It had been sheer luck that Erik had spotted the dovecote, sitting huge and squat in the middle of an untended garden, right when he needed somewhere to hide. Brick. He liked brick. Beaks couldn’t get through brick.
“In here!” There was a call from below, and Erik didn’t need to think twice. “In the dovecote, he won’t get you in here!”
Shaw was gaining on him, and so Erik dove down and through one of the open slits in the side, tucking his wings in close to his body, only just squeezing through. Shaw didn’t have a chance; his wingspan was too wide. Erik tried to pull up, but he was going too fast, and the breath was knocked out of him as he hit the opposite wall, falling to the dusty floor. The dovecote was huge, like a human building, and, as Erik looked around, it appeared to be completely deserted.
He could stay here for the night. Shaw would get bored and go looking for easier prey.
It was shameful, being chased into this glorified cage. Erik half-flew, half-flopped onto a low perch, hoping that there were some mice that came in for the bits of twig and seed head that seemed to be all over the floor, or even that the owner of the voice that had called him in — probably a homing pigeon, enslaved by the humans — would show himself and then he could have a snack. He stretched out his wings, checking for damage. No, none of his flight feathers had been crushed when he hit the wall, and although it hurt to breathe he suspected that was the exertion of his flight, not a broken bone. The pain was receding as Erik caught his breath.
There was a noise, just on the edge of his hearing. A shifty little flutter-flutter. So the voice was definitely a smaller bird. Interesting.
“If you come out now, I won’t eat you,” he said, into the still air of the dovecote.
“I don’t think you’re in any sort of condition to be making threats,” said a voice, and for a hard, horrible second Erik thought that Shaw had got some sort of minion, a tame little thing trained and primed to kill. But no, Erik knew what Shaw did with little birds, and it wasn’t train them.
“Show yourself,” said Erik, raising his wings around his neck, trying to make himself look even bigger than he was. It was just a pigeon, he thought, just a pigeon and he could snap its neck, promises not to eat it be damned.
He absolutely didn’t flinch when something descended from the higher perches and landed right on the perch beside him. Erik stared. There, right in the reach of his talons, right where he could even reach with his beak, was a dove. It was snowy-white and slightly plump, a faint iridescent sheen along the top of its wings and down its sleek little neck.
Oh feathered gods, he’d been rescued by a dove.
“Hello,” said the dove. “My name’s Charles.”
Erik ruffled his feathers menacingly.
“I do like to know the name of my dinner,” he said, and the dove made a fluttery little sound of amusement.
“Oh, you’re not going to eat me,” said Charles-the-dove. “You’d need to catch me first, and I assure you that I am much faster than you in such a confined space, and I once pecked the eye out of an owl who thought she’d have me for tea. So. Should I call you kestrel, or are you more creative than that?”
“Erik,” he said, drawing his wings around him. “And it’s falcon, thank you.”
“Erik, why are you in my dovecote?” asked Charles.
“I made a mistake. I’m leaving,” said Erik, and Charles fluttered after him. He could easily outpace a dove, but he had to check the conditions. He scanned the sky until he was satisfied that Shaw was gone; there was no tell-tale spread of darkness across the sunset, no thump of those broad wings in the air.
“You don’t have to leave,” said Charles, so close to him that their feathers brushed. “I won’t really peck your eyes out.”
“I don’t believe you are a threat to me,” said Erik. The dove was just lucky that he wasn’t hungry, he decided, as he shifted away from the press of feathers against his own.
“Then why are you leaving?” asked Charles. “We’ve only just met, and you’re still tired from being chased by Shaw. You’re not going to kill me tonight, so why not stay?”
Erik turned, his heart suddenly in his beak. Charles cocked his head to one side, examining him with bright, critical eyes.
“You know Shaw?” Erik asked.
“That big eagle?” asked Charles. “Everyone knows him. He hunts here sometimes, when pickings down on the beach get slim.”
“He killed my mother,” said Erik, and Charles shuffled closer to him.
“He tried to kill my friends,” said Charles. “If you promise not to eat me, I’d like you to stay here for the night and we can talk. You’re not alone, Erik. You don’t have to be alone.”
“You’re a dove,” said Erik.
“Yes,” said Charles.
“I’m a falcon.”
“Yes,” said Charles, again.
“Forget it,” said Erik, spreading his wings into the dusk. “It’ll never work.”
Erik’s eyrie was cold after being inside the thick-walled dovecote, but it was defensible and it was Erik’s: it smelled like him, it was lined with his old feathers and he’d made it with his own talons. The dovecote had been strange; too human, too contained, too comfortable. Too empty. Perch after perch, and it smelled like no-one lived there, all stale feathers and seed.
He tucked his feet under himself, and his head under his wing; there was no point in speculating about mad doves that lived in big empty human places. It had been a lucky break, that was all, and the dove was completely bonkers, because what sort of little bird tried to make friends with a predator?
Shaw had nearly caught him this time. Erik had been careless — he’d gone after one of the peregrines that answered to Shaw, and he’d misjudged the bird’s speed in a flat dive. Erik was a predator, but he wasn’t evil, not unless it was going after Shaw, or one of his minions. Shaw was evil, just plain evil. He killed for pleasure, not to eat, and he trained other birds to kill some of the higher species — owlets, swifts, even other raptors. Shaw was more dangerous than an army of cats (and there were rumours out there that Shaw had taken cats and dogs, ripped them up in his talons and eaten their still-beating hearts).
So Shaw had tried to kill the little dove’s friends. That didn’t make sense, when Erik thought about it logically. Better birds than over-confident doves had ended up as feathery little snacks for Shaw and his flock. Shaw kept a few smaller falcons, and an owl, a great big one-eyed barn owl that had once come so close to killing Erik that he still listened at nights for the whisper of…
A great big one-eyed owl. Erik flicked his wings, suddenly wide awake. I once pecked the eye out of an owl. No. No way. No, no, no, there was no way that some little dove had bested the White Queen. Not a chance. Not a chance. But Shaw caught what he chased (with the exception of Erik) and Charles had said… had said…
Erik slept badly, and in the morning, found himself circling the dovecote as if he had nothing better to do.
“Erik!” Charles flew up beside him, right into talon range, and Erik suppressed the urge to roll his eyes. “Come down; the garden is safe, and I’m sure there’s some bugs we can eat.”
“You have difficulty with the concept of predator, don’t you?” asked Erik, by way of greeting. He followed Charles down anyway, because he liked grasshoppers, and the grass was long and he could hear them chirping.
“We’re all birds,” said Charles. “If we work together, then we can achieve the world.” He landed with surprising grace for something that looked so soft and fluffy. “Look at Shaw — he rules most of the coast because he has the peregrines on side.”
“I try not to look at Shaw, when I see him,” said Erik, snapping up a grasshopper. “I try to kill him. And you’re a fool, Charles, trying to make friends with me.”
“You’re the one who came back here,” said Charles, mildly. “Why did you do that, if it would put me in danger?”
“You said yesterday that you pecked the eye out of an owl,” said Erik. “Was it— was it her?”
“The White Queen?” asked Charles. He cooed, evidently pleased with himself. “Yes.”
“How?” asked Erik. “What happened?”
“She chased me into a human place, up at the train station,” said Charles. “And she couldn’t turn, and she couldn’t land safely, and so I had the advantage.”
“Clever,” said Erik. “But foolhardy. If I were to try to hurt you now, you couldn’t escape that way.”
“Why would you want to hurt me now?” asked Charles. “Shaw is a killer, Erik. You said he killed your mother. You know the pain of needless death — why would you kill me?”
“To prove a point,” said Erik.
“To who? There’s no-one here,” said Charles, waving a wing. “And you came back because you want to know how I defeated the White Queen, and how I plan to keep Shaw out of my dovecote and away from my sparrows, and you won’t get your answers if you kill me.”
“Who are you?” asked Erik.
“I used to be a release dove,” said Charles, puffing out his ridiculous chest. “They’d take me to ceremonies and let me go. Then I’d fly home.”
“And you didn’t just fly away?” asked Erik, too astounded to point out that his who are you? had been rhetorical. If he’d been caged and released, he wouldn’t have ever come back.
“Why would I?”
“Because you were caged,” said Erik.
“I could have left any time I wanted. It wasn’t a very effective cage,” Charles countered. “And then I got bought by a magician, and he kept me down here when we weren’t doing magic shows.”
“So where is he now?” asked Erik.
“I don’t know,” said Charles. “He went away one day in a white box. The humans had him on a long bed, but with wheels, and when the box left it wailed.”
“That’s an ambulance. Humans don’t come back when they’re in them,” said Erik. “Don’t you know anything?”
“I know a lot about grass,” said Charles. “And flying. Did you know that a break to this feather—“ He paused to nip at one of Erik’s pinions, “—would ground even a bird like you?”
“Get off!” said Erik, pulling his wing out of the way of that sharp little beak.
“Peace, my friend,” said Charles, fluffing out his chest again. “I’m not going to harm you. After all, I’m only a dove.”
Only-a-dove my tailfeathers, Erik thought. Charles had clearly caught magic from the human magician, caught it and wielded it. That was the only thing that could explain this, any of this. How else could Charles have charmed Erik, how else could he be so unafraid?
The cry was piercing. It hurt Erik’s ears and he flinched, looking up for the owner of that voice.
“Oh my god, fly, fly, I’ll distract him!” The bird was big and black, and Erik had an irrational moment of panic — Shaw used ravens, when he thought he could get away with it. Ravens had powers.
“It’s all right!” Charles called. “It’s all right!”
Erik raised his wings, opening his beak in challenge.
The raven flew at them. “Don’t you dare!” she screamed. “Don’t you dare hurt him, I’ll peck out your brains, don’t you dare!”
“Raven!” said Charles, getting between them, forcing the raven to pull up short. “It’s all right. Erik’s friendly.”
The raven looked at him with complete disbelief, settling angrily onto a nearby rock.
“You’re a falcon,” she said.
“Congratulations, you can identify common birds,” said Erik.
The raven bristled, flying right up to him and then neatly nudging Charles out of the way, placing herself between Charles and Erik. “What are you doing here?” she asked, beak up in his face.
“He accidentally flew into the dovecote. Then he accidentally came back,” replied Charles.
“Oh feathered gods,” said the raven, turning. “Charles, you can’t just welcome every random bird with open wings. You’re going to get hurt.”
“I’m not going to hurt him!” said Erik, and then he realised what he’d said. “Shit.”
“Look, it’s nothing personal; it’s not you, he’s just peculiar. He’s got all these sparrows and pigeons and things,” said the raven. “He collects birds. It’s the weirdest thing ever, and I draw the line right here. He is not collecting a falcon. This is not on. This is not happening.”
“Raven,” said Charles. “Erik, this is Raven. She’s my sister.”
“Are you serious?” asked Erik. “Because I don’t want to know what your parents got up to, if that’s the case.”
It seemed to do something for the tension between them, because Raven started to laugh. She cawed and laughed, and Erik tried to smile, but he wasn’t really made for smiling.
“Adopted sister,” said Charles, preening. “She lived in the dovecote for a while.”
She bent her head and nuzzled his neck, an affectionate gesture that Erik remembered from his own childhood; his mother had liked to stroke his feathers and snuggle him. He’d lost all of his downy fluff over a few weeks, and it had scared him at first, in the way that chicks can be frightened of irrational things, and she’d consoled him with a gesture much like what the raven was doing now.
Erik wasn’t frightened of anything anymore. He did find the little display of filial affection weird, and if he needed any further proof that Charles was the magic dove, he had it, because ravens were special. Beware of ravens, his mother had said; ravens have magic. Erik watched the dove; he wasn’t frightened by any potential raven powers, any more than Erik was.
“So what are you doing here?” asked the raven. “I don’t buy that this is some sort of accident. Oooh, grasshopper.”
“Same thing as you — eating grasshoppers and talking,” said Charles. “I was just telling him about the time that I fought the White Queen.”
“Don’t talk about that,” said Raven. “You don’t need people knowing. If Shaw thinks you’re a threat, he’ll rip your heart out, and then what would the sparrows do?”
“No,” said Charles. “I want everyone to know. We need to be brave, Raven; we need to stand up to Shaw and send a clear message that the little birds won’t be pushed around anymore.”
“So what, you’ve recruited…that?” asked Raven, gesturing to Erik. “You’re going to have to do better than a kestrel. He’s got peregrines, darling brother.”
“Thanks,” said Erik. “And it’s falcon.”
“Oh, sorry,” she replied, not sounding even remotely contrite.
“Raven,” said Charles. “I’m so sorry; she’s very protective of me.” He looked up at the sky. “It’s getting late. We’d better get going soon.”
“Given that you seem to have a death wish, I’m not surprised she’s protective of you,” said Erik. Going?
“See? The predator thinks you have a death wish. That means you have a death wish.”
“Come on,” said Charles. “I’m busy, so if you want to continue this conversation, you’ll have to come with me.”
“How on earth can you be busy?” asked Erik. “You’ve got all the food you’ll ever need right here.”
Charles gave him a pitying look. “I have responsibilities,” he said. “Come on, Raven. You said you’d come today, and you know Hank wants to see you.” He bobbed his head. “Are you coming, Erik?”
“I’ll think about it,” said Erik, and Charles nodded.
“I’ll see you, then,” he said. “Think about it. We could defeat him, if we work together.”
Charles took off, and where Erik had expected him to fly all over the place like a bumblebee, he flew straight and true. Erik sighed. It wasn’t like he was doing anything else today, and Charles was kind of fascinating. He thought he might follow Charles, but Raven spread her wings, getting thoroughly in his way.
“Hey,” said Raven. “Falcon.”
“Erik,” he said, and fuck, why was he talking to a raven? “Look, just call me Erik.”
“You hurt him, I’ll rip your heart out,” she said. “I can do it. I promise you.”
He bristled. “He’s a dove. Why do you care?”
“They’d clipped my wings,” she said, and he looked at her pinions; no sign of broken feathers, so it must have been a while ago. “The humans who bought me from my human clipped my fucking wings and then left me outside to die. Charles helped me climb into the dovecote and he brought me food until my feathers grew back. I owe him.”
Erik felt his stomach turn at that; humans shouldn’t be allowed to leave birds out for the cats. Raven tucked her wings in against her body, regarding him carefully.
“How did he find you?” Erik asked.
She shuffled. “He’s got like…a sixth sense for people in trouble. You let him take you to his nests tomorrow. Give me today to warn them.”
She shrugged her wings. “The sparrows don’t like the dovecote,” she said. “I’ll see you.”
“Wait,” said Erik, as she took off, willing himself not to follow her. “Sparrows?”
Charles was delighted to show Erik his nests the following day. It was sickening. Charles the magic dove looked after a colony of sparrows that lived right where the humans could get them; they begged for scraps from humans waiting for big silver boxes that took them away and off up tracks — trains. The little sparrows all hid until Charles coaxed them out, and then they hid behind Charles even after Erik had promised faithfully not to kill any of them. He ate a rat instead, a stupid, fat rat that had waddled out from behind a bench at the station where the sparrows lived.
“Are you sure you don’t want to try sandwiches?” asked Charles, as the sparrows attacked some discarded human lunch. They were all orphans like Erik — they’d all had their parents eaten by bigger birds. Erik hoped to the feathered gods that it had been Shaw and his cronies, not another kestrel.
“Utterly,” said Erik, the taste of blood still in his mouth.
“Your glee in killing things is most distressing, my friend,” said Charles, as Erik pretended he wasn’t above sizing up a pigeon or two.
“I’m a falcon,” he said, my friend reverberating in his chest. Ridiculous. “If you were expecting a herbivore, you should have made friends with a cow.”
“Erik,” said Charles, but his voice had a little coo in it that Erik knew already was Charles’s way of laughing. “Where are you living? You’re welcome in the dovecote with me for winter; I can feel the weather getting colder.”
“I’ve got an eyrie,” said Erik, and he felt rather offended that Charles didn’t seem to trust his ability to take care of himself. It was up in an abandoned building, and it was spectacular; he’d built it into a boarded-up window, the sill deep enough to afford protection from the weather, but shallow enough that he could see everything around the town. It was also somewhat lonely, but Erik absolutely wasn’t thinking about that.
“I worry about you,” said Charles.
“You don’t have to take care of me,” said Erik. “You don’t even know me.”
“I know enough,” said Charles. “Come on, let’s see if you can fly faster than Angel. She’s the fastest bird in the world.”
“I’m not playing tag with a swift,” said Erik.
“Come on,” said Charles. “How do you know your limits if you never test them? If you’re fast, you can outpace Shaw.”
“I’m not planning to outfly him,” said Erik. “I’m planning to rip his throat out.”
Charles shuddered. “Let’s plan for all eventualities, shall we?” he asked, and Erik didn’t want to see him droopy and sad, so he found himself chasing a swift all afternoon, Charles cheering him on and the sparrows bobbing in their wake. Even the small owl that Charles called Hank got on board; Erik had no idea what the owlet was doing out in the daytime, and he did fly like a bumblebee, but Charles still cheered for him and smoothed his feathers when he accidentally flew into a wall, checking him over for damage to his wings. For his part, the owl seemed to put up with the checking and preening with remarkably good grace, even though he was eventually going to end up a lot bigger even than Erik.
“Is it true that you tried to eat Charles?” asked one of the sparrows. “Raven said you tried to eat him.”
“Shut up, Sean,” said another sparrow. “You’re not supposed to ask people if they tried to eat other people when they clearly failed.”
Erik felt a very strong desire to tuck his face under his wing, but he didn’t do it. Instead, he let the sparrows bicker and he chased the swift until there was a rush of wings, and a panicked chirrup from one of the sparrows.
Every bird in the area scattered. Erik wondered at his chances; Shaw would be exposed to humans, and confused by the sheer number of pigeons in the area, and Erik might have the—
“Erik, come on, under the bridge! He doesn’t fit in there!” Charles looked angry rather than frightened.
There were pigeons under the bridge, but they took one look at Erik’s plumage and moved out of the way, letting Erik and Charles sit with the frightened sparrows.
“It’s all right,” Charles cooed, as a sparrow sat on Erik’s feet. “It’s all right, little ones; we’re safe under the bridge.”
“Train!” called a pigeon, and then the others repeated it in a great wobbling shout. “Train! Train! Train!”
Erik clung to the brickwork as a silver box rushed past, the sparrow beside him — Alex, maybe? — huddling into his breast for protection. His feathers were ruffled by the wind of the rushing silver box, and he clung on for grim death, wrapping a wing around the sparrow just in case.
“Are you all right, my friend?” asked Charles, once the train had passed.
“I’m not doing that again,” said Erik, shaking inside from being so close to such a human thing, such a rushing, destructive human thing. “I’m going out to check if Shaw’s gone.”
“Don’t!” chirped Sean. “You’ll get killed!”
“That’s a risk I’m willing to take,” said Erik, and Charles cooed softly, almost under his breath.
“Do not try to take him on without us,” he said. “We will help you, Erik. But we need to be in a better defensive position if we’ve any hope of this working.”
“Of what working? We haven’t talked strategy; you’ve just had me play games with sparrows like I’m a common pigeon,” said Erik, and the massed pigeons glared at him. He shoved the sparrow at Charles. “Take this. I’ll give you the all-clear.”
His anger fuelled him until he got out from the protective cover of the bridge, and then he realised just what a stupid thing he’d done — Shaw could still be out here, and Erik was fast and dangerous, but he was no eagle. There was a raven, a big, black raven, sitting up on the top of the station, staring down at the tracks. It caught sight of Erik, and no, this wasn’t Charles’s Raven; it was bigger and older.
“Kestrel!” it called. “So you’re making friends with pigeons, are you?” It swooped down to level with Erik. “So you’re hiding like a cooing little fat thing, are you?”
Erik’s cry was one of rage, and he knew that he shouldn’t let his anger control him, but he couldn’t help but go for the raven, pulling his wings tight to his body to get more speed as the raven flew, laughing.
“You should join us,” the raven said. “Your kind should eat sparrows. Wouldn’t you like a nice fat pigeon, or a dove?”
“Wouldn’t you like something rotting on the side of a road?” asked Erik.
“I would,” said the raven. “You offering?”
Erik was acutely aware of his size relative to that of the raven, but he maintained his airspace. “I’ll kill you first,” he said, and he flew like a dart for the raven. It laughed, even when Erik clipped one of its stupid wings, and just flew higher.
“You’re a little bird,” said the raven. “You might think you’re a predator, but you’re just another little bird.”
It flew away, and Erik was stuck — did he chase it, or did he let the bird escape? The raven didn’t seem to have worked out that it was Charles Erik had followed to the station, and for that he was grateful — but Erik ached, knowing that Shaw was out there and Erik was powerless to stop him.
He called out at the top of his lungs. “All clear! All clear! They’re gone!” and he felt like a traitor to his species. By rights, he should have been sizing up a fledgeling pigeon, but instead he was watching over them like…like…
Charles rapidly gained height to join him, and the two of them found an updraft over one of the buildings; warm air that the humans wasted by pumping it out a grille, pleasing and soft on the feathers.
“Are you all right?” asked Charles.
“Why wouldn’t I be?” Erik snapped.
“Erik,” said Charles. “I’m not trying to denigrate you.”
“You had me playing catching games with your sparrows!” said Erik, angry. “You said you wanted Shaw, but when he came, you hid.”
“Yes,” said Charles. “The sparrows aren’t ready, and we don’t have Raven. We wouldn’t stand a chance, and I do not want to sacrifice my friends meaninglessly.” He let himself get carried a little higher than Erik, balancing on the warm air. “And that includes you, if you wish.”
“I don’t understand you,” said Erik. “You know I’m dangerous. You know I’ve killed other birds.”
“I do,” said Charles. “But I also know that when Alex nearly fell off that ledge when the train passed, you held onto him to keep him safe.”
“I don’t like myself for it,” said Erik.
“I don’t expect you to,” said Charles. “I didn’t like myself when I had to attack the White Queen. I’m not a fighter, Erik. I need someone who can help me learn to fight. And it seems to me that you need someone who can help you learn when not to fight.”
“What do you know about it?” Erik asked. “What can you possibly know? You’ve been a pet all your life.”
“I was a pet,” said Charles. “But then my human went away. And I learned to survive.” He levelled with Erik again. “I didn’t want to learn to survive. But I did; I was lonely, and I was scared, and I didn’t even know the first thing about finding food that wasn’t birdseed, but I did it.”
“You didn’t see Shaw tear out your mother’s heart,” said Erik.
