Author's Note: So - this turned out longer and plottier than I expected. Well, sort of plottier, anyway, but definitely long enough that I felt better splitting it into two parts. Please enjoy them both! And be glad I didn't call this "A Matter of Pinions," which I came terrifyingly close to doing.


-1-

Mark stared suspiciously at the two identical birdlike aliens standing before him, one on each side of a tall, arched, and curtained doorway. They were bipedal and built skinny besides their heavily muscled chests; long, slender necks supported narrow beaky heads crested with red and black feathers, and folded along their sides were white wings tipped in black, making them look like nothing so much as a strange cross between a crane and an albatross. Through the round room's wide windows others of their kind could be seen swooping around in the golden-edged clouds or hovering lazily on one of the frequent updrafts of warmer air.

One of them was offering him something small and egg-shaped that it held in its beak, while the other one spoke in a sing-song, chirping language; through the connection in Mark's helmet, Durandal translated, "Welcome to our beautiful and hospitable world of Iiri, traveler. Take, eat, and be fully welcome."

"I'm not touching that," Mark said under his breath. "It's been in their mouth."

"They don't have saliva and there's nothing you can catch from them anyway, just take it before they get suspicious."

Growing aware of the restless crowd of other visiting aliens behind him, Mark reluctantly took the damn pill or whatever it was, popped it into his mouth, and swallowed it whole. The Iirian who had spoken earlier gestured with one wing for Mark to pass through the doorway.

As soon as Mark had gone through it into the next room, another Iirian hustled him into a third room that had an actual door, chirp-squawked something, and vanished before Durandal could even start translating whatever they'd said. That sure was promising. He'd had a bad feeling about this mission from the get-go; he knew less than jack about diplomacy that didn't involve shotguns to the face, but Durandal had been adamant that their usual approach wasn't necessary on Iiri. Mark had beamed down armed anyway - better safe than sorry - but he wasn't looking forward to opening negotiations. Durandal was the smooth-talking, manipulative bastard; it should have been him figuring out how to get to whoever was in charge of the planet, not Mark. According to Durandal's research, however, besides their floating cities and some biotechnology advancements renowned throughout the galaxy, the Iirians liked to keep things low-tech and do their talking face-to-face. Which, since Durandal didn't have a physical face, meant sending Mark, which meant that now he was stuck in a room by himself with a weird musty taste in his mouth waiting for - whatever was supposed to happen next.

Great.

He looked around the room, hoping for some water or something to rinse the taste out of his mouth, but it was completely empty, with nothing but a single low, wide window marring the surface of the rounded cream-colored walls. He realized he'd missed Durandal saying something, and said, "Wait, what was that?"

"If you're not going to pay attention to me, you can learn the language yourself."

Geez, he was touchy about being ignored. "Sorry, sorry," Mark said, "I was just thinking about something else... Would you please be so kind as to repeat yourself?"

"And you think I'm the sarcastic one," Durandal said, but he sounded a little less cranky. "Fine. Your erstwhile guide was asking you to please remain in this room until you have completely adapted."

"Adapted to what?" Fuck, his mouth was as dry as if he'd eaten a bowl of feathers; he wondered who he'd have to shoot to get a drink around here. "Air's fine, gravity's fine, just lighter than usual..."

"I'm checking now. Or I would be if you'd stop pestering me."

"Yeah, okay, just - ow, fuck!" A spike of pain had just burned through his stomach, doubling him over. "Ow, what the hell?"

"Something wrong?"

"Just - just a cramp or something," Mark said, taking deep breaths. "That damn pill they gave me, I guess, didn't - fuck!" Another cramp lanced through him, worse this time. "Didn't agree with me..."

"Hold on, they don't have much in the way of a computer network but I'm downloading everything they've got on that pill. Just a -"

Agony twisted up his spine, and Mark screamed. His knees went out from under him, but he barely felt the jolt of hitting the floor; it was buried by the waves of jagged pain sweeping through him, clawing along his back like an enraged F'lickta. He cursed, drawing in a ragged breath, then screamed again as the claws ripped deeper into his back.

