kkscatnip: Original (Default)
[personal profile] kkscatnip
Author: [personal profile] kkscatnip
Fandom/Pairings: Original characters (f/f, m/f, and m/m pairings)
H/C: arrest, atonement, bites, blood loss, bullet wounds, combat, deprogramming, difficult pregnancy, disappearing, falling, fire, first transformation, food poisoning, hazing, isolation, major illness, minor illness, moving, nervous breakdown, ocstracized from society, rape/non-con, secret identity discovered, septicemia or infected wounds, unconsciousness, unwanted transformation (card is here)
Total wordcount: 20,951
Warnings: Next to the prompts if there are any for that section.
Rating: PG-NC-17 (heavier on the PG side than the NC-17 side)
Summary: I made up a universe with six characters and all of these prompts center around them. The prompts are interconnected in many cases and meant to be read in the order that they are posted here. The stories don't have titles and some of them are directly connected but for the most part they're complete little snapshots of the characters' lives at that point in time.


unwanted transformation / body image issues
Everyone knew that when two people Bonded, one of them had to Change in order for them to function as a proper Pair.

Well, okay, maybe everyone was an exaggeration, but Wren had known from the time she was old enough to understand what the Change was that it would be either she or Tanager who Changed, because they'd been stuck together like glue since they were old enough to crawl to one another and... and she didn't want to be the one who changed.

She liked her body the way it was. Yeah, she was a little skinny and kind of shrimpy height-wise but it was her body and she didn't want it to Change.

The gods didn't care. They 'gifted' her with her Change the day after her seventeenth birthday.

One minute she was leaving their room in Nico de la Monte, located in the student quarters at the Academy, bantering with Tanager, and the next she had a searing pain up her left side and was on the ground with Tanager leaning over her. She looked beautiful, even with her dark eyes wide with shock and her silky, ink-black hair falling over her shoulders to tickle Wren's face.

She couldn't feel her toes or fingers, but she felt that.

They always said that the pain was unimaginable when one Changed, but Wren didn't find it so. The pain of her heart breaking, of the idea that she was going to be responsible for protecting Tanager for the rest of her natural life and not Tanager protecting her, was much greater. Tanager wanted to be the one to Change so, so badly, and Wren could see the regret in her eyes warring with concern just as well as she could feel the emotions warring in Tanager's mind.

As it was, she had Tanager's hands in her hair, on her cheeks and forehead, and checking her pulse every so often. The touches were like balm, scaring the pain off until Wren realized that she was laying there, breathing hard, and she felt no pain at all.

Was it over?

She raised one hand and looked at it. Her dark skin—nearly as dark as Tanager's hair—was the same as ever, but her fingernails were now sharp claws. She tensed her fingers and they extended a little further, then straightened her fingers and watched them retract entirely.

"They're beautiful," Tanager said, took Wren's hand in hers, and kissed each fingertip.

Wren's breath caught, and she extracted her hand from Tanager's as carefully as possible. "Don't pretend." She'd thought that a physical Change would be beautiful on Tanager, would go well with her broad shoulders and muscular frame, but they could only make Wren look a fool.

Every person's Change was different, of course. Thus, Tanager helped her up, with some difficulty and the ripping of clothes that had been loose before and were now suddenly tight. After that the two of them walked—or Tanager walked, and Wren staggered, and Tanager made no comments about her leaning on Tanager heavily while her head swam—back inside their shared room, to the mirror on the back of their wardrobe.

"The Academy is going to love you," Tanager told her, pulling her dreadlocks away from her face so they hung down her back instead.

Wren was fairly sure Tanager's assessment was accurate. Not only had she undergone the fairly typical changes to her fingernails and toenails, but now she had armored plating beneath her skin. She felt it when Tanager's hands trailed down her back, and saw it on her front: little points on her forehead and a craggy quality to her previously soft features.

All at once, Wren tore at her shirt, wanting to see her entire body, not just the bits that clothes didn't cover.

"Shh, shh," Tanager said gently, grabbing Wren's wrists.

She panted, her heart rate rising, skew-eyes wild when she caught sight of herself in the mirror. Wren forced herself to calm down, and the gentle touch of Tanager's fingers on her inner wrists helped, as did the solid feeling of Tanager pressed against her back.

"There," Tanager whispered into Wren's ear, which was now elongated and pointed at the end.

Wren sucked in a few breaths and then nodded. "I'm okay. Honestly, I'm okay."

Tanager's smile was wicked as ever. "I don't believe you, but I'll help you get out of those clothes all the same." Her hand disappeared from the mirror's view, then reappeared with a glint of steel. With slow movements, she cut Wren's clothes off, as there was no question of removing them normally since they were now far too tight.

Wren's thin arms had bulked up considerably during the change, and now her biceps rivaled Tanager's in size, with that bone plating protecting the muscle far better than skin could ever hope to. She closed her eyes at the touch of Tanager's fingers on her shoulder. "What's your range of motion like? Do you think you can retract the plates?"

Where would they go? Wren wondered, but closed her eyes and tried anyway for the remainder of the time that it took Tanager to cut off her clothes. Some of them retracted underneath others, leaving parts of her soft while others remained hard, but they wouldn't go away entirely.

She was well and truly Changed.

Tanager leaned over and pressed a kiss against Wren's cheek. "It'll be okay, little bird. Is anything else different?"

Taking stock of her body in the mirror was an odd feeling. She had the bony plates, she had the extra muscle, she had claws and fangs and long ears, but the rest of her remained the same: small stature, tiny breasts, round hips. Wren lifted her arms up as far as they would go—she could no longer reach straight up—before letting them drop slowly back down, spread her legs and squatted before rising back up and twisting at the waist. She went through the most basic stretches and found nothing else different except for the ways that the bone plates limited her range of motion.

Her skin did feel a little different, though. Not so sensitive as before, though places like the insides of her arms and the backs of her hands were still comparatively more sensitive than the rest of her skin. Maybe it was thicker? That would come in handy in combat, if so.

It helped, she realized, to think of the changes objectively. To think of the ways the Change had affected her in terms of what the Academy would find useful.

Wren met her own gaze in the mirror—right eye blue-green, left eye lighter brown than Tanager's—and nodded at herself. Change wasn't so hard; she was strong and would deal with it well, now that the initial shock was past.

And if she didn't, well, she'd have Tanager by her side every step of the way.

---

bites / dubious consent
Tanager knew that Alethe didn't want to oblige her, but she'd lost the spar and, well, protocol said that winner chose the consequence. She hadn't had sex in two months—not a long time, but longer than she would've liked all the same—so it was fair enough to grin at Alethe and say, "You have to sleep with me."

Alethe reminded Tanager of Wren in some ways, with the short stature and wiry muscle, but that was where the similarities ended. Wren was dark where Alethe was light, Wren's eyes mismatched where both of Alethe's were crystal, clear blue; and most importantly, Wren was off-limits according to the Academy, but Alethe? Alethe was perfectly fine.

Even if she didn't want to, none of that showed in the changing room when she crawled into Tanager's lap and pressed her lips against Tanager's. She wasn't shy about this, not in any way, and Tanager did not feel guilty about letting her hands slide down to rest on Alethe's round hips. Another similarity with Wren—Alethe and Wren both had asses designed by the gods themselves. Perfect, if such a thing existed, and Tanager had no qualms about letting her hands move around to grip the ample curve and squeeze. It wasn't hard; they had over a foot of size difference between them and Tanager was long-fingered even given her height.

Breaking the kiss, Alethe whimpered, head going back, baring her neck whether consciously or unconsciously.

At the best of times, Tanager had poor self-control. Now, mind thrumming with arousal, squirming girl in her lap, it was even worse; she couldn't have kept from biting if she tried. She did keep it light and on the side, so she wouldn't do any damage to Alethe's windpipe.

White teeth sank into pale, pale skin; pale, pale skin tasted sweaty and sweet at the same time; soft little pants escaped Alethe's lips. When she wasn't pushed away, Tanager bit harder, until Alethe began to struggle in truth.

Tanager just wrapped her arms around Alethe's waist, preventing escape, and pulled back to admire her handiwork.

Alethe's normally neat blonde hair was a mess, falling in those striking eyes, and the bite mark on the side of her neck was already beginning to bruise. No blood, which just made Tanager want to bite more, bite harder.

"Too rough," Alethe said, softly, and leaned in to press another kiss against Tanager's lips.

Well, if she wasn't going to stop it...

Tanager kissed back, swirling their tongues together, then sucking Alethe's tongue into her mouth, letting her teeth scrape it, biting Alethe's lip. Soft, at first, and Tanager delighted so much in that high-pitched whine, then harder, harder, until she tasted blood.

Alethe squeaked, squeaked, put her hands on Tanager's chest just above her breasts, and tried to push away. Like that was going to be enough. "Not, not so hard, please." Despite her words, she licked her bloody lip and squirmed in Tanager's lap, beginning to grind her hips down against Tanager's.

Heat and pressure. Tanager closed her eyes, just enjoying it, enjoying Alethe's excitement and the sharp tang of blood in the air, the metallic taste of blood in her mouth.

"More?" she drawled, opening her eyes about the time that Alethe decided that she wanted to return the treatment to Tanager.

Alethe bit her lip, whimpered, eyes fluttering closed for a moment. She nodded, then.

Tanager tore off her sparring shirt, using the seam at the side. The Academy would replace it free of charge, of course; it was hardly the first sparring shirt that Tanager had torn off. Alethe was clearly impressed, though, eyes wide for a moment before she let her shoulders roll back and her breasts push forward into Tanager's hands.

"Greedy?" Tanager smiled; she liked it when they got like this.

She nodded, so Tanager pinched one nipple. Alethe leaned to that side, mouth falling open though no sound came out. Pinching the other drew a similar reaction, so Tanager tried both at once and Alethe nearly convulsed in Tanager's lap, oo-oo-oooh ripping itself from her throat as blood began to drip down her chin from the bite on her lip.

Most excellent, Tanager thought, and leaned forward to lick at the blood. It smeared on Alethe's chin a little but the taste was like an aphrodisiac, the best one Tanager knew of, making heat bloom and burst between her legs.

With a new plan in mind, Tanager cupped one hand under Alethe's ass and carried her over to the wrestling mats and pressed her down against them, tearing off the remainder of the sparring uniform and then biting one breast.

Hard. Not hard enough to bleed, but hard enough to make a bruise like the one on Alethe's neck. She screamed, writhing, but Tanager was an expert at holding down girls by now and it only made it better, the way she struggled. The other breast received the same treatment, and Alethe screamed louder, back arching, heels drumming against the wrestling mat.

"P-please, I—not so hard, I--"

Tanager leaned over Alethe, elbows on either side of her head, kissably close. "Do you want me to stop? Truly?"

"Truly, not so hard," Alethe whispered, closing her eyes. She wasn't panting, not precisely, but her breath came a little faster than usual. As well it should.

"You should become accustomed to injury if you can ever hope to function in your Pair," Tanager said, keeping her words soft as she shifted, trailing her fingers over Alethe's body. Neck, collar bones, between her breasts, over her ribs, her stomach.

"N-nn—" Alethe groaned as Tanager's fingers trailed over the mound of her pubic hair and lower, ghosting over her slit as well.

She pushed one finger inside and Alethe's head rolled to the side, exposing the bite mark, as she moaned shakily.

"Can you really withstand so little?" Tanager asked, whispering the words against Alethe's cheek.

Alethe's hand cupped around Tanager's, pressing Tanager's finger deeper. Before she could bite her lip, Tanager sucked it into her mouth, reveling at the flavor of Alethe's blood as she added a second finger to the first, working them in and out of Alethe slowly.

"Just this?" she murmured, and sucked Alethe's lip sharply.

"Ahhh!" Alethe's back arched, her breasts pressing against Tanager's sparring shirt for a moment, legs spreading wider.

An invitation, if Tanager ever saw one. She shifted downward, sucking one nipple and then the other as she continued to fuck Alethe with her fingers, very pointedly not paying any attention to Alethe's clit. She squirmed, gasped, tried to beg, but could never get enough breath for proper words.

Just the way Tanager liked it. "And now, what? You want me to finish you?" Tanager spoke against Alethe's nipple, biting it as soon as the words were out.