“No,” said Charles quietly. “I was born in a nesting box. I never knew my mother.”
He banked, pulling away from the gust of warm air and flying back to the sparrows. Erik stayed where he was, because his eyes were better than those of a pigeon, or a dove, and he had no idea what to say to Charles. In the end, he scanned the horizon for a broad sweep of aquiline wings, looking so hard that he didn’t even notice that Charles had slipped out from under him. He dropped, finding the sparrows turning in for the evening in their nests.
“What did you say to him?” asked the owlet. “He doesn’t usually stay this late. It’s dangerous flying at dusk.”
“I know,” said Erik, and he saw a sandwich, a whole, discarded sandwich on the train line. “I mean. I know it’s dangerous.”
“Why didn’t you go with him, then?” asked Alex. “You can keep him safe.”
“I don’t think I’m supposed to keep him safe,” said Erik, helplessly.
“Are you kidding?” asked Sean. “He really likes you. He really, really likes you.”
“Thank you, Sean,” said Hank. “Very helpful.”
“I’ve got a mission,” said Erik. “I have to fulfil it, or my life won’t mean anything.”
“That’s stupid,” said Sean, and Hank hushed him. “I’m going to bed.”
“I’m sorry,” said Hank. “They’re not overly mature.”
“It’s all right,” said Erik, eyeing the sandwich. “I might stop in on my way home.”
The sandwich was slightly squishy between his talons, and the sky was definitely darker than he liked, but he found the dovecote easily. He didn’t enter. Instead, he stuck his head in one of the entry holes and called.
“Charles,” Erik said. “Charles, come out.”
There was a flutter of wings, and Charles stuck his head out, and upon seeing Erik, flew down to him.
“You didn’t have to come back,” said Charles.
“I didn’t,” said Erik, an odd feeling in his breast. “I don’t want to apologise, either.”
“I wouldn’t accept an apology,” said Charles. “So that’s all right.”
“It was fun,” said Erik. “It was fun, today. Until Shaw showed up.”
Charles chuckled. “I think that’s a fair summation,” he replied. “Will you come back tomorrow?”
“I’ll see,” said Erik.
“I see,” said Charles, and he looked at his feet. “What’s that?”
“Here,” said Erik, and he nudged the sandwich to Charles. “You had a rough afternoon; I thought you might like it.”
Charles gave him a very odd look. “Thank you,” he said softly. “I imagine you had a rough afternoon too.”
“I’ve had better,” said Erik, and Charles reached up to rest his cheek against Erik’s.
“Stay,” he said.
“You barely know me,” said Erik.
“You barely know me, but you brought me food,” said Charles, and Erik’s stomach dropped like a stone. He had, hadn’t he? He dearly hoped that Charles didn’t know how kestrels wooed their mates, but given that Charles was the magic dove, Erik thought that there was little hope of that.
“I—“ he said, pulling away. “I have to go.”
“Wait,” said Charles, fluttering after him. “Wait, I didn’t mean it like that — Erik, I didn’t…”
“I know,” Erik said. “I just. I have to go.”
He fled to his eyrie, and he was horrified to discover himself considering whether his home was too cold and exposed. He could set up in the building proper. Or…he could go back to the dovecote. No, no, that was stupid. He’d heard Charles call after him as he left, but even Charles wasn’t foolhardy enough to follow Erik to his nest, and Erik absolutely wasn’t going back to the dovecote.
He settled in for the night, tucking his head under his wing. Charles could have been foolhardy, he thought. Erik wouldn’t have really minded. This was surely more comfortable than napping on a perch. And there were plenty of nooks and crannies in the old building; if Erik had someone to build a nest for, then he could build a warm nest, full of feathers and bits of old fabric from the abandoned human things inside.
He wasn’t allowed to build a nest for Charles, he told himself. He wasn’t, not so soon. No matter how disappointed Charles had sounded when Erik left, or how creepy the dovecote was. He slept, the first bite of winter trying to work its way under his feathers, and emphatically did not dream of nesting, or dovecotes, or sparrows, or Charles.
Erik didn’t go back for days.
He should have, but he knew what was going on, and he didn’t like it. When he was a chick, his mother had told him stories about what it was like when you met your mate; that you just knew it, right then and there, and that you wanted to love and protect him, and you wanted to raise a chick with him. Adult Erik knew that it had been her helpless attempt to reassure them both that his father had loved them — that his father hadn’t intended to be caught by humans, that his father would have come back. The little bit of Erik that was still a very young chick wanted to believe in love at first sight, and love that lasted forever, no matter what it came up against; love that drew one in and refused to let go.
Which didn’t really answer why he was fascinated by a dove, but if he thought of love in his mother’s terms, it did go some way to answer why he felt drawn to the dovecote like he felt the pull of the seasons.
Eventually, Erik cracked. He respected fearlessness and, even though he was horrified by it, he liked Charles. He also liked grasshoppers — they were crisp and fatty — so he could go back to the overgrown yard to get some grasshoppers, and if he just so happened to run into Charles, then so be it. So be it. And if he went at the end of the day, when he assumed that Charles would be back, so be it.
The sky was darkening, and the wind was picking up; it was good pickings for panicking grasshoppers, and Erik speared them with his beak, flying low, feeling the eyes of someone else on him.
“I didn’t think you’d come back,” said Charles, flying to him. “The sparrows were asking after you.”
“You know they’re not all sparrows, right?” asked Erik, as thunder rolled in the distance.
“I know,” said Charles. “Will you stay, Erik? I promise we can fight Shaw.”
“Don’t talk about that right now,” said Erik, allowing himself to look at Charles, really look.
“I don’t want you to fly away from me again,” said Charles.
“You don’t have to bribe me to stay,” said Erik. “I’m interested.”
“Interested in what?” asked Charles, and a stray wisp of wind nearly knocked them both together.
Erik gave in. “You. You’re spoilt and soft and cuddly, but you’re just as ruthless as I am when you want something.”
“I don’t allow myself to want very much,” said Charles. Thunder sounded again, and the earth smelled of rain. “So I think it’s justified that when I want something, I go after it with everything I can.”
He peeled away from Erik, flying to one of the perches along the dovecote. It was a challenge and an invitation, Erik thought, and Erik had already decided that he wasn’t going to fly from a challenge. He lit on the perch opposite Charles, and Charles bowed his head, cooing.
“So tell me what you want,” said Erik. Domesticated birds weren’t supposed to want for anything, even love — they would be paired off by their humans. For a single, dizzying moment, Erik wondered if Charles had been in that situation; given a female and told to make it work. The wind ruffled Erik’s feathers, and leaves skittered along the overgrown garden paths.
“Isn’t it obvious?” asked Charles, looking up at him, trilling a little.
“Peace and love and understanding for all aviankind,” said Erik. “And enough grasshoppers to make you too fat to fly.”
Charles laughed, breaking from what had looked suspiciously like flirting, and flew to Erik’s side. “You suspect everyone of ulterior motives, don’t you?” he asked. “And you ate more grasshoppers than me.”
Rain started to fall, great big blots of it that hurt when they hit Erik’s shoulders; there was another roll of thunder, and the wind scattered the leaves again.
“I should go,” said Erik. “This looks like a big storm.”
“You can stay here,” said Charles. “The sparrows will be along soon; they usually come here when it’s stormy. Alex would like to see you.”
The air sounded like it was ripping open when the lightning flickered from horizon to horizon. Charles flinched, bumping into Erik’s chest before flying into the dovecote. The sky gave way like the breaking of a dam, and Erik had no choice — he’d have to stay.
“They’d better not be trying to make their way through this,” said Erik, following Charles inside. There was another rumble of thunder, and then a ping-plink of something harder than rain. Ice, Erik thought, ice from the sky. He’d only seen it a few times, usually from the safety of his nest. It broke windows; it had broken some of the coloured windows at Erik’s eyrie, little pieces left behind like gleaming beetles.
“The sparrows,” said Charles, wide-eyed. “We haven’t had a storm like this since before they hatched…”
“I can go,” said Erik. “Surely they’re not stupid enough to go out in this.”
Charles clucked, a singularly distressed sound. “They’re not good at thinking ahead,” he said. “Erik, what if they try to fly? What will happen to them?”
“I’ll go,” said Erik. “I’m a strong flyer, but if it’s bad, I’ll stay there with them.”
“Don’t,” said Charles. “Stay here; I could never forgive myself if you got hurt. You’re right, they’re smart enough to stay in. Only the suicidal would go out tonight.”
“I’ll be fine,” said Erik, moving to one of the doors. “Don’t wait up.”
“Erik—“ Charles said, but Erik took off into the rain and wind, setting out to help Charles’s sparrows.
He shouldn’t have left the dovecote. He worked this out less than twenty seconds after he did leave the dovecote, and a massive gust of wind caught him and threw him sideways, Erik spiralling out of control and only just catching himself before he hit a fence. He’d never make it to the station — the rain was starting to drive into his feathers, and the wind was ferocious.
His heart sank when he heard a voice calling over the wind. “Erik! Come back!”
He turned, and he could see Charles, who hadn’t strayed far from the dovecote, but far enough to be in trouble. He was too delicate for this kind of weather, far too soft, and there was a crash as a branch fell from one of the nearby trees.
“Charles!” No, it was all right, the tree had missed him. The ice was bouncing off him, though, and it looked like he’d lost control.
“ERIK!” Charles was yelling, his small frame buffeted by the wind, flight feathers bending and ripping.
“I’m all right!” Erik yelled back, shooting past him. “I’m all right!”
“Come back! I didn’t mean for you to go out in the storm, you monumental fool!”
If a human caught him in there… fuck. But Erik had never seen a human in the old house, had never seen anyone but Charles, and the wind was tearing his feathers. Charles was struggling as a huge gust blew him off-course, and Erik took his chance and swooped in, holding Charles as gently as he could in his talons. They practically tumbled into the dovecote, and Erik let go of Charles, flying up to one of the higher perches to catch his breath.
Charles was on the lowest perch, ruffling and preening his feathers, stretching his wings to check that everything was still in order before fluttering up to Erik.
“Are you all right?” he asked, as Erik panted.
“I’m all right,” said Erik. “Did I hurt you?”
“Scared me, but no, no lasting damage,” said Charles, but he was shivering and there was a spot of blood on his pale breast where one of Erik’s talons had gripped too hard. Erik checked over his own feathers, aching all over where the ice had hit him. They’d just have to hope that the sparrows had been smart enough to stay put, because there was no way either of them could go back out there in the storm.
“I’m exhausted,” Charles announced.
“The feeling is mutual,” Erik replied.
“There’s fieldmice that come in to steal my food. If you’re hungry. Later.”
“You don’t mind sharing your mice with me?” asked Erik.
Charles bobbed his head, cooing. “I’m not a carnivore,” he said. “And you’ll need to eat.”
Stupid, stupid, of course he wasn’t a carnivore. Erik had been thinking about him as a potential mate, not as a potential meal, and he ruffled his feathers in embarrassment.
“Let me,” said Charles, nudging at him, and Erik realised that Charles wanted his wings. He stretched out a wing, and Charles worried at the feathers, making sure that everything was sitting in its correct place before moving to the other wing. Charles was practically purring as he worked.
“You’re fine,” he said, eventually, and Erik was a little disappointed — not that he wanted an injury to important feathers, but that he wanted that nimble beak stroking him, he wanted Charles telling him that everything was okay.
“We should get some sleep,” said Erik. “When we go to the station in the morning, I want to be on full form. Shaw is opportunistic; he’ll take anyone who’s been injured by the storm.”
“You’re right,” said Charles, as the thunder crashed again. “I hope they weren’t stupid enough to go out in this.”
“They weren’t,” said Erik. “We’re the only ones dumb enough to try it.”
The dovecote was shaking with the wind, and Charles shivered every time a stray gust blew in through the open doors. Erik tried to settle for sleep on the perch, wondering if Charles would object were he to try to make part of the dovecote a little more comfortable, a little less formal and human.
Charles cooed into the silence that had fallen softly between them, his small frame wracked with shaking, although whether it was cold, fear or excitement, Erik couldn’t tell. “Goodnight, then,” he said, tucking his head under one wing.
Erik sighed. “Come over here,” he said.
“What?” asked Charles, muffled by his own feathers.
“Come over here and get warm. It’s the least I can do.”
Oh, and it wasn’t the least he could do, but it didn’t matter when Charles nestled under one of Erik’s wings and Erik could feel his heart beating in his breast, and feel his shivering subside.
“You’re so warm,” Charles replied, snuggling in.
“Goodnight,” said Erik, as every predatory instinct gave way to an intense pride that Charles had stopped shivering. Which was ridiculous, because Charles was a dove, and Erik was supposed to eat doves. But Charles was warm and his heart was fluttery and he’d invited Erik into his nest, and Erik was in love.
When he woke the next morning, Raven was there, and Charles was still tucked under his wing like a chick.
“So,” she said, hopping from perch to perch. “You should see outside. There’s branches down everywhere.”
“What time did you come in?” asked Charles, sleepily. “You know I don’t like you out when it’s dangerous.”
“Charles, I’m twice your size and perfectly capable of taking care of myself,” she said. “Anyway. There’s lots to eat out there. The sparrows are up already.”
“You brought them here?” asked Charles. “Are they all healthy? None of them tried to fly in the storm?”
“Duh. They were so worried about you that I couldn’t have stopped them coming across this morning, but none of them actively have a death wish,” she said. “I bet they’ll be happy to know that you had your big brave kestrel looking after you.”
Charles was shameless, because he didn’t excuse himself out from under Erik’s wing. Instead, he cuddled closer.
“I’ll be out in a minute,” he said, and then, “Thank you.”
Erik laughed to himself. “Looks like the sparrows were indeed smarter than we are,” he said.
“Looks like,” said Charles, running his beak along Erik’s. “Is this…all right?”
“It’s all right,” said Erik, reluctantly shifting his wing.
Charles hopped to another perch. “I’m glad you were here last night,” he said, and then he took off, heading for the tangled yard.
Erik blinked in the sunlight when he got out there, surveying the mess. The branch that had nearly hit Charles was sitting on the path, and another tree had crushed the fence, right where Erik had hit it. He’d been lucky, stupidly lucky, and he perched on the fallen tree, sitting sentinel in case any other predators got any ideas.
Charles was fluttering around with the sparrows, looking for all the world like he was in dove heaven as he shook a fallen seed-head in his beak, scattering seed everywhere for the little birds to eat.
Raven lit on the branch next to Erik. “So, you spent the night?” She nudged him. “Is he cuddly? He looks cuddly. I’m not really very cuddly, so I never tried.”
“Not having this conversation,” said Erik, who was also not particularly cuddly.
“Fuck you,” she said, without ire. “Look at him. Look at his adorable little beak.”
The problem was, Erik was looking at Charles’s adorable little beak, and thinking about how pleasant it might be to have that adorable little beak stroke through his feathers right now.
“Are they all right?” Erik asked. “The little ones?”
“Are you worried about the sparrows?” asked Raven. “Did he actually take your brain out and transplant it or something?”
“No,” said Erik, as Charles flew up to join them. “I just. When we were at the station that day, they talked to me.”
People didn’t talk to raptors; either you were a mate, a meal, or a threat. People didn’t talk to Erik — other kestrels thought he was weird because of his vendetta against Shaw, or worse, they were frightened of him. And no other bird would talk to a predator. Except for Charles, and Charles’s sparrows.
“Erik, this is Darwin,” said Charles, and the sparrow that he introduced was older than the little ones.
“So it is true,” said Darwin. “Alex said Charles had brought a kestrel to the nests. You’re crazy, my friend.”
“I’m not crazy,” said Charles. “Erik is going to help us to defeat Shaw.”
“You’re going to help me to defeat Shaw,” said Erik.
“Semantics,” said Charles, waving a wing. “Raven, did you see Azazel last month?”
“I did,” she said, and turned to Erik. “The ravens have an Unkindness each month.”
“A what?” asked Erik.
“A meeting,” said Darwin. “Ravens have to be all mysterious. They have a meeting down on the cliffs where they teach each other tricks.”
“And what did he bring?” Charles asked.
“You know I can’t tell you that,” she said. “Ravens are bound by blood to maintain the secrets of our powers.”
“Raven,” said Charles. “He threatened Erik; he was with Shaw when we saw them at the station. Tell me what he brought, or I’ll follow you to the next Unkindness and I’ll sit on you and coo about how you’re the best sister in the world.”
“Wait, you knew that raven?” asked Erik.
“Charles, if you embarrass me, I’ll never forgive you,” said Raven.
“Then tell me what he brought,” said Charles. “And if it makes you feel better, justify it by remembering that he threatened Erik.”
She huffed. “Fine. He was teaching us to dive like a falcon,” she said. “So fast and quiet it’s like you just show up. It’s to do with aerodynamics and wing placement.”
“That’s not good,” said Erik. “Peregrines are faster than anything when they dive, and ravens are big birds. If one could hit a flat dive like a peregrine…”
“You’re assuming Shaw taught him,” said Raven. “All the peregrines answer to Shaw.”
“Who else?” asked Erik. “Another raven could get into the dovecote, you know. Shaw wouldn’t stand a chance, but Raven has no difficulty.” He shook his wings. “We need a fallback position.”
“We need a plan for getting rid of Shaw,” said Darwin.
“I have one of those,” said Charles. “I’ve been talking to the pigeons.”
“Pigeons?” asked Erik. “They’re one step above flying rocks.”
“Not all pigeons,” said Charles. “When I was a release dove, most of the others were pigeons. Doves don’t have a good sense of direction, not like you migratory species have.”
Erik tried to imagine not being able to feel the pull of the poles, or the seasons, and he couldn’t; it was too inconceivable.
“So pigeons,” said Darwin. “You’re going to do what, exactly, with the pigeons?”
“Pigeons work together naturally,” said Charles. “When Shaw comes, they flee as individuals. It looks like the flock is fleeing, but what’s really happening is each individual bird is making the decision to fly away. All it takes is a critical mass of birds thinking they want to fly, and then they all fly.”
“And?” asked Raven.
“Imagine if each individual bird made the decision to stand its ground,” Charles said. “And better, if each bird made the decision to help the one or two that Shaw tries to take.”
“Hey,” said Darwin. “I’ve seen that kind of thing before. The gull nests down by the beach; they all fight anything that even remotely looks like a raptor. I’ve seen them take down a hawk.”
“I’m not advocating violence,” said Charles. “Simply…emphatic persuasion.”
“No,” Erik said. “The only thing that will stop Shaw is violence.”
“I’m with Erik,” said Darwin. “We’ve got to adapt, Charles. The ravens are so successful because they’ll eat anything, fly anywhere. We’ve got to do the same thing if we want to survive.”
“Oh, Darwin,” said Charles. “We never have to kill. If the pigeons rise, show Shaw their numbers…”
“…and they do no damage, then no-one will care,” said Raven. “Shaw will learn that they won’t hurt him, and he’ll use that to hurt them.”
“No,” said Charles, helplessly. “Please, my friends—“
“Charles, you are an idealist,” said Erik. “I grew up a hunter. We will each end up reverting to the positions that we feel most comfortable with.”
Charles cooed under his breath. “I don’t like it,” he said. “I understand your point of view, but I do not agree.”
“What’s the timeline on the pigeon thing?” asked Darwin. “I mean, how advanced are you?”
“Small steps,” said Charles. “Erik’s arrival — complicated things.”
“The good kind of complication?” asked Raven.
“Yes,” said Charles, darting a glance at Erik. “Oh, yes.”
Erik’s feathers were suddenly too warm. Raven whistled, and all the sparrows looked up.
“It’s fine,” she called to them, and they went back to foraging. “We’d best take them back before they eat themselves sick.”
“Good gods, do you remember when Sean ate that entire sandwich?” asked Darwin, shaking his head. “Terrible.”
The comfortable atmosphere of the garden was broken by a swish-thump of something much bigger than a bird landing on the fallen tree that they were all sitting on. Everyone turned to see what it was.
“CAT!” It was Alex, chirping out a warning from below. “Cat, cat, cat!”
“Shit,” said Raven. “Erik, come on!”
“What?” asked Erik.
“Follow my lead,” said Raven. “Come on!”
She went up instead of down; Erik had assumed that she’d been going to swoop the cat and distract it away from the sparrows, but instead she climbed, higher and higher and oh. Raven tucked her wings in against her body and plummeted like a falcon. Erik followed suit, wrapping himself in his feathers. He was built for this, more than Raven, and so he overtook her, and he raked his talons into the cat as he dipped over its fur, Raven’s bulk hitting it seconds after Erik did. The cat yowled, a horrible, unearthly sound, and turned tail as the two birds banked, Erik hovering to watch the tabby flee.
“That’s why we have an Unkindness,” said Raven. “Because ravens help other ravens.” She paused, and Erik saw all the other birds peering out of the higher windows of the dovecote. “And what makes Charles special is he thinks it shouldn’t just be ravens. He thinks it should be everyone.”
“Maybe it should be,” said Erik, as they landed on the perches. Alex bounced out, colliding with Erik’s chest.
“You just brained that cat!” he announced.
“No; we just made it think twice,” said Erik. “It’s still alive.”
“Good,” said Charles, and Erik wanted to peck him.
“You’re just goading me now,” he said, and Charles fluffed his feathers a little in plump satisfaction, so Erik nipped his neck. “Don’t goad me.”
“We can’t stay here if there’s a cat around,” said Raven. “Charles, I know you hate the station, but just for a few days, you could go and sleep with the pigeons…”
“He can come to my eyrie,” said Erik.
Everyone looked at him. Erik thought about backing off, wondering whether Charles came complete with sparrows, but it was too late now.
“I’d like to see it,” said Charles.
“You’d be safer at the station…” Raven was giving Erik a very odd look.
“I know you all persist in thinking that I live in some sort of hovel, but I don’t,” said Erik. “You’ll like it. You can even come and inspect it, if you’d like.”
“Make a decision,” said Darwin. “Make a decision, because that cat is on its way back.”
“Station,” said Charles, herding the sparrows. “All of us, and then Erik and I will go to his eyrie for the night.”
Hank was back at the station, and a million pigeons were waddling around the place. There was no sign of Shaw and his cronies, though, and Erik sat on the roof while Charles and Raven bickered about whether it was safe to go to Erik’s eyrie, or if Erik was going to kill Charles in his sleep.
Charles won. Erik insisted on flying above him, shielding him from any other predators, and he led off across the town, watching the humans as they cleared more fallen trees. Erik could see the high windows of home from a long way off, and he had to deliberately slow himself so that Charles could keep up.