"Mark!" Something sounded funny about Durandal's voice, Mark managed to think through the pain, but he didn't know what. "Hang on, I've got a teleporter lock - don't move!" Hah. Moving. Mark would have laughed at the thought if he hadn't been writhing on the floor in fucking agony. He was barely aware of the teleportation field taking hold and the cream-colored room dissolving into static, then reforming into the familiar eye-searing colors of the Rozinante; barely heard Durandal shouting at him, or the normally soft voices of the S'pht raised in harsh, worried tones. Fuck, his back was tearing itself apart and he couldn't stop screaming, his fingers scrabbling against the metal deck. Grip, he had to get a grip somehow and get up, he couldn't go out like this...

Even as he struggled to push himself up he felt the brush of a cloak against one arm. "Be still, please," one of the S'pht was saying - F'tha, he thought. "Be still and rest, Mark, we are with you." Definitely F'tha.

"What - the fuck - is happening to me?" Mark managed to say, his voice hoarse, and he had to clench his teeth to stop another scream. Oh God, his back was killing him, if he lived through this he was going to murder Durandal for sending him down to that fucking bird planet.

"It's going to be okay," Durandal said, "I'm going through the files, just hold on and don't - oh." Suddenly he was laughing. Oh yeah, Mark was going to blow his core logic circuits straight to hell. "So that's what - I see."

"See what, you bastard? What - what's so fucking funny?" Mark gasped, and even F'tha sounded disapproving as they said, "What amuses you, Durandal?"

"Oh, nothing. You'll find out soon enough," Durandal said, snickering. "Take deep breaths, two aspirin, and call me in the morning..."

"Son of a bitch! Tell me what's going on!" The pain had thinned out and concentrated itself in fiery lines burning through the muscles in his back, but that didn't make it hurt any less.

Durandal just laughed again, which sure wasn't helping, and then came the tell-tale click of him shutting off the room's communications. That bastard. Mark cursed, screamed as the pain spiked, and cursed again, his breathing ragged and harsh. F'tha's cloak swept gently over him, and through the haze of burning agony he could barely feel the delicate touch of a exoskeletal metal hand on one shoulder. "Rest, Mark," F'tha said softly. "Rest and be still. I will remain with you, whatever will happen."

"Thanks," Mark said, "you're a - a real friend, F'tha..." And he meant it. The S'pht weren't a touchy-feely sort of people, and the hand on his shoulder was a pretty big deal for them. His field of vision was narrowing and growing black at the edges; fuck, if he fainted Durandal was never going to let him hear the end of it, but on the other hand being unconscious for all this painful shit sounded pretty damn great. Fucking Durandal. Always pulling crap.

"Sleep, please," F'tha said, and the metal hand pressed down lightly; even that faint pressure was enough to send pain ripping through Mark again, and he curled into a ball, gritting his teeth so hard it was a miracle they didn't break. "Sleep until you are functional, I am present."

As whatever unholy torture device the Iirians had fed him tried to claw its way out of his back, Mark decided that was the best idea he'd heard all day and passed out.


The first sensation Mark was aware of as he woke was a feeling of perfect stillness, perfect rest; he hadn't felt so at peace since - since any time he could remember, actually. No need to fight or run or move at all, he could just lay absolutely, completely still and ignore the heavy weight dragging at his back...

Wait, the what?

With that realization a whole army of other sensations poured into his consciousness. Sore jaws, a deep-rooted ache in his back and upper chest as if he'd been bench-pressing the Rozinante, the tang of blood in his mouth and the sour odor of it in his nose, a feeling in his throat like someone'd stuffed a wad of tissues wrapped in sandpaper down it, a disgusting patchy stickiness on the floor - God, he wanted to go back to sleep and get away from it all, but no chance of that now. He blinked rapidly, then squinted, but he didn't see anything besides the dull gray metal deck and the lower edge of a red wall. "F'tha?" he said. "You still here?"

"Yes, I remain." The edge of a purple cloak floated in front of Mark's eyes. "How do you feel?"

"Like I fought the law and the law won," Mark croaked. "No, don't ask. Feel like shit. What happened?"

"You should continue to rest," F'tha said, "and water will be brought - you have been very nonfunctional."

Nonfunctional was putting it mildly, and Mark still didn't know what the hell was going on. With the greatest of care, he started pushing himself up, groaning as the weight on his back dragged painfully at his muscles. He hadn't felt so godawful since Lh'owon, probably. Water sounded great, but what sounded even greater was figuring out what happened to him and then blowing the hell out of Durandal's core for almost certainly being at fault somehow. Also for laughing, that bastard.