Predictably, Alethe just writhed and moaned.

"Or should I just continue like this? Fucking you but not truly pleasing you."

"P-plllahhhh." Alethe closed her legs, trapping Tanager's hand, probably in an attempt to get her to stop.

She could curl her fingers, even if she couldn't move them in and out, and she did that, just rubbing Alethe's insides. Curl, curl, curl. Slowly, though.

"You think this can stop me?" Tanager knew her voice was getting breathy, but she didn't care. She was probably soaked straight through the sparring pants; the smell of cunt was heavy in the air and completely delicious, as good as the scent of blood.

Alethe's back arched until it was just her shoulders and ass against the ground, chest heaving with every breath, breathing matching the motion of Tanager's fingers. Slow, slow. Faster. Slower.

Tanager's hand started to cramp, but she pushed through it. No pain, no gain, right? She couldn't let something like a little hand cramp keep her from completely dominating Alethe, from destroying her in the best way possible. Mind over matter; her hand was fine. Just fine.

One of Alethe's hands gripped Tanager's arm, fingernails digging in painfully—deliciously, if Tanager was going to be honest—while the other curled into a fist, held just barely off of the mat and beginning to shake.

The moans grew into quiet, breathless pants, and Tanager thought, now. She sped up all at once, curlcurlcurl, and Alethe's eyes snapped open as she gasped for breath and moaned at the same time. Ah-gasp-hh-gasp-ooh-nngh—the most beautiful sound in the world to Tanager: the sound of a woman coming.

Alethe thrashed around even more when Tanager kept going straight through the orgasm, spreading her legs, pushing herself away—or trying to. Tanager gripped one of Alethe's shoulders and kept going, resuming thrusting now, and the high-pitched sounds that Alethe made were just—beautiful. So gorgeous.

She lost count of the number of orgasms that Alethe had, but she kept going until tears streamed down Alethe's face and she begged for Tanager to stop.

"Please, I can't, please, gods, please, no, I can't."

And yet she groaned and pressed her hands over her cunt the second that Tanager withdrew her fingers.

They were both all-over sweat. Didn't matter. Tanager unbuttoned the sparring pants enough to slide her hand in—the other hand—and rub her clit. It took less than ten seconds and Tanager was the one with her face pressed against the mat, all but screaming as she shook through her own orgasm.

In the aftermath, Tanager licked her own fingers off and then moved over to Alethe's face to press their lips together one last time.

Blood and come were the best cocktail in the known world, so far as Tanager was concerned. Now if she could just find people to fuck her without having to beat them in an unofficial spar first.

---

combat / body image issues
Wren had never liked straight-up combat; the Change didn't affect that one little bit. She still felt impatient as ever, imagining all the ways she might outsmart her opponent as the instructor demanded that she do this or that.

Why should she face someone head-on when they were a head and a half taller than her and nearly twice her pre-Change body weight? It was stupid since she wasn't in any way going to show advantage in a head-on fight against someone like that.

The bone plates meant that she could take a lot more pummeling than before, but they also meant that she got slowed down because she wasn't used to carrying them around and they were heavy and oh, how she hated the way that they told her she needed to do more strength training.

"Why won't they just let me speed train?" she asked Tanager one day. Tanager didn't question anything that the Academy recommended, ever, so she had no idea why she was questioning it. It was just that nobody else understood. All her friends who had sided with her before because she was shrimpy and really not much use at fighting thought she was crazy for still wanting to stick to speed and stealth training.

Tanager lifted her head, then tilted it, her brows furrowed. "Little bird, I don't know if you realize it or not, but you'd be a real force to be reckoned with if you'd do half the training that they tell you to. Why do you think they keep telling you to do more and more? It's since their current regimens—which you're supposed to be following, by the way, they're not suggestions--are clearly not having the intended results. If you just--"

"Maybe I don't want to be bigger and stronger than everyone else," Wren snapped, and immediately felt awful for it. Any form of fighting with Tanager always made her feel sick to the core.

"You're never going to be bigger than everyone else, but there's tons of different kinds of stronger. We're supposed to be balanced, aren't we? Equal in all regards. Maybe the Change--"

Wren closed her eyes tight. "Don't say it."

As usual, Tanager had selective hearing. Or selective obedience. "Maybe the Change is meant to put you at my level physically."

There was a mean response to that and a nice response to that, and Wren was just upset enough to go for the former rather than the latter. "So what's the universe going to do to put you up to my level, mentally?"

Tanager rolled her eyes. "That's why I get Metamorphosis and you get Change."

It just meant that Tanager's change would be slower, over a span of months if not years, in stages rather than all at once, her mind and body evolving in response to the way Wren dealt with her Change. The idea was that they'd stay suited to one another no matter what happened. "Let me have a little whining, all right?"

"I've let you have a little whining already. It's been nearly a month, little bird. You can't hide behind the Change forever; sooner or later you're going to have to do what the Academy wants."

"Unless we leave," Wren said softly.

Tanager said nothing, but Wren heard the soft shift of a page being turned. Not an argument Tanager wanted to have tonight, but fuck it, Tanager always got her way. Wren stripped off her sparring clothes and the sweaty underclothes beneath it, walked over to Tanager and pulled the book out of her hands.

Then she straddled Tanager's lap and caught her gaze and held it. "Look. We're miserable here, right? We came in late, we don't like to train the way they want us to train. Why in the world are we staying here?"

"For all of the free tail?" Tanager said, with a ghost of her usual predatory look.

Wren had seen it enough to not be impressed. "We can find people for you to fuck, if that's the only thing keeping us here."

"They also pay our room and board and will find someone to buy our contract once we're fully trained," Tanager said, her voice soft. "If I'm remembering correctly, you were the one who wanted to attend somewhere that had a bit of a longer-term solution than the pre-Change schools."

Damn her for remembering. Wren sighed, leaning her forehead forward and resting it against Tanager's. It was a normal thing, but Tanager winced back, and at the last moment Wren remembered the tiny little horns that were now poking through the skin. She felt her cheeks go red and climbed off of Tanager quickly.

"Little bird," Tanager said, fingers on her forehead, where two bright points of blood marred her caramel skin, "please be careful with your new body."

Wren was already scooping up her sweaty underclothes and wiping at the blood gingerly. "Sorry, sorry. I still forget they're there."

"Mmm, well, you know me and the scent of blood. Might as well finish the job, right?" She cupped one hand around Wren's ass, not gently.

If Wren had felt anything for Tanager once upon a time, the Academy's rules about not sleeping with one's Bonded had killed it. She just rolled her eyes. "I don't think that's a good idea, especially now."

"Now that you're actively disregarding the Academy's instructions, you mean?"

Damn her for being astute. If only she'd actually be as stupid as she liked to act sometimes, their relationship would be so much less complicated. "I'm going to join an expedition to the peak next week," she said, simply. "It'll give me a chance to do more of the endurance work that they want me to do."

"Oh, so all it takes to get you to do what you don't want to do is for me to hit on you? Good to know."

Wren scowled. "You just love to think that you're the center of my world, don't you?"

Tanager smiled, the kind of smile that had melted Wren's insides when they were both on the beginning edge of puberty. "Well, yeah. You're the center of mine."

"You're impossible," Wren mumbled, pulled a sleeping shirt out of their wardrobe, and pulled it on as she walked out the door. A nice walk in the night air would make her sleepy, and the coolness of it would douse the fire in her belly.

Stupid Tanager.

---

hazing / abuse
Every person who's Bonded hears the stories growing up about the hazing practices at various schools. Some check to make sure you're not attracted to your partner, others are more focused on the things you would do in extenuating circumstances, but the ones at the Nest sounded like the easiest of the lot: all you had to do in order to pass your unofficially official probationary period was not sleep for a week.

Wren had always thought it something of a joke that they let people get in for so little effort because, really, how hard could staying awake for seven days really be?

"Your eyes are shut," Corella, her current babysitter, said.

"They hurt," Wren said, not meaning to sound worn-out but doing a good job of it anyway. She sighed, one hand coming up to rub them without opening them up. It truly felt like someone had punched her square on in both eyes. "I'm resting them, okay? I'm not sleeping. Do you want me to talk to you the whole time so that you know I'm not asleep?"

Corella snorted. "I'll trust you. It's not even three whole days yet, you know—your eyes are going to hurt a lot more if you really want to come here."

What had made Wren think this was a good idea? The promise of training and the Nest—that was, of the Academy, rather—finding them a contract and the rest of their lives lived out in peace and solace.

She and Tanager didn't come from money; their parents hadn't wanted to part with them, even so, and refused to send them off to school until they were old enough to make their own decisions.

Which was now: they were fifteen. And way behind. Way, way behind.

If only Wren could get some sleep, she might...

"Little bird," Tanager whispered, her lips near Wren's ear. "You can't sleep."

Wren blinked her eyes open and yawned widely. Their plain dorm room was the same as she'd left it, dusty in the corners and with Corella sitting in a chair in the middle of the room. She resisted the urge to rub her eyes this time. "I wasn't sleeping. I just lost track of my thoughts, that's all."

Tanager hummed, sighed, and pushed herself up into a sitting position. "Look, this is torture, innit? Not letting us sleep."

Corella crossed her arms over her chest. "It's not torture if you're the one who said you'd do it."

It wasn't easy to sit up, swing her legs over the bed, and walk—stumble, really—over to Tanager, but Wren did it anyway. "So let's exercise s'more."

The look Tanager gave her said better than words that this was entirely Wren's fault, and Wren couldn't even argue with it; she'd been the one who wanted to come here in the first place.

Never again would she think, Oh, not sleeping for a week would be easy.

*

Around the fourth day, Tanager started hallucinating. Wren could tell by the way Tanager kept looking at empty space with a confused expression, then making herself look away.

Well, she couldn't tell right away. At first she wondered what in the seven worlds was wrong with her partner, but then a couple hours before they hit day five she started having hallucinations too and it was only too obvious what Tanager had been looking at.

The patterns on the carpet moved beneath her feet and she tried very hard not to watch them, because it made her feel vaguely nauseous, but the movement was as captivating as it was sickening and she couldn't look away. She threw up only a couple hours after the hallucinations started.

"It's okay," Tanager told her gently, but didn't try to touch Wren at all.

Wren wondered if Tanager was seeing Wren's dreadlocks as something other than hair, but didn't want to alert their current babysitter, Martin, if she was. Everyone knew that the Academy used the no-sleep hazing as a litmus test for what kind of reactions Pairs had to mental strain and she was deathly afraid that if she alerted anyone official to the hallucinations that they'd get expelled before they really even began attending classes.

Maybe that wouldn't be so bad. Did they really want to go to a school that encouraged students to essentially torture other students?

"Don't tell," Tanager whispered in Wren's ear, then gave her a hard look and pulled away.

Wren closed her eyes against the swirling patterns and didn't say anything.

*

By the time they only had an hour left to go, both she and Tanager felt like they'd been pummeled by strong fists on every inch of their body. They'd made a game of cataloging their injuries for the last half-hour and they were beginning to run out of places that hurt, something that Wren had never imagined would happen.

"Yeah, well, my eyelashes hurt," Tanager said, and then giggled.

Tanager didn't really do much in the way of giggling. The only laughter she engaged in was either full-throated or quick snorts delivered with the shake of her head, so it made Wren giggle that she was giggling. "My vocal cords hurt."

There was Tanager's outright laugh, the one Wren cherished. "And my toenails feel like someone's cut them apart and glued them back on my toes—what of it?"

Wren just giggled harder. "I think whoever got your toenails got my fingernails. And my hair."

"Hey, that was two, that's cheating, little bird."

The nickname made Wren's giggles cut off abruptly. Tears prickled in her eyes and she shut her eyes tight against them; Tanager always felt so flustered and confused about what to do when Wren got upset.

Tanager's manic little giggle crept back up, after a few moments of silence. "My giggles hurt, you know. I'm going to blame you."

"Of course giggling hurts," Wren murmured, and hoped that Tanager took the lack of volume of her voice for weariness and not emotion.

"No, I mean the giggles hurt. Like the giggles themselves are all, you know, pained. Not happy giggles. Giggles because I don't think this is ever going to end."

