and can read your mind?” Sticking my arms out in front of me, I wiggled my fingers around her head.

“Pff! Oh, shut up!” she yelled, finally putting on a genuine smile prior to bumping the back of her head against my collar bone. Okay, maybe therapy via fun was the correct choice. Sorry for doubting you, Janet. Demon of love, indeed.

While I mentally thanked the succubus, Stella took a deep breath through her nose. “Alright, I’ll only say all of this once.” Uh oh. “I went to try to talk to Natalia when we came in last night.” Not wanting to interrupt her, I nodded and silently recalled her temporary absence from the orphanage when I found her outside. She looked down at the bubbles and pushed some around with her folded wing. “I’ve always felt guilty about the fight we had. I was pissed, she was pissed, but I was the stupid one. It took a while to get it through my big dumb head, but… but it was my fault. All of it. Every now and then since the fight, when I thought about it and had the chance, I tried to get in touch with her. So far, it’s never worked.

“Anyway. Went to the precinct last night. They know me there still. I hung around there when I was a kid, watching the cops do stuff. Me and Natalia always went together and pretended we were on the force. Anyway, I talked to the salamander lady at the front desk. She’d been there since we were kids. Asked if Natalia was there. Told her I wanted to apologize for something.”

I found myself leaning against her a bit in anticipation.

She continued. Unlike before, she turned and looked at me with eyelids half drawn. “Natalia, she… the salamander said that she didn’t want to talk to me. After something like six years, she still doesn’t want to talk to me! I can barely even remember what she sounds like anymore. I mean, it might be way way too late to say sorry, but still! I want to say sorry for taking so long, too, but she won’t let me!”

Blowing my held breath out through pursed lips, I said. “Sorry.” Couldn’t think of anything else to say. So, contrary to popular belief, sex was not the end-all be-all problem-solver for monstrous women. Go figure. Never did I personally have such a falling out with a friend like Stella did. If I ever lost friends, it was from lack of contact; a smooth eventual distancing that wordlessly ended the friendship.

She blew some air out of her lungs too. “Yeah.”

A silence grew between us, as it sometimes did. The loathed lack of words steadily blocked off any timely resurgences I could have used to save the conversation. Against my better judgment, I let it all pass, fearful of what I might say. Instead of talking, I let my submerged fingertips trace across her belly until they laced together under her navel. If anything, I knew how to comfort her physically. Just hoped that was enough.

Leaning back against me, she said, “I wanted to introduce you to her after apologizing.”

“You’ll get to her eventually, Stella.” Empty words, but they were all I had. “With how long you’ve been trying to talk to her, she’ll have to.” I had to get the gears in my head working to try to keep the conversation from going in any more of a negative direction than it already was. “Maybe leave a message for her at the precinct?”

She slumped. “Like what?”

“I don’t know. ‘I’m sorry.’ ‘I want to talk.’ Maybe make it longer, or leave a phone number? Something like that?”

“…Maybe.”

“If she reads it, the ball would be in her court.”

“Mm…”

“Here.” I nudged her to get her to get off me. “We can go write it together.” Standing up, torrents of water cascaded off my skin. The bathroom filled with sloshing noises as I got out and grabbed a towel. I had to bat off some bubbles before I could start drying off. “You look really serious about talking to her, so I think you should at least try.”

Stella looked up at the ceiling. Wafting currents of steam slowly curled and wove above her, a blank look in her eyes. With a start, she ducked under the water again. A slight rumble and barely-audible scream of frustration bubbled from beneath the water before she pulled herself up in a splash.

Then, after a deep breath, she exploded through the surface of the water once again. “Haaaaaaa! Okay! Okay, let’s try that!”

* * *

Stella wrote it and asked about grammar, while I edited it from afar (without actually reading it; she didn’t want me to), and both of us brought it to the precinct after grabbing some lunch. We put my phone number at the end of it, since Stella didn’t own one. At the precinct, I didn’t see a salamander at the front desk, but the middle-aged man who sat there seemed to recognize Stella. He was bald, save for a thin gray moustache, and looked like he really wouldn’t be able to keep up with all the youngsters on the force. His gut was massive. I didn’t even know the police department made uniforms in his size. Regardless of my thoughts on the man’s beer belly, he took the folded paper and placed it on one of the desks further inside. The narrow nameplate on the side of the desk read, “Natalia S.”

