The following is one of my 500-word fics for Challenge Eighteen: March Madness Redux on Live Journal's Romancing the Wizard community. The challenge included the following guidelines: use of a rare pair, spring setting, and the idea of the prompt done in 500 words. Enjoy!

Wizard/Witch: Michael Corner/Natalie McDonald
Rating/Warnings: G/PG
Genre: Romance/Whimsy
Word count: Exactly 500 originally then I had to add to it.
Prompt: 13 springtime mating rituals
Summary: Natalie McDonald begins her apprenticeship on a Thestral reserve and gets more than she bargained for.

For the Love of Thestrals--A Beginning

Oblivious to the buds on the trees, the soft, warm breeze, or the early-blooming wildflowers, Natalie McDonald tromped down the muddy lane the first day of apprenticeship at the Thestral reserve. At first she had thought of Thestrals as terrifying and ugly, which had more to do with why she was able to see them than the creatures themselves. However, the more she learned about them, the more she appreciated their intelligence and macabre grace.

"Hello there!" a voice called out, interrupting her thoughts. Over by the gate a tall dark-haired young man beckoned to her. Natalie's eyes widened at the sight of her school-girl crush.

"You must be Natalie McDonald," he said, shaking her hand. "Michael Corner."

"I know." Blushing furiously, she mumbled, "I mean, hello."

"Do you have any questions before we begin?" he asked, glossing over her awkward greeting.

She shook her head, not trusting herself to say anything.

"Occultus Totalis," he said, and Natalie saw they both were surrounded by a shimmering bubble. "The spell cancels out sight, sound, and smell. As far as the Thestrals are concerned, we aren't here at all. It's the beginning of mating season, and we wouldn't want to disturb them. Stick close though; I don't want to lose you."

Michael entered the forested area with long strides. Natalie jogged to keep up, hindered by the mud that sucked at her boots. They had gone fairly far into the woods when Michael suddenly stopped. Natalie stumbled and collided with him. With a grin, Natalie's companion righted her but continued to hold on with his strong hands. Natalie thought for certain she was going to tingle to death from the contact.

He whispered in her ear; his breath tickling her. "There."

In the clearing, two Thestrals were circling each other, sniffing and snorting. The beasts would nuzzle each other's necks or touch foreheads from time to time and resume the circling. As the skeletal animals inhaled the pheromones, their dead white eyes began to change until they darkened to a gleaming brown. Natalie gasped slightly as the bony bodies began to fill out and the dull coats became glossy.

"When Thestrals mate," Michael began in a hushed tone, his hands still on her shoulders, "their bodies adapt to become more supportive of the new life the female will be carrying."

"I never thought they could be so... beautiful, " replied Natalie. "At least not in a conventional way."

Natalie watched the intricate mating ritual with fascination as the Thestral continued their sniffs and caresses. She was also acutely aware that Michael's strong hands were gently stroking her. Part of her wanted to pull back but another part of her wanted to melt into the comforting warmth. He was leaning closer to her, causing her breath and heart to quicken. They were jolted back to reality as the sniffs and snorts changed to erotic sighs and cries, a sign the act of coupling was soon to follow. Her companion surreptitiously ceased his ministration as if finally becoming aware of what he had been doing, but he didn't release her. Natalie trembled.

"Sh-should we give them some privacy?" she asked. As much as she wanted to stay and watch from a clinical perspective, she was decidedly uncomfortable doing so while Michael was holding her.

"Are you sure?" he asked helping her to her feet.

She nodded. Taking her by the hand, Michael led her back to the gate. A spring rain began to fall. Natalie began to shiver, and her companion noticed.

"Let's go to the cottage," he suggested. "There's a stew on the fire, and we can get to know each other."

"Sounds wonderful,"

Inside the warm cottage, the pair chatted about their post-Hogwarts lives over plates of steaming stew. The awkwardness turned to relaxed laughter, and the smiles became increasingly frequent.

"I think we're going to enjoy working together," Michael said between mouthfuls.

"Same here," Natalie agreed.

Grinning broadly, Michael reached out and covered her hand with his. In return, Natalie gave him a smile as warm as spring sunshine.

Author's Notes: Occulus Totalis means to hide/conceal/occlude totally. The spell is perfect for hunters and naturalists as it makes the caster and anyone in his or her company undetectable by sight, sound, or smell.

Thanks to missblane for pointing out the errors my brain cells didn't catch.