Maybe it wouldn't. Wren opened her eyes and looked at Iora, who was looking out the window at the sun rising. It hadn't peeked over the not-so-distant peaks of the other mountains, yet, but the sky was lightening; navy had turned to grey when they started their game, but now the grey turned yellow.

"Just a little bit longer," Iora said. "You can go to sleep as soon as the sun's up. You guys did really good—most people start to do the giggles thing when they start hallucinating halfway between the fifth and sixth days."

Wren could hardly believe it was going to end. Tanager's slid shut, so Wren shut hers too.

She never heard Iora tell them that they'd passed, but when she woke up the first person in to visit them was the head of the school, welcoming them after their adjustment period.

Tanager said nothing, just rolled back over and pulled her pillow over her head. Wren followed suit happily.

---

major illness / sexual child abuse (implicit), parent/child incest
When Tanager was ten, daddy came home one night from the mines with a cough. "It's nothing," he told mommy, even though in Tanager's memory he'd never coughed before at all ever.

She tried her best not to hope, not to read anything into it, and it was easy to do that when daddy kept being not-sick enough to go to work every day.

Maybe it really was nothing, she thought, but mommy did look worried, and why would mommy look worried if it wasn't nothing?

Tanager said prayers every night, now, ones that she should've regretted but didn't. Couldn't.

*

It took a year for daddy to get sick enough that he stopped going to the mines, and by then the coughing was almost constant. Take a bite, cough. Smile, cough. He panted for breath when doing nothing more than sitting in his chair in front of the fire.

He didn't stop being an awful daddy, of course. Why would he stop being an awful daddy? He just was an awful daddy a little differently than he was an awful daddy before that.

Tanager couldn't understand it, why the gods were answering her prayers now when they'd never cared before, but she was thankful all the same. Even if she did kind of blame them for not doing anything sooner. And not hurrying up with it, either, now that daddy was sick.

*

She found out when she was twelve what was wrong with daddy, from overhearing Wren's mommy and her mommy talking. Tanager didn't usually sit and listen—mommy talk was so boring, even if Wren thought it was interesting—but they were talking about daddy so she couldn't not listen.

Mom said something about it getting worse, and Wren's mom said, "It always does. You should've never let him go down into the mines."

"It wasn't her decision," Tanager shouted, jumping out from behind the partition she'd been using as cover. "Daddy said--"

"Tanager," Mommy hissed, grabbing Tanager's arm and shaking her. "What did I tell you about eavesdropping?"

"That the gods would make sure somebody found out and then I'd get punished but mommy I wasn't bad! I was just walking by," Tanager squealed, squirming, trying to pull away. It was almost the truth.

"And what your daddy tell you about lying, hmm?"

She fell still, the breath dying in her chest. It took a few moments before she could make herself whisper, "That he'd find out about it and punish me."

"That's right. Now go to your room; I'm going to tell him what you did."

Tanager didn't even think of disobeying, but she did sit on her bed and pray that he was too sick to punish her.

She wasn't so lucky; she'd probably used up her luck on daddy getting sick in the first place. Stupid gods.

*

He died the summer after that, when Tanager and Wren were newly thirteen. Wren's daddy had said that he would marry Tanager's mommy when daddy quit being able to work, and so he did.

Wren's daddy was a much better daddy than Tanager's was.

---

rape/non-con / sexual child abuse (explicit), parent/child incest
Tanager couldn't even remember how old she was the first time, though she remembered that she was a lot smaller then than she was now. She could sit in daddy's lap easily, without him needing to shift to accommodate her weight.

He told her how big she was getting, but he always said that. Every time.

It was the sign that it was starting and she got to where she hated those words, hated what they meant, hated daddy saying them, hated all of it. Because that was how it started.

"You're getting to be such a big girl, Tanager."

Not big enough, she thought, now. Years later, as he had to sit on the bed and tell her to get into his lap, panting for breath between every word. Maybe he would die before she got big enough. She wished he would, and she wished he wouldn't.

And she cried at night because she didn't know which thing she really wanted, though it seemed like the gods were going to make the decision for her now.

She wanted to yell at him, to have mommy come in and catch them, but she could never make a single sound come out.

"Look at these," he said, one hand coming up to cup around her growing breasts. It was still so much bigger than her hands. "Pretty soon you're going to be a big girl in every way. Are you a good girl, too?"

Tanager blinked away tears and nodded. If she tried to shake her head, tried to say she was bad, he would sit and talk to her until he convinced her that she was good, that she did want to let him do this.

Daddy licked his lips. "I thought so. I thought, my beautiful daughter, she's such a good girl, she won't mind doing her daddy a favor. And you won't, will you?"

This time she shook her head. No, she wouldn't mind. It was the only answer she could give, the only one that would make this end as quickly as possible.

"Good, good. Now, I can't really do what we used to do—I know you're sad, baby, but don't cry, okay? You know I hate it when you cry—so you need to help your daddy out some. Do you think you can do that?"

She swallowed around the lump in her throat and nodded again.

"Mmm. So do you think you can get down on your knees and take care of your daddy with your mouth? I know it's not what you really want, but your daddy's not well enough for anything else."

The way he said it made her think that maybe one day daddy wouldn't be well enough even for this. She wasn't sure what she'd do, then. Wordlessly she slipped off of his lap and got down between his legs.

She'd just have to keep praying. One day the gods would answer her prayers; it was what they were there for, wasn't it?

---

nervous breakdown / unrequited fraternal incest
If their mother had told Eider, "Son, I think you're going to spend most of your time at Nico de la Monte coaxing Petrel down from self-injury because he thinks he's failed all the time," he wouldn't have believed her.

Well, maybe he would have, thanks to the fact that Petrel kind of had this habit of pushing himself too far even before they came here, but he woudn't have thought it would be this bad.

"Pet," Eider said, kneeling next to his younger brother and touching that straight, sleek, fiery hair that was his brother's trademark. "You're really going to fail if you just spend the whole day in bed—I know that part without a doubt."

Petrel sniffed and wiped his snotty nose with the back of one hand. "But they must all think that I'm such a weakling. I can't even do ten pull-ups! And I'm the slowest every time we race. And I heard this girl named Kestrel saying that she's seen faster five-year-olds!"

Eider quietly marked Kestrel down as someone who needed a talking to in the very near future. If someone was going to make fun of his brother, it was going to be Eider, not some person that neither of them even knew yet. People they didn't know didn't get making-fun-of rights. "She's just jealous that you're so handsome and she's gonna do the Metamorphosis thing instead of the Change thing. You got the Change, so I'm sure there's going to be a ton of people who are envious."

"I guess," Petrel whispered, and rolled from his back onto his side to face Eider. "It's just hard! I'm not used to being so small and everything. It's like there was no point to all the training I did before."

"Don't believe that," Eider said, just as softly. "Never believe that what came before is pointless, brother-mine. What came before was to get you ready up here." He touched Petrel's temple lightly.

There was the smile that Eider pretty much lived for. He sighed a little at the sight of it, even with Petrel's face all splotchy from crying.

"Hey, I have a rag, if you want to clean up."

"What makes you think I'm done?" Petrel's voice said that he was done; if he was teasing, there wasn't going to be any more crying tonight unless Eider fucked up massively.

Again, a tiny voice in Eider's mind reminded him. A tiny, completely unimportant and utterly pointless voice that he was going to studiously ignore, damn it. "Maybe the fact that you're not crying anymore? Or maybe--" but Eider didn't finish the sentence, instead going in for tickles.

Fourteen and twelve wasn't too old for tickles, was it? He hoped not.

Petrel managed to stiffly pay no attention to Eider's hands for all of a minute, and then he broke out in a high-pitched squeal and started to squirm and laugh at the same time, giggling whenever he wasn't letting out full-throated laughter.

"Forfeit!" Eider said, still tickling mercilessly.

"Nooooo," Petrel howled, though he seemed somewhat short of breath. "Der-der, you gotta stop, I'm gonna piss my pants!"

If this weren't the reaction that Petrel had every time Eider tickled him, he might have stopped. As it was, he just crawled on top of his brother, straddling his stomach and facing away from him, and reached down to tickle the bottoms of his feet.

The volume of the laughter intensified, now interspersed with gasping breaths and pleas for Eider to stop.

"Forfeit," Eider said, looking over his shoulder.

Red-faced and shaking with laughter, Petrel shook his head even as he said, "I give, I give—I'll, I'll do the, the forfeit, if, if you, stop, please, stop, Der-der."

It was the pet name from when Petrel was too young to say Eider's full name. He cherished it just as much as he hated for other people to hear it. But Petrel knew that; he only used it when they were alone, unless he was bent on making Eider angry, which was pretty rare.

Petrel still panted beneath him and he was struck at how intimate the touch was. He wouldn't, hadn't, thought anything of the closeness a year ago, but Eider was on the tail end of puberty and now Petrel—two years younger than Eider's—was finally starting to change too.

He couldn't help the sudden heat in his cheeks as he scrambled off of his brother, off of the bed entirely to stand next to it and look down at Petrel.

Who, ever-innocent, just smiled at Eider. "So, what's my forfeit, hmm?"

"Don't let the others get to you when they say bad things," Eider said, voice decisive despite the pubescent cracking. "I love you and you love me; nothing they say will change that and as long as we're a Pair they can't kick us out."

Petrel grinned widely. "You sound like Dad, you know."

"Somebody has to do it, right?" Eider grinned, too.

"Right!" Petrel sat up all at once, the grin still playing his lips. "Help me with my astronomy work?"

Eider tilted his head. "The stars mystify you?" he teased, not wanting to miss an opportunity for the best kind of brother-to-brother interactions. Also stalling; Petrel probably didn't want to get to work right away, based on Eider's past experience.

But Petrel just shrugged, looking down at his blankets. "A little."

Another sore subject. Eider was going to have to start keeping a list, ever since the Change; he leaned down and wrapped Petrel up in a brief hug. "I'll help you, then."

For once Petrel didn't seem to want to delay, though. He leaned over and pulled his book out from under the bed and looked expectantly up at Eider.

Trying not to seem uncomfortable, Eider sat down next to his brother. Not, however, as close as he once would've. There was no need to taint Petrel's purity of heart and mind with Eider's feelings.

---

difficult pregnancy / minor character death
In the winter before the summer when Wren and Tanager were set to leave for Nico de la Monte, Wren's mom got pregnant.

The youngest child in Wren's family was also the only boy; he was six years old and Wren's mom hadn't exactly had an easy time with him. She wasn't completely past childbearing years now—obviously, Wren guessed—but she was past her prime and had already borne four kids besides.

So it wasn't an optimal time to get pregnant, and on top of it she was violently ill what seemed like every minute of the day. It was so bad that Wren, the eldest, had to take over household chores, and the doula who came to visit said that they should do everything they could to make her comfortable and keep her off her feet.

It was well and great that this baby wanted to come along and be difficult about it, Wren supposed, but it wasn't fair in the least. She was going to be fifteen soon and she and Tanager were supposed to leave for Nico soon and—well, life wasn't fair.

"Do you think it's, you know, okay for her to be like this?" Tanager asked one night as she wrapped her arms around Wren and hugged her tightly.

Wren closed her eyes and leaned into the touch. Now they were getting older and destined for Nico de la Monte, otherwise known as the Academy, this kind of touch was becoming more and more rare. She shook her head to the question, not being any kind of authority on childbearing; she had less than no interest in bearing or raising children. "I don't know," she whispered, hating how she sounded like a frightened little girl. She felt like it too, scared of what could happen to her mom, and dreaded most of all Tanager finding out about the weakness.

Tanager petted Wren's dreadlocks, tugging one gently, a playful, affectionate motion from when they were young. "I don't, either. Do you... should we delay going to Nico de la Monte, you think?"

Wren hoped not; the last thing she wanted was to delay their entrance to the Academy when they were already five years older than when most of the students started attending.

She should've been a little more careful what she wished for.

*

Wren's mom guessed that she got pregnant sometime around the New Year—Wren had a feeling there were more details here, but didn't want to ask because parents having sex eww--and so by the spring equinox a couple weeks into Novo she was showing and the being-ill-all-the-time thing was fading. Some.