A glass of orange liquid materialized in front of him, and he decided vengeance and answers could wait a minute while he drank it. One gulp and he was sputtering at the sharp, acidic taste. Orange juice? Seriously? "Durandal, where the fuck did you come up with orange juice?"

There was no answer; Durandal was probably still avoiding him, the way the AI usually did when messy biological stuff was involved. Mark grimaced as his back muscles spasmed, but despite the lingering aches and stiffness there was no repeat of his earlier agonies, and he finished off the orange juice in relative peace while F'tha hovered over him. Once the glass was empty he put it down and said, "Okay, F'tha, time to spill. What the hell is on my back?"

"Perhaps you should continue to rest," F'tha said, which was not an answer in any way, shape, or form. "When you have regained more function -"

"I'm fine, damn it! Just tell me!" He still felt pretty shitty, but the orange juice was doing its work; some strength was coming back into his limbs, and he managed to get to his feet despite the heaviness throwing him off balance and weighing him down. He started trying to feel at his back, which would have been easier if his arms didn't feel like extremely sore noodles. "C'mon, all I want to know is -" He stopped dead as his hands ran into something feathery. Oh, hell no. No way. "Get me a mirror!" The walls of the room were all too textured to reflect anything more than a vague shadow.

"I experience a failure to understand. There are no -"

Mark growled in frustration and staggered towards the door, which obediently opened in front of him despite F'tha's protests that he should stay still and rest. Fine, so he couldn't remember ever seeing a mirror on the damn ship, there had to be something somewhere that would show him what was growing on his back. Just one goddamn wall that wasn't green or red or purple, just one smooth shiny place, that was all he needed... Also to stay upright, which walls of all colors were useful for, but even with their support he wasn't sure how long he could keep going. He soldiered on anyway, one hand on the walls, ignoring the S'pht popping up at every junction to watch him, until he finally turned a corner and saw sweet, sweet shining steel. Oh, thank God, he'd known there had to be some place on board where Pfhor design wasn't as hideous as usual... He hobbled over to stand in front of the wall and squinted until his reflection came clear. Then squinted some more. Then just flat-out stared.

There were streaks of dried brownish blood on his shoulders and a giant patch of it on his right side, but he was pretty used to blood, his own and other people's. What he wasn't used to seeing stained with blood was the pair of ragged, giant white wings with black edges that arched up behind his back, the tips dragging on the deck.

Mark stared for a full minute, mouth slightly open, as the feathers on the wings fluttered gently in the recirculating air. Then he drew in a deep, soothing breath.

"DURANDAL!"

Synthesized laughter echoed through the halls.


After F'tha had gotten Mark calmed down enough that Mn'rhi and Yr'fa could help him clean the blood off of himself and Durandal had almost entirely stopped laughing, the S'pht declared it safe for them to speak to each other. Goddamn busybodies.

"Personally, I like it," Durandal said, while Mark sat cross-legged in front of the Rozie's one smooth steel wall and glared at his reflection. Mostly at the wings, which he had, with a whole lot of awkwardness, figured out how to arrange so he could actually sit. "It's appropriate. I've always wanted my very own Angel of Death, and now you have the wings to play the part."

"Fuck. You." Mark tried tensing the muscles in his left shoulder, and the left wing twitched slightly. "How the hell am I gonna fit the rocket launcher over these?"

"Something can be worked out, don't worry." There was a calculated pause, then a quiet snicker. "Maybe if I got you a nice robe or a -"

"Seriously, fuck you," Mark said, and tested the right wing, which obediently twitched. Well, it was a start. "You couldn't have figured out this would happen before I swallowed the magic pill?"

"I did tell you the Iirian were renowned for their biotechnology."

"That's not the same goddamn thing!"

Durandal didn't immediately disagree, which was downright unnatural. After some awkward silence, he said, "More in-depth research could have been performed," which was practically an apology. "Look, the planet is an extremely popular tourist destination -"

"And somehow the words 'wing-growing pill' weren't in any of the guidebooks?"

"Are you going to let me explain, or are you going to run your stupid mouth until I get bored and let you find out how well those things work in vacuum?"