“There!” said Erik. “Up ahead.”
“That huge building?” asked Charles. “I thought you didn’t like the dovecote because it was a human place?”
“That’s a human place for birds,” said Erik. “This was a human place for humans. And besides, I made a nest.”
Charles was suitably approving of Erik’s nest; he even settled on the twigs and feathers, and that made something fluttery twitch in Erik’s chest.
“I’m going to make a new one,” said Erik. “Inside, I think. And…softer. Bigger and softer. But the old one’s still more comfortable than your perches.”
“It is,” said Charles, watching Erik carefully. “Inside?”
“It’s a special place,” said Erik. “There’s room to fly in there.”
The window opened into a room, and then beyond that room there was a room bigger than a normal human house. Erik led the way into the smaller room, and Charles fluttered in after him.
“Erik,” said Charles. “Thank you for letting me come here.”
Erik landed on the back of a chair. Charles landed beside him, and Erik turned to look at him. The sun was setting, but it wasn’t low enough yet that he had trouble seeing Charles’s eyes.
“Do you believe that you know your mate from the minute you see them?” asked Erik, and he hadn’t meant to ask that at all.
“That’s a strange question, my friend,” said Charles. “Certainly, there are scents and signs that any of us is powerless to resist, if we do not have a mate. But I don’t think that explains everything.”
“Why not?” asked Erik, as Charles took off and then flew out of the door, into the main part of the building. Erik followed. “Charles, you tease…”
Charles had stopped, landing on a wooden railing at the top of the big room, wings raised, ready to fly.
“It’s beautiful,” said Charles, his voice tinged with awe. “I had no idea.”
The colour-windows made patterns across Charles’s feathers as he flew through the last sunbeams. Erik flew high and then executed a perfect dive, down over the long benches, up by the big table at the front. Normal human buildings weren’t like this — they didn’t have good flying spaces in them.
“Tell me what you meant by that,” said Erik. “Why doesn’t scent and sign explain everything?”
“Because, my friend, they do not explain why I am so drawn to you,” said Charles, circling Erik. “And unless I am very wrong, why you are drawn to me too.”
“You aren’t wrong,” said Erik, and he swooped and soared in the long lines of light, in the empty human place.
Charles was graceful as he matched Erik stroke for stroke, their bodies almost touching but never quite; it would send them off-kilter. They landed together, panting, and Erik took the first step this time, inclining his beak to Charles’s. Charles leaned up, running his beak along the seam of Erik’s, both of them shivering with the sensation.
They preened each other in silent joy, touching and being touched. Charles slept in Erik’s eyrie that night, soft and warm against Erik’s chest. Erik watched over him, and he only knew he’d fallen asleep when he woke, Charles picking lazily through his feathers and cooing adoringly at him. It was perfect, stupidly perfect, and Erik huddled in and let Charles have his will.
Falling in love with a dove didn’t mean that Erik forgot his war with Shaw. In fact, it meant the opposite — before, he’d been fired by revenge. Now, he was fired by something else, something far more powerful; the need to protect his mate, to keep Charles safe. He flew low over Charles’s back when they returned to the dovecote, despite Charles laughing at him and telling him that he didn’t need a bodyguard.
The yard was alive with humans. Erik hadn’t expected that; there were humans with loud machines that chopped the fallen tree into little pieces, humans that were cutting back the long, overgrown grass, humans that were making noise and working. Erik felt a nervous thrill down his spine.
“There’s humans in my yard,” said Charles, sounding just about as annoyed as it was possible for a dove to sound. He landed on the guttering of the main house. “What are they doing?”
“Cleaning it out,” said Erik. This did not bode well.
“But—“ said Charles. “My dovecote.”
“There’s nothing in there but perches and old feathers,” said Erik.
“It’s still mine,” said Charles, huffily. “How would you feel if the humans came and stripped your eyrie?”
“I’d build another one,” said Erik, before thinking. “It needs to be warmer, if we’re going to winter in it.”
Charles turned to him. “But you’re migratory,” he said softly.
“I don’t have to be,” said Erik. “This far south. I mean. I could stay. I’ll just need somewhere warm.”
“I—" said Charles, looking at him with a searching gaze. “Erik.” Charles shuffled closer to him, and Erik reached out and then—
There was a sudden rush of wings, and Erik could have stepped back, but he didn’t.
“Are you two all right?” asked Raven. “It looks like your magician’s coming back, Charles.”
Erik felt something fierce and hot settle in his chest. It wasn’t fair; he wasn’t allowed to only just find Charles and then have him taken away by humans. Charles closed the tiniest distance between them, and he was a warm presence at Erik’s side.
“I don’t think so,” said Charles, leaning on Erik. “I haven’t seen him, and he would have come down right away.” He trilled. “He used to bring me treats. We’d sit on the bench by the dovecote and he’d give me cake when I got the tricks right. And when we performed, he’d stroke my feathers with his fingers just so.”
Erik could have been jealous, but Charles sounded lost. “You loved him,” said Erik, and Charles sighed.
“As much as one can love a human,” he said. “He was a good human.”
Erik had never thought about humans as being good before; they were just there, like cats. An obstacle to be avoided, because humans threw stones at kestrels, or chased them off. He’d never really considered that a human could be helpful.
“Well, there’s humans everywhere,” Raven said. “I wouldn’t have brought the sparrows if I’d realised.”
“You brought the—?” Charles asked, and then they all looked at the yard. It was alive with sparrows; the fledgelings that Erik had met, plus others, cheeping and hopping and eating the seeds and grubs stirred up by the humans. “Oh.”
“Shaw,” she said, simply. “And on the plus side, a yard full of humans means a yard without cats or eagles.”
“What did he do?” asked Charles. Raven looked away. “What did he do?”
“The pigeons,” she said guiltily. “They weren’t ready, but one of them…one of them…and you know how they flock.”
“Oh feathered gods,” said Charles. “They weren’t ready; I told them they weren’t ready.”
“I got the little ones away,” she said. “Hank’s following with Darwin.”
“Are they all right?” asked Charles, surveying the yard. Erik thought the sparrows mostly looked all right. Hungry, but undamaged.
“Scared,” said Raven. “The boys are settling the pigeons before they come.”
“Coffee!” called a human, and the sparrows scattered. “Come on, boys!”
Erik watched the humans leave their noisy machines and go into the house, a sense of foreboding settling upon him. He looked up to the sky — without the humans, they were vulnerable. His skin prickled when he saw a dark wash of wings, but then he realised that they belonged to someone much smaller than Shaw.
“Raven!” It was Hank, practically tumbling as he landed. “Are you all safe? Is everyone all right?”
“They’re safe,” she said. “Darwin?”
“Just coming in over the trees,” said Erik, because he’d spotted Darwin, and he took off; the sparrows were slower than Hank or Erik, and everyone was slower than Angel. He slid onto the air currents just above Darwin, and then looked out to see if Darwin had been followed. He had. There were birds in the air; peregrines. Peregrines, and a raven, and fuck, a broad sweep of feathers that spanned wider than any of their wings.
“Come on,” said Erik, flying low over Darwin’s back. “I have a bad feeling about this.”
“No kidding,” Darwin replied. The humans weren’t back yet; why weren’t they back? Didn’t they know that they were needed? Darwin and Erik landed heavily.
“Into the dovecote, all of you,” Erik said. “Now, come on, go!”
“What is it?” asked Charles, and then he looked up. “Oh no.”
“Oh yes,” said Erik. “Hurry!”
“There’s no time!” said Raven. “SPARROWS IN THE DOVECOTE!”
Angel and Hank were herding sparrows, but Charles just stood, looking at the sky. Erik nudged him, pushed him off the edge of the roof and down to the garden, but the stubborn bird refused to go in — instead, he lit on the bench beside the dovecote, the place he’d said he sat with his human. Erik wanted to shake him and tell him that the human wasn’t coming back to help him now, but he didn’t think it would work.
“I’m going to make him leave,” said Erik.
“You’re not,” said Charles, huddling on the broad seat of the bench. “He’ll kill you.”
“I don’t care,” Erik replied.
“I do,” said Charles, and Erik suddenly felt like he was breathing in water; the air burned in his lungs. “Come on, we’d best get in.”
Raven shooed the last sparrow into the dovecote behind her, joining them on the bench. “Too late.”
Shaw landed on the arm of the bench, the peregrines on the branches of a tree that overhung behind him. He loomed over them, and Erik felt more of Charles’s flock joining him on the bench in a show of doomed solidarity.
“Fuck,” said Darwin, very quietly. Erik quite agreed.
“Hello, Shaw,” said Charles, calmly. “Get out of my garden.”
“Dove,” said Shaw. “Don’t you ever give up?”
“No,” Erik said. “None of us will.”
He realised it was a mistake when Shaw turned to him, recognition written in his features.
“Little Erik the kestrel,” said Shaw. “I’ve missed your continual pathetic attempts at overthrowing the natural order of things. You’ve got yourself an army of sparrows, have you?”
“Killing birds just to watch them die isn’t natural,” said Erik, and a peregrine made a noise that sounded horribly like a snigger. He fought the impulse to either step back, or go for Shaw’s throat.
“The little ones are all safely—" Hank said, from behind them, and stopped. “Oh. Erm. Sorry. Didn’t realise you had company.”
“Well,” said Shaw. “Look at this; you’ve got yourself a little owlet. It’s a regular flock.”
This time, it was a snigger; the big raven Azazel laughed, and their own Raven hissed.
Charles puffed up his chest. “I told you to leave,” he said. “There’s nothing for you here.”
“Watch your beak,” snapped Shaw, and Erik raised his wings.
“There’s nothing for you here,” he echoed. “And if you try to get into the dovecote, I will stop you.”
Shaw gazed at him, his eyes dark and unreadable. “Me, maybe. But I’ve got an owl who is particularly partial to the taste of sparrow flesh.”
“And a wingspan that’s too big to fly in my house,” said Charles, as Alex and Sean fluttered in behind him. “I’ll take out her other eye if you send her after me again.”
Shaw leaned closer to them, and Erik felt a strong compulsion to push between Shaw and Charles. Shaw wasn’t going for Charles, though; he was just threatening. The thought that he’d perhaps eaten his fill at the station made Erik’s stomach turn.
“You’ve been talking to the pigeons,” said Shaw. “You’ve been telling them to hold their ground when a bigger bird comes near.” He bent his head. “Do you know what happens to a pigeon that holds its ground against an eagle?”
“Why don’t you go boil your beak?” said Alex, popping out from behind Charles.
“Alex!” Erik snapped, but it was too late. Shaw had moved forward, down onto the slats of the bench, and either Alex or Charles was going to do something stupid.
“Wait,” said Darwin, flying out from behind Charles, flapping like a fledgeling and landing dangerously close to Shaw’s talons. “Look at me!”
The distraction was surprising enough to work; Shaw turned to look at Darwin, eyes off Alex long enough for Erik to grab Alex and shove him back and out of the reach of Shaw’s talons. The only problem was that Shaw was looking at Darwin now, and Darwin was settling from foot to foot, almost as if he was going to take Shaw on. Raven put one claw on Alex’s head — crude, but effective — and Charles stood as tall as it was possible for a dove to stand.
“Don’t look at him,” said Charles, but it was too late. Darwin was angry, and Shaw was fast, and Shaw’s attention was on Darwin, so when the tiniest movement of Darwin’s feathers presaged attack, Shaw struck first. Darwin didn’t cry out. There was no time to cry out; Shaw had broken his wings and crushed his tiny chest in one huge talon. Charles cried when Darwin couldn’t, and Erik felt rage boiling in his beak, just waiting to tear into Shaw, rip his throat out.
“Darwin!” cried Alex, and it was only Raven holding him back that stopped him flying into harm’s way.
“There’s nothing you can do, kid,” said Erik, as Alex struggled.
Raven took in a huge breath. “GET OUT OF HERE!” she said, in the strange, low language of the humans. “Go on! Get! I’ll get my shotgun on you damn thieving buzzards! Go go go!”
It was like someone had dropped a bucket of ice water over all of them. Erik had known that ravens had powers, but to speak in the language of the humans, to wield that as a weapon — that was mighty, that was better than talons, or speed, or a hooked beak. Even Shaw was reacting; he couldn’t help it, and Erik pushed through the compulsion to fly, fly far and away from here, and he stood his ground, feeling rather than seeing Charles herding everyone else into the dovecote. Raven was still screaming as she tried to hover, and Erik realised that he had to do something, or she’d be killed.
Shaw was right there, he was right there and stunned by the spell of the human language, and Erik could probably get Shaw’s throat before one of the peregrines took Erik out and added him to the body count. He didn’t. Instead, he charged Raven and pushed her back into the dovecote, still screaming, and Hank reached out and dragged her in with one ridiculously huge talon. Erik faced the windows, trying to keep an eye on them all.
“Be ready,” said Charles. “If he tries to get in…”
“Let go of me!” said Raven. Hank let her go. “They’d better not try to get in.”
They watched the windows for a tense half-hour before Erik conceded that Shaw had probably gone; the human sounds were back outside, and there were bird-calls from nearby trees. Alex was on the highest perch, bristling, and Sean was on the lowest, chirping sadly under his breath. By unspoken agreement, Erik went to Alex and Charles to Sean.
“Go away,” said Alex. “Aren’t you meant to be one of them?”
“Aren’t you meant to be food?” asked Erik, and Alex flew at him, all sudden anger.
“No, no, no, no—" Alex was a little ball of fury, scratching and pecking. Erik used his size to his advantage, eventually managing to pin one of Alex’s wings, the other flapping uselessly.
“Calm,” said Erik. “Just calm yourself.”
“Darwin is dead because of me,” said Alex. “Why should I be calm?”
“Because you can’t help the dead by throwing a tantrum,” said Erik. “You can avenge Darwin, but wallowing won’t help anyone.”
“What would you know?” asked Alex, and he sank his beak into Erik’s ankle. Erik was really going to have to talk to Charles about what he was teaching these sparrows.
“Shaw ripped out my mother’s heart because we refused to join him,” said Erik, and he was calm. “So I’d say I know a lot, really.”
Alex withdrew his beak and stopped struggling — it was like he were a puppet, and someone had cut his strings. “I don’t understand,” he said. “If he offered, why wouldn’t you join him?”
“Kestrels don’t kill for sport,” said Erik, letting him up. “No bird should.” He hadn’t really realised he had so many opinions about the matter until he was put on the spot to articulate them. “I flew with my kind to the desert, my first migration. The desert makes you calm.” He’d told Charles the truth — migration honestly wasn’t necessary this far south, but he’d flown because he’d needed to escape and grow and to tend his wounds. He’d needed to learn.
And then he’d come back and systematically tried to destroy Shaw, until a voice had called him to come and shelter in a dovecote.
“I killed Darwin,” said Alex, and Erik bent his head, resting his beak against Alex’s soft little feathers. “I shouldn’t have said anything. Erik, I —“
“Shaw killed Darwin,” said Erik. “You are not responsible.”
Alex had been foolish, but with Charles as a role model, Erik couldn’t really blame him. Alex was shaking, and Erik held for a few minutes, not really knowing how sparrows comforted their young. Kestrels would preen, and preening seemed to please Charles, but Erik really didn’t want to send mixed signals.
“I think I’m going to go down and see how Sean is,” said Alex, tipping his head up and brushing his beak against Erik’s chest. “I…thank you. I didn’t mean to say you’d eat us.”
Erik let him go, floating down after him on soft wings. Charles had let Sean go and was checking Raven’s pinions for damage, his feathers still ruffled and anger written in the set of his beak.
“How dare he?” said Charles. “How dare he come to my house and hurt my friends?”
“We led him here,” said Raven, and she sounded sad. “We were at the station, and Azazel started swooping the humans — don’t think about it, by the way, that’s a raven thing — and some of the pigeons decided to make a break for it and bring him down.”
“What?” asked Charles, freezing. “They did that?”
“Not for long,” said Hank. “Shaw’s peregrines took care of them.”
Charles’s chest heaved, just once, but he didn’t make a sound.
“I thought we’d be safe here,” said Raven. “Charles. I’m so, so sorry.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” said Charles. “It wasn’t your fault. The pigeons weren’t your fault. It was my fault; I’ve made you all feel safe, and it’s all just a lie.”
“No,” said Erik. “You don’t — none of you — control Shaw. It’s Shaw’s fault that he hurts people, not yours.”
“It’s my fault that I told them to stand their ground,” said Charles.
“It’s their decision to listen,” said Erik. “And he fears you, so you must be doing something right.”
Charles ruffled his wings. “Don’t be ridiculous,” he said. “Shaw doesn’t fear me.”
“He didn’t try to touch you,” said Erik. “Either he wants you on his team, or he fears that you could hurt him somehow.”
“I told Azazel that you were a magician’s dove,” said Raven. “That’s probably it.”
“Well, it’s true,” said Charles. “Though I don’t have any actual powers, per se.”
“And we know that Shaw is vulnerable to raven magic,” said Hank, shuffling his feet. “It’s not out of the realm of possibility that he regards Charles as a threat.”
“Raven was lucky,” said Charles. “It won’t work again. He’ll work out how to resist it.”
“Erik did resist it,” said Raven. “If he hadn’t have shoved me back inside…” She fell silent, and everyone looked at each other. If Erik hadn’t pushed Raven into the dovecote, then it could be two birds they were mourning.
“Where do you learn to do that, Raven?” asked a tiny sparrow, barely more than a chick. Erik despaired of learning all of their names. “I want to learn how to do that.”
“Ravens have magic,” said Charles. “That’s what lets them talk like humans.”
“And what about Erik?” asked the sparrow. “Did Raven cast a spell on him to make him protect us?”
“Charles cast a spell on him,” said Raven. “In a metaphorical sense.”
Erik wondered, a little, whether it was a literal spell, not a metaphorical one.
The small sparrow chirped. “What’s a metaphorical sense?”
“I’ll tell you when you’re older,” said Charles.
“What’re damn thieving buzzards?” asked Sean, nudging up next to Raven.
“Don’t know,” said Raven. “It’s what the farmers on the edge of town call us.”
“Effective,” said Erik.
“Not effective enough,” Raven replied, and there was a bitterness to her tone.
“I’m hungry.” That was Sean again. Erik was unsurprised, and grateful for the change of topic.
Raven sighed. “Come on, Erik. You, Hank and I can get food for this lot; I think Shaw is gone.”
“We should make a larder,” said Hank.
“Exactly what I’ve been telling him,” said Raven.
“We can manage for a few hours,” said Charles. “Don’t go.”
“It’ll be fine,” said Raven. “And I’m not putting up with fledgelings complaining all day.”
“We don’t know that,” said Charles.
“I’m a fast flyer,” said Hank. “I—ah— assuming I don’t get sunblinded.”
“You know how fast I am,” said Erik. “But I don’t think I can outfly a peregrine.”
“Then don’t try to,” said Charles. “I can’t— I don’t want to lose you. Any of you.”
Erik looked at him, and then inclined his head. “Charles,” he said, because Charles was frightened and desperately trying not to show it. “You won’t lose us.”
Charles met him half-way. “Please,” said Charles, and Erik wanted to wrap him in his wings. “Stay.”
“We’re staying,” said Erik, and Raven made a gagging noise, but drew back from the door.
They stayed, eventually going out late in the day, each bird in charge of bringing food back indoors. All of them slept in the dovecote that night. Erik could hear the whisper of wings outside. The White Queen. He bristled; she’d have a much bigger wingspan than him, and sharper claws. He’d fight her if he had to, but he would prefer to out-smart her.
Charles nuzzled the heads of the sparrows, cooing at them and drawing them in close to his breast. Erik had never thought about little birds mourning for other little birds; he’d always just killed because that was what predators did. He wondered about fish, or mice — did they mourn?
“I can hear her,” said Hank. “She’s going to eat us.”
“Hush,” said Charles, gently. “She won’t eat us; Erik’s got a beak and talons, and Raven’s smarter than a human, and I’m a dab hand in a fight when I need to be. And you’re magnificent, Hank; don’t put yourself down.”
“We should go to my eyrie tomorrow,” said Erik. “It’s safer.”
“We’d be more exposed on the window ledge, and if they came after us inside, no-one would know,” said Charles, as the smallest sparrow tucked herself under Charles’s wing. “It might be safer at the station — at least there’s humans around.”
“You seem to think that humans want to protect us,” said Erik.
“They do, my friend,” said Charles. Erik thought of human boys throwing stones at him, and opened his beak, but Charles cut him off. “Well, most of them do.”
“I hate sleeping on perches,” said Erik, and he climbed to one of the high perches, because the dovecote wasn’t ideal for flying in. “I could make a nest.”
“You could,” called Charles, and Erik tucked his head under one wing. “I’d like that.”
Erik ached. It was stupid — he’d barely known Darwin — but he ached, because Darwin had been brave and he’d died protecting the other sparrows. And Charles had loved Darwin, and Erik knew that Charles was terribly upset but focussing on his sparrows first. Erik had a headache. He loved Charles and Charles seemed to come complete with sparrows and a strange, empty dovecote, and an endless optimism that little birds could live without fear.
Erik woke when Raven nudged him in the shoulder and nearly pushed him off the perch.
“What?” he asked.
“I want to try cuddling, and Charles is covered in sparrows,” she said, resting her beak on his shoulder. “Mmm. No, not doing it for me.”
“Get off. I don’t like surprise cuddling,” said Erik. “I mean. I don’t like cuddling.”
He looked down, and Charles was indeed covered with sparrows; he had one under each wing, so he looked like a ball of feathers with far too many feet. And Charles was looking up at him with a lost look in his eyes.
“Come on,” said Erik. “It’s your turn.”
He flew out from under Raven’s beak, and down to Charles, Raven following.
“Erik?” asked Charles. “I thought you were sleeping.”
“Sparrows,” said Erik, in his best enticing tone. “Raven would like to try cuddling.”
“Wait—“ said Raven, as Hank snuggled up to her flank, and she was boxed in by sparrows on the other side. “Erik!”
“Come with me,” said Erik, and Charles followed him up to the higher perches, waiting until they were well away from the sparrows before Erik stopped, and bent his head to touch Charles’s cheek, gently stroking his feathers. He was going to make Charles a nest, he thought, all feathers and soft things, somewhere that was safe from everything that might harm him.
“He was one of the first fledgelings I found after Raven,” said Charles, and all of the pleasant coo was gone from his voice. “He was so tiny that I thought I was going to have to sit on him to keep him warm.”