Now she just got faint whenever she stood up and started having contractions, too; the baby wanted to come out whether or not it was ready.

Every time it happened, Wren's heart was in her throat until mom said that the contractions had stopped.

She was pretty sure that mom was lying sometimes and there were still contractions, but what was she going to say to that? 'Quit lying to me so I can worry even more' didn't seem like something that mom would respond well to.

"You should go," mom said, about the time that Wren was working herself up to asking.

But she hadn't even asked yet. "How did you--"

"I'm your mother, Wren. Your sisters can take care of me; they're old enough now and I don't want to see this hold you back."

Wren hugged her mom, probably a little too tight, burying her face against her mom's shoulder to hide her tears. Tanager wasn't around—out doing errands—so it didn't really matter, but Wren hid them anyway.

"Shh, shh. It's okay. I'll be fine. Don't worry about me; I've done this a few times before, remember?" She smiled at Wren.

"I love you mom," Wren whispered, and hugged her mom again.

*

She went into labor the next day and into the night. The doula came as fast as she could, and Wren had helped with birthings before but this one wasn't going right; there was blood. Too much blood. And mom wasn't open enough and--

"Quit hovering and get me some clean rags!" the doula snapped. Mom screamed. Wren obeyed.

*

Wren's mom died in the middle of the night on 15 Novo 3.23.2.

She and Tanager left for Nico de la Monte the next day, just the way they'd meant to all along.

---

fire / minor character death
In the middle of summer there's nowhere to go to get away from the heat, especially now, eight years into the drought that began the same year Eider was born: 31.22.2. Thirty-first year of the twenty-second cycle in the second wheel. It was now the fortieth year of the cycle and the land cried for rain and the crops didn't grow, except in the beds that Eider and Petrel had put in down by the creek.

Everything was dry. Everything. This year had been cooler than the ones that Eider could remember, save for the last week or so, but no wetter; even the creek was starting to dry up, easy to get over in a step instead of the jumps from when Eider was little.

They went to sleep that night with the scent of rain in the air; Eider and Petrel prayed for rain before bed, mom and dad kissed them and hugged them and wished them to sleep well and the next thing Eider knew, Petrel was screaming his name.

"Der-der! Eider! Eiiiider!" As he screamed, panic making his tone even higher than usual, he shook Eider, Eider who had always been difficult to wake up even when it wasn't so hot.

Eider coughed, eyes snapping open and going wide as soon as they did.

The house was on fire. Their house, the house mom and dad helped to build, it was on fire and the only thing Eider could think to do was grab Petrel, grab some clothes off the floor and put it over his nose and mouth, and try to make their way out.

The uncomplicated country house made it a little easier, but it was hard to see with all that smoke even if the fire did give off plenty light. Eider found the front door and opened it and didn't even get a chance to take a step before a burst of flame pushed them out of the door, nearly knocking them off of their feet. They both stumbled and Eider grabbed the collar of Petrel's night-shirt, crawling on his hands and knees away from the terrible heat of the fire, barely even registering the drenching rain following around them.

The fire made the heat of the day seem like nothing, he thought as he sat there on hands and knees coughing, light-headed from the smoke.

Only then did Eider think to look around for their parents, and obviously Petrel had the same idea at the same time because he got up and staggered back toward the front door, back toward the inferno that was their house as the world lit up for a moment and then crash of thunder sounded directly above them, seeming to roll out on all sides.

Eider staggered after his brother. "Pet!"

Petrel's hair was plastered to his head, his nightshirt nearly transparent thanks to the rain. Eider caught the tail of it and jerked hard; fabric ripped, but Petrel ended up on the ground, where Eider could slide one arm under Petrel's arms, around his chest, and drag him back.

"Mom and dad are in there! We have to help them!" Petrel went on and on, screaming at Eider now, his voice breaking every so often, but Eider didn't let him go, just wrapping both arms and legs around him and closing his eyes and burying his face in the back of Petrel's neck.

The fire spread to the trees around the house in spite of the rain, and after a while they couldn't stay anymore.

Eider didn't really have to hold Petrel down anymore, as he was screamed out and just crying helplessly now, but he liked to have his arms around Pet. It was just to reassure himself that his brother, the other half of the Pair they made even if they weren't old enough to Bond yet, was still there. Still breathing, still alive.

Not burnt up in the fire.

"My back hurts, Der-der," Petrel said thickly while they trudged away from the growing fire.

Eider's did, too, come to think of it. He examined the back of one leg and realized that it was blistered—not badly, but definitely burnt.

The fire gave off enough light for Eider to have a look at Petrel's too, which was likewise blistered. "It was the fire." Eider's voice was scratchy.

"It hurts," Petrel whispered, looking at Eider with his big brown eyes.

"We'll see if Mama Osprey will help us out," he murmured in return. She was the local healer, and lucky for them only lived about a mile away. They could walk that in less than an hour.

What they would do after that was anyone's guess.

---

septicemia or infected wounds
Petrel's burns were somehow worse than Eider's. Maybe it was that he was smaller, so the same burns hurt more, or something like that—Eider didn't really know and Mama Osprey didn't share—but his ended up getting infected and a couple weeks later he was sick with fever from the burns.

The fire had—thankfully—got put out when the rain didn't stop for a few hours and so nobody else got burnt up by it. Just Eider and Petrel's mom and dad.

It wasn't fair and Mama Osprey said that life was like that sometimes but it was just, so silly, mom and dad died and he and Petrel stayed alive.

For a little while, anyway. Judging by the looks Mama Osprey was giving Petrel's legs she didn't know if she could save him.

Eider at least knew that she was supposed to be paid, but when he brought it up one day she shook her head. "I know you boys don't have any money; don't worry about paying me."

So he didn't worry. But he did worry. And he didn't want to seem ungrateful but Petrel was getting sicker and why wasn't Mama Osprey healing him? She'd healed Eider up just fine!

It was long ago that Eider lost count of how many days since the fire, how many more days left until he turned nine, and so he didn't know how long it was before a guy all dressed in military clothes showed up. He looked really sharp, really nice, but his face was stern until he looked at Eider.

He smiled then. "Hello. You're Eider, I assume?"

How did this guy know Eider's name? "I might be."

"I'm General Batis, from Nico de la Monte."

That was the school that was built way up in the mountains—a nest in the mountains—that trained Pairs. But Pairs had to be Bonded and he and Petrel weren't bonded and anyway Petrel might die so, "What do you want?"

Batis smiled. "I want to bring you boys back to Nico de la Monte with me. The way I hear it, your parents are dead and your brother could use better medical attention than you can afford."

Eider's eyes prickled with tears; his hands curled into fists. "Don't you talk about them like that! Pet's not gonna die, either, so you just be quiet about it."

At least he looked a little abashed, looking down at his shiny shoes and then over his shoulder at Mama Osprey, who nodded and made a go-ahead motion. "I know it's hard to think about, Eider, but we want to take care of you. Do you know how odd it is for your brother to be the one you're destined to Bond with?"

Nobody talked much about Pairs and Bonding out here until Pet and Eider started showing signs that they were gonna be like that—shared emotions and thoughts and the like. "Is it really weird?" Eider didn't want to be weird.

"Having someone you're two years apart from be your Bonded is very out of the ordinary. Not weird, just unusual."

Eider nodded. "So you want us to come with you? Just like that?" He looked at Mama Osprey and addressed his next question to her: "Is it really okay?"

"It's very okay," she said, offering a warm smile with her words. "I sent them a letter explaining your circumstances and they agreed to take you in."

But-- "Petrel's sick, though."

"He'll get care," Batis said, in that no-nonsense grown-up voice. "And we'll take care of the both of you until you're old enough for your contracts to get bought by someone. Does that sound okay?"

"Petrel will get better?" It was the only thing that mattered right now.

Batis nodded. "I swear it on my life: he will heal up just fine."

"Okay," Eider said, softly. Then, louder, "Okay. I—we, I mean—will do it."

Batis smiled. "Excellent. You won't be disappointed."

---

ostracized from society
Everybody knew that when you were half of a Pair, as soon as you got formally bonded by the priests at the New Year ceremony when you were nine you were then supposed to go off and join a school.

There was the biggest one, Nico de la Monte, which Kiwi's mom said was a depressing hole and she'd never send any child of hers there. It wasn't that they were a bad school, mom said, it was just that they kind of brainwashed kids into believing all that a Pair could do was give themselves in service to their country. In service to the great Empire of Lima, blah blah blah... Kiwi stopped listening when her mom got on the subject of the Academy because mom can and had gone on for hours about it before.

Anyway, the point was that some kind of service to one's country wasn't all a Pair could do. Not by a long shot, according to Rook's mommy—who was Kiwi's mom's bonded; they made a Pair together—so there was no sense at all in sentencing Kiwi and Rook to a fate that they might not really want.

Rook thought the idea of serving his country would be fun, but Kiwi was pretty sure he just liked the uniforms and wanted to be one of the Emperor's personal guard or something. She had no desire to go off and get killed in the name of serving the country, herself, and Rook usually listened to her so there was no way they were going to the Academy.

Another one was Prado Ciclo, which despite its name didn't train its students for the full fifty years of a cycle. Why they named it that, she had no clue (Nico de la Monte was at least named correctly, because it was pretty much a castle sitting way up in the mountains, carved into a cliff face) but it was in the middle of the southern grasslands where nobody lived.

Maybe that was just something that schools were supposed to be: situated in the middle of nowhere. Kind of stupid, but whatever, Kiwi wasn't someone who wanted to start a school so maybe it wasn't supposed to make sense to her.

Prado Ciclo at least taught things other than fighting and survival, but they only taught Pairs pre-Change, so that was right out too because they didn't want to have to leave after a year if whichever of them Changed happen to do it early.

There were even more schools: Da Academia das Estrelas, where they were completely superstitious and based everything on astronomy; Academia em Brasa, located on Ilha em Brasa where the volcano was almost always erupting; and schools in the few major cities that allowed them: Itatí, Lima do Sul, Rio de Brejo, and Jardim.

Mom and mommy (and dad and daddy, even if they liked to leave Kiwi and Rook's education to their other halves) made sure Rook and Kiwi were part of the whole process, so Kiwi knew pretty much everything there was to know about all of the schools in all of Lima.

And, as far as she was concerned, they were all crap.

So after the New Year, mom and mommy decided that since Kiwi and Rook didn't want to go to any of the schools, they were going to teach Kiwi and Rook at home. Dad and daddy had attended two different schools and mom and mommy had attended Nico de la Monte so between the four of them they knew everything there was to know pretty much. And they had other Pairs who were friends who could come teach too.

The very first thing Kiwi's friend, Martin, told her when she told him about their plan for schooling was "You're so weird, Kiwi."

"Hey!" Rook said, coming to Kiwi's defense the same way she did for him. "Kiwi's not weird just because she doesn't want to go to any of the normal schools."

Martin rolled his eyes. "Whatever. Both of you are freaks of nature anyway—who in their right mind wants to be a Pair and Change? Not me!"

If that was what Martin thought, Kiwi decided he could just go take a long walk off a short pier. He wasn't worth any response; she just turned and walked away.

Rook followed along behind her, of course.

---

first transformation
Sometimes the Change wasn't entirely a physical thing. Sometimes it was the thing inside of you that changed so that you had a healer's touch or could make fire from nothing or any multitude of other things that were more Talents than bodily Changes.

The week after his birthday on Centro, the twentieth day of the month, Moço, Rook got the Change.

28 Moço—exactly one week.

He'd heard that Changes happened pretty often right around one's birthday—something about the full sweep of the sun, all nine months and five festival days later—but it was still eerie for it to be so exact.

One minute he and Kiwi were in the middle of doing some lutador, some of the hand-to-hand fighting art from the arid western half of the continent, exercises with one another, fitting this form against that form until they saw the ways that they came together. The next minute there was a searing pain in Rook's head and his hands and the kick that he had meant to duck caught him in the chest and knocked the breath out of him.

He went down like a sack of rocks, gasping for breath and not aware of anything beyond the pain.

Searing wasn't a strong enough word for the pain, but he couldn't think of any worse words. It was like sticking both hands in a blacksmith's furnace and pumping the bellows, waves of pain coming and going; his head wasn't much better, either.

