“Looks like you get one last chance to convince me your club isn’t a waste of space,” Kinshirou growled at the Press Society. The reporter and photographer, showing survival instincts they hadn’t seemed to have mere minutes ago, nodded frantically. He may have powered down, along with the rest of the Student Council and the Earth Defense Club as well, but he still retained an imposing presence, and Kinshirou knew how to use it.
And also, well. The other thing he still had despite being out of costume, albeit something Kinshirou had no idea how to use just yet. The reason the Press Society was suddenly useful to the Student Council.
The Battle Lovers and Caerula Adamas had always had their faces, voices, and wings blurred for privacy when they were transformed. That hadn’t mattered to the Press Society apparently, as Hireashi had kept them informed, but their identifying features had always been hidden from everyone else, allowing them to lead peaceful lives out of costume. But none of that would matter anymore; since live censoring of anything on a normal student would only lead to difficult questions, they were going to have to face the world with their new additions unhidden. Of course, that would also lead to difficult questions, but hopefully they wouldn’t be as bad.
Kinshirou stared at Kinosaki Kou and Tazawa Masuya, the students now responsible for answering the inevitable questions, long enough to see the reporter bury his head in his hands, and then the president turned around, fluffy white wings fluttering behind him, and joined the rest of his group in all their matching angelic glory.
They gathered in the Student Council room. Yumoto didn’t have a problem with that- it was such a nice room!- but he wasn’t sure why everyone had acted like going there was a foregone conclusion. They had two perfectly good rooms! Shouldn’t they have flipped a coin, or played a game, or something to decide? Atsushi had whispered something to him about how they couldn’t use their own clubroom since Atsushi had been making curry in there, which made no sense to Yumoto, but he dropped the matter anyway. He could always ask again later, once they’d finished talking about the current issue.
Not that it was much of an issue, as far as Yumoto was concerned! Sure, he missed his old cardinal wings, but these new wings were super pretty!
“Are we actually trusting that reporter to come up with something?” Atsushi asked.
The president shrugged. “It can’t hurt. Sometimes the best course of action is to have so many conflicting accounts that everyone gives up on finding the truth.”
Everyone was standing an awkward distance from each other, shuffling self-consciously. Yumoto knew it was rude to bump into someone else’s wings, accidentally or otherwise- he wasn’t that clueless- but come on! They weren’t going to adjust to their new wings just by standing around! Sometimes you had to crash around a little before things made sense!
Although actually, maybe it did make sense that everyone was having so much trouble. The wings were bulky and everyone else had always kept their wings neatly folded against their backs. Yumoto had always let his bright red wings flutter freely and didn’t intend to treat these much differently. He would do his best not to hit anyone and if he did he would apologize and everyone would move on. It wasn’t hard!
“What, so we should make up our own explanation after all?” En said without enthusiasm.
“It makes sense,” Arima said reasonably. “We can’t just avoid talking about it forever. What are you going to say if someone asks you what they are?”
“There are white ducks, right?”
“I see your point,” Atsushi allowed. Yumoto didn’t, so he was glad when Atsushi elaborated, “Even if none of us were experts on birds, it’s obvious we’re all the same, so we can’t disagree about what we think we are. That will only make people ask more questions.”
In a world where everyone was born with wings, with no rhyme or reason as to who got what other than what humans made up for themselves, the majority of people saw no need to study birds. It was just another facet of life, and they couldn’t be expected to know everything about the biology of every creature in the world. But anyone could recognize their own wings. It only took a few quick searches to narrow down the type of bird, and then they would instinctively distinguish which one had identical wings. Experts said no one could possibly feel real kinship with a digital image, but everyone considered the absolute certainty of the reaction to be hard proof. Everyone knew what their wings were, no matter what else they did or didn’t know.
So for them to not know what their wings were would be too shocking to tell anyone! Yumoto could understand that.
“Not to state the obvious,” Akoya said, tossing his hair and fanning his wings out like he was already accustomed to them, “but it’s pretty clear that these are angel wings.”
“Very fitting, of course,” the president said with a benevolent tolerance that Yumoto was pretty sure shocked all of the Battle Lovers, “but we can’t tell anyone that.”
“Wait, how’s it fitting?” Ryuu asked. “I mean, I get it with Yumoto, but what about the rest of us?”
Before Yumoto could process the compliment, the student council kind of coughed until someone muttered something about Holy Angel Akoya. Akoya himself tossed his hair with dignity while most of the room pretended they weren’t amused. Some didn’t exactly bother to hide it, though.
“Shame about the campaign, though,” Arima mentioned.
Sobering quickly, Ryuu agreed, “Yeah, I was a big fan.”
