At last, home was in sight.

Well, maybe not his own actual home. He was from the coast, and once his discharge was processed, to the coast he’d return for the rest of his aborted training. But it was his homeland, there past the river and the line of border forts straddling it, torches on their roofs gleaming like brilliant jewels in Hakenteri’s keen sight.

A glance over his shoulder confirmed that Iskalderath was keeping up still, but also that the bigger gryphon was labouring, his wingbeats showing the exaggerated motions that came from heavy exertion. They’d made it – even a straight glide would bring them down inside Highmoor, now – but Rath was going to be sore; he’d not had a chance to get back in ideal flying condition before they started their break for the border, and he’d been pushing himself hard for the past week on the substandard rations that were all Hawk had been able to scrounge.

Funny. He’d only been applying that nickname to himself for the past month, since Rath had labelled him with it in the midst of being sprung from that damnable menagerie, yet it already felt like as good a fit on him as his given name.

Well, there’d be time to fit it into his life later. For now, he needed to get his charge safely on the ground.

The border forts would have done in a pinch, but a better option presented itself: a proper Legion fort right ahead of them, with the three lions banner of the Twenty-Third Legion fluttering in the night breeze at each corner. Hawk let out a quick whistle to get his companion’s attention, pointing down to the fort’s landing-yard, and then he swung out of the weary merlin’s way, instead taking up the wing position behind and to their left.

Rath wasn’t the only one to notice the whistle; moments later, a trio of gryphons swept up beside them, their leader screeching a challenge. It was a formality that Hawk didn’t have patience with – there wasn’t a single gryphon yet dwelling outside Highmoor, so where did this patrol think they were from? – so he responded with the descending shriek that warned of an injured flyer incoming. With the way Rath was struggling, the big merlin would need a healer’s attention when he landed, and he needed to get on the ground as fast as possible.

It was enough to shut the patrol up, anyway; rather than hassling him any further, they rearranged themselves in a line on Rath’s right wing, putting him at the peak of a somewhat lopsided vee. The formation shifted moments later, when Rath set his wings for a somewhat wobbly glide and Hawk slipped back to the patrol leader’s left wing to watch the big merlin’s flight path, then again when he peeled off to follow his charge down.

His shallow dive caught up with Rath’s glide just as the bigger gryphon was backwinging to a near-halt over the yard. His own landing was careful and precise; he hurried over on all fours as Rath was still shaking out his aching wings, looking the big male over not with eyes alone, but with other, deeper senses.

He knew what he needed to know by the time a burly human with a captain’s stripes on his uniform shouldered through the crowd. “All, right, back off,” he called. “Now what’s going…” He cut off abruptly when he saw just who it was, panting on the bare dirt of the yard. “Iskalderath, you great buzzard! Sun, moon, and stars, but it’s good to see you in one piece!”

“Thanks,” Rath gasped, “to him.” He bobbed his head in Hawk’s general direction.

“Ah.” The captain turned to the other new arrival. “And you are…?”

“Hakenteri,” Hawk replied. “Special agent and courier attached to the Seventh, with the Azure Eye. Pardon my markings, I’ve been flying nights in deep cover for months.”

“My word. I didn’t know the Skulks had any…! Well.” He leaned in to clap a hand against Hawk’s shoulder. “I may need to take back every nasty thing I’ve said about the Azure Eye. You brought back one of our own when we had no idea what had happened to him, and for that I’m grateful.” To the bigger merlin, he said, “Now, just hold on there, Iskalderath, a healer’s on the way. We’ll get you patched up however you need.”

“Most of what he needs is rest, good food, and exercise,” Hawk advised. “We pushed hard to get here tonight rather than try to put down right among Fierlani border patrols and not get caught. Some water and maybe a few rabbits would be the best thing for him this side of a nest.”

The Captain looked his way again, curiosity piqued. “Are you a healer as well?”

“A field-healer, at least.” The rest would need to come in its own time.

“Remarkable.” The man saluted. “Captain Draemar Shieldarm, commanding the Twenty-Third. It seems I’m many times in your debt, Hakenteri, but please bide a moment.”

