St. Pigeonation's new school year wouldn't start until next week, but Hiyoko was already buried in papers at her desk. She envied the older teachers who already had lesson plans from previous years. Not only were they spared this last-minute scrambling, but she also needed to arrange all of her assignments and test schedules to avoid conflicts with theirs. The only other teacher in the staffroom was sound asleep.
She accidentally knocked a book off her desk onto the floor. The noise woke the white quail, reflexively launching him straight upward. He bounced off the ceiling net, fluttered down again, and blinked at her with sleepy good will. "Ah, it's you. Good morning, Hiyoko."
She looked at the wall clock. "A- Actually, it's afternoon now. I'm sorry for waking you up, Mr. Nanaki! I didn't mean to drop that book..."
"Still getting ready for class? You don't have to prepare the curriculum for the entire year ahead of time, you know- one semester at a time is enough. Though you've always been very hard-working and conscientious, so don't let me discourage you from doing your best."
"Of... of course not, Mr. Nanaki!"
He ambled over to her desk, smiling gently. "We're colleagues now, so you can call me Kazuaki if you like. Do you need any help?"
"Well," Hiyoko admitted, "I wanted to ask you something about the math curriculum, but it can wait until tomorrow. Right now I was straightening my desk to go home for the day. I was only planning to stay here for a few hours this morning, but this was too complicated- I didn't even get around to eating the lunchbox I packed. I don't know if I should eat it for dinner or just throw it away."
"Lunchbox?" Kazuaki cocked his head. "You know, I think I've been asleep here all day and haven't eaten anything. I'll make some sweet mango tea, if you'd like to share it. Please, you can sit at my desk so so you won't have to move all of your papers again..."
By the time he returned with the hot tea, she'd brought the lunchbox to his desk and was almost done unpacking its contents. He pulled up an extra chair next to his own, so they could sit side by side. "There should be enough for both of us," Hiyoko said shyly. "This was the first time I tried this recipe, so it made more dumplings than I expected. I don't know if you've ever had these before, but... I hope you like them, sir. I mean... Kazuaki."
"Dumplings? They look very symmetrical. I don't remember having ever eaten these, but they have a very nice, familiar odor." With his first bite, his expression intensified from vague appreciation to something like sharp longing. "Why, these are... they're made from millet, aren't they? They're delicious! I didn't know humans ate millet."
Hiyoko blushed. This was the first time he'd shown her any affection or interest more intense than the generic goodwill that he gave to everyone, and her schoolgirl crush on him had never really faded. "Well, ever since the first time I gave you millet for Legumentine's, I've been remembering how much you liked the taste, and so I've been eating more of it myself. The millet dumplings are an old traditional recipe- they're made from millet grains that are boiled until they're soft enough to stick together."
"Mmm. The soft texture especially reminds me of when I was young- I used to feed my younger siblings with mashed millet, you see." He pecked at another dumpling, looking happier than she'd ever seen him. "So, as long as we're here, what was your math question?"
"I was wondering if I should try to teach Descartes' theorem to the first-years, or if you wanted to save it for your second-year classes. I mean, there were some Tokugawa temple tablets that worked out some of the basic principles about the osculation of circles, but..."
"It's worth a try. If they're not ready for the proof through geometry, I can try the algebraic approach on them the following year. Though come to think of it, I've always wondered about the terminology of 'osculating circles'. I gather that the 'osculation' concept is based on a human courtship ritual, but it doesn't quite make sense to me."
"Well, um, 'osculation' means... 'kissing'. Humans put their mouths together."
"So it's like mutual feeding?" He looked rather wistful. He dipped the tip of his closed beak into his tea, then winced. "Oh dear, that's still too hot to drink, isn't it?"
"Kissing doesn't normally involve food. Humans just do it because it... feels good, I guess." Hiyoko blew on her tea to cool it before something occurred to her. "Kazuaki, do beaks have nerves in them? I never realized. On the track team, sometimes Oko San and the others ended up with chipped bloody beaks after fighting, but they never acted like it hurt."
"Dr. Iwamine must've given them painkillers. If I recall his cross-species comparisons correctly, avian beaks are similar to your human fingernails- there's a rigid outer layer, but underneath that, there are blood vessels and sensors for pressure or pain. Or whatever else nerves do." He was giving her a similarly inquisitive look. "What about you humans and your prehensile lips? What do they feel like?"
His question stymied her halfway through a dumpling. She grimaced weirdly, trying to figure out what the nearest bird equivalent might be. Lips were mucous membranes, right? Did birds have any external tissues like that?
Kazuaki laughed gently. "Hiyoko," he said. "Your mouth is open, and there's food falling out of it."
Her face went scarlet. "Oh, I'm sorry," she blurted, trying to stuff half-chewed dumpling up from her chin.
"Don't be," he murmured, and leaned closer to carefully pick spilled millet off her face with his beak. Its tip was sharp and narrow, but no worse than lightly tracing a fingernail against her skin. He was deft and gentle, even when his beak dipped inside her mouth to take more millet off her tongue. Her hands rose to caress his pale feathers, and a low croon came from his throat as his wings fanned up against her shoulders.
"Hiyoko," he said quietly. His voice resonated very strangely from inside her mouth. "Are you osculating me?"
"I don't... think so, yet." Her lips were loosely cupped around his beak, and her tongue flicked against its base when she tried to talk. Its keratin was smooth and warm, and the close, familiar fragrance of quail feathers and bleach made her dizzy. He shivered. "Do you... want me to?"
"It seems... worth the experiment, as the good doctor might say."
Experimentally, then, she closed her lips more firmly, cupped her tongue around the bottom of his beak, and applied light suction. She already had her arms wrapped around his body, but his upward lunge of surprise lifted both of them into the air.
She tiptoed out of the school after dark. It took hours to pick all of the loose white feathers out of her hair and from inside her clothing. It was a good thing, she pondered, that the staff room's ceiling net was so strong. It would be even better if she could get there early enough tomorrow to find the area where her panties had fallen out from the net to the floor.
Whe she got there, Kazuaki was still asleep under his desk with a transcendent smile. She smiled, caressed his plumage, and quietly dabbed a smear of millet off his face