"I always thought I'd grow to be a beautiful swan," Pete says, staring at his plumage.
"Nope, sorry," Joe says. "You're a coot." He’s still a duckling. Pete doesn't know why he's taking advice from someone who hasn't even been through their first molt yet.
Dispirited, Pete lays his beak on a water lilly. “I could have a growth spurt?”
Joe just looks at him. "Still a coot."
"I hate you," Pete says. "I know why your parents drove you away from the brood now. Because you're annoying."
"Takes one to know one," Joe says comfortably.
Okay, yes, Pete's parents drove him away. Because ducks are assholes. Even vaguely sinister-looking ones. “My parents were dicks,” Pete says, to drive the point home. “So were yours.”
“No, they were ducks,” Joe says, enunciating a little too carefully. “You seem to keep missing that point.”
“I’m going to look for grubs now,” Pete declares, sticking his head under the surface. If he catches Joe with one of his wicked sharp feet? Well. It is just an accident.
But really. Ducks are assholes. There’s a reason so many curses in the English language are so similar to the name of the species which begot Pete.
“How do you even know all that about words?” Joe wonders.
“Fuck you,” Pete says. “I ate a dictionary once, okay?” He grooms himself disgruntedly.
“You hang out with that emo parrot too much, you mean,” Joe says round a mouthfull of pondweed.
“I’m a crow,” Gerard says, wounded, from his perch on a tree overlooking the lake.
Joe swallows and says, “Keep telling yourself that.”
Pete does wonder. Mikey, who claims to be Gee’s brother, is definitely a mynah bird. Whatever. They don’t like labels, Pete can accept that. He still thinks Gee’s gravitas would be more convincing if that budgie of his didn’t keep landing on his head.
Now Gee and Joe have gotten drawn into an actual argument about taxonomy - and Joe has the nerve to mock Pete for liking human language.
To hell with him. “To hell with you!” he declares. The sun is setting, anyway, which means soon this bunch of clowns will be sleeping and leave Pete with no one to talk to. “I’m gonna go hang with Andy.”
“Sure,” Joe says, a little too knowing for Pete’s liking. “And not heading over to the meadow to listen for nightingales.”
Crows can’t snicker - Pete knows this for a fact - but Gee gives it a damn good try, and Pete flees to the sound of his squawks.
Pete is too going to hang out with Andy, and Joe can go climb a tree. (He actually can’t. That’s the joke. Ducks can’t climb. Pete needs to file for a change of species.)
Andy’s badass, and only terrifies Pete a little bit. He’s also pretty friendly for an owl. He nods at Pete as Pete swims over. “What’s up?”
“Ugh,” Pete says, and leaves it at that.
Andy’s great, for one reason, because he’s content to let Pete wallow in silence. Another reason is, okay, that his nest is pretty close to the meadow.
“I haven’t heard him yet tonight,” Andy says after a few quiet, blissful moments. “But I only just woke up myself, so don’t worry too much. Patrick likes to sleep in, you know what he’s like.”
Pete takes back every good thought he just had. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Sure,” Andy says.
Pete’s going to protest further, but then he hears the song.
Nightingales. What is it about nightingales? Pete could honestly sit here and listen to them sing until the sun came up. And then there’s this particular nightingale, to which Pete would happily listen for the rest of his days.
Maybe Pete was a little hasty in recanting his good opinion of Andy. The owl does wait for a lull in the song before saying, “You’re not looking too happy, Pete.”
Pete does his best to roll his eyes. “Yeah, 'cause my species is all assholes.”
Andy looks thoughtful. “Maybe you should do something about that.”
Pete’s about to ask Like what? but then the song starts again. The thing about the nightingale’s song is that it isn’t just pretty. It takes Pete out of himself. It makes him believe.
Whether that’s a good thing can be argued.
The next morning, this belief is still with him, sticking stubbornly like moss to a log. “Mikey!” Pete says, swimming a little too enthusiastically in his direction. “How do you mate?”
Mikey looks blank. “You want a demonstration?” One reason he and Pete didn’t last as mates is that Pete can never tell if Mikey’s really serious.