Since what he was being asked to wait for was getting Iskalderath properly settled, Hawk had no objections at all.

Once Rath had been half-led, half-towed to a water trough and then to the gryphon quarters next to the healer’s wing, Captain Draemar sought out Hawk once more, this time inviting him to sit outside the captain’s own quarters for a more detailed report. He began with his own: “Our healer gives her thanks for your timely and accurate diagnosis. She’s assured me that Iskalderath, while somewhat set back by tonight’s flying, will recover fully given proper time and care. What she wants to know is what led up to it – and so do I.”

“I’ll tell you as much as I know,” Hawk promised. “But to avoid doubling up, what do you know already?”

Draemar looked briefly taken aback – perhaps he was used to his soldiers, two-legged and four, reporting every detail and letting him direct them otherwise if he saw fit. But he had presumably worked with the Azure Eye before, and knew it wasn’t their habit to give excessive detail; after a moment, he just nodded and began. “When Iskalderath didn’t check in from his last patrol, at first we didn’t know what to think,” he explained. “We sent out scouts in threes, but when they didn’t find him injured – or worse – we had to conclude that he’d been captured, and we had no idea why. My scouts have very clear orders – mind the border, and stay on Highmoor’s side of it. I couldn’t see Iskalderath of all people violating that, but…”

“I think he was baited, sir.” Rath hadn’t had a very clear picture of just what had happened the day he was captured, but he’d filled Hawk in on what he did know, over the month they’d been in Fierlas trying to bring the big merlin back up to some degree of flying tone. “He told me that he’d seen what looked like a crash landing, just downwind of the border. He overflew it and couldn’t make out details. When he landed for a closer look, well, then he was on the wrong side of the border, and a patrol did the rest.”

“That doesn’t make sense. Why would the Fierlani do that?” Draemar muttered. “Entrapping one of our scouts like that could be read as an act of war. I’m having trouble seeing it as anything but, and I’ve always been in favour of peace with Fierlas.”

“I thought of that too, and so did he,” Hawk agreed. “What I think happened is that someone else set the bait, and just used the Fierlani army to make the grab. Possibly even put a word in the right ear to make someone think he was up to no good – else they’d probably have given him a chance to explain his presence.”

“But who would do something like that, and why? I just can’t imagine…”

“A bored noblewoman seeking an exotic pet, that’s who,” Hawk replied, unable to keep a bit of anger from creeping into his voice, growling around the r’s and clicking on the harder consonants. “He was never interrogated, and any army commander would know we’re smart enough to speak. I think someone with a contact in the army arranged for a gryphon to be subdued, kept unconscious, and transferred to his care. Rath – sorry – Iskalderath was, when I found him, the first exhibit in a menagerie, kept caged like a songbird by people who never spoke Moorish in his presence – never could tell that he was doing anything more than parroting phrases in a foreign language – never spoke directly to him; in short, they thought him a beast to be conquered and caged.”

By the time he was finished that report, Draemar was furious, hands clenched into fists atop his knees, face reddening. “Sons of whores,” he spat.

“As for who,” Hawk concluded, “while I wasn’t able to get a name myself, there aren’t so many duchies in Fierlas that the Azure Eye won’t be able to find out once I report where he was held. Whoever this Duchess was exactly, we’ll know soon enough.” He heaved a sigh. “It’s almost a shame I wasn’t supposed to be there – we can’t push for damages without revealing that I sneaked in and set him free. But we will, at least, know whom to watch, especially if something like this should happen again.”

“We haven’t had anyone else go missing, thank the stars.” Draemar shook his head. “We were sloppy, sending Iskalderath on his own so close to the border. It won’t happen again. I’ll find other ways to make up for being short-handed and short-winged than solo patrols, as I have since Iskalderath was taken.”

“If it hasn’t happened since, it probably won’t take quite the same form,” Hawk cautioned. “Whatever connections this Duchess used to make it happen in the first place might have been severed in the process – it did rather sharply violate their army’s procedures, such as we know of them.” To tell the Captain to be vigilant would be an insult – the man doubtless knew that much on his own – so, rather than tell him how to do his job, Hawk let the matter rest there.