For the rest of that day, we stayed in the hotel room. Stella, for all the effort it took to write out a letter, didn’t want to go outside to play at all. I brought up the possibility of visiting the orphanage again, but she declined that, too. We stuck to watching TV and ordered room service for dinner. She insisted we split the bill for the dinner when we checked out, which was fine. I insisted on paying for the room myself on the premise that she already spent enough on her hospital bills.

The next day, the 30th, was spent mostly outside. The relief at her willingness to get off the couch was a breath of fresh air. So, I decided to try putting Janet’s advice into practice. Fun for the sake of fun, and to keep Stella’s mind off the more depressing things. When I suggested we visit Central Park, however, Stella refused, saying that there were “tons more” places she wanted to show to me. Was she saving the best for last or something?

The first place she brought me was a little park that was closer to the orphanage than Central Park was. This one barely took up the space of a city block, so it was utterly tiny compared to the other one. With abundant trees and a little pond full of fish in the corner, it was a pretty nice place. Four concrete paths branched off from a playground in the center. The rest was grass and trees, covered in snow. There were weeping willows, and they were very tall and climbable. According to her, it was her fifteenth favorite place in the world. I was beginning to wonder if she had a mental list of her favorite places. I sure did hope so, anyway. Though I knew Central Park was her first favorite, she wouldn’t tell me the other thirteen. At least she promised to show me more as the day went on.

The second destination was much more exciting, to say the least. Thankfully it was within walking distance from the little park. It let me save my energy for what was to come

She was latched onto my arm, using me in place of the crutch she totally forgot in our hotel room. Both of her wings hooked around me and wouldn’t let go. Might have been on purpose, in retrospect, given how much she pushed and pulled me to and from every item of interest on the streets. She never struck me as the window-shopping sort, not that she could have worn the majority of the clothes and items on display.

“Wanna grab some food?” she asked.

I looked around for a moment, scanning around the restaurant-ridden street she just led me into. Dozens of foreign food joints were scattered across either side of the road. Many of them had their bright signs spelled in alphabets I couldn’t read. As for the people, they called out words in various languages and broken English that I also couldn’t understand.

There was more variety than Unalakleet, anyway. “I could be convinced. What were you thinking?”

She smiled through a bit lower lip and narrowed her eyes. “Come over here!” Stella yanked me off to the side of the crowded street, clearly with a destination in mind. Though she hopped on one talon the whole way, using me for balance. Even so, she managed to put a lot of force into pulling me through the crowds of multiethnic people getting their food. We bumped into a few people, but somehow didn’t knock anyone’s food out of their hands. I made a mental note to have words with her later about rushing through crowds; we were just being downright rude. And getting yelled at in languages I didn’t understand.

We rounded a corner in the maze of food stands and came to an abrupt stop in front of a larger Indian restaurant on the corner. Still couldn’t read the front sign as we took the alley that led behind the place.

I asked, “Why’re we going to the back?” It was greasy and smelled weird and the dumpster was leaking something orange.

“Shh, just follow my lead.” With that, she hopped up to the back door and knocked on it with a claw. “Ahem. Hey, Nilam!”

Her accent changed to an Indian one. Oh, this was going to be grand, wasn’t it?

Shouts sounded among the hisses and clanks and kitchen noises beyond the back door. It soon flung open with a crash as a tall elderly Indian gentleman burst outside. His gray hair was covered mostly by a short chef hat, and the front of his chef coat was splattered with varying shades of yellow and orange. Though old and wrinkled, his gently twirled moustache and dark shining skin gave him an elderly, intimidating look despite being almost as short as Stella.

“Who is wanting to get ass kicked?” the man shouted, waving a dirty towel around in one shaking hand. I took a step back. “We are very busy today, we—” Then he saw the girl standing between him and myself. His look of animated surprise nearly made me laugh aloud. “Oh my goodness! It is being Stella!”

Almost instantly, the two came together in a big hug. Stella nuzzled against his food-encrusted chef coat as if it wasn’t slathered in dried up food. When they parted he mussed up her hair with one hand and shook her happily by the shoulder with the other.