Just in case, he says, “Thanks, but no.” He preens his wing nervously. “I need to court someone.”
“Just do it the duck way,” Gerard says from his perch.
One advantage of Pete’s plumage is that it gives him a very impressive scowl. “I’m going to believe you don’t know how ducks mate, or you wouldn’t suggest that.”
“Corkscrew penises,” Mikey tells Gerard, and that right there is yet another reason Pete can’t mate with him. No subtlety.
Gerard is so startled by this that he squawks and flips off the branch he was perching on , much to Frankie’s wing-flapping dismay. This would be more troubling if Frankie weren’t also laughing so hard he was having trouble staying in the air. “Oh my fuck,” Frank says, fluttering his tiny colorful wings and gasping for breath. “So what’s it like with a corkscrew penis?”
“Do you want a demonstration?” Pete says, and hurries to add, “Ask Joe,” in case Frankie says yes. Frankie’s not unattractive, for a budgie, but 1) Gerard would be sad, 2) Mikey would kill Pete for making Gerard sad, and 3) Pete’s attention is currently engaged elsewhere.
“Just talk to him,” Gerard says, once he’s restabilized himself on the branch. “Tell him you want to build a nest and hatch eggs with him.”
“You sweet talker,” Frank says, and grooms Gee’s back as Gee gazes lovingly at him with beady black crow eyes.
“Please go away before they make me throw up,” Mikey says.
The obvious next step is to talk to Ryan. Bowerbirds - who could be more romantic? Well. That’s Pete’s theory and (in the absence of a better option) he’s sticking to it.
Which is how he ends up in the middle of the meadow, surrounded by feathers, shells, shiny things, and something that seemed to give a lot of pleasure to the humans who used it.
“This is a lot of stuff,” Pete says, nudging a shell with his beak. “How do you make it all work together?”
Ryan smiles beatifically. “Aesthetic.”
“You keep using that word,” Pete says carefully. “I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Ryan levels him an evil glare (and Pete grew up with waterfowl - he knows from evil) but doesn’t deign to give Pete an answer. Instead he shoves the shiny myPhone towards the front of his construction and assesses the remaining pile of constuction materials.
“You need to think about what will appeal to your mate,” he says, covering the phone with the sparkles and glitter he’d amassed. “And build it to appeal to him. Or her.”
“Or them?” Pete suggests. The bower that Ryan is roosting in currently is considerably larger than one bowerbird and one peacock would need.
Besides, Pete isn’t stupid - he’s seen them with Spencer. If all the neck twining and cooing weren’t enough of a hint, there’s the fact that Ryan’s elaborate displays would come plummeting down if Spencer didn’t keep flitting and adding a twig here, a bit of mud there. There are benefits to mating with weaver birds.
Ryan just glares and Pete bites his tongue because, seriously, this whole bower thing might be the key to wooing Patrick.
It is a belief he clings to diligently for the first couple of hours, and then (unable to admit defeat) somewhat grumpily for the rest of the day. It is only as the sun sets over the meadow that he realises how ducked up it is - a mound of mud and stones that had seemed attractive at the time but is nowhere near the sort of bower that Ryan made - not even with the gloriosly colored tail-feather that Brendon has so selflessly donated to the cause.
All in all, it’s a wreck. Pete is about to slink away, tail as low between his legs as is possible for a little tuft of feathers to be, when he hears the first notes of Patrick’s song and finds himself pinned to the spot.
For the longest time he waits there, listening to the song fill the air, expressing everything that Pete wishes he could find words for. Patrick seems to take delight in just singing - unfettered and free as a bird. One that can fly. Pete looks at the mess of mud and gravel and suddenly it seems as if he’s never been further from flight.
He lowers himself to the ground, slinking as low as his stupid legs will let him. He would have made his escape, except Patrick has better night vision than anyone could reasonably expect.
“What’s that?” he asks, landing lightly next to Pete and fixing him with a bright, impersonal gaze that leaves Pete feeling inches smaller than normal.
“A mistake,” Pete replies, and turns on his heel like he was just out for a walk after all.