Rest, indeed, seemed to be in order. Captain Draemar was just starting his day a little early, but Hawk had been flying all night, if easier than Rath had. He was shown to the gryphon quarters, tucked into a free couch in the back corner. The other gryphons didn’t know what to make of him. He was an outsider, unproven, tiny even for a merlin, and patterned like a magpie – not exactly an impressive sight. But he was with the Azure Eye, the Legion’s spy service, and that would have been perplexing enough if he hadn’t just brought back one of their own number, months-lost.

They gave him a wide berth, which, for now, suited him just fine. Besides, they had patrols and courier routes to fly. Hawk finally had the chance for some well-earned rest, without worrying that he’d be found in a foreign country.

Sleep did not come easily – months spent in danger, sleeping only in the most carefully-prepared places he could manage and always with one ear open, had instilled in him a deep-worn habit against resting for even a moment in such open conditions as this. But the body’s needs ran deep. Sometime after sunrise, after the legionnaires had been summoned by the bell to break their fast, Hawk managed to let go of his vigilance and drift off.

He slept as the dead.

When he woke, it was with a start. Natural urges could not be avoided, but the nervous habits of several months were not so easily broken either; every sense screamed to him that he was dangerously exposed, and the sound of orders being shouted and men marching nearby was his worst fear brought to life. It took several anxious moments to realize that those orders were in Moorish, that the open space he occupied was a proper gryphon barracks in a Legion fort; to remember that he was back in Highmoor.

Safe.

At least those habits had also kept him from shrieking an alarm. He could catch his breath and calm down without having that measure of embarrassment.

Still, safe as he was, irregular or no, he had duties. He pushed up to all fours, gave himself a quick once-over to settle some mussed fur and feathers – especially around the harness that just now he realized he’d not actually needed to sleep in – and padded down the aisle, wondering if he’d be better trying to imitate his natural pattern, do something different, or just bleach himself white and call it done until he molted; whatever the case, he’d be glad to get rid of his thoroughly undignified magpie colours.

Thinking of that indignity, the Captain was, in a way, the last person he wanted to see, but that was with whom he found himself face-to-beak the moment he slid past the door and into the sunset; he had to swallow an even-less-dignified squawk of surprise.

“Ah, there you are. I was just coming to see if you were rested.” Captain Draemar ignored his moment of startlement and simply saluted.

Hawk returned it, human fashion, balling up a forepaw into a fist and clapping it to his keelbone. “So I am, Captain. I wasn’t expecting to sleep the day away, though. I should be heading to Surelin to hand in a long-overdue report. If you have any missives you haven’t yet sent to Command, I’d be honoured to take them with me.”

The Captain blinked, nonplussed. “The Azure Eye does courier runs?”

“A courier is what I mostly was with the Azure Eye,” Hawk pointed out, “and before that, too. You won’t find anyone faster in the Legions.” When the man still looked puzzled, Hawk took a breath. “We are in the same service, Captain. I know you’re accustomed to Azure Eye agents being close-mouthed at best, but we both serve this country. It’d be a waste of resources to force you to send another courier when I’m going that way anyway.”

“Well, all the good gods know you’ve proven yourself a friend to us,” Captain Draemar said, shaking his head. “I must apologize for my unseemly surprise, Hakenteri. As it happens, I was going to send my own report on Iskalderath’s return by courier in the morning. I’d be honoured and pleased if it, and the rest of my courier packet, could go with the one who brought him back to us.”

“Whenever it’s ready, Captain.” Hawk bobbed his head. “I’m accustomed to night flying, by now, though at the same time it’s not as though I’d mind waiting until morning.”

“I can have it assembled in moments.” Draemar saluted once again. “You have the thanks of the Twenty-Third for what you’ve done. Should you find your way to us in quieter times, I’ll make sure you receive a hero’s welcome. In the meantime—fly strong, fly fast, fly safe.”

“May your paths be straight and sure, Captain.”