“Too long it has been, my friend. Where have you been? You leave for so long and say no words to your friend Nilam?” Then he turned to me. “And who is this man? Husband, Stella? Oooh~!”

I chuckled, but Stella waved the thought away. “Nilam my friend. I am having the hunger again. Can we be like the old times?” A vocal chameleon, my girlfriend. No idea what she meant by “old times,” though. Oh well, she told me to follow her lead and that’s what I planned to do.

A toothy smile stretched the man’s lips. “Of course, of course. But I am warning you. Manager is being here today. Careful when leaving, my friend. The Manager is not appreciating free meals anymore.” Uh, “free meals?”

Stella bobbed her head back and forth in excitement. “The challenge is exciting, Nilam. And again I am thanking you.” Then, a sudden break in character. “You’re the best!” So much for that. Then again, it was probably easier for him to understand English if it was spoken in his own accent.

He nodded his head in agreement. “Be waiting here, friends.” He headed inside the swinging door, leaving us in the alley.

“So,” I said. “Free meals, huh?”

She couldn’t contain her smile if she tried. “Heh heh. Nilam was the only one who would give us kids free food, way back when.”

“So you stole from the restaurant?”

“No, he’s a chef and he’s giving it to us. And it’s only the stuff leftover at the bottom of the pots and junk like that.” She gazed up in the air at nothing, lost in memory. “It’ll be a little crunchy and a little burned and it’s gonna be sooooo good.”

“Please don’t drool, dear,” I said as I put a hand on her cheek and wiped a bit of saliva from the corner of her mouth with a thumb, leaving my hand on her cheek.

She just looked up at me with her big eyes. “Thanks for coming with me today.”

“Why wouldn’t I?”

She closed her eyes and leaned into my hand.

A crash sounded from the back door, breaking us from our little trance. Nilam stood there, red in the face, as he tossed something to us. I caught the paper-wrapped package on reflex. It was warm and smelled good.

Nilam took a deep breath, puffing up his chest and lifting his lanky elbows up to shoulder level. “Thief!”

Oh.

“Go! Go!” Stella shouted, taking off down the alley on her wings. After nearly slipping on some dumpster slush I stumbled after her with the package clutched under my arm like a football.

“Manager! Old thief! It is stealing the food again!”

I couldn’t hear the rest as we turned a corner that led deeper into the other buildings in the neighborhood. By no means was I fit enough to keep up with Stella, but at least I was able to deal with the near-slips on ice and snow.

“Left!” Stella called, leading the way through the maze of alleys from above and turning her wings to weave around the buildings. I was already short of breath from sprinting for longer than I ever had in a year. Then we came to a chain link fence.

“Stella? Fence!”

“Sorry, this is new!” She pulled her wings close and landed in a one-legged perch on top of the fence. “Can you make it?” At least it was “only” one story tall.

“We’ll see!” The flimsy metal shook violently as I hopped up and latched the front grips of my boots onto the links. With the package under one arm I had to almost free-fall backward every time I climbed another step up. My panting grew harder as Stella grabbed me by the back of my coat with her claws and hauled me over. Getting down was easier, in a way. All I had to do was slip and fall halfway down with a crunch of gravel and slush.

“Oh jeez, are you okay?” Stella called. She swooped down and landed just beyond me.

I didn’t hit my head or anything. And I was already too in the moment to not get up and running again. Despite the gross watery marks on my back, I kept on trucking, even though my legs hurt already. Together we rushed out of the alley and onto the much more crowded street. Without looking back, I sped after her as fast as I could.

* * *

Unfortunately, I was not used to going as fast as I could. It took a long drink from the drinking fountain at the park we visited before and had a nice little rest on the bench to recover my bearings again. For whatever reason, the park was relatively vacant. The silence, and using Stella’s lap as a pillow, helped a lot as I recuperated.

“You okay, man?” she asked, picking bits of gravel out of my hair from when I fell.

“Hoo. I’ll be fine, yeah.”

“You seriously need to work the treadmill or something when we get back home.”

The word “home” echoed in my head a couple times. It was nice to hear her say it like that. Even made me feel a little homesick.

“So, uh, did Nilam betray us at the end or something?”