Akoya had shocked many people by declaring his beauty with his old wings. The speckled brown turtle dove wings were about as plain as wings could be, and while many people made the best of dull wings by quietly focusing on being nice, or smart, or athletic, Akoya had never let his wings hold him back from the pursuit of beauty. They were the last wings anyone expected someone like Akoya to have, but he wore them proudly, and even though he regularly put down the appearances of others, he would go so far as to correct anyone who tried to judge someone based on their wings. It was an unprecedented movement, and with Akoya’s power in the school, it had made some real effects within the school.
“What are you talking about?” Akoya snapped. “Nothing’s changed.”
Everyone exchanged looks, and pointed glances at the clearly changed wings, that Yumoto was pretty sure were supposed to say that they didn’t believe him, but it was a nice sentiment. If Akoya continued to spread his idea that wings and the stereotypes people associated with them didn’t define anyone even though he no longer had to worry about his wings not matching the image he wanted for himself, people would have to listen.
“Anyway,” the president said, as if getting off track like this was something he had become exasperatedly familiar with. Yumoto was a bit astonished. Did the amazing Student Council actually get distracted sometimes, like the rest of them? “We should make this decision quickly. We have other things to discuss.”
Like the buzzing feeling Yumoto was picking up on? He had been feeling it for a while, but at first he thought it was just adrenaline leftover from the fight, or nerves, or whatever jittery feelings you got when you suddenly learned you were getting three new friends. Then he thought it was the strangeness of the wings, and just part of getting used to them. But while the sensation was definitely connected to the wings, Yumoto was starting to be able to pick it out as something he was sensing in the air around him.
But then everyone else muttered sagely about explanations for why their wings changed, and how that could even be possible, and why they were all matching. Right. They had to deal with all of those boring things, too.
“Isn’t it fine if we all say different things?” Io said. “I thought the point was to confuse people.”
Yumoto was ready to agree with that, but Atsushi pursed his lips. “We want the Press Society to spread confusing rumors, but we can’t look confused ourselves,” he clarified. No one spoke up for the Press Society by suggesting they could hit upon a perfectly reasonable explanation, because they probably wouldn’t.
“Wait a second,” En said suddenly. “Yumoto, don’t these wings look a bit like your brother’s?”
“Yep!” Yumoto said cheerfully, relieved he was finally allowed to talk. For a while, it had felt like a grown-ups’ meeting, and he didn’t want to say the wrong thing in front of the Student Council. “We match now!”
“Come to think of it, I never did know what his wings were,” Atsushi said thoughtfully. “What does he tell people about them?”
“You know how Gora-an-chan is,” Yumoto shrugged. “He doesn’t really tell people anything, even if they ask a lot. But most people don’t ask a lot, it’s like they get scared off or something. I wonder why that is.”
“Probably the axe.”
“It’s the axe, right?”
“Definitely the axe.”
Yumoto didn’t know why everyone was always assuming his brother’s axe had anything to do with his life, but he’d long given up on trying to understand how the world viewed him. “I guess we could ask him for help, since he’s gone through the same thing, but I think he would tell us the Student Council has more power in the school than he does.”
The Student Council accepted their relative authority with gracious, if solemn, nods. “Wait a second,” Io interjected. “Are you sure he really had the same thing happen? I mean, could it be possible he was born with them?”
Yumoto shook his head. “When I was really little, I remember them being different.” His memories of warm light glancing off dark feathers was vague but sure.
Everyone sighed, and muttered, and then decided on what bird they were going to say their wings were from. Yumoto wasn’t paying attention. The humming in the air he’d been picking up on was growing stronger and stronger, though whether it was actually increasing or if Yumoto was becoming more attuned to it was up for debate. Either way, he was starting to pick up on a shape. Or maybe several shapes.
It was like there were several currents of warm air blowing directly toward him, except if Yumoto concentrated really hard, it felt like he was the source of them instead. And they all led to the other people in the room. Kind of like red strings of fate, but threads that connected their wings instead of their pinkies. And it was way bigger than a string. Or at least it would be if it was real, but Yumoto was picking up on it as a sensation, not a physical thing. Which was probably for the best, because the feeling was just about strong enough to knock Yumoto over, if it was a real breeze, or stream, or whatever.
“I’m sorry, I can’t concentrate,” Atsushi said abruptly. At least Yumoto thought it was abrupt; he hadn’t been paying attention, after all. But everyone treated his statement like an interruption, so it probably was. “Is there something in this room? I can’t see anything, but it feels like something’s buzzing.”
“You feel that too, senpai?” Ryuu asked. Various other people made various other noises of surprised affirmation.
Arima said, “It’s the wings, isn’t it? That’s where I’m feeling it.”
“Now that you mention it,” En said thoughtfully, “I guess that does make the most sense, if this is some kind of new Battle Lover ability.”