While the Captain was putting his packet together, Hawk set about stretching his wings. He was about finished that when Draemar returned; once he’d secured the tube to his harness, Hawk had just one thing left to do. “If I may, Captain – what’s the word on Iskalderath’s condition?” He dared not press too hard for personal information – he wasn’t kin to the bigger merlin, to have any expectation of such details – but he had to at least try. “Might I be able to see him, even, before I go?”

“The healer says he suffered no worse than fatigue for last night’s flight – no new muscle strain. He’ll be fine, and we’ll be sure he has the proper time to mend. Healer’s orders are that he’s to be left resting for now, though, for anything short of an emergency. When he’s awake, I’ll let him know you were asking after his welfare.”

It’d have to do. “Thank you, Captain. In that case, I’d best be off.”

With that, they parted ways. The Captain had his duties to attend to, while Hawk paced up the earthen ramp to the platform overlooking the landing-yard, spread his wings wide, and leaped up into the darkening sky.

It wasn’t as though Rath didn’t know Hawk to be fond of him, but it would have been nice to have one last moment with him before leaving. After this, there was no telling when they’d meet again.

Hawk’s boast about his speed was far from empty. From this part of the Highmoor-Fierlas border to the capital of Surelin on the east coast was normally a four-day flight. Hawk flew hard and with a favourable wind, through the night and into the next day, pausing only once towards noon to take down a wandering mountain goat and eat, for the first time in far too long, fresh meat from his own kill; that was a big enough meal that he took some time to digest it, and he used the same time to push magic into his feathers, breaking up the dye that had taken root there, instead applying a sparse gyrfalcon pattern – altogether much more dignified than a magpie. His meal being well-settled by then, he carried on, flying well into the afternoon. By the time he was growing truly weary from the strain, a city was in sight – Redtooth Heights. Not a big place, but big enough for him to meet with the local Azure Eye contact and curl up for the evening in the Eye’s own courier quarters, where nobody gave him funny looks.

Then at midnight he was off again.

In the late afternoon of his third day from the border, he touched down on a platform over the Gnashtooth Cliffs, overlooking Surelin’s port district – a respectable time even for him, as his overseer noted. “And it’s good to finally have you back after being gone so much longer than expected,” she added, reaching up to lay a hand on his shoulder. “When I got word you’d needed to go deeper into Fierlas, I was concerned.”

“So was I,” Hawk confessed. “But one of our own was on the line. It was too important for me to just turn around and leave.”

“Oh, indeed. I might have wished there was more time for magical training before you went in, but other than that, I’d probably have wanted to send you right back in there anyway. Your judgement was quite sound, Hakenteri.” She drew a breath. “You haven’t reconsidered since we last spoke, I suppose?”

No need to say what of. “I’m afraid not, Shezanna,” he said, with difficulty; his command of human speech was usually quite good among gryphons, but the ‘z’ sound was troublesome even for him. “I want to get that training, and I want to change lives in a directly positive way. I don’t think my time with the Legions was wasted, understand – but there’s a difference in the mind between running messages and actually mending someone’s actual hurts. Or even just prettying them up.” That skill with dyes that the Azure Eye had given him could serve in civilian life, too, well before he could act as a qualified healer or any other kind of professional wizard.

Slowly, Shezanna nodded. “It’s our loss, but not an unexpected one. At any rate, you’ve taken this assignment far beyond the official end of your term, so I’ve taken the liberty of adding a suitable bonus to your final pay. And hazard pay.” She drew a fairly hefty pouch from her desk; it jangled when she bounced it on her palm. “Coin well-spent, Hakenteri. I’m glad to have worked with you.”

“At least I’ve never had to doubt that you appreciate what I’ve done,” Hawk said with a chittering laugh.

A bag of coin had a way of making things happen. By sundown, Hawk had a place to live – a gryphon dwelling on the second-highest terrace of the city, right next to a broad-walked section of market which some enterprising merchants had turned into a de facto “gryphons’ market.” Being so close to such a high-traffic area made it a noisier place than most gryphons wanted to live, but by the time one went to the third and innermost chamber, well into the ground, the bulk of that was muffled, and Hawk could take care of the rest with a touch of illusion magic. It also happened to be right next to the pavilion of an overworked feather-painter who was, her sign announced, seeking an assistant.