Mark grumbled under his breath, but waited.

"As I was saying, it's a popular tourist destination - I assumed it would be safe enough for you to visit without further preparation."

He actually sounded a little embarrassed; Mark decided to be generous and leave off the ragging. Mostly. "Yeah, sure - so they get a lot of masochists? Because I gotta tell you, I've died less painfully than that."

"They've never had human tourists before. Normally the pills are tailored to the biology of the visiting species in order to cause as little pain and mess as possible, but since they knew nothing about Homo sapiens, they just gave you the standard - no painkillers included."

"Wow. How nice of them," Mark said. He tried stretching just the right wing out fully, but they both extended and spread out with a painful tug at his still-sore back, and he instinctively refolded them. "Do I really need these? Can't we cut them off and try this again minus the surprise body mods?"

"Low-tech world of avians. No cars, no airplanes, no helicopters - they fly themselves everywhere, and I mean everywhere. There's no getting around without wings on that planet."

Mark sighed. He'd figured as much. "Okay, fine. So beam me down, give me a chance to get used to using these, I'll find out who we need to talk to."

"Can't."

"Bullshit," Mark said. "I'm fine - good enough for government work, anyway - and I'm not sitting around here so you can keep making cracks about -"

"I can't," Durandal said, "as we are currently concealed in an asteroid belt six star systems over, because the moment after I got you on board I bombed the city and folded out of orbit."

"Oh." Of all the excuses Mark had thought he might hear, that wasn't one of them. "You bombed them for messing with me?" It was - kind of touching, in a weird and very Durandal way.

"Don't start getting sentimental, or I'll dump you into space until all your vital liquids boil away."

"Yeah, yeah, no worries on that front. So we go back under cover, I say a few sorries, play extra-nice..." No immediate answer. "Oh God, tell me you didn't bomb the whole planet. You bombed the whole planet, didn't you?"

"Just the one city," Durandal said, a sulky tone in his voice. "And no casualties. Bird people, remember? I aimed at open and uncrowded areas, anyone nearby could easily have have flown out of the way. Anyway, now I don't want to go back."

"Real mature of you." Mark got to his feet with more care than usual, trying not to let the wings throw him off-balance. Fuck, moving with these things was going to be a real drag - how was he supposed to fight with them getting in the way? "How long am I gonna be stuck like this?"

"The records I copied indicate that without supplemental pill intake, they fall off after an Iirian week - approximately eight point seventy-five Earth days." A brief pause. "They're rather similar in nature to the antlers of some Terran animals such as -"

"Okay, fine, I get the idea," said Mark. "Thank fuck for small favors." At least they weren't permanent, that was a load off his mind. He stretched, rolling his shoulders, and his wings flexed as well. "So, are you gonna keep being a baby about one little mistake, or are we going after their tech?"

"I don't know - I'm sensing some genuine potential in these asteroids, there could be -"

"I'm not going asteroid-mining for you."

"Fine, fine, we're going back. But you're doing all the groveling."


All that got Mark through the grindingly tedious process of groveling to be allowed back into the major population centers of Iiri was knowing how much blame he could put directly on Durandal. It was unholy, the joy he felt as he put on his most serious face and told the officials at the Iirian tourist bureau headquarters (through F'tha, who had agreed to take over translation duties) that his ship's AI had panicked and accidentally activated the automatic defense systems. Tragic accident, he'd been trying to get the thing reprogrammed for ages but it was so hard to find reliable computer techs these days and well, the overprotectiveness was kind of cute...

"You claim it was an accident?" said the head official, with the kind of skeptical look that transcended species.

"Complete accident," Mark said. "We're both very, very sorry. Especially Andy - that's the AI - he can be a little dim sometimes, but he means well -"

"I can still hear you."

"I know." Mark forced down the giant grin trying to make its way onto his face and tried to look as contrite as possible. "Sir or ma'am, I promise we'll make any reparations for the damages that you require."

"Hey! Those are my assets you're bargaining with."

"You told me to do whatever it took, put your money where your mouth is for once and let me handle this."

The head official cheeped, a sound that needed no translation, and turned away to consult with the other officials in low, whistled tones which F'tha and Durandal both refused to translate - F'tha for reasons of politeness, Durandal because he was just a bastard that way. After several minutes, the head official addressed Mark again. "We do not wish to make any unreasonable demands," they said through F'tha, "but of course, some compensation - a form of repayment..."