Rook must have blacked out, because when he came around again Kiwi was kneeling next to him, shaking him. "Rook. Rook!" She stopped as soon as he raised his head. "I was so afraid you were gone! Your eyes went back and you just looked... in pain. Awful."

The pain in Rook's head—especially his eyes—and hands persisted as low throbbing and burning; it felt like an act of the gods for him to open his mouth and say " 'm 'kay."

Kiwi shook her head. "No you aren't. What happened?" He saw little swirls and splotches of yellow and orange in the air when she talked.

He closed his eyes. The lack of light made it better, though the redness of light through his eyelids still burnt his eyes. What in the name of the gods were those colors about? Keeping his eyes closed, he said, "Changed."

"Oooh." That yellow-orange color was back in the air between them, kind of like a cloud. Kiwi petted Rook's dark hair back. "Is it good? The only thing I can see physically is that you have horns now." She touched them, and Rook shuddered all over.

A good kind of shudder, and as an added bonus the burst of pleasure chased away a bit of the pain and it didn't hurt too much for Rook to lift his hands and look at them. They appeared the same as always: caramel-toned like the rest of him and long-fingered besides. He made a fist and then relaxed one hand and then the other; it didn't hurt any more than they already did to do so. "It's something with my hands." His own voice produced clouds of a rich maroon tone. Weird.

"And the horns to mark you, I guess." The color of the words lightened to pure yellow as Kiwi's voice lightened, and she smiled down at him.

"Also, I'm seeing sounds. Like color. Clouds and swirls of color." The last sentence came out all at once, and the colors in front of him swam in rapid, lop-sided circles. "They swirl faster if you talk faster."

Kiwi just shook her head. "Well, you clawed me pretty fierce when you were thrashing around." She lifted her shirt enough to expose her middle and the four long scrapes.

"Oh, no," Rook murmured, sitting up slowly and reaching out to put his hand on her stomach.

The burning started again, but just in that hand, a glowing green cloud forming around the entire area. It hurt a little, but not too badly. His horns tingled, too, not quite a burn but the kind of sensation that could turn into burning pretty easily.

When the burning and glowing stopped, Rook pulled his hand away and they gasped in unison: the scratches were completely gone, like they'd never been there in the first place.

"Holy shit," Kiwi said, and laughed once. "That's going to be damned useful, Rook."

"It hurt a little when I was doing it, and the light will make it obvious what's--"

"What light?" Kiwi let her shirt drop and caught Rook's gaze with her hazel eyes.

Rook couldn't believe she hadn't seen it. "The light when I healed you! It was all bright green and glowing. It'll be a dead giveaway."

Kiwi just shook her head, smiling. "I didn't see any light, Rook. Maybe that's part of your seeing colors?"

Her explanation made sense, he guessed. Rook looked down at his hands, curling them into fists and relaxing them again. "We should go tell our moms."

"Of course. Think you can walk?"

"Just try and stop me," Rook said, and got onto his feet through sheer brute force determination.

---

WILD CARD (moving)
They left for Itá Verde, the nearest large city, later that day. Petrel remembered it leaning against one wall of the carriage, surrounded by pillows, bumps jolting him awake every so often.

Eider looked worried, but Petrel couldn't stay awake for long enough to reassure him. Every time he thought of something to say—thinking was really, really hard—he fell asleep again and then he couldn't remember what he wanted to say before.

Sometimes he couldn't even remember that he didn't remember what he wanted to say before.

He remembered the hospital much more vividly. Everything looked clean and white. Walls, floors, sheets and blankets and pillows. The only thing that wasn't white was Eider, who was still dressed in his dirty clothes from the trip here. He looked extra dirty against all of that white. Petrel would've been dirty too, but they gave him a gown to wear.

When Petrel woke up for good, it was like magic and he wasn't sick anymore and hospitals were awesome he decided right then and there.

Petrel lay in bed while Eider was sitting in the chair next to the bed, or had been sitting—he was leaning forward, arms crossed, head resting on his arms and eyes shut. Asleep. "Eider," he whispered, and touched Eider's arm.

Eider raised his head abruptly, hazel eyes going wide, and as soon as he focused on Petrel he smiled. "Good morning, Pet. Feel better?"

"I'm laying on my back, aren't I?" Petrel asked, smiling in return; all of his burns had been on his backside.

"That you are. Want me to go get Batis? He wanted to know as soon as you woke up." Eider reached out, taking Petrel's hand gently, like he was afraid to touch.

Petrel put his other hand on top of Eider's, shaking his head a little at the size difference, with Eider being almost nine now. He'd have to wait for Petrel to be nine too before they could get Bonded. At least they still had their hair the same, even if they didn't quite match color-wise: Eider was auburn-haired and Petrel copper-haired like their mother.

The one who'd died. In the fire. Petrel felt tears starting to well up, his throat going tight with emotion.

"Petrel?" Eider sounded concerned and cautious.

He shook his head. Silly mind, wandering off like that. Thinking about mom. He'd already done his crying for that; he didn't need to cry more. "Yeah, go tell him."

Eider squeezed Petrel's hand gently, then leaned up and gave him a kiss on the forehead like he was four or something. Petrel rubbed the spot Eider had kissed. He was too old for that kind of treatment, but he'd have to tell Eider that. Sometime later, probably.

In the mean time, Eider smiled again and said, "I'll be back."

"And then we'll leave?" He remembered about Nico de la Monte, remembered Batis's promise.

"With the way Batis was talking—yeah, we leave as soon as you're up."

A frightening prospect, but not as bad as dying. Petrel was strangely okay with the whole moving thing, given recent events.

---

minor illness / unrequited fraternal incest
It's like genuine clockwork: every year, Petrel gets the winter fever. And just like another notch in the gear, Eider is by his bedside constantly.

This year is especially bad; Petrel has seen the healers but there's only so much that their Talents can achieve when it seems like his al is determined to settle in his lungs and make him sicker and sicker. Eider doesn't do guard duty the way he normally does when Petrel's sick, and this year he's pretty much staying by Petrel's bedside constantly.

In the middle of Mutio the weather makes Nico de la Monte cold anyway but the fever makes it colder and Pet just wants to be warm. "So cold." He's shivering, maybe beginning to outright shake.

"It's okay, Pet," Eider says, and crawls into the bed with Petrel the way he normally does when Petrel gets so, so cold and nothing can warm him up. He spoons behind Petrel, putting one arm around Petrel's chest and laying his head on the pillow behind Petrel's. "Is this better?"

"Yes," Petrel whispers, clutching the blankets and pulling them over his head. He's so, so cold. There's no way he'll be able to sleep like this.

*

When Petrel wakes up, he is hot. Steaming hot, burning up, and he squirms and Eider tightens his grip "H-hey Pet, calm down, it's okay."

Has he been moving in his sleep? He's sweating, certainly, but he was sweating before. "Hot," Petrel said, panting the word out and continuing to squirm.

Petrel was far gone on the heat, but not so far gone that he didn't feel it when Eider's cock got hard, pressed as it was against Petrel's ass. Through their clothes.

He pulled away as if burnt, eyes going wide, flailing the covers away and drawing in deep breaths. What the fuck? "Eider?" It could just be an accident, basic physical reaction to stimulation that Petrel had been unwittingly providing.

"I'm sorry, Pet," Eider whispered, looking down at the blankets.

Eider was sorry? That could only mean... the prohibition on sexual contact... he wanted... but how could he? Petrel was so dumbstruck his mouth didn't even work to try and form words. There were none.

How could he? How could he? Nico de la Monte didn't have many rules, but that one, it was unbreakable because it changed the metamorphosis, it changed the way things worked between them, and normally for the worse, normally different in bad ways and...

Eider wanted to have sex with him. It didn't make any sense. And yet, it made so much sense. So many pieces were falling into place, despite the fever addling Petrel's mind. Or perhaps the fever helped him make the connections.

"Get out," he said, slurring the word unintentionally. He said it again, clearer, more decisive. "Get out."

"Sorry," Eider said again. He hesitated, looking around like he wanted to collect some things, but he just grabbed his money purse out of its hiding place in the wardrobe and then turned and left.

Petrel collapsed back against the bed, spent. He groped blindly for the blankets, moaning unhappily. He was cold again.

---

isolation / unrequited fraternal incest
Eider had been away from Petrel for six days now. Two more would make a week.

He'd meant to leave the Academy, when he left, but he couldn't bear it in the end. The Academy was everything to Petrel in a different way that the Academy was everything to Eider, but they both lived and breathed Nico de la Monte's air and ate of the food and depended completely on the Academy for everything.

How could he leave? It would be the worst kind of betrayal, surpassing even what he'd already done to Petrel.

Eider ended up staying in the inn where parents who brought their children here often spent the night. It was a bright, cheery place with a smiling woman behind the desk explaining to him the rules and regulations he was agreeing to when he forked over his money.

The price wasn't good, but it wasn't bad either. He needed more money. Lucky for him, it ended up that they needed someone to clean the rooms so Eider did that and they knocked off some of the price of the room.

Of course he ended up discovering that he was growing tiny horns, much like his brother's, that day. He mostly just laid in bed all day and did nothing. Counted the cracks on the ceiling. Tried to discern the design that the wallpaper had been going for. Maybe a garden, but if that was it the green was badly washed out and it looked more like the sky before a tornado struck.

Most of all, he listened to the sound of the inn and the tiny city that supported Nico de la Monte as everyone else lived their lives and he sat and did nothing.

He wondered how Petrel was doing. Probably still sick, but that was only to be expected; no matter how good of care he got, the winter fever always had its way with him. Eider wondered who was taking care of him since he couldn't be there. Nico's healers would check in every so often just because that was the way they were, but who was seeing to his needs? Helping him to the water closet, changing his clothes...

In the end Eider decided that the job had probably fallen to Petrel's lovers, Kestrel and Prion. Eider didn't hate them, couldn't hate them. They were too nice, and they genuinely cared about Eider, he knew.

He'd just never been able to deal with having a long-term lover of his own. Maybe he was jealous, but thought it was more envy. They were freely offered what Eider was denied on principle, after all.

Principle and maybe also because his brother wasn't attracted to him, but that was just the way life worked sometimes, he'd learned. At least they were both still alive.

Alive and maybe not well, but they were alive. Despite all that had happened to them, all of the obstacles and mishaps and everything; there was nothing that had overcame them. And Eider had left at Petrel's request, so no bridges had been burned.

He hoped.

---

atonement / unrequited fraternal incest
At first, Petrel was too sick to care what Eider had done, that he'd gone, that anything. Kestrel and Prion were good nursemaids, but nobody cared about him as much as Eider.

He'd taken comfort in that fact all of his life, and now...

Petrel squeezed his eyes shut. He was well enough to walk around, though he tired easily; he would start his regular guard duty again next week.

But he hadn't told anyone why Eider was gone. Hadn't said a word about it, just that he was gone and someone else needed to take care of him. Kestrel and Prion accepted that easily enough—Petrel lied only rarely—but now it was just. Just heartbreaking, not having Eider next to him.

He didn't have any of those kind of feelings for Eider, of course, but he'd always felt hints of this and that through the bond and... he missed his brother. He missed his Bonded. One night lying in bed, he realized that: he was depressed without Eider here.

As he drifted to sleep, he decided that at the very least he needed to find Eider and they needed to have a talk and Petrel would see where it went from there.

*

Petrel knew that Eider wouldn't leave Nico de la Monte. It was their home and he was no more likely to leave than Petrel himself was. So it shouldn't have been difficult to locate Eider, with the way Eider seemed to be able to work his way into any crowd of people and win their confidence.

Even knowing that, it took a whole day of searching before he stumbled upon the Cavern Widow—one of the few inns here in their little nest in the mountain. The proprietor was one of the native support staff, the people who lived and worked here in order for the Academy to do its work properly.

She smiled at Petrel, but it seemed like a sad smile. "It's likely that he's in his room—the attic room, that is. Already done his cleaning."

His cleaning? Petrel thought, then shook his head. If he was doing cleaning, it would make sense that he had enough money to stay there.

All of the sudden, Petrel was nervous. He had been too harsh with his brother—that he knew. The two of them couldn't live without each other; everybody knew that the worst fate for a Pair was to be kept apart.