“Pff, nah. His manager’s reeeeally anal about using every bit of food they can as long as it’s edible. So he’d get in trouble if his manager knew he was giving out free food. They usually threw away the burnt parts, but this guy was all, ‘Never be wasting of food! Next to be throwing away is fired!’ I mean, that’s fine and all, and Nilam is a good enough chef to hide parts that look burnt, but that might be why the place wasn’t real popular. So, we came up with us ‘stealing from them’ thing. Nilam gave me plenty of time to get away, and I brought the food back to share with the other kids.” Well, you get what you pay for. I took the time to mentally prepare myself for some terrible free food.

“Jeez.” I reached up and started fixing her hair, which was disheveled from the ordeal. “No wonder you’re a courier.”

Stella put on a confident smirk.

My fingers wrapped around her chin and shook her head. “But you should be more careful with your foot, Miss Rest and Relaxation.”

She froze. “Right. My bad.”

I pulled her head down to me by the chin and gave her a kiss. “Want to eat, then?”

“Yes.”

As I sat up she grabbed the paper package from the concrete beside the bench. With a slash at the paper with her claw the package came undone to reveal what was inside. A tall Styrofoam cup held a reddish-orange concoction while two foil-wrapped items sat on top. Curry, Indian bread, and chicken, respectively. Although, the curry had black chips of carbon in it, the bread was misshapen and burnt, and the chicken was mostly skin and fat.

And it was delicious. Though it had that extra bit of crunchiness in it, the curry was flavorful and spicy. The bread was more of a vehicle for the curry, so that didn’t really matter. The chicken left a bit to be desired, but was still tasty because, well, it’s chicken. And chicken is always delicious. Stella agreed.

“To be honest,” I said, “I expected it to be a lot worse.”

“Heh heh. Nilam’s a really good chef.”

“I think mentally preparing myself for something as bad as Suqi’s muktuk was a bit rude.” Whale blubber’s a hell of a meal.

Stella nearly coughed up her food. “Aw, ewww, don’t mention muktuk, please!”

“She’ll probably have some waiting for us when we get back, too.”

“No, stop! Don’t make me think about it!”

As she ate her portion of the food with the foil unwrapped on her lap and the little bucket of curry sitting between us, a thought occurred.

I pulled out my phone and switched on the camera. “Hey, hold still.”

She was busy getting a piece of chicken to cooperate and get in her mouth. Ka-click! Huh. Was the sound effect really necessary, phone?

“What? Hey! No! I got food on my face!” The frozen photo on my screen showed her licking at a piece of chicken in one of her claws, eyes wide and just barely realizing what I was doing. Adorable.

“You’re pretty photogenic, actually.”

“Kuh. Don’t just whip that out and start taking pictures!”

Was she camera-shy? Only two ways to find out. But only one of them was fun.

“Make sure to pose, then.” Ka-click.

“Ah! No!” At least it was playful complaining, by the sound of it.

I dashed around behind the bench and leaned over her. “Come on, you gotta work it.” Ka-click. A laughing shriek sounded from Stella as she covered herself with a wing.

She placed her bread and chicken next to her, picked up the bucket of curry in her claws, and menaced it in my direction. “I swear, I will throw all of this in your stupid face!” Her smile betrayed her. I ran around to the front again to get a long-distance shot. Ka-click. “Don’t make me come over there!”

“I’ll call this shot, ‘The Curry Thief.’ Your beauty is truly brought to the surface with the curry smeared on your lips. If we sell this to a photography magazine, or whatever photographers do to get their money, we’ll make millions!”

Red filled her cheeks before she stood up with a start came barreling after me with the bucket curry clutched between her folded wings. If she weren’t hopping on one leg she might have caught me. I utilized the terrain to my advantage, and climbed to the top of the dome-shaped jungle gym. Ah, a good overhead shot. Ka-click.

She milled around the base of the dome for a bit, looking like a lost child as she tried to assess a way she could climb up without using her wings. She shot a glare up at me when she couldn’t find one. “Fine! No more lunch for you, then! I’ll go sit by myself!”

Uh oh. I barely had a few bites and was still hungry. “Baby, no! I didn’t mean it!” She stopped. “Please bring the food back!” She quickly ran away again, her head thrown back in a roar of laughter.