"What kind were you thinking of?" Mark said, and Durandal muttered, "It had better not be money," in his ear. Miser. They didn't even need money.

"If you would be so kind to give us a sample of your genetic code," the head official said, "so that we may prepare the aari -" ("I believe that is the name of the medicine," F'tha offered.) "- to welcome your species in comfort and peace."

"Sure, can do. Anything else?"

Another hasty consultation, and then the head official returned with, "If you would, perhaps, not speak of this minor, very unfortunate accident to anyone else - in particular to the interplanetary network media -"

"Wait - you're worried about bad PR?"

F'tha said, "I am unable to translate. What is peearh?"

"Never mind," Mark said, "just tell them yes, fine, no talking to the media." He finally gave in and grinned. "Let's work out the details."

After another hour of negotiations, the deal was done; a sample of Mark's blood had been taken, Mark had free run of the planet, and Durandal was in the kind of mood where orbital bombardment usually happened. "I'm taking every disparaging word out out of your hide later," he said. "Just so you know."

"Yeah, yeah, I know, teleport, vacuum, the usual." Mark let the Iirian officials herd him, F'tha, and the other two S'pht who had beamed down with them out of the office and into the warm golden light of Iiri's sun. He took a deep breath of the sweetly-scented air and turned his face up to the sunlight; God, but it was nice to get some fresh air once in a while. Now that he was cleared for visiting, he should take a day or two before getting down to business, see some sights, do some tourist shit...

Three strides took him to the edge of the balcony outside the tourist bureau offices, and he stopped. Oh, right. F'tha and Lharro hovered on either side of him; of course they wouldn't have any trouble, they were used to getting around by air. Mark, on the other hand... He looked over the edge of the balcony, swallowed, and said, "Hey, guys? How about we start the flying lessons somewhere - lower?"

"Now who's being a baby?" Durandal said. "You've survived longer drops than that, and at least there's no lava down there."

"Maybe, but I didn't enjoy them, even without lava. And neither did my knees." Mark looked over the balcony again. Still way too far down to the nearest building platform for comfort. He looked around instead, and this time he could see that not all of the aliens darting between buildings or gliding through the clouds were Iirians; in fact, most of them were off-worlders, and wait - was that a Drinniol swooping past? Fucking hell. He hoped Durandal hadn't seen that, otherwise -

"Even a Drinniol can do it," Durandal said, "what's your excuse?"

"Shut up, you're in a ship, you can already fly." There was a low wall at the balcony's edge, too low to prevent anyone from falling off; of course, that probably wasn't the point of it... Mark tried putting one boot on top of it, then took a deep breath and stepped up to balance on its broad surface.

"That's the spirit. Now you just hop off -"

"Don't rush me," Mark said, gingerly flexing his wings. A gentle breeze wafted past, ruffling the shorter feathers on the arches of the wings, and he swallowed again.

"Go on, jump," Durandal said. "It's how baby birds learn to fly. Or maybe you just need a little push - F'tha, give him a push, it'll be good for him."

Mark edged away from F'tha as the S'pht turned to face him. "No thanks, F'tha, I got this. Really. No pushing!"

F'tha regarded him for way too many moments for Mark's comfort before saying, "As you request, Mark. May Lharro and Mn'rhi and I go to experience the city?"

"Sure," Mark said weakly, as another breeze blew through his primaries and threatened his balance. "Go on and have fun, I'll - I'll be there in a while."

The S'pht floated off, and he was left alone to consider the scenery. It was a beautiful view, really; hundreds of tall, slender oval buildings in cream and pale gold and rose-colored materials with coral-like textures, each one floating on its own separate flat base and washed in the soft glow of the sunlight. Giant vine-like cables made delicate by distance connected them all in an elegant web - not for support, according to Durandal's research, but to provide power and keep the buildings from drifting too far apart. Mark didn't get a lot of chances to sight-see without explosions and general mayhem being involved anyway, but he was pretty sure he'd never seen a city as beautiful as this one. He could stand here and take in the view all day...

"Are you going to move any time soon?" Durandal demanded. "Some of us have actual work to do."