“We’ll avenge him,” said Erik. “I promise you, we’ll avenge him.”
“You know that I have no desire for vengeance,” said Charles.
“I know that,” said Erik. “But I’ll do it anyway.”
“Killing Shaw won’t bring you peace,” said Charles.
“You’re a dove. Of course you think that,” said Erik, still preening and stroking him, trying to soothe him in the only way he knew how. “I love you, Charles, but you can’t ask me to stop.”
“I’m not asking you to stop,” said Charles. “I want you to find peace, Erik; you’ve devoted your whole life to this one death, and what will you do once we’ve achieved it?”
“We?” Erik asked.
“The little birds need to be able to fly free,” said Charles. “Now more than ever.”
“We want the same thing,” said Erik, warmth flooding through his wings.
Charles bobbed his head, resting against Erik’s shoulder. “No,” he said. “We don’t. But Shaw’s…incapacitation…will achieve both of our desires, even if it does so indirectly.”
“And then…?” asked Erik, wrapping a wing around Charles.
“My species is monogamous,” said Charles. “We choose our mates for life. If you’ll have me. I know I’m not. Well. Exactly what you would have chosen.”
“I’ll have you,” said Erik, quickly. “I want you. I thought you might not—I mean, you disapprove of my methods…”
“That doesn’t mean I disapprove of you,” said Charles.
“Oh,” said Erik, and Charles reached up to run his beak along Erik’s, to stroke through Erik’s feathers with a gentle touch.
They woke before the humans the next morning, stretching cramped wings, all of them wondering if it would be safe to fly outside. In the end it was Erik who made the decision — he was ashamed of hiding. Shaw had been there, and he’d been right within Erik’s reach, and all they’d done was run and hide from him. It was not particularly heroic.
“Neither is being killed,” said Charles, when Erik complained to him.
They still all scrambled back indoors when a shadow flew over the sun, or the humans had one of their (seemingly frequent) breaks. The sparrows wanted to return to the station sometime, but no-one was really ready for that, despite Charles worrying about the pigeons.
“They’re second cousins,” he said, and then looked at his feet. “Many times removed.”
“They’re pigeons,” said Raven. “They’re fine.”
Sean had bounced back remarkably well from the day before, but Alex was still sullen and lonely, sitting on the highest perch in the dovecote until Charles threatened to smother him with affection, and then he came to join Erik, asking awkward questions about how to kill things. Charles would reprimand him later, Erik knew, but he spent a productive morning teaching Alex how to stalk and catch grasshoppers like a preybird and how to skim low over the back of the earth, silent and deadly. And then the humans went away for another break, and like frightened fledgelings, the birds went inside.
It was frustrating. Before — before Charles, before suddenly being responsible for sparrows (and how had that even happened?), Erik would have just flown out and gone for Shaw. He wouldn’t have hidden. He’d probably have been dead by now, too, but it was better than shivering on perches, trying to escape the inevitable; Shaw would come, and they would have to be ready.
Erik was just about ready to make a break for it, Charles’s sensibilities be damned, when the humans came into the dovecote. Later, he realised how complacent he’d become; he’d known that the dovecote was a human place — it was huge, big enough for humans to enter — but he’d regarded it as a place for birds. He’d never been so close to a human in his life.
“God, how long d’ya reckon since anyone’s been down here?” asked a human. They were wearing garish clothes, colours that hurt Erik’s eyes. Erik moved next to Charles, prepared to defend him if he had to.
“Is that your human?” he asked, under his breath.
“No,” said Charles, as Sean panicked and started to fly. “Sean!”
“Jesus!” said a human. “Fuck, there’s birds in here!”
“Fuck,” said the other human, waving his arms in the cramped space. “Get out! Go on, get! Filthy fucking sparrows!”
“Fly,” said Charles, and he darted out from under Erik’s wing, flying around the dovecote, dangerously close to flapping human arms. “Fly, everyone, fly!”
It was clear that he was trying to be a distraction, but if Charles was hit, he’d crash into a wall, and with humans here, anything could happen. “Charles!” Erik called. “Come on!”
There was no time to wonder if Shaw or his cronies were out there; Erik hovered above the yard and watched Raven and Hank lead the sparrows off, Charles following them while the humans swore and yelled. Charles must have spotted him, because he flew straight and true to Erik’s shadow.
“What are we going to do?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” said Erik. Charles had seemed so attached to his home, and it seemed presumptuous to drag him back to the eyrie. “Come on; we’ll make sure this lot are all right on their way to the station.”
“Is that you…caring?” asked Charles.
“It might be,” Erik replied, looking down. “Feathered gods, there’s more of them.”
Charles looked down, and Erik could have sworn that Charles stopped beating his wings, just for a second. “Oh,” he said. “Erik. It’s my owner.”
Charles could turn in the tiniest of spaces, and he turned, wheeling down to the man who was sitting on the bench, looking forlornly at the shorn garden. No, Erik thought, no, no, no, not now. Anything but this. Charles landed on the handrail, ducking his head and cooing.
The human looked up and stretched out a hand to Charles. Don’t, Erik wanted to say, but Charles hopped onto his wrist, trilling with delight. Erik’s heart was pounding, feeling like it was knocking against his ribs.
“My dove,” said the human. “Oh, my little one.” Erik hovered. “I thought you must have been dead; my feckless children said there was nothing but sparrows left in the dovecote.”
He bent his head to Charles’s in a remarkably avian gesture, stroking Charles’s feathers with a quavering hand.
“Dad?” called one of the humans. “Dad, what are you doing? We need to sort out what’s coming with you.”
The human kept his head close to Charles’s, and Erik strained his ears to hear. “You’ll have to fly, little one,” he said. “Don’t let them cage you up like they’re going to cage me.”
Erik took the chance, and lit on the armrest of the bench. Just to remind Charles, he told himself. Charles might be beloved by humans, but he was also beloved of Erik, and Erik wasn’t going to give him up easily.
“Hello there,” said the human, reaching his other hand to Erik. Erik avoided it, trying to communicate to the stupid human that he would bite any finger extended to him. “It seems you have a friend, Snowy.”
“Snowy?” asked Erik.
“Shut up,” Charles replied cheerfully. He cooed, and fluffed his feathers. “I bet he’s got some cake in his pocket.”
He did have some cake in his pocket. Charles happily ate from the human’s hand, perched on the human’s wrist, and Erik, who had always seen pigeons in the park eating what humans gave them and thought them to be fools, watched on. The human didn’t try to lure Erik any closer; instead, he stroked Charles’s feathers with his huge thumb.
“I’m sorry I left you here,” he said. “The boys didn’t think to check the dovecote when I had my heart attack, and then when they did they said it was empty. I should have made them leave you food, just in case.”
“Dad, seriously, you know we have to get there by four so that they can get your meds sorted for the night,” said one of the other humans, carrying a stick with brushes on the end. “I’ll finish cleaning out the dovecote tomorrow.”
“Snowy’s back,” said the old man, turning to the younger. “Look, Snowy came back!”
Erik opened his beak; what if, what if? If the old man captured Charles, and Charles had been lured so easily; he trusted so easily. He’d trusted Erik not to harm him, and now he was trusting this old human not to cage him.
“Right,” said the younger man. “I’m sure they’ll let you have him if he’s in a cage. There’s a few people with canaries and things.”
Erik hopped closer to Charles. “They want to cage you,” he said. “Don’t let them.”
“Erik,” said Charles, looking at him. “I would never let them.”
“Come on, Dad,” said the other of the men who’d chased them from the dovecote, making his way down the garden path. “I’m sure there’ll be birds to feed up at Clear Waters.”
“You,” said the old magician, looking at Erik, and for a few seconds Erik thought he might be able to speak common bird, because the human was looking at Erik like ravens did. “You take care of my dove, all right?”
“I will,” said Erik, not caring if he couldn’t be understood, and the man hurriedly petted Charles and then gently tossed him into the air. Charles caught the wind in his wings, and Erik launched off after him.
“Go on!” the human said. “Come and visit me sometime!”
Erik joined Charles in the air, and together they watched the younger humans come and shepherd the older one away. Charles’s eyes were terribly bright as he watched until the old human was gone, and then he turned without a word and flew back and away to the station.
It didn’t help. Charles was disconsolate when they left the sparrows tucked into their nests in the brickwork; even the pigeons wobbling and telling him that they didn’t blame him for what had happened, and they wanted to keep trying didn’t soothe him. Misgivings aside, Erik took him home to the eyrie; the dovecote wasn’t safe, and he didn’t much feel like staying where the trains rattled past like thunder.
Charles flew in the big room of Erik’s home, making sad circles, letting himself dive and recover at just the last minute. Erik realised that Charles was teaching himself Raven’s trick — the dive that she in turn had learned from Azazel, who had learned from peregrines. If they could all be like ravens, then maybe they’d do better.
He was about to call out and correct Charles’s wing placement (and this was an awful place to dive in), but then Charles went right from the ceiling, calling out at the top of his lungs, and Erik knew that he was trying to forget as much as he was trying to learn. Correction wouldn’t be welcome.
Erik left Charles alone, darting between the coloured sunbeams like a ghost, and instead he flew up to a place that he’d always planned to do something with, but he’d never had a good reason. He’d found the hole in the wall when he’d first been exploring, and he’d thought that perhaps if he ever had a mate and chicks he would nest there. He climbed in — yes, it was still warm and dry, just contained enough to be safe, lined with wood. It needed something in it, though, something to keep them comfortable.
He’d always meant to do this. Charles was still flying in the big room as Erik tore strips from the draperies, pulled out fine, soft stuffing, lining the hole until it was warm and safe. Even if Shaw got in here, even if the White Queen came, they’d be able to pull back into their nest.
He went to join Charles, who was sitting on the head of a statue, panting.
“I’m tired,” said Charles.
“That’s convenient,” said Erik. “I’ve made you a nest.”
“I thought you were just lining your current nest,” said Charles, pressing his cheek to Erik’s. “Are you serious?”
“I’m serious,” said Erik. “Follow me.”
Charles followed Erik, both of them looking into the hole. “Fascinating,” said Charles. “I think this used to be meant to hold human things.”
“I don’t care,” said Erik. “It’s ours now.”
“It’s rather big,” said Charles.
“Is that it?” asked Erik. “I make you a nest and you tell me it’s rather big?”
Charles hopped in. “Erik,” he said, and his coo held a note of incredulity. “You made me a nest.”
“You need a nest,” said Erik. “You’re tired, and you can’t keep on sleeping in that big cold dovecote.”
There’d never be any eggs between them, not unless a confused cuckoo decided to lay in their territory, or perhaps Charles adopted an abandoned clutch (and Erik didn’t put it past Charles to do that). But the nest was big enough, and warm enough for more than two, and Charles settled down on the soft fabrics and cooed gently to himself.
“Do you like it?” asked Erik, eventually.
“I adore it,” said Charles. “Now stop hovering in the doorway and come over here.”
Erik felt oddly nervous as he hopped into the nest, making his way to Charles’s side. He vaguely knew that doves didn’t really nest like this unless they were going to breed, but Charles had cuddled into the soft fabric, and he tipped his head up so that Erik could rub their cheeks together and share their scent.
“I’m so glad you came into my dovecote,” said Charles, arranging Erik’s feathers with his nimble beak. “I’m so glad you came back, too.”
“I was lucky,” Erik replied, stroking Charles’s neck, down to the strong joint of his wing.
“What a ludicrous pair we make,” said Charles. “You should be off with a sleek lady kestrel, not a spoiled little dove.”
“I made my choice,” said Erik, as Charles stood, bumping their chests together. “I’m happy with my spoiled little dove.”
“Erik,” cooed Charles, and Erik shivered as his beak hit just the right spot, before Charles pulled away and turned.
Erik opened his beak in silent amazement that Charles would offer this, as Charles inclined his body and fanned his tailfeathers to one side. It was an obvious invitation, and Erik nipped the nape of his neck, feeling Charles’s warmth against his chest.
“There won’t be any eggs,” said Erik, leaning down low over Charles’s back.
Charles chuckled. “I should hope not,” he said, as they touched, a shiver running through both of their bodies. “The sparrows are quite enough, in any case.”
Erik loved him madly; loved his coo and the flutter of his wings, loved the way Charles liked to preen Erik’s feathers even though Erik was really quite capable of preening himself, and had been since he was a chick. He let Charles out from under him, but kept a wing extended in an invitation of his own.
“We need to plan,” said Erik.
“We need to plan,” Charles agreed, snuggling in. “But not now.”
“I didn’t think I’d ever hear you say that,” said Erik, and Charles gave him a gentle peck.
“Tomorrow, my love,” he said, and Erik felt his chest swell with affection. He tucked his head next to Charles’s, under his own wing, and fell asleep.
It was a longer flight to the station from Erik’s eyrie, and by unspoken agreement they avoided the dovecote, going instead to the little birds and the safety of hundreds of humans. The pigeons at the station fascinated Erik — they weren’t quite normal. He’d always considered them to be barely avian, just feathers and eating, but they were more than that. He spent a week watching them, spending his nights curled with Charles in their nest.
Charles kept on bringing odds and ends back with him, seemingly fascinated by the idea that he had somewhere that he could keep things and they wouldn’t fall off perches, and they’d gathered bits of fabric (including a lovely warm woollen scarf that some human had dropped onto the tracks and Erik had carried home because Charles cooed at him) and some shiny things, courtesy of Raven. She’d refused to come to the eyrie, but she seemed happy enough that Erik wasn’t going to go mad and eat Charles in his sleep.
Hank had theories about the pigeons. “I think they share a brain,” he confided, as Erik watched a human throw down half a sandwich and the pigeons move as if with one mind. It was certainly an interesting hypothesis. “But they don’t always do it. When they’re a flock, they’re strong; when they’re on their own, they fly into walls.”
“How would they share a brain?” asked Erik. Hank fluffed his wings.
“I don’t know,” he said. “But I think Charles is right when he says he’s a second cousin or something. I think Charles can do it too, but with other birds, not just pigeons.”
“What?” asked Erik. Hank looked at him, one eye wide open, one eye almost closed.
“You’re serious?” he asked. “Haven’t you ever wondered why Charles is so…persuasive?”
“He’s brave,” said Erik. “And kind. And he really believes what he’s saying. That’s a strong combination.”
Hank hooted a laugh. “Maybe,” he said. “But I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s something more.”
Erik wouldn’t be surprised if Charles had a bit of magic in him that was more than the persuasion. All the other doves he’d seen had no sense of direction whatsoever. Admittedly, he’d usually seen them flying for the nearest hideout as quickly as their wings could carry them, but still. No sense of direction. How else could Charles have been a release dove, if he didn’t have a bit of magic in him?
He took in the scene around him, as Hank flew off to go and check on the latest addition to their flock: a shy blackbird who Hank had rescued from a cat. Alex was showing Sean how to skim along the tracks and frighten the rats that ran out between the trains, and Charles was talking in pigeon language with the pigeons (mostly cooing and inclining his head, although at one point Erik looked over and Charles was wobbling and Erik had to look away before he choked), and Erik thought that this wasn’t so bad, really.
Of course it couldn’t last.
The White Queen came on soft wings at dusk, on a long, happy day when they’d been careless and stayed too late. It was almost an insult, Erik thought; Shaw didn’t even care enough to come himself, but Charles stood stock-straight next to him, his wings trembling.
“Little dove,” she called. “Little dove, come out for me.”
Charles hissed. “She said she’d return for me,” he said. “I wonder if she petitioned Shaw for the chance?”
Erik watched her, the white feathers of her wings so much stronger than Charles’s, so much bigger. She could break either of them with a single crack of her talon.
“How good’s her vision?” asked Erik. “One dove in a field of pigeons…”
“Good enough,” said Charles.
“Little dove,” she repeated. “You can’t hide amongst the sparrows forever.”
A train pulled in, the doors opening, and Erik took the chance of the distraction to nudge Charles. Charles looked at him, and bobbed a little in silent agreement. The humans were piling off the train like so many fat pigeons, and for once they were useful, pointing at the White Queen, drawing attention away from Erik and Charles.
“Oh my god, it’s an owl,” said a human. “Look, look, it’s an owl! How beautiful!”
“I didn’t think they came out so early!”
“Now,” whispered Erik. Charles cooed a soft farewell to the sparrows; it was risky, flying, but if Charles was right and the Queen was after Charles, then it was the safest for the sparrows to draw her away. Erik kept pace with Charles, his wings hiding his love from any eyes overhead, and they skimmed along fences and hedgerows, under tree branches, anything that might keep them safe. They paused in the bare sweep of an oak, the leaves all fallen and crunchy on the ground, and Erik scanned the sky.
“There,” he said. “Come on; she’s looking for us.”
They could have gone to the dovecote, but Charles hadn’t even turned; he was flying for the eyrie, for their nest. The thought made Erik feel warm despite the chill of the air and the situation; he was desperately hoping that they passed unnoticed and safe into their home.
They both flew for the high beams and statues when they made it to the big room, stopping and listening. A scratch-scrabble echoed on the roof, and Erik tensed, trying to work out whether it was rats, or a big owl landing poorly. No, it must be rats.
“Do you think she’ll go and attack the sparrows if she can’t get us?” Charles asked.
“No,” said Erik, because he knew what it was to hunt a specific quarry. He flew to Charles’s side, and there was a much louder sound; a window, cracking and breaking out. “You’ll be safe in the nest.”
“I’m not leaving you,” said Charles, pressing close to Erik’s wing. “You’re mad if you think I’m leaving you.”
Sometimes in the summer, Erik would see butterflies sending each other messages, flashing their wings, or voles, running through the grass and leaving a faint trail behind them, shimmering in the sunlight. He wondered if that was the sort of thing the White Queen had seen as she came to their nest, a trail that was obvious to her, and her alone. She lit on the big stone table, looking up at the high beams.
“Come out, little birds,” she said. “There’s plenty of room to fly in here.”
“You’ve come to my nest,” said Charles, and his voice echoed from the ceiling, down the walls. “You know what that means. My mate and I will defend our territory, and you will leave.”
“You mate with a kestrel,” said the Queen, and my, word got around quickly, didn’t it? “How do you know that you are not simply being saved for midwinter, when the weather is cold and food is hard to find.”
“You’re a fool,” said Erik. “If that’s the best you can do, you’re a fool.”
He flew to the next beam, and she spotted him, her head twisting so that she could look at him from her good eye.
“You’ve been a stone in Shaw’s crop for a while, kestrel,” she said. “He’ll kill you when you cease to amuse him.”
“Then he should have killed me already,” said Erik. “But he hasn’t. All you big birds, spreading your wings and being tough, but you can’t catch a kestrel and a dove.”
“You’re not worth our time.”
Erik laughed. “But you’re here,” he said. “So you tell me whether we’re worth it.”
Erik was just positioning himself on the tallest beam when he heard Charles cry out a worldess warning. It chilled Erik to the bone —for all that he was readying himself, he hadn’t been expecting to fight in here, and this was his home, dammit, not some shared place, and everyone knew that if you challenged on someone’s territory, it was a fight to the death.
The owl was flying for him, and it took only a few short flicks of her wings to reach where Erik had been, but Erik was flying too, and Charles had pulled back to the nest — thank everything — and was offering the most bloody useless advice ever.
“Fly, Erik, fly!”
“What do you think I’m doing?” asked Erik, as he ducked down to the ruined door, shoving his way through a hole only just big enough to take his wings, and then up a passage that would take him to the ceiling again. He was hoping that the big owl had lost her ability to see depth when she lost her eye — it was usual, when things like that happened, to lose some abilities.
He climbed, climbed, and she was tangled momentarily in the thick drapes by the door, losing feathers as she tore them down. Yes. She was angry. She was angry and when people get angry, they lose their senses. He didn’t land, just hovered, because he’d had an idea. This place was useless for diving, and his wings were much smaller than hers when he’d tucked them in close to his body.
“You can’t catch me,” he said, as she disentangled herself, ready to fly for him. “You can’t outfly me, you can’t beat me.”
“Don’t be cocky,” she said, and the beat of her wings made a thick swishing sound in the silent room. “I’ll enjoy the taste of your heart.”
“You’ll have to get it first,” he said, as she got close enough to nip his tailfeathers, and then he dropped.
It was a gamble; Erik knew his own lair, knew where there were holes and where there were soft places and where he could hide. He’d watched Charles in here practising dives, and now he dove, tucking his wings in and hoping that the owl was as overconfident as she seemed. He shot under the bench, benches, climbing and making height as he heard a thunk behind him, and Charles’s cry. It had worked. She’d hit the wood, not the space between the bench and the floor.
She wasn’t down, though. She was flying strangely, like she’d lost her balance in the air, and Erik didn’t fancy chancing it. He had to defeat her, actually defeat her, and he hadn’t done it yet.
“You won’t fool me twice,” she said, and there was blood above one of her eyes.
“Are you sure it’s fooling, and not simply defeat?” he asked, and her response was slow, weirdly slow, nothing like her earlier elegance.
“You,” she said. “Little bird.” She lost height. “Little bird, cannot.”
“Erik,” said Charles. “She’s hurt. Let her go.”
“Charles, this is no time to get squeamish,” Erik replied, as he watched her fly drunkenly. “She was going to kill us.”
“I know,” Charles called sadly. “But we’re not predators.”
“I am,” said Erik, and he flew for her like an arrow.
“Please!” Charles called, and Erik banked at the last moment, cursing his traitor heart, but the damage was done. She’d changed course to avoid his sharp talons, and Erik watched with no small measure of satisfaction as she flew into the outstretched arms of one of the statues, and then she didn’t fly any more. She dropped in an ungainly heap of feathers, and Charles moved to Erik’s side. It was a strain to hover in here, with no air currents to ease the way, so Erik landed. He had to be sure she was dead.
“You stopped,” said Charles, landing beside him. “I asked you to, and you stopped.”
“Don’t tell Raven,” said Erik. “Or Hank.”
Charles made his way to the huddled lump of feathers, strangely misshapen now that she was on the ground.
“She’s still breathing,” he said. “Though I think she’s cracked a wing.”
Erik joined him. A broken wing would spell a death sentence for a bird; if you could fly, you could escape, you could defend yourself, you could catch food. If your wing was broken, you were prey for cats and humans and foxes. She didn’t open her eyes when Erik checked her over to see if the wing really was broken. He might have stopped, but he’d still doomed her.