I was still a bit tired from running around earlier, but not tired enough to keep her waiting back at the bench. Using fairly okay bailout form, I jumped down from halfway up the jungle gym and rolled over my shoulder. Right onto a rock hidden under the snow. I went ahead and writhed around in pain for a moment. It wasn’t serious, but it still hurt like hell. Would probably become a bruise.

“Whoa, you okay?” Stella called.

Tensing up, I bore with the pain and trudged on over to her at the bench. “Yeah. Fine.”

“Man, we need to get you to the gym when we get back.”

“Maybe if… you know what? Yes.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. I think I should be healthier. The gym’s there for a reason.”

A smile. “So hey, what was with the pictures?”

I stuffed the phone in my pocket. “Remember that succubus I told you about?”

She raised an eyebrow at me. “Uh…”

“Oh, she’s fine, don’t give me that look. When I talked with her she made me realize that I don’t have any pictures of you.”

“How?”

“She wanted to know what you look like.”

Stella tilted her head. Some strands of her hair dangled down from her forehead, free from her elastic hair tie. Fleeing the scene of the crime earlier left her ponytail looser. “Why would she want to know that?”

“Because apparently ‘I already have a girlfriend’ isn’t a common excuse when a succubus asks you for sex. Janet— that’s her name— wanted to see the woman she lost to. Or something.” I decided not to tell her about the whole “Stella clone” thing she did. “But then I found out I don’t have any pictures of you.”

As I spoke, she busily reset her lunch on her lap and tried to wipe her face on the paper that wrapped the food. She kept the bucket of curry on her side of the bench instead of between us. “We see each other almost every day, though. Do we need pictures, then?”

“I’d like one or two, though. It feels good to show you off to people.”

A growl escaped her before she stuffed her red cheeks with curry and a grumpy face. “Then we can take one together later.”

I brandished my phone on reflex and turned on the camera with a touch. “So, like a selfie sort of thing?”

Stella nearly choked on her food. “Well, not right now! I still got stuff on my face!”

“Come on, we’re doing this.” Wrapping one arm around her waist and pulling us together, I flipped the direction of the camera and aimed it at us.

“No, I didn’t mean right now!” Through her attempts to wipe her face with some of the paper, I pulled her close and kissed her above her eye. Ka-click. Oh, the look on her beet-red face. One eye closed from the peck, the other glancing up at the camera slightly, one of her wings squished up between us. To top it off, she never managed to wash off the curry from her lips. Oh, and the picture turned out good, too, I guess.

“Ah… Okay, that’s enough pictures.”

She was hidden under her wings to guard from any further shots. Unfortunately, it was already too late.

“Please~ don’t make this a thing!”

“Yeah, I know. I just wanted to mess with you a bit. Or a lot.” I didn’t usually get the urge.

With an abrupt stand, she unveiled her blushing face and looked down at me with indignation. “You! Are! The! Worst!” Every word was punctuated by a swat with her feathered wings. I held up my arms in defense, for what it was worth against her onslaught. When she stopped, she tromped over to the jungle gym and sat down in the snow on the opposite side of it from me.

With bold steps I followed after her. “You okay?” I wasn’t particularly worried; it was all a game, after all. And games I could deal with. A depressed Stella made me too heartbroken to think, but hopefully she was too busy playing with me to feel down. Janet’s advice was actually working.

“Hmph!” My girlfriend turned away from me, hugging her legs to her chest inside a cage of feathers.

I knelt down next to her. “Will you ever, ever forgive me for taking such cute pictures of you, Stella?”

“Nope!”

My arms found their way around her neck and I ran a hand through her hair. “Come on, please~?”

She leaned away with her eyes clamped shut. “Nuh-uh!”

A kiss on her ear. “I love you.”

“Uh-uh! Not gonna work!” Her shoulder rose up to block me.

“Beautiful Stella, please don’t leave me over my dastardly deeds. I regret my actions, so please forgive me!”

“Pff— N-never!” Ah, such fun.

“Oh~!” I whimpered with my very best acting skills. “Whatever would I do without you in my life?”