"When the S'pht are trying to figure out what human kneecaps are supposed to look like, I'm going to be screaming 'I told you so' really loudly," Mark said. He breathed in deeply, breathed out, extended his wings, and stepped off the ledge.


Two minutes later:

"Holy shit I'm flying this is fucking amazing!"

"I told you so - all you had to do was jump, just like a baby bird. Cheep cheep."

"Cheep cheep yourself, asshole." But there was no real venom in Mark's voice; the view of the city was even more amazing from an aerial perspective, the constant motion of flight and drifting clouds giving the effect of buildings melding into each other. A sight like that topped off with the sheer giddy joy of not falling to his death or painful injuries - it made all the agony of growing the damn wings worth it.

After several glorious minutes of soaring blissfully through the peaceful golden skies, buoyed up by a warm, gentle wind and caressed by soft breezes, Mark said, "Okay - so how do I stop?"

"What an excellent question to ask someone else."

"Oh, fuck."


Ten minutes after that:

"Gaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhh look out look out look out!"

"Tuck and roll! Tuck and -"

CRUNCH.

"... that could have gone better."

"Ow, my knees - I fucking told you so!" Mark tried to unroll from his crash landing position, but bolts of agony shot through his legs - which had taken the brunt of the impact - and he decided not moving was probably the best idea. "'Tuck and roll'? That's all the advice you got?"

"Records indicate -"

"Fuck your records!" God, he would probably feel less horrible if he'd just died on impact. A small crowd was already gathering around him, half Iirians and half tourists of various other species; a squat little Vylae offered him a pincer up that he politely refused, and a pair of Kukmo squeaked something about calling him some help, which he also refused. One of the Iirians chirped with authority, and the crowd slowly dispersed, leaving him to his tucked-up ball of misery.

There was a definite edge of malicious glee to Durandal's voice as he said, "Do you want a teleport back to the Rozinante so you can lick your wounds in peace and privacy?"

"Would you actually beam me up if I said yes?"

"No. This is for telling the tourist bureau that I'm 'dim' and 'overprotective.' And named Andy. Really? What kind of a pedestrian name is Andy?"

Mark groaned and gave stretching his legs out another try. It was slightly less painful this time, so he figured he hadn't actually broken anything. Small favors. "Okay, okay, I'm sorry for groveling like you told me to and not telling them that the great Durandal, Destroyer of Worlds, was paying them a visit," he said, climbing to his feet and wincing at the splinters of pain in his knees and ankles. "Just - go run some scans or something, let me do my thing."

"I know it will be difficult without your rocket launcher, but try to enjoy yourself," Durandal said, and the comm link clicked off.

Muttering curses to himself, Mark staggered off to find out where the fuck he'd landed and if they might have some form of alcohol.


Two hours of observation and practice had Mark landing like a pro, assuming that a pro had really bad knees. Two days of flapping around, and he was starting to think he could get used to this kind of life. It was a laid-back place, Iiri, or at least the city he was in - which he had found out was named Kiio - seemed to be pretty laid-back. Every building was open to the winds and to anyone who happened to glide by; the long days were filled with stores that barely ever closed, public art exhibitions and museums that actually never closed, and music, everywhere, all the time. He'd never heard so much singing in his life - everything from formal concerts spilling out of theaters to itinerant singers hovering along popular airways, some of it atonal, some of it operatic, a lot of it accompanied by dancing, all of it loud, clashing, and constant.

On second thought, he'd probably go nuts if he stayed on Iiri for long. But it wasn't a bad way to spend a week or two, surrounded by song.

Durandal, of course, disagreed. "What is taking you so long?" he hissed into Mark's ear late in the evening of the second day. "You're supposed to be finding the secrets of their floating buildings and biotechnology, not learning to appreciate chamber music."

Mark had managed to score a front-row perch to a performance by a group that sounded kind of like a band he'd liked back in his trainee days, if that band had been made up of operatically trained seagulls; a generous application of the sweet liquor the Iirians drank like beer had mellowed him out, but not so much that he appreciated the interruption to his nostalgia-fest. "Relax, Durandal," he said, "there's no rush, right? You have to give me time, let me get into the swing of things - you're the one who wanted to do this the slow way..." The group stopped singing to take a bow and go for a short break, and the attending crowd started to chatter and move around.