He’d gone after other birds before — Shaw’s cronies — and of course he was going to kill Shaw — but there was something wrenching about seeing such a powerful bird so helpless. He could rip out her throat, if he wished to (and honestly, part of him did wish to); even Charles could hurt her with his own claws and beak, if he ever would (and Erik was really wondering what had roused Charles to half-blind her in the first place).
“There’s no cats in here,” said Erik. “There’s no food in here — she won’t be able to catch us when she wakes, but I don’t think—“ It might be kinder to kill her.
Charles was shaking. “You did it,” he said breathlessly. “You defeated the Queen.”
A loud crash sounded from outside, and the murmur of human voices ticked at the edge of Erik’s hearing.
“What—?” Erik asked, heart thumping, skin suddenly prickling with shock. “Humans?”
“I thought this place was abandoned?” Charles asked, as a thunk-thunk-thunk sounded against the door. It opened with a crack, and bright lights shone through. Charles was staring at the humans and the lights in their hands with fascination, and Erik prodded him into the air; they couldn’t afford to get caught. There was nothing they could do for the Queen except for hope that the humans didn’t notice her.
“You’re a pussy,” said a human voice.
“Shut up, asshole, we’re in here, aren’t we?”
Erik could barely breathe, landing on a statue of a human holding a book, peering over the edge of the stone pages. Charles was at his shoulder, looking with equal interest as the humans — young ones, Erik thought — played the bright lights over the walls. It wasn’t nearly dark enough to need lights, but he supposed that humans were stupid and not good at seeing things, even when they were right in front of their faces.
“It’s definitely haunted, I heard,” said one of the humans. “Like, they’re not able to knock it down, because there’s a ghost that stops all the machines every time they try.”
Charles was shivering beside Erik, his breath quick and excited.
“Der,” said one of the others. “They can’t knock it down because it’s historical. And it’s on hallowed ground.”
“What’s that mean?”
“It means God will come and get you if you bulldoze it,” said another boy. “And the people from the Heritage Trust will come and get you too.”
“Man, there’s a lot of graves outside. D’ya reckon the ghosts have parties here at night?”
“Look, we’re not going to see any ghosts—“ said one of the boys, and they were coming up to where the White Queen lay stunned on the ground. Erik tensed, and he heard Charles make a tiny noise under his breath. “Holy shit, it’s a dead owl!”
“Jesus, it’s huge,” said one of the boys. “Wait, God’s not going to get me for blaspheming in a church, is he?”
“It’s still breathing,” said the third. “It’s like, stunned or something.”
“We should see how long it lasts against Stryker.”
“It’s hurt,” said the other boy. “We should help it.”
“Give us your hoodie.”
“Come on, I’m not picking it up without wrapping it in something. If it wakes up, it’s going to be pissed.”
“They’re going to take her,” Charles said.
“Good,” said Erik.
“We don’t know their intentions,” Charles replied, as the humans gingerly wrapped the Queen in a soft-looking garment.
“They don’t seem to be entirely evil,” said Erik. “Charles, you can’t save everyone.”
“I can try,” Charles replied. The door creaked as another human entered.
The three smaller humans turned, and looked at the doorway. The human standing there was bigger, and female, and clearly older than the three smaller humans. Sparrows, Erik thought, she was chasing around after her sparrows.
She put her hands on her hips. “Boys! Get over here at once!”
“You’re on your own,” said the third boy. “I am not explaining this.”
“What are you doing in here? Don’t you know it’s not safe?” asked the loud human. “Good grief, what on earth?”
“It’s a dare,” said one of the boys, and he looked rather like Charles in that he puffed out his little human chest. “It’s like, haunted and shit.”
“Don’t swear. What have you got there?” asked the older human, picking her way over the fallen bits of wall and old furniture to where the sparrow-humans were. “And it’s not haunted. It’s historic.”
“Told you,” said one of the boys. The female sighed.
“Show me what’s in your hoodie,” said the human. They did. Erik could feel Charles next to him, craning to see — he didn’t have Erik’s eyesight in dim light. The human stepped back. “Oh my God, what did you do to that poor owl?”
“We found it like this! It wasn’t our fault!”
“Oh my God,” said the human. Definitely a parent, Erik thought, and her long brown fur hung like a mane. “This is not okay, got it? Not okay. Get in the car — we’ll take it up to the after-hours vet and see if anything can be done to help. There’s a bird sanctuary up by Greendale; maybe they’ll take it.” She crossed her arms. “Your father is not going to be impressed with you.”
Charles was quivering by Erik’s side as the humans wrapped the Queen back in the cloth and held her gently. He could see her eyes from here, alert, alive; she’d woken up. They fluttered out and into the chill evening air just in time to see all of the humans get into one of the moving car-boxes, and drive away, taking the Queen with them. Charles was still shaking, and Erik worried. They lit on one of the high stone carvings, up where they could see almost the whole town, stretching down to the sea. There were gulls wheeling far, far over the cliffs, but no huge eagle-wings marring the sunset.
“It’s all right,” Erik said, preening Charles, trying to stop the shaking. “You’re all right, Charles, we’re fine.”
“It’s the excitement,” Charles explained. “You never seem to get affected.”
“I get affected,” said Erik. “Trust me.” He scanned the sky. “How long until Shaw finds out, do you think?”
“When she doesn’t return, he’ll know.” Charles clicked his beak. “And then we’ll need to be ready. I want to fight this at the station. There’s humans, and pigeons.”
“You think they’re ready?” asked Erik.
“They’ll never be ready,” said Charles. “But there’s so many of them that it might not matter. And the gulls are starting to come in off the cliffs for winter, so they’ll be there, too.”
“And on our side?” Erik asked.
“You don’t trust anyone, do you?” asked Charles. “Yes, Erik, they’ll be on our side. No-one wants Shaw ruling the skies. No-one wants to live in fear.”
“I do trust people. I trust you, and you’re a mad dove,” said Erik, shuffling his feet.
“You have to trust more than just me,” said Charles, and thank the gods, his shivering was subsiding. “And anyway, you’re a mad falcon for befriending me.”
“You’re prefer I ate you?” asked Erik.
“You made me a nest,” said Charles. “That goes beyond mad.”
“You’re never going to get over that, are you?” asked Erik.
“Never,” said Charles. “In fact, now that the excitement and terror has worn off, I think I feel myself in the grasp of a nesting instinct right now.”
Erik laughed. “Don’t tempt me, Snowy,” he said, and Charles gave an undignified squawk, launching off the roof and letting Erik chase him through the stones in the yard. Erik flew after him like a shot, happy that they’d escaped, they’d survived, and feeling freer than he had in a long time.
Humans in the bright jackets that hurt Erik’s eyes came to the eyrie the next morning, but they did nothing; just looked around, closing the door behind them. They didn’t even try to pick up any of the broken bits of statue and books.
“Do you think the humans meant it, last night?” Charles asked.
“Meant what?” Erik could think of any number of things that he thought the humans meant.
“That this place is to be left alone.”
Erik scratched his beak. “I hope so,” he said. “I’ve just got it how I like it.”
“We need to tell warn Raven,” said Charles. “Shaw will come, and they’ll need to be ready — if we fly early, then the chances are that he won’t be up yet…”
“I don’t think he’ll strike today,” said Erik. “That would be stupid. He’ll know we’re expecting him.” Charles gave him a plaintive look. “I didn’t say we wouldn’t fly early, my love.”
Charles fluffed and looked so pleased at being referred to as Erik’s love that Erik determined to do it again, gliding after Charles’s fluttering wings and out into the fresh air of morning. Erik felt indestructible — he was flying with his mate, and together they had defeated the Queen. Together they would defeat Shaw, and reclaim the skies. Charles flew alongside Erik, trying to copy Erik’s wing movements.
“You’re so efficient,” said Charles. “I’m worse than a pigeon.”
Erik slowed, and let Charles copy him; Charles didn’t have Erik’s wingspan, so he wasn’t ever going to be as fast as Erik, but he was getting some speed up despite that. He even dropped in a gentle glide down to the station, rather than his usual fluttering, pulling up just in time to land neatly and tuck his wings in.
“That would be good for when you’re tired,” said Charles. “Frightening, though, coming in to land with your wings stretched.”
“You get used to it,” said Erik, as the sparrows flew to them.
“Charles!” Sean flew around them in circles. “Charles, Charles! You’re all right!”
Sean practically landed on Charles, and Erik flinched as something sparrow-sized flew into him as well. “Erik!” said Alex, and Erik realised that last night the sparrows had seen them flying off with the White Queen in pursuit. No wonder they were afraid. Alex didn’t say anything else, just rested against Erik’s feathers, and Erik let him.
“Why are you here so early?” asked Sean. “What happened with the White Queen? Did something happen? HANK!”
Alex stayed next to Erik, looking over at Sean. “Calm down,” he said. “Erik’s here, so nothing happened.”
“Something happened,” said Charles, and Erik brushed his beak over Alex’s head, once, just a quiet it’s all right. Alex got embarrassed when he was wrong, and when he got embarrassed he sulked and pecked and was really a pain in the tailfeathers for the best part of a day.
“They’re all right?” asked Hank, swooping in to join them. He had a smaller bird shadowing him — bigger than the sparrows, but smaller than Hank. (Erik wasn’t sure what it was that Hank was eating, but every time he saw Hank, the little owl seemed to have grown into a bigger and bigger owl.) “Thank goodness; I was going to fly out last night, but I realised that I have no idea where your eyrie is, and I was uncomfortable leaving Blackbird.”
Hank’s shadow peered at Erik from around Hank’s wing, and he tried to give her a friendly look that didn’t look like he was about to rip her throat out. He suspected that he’d failed when she hid again.
Hank had adopted the blackbird not long ago, and she was sleek and shy and frightened of everyone who wasn’t Hank or Charles; Hank claimed he’d found her being attacked by a cat and (in true form as Charles’s protege) he just couldn’t let that stand. Erik knew what cats did — they let you go, and then caught you again, and then let you go and then, just as you thought you might make it, they trapped you again. The tactic was similar to those that Shaw used, and Erik shivered a little just thinking about it.
“CHARLES!” Raven was louder than Sean, loud enough that the humans looked around, probably to see what the unearthly screeching was about. “You idiot, you idiot, I thought she’d eaten you! I thought you’d died!” She flew in to join them, nearly knocking Charles off his perch in her enthusiasm. “You idiot, darling, idiot dove!”
“It’s all right,” said Charles, muffled by her feathers. “It’s all right, Raven, Erik saved me. He…incapacitated…the White Queen.”
“He what?” asked Hank. “That should be impossible — I mean, she’s an owl.” He looked slightly ruffled. “Erik, I am as fond of you as the next bird, but you’re not an owl.”
“Erik outsmarted her,” said Charles, puffing up. “I know he’s not an owl, Hank, but he’s really rather extraordinary.”
Erik absolutely didn’t puff up like Charles, but he did shift his wings a bit.
“Outsmarted her?” asked Raven. “How?”
“We’re nesting in an abandoned building,” said Erik. “I convinced her to try to fly somewhere that she shouldn’t have.”
“And then humans came and took her,” said Charles, shaking his head. “There had never been any humans in there before, but right as we needed them, they came and took her away.”
“You’re kidding me,” said Raven. “Humans took the White Queen.”
“She was hurt,” said Charles. “More than— more than last time.”
“She was trying to kill us,” said Erik, and Alex shivered. “I wouldn’t be feeling too much remorse, love.”
“Where did they take her?” asked Hank. “Did they say anything?”
“They said they were going to a san-ctu-airy,” said Charles, as if tasting the unfamiliar word. Raven shook her wings.
“Oh, I know that place,” she said. “It’s a place where humans keep hurt birds.”
“A place to put hurt birds?” asked Erik. “Do they…hurt the birds and then just put them in there?”
Raven chuckled. “No,” she said, and Erik realised he’d assumed the worst. “They put them in there to help them heal. When Adler was blinded, the humans took her there. They let her talk to us through the wire.”
“Caged,” said Erik.
“Sometimes caged is safe,” said Hank. “There’s no predators in cages, no cats, no cars. Nothing to be killed by.”
“No space to fly,” said Erik. “No freedom to roam. No ability to meet anyone but your own kind.”
“I wouldn’t like that,” said Alex fiercely.
“And nor should you,” Erik replied. “You should fly free.”
“Just don’t try to make friends with every kestrel you see,” Raven said. “They’re not all like Erik.”
“And what am I like, then?” asked Erik.
Raven cocked her head to one side. “If you don’t know, I’m not going to tell you,” she said, as the pigeons fluttered around them. “Thank you for keeping Charles safe.”
Erik inclined his head, and Charles sighed. “I am, actually, capable of keeping myself safe,” Charles said, disgruntled.
“No you’re not,” said Raven. “Did the pigeons catch up with you? One of them wanted to talk; I think it was Gehirn.”
“Oh, I’ll need to talk with the pigeons,” said Charles. “We came down early because when the Queen doesn’t return, Shaw is going to be angry.”
“And he knows where to hit you hard,” said Hank, the blackbird still tucked under his wing. “Your friends.”
“Precisely,” said Charles. “We’ll need to keep someone on watch at all times. And I think if he’s mad enough, he’ll risk an attack here, and here is where we need him — there’s humans, and hundreds of pigeons, and us…”
“I’ll draw up a roster,” said Hank. “It’ll need to be you birds with sharp eyes; I can do the gloaming times, but I’m useless in daylight.”
“I’ve got good eyes,” said the blackbird. “If you’ll sit with me.”
“Of course,” said Hank, preening her feathers and hooting affectionately under his breath, and Erik felt proud that he was never that soppy with Charles. “Raven, I’ll take the first watch. Then you can have the second, and Erik, third. I’ll come up with something more concrete while we’re watching.”
“Come on, Erik, we’ll go to tell the pigeons,” said Charles. “Sean, Alex, tell Angel and the others to gather food into their nests in case Shaw comes.”
“Maybe we should take them to the nest?” asked Erik. “There’s more places than the station to find food.”
“I used to go to the park,” Alex offered. “It was a good place until Shaw came.”
“Nowhere that we can’t fall back from quickly,” said Erik, and Alex drooped a little. Dammit. Erik hadn’t meant it that way. He cleared his throat. “Good idea, Alex.”
Charles chuckled when Alex fluffed up to three times his normal size before flying after Sean. “He adores you,” said Charles.
“He’d make a good kestrel,” said Erik.
“No making my little ones into kestrels,” said Charles sternly, and Erik laughed, following him to the paved area where the pigeons cooed and wobbled at one another. Charles cooed at one, and then all of them parted as a group, one greyish iridescent bird flying in and greeting Charles with a brush of scent.
“The White Queen has lost her crown,” said the pigeon. “Now all that you need is the crown of the eagle and you will rule.”
“I don’t wish to rule,” said Charles, and Erik wondered if he should have come to speak to the pigeons more before now, because a part of Erik, a bigger part than he’d previously thought, did wish to rule. The pigeon bobbed.
“What you wish has no bearing,” it said. “If you dream like you do, little cousin, then you must be willing to rule. Your mate is willing to rule.”
“A ruler has to keep his people safe,” said Charles. “I can’t.”
“No,” said Erik. “A ruler has to do his best to keep his people from harm. There’s a difference.”
“I did neither with the birds who died here, last time Shaw came,” said Charles. “I did neither with Darwin.”
“Your chick,” said the pigeon. “I am sorry.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” said Erik, as Charles bowed his head. Erik moved closer to Charles, not sure if he wanted to preen Charles in front of a pigeon.
“Charles,” said the pigeon. “We brought you sparrows because you believe that all birds can live together. That Shaw does not will never change our regard for you.” It turned to Erik. “And you, kestrel.”
“Erik,” he said.
“Do you believe?” The pigeon had weird eyes; the same sort of dark stare that Charles had, but instead of the gentle warmth in Charles’s gaze, its eyes were cold, iridescent. “Or do you simply wish for revenge?”
“How—?” Erik asked; he’d never spoken with the pigeons. The pigeon inclined its head.
“Do you believe?” it asked, and Erik looked at Charles. Charles, who was looking back at Erik with a helplessly hopeful expression, the sunlight gleaming on his feathers. Erik thought of Darwin; tiny, brave Darwin, and he thought of his own mother. Shaw had seemed huge, then, this gigantic bird of prey who could tear apart the world in his talons. He turned to the pigeon.
“Yes,” said Erik, and his voice sounded strange to him. “I believe.” He cleared his crop. “I believe, because I’ve seen it.”
When he looked out across the station, he could see Hank and the blackbird sitting sentinel, Hank’s eyes mostly-closed against the sunlight, and the blackbird huddled into the protection of Hank’s body. He could see the sparrows diving like falcons, all except for Sean, who was shamelessly begging for food from the humans (and succeeding). He could see the beginning of Charles’s dream, and Erik, who had always been alone even in a flock, wanted in.
“Then you will fight,” said the pigeon. “And you must fight, all of you.”
“There has to be a better way,” said Charles.
“There isn’t,” said Erik, and he wanted to wrap Charles in his wings, because Charles looked so miserable at the prospect. “Charles, you’ve been training people to fight. What did you think would happen?”
“I’ve been training them to defend themselves,” said Charles.
“The best defence is to defeat your enemies,” said Erik, because Charles really did live inside a little bubble of hopefulness, buoyed by the assumption that everyone was like him.
“I know,” said Charles. “That doesn’t mean I have to like it.”
“I will die when Shaw comes,” said the pigeon, apropos of nothing, and Charles gasped. Erik sighed inwardly at both the peculiarities of pigeons, and Charles’s gentle heart.
“No,” Charles said, stepping forward. “I won’t have anyone sacrifice themselves for this.”
“No pigeon is ever truly lost,” said the pigeon. “The egg that I will be reborn to is already laid.”
Erik felt a shiver run down his spine, ruffling his feathers. Clearly, the pigeons had magic of their own.
“When is he coming?” asked Charles. “What will the outcome be?”
“Soon,” said the pigeon, bending its head to Charles’s. “And you must be careful, cousin; your path is not clear.”
“What do you mean?” asked Erik, cold fear thrilling up his spine.
“You are not a fool,” said the pigeon, turning to him. “You know what unclear means.” It took off, and Erik dragged Charles close, rubbing cheeks, trying not to act like a possessive fool and utterly failing.
“It’s all right, love,” said Charles, and he sounded amused. “We will have to take this as it comes, and if I go down an uncertain path, I’ll be dragging you with me.” He rested his head against Erik’s. “Did you mean it?”
“What?” Erik asked.
“Do you believe in my stupidly optimistic dreams?”
Erik exhaled. “Yes,” he said. “I didn’t. But now I do.”
“What changed your mind?” asked Charles, shifting away as the pigeons all soared off and under the bridge as a train roared past.
“You did,” said Erik. He scratched. “What did the pigeon mean, when it said they brought you sparrows?”
“When they found injured birds, they used to bring them to me,” said Charles. “I think Raven had something to do with it in the first place.” He nipped at the itchy spot on Erik’s shoulder. “I had an idea of making a flock.”
Erik sighed with relief; Charles’s beak was sharp, for all that he looked soft. “And you don’t want to rule, despite your stupidly optimistic dreams?” he asked.
“No,” said Charles, his mouth full of feathers. He leaned up, eyes bright. “I want to guide. I want to teach. I want all of us to be like ravens, and learn from each other, no matter if we’re family or enemies.”
“We could do so much more, if we ruled,” said Erik.
“No,” said Charles. “And think about it, my love. Do you really want the other birds to regard you as they do Shaw? To think of you as the dark wings against the sky? To fear you?”
“I want them to respect me,” said Erik.
“And you think they don’t?” asked Charles.
Erik rested his head against Charles’s. “I don’t think that,” he said. “I just like to consider the possibilities.”
“So do I,” Charles said. He paused. “Does it worry you that we disagree?”
Erik closed his eyes. “I love you anyway,” he said, and Charles laughed softly, snuggling against Erik’s wing.
Shaw came two days later, and by then Erik was ready.
He’d spent two wretched days watching the skies, even going so far as to sleep at the station because Alex clung to him like a louse and Erik realised that his young sparrow was frightened — not of Shaw, but for Erik and Charles. Alex’s parents had been taken on the wing by a peregrine, flying through the park, and Alex had lost his little brother in the ensuing confusion. Charles’s flock was all that Alex had, and sparrows liked to flock.
Erik wondered, sometimes, if his own life would have been different if he’d flocked with the kestrels that he’d migrated with that very first time. He could have stayed in the desert; he’d returned for revenge. And he’d be lying if he said that he wasn’t looking forward to it, looking forward to ripping Shaw from the skies, but he had something more to look forward to now — he had a nest, and a mate, and a chance to change the world.
Charles had spent the intervening time working with the pigeons. He could call it defence all he liked, but it was more than that, pigeons flying and rearing and obeying Charles like he was the magician in the middle, orchestrating the whirl of wings in the air. Erik watched the pigeons, watched the skies, and waited.
Azazel was the first to arrive, lighting on the roof of the station and clattering his beak. Erik supposed that he thought he was menacing.
“Azazel!” called Charles, and his voice was loud, frighteningly loud. “You have the opportunity to fly away. All of you, you can join us, or fly.”
“Join you?” asked Azazel. “And what, coo people into submission? That might work on a kestrel, but not on a true bird of prey.”
“You’re not a bird of prey!” Raven snapped. “You’re a raven! Have some pride, Azazel!”
“I want to live,” said Azazel. “And if you want to live here, you put your lot in with the strongest.”
“And who says that’s Shaw?” asked Erik, as the peregrines hovered overhead, laughing.
He realised too late that the pigeons beneath them were looking up and beyond Erik, beyond Charles, up to the sky. Hank’s hooted warning was too late — the thrum of Shaw’s huge dark wings was audible above the human noises. Beneath them, the pigeons were still and silent, the air thick with anticipation.
“I rather think that I do,” said Shaw, and Charles took to the air in a deep dive, skimming low over the heads of the silent pigeons, feathers flying in his wake.
“Now!” he cried, and it was a sharp, harsh call like a predator, not his usual softness. Erik joined Charles, and he tried to still the beating of his heart. It was going to be now or never; either they would kill Shaw, or Shaw would kill them. Charles banked as Shaw called to his peregrines to join the fray.
The pigeons rose. There were hundreds of them, every pigeon in town, every pigeon on the coast, and they all followed Charles and Erik, straight up. Shaw’s peregrines didn’t stand a chance; they managed to get a few lucky swipes in, but then they were bombarded by pigeons, knocking their pinions, breaking feathers, forcing them from the sky. Erik saw the peregrines retreating, but Shaw didn’t back down. He let himself ignore the pigeons, ignore Hank joining the fray, ignore everything except for—
Shaw flying in, tossing pigeons out of the way, and going for Charles.