Yumoto saw the president cringe. Maybe he didn’t like being called a Battle Lover? Yumoto didn’t particularly care about who had what status, but since they all had the same wings now, they were obviously all equals in some way, and could share whatever titles they wanted, as far as Yumoto was concerned.
“If it’s some kind of new weapon, I’m not sure how we’re supposed to fight with it,” Io said doubtfully. “Not that we have any reason to need to fight now, of course,” he added hastily.
This was getting so ridiculous that Yumoto couldn’t stand it any longer, so he burst out, “It’s love!” Everyone stared at him. “These things that we’re feeling- they’re coming from each other. What else could it be?”
“I guess that would fit our theme and everything,” En said reluctantly, but he was quickly drowned out by the wave of emotion that swept over the room. Atsushi and the president had turned toward each other at the same time, and apparently facing each other directly and broadcasting their feelings straight at each other had caused some kind of feedback loop because they had blushed vivid reds and both fallen backwards, knocked away from each other. And the whole room had felt it.
“Even if it is… love that we’re feeling,” the president said, scrambling to his feet and carefully not angling his wings directly toward anyone, “what are we supposed to do with it? It’s distracting.”
“You’ll get used to it,” Yumoto said confidently. “You don’t do anything with love; all you can do is accept the feelings of others if you can, and return them if you want to.”
Everyone looked at him again. Then the Student Council looked to Atsushi. Atsushi repeated, “You’ll get used to it.”
“Goose,” Io said vaguely when a classmate asked about his new wings. He wasn’t entirely pretending that his attention was elsewhere; he had a deal to close and very little time in which to close it. And that was probably why his classmates didn’t like him very much.
Because it turned out that their new wings, with the new special feature of sensing love, also sensed lack of love, whether Io wanted them to or not. And he did not.
It wasn’t all bad. Io couldn’t distinguish a lot of the signals his wings were sending him- mainly he could tell when love was directed at him, and when there was love in the room with him. He had mostly picked up on the bonds his classmates had with each other. It was genuinely heartwarming to see that they really did care about each other, that their easy friendships and casual greetings counted as love to whatever side effect of weird alien technology the wings were. But the love that flowed so freely for most of his classmates did not also extend to Io.
Which was fine. That was fine. Io didn’t need a lot of friends. He didn’t need the whole world to like him.
Io had been born with goldcrest wings. At first children had flocked to them as their parents encouraged them to associate with someone with a songbird’s wings, someone nearly guaranteed to be friendly. Io didn’t turn out to be the kind of person they hoped for. When he entered school and his classmates discovered he had a head for numbers, they started speculating on why he didn’t have more symbolic wings to match his intellect. When Io started playing the stock market, people latched onto it like a bad joke: gold for a goldcrest.
Io hadn’t minded his wings. They’d been pretty enough aesthetically, matching his coloration and not getting in his way. He hadn’t liked the way others paid attention to them, but Io wasn’t naïve enough to think that a change of wings would change the way others thought of him. So far, these new wings seemed to be more trouble than they were worth.
So Io gritted his teeth through class and zoned into his tablet during breaks. If anyone tried to ask about his wings, he gave them half-answers that contradicted each other. It was all for the plan, he told himself. Later if they called him on the confusion, he could claim he thought they were asking something else. He had been distracted.
And that was true. Io was distracted. He sat rigidly facing forward in his seat, wings tucked neatly behind him in the way he’d spent the entire previous night learning how. Despite them not being fanned out to catch threads of emotions, he still felt the way they swirled around the room, most of them swerving to avoid him, some of them slamming right into him with something like hostile intent, because apparently the wings picked up that too. Io had to keep reminding himself that none of his classmates actually knew he was experiencing the horrible things they felt about him.
At the end of the day Io nearly ran out of the classroom. He made his way briskly up the stairs to the clubroom, which still smelled slightly of curry despite their best efforts to scrub it off the walls. He was the first one there, which didn’t surprise Io, but when he turned slightly to close the door he was startled to see Ryuu right behind him.
It was like Io’s whole world shifted around him. He’d been so busy telling himself that he wasn’t bothered by his classmates’ apathy and disdain that he’d forgotten they felt similarly toward Ryuu. And Ryuu, unlike Io, cared a little about what others thought of him.
Io opened his mouth, a clumsy apology on his tongue, but closed it without saying anything. He stepped back to let Ryuu enter the room, unsure how to explain himself.
Ryuu did not share his problem. “Ugh, what a day,” he complained, throwing himself into a chair. “But I don’t need to tell you about it.”
Io followed his example, settling into his own chair more sedately. He had no platitudes to offer.
“I’m glad you’re here though,” Ryuu continued, peeking up at him with half his face pressed to the desk. “I thought we could get it out of the way, you know?”