Once he impressed upon her that he was looking to be that assistant, rather than add to her overstuffed client roster, they got along quite well. He showed off his own design as the first example of his work, painted a few shed feathers on the spot, and then did the work on her last two clients for the day while she looked on; and that was that. He spent the next morning getting supplies and furniture, and at noon, with one of Sharikka’s spare banners hung over his door, he was ready for business.

And business was booming; with the autumn coming on, the country’s gryphon population was going into moult. The work was exacting, but satisfying. Hawk’s share of the clients were, for the most part, pleasantly surprised to find another gryphon working on them, and in this work his light build and stub-clawed hands, so much a disadvantage in the straightforward fighting and hunting most gryphons did, finally worked in his favour. If he wasn’t quite as dexterous as a human could be, he had greater reach and strength, more intimate knowledge of just how a gryphon’s body worked, and the judicious use of magic to help with the finishing touches did the rest – not changing fur and feather colours directly, for that could be dispelled, but using it to manipulate the dyes. And when he was done, his work spoke to his credit.

By the time the greatest part of the autumn moult was done, two weeks later, he was well-established. Sharikka did the work on clients who wanted dramatically artistic changes, while Hawk – who’d let his natural pattern remain after his own moult, but brightened the brights and darkened the darks – did the more work on likewise natural patterns, be they the ones the client was born to or not. The gyrfalcon pattern he’d sported had apparently made an impression; a half-dozen different gryphons, hunters all, had asked for it.

If need be, he and Sharikka could consult; she was slightly telepathic, and Hawk was more than slightly so, and it made coordinating schedules easy as well. If a late-evening caller showed up, she could check his availability without needing to physically drop in.

He’d been in the profession for three contented weeks, his mornings occupied by magical instruction for the most recent of them, when he received one such query while he was cleaning some spare brushes. A big merlin, Sharikka reported, who’d volunteered that he wanted to look especially good for another merlin; he wanted to look like himself, only more so. That was the sort of work Hawk mostly did anyway, but the merlin’s circumstances gave him a moment of wistful nostalgia, too. Hawk had only ever known one other merlin intimately, but for that one, “himself, only more so” was likely the best appearance that Hawk could present.

Not that he’d been doing so at the time, but nevertheless, he found himself feeling sympathetic, and rather looking forward to the prospect. He sent back his acceptance of the task. Sharikka told him it’d be the last for the night, then her touch faded from his mind. Setting the spare brushes out to dry, Hawk went into the outer chamber.

He’d used beads and his own shed feathers to make some ornaments, partly for decoration’s sake – his primary feathers, each several feet long, filled a good bit of wall space when suitably arranged – and partly to demonstrate his craft; he was just straightening one of these when heavy footfalls separated from the traffic outside. He turned; the bead curtain over the doorway rattled; and in walked the largest gryphon, male or female, that Hawk had ever seen. Yellow beak, slate-grey feathers and fur with patches of white – it was a merlin Hawk had seen before, at length, and had certainly hoped to see again, but hadn’t expected to see again so soon.

The big merlin roused his feathers. “Hrr. So much for being at my best when we next met,” said Iskalderath.

“Rath, you overgrown buzzard!” Laughing, Hawk bounded across the floor, turning and sliding in under the bigger merlin’s invitingly-raised wing. “What are…” He clacked his beak shut on that query; Iskalderath would probably say something like getting my feathers dyed. “I thought you had a season left on your enlistment!”

“So did I, and so I did. Until Shieldarm remembered a rule there hasn’t been call to use in a while, that time spent in hostile imprisonment counted for double.” Rath paused to give a fond nibble to Hawk’s ears. “At that point, the time it’s taken me to get flying right brought me within days, and the Captain sent me to deliver the papers myself for the last of it. I asked around, heard you were studying in the city, and thought I’d give you a surprise.”

“So you have,” Hawk assured him, “if not quite as you expected.”

“Gives you an excuse to get those clever hands of yours all over me, hrrr?” The nibbling had moved on to Hawk’s shoulder.