In a past life, Erik would have been affronted that he wasn’t the enemy, that he wasn’t worth flying for, but something hard in him had been worn away by Charles, like water on stone. He flew for Charles, and as he did so, Hank shouldered Shaw out of the way. He was still nowhere as big as Shaw, but he was big enough to knock the golden eagle off-course, and big enough to grapple with his talons.
“Hank!” Charles cried, as he flew to Erik’s side. Shaw twisted in the air, unnaturally, and swung and grabbed Hank, his huge talons holding Hank tightly. Hank cried out, though with terror or pain, Erik couldn’t tell, and then there was a high, harsh cry from behind him.
“Hank!” Hank’s blackbird flew for Shaw, and Erik realised that he’d underestimated her — she was shy, certainly, but right now she was braver than any of them. “Leave him alone!” she was shouting. “Let go! Let go!”
“We’ve got to help them,” said Erik, and if he bit Shaw’s wing, then…
“It’s a new tactic,” Charles panted. “I think we can use it.”
“What?” asked Erik, as Shaw tried to bite the blackbird, and failed, only managing a beakful of feathers. Hank, for his part, wasn’t going to go silently — he curled and twisted and sank his beak deep into Shaw’s knuckle. It was the same trick Alex had used on Erik what felt like months ago, but Alex didn’t have an owl’s strong beak, and there was a crack from Shaw’s talon where Hank had hold of him. Shaw howled his displeasure, letting go of Hank, who dropped for a few sickening feet before regaining his wings, Blackbird flying close, both of them circling, calling to one another. Hank was bleeding, but still airborne — that was enough — and more pigeons were rising, a seemingly endless flock.
Erik scanned the fight — the peregrines had either retreated, or were being pecked by pigeons; there were dead pigeons and oh feathered gods he hoped that wasn’t a sparrow; Raven and Azazel were pecking and bickering, and Shaw…was fleeing, trailing blood from his wrecked foot as he went.
No, Erik thought. No. They’d finally got the upper hand, all of the little birds, and Shaw thought that he could simply fly? Not a chance. There were pigeons trilling angrily and trying to follow Shaw, and Erik had lost sight of Charles, but he had to do this — he had to fly and stop Shaw, or else why had they even bothered in the first place?
The pigeons couldn’t keep up. Erik could. Shaw banked and hovered when they got to the park, turning back to Erik.
“Little kestrel,” he said. “You’re going to die.”
“I don’t care,” said Erik, and if he hit Shaw’s neck at just the right angle, then he could snap it, he could tear Shaw’s windpipe and kill him. “Not if I take you with me.”
“Really?” asked Shaw. “And how will your dove take that, little one?”
Erik faltered. He wasn’t sure how Charles would take it, but if it were Charles who had flown after Shaw and died, Erik would follow him into death too.
“Why don’t we ask him?” asked Shaw, and Erik knew that he shouldn’t look over his shoulder. He did anyway, and yes, there was Charles, flying for them like a dart.
“Erik!” Charles cried. “Erik, I’m coming!”
“Just in time for lunch,” said Shaw, self-assured even though he had one huge talon curled in protectively to his chest. Erik realised that something was wrong, trying to tear his eyes away from Charles and failing. Charles wasn’t slowing, he wasn’t turning, he was just flying, straight for them both.
“Charles,” Erik said, barely audible, as Charles tore past him, throwing himself at Shaw.
Erik’s breath felt like claws in his lungs. Not Charles. Not his Charles. Shaw cried out in triumph, and Erik knew that compared to Shaw, Charles was tiny and his bones were delicate; he didn’t have a chance of scratching Shaw, not even slightly wounding him. Shaw’s good talon closed around Charles.
“Pathetic, kestrel,” said Shaw. “You’re weaker than a dove.”
Charles cried out, and it sounded wrung from his throat.
“Charles!” Erik’s heart was threatening to break free. “Charles, no, no…”
“Do it!” Charles yelled, as Shaw’s talons tore at him. Charles tore back, pecking and biting. “Do it, Erik, it’s your only chance!”
And Erik worked it out. If Shaw’s talons were occupied, if he had a sharp, nimble beak pecking at his tender stomach, then he was at his most vulnerable. If Erik couldn’t kill him now, then all hope was lost.
“And what are you going to do?” asked Shaw. “I won’t make it quick. If you want to say goodbye, this is your chance.”
Erik swooped, trying to forget that Charles was clutched in Shaw’s grip. He’d prepared for this for so long, and it was easy to find the right rhythm, easy to block everything else out except for the sticky crunch as his feet met feathers, and as Shaw’s head cracked back. He bit for Erik, but Erik was faster and Erik wasn’t distracted, and Erik ripped and Shaw stopped fighting. There was blood on Erik’s feathers, Shaw’s blood, and he’d thought that it would feel better than this.
“Charles!” said Erik, as Shaw dropped, his talons not releasing as he fell from the sky like a stone.
Erik wasn’t as nimble as a swift; his turning circle was too wide, and it was with gutwrenching horror that he saw Shaw plummet, Charles still in his grip, down, down and onto the road where the car-boxes swished past, where the humans came and went.
There was a car. There was a car, and Erik was too high to dive in time to snatch Charles from Shaw’s talons, which weren’t loosening in death.
The car squealed, and Shaw hit the screen with a final, horrifying thump, glass shattering under his body. Charles was tossed free, and Erik hovered, panicked; how could he get Charles, and not be taken by the humans? How could he make sure that Shaw was gone?
“Oh my god,” said the human, getting out of the car. It was the human who had taken the White Queen; Erik recognised the cadence of her call. “Oh my god, oh my god, it came out of nowhere, it came out of nowhere…”
Shaw wasn’t going to be getting up. But Charles — Erik could hear Charles, just a faint coo, and the human could hear Charles too, because she passed Shaw’s broken body and went to Charles, kneeling beside him.
“Oh, you poor little thing,” she said. “You poor little thing. You must have been that big eagle’s dinner.”
She picked Charles up, and Erik could see Charles’s wing hanging uselessly. Frustration rose at the back of his throat — what could he do? He couldn’t do anything. Charles was at the mercy of this…this human, and Shaw was dead, and Erik should be rejoicing but not at this cost. The woman moved to the car-box and pulled out some fabric, wrapping Charles in it and then putting him in the box, closing the door. Shaw’s carcass was put into a cardboard container; he was bloodied and floppy in death, his wings trailing. The woman cried as she put him in there, wet human tears, hiccoughing and sobbing. She’d be the only one, Erik thought viciously, and set his mind to saving Charles.
Erik was fast, even though Shaw had got a few good swipes of his beak in during the fight, and the car was slower than when the human had taken the White Queen, much slower. Perhaps she was moving slowly for Charles? She only went a few blocks, not a difficult fly, and when she got out of the car she carried the little bundle that was Charles with her, talking softly to it in human language. Erik perched on the gutter when she rang the doorbell of a house. He could hear voices in the yard; bird-voices, not humans, and he wondered why she’d brought Charles here.
“Moira?” asked a human. “Oh, darling, are you all right? What happened?”
“I just hit an eagle with my car,” the human said. “I was wondering if Guy was in?”
“Oh sweetie,” said the human. “He’s down with his pigeons; did you want me to come with you?”
The human was sniffling. “No, no, I’ll be fine… I’ll just head around the back.”
“I’ll make you something warm to drink,” said the unseen human. “The gate should be open.”
Erik flew from roof to branch, watching the woman cradle Charles to her chest, listening for Charles’s voice. He was so intent on watching her that he realised only belatedly that there was a huge dovecote here, and this one was full of pigeons. They weren’t like the pigeons at the station — these pigeons were sleek and tall, and they were being groomed by a human male. The male turned when he heard the gate.
“Moria!” said the human. “Darling, what is it?”
“Oh my god, Guy,” she said. “I’m so horrified to do this to you, but…” She gently held out the tiny bundle that contained Charles. Erik held his breath.
The man clucked as he stroked the fabric; Erik hadn’t known that humans could cluck. “What is it you’ve found? You’re a regular magnet for injured birds, aren’t you? Your owl’s doing well, you know — you should come and see her up at the sanctuary.”
“It’s a dove,” said Moria. “I think it’s got a broken wing. I… I was driving and then this eagle just fell out of the sky and god, I’m so sorry, but I hit it. It’s in the car; I didn’t know if you’d be able to identify it, or use it for some of your specialist programs up at the university…I…it’s dead.”
The dovecote here was huge, much bigger than Charles’s domain, and Erik could see pigeons poking nervous heads out of windows. He leaned, ready to fly if he needed to. Silent tears were running down the woman’s face, and the man gave her a gentle hug.
“Sometimes birds do stupid things,” he said. “Let’s have a look at this dove, and then we’ll see about the eagle.”
He placed the towel that surrounded Charles onto a table, letting the fabric fall and Charles into the light, Charles’s feathers bloodied, his breathing too quick. Erik opened his beak; he had to help, he had to save Charles, he couldn’t just let this happen. Charles was brave, braver than Erik, braver than anyone had ever been, and he didn’t deserve to be made helpless like this.
“Hello, little one,” said the man. “Hello there. Looks like you’ve been in a bit of a scrap.” He gently parted Charles’s feathers. “Where did you say it came from?”
“I was just driving down Park Street, and then this eagle plummeted from the air and hit my windshield,” said Moira. “When I got out of the car, this one was on the ground…I think it might have been prey.”
“I’ll have a look at the eagle, but I’d hazard that you’re right,” said the man. “There, it’s all right, I just want to have a look at your wing. Don’t peck me; I’m just checking.”
“Trust me, I’m an ornithologist?” asked Moira. The man laughed, poking and prodding at Charles’s wing.
“Something like that. I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news, though; that wing isn’t going to come good,” he said.
“Poor little guy,” she replied. “You sure you can’t—“
“I’m sure. It’s a bad break — not like that magnificent owl. I’m so sorry, sweetheart, but it’s kinder to kill it than to let it live in pain, or leave it for a cat.”
The man’s hands closed around Charles’s chest, and Erik saw Charles struggle, but humans had such big hands. He was going to have to do it. He was going to have to fight a human. He’d never heard of anyone surviving a fight with a human — a real fight, not the silly swooping that the ravens did.
“Hey, hey, don’t wriggle, you’ll make it worse,” said Moira. Erik took in a deep breath; letting his strength bunch in his wings.
The man sighed as Charles tried to make another desperate escape. “I’ll do it. Perhaps you go and get the eagle from the car? I’ll do it quickly—”
Erik struck. He cried and clawed and the human, the stupid fat human, was surprised enough to let Charles go.
“Charles!” Erik called. “I’m here, I’m here, I won’t let them hurt you, I promise…”
Erik lifted Charles in his talons as soon as the human let go; Charles was a heavy, dead weight, and he was crying out in pain, but Erik kept flying, because they needed to be safe. Erik flew straight and true to his home, setting Charles down in the nest he’d made where the coloured light fell, nudging Charles with his beak. Charles was shivering, freezing with the shock of nearly dying and the pain of his useless wing, his beak open in silent distress.
“Here,” said Erik, arranging Charles’s wing neatly against his side and then drawing Charles to his chest, tucking him under Erik’s strong wings to warm him. “I have you, Charles. You’re with me.”
Charles buried his beak in Erik’s feathers, and Erik held his soft little dove close until Charles was warm, Erik stroking him and trying to soothe him. He should get Raven, but he didn’t know where she roosted, and he couldn’t bear to leave Charles long enough to go to the station and get the sparrows. If there were still sparrows to get — if the peregrines hadn’t finished them. Did anyone know that Shaw was gone? Erik bit down on despair, burying his face in Charles’s neck
He’d go tomorrow, he thought, his wings aching and Charles tucked close to his chest. He hoped that the little ones were all right — his heart bled for them, and he could leave, he should leave, he should at least find a pigeon and see if it would send a message. But Erik couldn’t bring himself to move. His priority was his mate, and Erik stayed awake as long as he could, keeping Charles warm, keeping him safe.
Charles was miserable the next day, making soft noises of distress under his breath despite Erik’s best efforts.
“I hope the others are all right,” he said, when he was lucid. Erik felt his heart constrict from fondness and exasperation — of course Charles hoped the others were all right, when his own wing was painful and twisted. Erik preened Charles, cleaning the blood from his feathers, gently rearranging them so that Charles could be comfortable.
“I’ll take you down to the station,” said Erik. “I can carry you.”
“I can’t ask you to do that,” said Charles. “I’m heavy.”
“That doesn’t matter,” said Erik. “I’ve done it before.”
Charles was heavy, but Erik was certain that he could learn to carry Charles; he could get the muscles up and they could live with this injury, as long as it lasted. He’d barely felt the weight when he’d flown with Charles from the humans who would kill him, but he was feeling it now, aching up and down his wings and into his chest.
“I’m useless,” said Charles. “I can’t even fly.”
“And we come back to my proposal. I do the flying for both of us.”
“My love,” said Charles. “I think that may be a consideration for the future, but it still hurts when I move it too much.”
Erik ran his beak soothingly across Charles’s neck. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t know what to do. I’ve always taken care of myself, but this is…” He searched for the right word, and failed. “Big.”
“That human was going to kill me,” said Charles. “Maybe…” He swallowed. “Maybe you should just…make it quick. You’re a predator, Erik. It’s natural.”
“No,” said Erik, his feathers standing on end. “No, I won’t do that.” Charles was shivering, and Erik tried to soothe him, gently drawing him near. “It’ll stop hurting as it heals, and I’ll take care of you, I promise.”
“I’ll be a liability,” said Charles.
“No,” said Erik. “Tell me where Raven roosts, and I’ll get her to help me too. She’s a lot stronger than you give her credit for. And Hank; he’ll help us. There’s a lot of people who care for you, Charles.”
“She roosts by the school,” said Charles, and he rested his head against Erik’s neck. “But she’ll be at the station, I hope.” He closed his eyes. “Erik, please go and check on my sparrows.”
“The school is closer than the station,” said Erik, and Charles made a soft sound, barely a coo.
“Please,” he said, and Erik closed his eyes too; he didn’t want to leave Charles, but he was just as desperately curious and hopeful about the other little birds.
“I’ll go,” he said, tucking the scarf that lined most of the nest around Charles, making sure there were no draughty places where the air could get in and ruffle Charles’s feathers. “I’ll bring them back with me, and then you can see for yourself that they’re all fine.”
Privately, Erik was hoping against hope that they all were fine. Sparrows fighting peregrines was not only unlikely, but the odds of survival were awful. Angel was fast enough to escape, and Hank big enough that no one would come near him, but Alex was far too fearless for someone so small. Charles settled in the scarf with a disconsolate coo, and Erik couldn’t help brushing beaks and vowing his devotion one more time before he left, hoping that Charles would get some sleep while he was gone. He burst from the broken window and into the daylight; birds were singing all over town, though he couldn’t make out the words that surrounded him as he cut through the air.
Raven met him half-way to the station; to be more precise, she flew at him so hard that he abruptly turned, failed to avoid her, and then both of them crashed into each other, tangling wings and falling together onto the roof of a house. Erik detangled himself (wing in his face, and then foot on his head, and then tailfeathers where he really didn’t need them) and lit on the guttering, and Raven threw herself back at him, wrapping him in her wings and cawing in his ear.
“You’re alive!” she said. “You’re alive, you’re alive!”
“I hope so,” said Erik, spitting out feathers, and she momentarily let him go. “The sparrows; are they safe?”
“Where have you been?” she asked. “Where’s Charles?”
“Safe,” said Erik. “We’ve been in my eyrie; I was going to the station to fetch the little ones.”
“We didn’t know where you’d gone, so we tried the dovecote,” said Raven. “New humans have moved in and they have cats.”
Erik’s blood ran cold. He could see off a cat if he was desperate, but the sparrows had no chance. “Is anyone hurt?”
“No,” she said. “But they’re very frightened. I sent them back to the station; I was going to just keep flying until I found you.” She drew him close again. “Is Charles all right? We all thought he had died.”
“He’s hurt,” said Erik. “You need to go to him and make sure he’s all right while I go fetch the sparrows.”
“How badly?” Raven asked.
“Broken wing,” said Erik.
Raven sucked in a breath. “How?” she asked. “I heard a story, but I— I didn’t want to believe it.”
“He flew at Shaw,” said Erik, and his chest felt hollow. “Charles let Shaw take him so that I could get a clear angle to rip his throat out.”
“And did you?” asked Raven, as Erik gave in and rested against her shoulder.
“Yes,” said Erik, and he found it strange that he barely remembered the precise moment. He’d thought he would treasure it.
“I heard you tore off his head and threw it at a human,” said Raven, and Erik nearly laughed with the ridiculousness of it, compared to the dull terror of what had actually happened. “And I heard that you did it because he’d killed Charles.”
“Charles is alive. I promise you, he’s alive,” said Erik, and he suddenly choked on the words, like there was something stuck in his crop.
Raven stroked his head. “You’ve still got blood on your feathers,” she said gently, and even though she had a bigger beak than any of them, she preened him, and Erik let her. “I’m sorry I ever thought you’d hurt Charles.”
“You shouldn’t be,” said Erik. “If I hadn’t hesitated to start with; if I’d been quicker when Shaw fell…” He swallowed. “Charles would be fine, if I’d been better.”
“Charles is an adult,” said Raven, and her beak wasn’t as nimble as Charles’s; it felt all wrong. “He makes his choices, for better or for worse.” She nudged him. “There.”
“You should have gone to him already,” said Erik, feeling selfish. “He’s in the old building with the coloured windows, up on the hill. We’ve made a nest there.”
“Cleaning you up didn’t take long,” said Raven. “And you needed it.” She tipped her head to the side. “I know where the old church is. I didn’t think anyone lived there — there’s been rumours that it’s haunted.”
“Not haunted,” said Erik. “Or if it is, the ghosts have never bothered me.” He pressed his cheek to hers. “Hurry; we’ve been here too long.”
Flying was easier without his feathers stuck together, though his wings still ached. He dropped to the station in near-exhaustion, and the pigeons parted as he came in to land. Three of them flew to escort him, calling to one another, wobbling in the air.
“Victory!” whispered the pigeons. “Victory, freedom, flock!”
“Erik?” chirped Alex from below, and Erik felt relief rush through him, soaking right into his bones and making him warm from the inside. He could see them all sitting on the edge of a bench, and he swooped toward them.
“ERIK!” Sean cried, and the others, even the pigeons, took up the call. “Erik, Erik!”
Erik kept his wings spread as he landed, drawing them in as the little ones got close, sweeping the sparrows up to his chest, Alex wriggling and Sean chirping. Hank hopped over, stroking Erik’s feathers with his huge, hooked beak, and even Blackbird came and gave him a quick, shy nuzzle.
“There’s people singing everywhere about the victory,” said Hank. “We’re mostly all right down here. We lost pigeons, but they told us not to worry about that.”
“Charles,” said Sean, looking around. “Where’s Charles?”
“He’s hurt,” said Erik, and tightened his wings around the boys. “It’s bad.”
“I had heard as much,” said Hank, his expression solemn. “Will he recover?”
“Yes,” said Erik. He should tell them what the humans had said, he knew, but it wasn’t going to happen. Charles was strong, and Erik was going to be there to help, and together, they could overcome this. “He’s broken his wing.”
Angel gasped, and Hank bowed his head.
“Can we see him?” asked Angel, resting her beak against Erik’s flank.
“Why do you think I came down here?” said Erik.
“Are you going to stay?” asked Sean.
“No,” said Erik. “I’m inviting you to stay with Charles and I.”
“For serious?” Alex asked, looking up at Erik from under Erik’s own wing.
“Come to our eyrie,” said Erik, stroking his head. “Come on, all of you.”
He’d built the nest big enough for them all, he realised. That was why it was so big — he’d been thinking about their flock, thinking of sparrows nesting in walls where the trains rushed past, and making a safe place for them, and it had translated into Erik lining far more space than he and Charles together would ever need.
They flew freely, no fear of Shaw snatching them from the air, and if the peregrines were still around, they certainly weren’t a threat when Erik led his mismatched flock back to the eyrie. He left the little ones to their exclamations of oh cool! and you can fly in here! and went to the nest. Raven had obviously found it, and she was in there talking to Charles in a low, gentle voice. Charles looked up from their conversation when Erik came in.
“How are you feeling?” asked Erik.
“Better,” Charles said. “It’s not as bad when I can’t move it.”
“Charles?” asked Sean, peeking in. “CHARLES!”
“Charles?” asked Angel. “Can we come in?”
“You brought everyone back?” said Charles, and he still looked tired and ill, but delight was obvious in his voice. “Come in, come in, I want to see you all for myself.”
Everyone crowded Charles until Raven clacked her beak at them, pushing them back and worrying at Charles’s feathers, petting and stroking and trying to cuddle him. Erik hoped she wasn’t hurting him — Charles was too kind to tell her if she was.
“You’re so brave,” Angel told him. “There’s birds all through the town singing about the dove who fought an eagle and won.”
“Erik is the one who killed him,” said Charles.
“I couldn’t have, without you,” said Erik.
“You really killed him?” asked Alex, and his eyes were shining. “You really, really killed him?”
“Erik really killed him,” said Charles.
“I ripped his throat out,” said Erik.
“Erik,” said Charles. He glared fondly at Erik.
“They deserve to know how,” said Erik, brushing through Charles’s feathers. “They need to know that monsters can be defeated.”
“We know that,” said Alex, and he bumped wings with Sean.
“Now you’ve done it,” said Angel. “Wait until you get the all-sparrow rendition of the Battle of the Station.”
“I want to know whether what the pigeons are saying is true,” said Hank, shuffling closer to Charles. “The battle of the station can wait.”
“Charles sacrificed himself to give me a shot at Shaw,” said Erik, not meeting any of their eyes.
“It wasn’t as noble as he makes it sound,” said Charles. “Shaw wasn’t incapacitated; I was afraid he’d kill us both.”
“There’s a bunch of gulls saying you were killed,” said Hank. “It’s been a devil of a time keeping them away from the pigeons.”
“Oh dear,” said Charles. “Thank you.”
“Shaw had Charles in his talons,” said Erik. “It gave me an opening.”
“You were in Shaw’s talons and you didn’t die?” asked Alex, bobbing up and down.