As he walked up the stairs, he realized he could feel Eider again—feel his emotions once more—and it was like piece that had been pulled out sliding home once more, back in its proper place. He found himself smiling and schooled his expression as best he could; this was no time for smiles, no place for joy and laughter.

He had a list of things that he wanted to say, but when he knocked on the door and Eider opened it, and Petrel saw Eider's miserable expression all Petrel could do was wrap his brother up in a hug.

"You're not forgiven," Petrel whispered, his voice shaking with emotion. It felt so right to come into contact with Eider again, to be near him. "But I can't live without you."

Eider's miserable expression was still in place when he pulled away, though there was a little bit of life in his eyes. "I understand."

Do you? Petrel wondered, but didn't voice the thought. "Come on, let's go back. We have to resume guard duty in a few days; we can't abandon the Academy just because you're... you're..."

"You don't have to say it," Eider said, eyes downcast. He took a few steps away from the door and wadded up some clothes—where had he gotten those?--into a ball, tucked the ball under his arm, and returned to the door. "You'll tell me if there's anything I can do, right?"

Petrel was pretty sure that petty chores and other things that Eider could do would be meaningless at this point, but he offered a crooked half-smile. "Of course. And you'll not let on to anyone about this change, right?"

"Right. Anything I can do, Pet."

"Petrel," he corrected, turning and looking at his brother over his shoulder before heading down the stairs.

It felt like holding together a broken axle with muslin, but there was nothing Petrel could do about that. He couldn't even speak the offense; how could he hope to talk about it?

*

Eider was so solicitous of Petrel when they got back that it drove Petrel crazy. He couldn't get up or he'd have Eider asking him if he wanted this or that or help to the water closet of all places.

"This has to stop," Petrel told him the next morning, when Eider offered to iron his uniform; Eider hated ironing anything, but they both preferred their uniforms to look like they were brand new. There was no reason Eider needed to do the ironing when Petrel normally did it for both of them. "I'm capable and allowed to do my own chores. There is no reason you need to do them for me--"

"I want to make it better," Eider said, but not like he meant it.

Petrel shook his head. "If you want to make it better, stop feeling—those emotions. I can feel them over the bond now and they're distracting." Not to mention disgusting, disconcerting, and just all-around unpleasant.

"I'll try," Eider said, and he actually sounded like he would, so that was good.

It would be a lot easier to act like everything was normal if he didn't have those secondhand emotions kicking around the back of his mind, and Petrel needed things to be normal.

That was what they said, wasn't it? If you pretend long enough, what you pretend will become the truth. He shouldn't have snapped like that; the message needed to be delivered, yes, but Petrel didn't have to brandish it like a sword.

Petrel rubbed one hand over his face and went to fetch both their uniforms. He had an apology-favor double standard, but if that was the extent of his problems for a while he would be happy.

---

falling
At first climbing the mountain had been easy for Wren. Living in Nico de la Monte had made her lungs strong, even in the thin mountain air, so the first days were hardly even work. The ground wasn't treacherous, the snow was not ice, and the guide knew her business.

It wasn't until the third day that things started getting difficult.

She'd always hated, hated the dumb endurance work that they wanted her to do. She was actually quite good at sprinting and was not at all impressed by the idea that she needed to be good over distances as well. Tanager was there to be good over distances, damn it.

By the end of the third day, she was light-headed and fell directly into her tent and asleep as soon as she was able. The fourth and fifth days were no better, truly, but she was beginning to grow used to not having any excess energy.

Not even enough to care about the way that the food tasted like nothing at all, though she continued to shovel the recommended amount down her throat because it didn't seem like a good idea for her to just pass out in the middle of the trail.

*

The sixth day, they started to climb.

Wren had been good at climbing, once upon a time. Enjoyed it, even. She'd been light as a feather and nimble with it, able to scale any wall or cliff face with ease. But the bone plates—if they were bone at all, though the instructors seemed to feel like they could be nothing else—were added weight, and she had grown extra muscle in the bargain and it was just argh to climb now.

She nearly cried when she barely had the strength to hold herself still, much less do the actual climbing. They had secured a rope around her, so it made no matter if she fell, but it was still ridiculous, not being able to scale a wall any more.

How was she going to be any good for infiltration—what her prior training had focused on—if she couldn't even scale a cliff face anymore?

Crying wasn't an option so Wren just clenched her teeth and climbed the goddamn cliff face.

The trail from here wasn't vertical, but it was much closer to vertical than the trail up until now had been. She dug in her picks and climbed and didn't let it get to her. She was strong. She could do this. Tanager would be so disappointed if Wren failed.

It was that thought which drove Wren on: Tanager's disappointment. It would be palatable, even if Tanager didn't say anything, the emotions flowing through the bond because Tanager didn't try and moderate what Wren felt from her.

Not the way that Wren moderated her own emotions.

*

The seventh day passed in a blur of more rock-climbing and ice-climbing; they camped at what seemed to be the only flat spot this high up and the guide explained that they had fashioned this, as a place to rest: tomorrow they would reach the peak.

Relief flooded through Wren; she closed her eyes and sent up a silent prayer of gratitude.

Going down was going to be so much easier than going up, and they were almost ready to do it.

*

The peak itself Wren was not in the mood to appreciate. It was beautiful, and she could see for miles, but the air was thin and she was exhausted, dizzy, and a little giggly. It was time to go back to the Academy, back to their little mountain nest.

Wren turned and began to head back down the trail while everyone was still taking in the view, misplaced her foot, slipped, and fell. The world whirled as she rolled end over end down the snow covered ice. She hit her head on a rock, at some point, and everything went away.

*

They told her, when she woke up, that her bone plates were probably the only thing that saved her from dying horribly.

She had just enough presence of mind to think that maybe she should've been a little more grateful for her Change, all things considered. The plates had finally come in handy.

And, on the heels of that thought, she realized what purpose her armor—because that was exactly what the bone plates were meant to be, of course—could serve with Tanager in combat.

Because what better protection could there be in a battle than a wall of bone?

It made so much sense, all of the sudden, because of all of the things Tanager was, what she wasn't was good at defense. The weakness was her one downfall, in Wren's opinion, so far as combat went: she didn't care enough about anything but being able to defeat others in order to put the proper care into defense.

So that was Wren's job.

Suddenly the plates really didn't seem all that bad. More like a gift, solidifying, balancing, and cementing their Pair.

If Tanager's Metamorphosis didn't involve offensive changes, Wren would probably die of shock. But that was a long way off; right now she had to hurry up and wait for them to carry her down from this damned peak summit.

---

unconsciousness
Tanager missed Wren a lot, lot more than she'd ever expected she would. They had gone for a day or two without seeing each other before, for one reason or another, but they'd never been completely separate like this since they started feeling bits and pieces of one another's emotions when they were kids.

It ached. Tanager would find herself randomly looking around, panicked, sure that something must be happening to Wren. She could still feel her Bonded, but it was distant and vague and just wrong. They weren't meant to be apart like this.

There was no way Tanager wasn't going to give Wren a very stern talking-to whenever she finally got back, because this was miserable. Tanager wondered if Wren felt the same disconnect, but guessed probably not—Wren wasn't conscious of their Bond the same way Tanager was.

Not that she disregarded it, just that she didn't pay very much attention to it. Tanager was careful to moderate everything Wren felt, but Wren...

No, she didn't need to be sitting here thinking about this right now.

Except she couldn't stop thinking about Wren. The same way she'd find herself looking around, she would get calmed down and on a topic that wasn't Wren and her mind would somehow work its way back to Wren just as soon as Tanager stopped paying close attention.

Nearly a week out, Tanager thought: They have to be at the peak by now. It was only an eight-day climb, nine with bad weather. Eight days made a week and it was eight days now and she wasn't really sure how she was going to make it another week without Wren.

It was no wonder Pairs kept apart went mad, and not always by degrees either.

Maybe Tanager was the not-by-degrees type. Maybe she was crazy already.

No, she was spending a lot of time doing exercises and training but that was pretty normal and she really wasn't mad.

Not yet, anyway.

One thing she knew, though: Tanager was never going to let Wren go off on her own again, no matter how much thinking time and space Wren might need. It was just, just unnatural, this separation, and she couldn't deal with it for much longer.

Then it happened: sudden searing pain through the bond, making spots dance in front of Tanager's eyes. Alethe, who she had taken to exercising with lately because Alethe was clearly pursuing her and Tanager liked to feel like she was wanted sometimes even if nothing could happen with it... Alethe gasped as Tanager slumped against the floor, moaning. Before she was completely face down on the mat, Alethe was there, her hands on Tanager's shoulders, forcing Tanager over onto her back.

"What's wrong?" Alethe asked, but her words felt muted, far away. In Tanager's mind she was falling down the stupid peak that she'd barely made it up and each impact felt awful, each and every scrape was like fire though very few broke the thicker skin she'd developed.

At some point on her trip down the trail, Wren/Tanager blacked out, and Tanager, for one, was glad of it.

When Tanager woke up, she was herself again. She could quite clearly feel Wren's pain and distress through the Bond, but their minds were separate. And Wren was oblivious, but that was no different from her, and their, usual state of affairs.

Or lack of affairs. Tanager opened her eyes, and there Alethe was, sitting over her, looking worried. "I'm okay," she said. Neither light nor sound seemed to bother her, so she wondered if she'd passed out at all, but was fairly sure that she had.

"Are you sure?" Alethe asked, brows furrowed. "You just went down and I thought something had to be wrong."

Tell her, or play innocent? Tanager had learned during their stay here that the level to which she was in tune with the bond was pretty rare. That was just what she needed: one more confirmation for everyone that she was a freak of nature, even among Pairs. "I must've forgotten breakfast. I'm good now, I think."

The look on Alethe's face said that she didn't believe the act, but she was also much too polite to say anything.

At least Tanager had chosen well in that regard.

---

bullet wounds
They didn't know very much about Rook's healing abilities. Based on what they've learned in the last six months about those who were Talented rather than Paired, there weren't a lot of limits on the power but it very likely cut Rook's lifespan short the more often he used it.

The one healer they spoke to even said that the only limits, since Rook was Paired, were likely to be related to how much pain Rook could physically withstand before he had to stop healing. Healers didn't experience pain the way that Rook did, but the healing did, without a doubt, cut their lives short the more often they used it and... it was enough to make Kiwi's head spin.

So they tried their best not to use Rook's healing at all, and Rook tried his best to up his pain tolerance. It was hard to do without using his power, but he figured out a way and Kiwi did the only thing she could: cheered him on.

It worked, for a few years. Then they started going out into the world, putting their prowess into action through various tasks that their parents designed. Mostly dad and daddy; their moms thought this kind of thing menial and below them.

And then Kiwi got poked full of bullet holes from a trigger-happy brace of body guards at the estate of someone they were robbing. (It wasn't like the rich fucks needed the stuff, just an old candelabra and the doorknob from the master bedroom.) Being shot hurt so, so bad—she'd broken bones before and this was worse, not to mention the dark blood flowing from the gut wounds freaked her and Rook right out.

They managed to get away in spite of everything, back to the little room they were renting at the inn—she thanked the gods for back stairs, not for the first time. She clumsily took her shirt off and then sat on the bed while Rook sat on the floor; the touch of his hands on her abdomen was like fire. His look grew concentrated, then pained, and then all at once he was out like a light.

Kiwi's world went black too, whether in response to Rook or just because of the pain, she didn't know, but she joined him in a state of unconsciousness just the same.

When she came to, her wounds looked smaller than they had before but they were still bleeding and they were still wounds. Rook stirred, slumped over her knee, groaning a little. "I feel like I've stuck my hands in a furnace."

The pained look on his face said even better than words what he was feeling; Rook was normally so stoic.

Kiwi tucked one of his light brown curls—dark brown now, with sweat—behind his ear. Her hand shook a little, but the pain was a lot less than it had been before they'd taken their little vacation from consciousness. "Do you want to try again, or go get a healer?"

Rook bit his lip. "Try again, I think," he said, and lifted his hands. She sat back, bracing herself on her hands and exposing her belly to him again. His hands weren't as hot when they pressed against her initially, this time, but they heated up slowly as the concentration on Rook's face intensified.