Hawk drew a deep breath, carrying a rather distinctive scent with it. “I need an excuse, now?” he challenged. His tail swept in under Rath’s belly, and, fully outstretched, the tuft tipping it managed to brush a very clear sign of excitement.

“So you don’t,” Rath hissed, thrusting forward with a shudder. “I did pay for it, though.”

“And you won’t get good value for it if I do the dyes first and muss your feathers right after.” Hawk pushed in against the bigger male’s side, tail pushing up against his belly. “We could swap the order of things.”

“That works for me,” the sea-eagle merlin purred, lifting the forepaw on that side, shifting it past Hawk’s shoulders, and setting it down there, straddling him.

Hawk had enough presence of mind to shut the outer door proper with a quick twist of power. After that, Rath’s tapered length nudging under his tail drove the rest of the world from his mind.

They hadn’t prepared for anything intense, but this was hardly the first time that was so. Merlins were easy to please; all Rath needed to do was ease in a few inches, churn for a quarter minute or so, and then he shuddered and clamped his beak to stifle a cry, liquid heat pulsing into the peregrine’s body.

That wouldn’t be the end of it, and both of them knew it. For the moment, though, it was enough.

“I missed you, Hawk,” Rath sighed, his beak some distance forward of Hawk’s head. “With you, I never have to wonder if I’m doing something wrong.”

As reasons to be thought particularly desirable went, that one was touching, and it said a great deal about the big eagle. Hawk nuzzled up at his chest, just barely far enough forward to nibble at a few feathers. “You’ve never let me doubt your interest, in turn,” Hawk breathed. “Even before you knew that about me.”

“Well, you were springing me out of a zoo cage at the time,” Rath purred, rocking slightly on his paws, the prod of his member making Hawk squirm under him. “If that doesn’t make you worth lifting tail for, I don’t know what would.”

“He said,” Hawk gasped, “as he stuffed my tail.” Sun and stars, before meeting Rath he’d never have got up to that kind of wordplay at a moment like this…

“Perhaps a compromise, Hawk-who-isn’t?” Iskalderath drew back, slipping out of Hawk in spite of a brief, reflexive, squirming attempt to keep him in; even as Hawk was recovering from that, the bigger merlin paced back and crouched down behind him, nuzzling his balls.

There was always a bit of a thrill in having something so potentially dangerous as a gryphon’s beak right up against sensitive anatomy; the tender touch felt all the gentler for the contrast to what it so easily could have been, even just by accident. When Rath ducked down further still and pushed right in to nudge his beak alongside Hawk’s own rigid taper, the tongue that then darted over his bare skin wasn’t very gentle at all, but that was just fine.

Fine enough to have Hawk panting in seconds, maleness twitching against that deft and merciless tongue, sending a generous spatter onto the flagstones that went as far forward as his splayed forepaws.

“I missed this, too,” Rath purred over his still-firm shaft. “Think you could give it to me vigorously for a few rounds?”

“More than ever before, actually,” Hawk promised, peering under himself at the other male, beak slightly agape in the gryphon equivalent of a grin. “Come on back where it’s more comfortable.”

The outer room he’d set up to be a receiving room; the second was his workroom. The third and last was his true private space, and while he hadn’t been left so wealthy as to make it palatial, he’d found some creature comforts for it. The black velvet curtain across the doorway, for instance, heavy enough to block out most of the light from beyond; an infusion of magic on his part, renewed every week, let it do much the same for sound. Another was the tumble of thick blankets cushioning the dished stone dais that was his bed, which Rath certainly greeted with delight. But Hawk went right for a red glass bottle, tucked on a shelf off to one side.

It had taken some discreet inquiry to find this concoction. It was intended for human use, for the most part – Hawk was the first and, so far, only gryphon to have hands that could work the bottle, so others could only use its like if they had magic – or a human helper. Though he had both hands and suitable magic, Hawk himself had been too busy settling into his new life to actually seek out partners. Gryphons tended to overhear and even see a great many couplings, though, and Rath was one of those who took a good-natured interest in it; there was no mystery for him in what Hawk was doing. As the smaller merlin sat on his haunches and smeared some of the clear, slick stuff over his member, all Rath said, in a voice husky with eagerness, was, “I hadn’t thought of that.”