Io did not know. “What?”
“You know. The whole wings thing.” Ryuu made a face, but Io could see the effort was halfhearted. “Love. We’re going to have to get used to these feelings sometime, and, well. You know how I feel about you.”
Io did know. “I do,” he agreed out loud. It went unsaid that Ryuu likewise knew how Io felt about him. Io also left it unsaid that they would have to get used to accepting the loveless feelings of their classmates too, but Ryuu knew that, and Io would much rather deal with Ryuu’s feelings anyway. “Alright, then.”
There was a moment where neither of them quite knew what to do, but then they were both opening up their wings and scooting their chairs to better face each other. Io felt the moment they lined up; the vague feelings that had been whispering around their shoulders suddenly solidified into something secure.
It was like being cradled in certainty. For a second there was nothing in the world that Io wanted, except for Ryuu to know that he felt the same, and then he remembered that Ryuu was experiencing everything Io felt about him. It barely even crossed Io’s mind to wonder if Ryuu wasn’t feeling the same warmth he was, because he was so confident that the whole basis of their relationship was that they acknowledged each other as equals. Io wasn’t entirely sure, but he had a faint suspicion that love wasn’t something to be measured and compared anyway; he’d have to find a subtle way to get Yumoto’s opinion on that, since he was usually right about these things.
When the warmth of the bond started to feel overwhelmingly hot on his face, Io looked away and took out his tablet. He didn’t move his wings, though, and the connection didn’t fade. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Ryuu get out his phone.
The wings were constantly picking up signals of love around them, and it had felt like a constant push and pull of emotions, but now that Io and Ryuu were focused on each other it was as if everything had finally gone still. The steady heat was as simple as it was tremendous, and for the first time since the festival, Io relaxed fully. It was good to get back to his old routine with Ryuu; or rather, their old routine with a new addition.
Ibushi smiled blandly, as usual, as he served tea to Kinshirou and Akoya. Akoya partially unfurled and lifted one wing in a small benediction, sending him an expression of gratitude. At least, Ibushi assumed that was what it was; all the feelings the wings sensed seemed about the same to him. The youngest member of the Defense Club was probably right about the feelings being love, but there were many kinds of love, and Ibushi was pleased to think that the affection- or at least the appreciation between coworkers- that the Student Council shared counted.
Ibushi let his wings spread a few inches to return the sentiment. He wasn’t sure of a lot of things about the new wings, but figuring out how to send out his feelings on purpose had been simple enough. It didn’t matter to him that only a few select people would be able to receive them in such a form; those people included the ones who mattered to him. Ibushi turned slightly to include Kinshirou in the field of his wings.
Besides twitching slightly, Kinshirou did not move, his wings remaining tightly tucked behind his back.
Ibushi still didn’t know why Kinshirou hadn’t acknowledged him when they’d met again in high school. As children, they had been so excited to compare their wings, since they were both from birds of prey. Ibushi hadn’t known anyone else with wings from such a fierce bird- certainly no one who thought his gyrfalcon wings were pretty. But Kinshirou had said nothing about recognizing him their entire time in high school, even though Ibushi was positive he couldn’t have forgotten his distinctive wings, at the very least.
As far as Ibushi knew, Kinshirou didn’t hold any particularly strong beliefs about wing symbolism. He dismissed any comments linking his black and white kite wings with his rise to leadership, and never belittled Akoya’s turtle dove wings. He didn’t seem like the kind of person to judge anyone by their wings, but then again, they all had identical wings now, rendering that line of thinking irrelevant.
Akoya gave Ibushi a sympathetic glance, sipped his tea, and returned to paperwork. Ibushi sighed internally and did likewise.
Perhaps the newly identical wings were a problem of their own, Ibushi mused over a request for funding. They had definitely held up the Student Council in their meetings- that day alone, they had had three separate inquiries about why their wings were suddenly all the same. Kinshirou had responded to two of them by claiming the wings were those of a snowy owl, and then avoided answering why the change had happened by feigning offense at whatever reaction was displayed. Some of the students petitioning them had seen owl wings as a downgrade from their previous respective raptors.
And some of the curious students had seen owl wings as an upgrade for Akoya. None of them had to feign their offense at that.
Looking back, Ibushi had to wonder if Kinshirou had actually been pretending at all. It was rude enough for people one wasn’t well acquainted with to comment extensively on someone’s wings (not that that ever stopped anyone) but it had probably been particularly unnerving coupled with the feelings coming off of said people. Or rather, the lack of them.
It wasn’t that they were loveless- the Conquest Club was well informed on what those kind of people were like- but they had no love lost for the Student Council and it showed. Even when they had been in the room with the Earth Defense Club, most of whom barely knew most of the Student Council, love had been thick in the air and hadn’t especially avoided anyone in particular. The difference between their easy acceptance and the students the Council regularly dealt with was striking.