With a push from her wings, she stood up and looked down on me from above with a mischievous smile. “If you take your punishment like a man, I might think about coming back to you.”

Seeing her get so into it sent a burst of excitement through my chest. And so, on one knee I went. “Beautiful Stella, please! I will take any punishment you name, if it means you will love me again!” Those advanced-placement literature classes from high school were really paying off.

A little snort of laughter managed to escape her lips before she regained her composure. “You are forbidden from taking anymore pictures of me unless I say so!” Well, there went any hopes of getting some nice photos of her sleeping. A shame, those would have been damn cute. “And!” She pointed a wing toward the sky, then down to me. “You’ll make me an awesome dinner tonight or die trying!” She was back one hundred percent. Normal, smiling, lovely Stella.

“But I won’t have a kitchen to cook in.” I crawled toward her on my knees and hugged her legs woefully. “We’re in a hotel!”

“Figure it out!” she shouted, her wings crossed in front of her with authority. I guess I was paying for room service again?

“Would a restaurant be okay?”

“Hmm… That is acceptable.”

For a minute we stayed that way, my head nuzzling against her legs while she stood with regal composure above me. Anyone looking at us would probably have thought we were freaks. Of course, we couldn’t keep up the game for long. Stella’s lips quivered in her attempts to keep her laughter in check. I was very much in the same situation, but I had the will of an ox and managed to keep it in.

Letting go of her legs, I leaned back against the jungle gym in the snow and let my hands rest atop my knees. “Ha~. Well, that was a thing.”

The straw that broke the Stella’s back. “Pfffahahahahaaa! What the hell was that all about?” Hugging her wings around her middle she tumbled to the ground kicking and screaming. “You being all dramatic and crap, you— Pah hahaha! Man, what’s with you today? You’re a lot funner than usual.”

“Hey, I’m always fun.” It was pretty stupid and all, but I thought I could do stuff like this with her more often. To think I blamed Janet for being corny when, in fact, I was the corny one the whole time.

With a haphazard flip of her wings and legs she got on all fours and crawled up to me. Leaning between my knees she planted a hard kiss on my lips, nearly knocking my head back into the metal bars. Though surprised, I put a hand on the back of her head and kissed back, relishing the lips of which I would never tire.

She chuckled into my mouth before releasing my lips, looking at me with a pure happy smile that made my heart melt. “Damn it, I love you.”

Not intending to let her just stop like that, I gently pulled her between my legs by the waist and kissed her once more.

Her lips stung mine with the flavor of curry.

* * *

The next day, New Year’s Eve, and still we received no word from Natalia. In the twilight of the evening, we decided to eat in our hotel room again. It was a quiet affair as we lounged with legs intertwined on the couch watching bad movies. Around 10:00 PM, we called for a taxi to take us to Central Park. The cab smelled of cigarettes, but we powered through it as our greasy driver weaved through traffic. At the start, Stella asked him to take us to the west side, to the mouth of the 65th Street Transverse Road. She told me some sort of show, featuring someone important, would be held someplace called “Sheep Meadow.”

A veritable sea of yellow cabs crowded around the streets that made up the perimeter of Central Park. Our driver let us get off in the middle of the street after paying. My heart went out to the man who had to navigate out of that mess. Car exhaust and steam wafted around me as I led Stella by her wing between the cars. Really, the street might as well have been a parking lot. At least we weren’t the only ones trying to get into the park, and we were traveling light with only one duffel bag holding what we needed.

Once we reached the sidewalk, Stella took over guidance. She decided to wear her nice dress (plus some yoga pants underneath to keep warm), plus her big white shawl. According to her, it was only for “super-special occasions.” It was a nice thought, but I had to lend her my coat to help her stay warm. Because of her clothing, along with her leg, her progress was slow. Any hops, skips, or jumps she made could have ended with her dress flipped up. As much as I would have enjoyed the view, there were children there! My main worry was for her talons, which were almost entirely uncovered. She reassured me that they were basically ice-proof.

Passing between a pair of trees at the edge of the park was like passing between the borders between two entirely separate worlds. Cars and buses and trucks honked and carried on in our wake as a vast field of white spread out before us. No definite entrances or exits could be found, save for the occasional group of people making their way through alongside us. A row of portable lamps leading forward, lighting up the fog to create a transparent, ephemeral channel of white.