There wasn’t much thinking at all in the immediate future. An empath as well as a telepath, Hawk felt his lover’s need and anticipation almost as keenly as his own. Rath’s alone would have been enough to make his head spin; the combination of Rath’s and his own pulled an anxious moan out of him. He forced himself to move carefully just long enough to get his tip in place, and then he gave in to both their needs and surged forward.

They cried out almost as one as their bodies met, and then Hawk seized the other gryphon’s haunches and went to work. Pleasure spiked inside him heartbeats later, but he didn’t stop for more than a moment, one missed stroke, before ploughing right through the rest of his release. That had barely faded when he peaked again, this time without pausing, each pulse of seed helping to keep his thrusts slick; then, even as his mind recovered from that one, the hammering thrusts and shared awareness combined to send Rath over the edge in turn, yowling, spasming around Hawk’s pistoning taper.

The pungent scent of fresh-spilled seed spurred him on in turn, shoving in faster, harder, then driving in as deep as he could to plant yet another burst of his seed.

They both took a few panting moments to recover from that one; then Hawk nuzzled Rath’s flank. “Mind turning over? I hardly mind you making a mess of my bed, but I fancy another use for the stuff.”

“Feeling thirsty, my hero?” the eagle rasped. “I’d be glad to oblige.”

It felt a little less comical, too. Half his lover’s length and height, Hawk couldn’t even reach feathers when he was trying to mount the other merlin; but with Rath facing him instead, that same disparity left him well-positioned to tend to the eagle’s member. A quick exertion of magic left Rath’s member pristine, smelling and tasting only of him – Hawk was quite fastidious about himself, but he enjoyed the taste of Rath’s taper rather more than that of his own tail. Especially when, quite soon indeed, that taste was heightened by seed pulsing over his tongue, spattering his beak, some of it missing him entirely to streak dark grey fur. It was divine.

For the next minute or two, there was hardly a heartbeat wherein at least one of them wasn’t soaring on awhirl of pleasure. Each spurred the other one, climax in one triggering climax in the other and back again, on and on, until Hawk’s balls were sore and his muscles burned from the intensity of his rutting. In the wake of a final, shattering release in which every heartbeat, every breath, and every twitch of their bodies happened in unison, he finally sagged against his lover, gasping for breath, his well-used taper softening under Rath’s balls and finally retreating on its own.

It had all taken them five minutes or so, which put it among the longest sessions Hawk had ever had if one disregarded courtship flight, and also among the most intense – between them, they’d peaked at least once for each day they’d been apart, and he was dizzy from the aftermath of orgasm after orgasm.

When their breaths had settled to something more normal, Rath was the first to break the silence. “Sun and stars,” he rasped, “you’re a drug to me, Hawk. The more of you I get, the more I need. I only hope there’s no such thing as too much.”

It wasn’t flattery; Iskalderath actually sounded somewhat daunted, with real caution under his words. Had they become too close, too fast? Still, what else could they have done, in hiding alone together for a month? “Better that than being foes at first sight, needing to endure a month of hostility.” He padded around to give a pat to Rath’s shoulder. “Empathy brings intensity to any relationship, good or bad. It may be that I should keep it in check more than I have, but I think it only feels so good because we do fit well together.”

One gold eye swivelled toward the falcon. “So, we can’t spend all our time mounting one another. It’s still a bit early to sleep, though. What next?”

“Next, I can give you the service you actually paid for,” Hawk offered, and grinned. “After all, I can be quite sure it’ll appeal to its audience, hrrr?”

“Go on, make me pretty,” Rath laughed. “And while we’re about it, we can compare what we’ll be doing as civilians. I’ve heard some of your plans, of course, but now I’ve actually got a few notions, too!”

Hawk laughed back, and led his lover back out to the workroom. His life, at least, seemed to be well in hand, and the future was looking very bright. Hopefully, in the weeks to come, Rath would be feeling the same.