Patrick quirks his head to the side, before trilling out a sweet note that catches Pete, stopping him in his tracks.
“Are you sure?” he asks.
Pete’s mouth goes dry and he can’t answer now to save his life. So instead he honks, a low ugly sound, and flaps back to the pond as fast as his webbed feet can take him.
The following morning, despairing over the first plan’s failure, Pete goes swimming to clear his head.
“Why so upset?” someone says.
Pete nearly jumps before realizing it’s just William. “Oh, hey,” he says. “What’s up?” In a sad, petty way, Pete almost resents William, who did indeed grow up to be a beautiful swan.
That’s not William’s fault, though, and he’s always pretty nice. He actually cares enough to say, “That’s not an answer.”
Pete slumps. “How do I court someone? I can’t do it the duck way,” he says, before William can say something along that line. “The duck way sucks ducks.”
“I think that’s a feature,” William says faintly. Then he shakes water droplets off his gorgeous white plumage. “So have you tried being irresistibly, ethereally beautiful while also capable of breaking a grown man’s leg with your wing?”
For a long moment, Pete’s silent. Then he says, “I’ll get back to you on that.”
William beams at him.
Pete might think that William sets the bar low, but it’s nothing comapred to Gabe.
“Nests!” Gabe shrieks, circling overhead, lazily exploiting the updrafts to scan for carrion. “Lots of nests! And line them with cool shit! Like wool! And underwear! ” He spots a chicken breast one of the human fans throws out for him and descends in a gleeful swoop. “You can’t deny the attraction of panties, dude.”
Somehow, Pete thinks, stalking away with as much dignity as he can muster, Patrick would not agree with that sentiment.
(And yet, this is still better than the advice Ray gives. Pete tries not to dwell on it, but if he ever has chicks, the first thing - the very first thing he will teach them is not to seek relationship advice from pelicans. It will involve fish, he will tell them, and you will never get the taste out of your beak. )
By the time Pete reaches Bob’s it’s fully light and Bob has roosted for the day. He’s not asleep though - he’s just sitting in his barn, scowling at nothing (heh, Pete thinks. Bob the Barn Scowl) and trying to stay still. The latter is so as not to disturb Frankie, who is perching atop Bob’s head and snoring happily.
“A mouse,” Bob says before Pete can even say hello. “What? You weren’t about to ask me how you could win a mate?”
Pete looks at him, bill open. Bob rustles his feathers.
“You’ve asked all the others,” he says. “We’ve compared notes. So, a mouse. That’s how I get them to notice me.”
Pete shakes his head slowly. Suddenly the piles of mice next to Ray’s roosting point on the pier and under Brian’s favourite nectar flowers make a lot more sense.
“And that works for you?” he asks. In reply Bob twists his head so that Pete can see the bright flash of hummingbird wings slumbering next to Frankie. “Wait, seriously? What did Brian even do with the mice?”
Brian opens one sleepy eye, croaks, “Used them as an example to others,” and closes it again. Pete, suitably terrified, flees before Brian wakes up the rest of the way.
It’s certainly food for thought, but as he wanders away from the barn Pete wonders if he can actually catch a mouse, and what Patrick would do with it if Pete did. Maybe, he thinks, it would be better if he caught something that Patrick actually likes eating.
Which, unfortunately for Pete, is snails.
It’s not that Pete’s vegetarian, it’s just that there are things he prefers eating to snails. There’s something so sad about eating an animal that carries its home on its back, like it’s ready to go anywhere in the world and do anything. But they’re Patrick’s favourite, and Pete wants to be Patrick’s favourite as well, and if this is what he needs to do, then he’ll damn well do it.
Even if there’s slime involved.
He struts off to the edge of the woodland on the far side of the meadow for his hunt, because he’ll never hear the end of this if the others see him. There seem to be plenty of big, fat snails hanging around under logs, enjoying the last moments of their innocent little lives, and gathering up his courage he picks a big dock leaf and goes after them.
It does not go well.