"It doesn't hurt as bad if I try and do it slower," he murmured. Despite his words his voice was tight, restrained.

All Kiwi could think was to thank the gods that none of the bullets were still inside her; all three had gone straight through her flesh. "It hurts a little on my end, too. Your hands feel like they're burning me." She paused and laughed once as a new idea occurred to her. "Hey, Rookie, do you think there will be blisters when you're done?"

He shook his head. "I dunno. Maybe? I feel like I should have blisters too, but I can't see around all the light."

Kiwi reached down and cupped her hand over the back of one of Rook's. It hurt a little, but not as much as his palms against her skin hurt. "How much longer do you think it'll take?"

"Always impatient, aren't you?" Rook asked, smiling and chuckling.

She didn't mind getting labeled impatient if it made Rook smile like that when he was in pain. Well worth the price, by her estimation. "Guilty as charged. Think you'll be done sometime before dinner?"

In answer, the heat suddenly went out of Rook's hands and he pulled them away from her belly. "See for yourself."

Without Rook's hands in the way, Kiwi saw easily what had been hidden before: the wounds were closed into small scabs. She touched one gingerly and it hurt as bad as any infected wound. "Not completely healed."

"Not going to try to completely heal them again. I think that's what made me—us—pass out before."

Ah, now that made sense. Kiwi reached for her bloody shirt and examined it. "Good thing I have spare clothes, huh?"

Rook fingered one of the holes; it was about the same size as his forefinger. "These could be easily patched over."

Kiwi snorted. "I love how you don't specify who's going to be doing the patching."

"Mmm." Rook sat down on the bed next to her and wrapped a tentative arm around her shoulders. "Just try not to get shot again. I don't think I have enough juice in me to do that again anytime soon."

"Low on fuel?" Kiwi tilted her head, mind already racing off. No person's powers were limitless, but it was good to know the limits of Rook's power: three bullet wounds in the abdomen. Did they dare experiment with that?

Rook seemed to be having a similar thought process, because he let the subject drop and after long moments of comfortable silence said, "Do you think they'd let me practice the healing? Maybe if I use it more the limits won't be as stringent."

"Maybe if you use it more you'll die," Kiwi shot back, but softly, letting her head rest against his chest.

"No, I don't think it works that way. It hurts and it was a Change, not something with me from birth. The circumstances are different."

They'd had this argument many times before, and many times before Kiwi had thought that the risk wasn't worth the potential gain. Now, looking down at the scabs on her stomach, she wondered what would've happen if it had been worse. What if there were five bullet holes? Or what if it was a broken bone?

The last thing they were going to do by limiting Rook's use of his ability was develop his powers.

It really could be worse next time.

"Okay," she murmured. "I'll trust your judgment. It's your power—your life."

Rook kissed her head. "You know I'd never do it if you were against it."

Probably the only thing that had kept him from doing it so far, if Kiwi was honest with herself about the whole thing. "I know. So go ahead; do it, with my blessing."

"Thank you."

Kiwi just found his hand and squeezed it tightly. There weren't any blisters.

---

arrest
Kiwi would've thought that if she and Rook were going to get arrested it would be when they were inexperienced. During the robbery when she got shot three times in the gut and they'd barely made it back to the inn. Or maybe the time when Rook jumped off a wall like an idiot because there were dogs and he panicked because he couldn't abide dogs and broke his stupid leg; they had gotten lucky and the residents of the house seemed to think it was nothing since the dogs stopped barking as soon as Kiwi climbed down the wall. Oh, or the time she'd nearly cut her fingers off trying to get into a window—a real pinnacle of achievement, that, and one she still bore the scars from across the insides of all four fingers on her left hand. Those were logical places for their inevitable arrest to happen, though it hadn't.

Not when she was engaged in fermenting a bit of civil unrest during a protest. Rook had declined to accompany her tonight; he was feeling wiped out from practicing his powers so damn much.

The protest was against the emperor, of course. She was against idiocy of any type, really, but Kiwi was especially against the imperialistic idiocy that permeated through Liman culture and made them essentially smash their head against the wall repeatedly when it came to technological advances.

So what if they had the highest rate of Pairs in the entire world? So what if their Pairs were trained and deadly? So what, all of these things were meaningless if they couldn't keep up on the technology front. They were getting less insular of late, but it was by force so of course the emperor just ignored everything that he didn't deem important.

He ignored more than anything the fact that guns were beginning to make a lot of Pair abilities useless at best. Not to mention that the advent of guerrilla warfare was making their military seem useless—the smaller special forces groups were better but they were still smaller and...

At any rate, she protested, then she got arrested. They weren't rough with her, or anything, but sitting in a cold cell with six of her fellow protesters and being yelled at any time any of them opened their mouths was less than pleasant.

She'd been irritated about it this morning, but now she thought it was a damn good thing that Rook wasn't with her, or she might never have gotten out of that stupid jail. But he was there, smiling goofily, when they said someone had come for her.

"Staying out of trouble, I see?" he asked, raising one eyebrow. She'd never mastered that, herself, but he could do it and have it not look ridiculous.

Kiwi let her fingers twine with his as they walked out, squeezing his hand and hoping that he could feel even a portion of her gratitude through the Bond. "Of course. You know me."

He grinned crookedly at her over his shoulder, giving her hand a quick squeeze in return."That's the problem."

She wanted very badly to be angry, but the only thing Kiwi could do was laugh.

---

secret identity discovered / murder
On Kiwi's twentieth birthday, she and Rook received an invitation through their moms and dads to join the resistance.

"This is why you let us decide on our own schooling, isn't it?" Rook asked, not missing a beat—as usual.

His mom just nodded, and Kiwi's mom smiled at them. "We're so glad to be able to have you two join us; we're proud of both of you."

Kiwi felt her cheeks getting red. "I just hope we live up to the praise."

"Don't worry," Rook said, giving Kiwi a winning smile. "We'll be the best—wait, what are we going to be doing, exactly?"

"Infiltration," Kiwi's dad said. He wasn't smiling.

At least they wouldn't be bored anymore.

*

Their very first job was to infiltrate Nico de la Monte. Not as students, but as part of the school's guard. They didn't normally take people from outside the school for that, but someone else inside the school pulled strings for them; Kiwi and Rook's names became Kite and Oriole and they supposedly attended Prado Ciclo and had their contracts bought by a private merchant, who subsequently died and bequeathed their contracts to Nico de la Monte.

It didn't make a whole lot of sense to Kiwi, but then the way that the whole contracts thing worked was one mess that she'd never really considered learning about. Thus, she was happy to let someone else do the thinking for her when it came to contracts.

Rook understood it slightly better, but all that mattered was that they were now guards at the school with full access to most of the grounds. The private center where the teachers trained still remained off-limits to them, but they were free to go anywhere else in the school.

The first order of business was to make a map of the entire place. There was a warren of tunnels under the school, quite necessary during winter, but there were only partial maps of this portion or that portion of the tunnels, meant to show guards how to get from one place to the other. The full extent was unknown to probably everyone but the dean of the school herself, so Kiwi and Rook set to exploring the tunnels and making their maps.

They thought that their expeditions went unnoticed, but evidently they did not: one night as they were mapping the tunnels under the annex where the teachers lived, doing their best not to sneeze from all of the dust and mold that had piled up from this sector falling into disuse, a teacher approached them.

He walked directly up to Rook and said, "I know what you are. Oriole."

Rook looked down at him. Rook tended to look down at most people. "And what do you think I am, Tinamou?"

He took a step back, like he hadn't expected Rook to stand up—perhaps anyone who witnessed Kiwi and Rook's public interactions might think such a thing, but Kiwi knew that Rook had backbone. More than her, maybe.

Tinamou looked at Kiwi instead. "You're spies, is what you are. Dirty little--" But he cut off as Rook's hand closed around his throat.

Good. "That's not a very nice thing to say." Kiwi kept her tone even as she approached him. "What basis do you have for your accusation?"

Tinamou wisely tried to move out of range of Kiwi's touch, gagging and choking as Rook's grip on his throat didn't allow for any movement.

Wise, because Kiwi's first metamorphosis had occurred a week after her birthday: she could make people lose consciousness with a touch. It was useful, paired with Rook's healing, so the injured didn't try to push Rook away or suffer any more pain than they were already in.

Also useful for disabling pesky, nosy teachers who didn't know well enough to mind their own goddamned business. Kiwi knocked him out with nothing but her forefinger on his forehead and Rook eased him gently to the ground.

"Fuck," Rook said, simply.

But Kiwi had already moved beyond that. "Do you think he told anyone about his suspicions?"

It was likely that he had told his—but Tinamou wasn't Paired, wasn't Bonded. He was Talented, instead, one of the few teachers who made it on staff by virtue of their power rather than their partner.

Rook seemed to be following the same trail of thought. "He's not close with anyone, is he? If he were Paired, I'd worry, but he's not."

Kiwi nodded. "We can kill him with impunity, then."

"No," Rook said, quickly and quietly. "We don't have to kill him. Just—just disable him, and take him away from the school."

"Oh, yes, because that won't blow our cover." Kiwi rolled her eyes at the idea; Rook just hated to kill people. It was fitting that he'd gotten the power that he did.

Rook shook his head. "There's no reason for him to die. We shouldn't—what are we going to do with the body? How will his disappearance get explained? It's too big of a risk."

"And letting him live isn't a risk?" Kiwi hissed.

"I won't let you kill him." Rook's hands curled into fists and his eyes were alight with anger as he looked down at her.

"Then you can forget us continuing this mission; he's going to be even more ready to tell everyone about us after what just happened. We all but admitted our guilt with our actions."

"Please," Rook begged softly. "I don't want to."

"Then take the lantern and go down the tunnel a bit. You don't have to watch, or hear, or anything. I don't need light to do this idiot in."

Rook sighed but nodded. "Okay. But next time..."

Kiwi nodded in return. "Yes. Next time someone catches onto us, we get out of here like our asses are on fire and the only water is down the mountain."

That at least earned a ghost of a smile.

Times like this, Kiwi wished that Rook was just a little more bloodthirsty. But then Pairs were supposed to balance, weren't they? She didn't mind killing, so Rook loathed it. It was a balance. A balance sure to cause strife, yeah, but what was the fun of being in a Pair if you didn't have a good row every now and then?

On the floor, in the darkness, Tinamou groaned.

Idiot, Kiwi thought, and drew her knife.

---

food poisoning / two teenage boys trying to gross each other out
"Shouldn't have had that salmon," Petrel said, holding Eider's hair back from his face as he puked into a bucket.

Eider's eyes said that Petrel had better shut up, but Petrel couldn't resist continuing. Not when his brother was so vulnerable and, well, what were siblings for if not to harass one another? Pair or no Pair.

"I know it looked good, but it wasn't bright orange the way it should've been, was it?"

In response, Eider started to gag again. It was getting to the point where he wasn't bringing up anything, just having dry heaves. Petrel rubbed his back.

"I mean, it was slimy, to begin with. And that brownish rust color, too—no good can come of that, can there?"

Eider closed his eyes tightly and gripped the bucket as he gagged again. He sat back, then, somewhat tentatively, and Petrel let go of his hair. "You should just shut up. Urgh, I'm not even... thinking about it is..."

"Shh, shh," Petrel said, mock-soothing as Eider leaned forward again and gagged nothing into the stinking bucket. He waited for Eider to sit back again and asked, "Want me to empty that?"

The distrust in Eider's gaze made Petrel want to laugh, but he kept a straight face. And was rewarded for his effort: Eider whispered, "Yes, please. The smell is making it worse."

Petrel picked up the bucket, standing and looking down at the contents. "Oh, man, this looks utterly awful. It's not just the salmon in here—it's the garlic bread stuff you had for lunch too, and it looks like--"

"I know what it looks like." Eider's hands were clenched into fists, and he swallowed rapidly. Repeatedly. Like he was trying not to gag again.

Oh, it was too, too easy. "And the smell is like the sewers shat in a bucket and added a little vinegar for good measure."

That did it: Eider gagged, covering his mouth with one hand. There was still nothing left to bring up, and he didn't end up gagging anything onto the nice stone floor. Petrel emptied the bucket down the drain and ran some water after it to clear the pipes, then rinsed out the bucket.