And so Ibushi ignored Kinshirou’s lack of reciprocation and continued to freely lavish his feelings on him and Akoya, when the situation merited it. Akoya seemed to understand his decision without needing clarification, because he always responded and even initiated the sharing a few times. Ibushi always looked up when that happened, because he wasn’t especially clear on where the feelings were originating from and if they were from Kinshirou, he didn’t want to miss it.
By the end of the day, Ibushi had not caught Kinshirou spread a wing to broadcast or better receive anything, but his wings were laying less stiffly along his back. Ibushi was satisfied.
Ryuu wasn’t exactly used to the classroom just yet, but he was more familiar with it than he had been, just like he was growing more and more familiar with his own wings all the time. At the beginning, it had been impossible to tell where feelings were coming from and where they were going- they didn’t seem to move in a straight line unless someone with the angel wings specifically wanted to convey something, in which case they didn’t move very far even or especially if it would be way more convenient for them to curve around the way they usually did. But Ryuu had gotten better at figuring out where feelings were coming from or where they were going, if he really focused.
He’d started focusing on the feelings going toward Gero.
It was difficult for Ryuu to call the feelings love, even though he trusted Yumoto’s judgment. It was just that most of the feelings he was picking up were definitely not love. Probably they were on the same spectrum as love, which was why the wings were sensing them, but they were not love.
Ryuu didn’t like that so many loveless feelings were directed toward Io. He did not like that they were directed toward himself. And he didn’t like that so many people had so many loveless feelings for Gero.
Ryuu hadn’t realized that the classroom’s animosity was directed to anyone beside Ryuu and Io, and he found that being part of a larger group did not make him feel any more comfortable with it. Still, he thought he might as well take advantage of their numbers, now that they had something in common besides the wings, so when classes were over he followed Gero out the door.
Io tagged along without question, as Ryuu had hoped he would. The hallways were crowded enough that Ryuu kept his wings more or less folded, although he let them flap out as he preferred them whenever there was a bit more space. With all the commotion of students eager to get to their clubs, it was no wonder that it took Gero a few minutes to realize he was being trailed. “What are you doing?” he asked.
“Seeing if this way’s shorter?” Ryuu said. “You know, since we can get to our clubroom through yours anyway.”
Gero raised an eyebrow at him, but Ryuu ignored it. Io raised an eyebrow at him, and Ryuu shrugged. He didn’t really have an explanation, besides a vague idea that if they were going to have to get to know the student council sooner or later, they might as well start getting some use out of the connecting door now.
Ryuu didn’t bother trying to make conversation on their way up the stairs. Just because he’d decided to reach out to Gero didn’t mean he was going to try to be friends with him. In Ryuu’s experience, friendship either happened like a splash of cold water off a bathhouse roof or it didn’t happen at all. Io also wasn’t saying anything, and neither was Gero, so Ryuu refused to feel bad about it.
As they entered the student council room Ryuu, instead of formally greeting the other members of the council who had somehow already made it to the room, cheerfully said, “Next time you should come through our room so we can compare,” and walked over to the door that joined their rooms. Io murmured something behind his back that was probably polite enough to make up for Ryuu’s casualness.
Ryuu opened the door without ceremony and turned to wave with both hand and wing to Gero and the room at large. He didn’t particularly concentrate on what exactly he was sending them; his true feelings would reach them whether or not he thought about it, a fact which had definitely grieved some of them (Ryuu was pretty content with communicating so effortlessly though, and was positive everyone would eventually come to appreciate the candor). At the very least, Ryuu knew that he was giving the council something nicer than the poisonous disdain or even the neutral avoidances of the general student population.
Ryuu walked into the Defense Club’s room without looking back for a response, Io close behind him. Ryuu saw a moment after he felt that Io’s wings were untucked just enough that the love he projected would be noticeable to anyone with the right wings to feel it, but not aimed at anyone in particular.
Before they closed the door, the rest of their club all waved in some manner through it. Yumoto opened his wings wide and emitted such a strong burst of affection that Ryuu would have fallen over if it had been physical. Luckily they had all mostly convinced their brains that the force was purely psychological, and were now successfully avoiding the majority of awkward moments where they appeared to stumble over nothing in front of the rest of the world.
Yufuin extended a wing in lazy welcome as they settled in. Ryuu didn’t bother responding immediately, preoccupied with finding somewhere to put his bag, but took a moment to appreciate that of all the people he could have been stuck having magic identical wings with, he got friends who didn’t hold themselves or each other back.