"I didn't mean this slow. I'm bored and I want their tech and you are wasting my time going to concerts!"

"Hey, chill out - it's only been two days, I'm going to start tomorrohhhhhh my God!" The Iirian perched to his right had suddenly plunged its beak into the cap feathers of his right wing and started nibbling, like it was trying to - to - oh God, it was grooming his wings for him, and it felt incredible.

"What's wrong?" That funny tone was back in Durandal's voice, and this time Mark was able to recognize it as concern, not that he was dumb enough to mention that observation to Durandal. "I can get you out of there in -"

"No no no, it's fine, I just - whoa!" The slight hook at the end of the Iirian's beak hit a spot just between the base of two primary feathers that sent a shudder through Mark's entire body, and he nearly lost his balance on the perch.

The Iirian - who had a pattern of red feathers around its neck marking it as female - chirp-squawked what Mark had learned meant roughly "Is there a problem?" It was the perfect opportunity to stop the grooming, and yet - Mark chirped something he was pretty sure was "no problem," and the Iirian fluttered her crest in approval, then resumed running her beak through his right wing. Mark couldn't help another shiver as the pressure and gentle tugging stimulated the skin beneath the feathers; he hadn't realized the damn things could be so sensitive.

"Are you in trouble or not?" Durandal said irritably. "Because if you're not, I can find better things to do with - did you just moan?"

Mark bit his tongue before another moan could escape and said, "I'm okay, it's this - some kind of preening thing with the wings, everyone's doing it." Well, probably not everyone, but he could see plenty of paired-off Iirians in the performance hall taking turns preening each other, and a bunch of the tourists too, more clumsily but with obvious enjoyment. "Must be a regular custom or something - and God, no wonder, it feels amazing..." His neighbor had finished with his right wing and moved on to the left, and the wing trembled with pleasure at the attention.

"You're physically aroused," Durandal said, sounding both horrified and fascinated. "You find the process that enjoyable?"

"Shut up," Mark said through clenched teeth. He shifted around awkwardly, trying to keep his knees together, stay on the perch, and not disturb his grooming partner all at the same time. "It's none of your - ah, God - none of your business!"

"Oh, but this is too interesting - I think I should run some tests, see if -"

"Seriously, shut up!" At least he wasn't the only one affected by the unexpected sensitivity; over in the shadows of one curved wall there were three Bhorbhi with half their lower tentacles entwined and the upper ones buried in each other's incongruous-looking wings, and several other little clusters of various aliens were sneaking out or hiding in the shadows for some privacy. His partner's beak nibbled past another sweet spot and he shuddered. Fuck, it just felt so good - better than a good massage, not that he'd had any of those recently, and hell, almost better than sex. "Go - go blow up an asteroid or something, damn it!"

"I'm going to remember this forever," Durandal said. "Or delete all audio records and try to forget it ever happened, I'm still thinking it over. Have fun with your little local ritual, and don't forget your actual mission or I'm going to be extremely cross."

"You're an asshole."

"Takes one to know one, as they used to say. I'll be in touch." The comm link clicked off - and just in time, as Mark couldn't stop himself from gasping at another well-placed nibble from the Iirian. Jesus, if she didn't let up soon...

Fortunately for Mark's strained self-control, after one more brisk brush through his primaries, she stopped. He took several slow, deep breaths as he resettled himself on the perch, trying to think unsexy thoughts like Durandal talking about anything; after a minute he realized the Iirian was looking at him expectantly. God, right, it was his turn now - he took the armored glove off his left hand and began to run his first two fingers as lightly as he could through the feathers on her left wing. Her crest fluttered again and she chirped, half-lidding her three black eyes, so he guessed he wasn't doing too badly. At least there was something soothing in the repetitive motions of grooming; a kind of calmness and concentration that was exactly what he needed after having been on the receiving end of so much stimulation. He hadn't felt turned on like that in - well, in a long goddamn time, probably, he didn't keep track. Iiri was just full of surprises that way.

The band filed back onto the central stage and resumed playing, but Mark barely noticed, lost in his own thoughts. Durandal, damn him, was right; it was time to get serious about digging up the secrets of Iiri's technology - and time to get the hell off this world before he went soft or really made an ass of himself.