“I was,” said Charles, and he seemed suddenly far away.
“What was it like?” asked Sean.
“Sean,” said Raven.
“I don’t think he was going to kill me before he’d killed Erik,” said Charles. “I think he wanted me to watch.” Erik settled at Charles’s side, because he was getting more and more adept at reading Charles’s moods, and he’d known that Charles’s calm had to break sometime. “It was disorienting; I couldn’t move, and when he died, his talons didn’t loosen.”
“Did you feel him die?” asked Alex.
“Yes,” said Charles, and Erik held his peace. He hadn’t wanted to ask. “And then he dropped, and he took me with him.”
“But you survived,” said Raven.
“Obviously,” Charles said, far more sharply than normal. He immediately looked remorseful. “Sorry. I just.” He cleared his crop. “Sorry.”
“I’m just happy that you did,” Raven replied, as there was a panicked cry from outside.
Erik’s heart began to race; he got to his feet and moved so that he was at least between Charles and the open hole into their nest. Hank had moved, too, both of them facing the huge room. Alex and Sean bobbed to Erik’s side, and it felt like there was grit in Erik’s throat; just when he thought it was over…
“Hank!” Blackbird was calling at the top of her lungs. “Hank! Hank! Peregrines!”
“Oh gods,” said Raven.
“Stay in here,” said Erik. “All of you, and Alex, that means you. I’ll send Blackbird in.”
“Erik,” said Charles, and Erik hopped to the edge of their nest.
“Don’t stop me,” he said.
Charles bobbed his head, a single, slow sweep of acknowledgement. “Be careful,” Charles said.
“I’ll come,” said Hank. Erik shook his wings.
“No,” he said. “If they’re hostile, you’re more useful here; I trust you to hold the nest safe.”
“What are you going to do?” asked Angel.
“I’m going to find out what they want,” said Erik, over his shoulder.
He took to the wing, flying through the big room. Surely the peregrines were too idiotic to get in here?
“Erik!” called Blackbird, taking off from her perch at a high window and flying down to him. “They’re in the yard.”
“Inside,” said Erik, gesturing with his head. “I’ll go and see them off.”
“You?” she asked. “And if they don’t talk?”
“I’ve taken a peregrine before,” said Erik. “Charles won’t like it, but I can do it again.”
She took off for the nest without comment, and he took a quick look out of one of the clear windows (the coloured ones were no good for seeing out of) and caught sight of wings. All right. If he went for the smallest bolt-hole, then they wouldn’t fit back in here, if they felt so minded as to try to work out where he’d come from.
Erik flew. It was the work of seconds to rocket out of the building and into the sky, skimming low along the stones and under the intruders.
“Kestrel!” They’d spotted him. Erik hovered, looking up to see Shaw’s raven and a peregrine. Just one peregrine — good. He’d fight them if he had to, and he had a better chance against only one peregrine.
“Kestrel,” said Azazel, and he swooped. “Land with us. We wish to talk.”
Erik didn’t feel entirely relieved at that, but his aching muscles certainly put in a vote for landing. He landed on a huge statue, standing on one outstretched stone wing of a human-bird as the other two perched nearer the shoulder. He liked the statue of the human-bird; it felt reassuring, like humans looked to birds and saw what they could become.
“Talk, then,” said Erik.
“We know that Shaw is dead,” said Azazel. He fixed Erik with a piercing gaze. “I was following the little dove when it happened.”
“Then you know how it happened,” said Erik. “And I can only surmise why you’d come into my territory.”
“You killed him,” said the peregrine, a breeze ruffling his feathers. “You, you little birds.”
“He killed my mother,” said Erik, and he was smaller than a peregrine, but he kept his head up and the peregrine shuffled back, inclining its head in submission. “He tried to kill my mate.”
“The dove,” said Azazel. “You mate with a dove?”
Erik met his eyes. “Yes,” he said. “He is mine.”
“The ravens talk about you,” said Azazel, and he gave Erik an appraising look. The ravens could choose to curse them or give their blessing; Erik had faced down Shaw and he had more important things on his mind than raven magic. “You befriend the pigeons, and that gives you power. The ravens notice.”
“Does it look like that bothers me?” asked Erik.
“No,” said Azazel. “It doesn’t.” He breathed in with an audible croak, bending his head in the same gesture of esteem as the peregrine had. “We, Shaw’s men, offer our fealty.”
Erik took in a breath. He didn’t explain that he didn’t wish to be a ruler of birds, because that wasn’t quite true. If Erik and Charles ruled the skies, then there would be no more little birds without family, without someone to care for and to be cared for by. If Erik and Charles ruled, then things would be better. Erik stared the bigger birds down.
“And what will you expect in exchange?” Erik asked, because this could all be a trick. “We will ask great things of you.” Charles certainly would. Erik had no doubts that Charles would probably have the peregrines eating seeds and fruit by the end of the winter, and saving baby birds from the cold.
“Tell the pigeons to leave us alone,” said the peregrine. “We peregrines keep getting pecked.”
“Let us eat at the station,” said Azazel. “There’s good food there.”
Was it just that? Erik wondered. Was that all it took to get someone on-side?
“Not birds,” said Erik, because he didn’t trust the peregrines one inch, no matter how respectful their representative was. “No bird will eat another bird.”
“Not birds,” said the peregrine, and he sounded wistful. “There’s talk on the cliffs that your dove decreed this a safe place. A place where anyone can fly and no-one kills each other.”
“Yes,” said Erik, because that sounded like Charles, and even if it hadn’t been, it was a noble idea. He wondered if the pigeons had been talking. “And you’ll be making sure it stays that way. If any of Shaw’s old flock want to disagree, you’ll stop them.”
“I’d like that,” said the peregrine. “I want the killing to stop.” He spoke quietly, as if revealing a great secret. “Shaw killed my mate.”
“Tell people,” said Erik, restraining himself. He couldn’t imagine being frightened enough to fall in line behind someone who hurt Charles. “Tell them, and don’t threaten them unless they want to hurt one of the little ones. I’ll tell the pigeons and they probably won’t peck you.” It was hard to tell, with pigeons.
“I’ll tell my brothers,” said the peregrine. He looked a million miles away for an instant, and then he snapped back to reality. “May I have leave?”
Erik looked at him, and then realised after an awkward pause that the peregrine was waiting for Erik to dismiss him. He bowed.
“Of course,” he said. No point in having someone’s fealty if you didn’t use it.
“I’ll catch up,” said Azazel, as the peregrine spread his wings. “I wish to talk with Erik alone.”
Erik wasn’t wary of raven magic, not anymore. He’d never been wary of pigeons, either, until they’d risen like a feathered tide, but he trusted that Charles’s influence would keep the pigeons happy. He was starting to see the use of it, the use of things like his own magics, his knowledge of the pull of the earth and the direction of the weather, the things he could see that the others couldn’t. Azazel waited until the peregrine was gone before he spoke.
“Your dove,” said Azazel. “He is alive?”
“He is,” said Erik cooly.
“The Unkindness is on the cliffs by the lighthouse,” said Azazel. “You know the lighthouse?”
“I do,” said Erik. Azazel nodded, taking to the air.
“Bring him. The day after tomorrow, when the sun is at its highest.” The wind ruffled Azazel’s feathers as he floated, ready to fly for the horizon. “The ravens wish to see you both.”
They left the discussion of the Unkindness until the next day — by the time Erik got back into the nest, Charles was curled up and trying to sleep, and Hank and Alex were guarding the doorway. It was by mutual silent agreement that they put off talking about it until Charles could take part.
Charles woke in a bad mood next morning — Erik didn’t blame him — and everyone’s good natured enthusiasm for getting Charles back into the air despite his broken wing wasn’t helping. Hank was the ringleader; he seemed to be completely happy being diurnal, although Erik didn’t ask him about the details. When Hank wasn’t fussing over Charles, he drowsed on a high perch, but whenever there was something to work out, he was completely in for the laborious process of planning out the details. Hank had worked out six new routes to the station by early morning, and he was busily plotting the route to the cliffs with Charles when Erik hopped into the nest after a quick fly outside to stretch his wings and eat some late-morning moths.
“It’s a great honour,” said Hank, biting his talons. Ah, so Hank respected ravens. Useful to know. Erik shook his wings. “I’ve never heard of anyone who wasn’t a raven being invited to the Unkindness.”
“It’s very rare,” said Raven. “It means they want to pass judgement.”
“If they think they’re going to judge us wanting, then—“ Erik said, because it was as good a way as any to join the conversation as any, and Raven laughed.
“No,” she said. “They’re more likely to grant you a boon. If they judge you wanting, they won’t talk to you.”
“We don’t need a boon from ravens,” said Erik.
Charles sighed. “I’m just not sure how much use I’m going to be by the time we get down there,” he said. “It’s a long way to the cliffs from here when you can’t fly.”
Charles didn’t want to fly in Erik’s talons, not yet; Erik didn’t need to have the connection of the pigeons or raven magic to see that the thought of having his broken wing held by anyone’s talons made Charles reluctant.
“We’ll wrap you, Charles,” Hank decided. “It’s the best way to keep your wing stable.”
“If we wrap him and Erik drops him, he won’t be able to spread his wings,” Raven replied.
Hank sighed. “If Erik drops him, that wouldn’t make any difference,” he said. “We’ll fly with them both until we get there; I’ll carry Charles most of the way. Like it or not, I’m the strongest of all of us.”
“We could always simply not go,” said Erik, regretting his agreement. Charles had been excited, though, when Erik had relayed his conversation with Azazel, so Erik knew his chances of convincing everyone not to go were non-existent.
“Erik,” said Hank. “You can’t deny the ravens!”
Charles bobbed his head. “What if the Unkindness was here?” he asked. “There’s a lot of room in the garden with the stones.”
“The graveyard?” asked Raven. “I— Well, we’ve never met here. It would be unusual.”
“But not unheard of?” asked Erik, and he hated the thought of ravens in his territory, but he hated the thought of bringing Charles pain even more.
“I think they’d like it,” Raven said. “There’s lots of stones to sit on, and the rumours about this place are very…well, we ravens like places like this.”
“We’d still need to get Charles out there,” said Hank, tugging on the scarf. Charles chirped in what Erik hoped was surprise. “I think if I lay parts over one another…”
“Please don’t,” said Charles. “We don’t need to do this until tomorrow—“
“No,” said Raven. “We’d need to wrap and then Charles can hang on. Can you hang on?”
“I can hang on, but I really don’t—“ Charles sounded cross. “Raven, Hank, please.”
“We can’t rely on Charles hanging on,” said Hank, pulling hard on the scarf. “Look, all we need to do is pull it tighter…”
“Stop it!” said Charles, gasping for breath. “Stop it, both of you!”
“Stop!” Erik added, and Hank dropped the end of the scarf. “Charles, Charles…”
“You too,” said Charles. “Stop telling me you can lift me in your talons and it won’t be horrible.”
“We’re just trying to help,” said Hank, going for the scarf again. Erik wanted to bite him; Charles was miserable and none of them were helping.
Charles tried to sit up, but he was too tangled; he subsided with an annoyed hiss. “I know you’re trying to help, but I need some breathing space and if you tighten that scarf any further, you’re going to break my other wing.”
“Do you want me to—“ Hank began, and Raven surreptitiously pecked him. “Ow!”
Erik didn’t try to touch Charles, but he did get close. “I’ll be back when you want me,” he said, and Charles blinked at him.
“I’ll always want you,” said Charles, wriggling loose from the folds of the scarf. “I just need some time where people aren’t trying to work out what to do with me now that I’m…” He looked at his wing. “Let’s just say now.”
Charles had lived alone before, Erik remembered. Much like Erik had, really — neither of them had been around other birds all day, every day, until each other. And it wasn’t the fault of the others that they’d been smothering Charles with affection, even if it was aggravating. Charles tipped his head up so that their beaks touched, and Erik ran the seam of his beak along Charles’s. He had an idea. It was an odd idea, and probably a sign that he’d spent too much time with Charles, but it was an idea.
“Take the time you need,” said Erik. Charles rubbed his beak against Erik’s, settling down as Erik flew from the nest and out into the big room, landing up on the railing. Angel was diving up and down, singing challenges to the others, and Blackbird was sitting on one of the statues, presiding over sparrow races. They seemed to have gained several sparrows during the day, but there was so much laughter and excited chirping that Erik couldn’t bring himself to mind. Raven joined Erik on the railing as Erik mused how he could find the gift he wanted to get for Charles.
“I’ll go and see the ravens,” she said, as Hank wriggled out of the nest and flew up to join them.
“He’s not being even remotely sensible,” Hank grumbled. Erik would have pecked him, but Raven clouted him with her wing before Erik had the chance. There was a small, feathery thud from below, and Erik looked down to see that Sean had flown into a window, Angel and Alex fluttering down to him.
“Perhaps you could go and help Sean,” said Erik, as Blackbird helped Sean to his feet.
“What are you going to do?” asked Hank.
“I’m going to get something for Charles,” said Erik. “I’ll be back.”
He didn’t know where he needed to go, which was half the problem. The other half was that he wanted to flee, to fly away from this de facto flock that he seemed to have gathered around himself. But that would mean leaving Charles, and he’d imprinted to Charles. They were mated, no matter what.
In the end, he decided on the park. The pigeons had clearly taken Shaw’s absence as an invitation to move in, cooing shamelessly at children for scraps of bread and treats. Erik lit on the swings, and then decided to risk it and flew to the ground. The pigeons crowded him, wobbling and threatening to smother him.
“I need to talk to someone,” said Erik, trying to get his head above the pigeon flock. He was being swamped, so he took to the air, hovering just above the pigeons. His wings still ached, but it was preferable to drowning in pigeon feathers.
“Erik,” said one of the birds. “Here!”
“Oh thank the gods,” said Erik. “Come up and join me; I want to talk.”
He led the pigeon to the top of the slide, and to his surprise, it followed him. The others seemed to forget that Erik was even there, going back to scrumping sandwiches.
“Erik,” repeated the pigeon. Erik was entirely certain that he’d never seen this pigeon in his life. “You have a question.”
“Yes,” said Erik, and he felt foolish. “It’s— you know Charles?”
“Yes,” said the pigeon, bobbing. “But that is not your question.”
“He used to belong to a magician,” said Erik. “And then his magician got taken away. I want to find Charles’s human.”
“You will not give him Charles,” said the pigeon.
“No,” said Erik. “But Charles told me that he always has cake.”
Cake was something that Erik had never tried — he wasn’t a fan of sweet things, or anything like bread, and from Charles’s description, cake sounded completely horrible.
“Cake,” said the pigeon, with a happy coo.
“Yes, cake,” said Erik, feeling a little like he was beating his head against a wall. This was a stupid idea. It wouldn’t work — the man wouldn’t have cake, Charles wouldn’t want cake, Erik would be absent for too long — there were so many things wrong with it.
“You love him,” said the pigeon. “You’re bringing him food.”
“Yes,” said Erik. “If you can think of any better way to get cake, by all means tell me. But if you know where the magician is…”
“Cake,” said the pigeon.
“Yes,” said Erik, and he missed Charles acutely.
“You know where the human place is, where it looks like nesting boxes?” asked the pigeon.
“I’ve never seen nesting boxes,” said Erik.
“Stupid,” said the pigeon. “It’s on the hill by the sea. There’s a human there. He’s the one that you need.”
Erik sighed. “Thank you,” he said, somewhat insincerely. The pigeon pecked him. “Ow! All right. I have no idea where you’re talking about, but I appreciate the effort.”
“Where the trees don’t lose their leaves,” said the pigeon. “Fare well, friend.”
It turned, and Erik suddenly remembered that he’d promised to talk to the pigeons.
“Wait,” he said. “The peregrines. Shaw’s old flock. They’re not to be pecked. Not unless they’re hurting other birds.”
The pigeon cocked its head. “You made peace,” it said.
“I think so,” said Erik.
The pigeon ruffled its wings. “No pecking,” it said, and then flew back to its flock, vanishing into a whirl of grey feathers. Erik couldn’t even make out which one it was; it had become part of the mass. He hoped it told the others about the no pecking peregrines rule.
He did know where the trees didn’t lose their leaves; it was the first sensible direction he’d heard from a pigeon in, well, ever. He flew quickly across town; he’d be gone a while, and if the others were inadvertently annoying Charles while he was gone… no, no, they’d be fine. Charles would be fine.
He circled around the huge pines up where the houses led to the sea, and he could suddenly see what the pigeon had meant — the houses up here looked smaller, and some of them were connected, humans pottering in and out of them like pigeons from a dovecote.
He flew over the head of a female, and then over into an empty yard, but he knew if he kept going, he’d find the right place. He could hear a voice in the next yard, and satisfied sparrows chirping.
“Come on, then,” said the human. “Come on, there’s enough for all of you.”
Erik recognised that voice. He fluttered — fluttered, good gods Charles had an influence — over the fence and lit on the bench where the old human sat. Erik looked critically at him. He thought the man sounded like the magician, but Erik was terrible at telling humans apart. The man looked critically back at Erik.
“Hello little bird,” said the human. “It’s all right; I won’t hurt you.”
It was. Erik inclined his head, and wished he’d got Raven to teach him the secret of human language.
“Are you Snowy’s friend?” asked the man. “I know you’re a kestrel. I looked it up in my book of birds.”
Erik hopped closer. Charles had told him about the magician, and about parties, and about cake; apparently cake was even better than grasshoppers, and the old magician was Charles’s favourite source of cake.
“They keep giving me slightly stale cupcakes. I don’t think you eat cupcakes,” said the man, digging into his pocket and then tossing Erik a spongy, sweet-smelling piece of food. “But if you see Snowy, tell him to come and visit.”
Erik picked up the cake in his talons, and he wished for a few seconds that he could chirp like a happy, harmless sparrow. As it stood, he couldn’t; he flew low over the magician’s head instead, not touching, but not far from it. The man laughed.
“So I should expect you back, then?” he asked, but Erik was up, up and into the sky, calling back to him in agreement.
The cake threatened to disintegrate before he got it home, but he made it, darting in through a window and down to the nest. Charles was on his own, fast asleep; Erik left the cake, checking on Charles’s breathing, unable to resist tucking a few of Charles’s stray feathers back. Charles made a soft, sleepy sound, moving into Erik’s touch.
“Erik?” asked Charles.
“I’m back,” said Erik.
“The others didn’t know where you’d gone,” said Charles, opening his eyes.
“Were you worried?” Erik asked.
Charles cooed. “No,” he said. “You’re capable of taking care of yourself.” He leaned up, offering his cheek, and Erik rubbed his cheek to Charles’s, scents mingling. “I’m curious, though.”
“I went to get you something,” said Erik, and he nudged the cake closer.
“Erik,” said Charles. “You got me cake.” He sounded utterly charmed. “You are my favourite bird in the entire world.”
“I was hoping I was your favourite bird regardless of whether I got you cake or not,” said Erik, mock-offended.
Charles chuckled. “Always,” he said, as Sean stuck his head in the opening to the nest.
“Cake?” he asked.
“Get off,” said Erik, but it was too late; there were six eager beaks at the door before he could even blink.
“Let them in,” said Charles. “Where did you get cake?”
“I found your magician,” said Erik. “I asked a pigeon — and let me say that from now on you are doing all of the communicating with the pigeons — and I found your magician. You were right, he does carry cake everywhere.”
“He used to occasionally wash his trousers with cake in the pockets,” said Charles. “Then they would shed crumbs all over the yard when he hung them out.” He sighed. “Those were good days.”
“You feeling better, then?” asked Hank, as the others crowded in.
“Much,” said Charles. Erik looked at Sean, who was eyeing off the lump of cake. It was rather bigger than Sean was. “Go on, eat some, all of you. You too, Erik; you went to the trouble of finding my magician.”
“So you really were a magician’s dove?” asked Angel. Erik recalled that she’d been a pet, too, until a cat had knocked her cage over; she’d lost her parents and her home in the aftermath. “I thought that was just a story you made up to sound cooler.”
“I used to fly out of a hat,” said Charles. “And through rings.” He looked mournfully at his wing. “I suppose I won’t be doing that any more.”
“I think we’ll be able to work out how you can glide,” said Hank, as Erik tried a mouthful of cake. He didn’t spit it out, but it was a near thing. “Your wing might not be strong enough to flutter, but there’s plenty of people who glide.”
“It’s not quite the same,” said Charles, and Erik didn’t say I know, love, but he stroked Charles’s feathers tenderly. Charles looked at Erik. “If I can only glide, then you’re going to take me up high and drop me, you know.”
“Charles!” said Sean. “You can’t just give up.”
“He’s not giving up,” said Erik. “You need to get up high if you’re going to glide.”
“Exactly,” said Charles, and an over-enthusiastic snuggle from Raven nearly tipped him over. “Soon.” He made a pained sound, and Raven looked chagrined. “Perhaps not that soon.”
“Soon enough,” promised Erik, and Charles cooed.
Raven worked a miracle, because when Erik emerged next morning, the yard was full of birds. Ravens perched up and down the length of the graves, some of them cawing loudly, others eating gods-knew-what, others having what looked like a competition to dig up as many clumps of grass as they could and then throw them at one another. Erik drew his wings around him — he didn’t like having ravens cluttering his space, but it was better than taking Charles down to the cliffs.
Charles had reluctantly eaten the last of the cake this morning, and he’d cheered the littler birds on in a tug of war with Hank before they’d tried to bind his broken wing close to his body. Hank and Blackbird had tried to be gentle, but it wasn’t possible, not really. Charles had been stoic and cheerful, even as Hank pulled the scarf tightly around him and Blackbird tucked in the end. Erik was hoping that the improvement in Charles’s mood meant he was in less pain; Charles was much more like his normal self today.
“Is it time?” Erik asked, perching where he could keep an eye on the ravens.
“It will be soon,” said Raven, nudging him with her wing. “Azazel didn’t know how badly injured Charles was. The queen wasn’t happy with him when she found out.” She cawed, gesturing to the top of the roofline with her beak. “Look, all the others have come out to watch. Sean’s finally going to get to see if the raven queen has three legs.”
“Three legs?” asked Erik.
“Oh, Sean’s told everyone that old story for ages,” said Raven. “I forget you haven’t been with us forever.”
The kestrels had called the raven queen the Queen of Ashes; Erik didn’t know where the name came from, but he’d always been warned against angering ravens.
“I’ll get Charles,” said Erik, because Charles wouldn’t want to miss this — it was turning into a spectacle, ravens everywhere, croaking and chattering in raven language, circling the stones and landing. Erik took one last look before flying inside. Hank was making last-minute adjustments to the scarf; Charles was starting to look somewhat swamped.