It was a bit strange not having Wombat around, Ryuu mused as he sat down, letting his wings fan out enough to at least partially face everyone in the room. The alien was still on their planet but always had something to be busy with. Even stranger, and the real reason for Ryuu’s soreness, to his shame, was that Tawarayama-sensei was off being alive again somewhere, and not standing in the corner acting as a bag holder. Come to think of it, Ryuu wasn’t sure they’d ever actually explained the situation with the teacher to the good neighbors, but luckily for Ryuu, he wasn’t one of the club members with a strong relationship to someone on the council, so that wasn’t his responsibility.
Ryuu made sure to angle his wings directly at Yumoto for a few moments, who beamed and mirrored him. Everyone had figured out pretty quickly that this was important to Yumoto, and no one, at least in their club, had the heart to try avoiding it.
No one had really been able to agree on what love felt like- it felt different from different people, and everyone experienced it in their own ways, and even love between the same two people could feel solid one minute and like walking on air the next- but it was pretty typical for them to compare Yumoto’s feelings to a bath. Sometimes, like now, it was disorienting enough that Ryuu really thought for a moment that he was at the Kurotama, and had to blink himself back to reality, and not think too hard about the implications of how common love was in his life.
“I was thinking,” Yumoto said, relatively thoughtfully, “that maybe we should check up on the monsters.”
“Make sure the former loveless are truly former?” Io asked.
“Yeah! I got to talk to Megawacchi and some of the baseball team, and they really do love each other. We should make sure everyone else has someone, too.”
Everyone agreed they could seek out the former monsters. It occurred to Ryuu, later, that Megawa and his team had probably loved each other the whole time; the problem had been that the manager wasn’t sure they truly did, and had no way of knowing. He still had no way of knowing. But if he was ever seized by doubts again, as long as there was someone who loved him, they could reassure him, at the very least.
“I don’t think I can leave here,” Atsushi said.
“It can’t be that bad,” En said, already relaxing in the water. “You were only a few minutes behind me; what could have possibly gone wrong in that time?”
Atsushi sighed as he scrubbed his back. “You know how sometimes, when you’re on the phone and you’re about to hang up, and you accidentally say ‘bye, love you’?”
“You said that to me on accident?”
“No! Well. Sometimes. But when it’s not someone you actually say that to, it’s pretty awful.” Atsushi paused for a moment. En closed his eyes and heard the slosh of water being splashed over a shoulder. “I ran into Goura at the door.”
“He has the same wings we do.”
“He sure does.”
“You know. He can definitely feel love the same way we can.”
“Yeah,” En agreed.
“So he was. Doing that thing he does, being all brotherly. And. Maybe my wings weren’t closed as tightly as they should have been.”
“I’m not sure that’s how it works.”
“And I basically told him I love him so now I am going to stay in this bath until I die because I can’t walk past him ever again.”
En opened his eyes. Sure enough, Atsushi had entered the bath. “What if Goura comes in here? It is his bath.”
Atsushi groaned miserably and didn’t answer.
“Hey,” En said as a thought occurred to him. “How long have you been feeling that way about him?”
“What, that he’s like everyone’s big brother? A while, I guess.”
“Everyone’s called him onii-san a few times,” En said in belated reassurance, even though he was about to say something the opposite of reassuring. “You know, he’s had the magic love-sensing wings for longer than we have.”
“Yeah? Oh.” Atsushi covered his face. “You think he knew the whole time?”
“I’m sure he’s used to it,” En offered. He leaned back against the bath tile.
“I hope so,” Atsushi muttered.
Personally, En had no idea how Goura did it, especially with a little brother like Yumoto. It was hard enough being at home, surrounded by the love of his family and trying not to tear up, and while En knew better than to try to categorize or rank love, Yumoto loved exuberantly, and loved his an-chan above all others. That Goura withstood that so stoically every single day amazed En.
En used to have the wings of a fish owl. In the pictures En looked up, the birds always looked big and fluffy, but En liked to think the ruffled feathers just looked normal on him. No one teased him too much, anyway, which was a bit of a miracle. Everyone always had something to say about wings and no wings were the exception. En had only ever gotten remarks comparing his good grades when he guessed the tests correctly to owls being wise, and jokes about his lack of energy being because he was a night owl.
So En really wasn’t appreciating the new interest in his wings. They were serving much the same purposes they always had, and more, and he couldn’t talk about that so he didn’t want to talk about it at all. So far Atsushi had fielded those kinds of questions, telling their classmates that it was a rare relative of storks. Someone had asked for the Latin name; Atsushi said it was complicated. Someone said that surely Atsushi was the kind of person to be able to memorize and pronounce that kind of thing, and Atsushi had looked at them pityingly and said, “I can,” and did not elaborate.
“Is it really that bad to let someone know you feel something about them?” En asked after a while.