Pete chases after the snails, leaf firmly in beak. There seems to be far more slime than he anticipated. It’s true that a snail doesn’t have much of a turn of speed, but it turns out that neither does Pete when he’s holding a leaf that’s bigger than his head and obscuring his vision.
"You're supposed to be slow, you assholes!" Pete yells at the clearing. "What the hell?”
Also, snails don’t tread in unspeakable things they can’t see (because of the leaf) and panic and run into a tree and slightly stun themselves. So far the snails are ahead on all the majorly important factors here, and Pete has a headache and something truly disgusting stuck to his toe webbing.
It takes him longer than he’ll ever admit to anyone to catch up to the snails. By the time he does he’s wheezing and he’s sure the snails are sniggering at him (it’s all in the way they hold their ommatophores, he feels).
There is no damn way he’s touching them with his beak. So he lays down the leaf and nudges it towards them. Who knows? Maybe there is a young and stupid snail there who’s up for a wild ride on the big green thing.
“Come on,” he croons. “Come for a ride with me.”
There’s a small chance he gets carried away with the song, closing his eyes and luring the snails closer with pictures of driving through the night and purple skies and he just knows this is going to work. He’s just scared to open his eyes in case he’s been like too successful and he won’t be able to lift the leaf because of all the snails on it.
Which is why the first time he notices Patrick is when he hears a polite cough from a twig above him.
“Are you quite done scaring the snails away?” Patrick asks. If Pete wasn’t currently dying of shame he might even call his tone amused.
“I wasn’t scaring them,” he says, pulling himself up haughtily, “I was trying to broaden their horizons.” The snails, he notes sadly, are all hiding in their shells. He can see them quivering even from here.
Patrick just looks at him. Pete wonders what the chances are of being rescued by a mole-related ground implosion. Not good, he figures, but still…
“Aren’t you meant to be asleep?” he says, remembering that the snails were going to be a breakfast treat for Patrick to find when he wakes up. “It’s mid-afternoon.”
“I was,” Patrick answers, still looking oddly unreadable. “But then someone woke me up. Someone singing loud enough that they could wake me when I’m used to the noises Bert the Amazing Woodcock makes. So here I am.”
“Right.” Pete draws a shape absentmindedly on the ground in front of him with his toe, and then scrubs it out hurriedly before Patrick can realise it’s a heart. “So, your nest is round here then.”
Patrick chirrups softly. “I don’t have a nest,” he says, and there’s a sad note to his voice now. “But yeah. I roost in that tree over there.” He flaps his wings, a gesture Pete finds entirely too endearing. “I’ll go back now, get some more sleep. If you’re done educating the mollusks.”
“I am,” Pete says.
It’s a start at least, Pete figures. On his way back to the pond he charms a picniccing human out of a couple of raspberries. He leaves them at the base of Patrick’s tree and hopes for the best.
For once, Pete sleeps during the night. He has friends who are active during all times of day or night, but that's more effect than cause of the fact that he doesn't sleep very well. Never has. He was certain that tonight, brooding on his misery would keep him up. Instead, he falls asleep as soon as he reaches the little nest he shares with Joe.
"I'm terrible at brooding," Pete says once he wakes up.
"You haven't even had your first egg yet," Joe tells him. "You'll get better with practice."
"Not that kind of-- ugh," he says as he notices Joe's smug expression. "Shut up before I get Gabe to bake you into quacklings."
"Gabe can't operate an oven!" Joe shouts, but Pete is already swimming away.
He's supposed to be diurnal. Maybe the fact that the sunlight feels harsh and unwelcome is yet another proof that Pete is a terrible duck. He reaches into the pond and chews some weed melancholicaly.
Behind him a booming voice says, "Pete! My man!"
Pete almost chokes on the weed in his haste to turn around. "Travie!" He swims forward quickly, rubbing necks briefly with the goose. Travie looks good, if tired. "I didn't know you came back already."
Given Travie's wingspan, his shrugs are epic. "We got some good winds this trip. Most of the flock is back." He casts a look around the lake.
Pete imitates him. Then he swims right into Travie's side, affectionately headbutting him. "So...?"
"So..." Travie imitates him, but the word is belied by the instant look of joy on his face. "So you haven't met Katie, right?"