Stella hooked her wings around my left arm and led me through. Everywhere beyond the lamplight looked the same to me. The further forward we traveled, the more I realized that our feet crunching down the snow was the only sound that reached my ears. Chilled breezes and flitting snowflakes danced around us, and we started climbing a gentle hill. It had a few trees scattered about our path; black-seeming pillars of skeletal branches and twigs. Eventually I saw that they created a sort of border to the massive snow field.

A number of people melded into sight through the fog. My eyes had gotten used to the white light, and could make out the silhouettes of many groups around us. Some solitary, others in groups of varying sizes. Centaurs, harpies, humans, arachnee, onis, and more steadily moved through the snow along the path of lamps. Many of them carried folding chairs or rolled up picnic blankets, which they set up all around the tree line at the edge of the field. The odd bit of chatter among the scattered groups was the only thing to break the otherwise crystalline silence. Though I wanted to ask Stella where we were going, along with everyone else, but the quiet was so calming it was all I could do to keep track of where she was leading me.

A sudden halt, and I had to catch myself against a low tree branch to keep from toppling onto her. She turned to me, eyes beaming, and motioned upward with her head. The tree against which I braced myself was larger than the other trees. Its trunk was massive and many of its branches looked like they could support two or three times my weight. I noticed it was right on the border of trees and had a magnificent view into the barren field of snow. Some people around us, mostly of the feathered variety, took flight to reach higher branches. Knowing she would have trouble with her injury, I cupped my hands together and motioned her to let me lift her up. She thanked me with a ladylike curtsey before I hoisted her up.

It didn’t take her very long to get her bearings among the thick branches as I climbed up after her. She dusted the snow off with her feet before I went to grab them. Some ways up the trunk, perhaps fifteen feet off the ground, Stella led me to a long thick branch that radiated from the very center of the tree. It had a thinner branch next to it, where I put our bag. With a point of a wing Stella signaled the part of the foggy night sky where we would see the firework show later on.

Getting to work, I pulled our own picnic cloth from the duffel bag and laid it out on top of the thickest, flattest branch to keep us from getting melted snow on our butts. Next was our blanket. Stella motioned for me to sit down first. Looking over the branches, the smaller one was close enough that I could lean on it without falling off the bigger one. Like an armrest. Once I sat down, with both of my legs perfectly comfortable stretched along the branch, she fixed her dress a little and sat down on my lap. I wondered if she planned to bring me to that spot as we both adjusted for comfort atop the limb. The blanket soon followed, wrapping over and under us and anchored underneath me. Though her wings took up a lot of space under the blanket, she was able to fold them in close enough that we were well-insulated from the cold.

Stella sighed and sidled up against my front. Her hair smelled like a different shampoo than usual. Was it from the free little bottle of it at the hotel? Her narrow shoulders felt tiny against my chest as I looped my arms around her belly. I had to fight off the urge to tickle her. Though it took a couple minutes, our combined warmth overpowered any cold the winter winds threw at us.

While we were situated fairly well, many of the other people in the field of snow and trees were still setting up. An arachne busily spun a hammock of webbing a ways to our left. Several harpies of different species fluttered up to the branches of neighboring trees, quietly talking and giggling among each other. One of the centaurs we saw earlier sat down against a tree trunk with a few people, probably her family, resting against her large body. Just about everyone faced toward the Sheep Meadow.

Some time passed and the dozens of monsters in the area settled down. The occasional flutter of wings in the trees became the occasional whisper, and the talk among families turned into silent anticipation. For a moment, could have sworn Stella fell asleep in my arms. Checking my phone, the time was approaching midnight. The fireworks were supposed to start the moment the countdown ended. If there was supposed to be some other show, they had little time.

While staring across the field of white, I spotted a small silhouette walking across it. From left to right it moved slowly, with intent and stately demeanor. If I squinted my eyes, I could see it was a woman in a long and flowing dress, so dark a blue it was almost black. No other features could be seen from that distance. Whoever she was, she was alone among the white and fog. The harpies above us shushed each other, and parents sat their kids down to keep them still. Stella nudged me with the back of her head to make sure I was paying attention.