Atsushi said, “Most people want to do that kind of thing on purpose, not just have it come out in a way they can’t control.”
“I guess the president might be feeling like you were then,” En said. “When I ran into him the other day, he must not have been keeping a lid on his feelings the way he usually does, because when he turned around I learned that he doesn’t actually hate me after all.”
Atsushi shook his head, but looked like he wanted to laugh. “Poor Kin-chan. That’s nice though, maybe you’ll get along one day after all.”
After a short silence, En said, “I saw that the Press Society published an article about the wings.”
“Oh? Why did ours change, then?”
“No idea. I couldn’t understand any of their explanation.”
“…I guess that’s alright.”
Akoya had gone with Naruko and Zaou to their clubroom to get to his own. Several times. He had given his opinion on that journey compared to simply going to the Student Council room. And yet they still weren’t leaving him alone.
If Akoya set out for the Student Council room on his own, they followed him. If he hung behind to take his time packing up, they waited in the classroom doorway. No matter what Akoya did, he couldn’t shake them.
Eventually, he stopped trying.
“Come on,” he said one day during a break, and led them to the library. They all set out their books and work without much fuss, and were actually being fairly productive when someone not in their class came up to the table.
“I guess your wings really are the same now,” the student said. “What are they?”
“Dove,” Naruko answered promptly.
Akoya was vaguely aware of another student joining the first, but didn’t think much of it until he muttered, “I guess the last dove was too plain for you after all,” and Akoya realized it was someone from their horrible class. Really, why was everyone in their class so awful? The school as a whole wasn’t too bad.
Zaou looked up sharply, abruptly furious in a way that brought a strange lump to Akoya’s throat. He was relatively calm, however, when he said, “Did you hear dove? He said duck.”
“Did he?” the first student said doubtfully.
Akoya wanted badly to make some clever play on words, about how they were warning him to duck because Akoya had had enough of being insulted, had punched someone before and would punch someone again. But he really shouldn’t assault anyone out of costume. Or at all, since Caerula Adamas was turning over a new leaf or whatever.
To Zaou, their classmate said, “Are you going to dye your hair again? I hear it’s hard to match whites though. Well, not that you ever were very good at that.”
Zaou smiled pleasantly at him. Naruko smiled rather less pleasantly at him. After a few moments of no one saying anything, the other students left, the first one with an apologetic half-frown as if he knew his taste in acquaintances was lacking.
“I wasn’t even trying to match it in the first place,” Zaou muttered.
It wasn’t hard to guess what he was referring to. Zaou had had rosefinch wings streaked with subtle but brilliant bits of ruddy pink not quite the same color as his hair. Many people had had the audacity to tell Akoya that he was the one who should have had those wings, as if his turtle dove wings weren’t striking in their own right.
Akoya would have let the matter blow over, but Naruko was looking meaningfully at him, which meant he should say something to Zaou. “I try not to think about your hair,” he said, which was true, “but I never had a problem with how it complemented your wings.”
Naruko looked exasperated, but Akoya must have done something right, because Zaou laughed. “Right?”
Akoya smiled hesitantly, then they went back to working. After a while, Akoya ventured, “I haven’t seen your wombat thing around lately.”
“We’re not really sure what he’s doing, but he’s still here somewhere,” Naruko said absently. “Even though we don’t need him anymore.”
Akoya didn’t want to talk about how Caerula Adamas was done creating monsters, so he didn’t. “What about your advisor? Tawarayama-sensei?”
It was an innocent question, but Zaou nearly choked on air. “Io, why don’t you tell Akoya about that?”
“Betrayed yet again,” Naruko murmured dramatically, but he leaned forward anyway as if there was nothing else particularly remarkable to talk about.
And maybe, Akoya thought, there wasn’t.
Later that day, on the trip up to their respective clubrooms- via the Student Council’s room, this time- Akoya said, “I don’t think I want to be the one to explain what happened with your teacher to the Student Council.”
“Understandable,” Ryuu said with sympathy.
Io sent Ryuu a dirty look, then said to Akoya, “Well, if no one’s realized that something that serious was off…”
Akoya had to laugh, and when he opened the door to the Student Council clubroom he was so busy trying to keep a straight face, to make sure nobody would have a reason to interrogate him about the Defense Club, that he forgot his resolve. When Ryuu and Io, and the other members of their club to various extents, made their parting waves, Akoya lifted a wing in the air without even thinking about it.
The door closed before he could see anyone’s reaction. Akoya froze. He had been avoiding sharing his feelings with them because he didn’t think he had any for any part of the Defense Club and was afraid his only two classmates who cared about him would stop if they realized he not only wasn’t going through the motions of reciprocating, but truly didn’t reciprocate their love.
But now that Akoya thought about it, he didn’t feel nothing for Ryuu and Io after all. And what he did feel definitely wasn’t hate.