Pete's not going to jealous that Travie found a mate. He's not. "I haven't, but that's great!"
Travie gives him a penetrating look. "Okay, spill. What crawled into your nest and died?"
Pete winces. "Let's not talk about nests." Then he tells Travie of his luckless attempts at courtship so far.
Travie patiently waits for Pete to finish, then says, "I dunno, I think Gabe was onto something," sounding thoughtful.
"I never take advice from Gabe," Pete says. It's been an important lesson he learned early.
"Not the underwear part, obviously." Travie honks. "But make a nest, you know? Not a fancy one," he hastens to say when Pete glares at him. "Just a simple little nest. I know you can build one, I've seen where you live."
Joe's earlier joke about brooding springs to Pete's mind. Maybe he could work something with it.
Building the nest isn't hard. Dragging the egg-sized rocks is more of a challenge.
“Whatcha doin’ with those?” Frank asks, head cocked to one side, and this is really so far from helpful that Pete cannot even right now.
Unfortunately for everyone, though, Frank has never learnt when to leave well enough alone and he hops along behind Pete, chattering questions the whole time and apparently not even needing to stop for breath.
By the time Pete’s got the first egg – rock, he meant rock – into the nest, he’s ready to snap, and when he hits a snaggley branch root half-way through pushing the second eg---rock and ploughs, face first, into the mud he wrestles Frankie to the ground and pins him with one foot. He’s helped by the fact Frankie is laughing so hard he can barely breathe, much less shake Pete off.
“If you’re going to get in the way, you should ducking well help,” Pete shouts, and Frankie picks himself up off the ground with a shrug. He starts headbutting the rock though, and it gets it past that particular snag, so Pete takes his victories where he finds them.
“What are you doing with the rocks, anyway?” Frank asks when the second rock is safely ensconced in the nest and they’re heading back for the third. “'Cause they look a lot like eggs to me.”
“Yes, well,” Pete says, slightly snappishly. “In case you haven’t noticed, Patrick and I are both dudes. We can’t have eggs of our own, you know.”
“And you think putting fake eggs in the nest will make Patrick forget that?” Frank asks. “And be overcome by the need to raise a clutch of chicks with you?”
Pete straightens, letting the third rock roll back toward the pond. “Nothing else worked!” he yells. “I’m sorry we’re not all in love with emo fucking parrots who don’t believe in the species binary!”
“It’s not a binary if there’s like three million of them, asshole!” Frank yells in reply.
Pete doesn’t care. He stomps toward the lake, leaving the stupid, pointless nest behind him. Maybe he can do the same with his stupid, pointless crush, too.
The sun is only just touching the horizon, the light a heavy gold that’s way too pretty for Pete’s current mood. He wishes it was raining.
It’s way too early for any owl to be up, even a chronic early riser like Andy, yet he finds Pete moping at the side of the lake just the same.
He doesn’t even have the decency to say anything, leaving Pete to look like an asshole when he finally snaps, “This is all your fault,” at Andy.
Andy blinks. “How?”
“You told me to be like other species?”
Andy’s voice is slow as he says, “No, I’m pretty sure I didn’t.”
Pete wracks his brain for the exact quote. “I told you ducks were assholes, and you told me…” he slows down as he considers. “To do something about that.”
“Yes,” Andy says, giving Pete the Wow, you’re dumb look, “by not being an asshole.”
Pete slumps. “Like it’s that easy? I have my whole genetic lineage and my personality against me. What am I supposed to do?”
“Talk to Patrick.” When Pete starts interrupting, Andy raises a wing. “No, I mean it. Talk. Tell him what you want, then listen. Let him finish before you go haring off.”
Comparing Pete to a fucking rabbit is just uncalled for. He bristles. “Fine. I will. And when he rejects me and mocks me and I die of embarrassment, you are not invited to the funeral.”
“Sure,” Andy says, easy. “Tell Joe I wouldn’t mind a roommate, either way.”
Pete isn’t stalling on purpose. It’s just that the pond water feels weirdly thick and a little cold, even though it’s a perfectly nice spring evening. It’s not even raining.