That was when the trail of lamps that led us there went out.

The woman came to a stop in the center of our field of vision. Still a small figure in the middle of the ground-bound fog, she turned to us. Putting a hand to her lips in a gesture of surprise, as if she only just noticed us, she curtseyed. That earned a few chuckled from the crowd.

The mystical woman, standing stark against the white ankle-deep mist with her arms outstretched, paused for a moment as if to ready herself. She soon lifted her arms and bent her knees in a dip. Extending one arm up and the other down, she stepped off to the side in a swirl of icy silver. She was dancing. In the silence of the New Year’s night, she moved across the field. Every movement left a spectral trail of snow, suspended in the air as if still frames were taken of her dance. Every twirl of her dress, every kick of her leg, and every flourish of her arms was left frozen behind her. Several times she thrust her arms forward, producing ghostly duplicates that halted after a short distance.

As she continued, her path was beginning to create a pattern. We were higher up than others, so it was easy to see it from where we sat. It spiraled out from where she started, drawing circles and turning corners and covering a large portion of the field in a massive design that took her several minutes to draw. An icy garden of sparkling sculptures decorated what was once an untouched plain of white.

I unconsciously felt myself embracing Stella closer to me as we watched. Without taking our eyes off the performance, she pushed herself up my front and rested her head against my shoulder. My arms grew ever warmer around her middle as she did her best to hold them in her claws. In that cold winter evening, I had never felt so very warm on such a chilly winter night.

As the woman on the field approached the point where she started, her pattern complete, we and the rest of the audience waited with arrested breath. Something was going to happen, and we all knew it. The wait to find out what it was made my neck itch.

She reached the center. There was a pause as she steadily raised her arms into the air, fingers splayed out towards the sky. Naught a breath was heard across the tree line.

Her arms parted from above her head and lowered to either side of her. A pulse of white dust flowed out from her, starting slow but gaining speed the further it traveled. Blasting down the snowy apparitions around her, the wave spread outwards until it surged past the perimeter of her dancing designs until it reached us in the tree in an explosion of cold. The wave flowed past us with a gust of wind that enveloped the tree line. I was forced to close my eyes from the streams of cold that rushed across my face. A thin layer of frost settled on my stubble as the crowd let out laughs and cheers at the display.

When I opened my eyes, every sign of fog was gone. The only evidence of its presence was a ghostly glow that radiated from the pristine meadow of white. Flakes of snow above us, as if the wind was never there, ceased to move. Further above, instead of the low clouds, was a pure black sky with the select few New York stars shining bright among the twinkling specks of snow, frozen in time.

Emblazoned on the field of snow around her, as if etched in diamonds, was a geometric design so complex it made my head spin. A snowflake. A massive six-pointed snowflake created with the fallen crystals that composed the duplicates she left behind. Dusty spines of white dashed out at the edges, leftover from the powerful wind she created. Light from the crescent moon overhead reflected midnight beams in all directions, lighting up the piece of artistry in shining radiance.

Applause erupted from the trees, sending pain through my ears that was only overcome by my own urge to cheer. I whistled a thin stream of breath into the air. I wasn’t very good at whistling. Stella was much better, sending a high-pitched tune rolling above the rest of the noise. The woman in the center of the giant snow flake curtseyed once more. Among the shouts for an encore, she turned to leave from the same direction she entered the meadow.

But the show was far from over.

A massive bang echoed through the sky. I had to turned my head a little to see the sparkling remains of the first firework of the night. Stella and dozens of others on the field called out in excitement once more as three more fireworks went off in the sky above us. One was red, the others blue, and were so close that they took up the sky.

The pops, bangs, and booms of the fireworks echoed off the buildings around the park. Reverberations of sound shot between them and refused to fade before the next round of rockets shot into the sky. It had been so long since I had seen fireworks that I forgot how many varieties there were. Some exploded into streamers of bright strobes. Others let out a horizontal ring to make it look like Saturn. Still more burst into tiny sparkles that crackled into smaller explosions as they fell.

As the show continued, I hugged Stella closer and rested my head on her shoulder. Needing no other incentive, she nuzzled her cheek against mine. I stole a quick kiss on one of her cold ears before watching the rest of the brilliant performance in the sky.

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