“Put your talons there and there,” said Hank, gesturing to Erik. “It’s not perfect, but it’ll do.” He glanced out at the big room, where the sound of ravens was drifting in. “They’re noisy, aren’t they?”
“I think they like being noticed,” said Charles, as Erik moved to his side.
“Ready?” asked Erik.
“Yes,” said Charles, and Erik lifted Charles in his talons as gently as he could. “Oh that’s going to ache in the morning.”
“I’ll make it quick,” said Erik, pretending that he didn’t see Hank drifting along just above his left shoulder, clearly keeping an eye out to make sure that Erik didn’t drop Charles. He’d be upset at Hank’s lack of faith, but equally, it would be worse if something went wrong and Hank wasn’t there to help.
“Is that Hank?” Charles asked. Hank hooted in reply. “It worked! I can’t even feel Erik’s talons now.”
“Good,” said Erik, as together they flew out from the building and into the open air.
Charles blinked in the sunlight, and Erik landed them up on one of the flat stone buildings in the yard, right under the human-bird. He’d never been able to work out what the stone buildings were for — they were small, like sheds or dovecotes, but there was no way in, and no point to them in the middle of a garden of stones. The ravens moved in, sitting on fences and rocks and trees, cawing and croaking.
“Amazing,” Charles said, looking around. “Have you ever seen anything like this?”
“I migrated in a flock,” said Erik.
“Of ravens?” asked Charles, and Erik laughed. No, he hadn’t ever seen more than a few of the big, sinister birds in one place before. The ravens themselves fell silent, looking to the sky, and Erik moved closer to Charles — there were birds flying in from above, and the urge to protect his love from predators was still strong. He didn’t back off when they landed, either; not a chance.
The raven queen wasn’t the same as the others; she had reddish-brown plumage around her neck, the rest of her feathers iridescent black. Only two legs, though — Erik supposed that Sean would be disappointed. She looked at Erik, her eyes knowing, and he realised that he’d been staring. Azazel was attending her, looking cowed and downtrodden, even though he was much bigger than she.
“You called upon us,” said Erik.
“It is a great honour,” said Charles, much more magnanimously than Erik could be bothered being.
“The honour is mine,” said the raven queen, and a whisper ran through the assembled corvids, like the wind through tall grass.
“Is the explanation for why you wanted to see us forthcoming, too?” asked Erik, and Raven gave Erik a totally horrified look.
“That is the queen,” she said, nudging him.
The raven queen croaked a laugh. “I heard that the last queen who went up against these two fared a lot worse than mild disrespect, child.” She leaned close to Erik. “I like you, kestrel. In answer, I wanted to see you for myself before I endorsed your reign.”
“Reign?” asked Charles. “Oh no, that’s not right.”
“Why did you kill Shaw, if not to rule in his place?” asked the raven queen. Azazel was shifting from foot to foot, and Erik thought he might know where the idea of a reign had come from.
“Because he hurt people,” said Erik.
“Because birds should fly free,” said Charles.
“Because we had to,” said Erik. “There was no other choice.”
The queen held herself with poise — it was all very elegant, but it meant that Erik had no bloody idea what she was thinking. She shuffled closer to them.
“You think that birds couldn’t fly free under Shaw?” she asked. Charles stuck out his chest as best he could.
“I know it,” he said. “Shaw killed the free-flyers.”
She brushed her beak against his head. “I had heard as much,” she said. “We did not meet in the town, when Shaw’s flock were here.”
“You hid on the cliffs,” said Erik, and he couldn’t keep the bitterness from his voice.
She turned to Erik sharply. “What did you lose to Shaw? What made you fight?”
“I lost my family,” said Erik. “I lost my mother.”
“Did you still go to the desert?” the Queen of Ashes asked. “Your first migration; did you go to the desert?”
“I did,” said Erik.
“Will you migrate this year?” asked the raven.
Erik stole a look at Charles. “No,” he said. “And anyway, migration is different to hiding.”
“Yes,” she said. “And so is meeting on the cliffs, especially when your fledgelings are small.” She touched his head, and he bristled.
“I could choose to migrate,” said Erik. “I choose not to. It’s not something Shaw controlled; if I hadn’t met Charles, I’d be migrating with the other kestrels.”
“No,” said Azazel, stepping forward. “You won your choice back.”
“What do you mean?” Erik asked, fear stirring in his gut.
The raven queen stepped back, and Azazel took the floor, looking around at the assembled Unkindness.
“He was going to kill the kestrels when they flew,” said Azazel.
“What?” asked Charles, trying to free himself from his bindings. “Why?”
Erik knew. He knew, because Shaw had said it to his mother, just before he’d ripped out her heart. “Because kestrels aren’t eagles or peregrines,” he said. The ravens cawed, loud and angry.
“You’re too small,” said Azazel, raising his voice above them. “And you have your own magic; he was suspicious about what you did in the desert.”
“I learned how to see the trails prey leave,” said Erik. “And how to navigate by the feel of the air and the earth.”
“That was how he kept control,” Charles said, practically vibrating with the thrill of working it out. “He’d decimate a whole species. He did that to the homing pigeons, too.”
“Pigeons?” asked Azazel.
“When I was a fledgeling, I lived with them,” Charles said. The ravens fell quiet; interesting. Clearly they knew more about pigeons than Erik had. “They were homing pigeons, not the normal pigeons you see all the time. Shaw’s peregrines started to pick them off, so they left. They were too obvious.” He trilled sadly. “And then there was just me.”
“Because you’re not obvious at all,” Raven said quietly, and Charles sighed, subsiding into a pained sound after only a few breaths. The ravens broke into furious discussion, sniping at one another and shouting.
Erik’s feathers felt clammy, right down his wings. Kestrels weren’t real raptors, Shaw had said. Too small, too weak, too different. He couldn’t imagine what Shaw had thought of pigeons who could navigate like a preybird could. He looked at Charles. There was strain around Charles’s eyes; Erik didn’t try to reassure him, because there was nothing he could do that he hadn’t already done.
“Azazel, fetch willow,” said the queen. She turned to Raven. “Did you not think of this, Raven?”
“Oh gods,” said Raven. “I didn’t.”
Azazel didn’t have to fly far — other ravens had already brought him a branch, and Erik watched as he set it down on the ground, tearing off a strip of the bark with his powerful beak. The raven queen picked it up, tossing it at Charles’s feet.
“Eat this,” she said. Erik could smell the sour-sharpness of the willow bark, and Charles pecked it.
“What will it do?” he asked.
“It will help with the pain,” she said, and Charles picked up the piece he’d pecked at. “I want our healers to have a look at your wing; if there is something that we can do, we will do it.”
Charles had a mouth full of willow, but he bobbed his head in acquiescence. The ravens had their own powers; Erik didn’t blame him. He did, however, help to loosen the bindings on Charles’s wing, settling on Charles’s uninjured side and letting Charles lean against him. Charles swallowed the willow.
“I hope that does help,” he said. “It tasted awful.”
Erik laughed, and Charles tucked his head against Erik’s shoulder.
“This will hurt,” said a raven.
“Good to know,” said Charles, and Erik tucked his head over Charles’s.
The raven pulled Charles’s injured wing out of the wrappings, and hissed. “Azazel! You carry shame for this injury; you will help me.”
“I’d really rather—“ Raven began, but the healer shooed her away.
“Hold him,” said the healer, meeting Erik’s eyes. “Dove, you must be still for a moment.”
“Look at me,” said Erik, realising what the ravens were doing. “Look at me, love.”
“Erik—“ said Charles.
“Look at me.” Erik held Charles’s gaze, even when Charles cried out as the ravens worked.
“You know Azazel’s testimony,” said the raven queen, turning to the assembled birds as her attendants saw to Charles. “You have heard these two speak. What is the decision?”
“Erik,” said Charles, and Erik didn’t move, keeping Charles’s head close to his chest, holding him there with his beak.
“It will be all right,” he whispered. “They’re making the bone straight; you’ll need the bone straight.”
“I say aye,” said an old raven, voice quavering.
“I second it,” said Azazel, as Charles bit down on Erik’s feathers.
“Objections?” The queen met Erik’s eyes. “Then it is settled. From the cliffs and right around the bay, there will be no predation; the dove and kestrel shall have the sky and all who choose to dwell here. The ravens call it thus.”
“Charles,” said Erik softly. “Charles, they’ve given us the town. They’ve given us the sky.”
“Not us,” said Charles, a little muffled by Erik’s body. “Everyone.”
The ravens together tucked Charles’s wing back in to his body. Erik preened Charles, smoothing his glossy feathers.
“Give him more willow,” said the raven queen. “He’ll be all right.” She bent close. “Is there more movement?”
“Y-yes,” said Charles, but he was shaking and breathing unsteadily. “There is. It’s less painful to move it.” He shifted the wing gingerly. “Gods that hurt.”
“There are other things you can eat that will help with the pain,” she said. “And your friends were right to wrap it to your body. Keep it close.”
“Tell Raven what to gather,” said Erik. Charles looked at him. “Please.”
The ravens helped to wrap Charles again, and the queen held court, listing off plants to Raven, who nodded and cawed.
“I will come too,” said Azazel, bowing to her. “I know where the red moss grows.” Raven pecked him.
“Raven,” said Charles, and he sounded exhausted. “He’s trying to help.”
Raven huffed, and the queen laughed. “We made the right choice,” she said.
“It wasn’t his fault,” said Charles, and Erik could have spoken out in anger, because Azazel had just let Shaw hurt other birds, and he’d sheltered under Shaw’s wings, but he didn’t, because Charles would have been so disappointed in him. “Even if it was, he’s trying to help.”
“He’s got a long way to go making reparations yet,” Raven snapped, pecking Azazel again.
“Charles,” said the raven queen, ignoring them. “You are brave.” She paused. “In the north, where the hawks fly, there is a great flock of ravens, and they say that when a bird loses one thing, three more are given.”
“What do you mean?” asked Charles, as Erik wrapped a wing around him.
“Your wing, little one,” said the raven. “There is nothing that can be done to set it right; we have straightened the bone, but it’s a bad break. It will always sit wrong; now we’ve set it, you will be able to drift, but to soar you will need to be carried.”
“I have Erik to carry me,” said Charles.
“Will you always have him?” she asked.
“Yes,” said Erik, and Charles shot him a grateful look.
“Then you are lucky,” she said. “And if you do not have him, then you will have the blessing of the ravens. You need only ask, and we will give. You as well, kestrel; if you ask it of us, we will give.”
“I—“ said Charles. “Thank you.”
He looked at her searchingly, so Erik asked the obvious question. “Why?”
“Because you both had the strength to stand when others did not,” she said. “This place will be different, from now on.”
“It will,” said Charles. “You can count on it.”
Charles seemed much happier once he had more of the willow; he fell asleep as Erik bade farewell to the ravens, and thankfully he didn’t wake when Erik carried him back inside. He only woke when the sparrows chirped and cheered and rushed both of them in a whirlwind of feathers and delight.
Raven took Angel and (reluctantly) Azazel to fetch supplies as Erik sat with Charles, listening to Alex and Sean tell their stories about the Battle of the Station. Blackbird had quite adeptly tucked Charles in, but that didn’t stop Charles leaning warmly against Erik.
“I bit a peregrine!” said Alex.
“Did you?” asked Charles, eyes bright. “I thought I told you no more biting?”
“You said unless it was for a good cause,” said Alex. Charles chuckled.
“In that case, I bow to your superior judgement,” he replied.
Sean moved closer. “Are you all right?” he asked. “Did the ravens do magic?”
“I’m a lot better now,” said Charles, and Erik curled close to him, because he knew without a doubt that Charles was telling the truth. “So what else happened?”
Erik listened to what frankly sounded like a greatly embellished narrative of great sparrow bravery — apparently between them, Sean and Alex had taken down every single peregrine, while the pigeons watched in amazement. He didn’t care. He didn’t care. Shaw was dead. The skies were free, and Charles was radiating contentment, and Erik was extremely happy to watch an animated reenactment of the battle.
“Sparrows!” Raven called. “Come and get something for Charles to eat before the sun goes down.”
“They shouldn’t have to,” said Charles, as Alex and Sean flew out of the nest.
“Let them,” said Erik. “They want to help.” He tucked Charles’s head against his neck. “And you’re tired.”
“Who knew one could get so tired just listening?” said Charles, with a sad laugh.
“I won’t tell anyone if you get some sleep before they come back,” said Erik.
“Won’t you get bored?” Charles asked. Erik thought of hours spent scanning the skies for Shaw, hours and hours of focus and quiet. Hours of holding Charles close and watching over him seemed like a dream in comparison.
“I won’t,” said Erik, as Charles snuggled. “Sleep. I’ll watch over you.”
Charles slept, and Erik, true to his word, watched over him. He was hungry, but Charles was more important — besides, he could probably steal something from Charles’s dinner. As long as it wasn’t cake. Erik wasn’t certain that he could handle any more cake. Once was enough.
He must have dropped off, because he woke with a start when the sparrows arrived back, dragging heavy seed-heads between them. Charles ate seeds and willow, and Erik contemplated some seeds until Raven arrived back alone, squeezing through the opening to the nest and throwing something small, furry, and very dead at Erik’s feet.
“Here,” said Raven. “You eat mice, right?”
Erik loved mice. He didn’t even question how she’d caught it; he just bolted it down, realising as he did so that he hadn’t eaten properly in what felt like days.
“Thank you,” he said. She brushed her beak over his.
“What are friends for?” she asked, and he felt something warm settle in his throat, right where his crop was full of mouse. Raven leaned close. “You’re both exhausted, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” Erik agreed, because Charles was already dozing against his shoulder.
“Come on you lot, time to settle down,” said Raven, and she herded the sparrows close. Sean yawned, and Erik quite agreed. “You can keep being lords of the town tomorrow.”
Hank wriggled through the opening to the nest — they’d have to make it bigger for him — and Blackbird followed, chirping happily as she did so. Erik tucked a wing back over Charles, and the sparrows snuggled up all along Charles’s other side. Charles, for his part, cooed, huddling into Erik’s feathers. Raven winked at Erik, and then settled on Erik’s other side, trying for an awkward cuddle. Erik sighed, and shifted his wing free, drawing her in as well.
“We are so weird,” said Raven, closing her eyes.
“You’re weird,” said Sean, buried somewhere in Charles’s scarf. Erik could smell Hank, and he didn’t for the life of him know whether it was Alex or Angel leaning lovingly against his tail.
“Get some sleep,” said Charles. “I want you to show me what you’ve been practicing tomorrow. I know you were all watching the Unkindness, so you know that we have a duty to make the skies safe for everyone.”
“One step at a time, love,” said Erik, and he was warm, and the eyrie had never felt homlier. Charles snuggled, the steady patter of his heart next to Erik’s soothing. Erik tucked his beak against Charles’s shoulder, supporting the injured bone, closing his eyes and letting the warmth and the nearness carry him away to sleep.
Charles’s wing hung slightly wonky even once it was healed; despite this, he could easily manage a glide from a tree-branch to the ground, Erik hovering just above him for security. Charles gave him a long-sufferingly fond look, so Erik lit on the metal frame of the playground jungle gym and preened his feathers nonchalantly. The little birds liked the playground in the park — the pigeons knew all the right times to wait for humans to come and feed them, and they’d been willing to share the information. It was, in a word, ideal.
“Sandwiches!” said Charles, and he was suddenly swamped by sparrows — the chicks were getting big, now, and Erik was rather horrified at being guardian to what seemed like an entire army of tiny birds, but Charles seemed to find it all rather delightful, so Erik was swept along.
Erik had even been swept into being godfather to Alex’s brood, despite explaining that kestrels didn’t worship sparrow-gods. That hadn’t stopped Alex, and to be honest, Alex’s chicks seemed to enjoy being trained to spear grasshoppers on their beaks, even though Erik still wasn’t quite used to being piled onto by sparrows whenever one of them had a success. He supposed he’d get used to it — their flock had gained more and more birds as the boys had found mates and long-lost family members. Even Raven had made an arrangement with Azazel; it seemed to mostly consist of yelling at one another in raven-language and pecking, but there was an egg, and then there was Kurt, so something must have gone right somewhere.
“There’s humans looking at you,” said Raven, from behind him. “I bet they think you’re going to eat Charles.”
“Let them,” said Erik, and he glared at them for good measure, flying down to land next to Charles. He was ungainly on the ground, and he used his wings to balance as he picked his way across the grass, chicks scattering around his feet and then scurrying in close to get at the bread.
“This one’s got meat on it,” said Charles, and he flipped the top slice open. Erik grabbed the ham and ate it, as the sparrows cheeped and got into the bread.
“The humans are taking pictures,” said Raven, and her fledgeling chick landed in the middle of the sparrow-pile, scattering them only momentarily.
“Charles!” said the little raven, happily. “Can I have sandwich?”
“Don’t eat so much that you’re sick, this time,” said Erik, as Charles cooed assent. “You shouldn’t let the sparrows encourage him to become Sean the second.”
“Erik!” said Kurt, hopping over to him and giving him a quick nuzzle before picking up the whole top slice and flying off to his mother with it.
“He’s going to kill us all,” said Erik. The sparrows scattered as a curious human got close, and Erik flexed his talons, ready to fly.
“Hey, it’s all right,” said the human. “I’m not going to hurt you, little fellows. Moira, I think it’s those birds from last year. Extraordinary.”
“Oh my god,” said another human. “It’s that dove!”
The sparrows were cheeping, and Charles cooed soothingly, a few stray fledglings bobbing in Erik’s peripheral vision, presumably making their way to Charles’s side.
“Strange,” said the man. “I’ve never seen behaviour like this before.”
“Adorable,” said the woman. “Hey, little ones. Hey, little ones, come back tomorrow and we’ll bring you something good.”
The man took another step forward, and Erik raised his wings. “It’s okay,” said the man. “I just want to have a look at you all.”
“We’re not for looking at,” Erik snapped, but they were humans, so they were stupid and didn’t understand him.
“Time to go,” said Raven. “There’s a lot of humans.”
The humans made a stupid human noise when Erik picked Charles up, and he trusted that Raven would herd the sparrows in behind them. He ignored the implications of what the humans had said until Raven went down the next day and said there was food, and lots of it.
The sparrows gorged, and Charles fluffed around looking regal, and there was a lot of very human fuss, but no-one tried to catch them.
“Perhaps they’re not so bad,” Erik conceded, when Kurt landed in the middle of the humans and they helped him up and back into the air. Charles cooed.
“Perhaps,” he said, and this time when Erik picked him up, the human noises sounded happy, rather than afraid.
“I’m not going to let us get complacent,” said Erik. “We’ll go to the school tomorrow, not here. You still can’t trust humans.”
They’d go to the school, and they’d go to the little nesting-box houses, because Charles and the sparrows loved cake, and his human liked to sit in the tiny garden and feed sparrows treats. Charles liked to sit with Erik on the branches of the tallest tree and watch, just watch — he said he wasn’t ready to trust even his old owner with his twisted wing, although the magician waved at Charles and gave Erik lumps of cake to take back to Charles on his high perch. Erik knew that one day soon Charles would decide to join the sparrows on the ground, and that Erik would be there to protect him, although the magician did truly seem to love little birds just as much as Charles did.
“Hey,” said a voice, and Erik turned his head to see a hawk keeping pace with him. “You eating that?”
“No,” said Erik, picking up the pace. “I’m not going to eat him.”
“So you are the birds that killed Shaw,” said the hawk. “Didn’t think that was true about the dove.”
“It is true,” said Erik, as the sparrows flew up to join them. “And if you think the little birds here are for eating, then you’d better find a new town.”
“No, no,” said the hawk, banking to show a scar that its feathers didn’t quite cover. “Shaw fucked with me, too. Word’s getting out, all up and down the coast, that there’s a safe place here.”
Erik didn’t want to lead the hawk to the eyrie straight away, so he lit on a tall tree, Charles finding his feet easily.
“My friend, if it is asylum you seek, then you are welcome here,” said Charles. The hawk opened its beak, and then closed it. “However, if you wish to stay, you will not prey on the little birds.”
“I wish to stay,” said the hawk, and he looked pitiful; thin and tired and like he was aching for the touch of a friendly beak. Erik wondered if he’d ever looked like that — if maybe that was why Charles had known that he didn’t have to be afraid. The hawk looked away as he spoke. “I’ve been alone a long time.”
“That’s not a problem here,” said Erik, as a bevy of sparrows landed on the branches, chirping and checking that Erik and Charles were all right.
Charles cooed, calming the other birds. He nudged Erik and Erik bent his head to Charles’s neck, letting their scents mingle, even though Charles smelled a lot like Erik these days, and Erik smelled a lot like Charles. The hawk shuffled his wings.
“So you all— you’re a flock?” he asked, and Erik nodded.
“We are,” he said, because their flock comprised now of everything from Hank, Blackbird, Angel, Raven and the sparrows and a few pigeons to one very lost duck, who had flown into the eyrie in the middle of winter and decided that she wanted to stay.
“Can I join?” the hawk asked. “I’m not fast anymore, not since Shaw nearly killed me, but I’m good with my talons. I can help defend you against cats, or whatever you need.”
Erik was perversely looking forward to showing the hawk what a host of sparrows chasing off a cat looked like. It was rather an experience. “Do you have a name?” he asked.
“I don’t,” said the hawk. “I never needed one.”
This is how we’ll live, Erik thought. One bird at a time. That’s all we need; one bird, and then another, and then another, and one day we’ll be so strong that we won’t need anyone to help us protect the little birds and the weak ones and the ones who eat grubs rather than blood.
“That’s our first order of business, then; you’ll need a name. Raven is rather good at them, although you wouldn’t think it from her own,” said Charles. He gave the hawk a soft touch, just a brush of his beak, and the hawk bent his head to reciprocate. Erik felt his chest fill to near-bursting with pride; Charles really was the magic dove.
“Are you sure?” asked the hawk, looking to Erik, something like fear in his eyes. “You don’t think I’ll—“
“No,” said Charles. “You won’t. You sought us out.”
Erik pinned the hawk with his gaze, as Charles turned back to Erik. No, the hawk was no threat; there was relief there in his face, in his whole stance — sheer, desperate relief that the stories had been true. Erik reached out to him, as the sparrows chirped salutations.
“You’re welcome to join us, friend,” Erik said. “Why don’t we show you around?”