"Here you go," he said, setting the bucket back in front of Eider, who gripped it and gagged into it a few more times before straightening.

"There is going to be payback," Eider said, and he sounded like he meant it too.

Petrel grinned. "Will there? I don't recall being enough of an idiot to eat food that is obviously past its prime, so you won't catch me in this situation."

"Just you wait," Eider promised. "Just you wait, Pet."

*

"Are you sure you don't want to have some more of those delicious fish eggs? I know they're imported, and the squid is just as divine, also imported, and think how they would be together, all the mushy parts there in one dish to tease you. Entice you. Eat me, they say. Taste me. I am chewy and will make you vomit up everything you've eaten in the last week."

Petrel just groaned and gagged into the bucket. This was the one downfall of your brother being your Bonded: the sibling stuff never went away, but you spent your entire lives together, so it wasn't really possible to get away from it.

Next time, he swore, he was going to make Eider pay. Once he was done being sick, he would sit down and think up the grossest things possible and then, then Eider would be sorry he ever retaliated.

---

deprogramming / conditioning
When they got back, Eider didn't say anything to anyone about why he had left, and he was fairly sure Petrel didn't either. Right up until he was led into a room and Lieutenant Swift said, "We're going to condition you out of that nasty habit you have when it comes to your brother."

That was an interesting way to put being attracted to his brother. "Why? I thought they just threw Pairs out when that happened."

Swift smiled, not a nice smile. "You and Petrel are far too dedicated to us for us to want to do that, though we will if this conditioning fails to work."

Oh, shit. Eider swallowed hard. "What do you want me to do?"

Lieutenant Swift motioned to the threadbare bed on one side of the room. They were in an old dorm room, fallen into disuse, so the mattress smelled moldy, but when the other option was getting kicked out, who was Eider to complain?

"Now, think about your brother."

Eider's brain chose that moment to remember that Swift's Change had involved him gaining the power to call lightning from his hands. He sat down on the bed, and thought of Petrel's face. "Is this all?"

Swift shook his head. "Close your eyes and think of the things you would like to do with your brother."

He swallowed hard again and did so, imagining as he had so many times before Petrel turning to him and confessing his love, and the things that might happen after—kisses, touches. Their bodies pressed together. His cock started to get hard.

Without warning, Swift shocked him. Just once, but once was enough when it was hard enough to make Eider's teeth clench and his hands ball up. He smelled burnt hair around him. His erection was gone.

"You're doing very well, Eider," Swift said, and sounded like he actually meant it. "Now, close your eyes and think of him again. The same as before."

It was the very last thing Eider wanted to do, but he wasn't going to start disobeying orders now. He thought of Petrel pressed against him again, of his brother's voice gone low and husky, of kisses that grew increasingly fierce. This time took longer, but Eider's cock got hard again.

And Swift shocked him again. This time didn't hurt as badly as the first, but it was still a shock, a jolt, and monumentally unpleasant.

"Excellent. Again, please."

"How many times are you going to do this?" Eider asked, his voice shaking a little, but that was probably just from the lightning that had coursed through him.

Swift cocked his head. "I don't know. As many times as it takes for the message to sink in."

"What message?" Eider asked, even though he knew already, he knew what they were trying to prevent. Swift had told him. He just needed to hear it again.

"That the only thing that may come from this fixation on your brother is pain."

Eider squeezed his eyes shut. "Yes, sir. Again?"

"Again."

---

disappearing
About a week ago, Wren started disappearing whenever Tanager went to spar with people. It might not have been remarkable if not for the fact that everybody knew that when Tanager won against another girl the forfeit was sex, but things were what they were so Wren started skipping off and doing something else whenever Tanager had a spar.

Which was pretty often; most of Tanager's training so far had been through various forms of sparring, and she liked doing it in her free time too because why the fuck not? Sparring was fun.

Feeling Wren's grief and anger through the bond was less fun, but what was Tanager going to do? Confess her feelings, have sex with Wren, and get both of them kicked out of the school they'd worked so hard to get into? That would be dumb.

Tanager wasn't going to jeopardize things until Wren gave some indication that she wanted things to be jeopardized. Because whatever else she was, she wasn't pushy when it came to what Wren wanted to do—or not do.

So she fucked other people, and Wren disappeared, and it was dysfunctional but it worked... until it didn't.

"I don't see why you have to do so much sparring," Wren muttered one evening, when Tanager got back. Sometimes Wren was here waiting, but most of the time she was gone.

There had been times when Tanager wondered exactly where her Bonded had gotten off to, but she wasn't willing to point out that she was noticing by asking. Not yet, anyway. "Because I like to fight, little bird," Tanager said, about as gently as she ever said anything. She added, teasing, "I thought you knew that?"

Wren's mouth twisted into a scowl and she looked away. "I think what you mean to say is that you like to fuck."

Tanager had wondered how long it would take Wren's top to blow over this, and here was her answer. "I like both things, actually, but—yes. I do fuck after spars, if the conditions are right."

"If you win against a girl," Wren muttered.

"If that bothers you, little bird--"

Wren looked up suddenly. "Quit calling me that."

It was the nickname that Tanager had had for Wren since forever. There was no way she was going to stop using it; Wren would have to kill her first. "Why?"

"Because pet names are for lovers and children, and I am neither one so you can just cut it out—there's no need to call me that anymore."

Anymore. What had changed? But more importantly, this was seeming more and more like Wren saying that she wanted to admit her feelings to Tanager. So of course Tanager had to move first; Wren was too timid to do anything otherwise.

Tanager reached over and tried to cup a hand around the back of Wren's neck. With the plates, Wren wasn't so fas as she once was, but she was still quick enough to duck and whirl and pin Tanager against the bed with one arm twisted painfully behind her back.

Maybe she was learning those lessons on maneuvering with the things gifted to her in her Change a little too well. Tanager drew in unsteady breaths, but said nothing; when Wren got mad, she knew better than to run her mouth.

"That's it?" Wren growled, the ghost of her breath hot against the back of Tanager's neck. "You're just going to act like you want something now that I'm threatening you?"

"I've always wanted it," Tanager said, or tried to say; she got about halfway through 'wanted' and ended up with her face pressed against the bed.

"Shut up shut up. You don't get to say things just because they're what I want to hear."

But I'm not saying it because of that, Tanager thought desperately, and tried to buck under Wren, to throw her partner off so she could speak and express herself and maybe snap Wren out of this view that she was the only one who wanted it.

No matter how angry she was, though, Wren wasn't truly violent or cruel; she let Tanager's head up after a few more moments, with a hissed, "Got anything to say?"

"I love you," Tanager tried, and hesitated once the words were out, waiting for the backlash to come. None came, though. She took a few shaky breaths before continuing. "I've always loved you, Wren. Yes, like the way you love me. I'm attracted to you."

"Liar," Wren said, but without conviction. "I never felt anything over the bond. I would've felt something."

Tanager shook her head. "No. I can just control what you feel over the bond better than you can." She could control just about everything to do with the bond better than Wren could, but she wasn't going to get into that now.

Wren let go of Tanager's wrist, but kept one knee in the middle of Tanager's back. "I don't believe you. I would've noticed by now."

Damn, but her wrist hurt. Tanager used it with the other hand to angle herself off of the bed a little—not enough to throw Wren off or anything—and closed her eyes to concentrate. She winked out everything, so Wren could feel nothing through the bond, waiting for the little gasp of shock, then let everything, everything come flooding back through the connection between them.

"Holy goddesses," Wren breathed, and climbed off of Tanager entirely. "You're really not lying, are you?"

Tanager offered up a little grin. "Why do you think I never kept a single lover? None of them could compare."

Wren's cheeks went red, the way they were supposed to, and she looked down at her hands.

Without a word, Tanager reached over and laced their fingers together. "We don't have to do anything about it, you know. If you want to stay here, I've not done anything for years, I think I can keep it up." As long as Wren didn't decide that Tanager wasn't allowed to fuck anyone anymore.

"No," Wren whispered. "I want... I want to do something about it."

In that case, Tanager leaned over and pressed her lips against Wren's. It was a sweet, sweet kiss, though it only lasted a matter of seconds before Wren pulled away, eyes wide, shaking her head.

"I can't, I'm not—not supposed to. Not supposed to sleep with your Bonded." She tittered, looking away, then closed her eyes and took a few deep breaths. "I'm sorry."

This was what Tanager had been afraid of all along with coming here: that one or both of them would get brainwashed into being too afraid of acting on their feelings. But she'd known the danger and said she'd go anyway, hadn't she?

Which kind of meant that she had no right to complain now. "It's okay. No, really, I—I expected it, a little. So don't worry about it. We'll continue like always, right?" She didn't bother trying to smile.

Wren just nodded slowly.

"Good. In that case, I have a spar tomorrow, if you don't have any problem with it." With Alethe, and if Wren noticed that Tanager was sparring with Alethe multiple times and winning multiple times she was in deep shit.

But Wren only shrugged and looked away. "You'll do what you want, of course."

Too right. But at least now Wren knew how Tanager really felt.

---

blood loss
The spar had been with Hawk, who was dangerous because he didn't know when to fucking stop, and on top of it Tanager had been off her game because Wren asked her to stop sparring with women.

So then Tanager lost, and lost badly, and lost blood, and even after the healers were through with her she was light-headed and felt half dead.

Wren same to watch the spar, so she was there most of the match anyway, and she saw it and Tanager felt so stupid and humiliated to have had her ass kicked like that in front of Wren.

"It's okay," Wren said, one arm looped around Tanager's waist. "He's an asshole, anyway, and I know you were still... reeling some."

Understatement. Tanager would've talked, but it just seemed like so much effort to just open her mouth, and she didn't want to nod because that would very likely make her pass out the way she had on the sparring floor.

"Of course, if you'd just given up before you bled half to death, we wouldn't be in this situation, but no one would ever accuse my Tanager of being gutless."

Was that a backhanded insult, or a backhanded compliment? Tanager couldn't decide, and once again—no energy to ask. Plus she was starting to see spots again, urgh, and the room was tilting worryingly. Not to mention the fact that she could hear her heartbeat like a drum in her ears and it was too, too fast. The healer said she would be like this, though, until her blood level built back up.

Somehow, they made it back to their room, and Tanager collapsed on her bed and didn't remember anything else after that.

*

Someone was petting Tanager's hair. Slow, even strokes that reminded Tanager of her mother, though it wasn't possible because her mother was dead, dead, dead. Opening her eyes seemed like a tall order.

She could do it, though. She could totally open her eyes. There was nothing stopping her but herself. And a little blood loss. She'd lost blood before. So just open your eyes, she told herself.

Tanager opened her eyes slowly. She blinked slowly at Wren's form, kneeling on the floor, arms crossed on the bed, head atop them, eyes closed.

Little horns sticking out, begging to be touched. Tanager touched one. It was a slow movement, too, and she wanted to draw her hand back quickly, but her body didn't quite want to cooperate.

Wren jerked awake at the touch, eyes going wide for a moment before she realized who was touching her and she smiled. Tanager touched her cheek, and smiled at the way it was all warm from sleep. "Hey."

"Hey, yourself," Wren said, and without preamble leaned forward and pressed her lips against Tanager's.

Who didn't try to pull back. This was what she wanted; why would she ever try to stop it? Wren kept it chaste, at least, and was still smiling when she pulled away.

Confusion and joy mingled together was a very disconcerting feeling. Tanager shook her head a little, but that made her dizzy and actually a little bit nauseous too.

"Woah there," Wren said, putting one hand behind Tanager's head and helping her ease back down against the bed. "The healer said you'd be sick for a little while. Do you want some food? It's beef stew."

Tanager's favorite. She wondered who Wren had bribed to make it; Wren's cooking skills were crap. Still, no need to look a gift horse in the mouth. "Yes, please."

The way Wren spooned Tanager the food, nothing had changed between them, but Tanager was pretty sure that there was something in Wren's eyes, a feeling coming across the bond, that hadn't been there before.

Just like that, she thought once her stomach was full and Wren leaned forward for another kiss.

Tanager could get used to this kind of thing.
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