By the time he makes it to shore the stars are out. He wonders whether Patrick is, too. Whether he saw the nest, or whether Pete will have to go tromping through the slimy snail-infested grounds again in search of him.
It appears that he’s spared that indignity, since as he trudges up to the nest, he sees Patrick standing on the edge of it.
Out of the frying pan and into the blistering inferno, as Gee might say . Pete gulps. Then he squares his wings and walks the rest of the way.
Patrick’s gaze is even on Pete’s face. It makes Pete ache inside to look at him. The stones Pete rounded up are nearly half Patrick’s size.
“I built a nest for you,” Pete says, a little lost, a lot hopeless.
“I noticed,” Patrick says. He hops closer to Patrick. “Why?”
Pete closes his eyes. “Because I like you,” he says, “and want to build a nest with you.”
“Oh.” Patrick doesn’t sound angry. He sounds faintly surprised. “You know we can’t have eggs together, right?”
“I could steal some,” Pete says without thinking. There were those penguins Gerard and Frank discussed, sometimes, when they thought nobody was listening. They stole an egg. Pete could do that, too. “Or we could adopt. Except then they grow up to be like Joe and turn on you.”
Not for the first time, Pete thinks of his own parents, wondering whether they did the best thing in driving him away. Maybe they knew something he didn’t, and that’s why he’s now trying to get another male of a completely different species to mate with him.
“I like Joe,” Patrick says. “We could do that. That works. We’ll have to relocate the nest, though.”
Pete has the feeling he missed something important. “What?”
“Sorry.” Patrick briefly sticks his head under his wing, which is too adorable for words. “I mean, it’s a great nest, this just isn’t the best location. It needs to be on a tree or in a lake. For protection. You know.”
Pete does know, which isn’t helping this make any more sense. He flaps his wings. “You want to make a nest? With me?”
If he thought about it, Pete might have expected Patrick to tease him then. But when Pete looks up, Patrick’s oddly solemn in the moonlight. “I like Joe,” Patrick says again, his voice softer than it was the first time. “I like that you took him in, that you didn’t even need to think about it.”
What Patrick is saying seems like a non sequitur, but Bob’s words from a few nights before echo in Pete’s mind. “You knew what I was doing,” he says, feeling oddly hollow.
That feeling only persists until Patrick hops over, hesitantly grooming the feathers in Pete’s neck. It gets Pete melty, and weak enough at the knees that he wishes he were floating in the pond. “Gerard and I are friends,” Patrick says, sounding almost apologetic. “We both stay up weird hours, so we talk.”
“About me?” The words come out small.
Patrick shrugs. “Sometimes.” He keeps grooming Pete, though, so it’s not as upsetting as it could be to realize his friends have been talking about him behind his back. “He thinks you’re a good guy. I do, too.”
“You do.” Pete used to think he was good with words. Now he can only manage them two at the time.
“Yes, I do.” Patrick takes a couple steps back. Pete realizes, with a sense of wonder, that Patrick looks pleased. “So where do you want our nest to be?”
There’s a post in the pond a few yards away from the shore, remnants of the old pier that was destroyed years earlier. On that post is a small nest, with another one under it, just at the water’s edge. There’s one tiny egg in the upper nest, currently hidden under Patrick’s belly.
“Pete, I swear to Cod,” Patrick says as their nestlings - mostly ducklings, turned away like Joe was, as well as a permanently confused baby swan - swim around the lower nest, quacking up at him. “Take the kids for a swim before I lose my mind.”
“Sorry,” Pete says. The tiny egg is his fault, even if it was Gerard who caught it when it was thrown from a nest. He thinks it’s a warbler, but Patrick says it’s a wren.
“No you’re not,” Patrick says. He’s trying to sound mad, but not really managing it.
As Pete leads their nestlings away, he hears sweet song behind him. It’s dusk, too early for any nightingales but one to be singing.
“No I’m not,” Pete says, knowing that the water will carry his words back to Patrick - and that if it doesn’t, one of their friends or kids will. “And neither are you.”