And now everyone knew it.
Slowly, Akoya lowered his wing and dared to look up. Arima was smiling, and after a moment, Kusatsu was too.
The nice moment was shattered by an enthusiastic and continuous blast of love hitting all of them as if the door wasn’t even there. It couldn’t have come from anyone but Yumoto. Was he really that excited that Akoya was starting to like his classmates, or had Akoya grown attached to him as well and included that in his wave? Akoya had no idea; unfortunately, either were equally likely.
After a few seconds, the blast was joined by quieter feelings that were easy enough to identify as the rest of Yumoto’s club. He could only guess at what they all meant- all love felt more or less the same, without other emotions mixed in, but Kinugawa’s was probably apologetic. Ryuu and Io’s, he hoped, were accepting.
The thing was, none of the feelings were avoiding Akoya, even though he knew for a fact that he had not displayed love for all five of them when he had let his own feelings flow to their room.
He had been so afraid that Io and Ryuu would stop trying to be his friends if they knew he didn’t love them as much as they did him. That was no longer an issue, but now the rest of their club was demonstrating that their love wasn’t conditional.
“It looks like our quiet days are over,” Kusatsu remarked, not completely acerbically.
“I did notice that the range of what I could sense was increasing,” Arima chimed in. He didn’t suggest that they reply, but stretched a wing out to face his fellow Council members. Akoya responded as he always did by letting his wings aim his affection at the president and vice president and sipped at his tea, finally confident that the surprises of the day were over.
Kusatsu let his wings out and Akoya and Arima were bathed in love like sunlight.
(Akoya didn’t spit out his tea, but it was a near thing.)
Atsushi had undergone perhaps the starkest change from his old wings. Some people had liked to fancy that his crow wings had a glossy blue sheen, but in truth they were just black.
And now they were just white.
It was all superficial, Atsushi knew, but he couldn’t help but concentrate on it. It didn’t help that the angel wings had a system of interlocking feathers he’d never encountered before; grooming and hygiene had always been important to him, but ever since he realized that most people stereotyped crows as scruffy and unkempt, he had thrown himself into preening so that his feathers were always perfectly aligned. Now, he had to either figure out an entirely new system or accept that his old routine would not keep his feathers to the same high standard he’d always set for himself. No matter which one he chose, Atsushi felt as if some aspect of himself would change.
Atsushi chose to learn a new routine to keep to his old standard. It had been difficult those first few days, desperately trying anything to get his white feathers to lie smoothly, and Atsushi had felt embarrassed at how much time he’d put into it, since he didn’t think of himself as a particularly vain person. Now, it was still difficult- Atsushi hadn’t been able to pin down a quick way- but that was going to be to Atsushi’s advantage.
For the first time in years, Atsushi was going over to Kin-chan’s house. He was fully aware of how awkward and stilted things still were between them, so Atsushi had pounced on the newest commonality between them and asked if Kin-chan would want to figure out their wings together, using the scientific method if necessary. (And it would be necessary, because Atsushi had no idea which of his methods so far had actually been the effective ones.)
So now they were walking home together. “Swan,” Kin-chan said to a student asking about their matched wings, and proceeded to swan past him and abruptly start a loud conversation about summer vacation with Atsushi until they were well away from the school and any curious students.
Kin-chan had every invention made for grooming wings ever created. Usually Atsushi preferred not to bother with the fancy brushes and oils, since the effects could be replicated with a careful hand, but he was willing to put that preference aside for the time being, both for the sake of getting his wings to behave by any means necessary, and for recreating his friendship with Kin-chan.
They sat down on the floor of Kin-chan’s room, Atsushi with his back to Kin-chan, exposing his wings. Atsushi could do Kin-chan’s wings once they figured out his- Kin-chan had never liked having his wings messed with unnecessarily- and he hoped that the impossibility of what had happened when they first got their new wings happening again, shocking them back from each other like opposing magnets, would help Kin-chan loosen up.
Atsushi was pleased to note that Kin-chan had taken his remark about the scientific method seriously, because that was how Atsushi had meant it- he had laid out with the grooming supplies a notebook and pen.
Kin-chan stroked a pensive hand over Atsushi’s left wing without hesitation before picking up a brush, to Atsushi’s relief. It boded well that he was jumping right in without any self-conscious stammering.
The brush wasn’t entirely effective, but Kin-chan persisted, carefully testing all the possibilities. Besides a few brief directions- “More to the left-” “Here-?” “Good-” they were quiet as Kin-chan worked. Briefly, Atsushi worried if that meant things were awkward, but he quickly decided that it was instead an improvement on the stilted small talk they’d been making in the baths in front of everyone. If Kin-chan was comfortable, Atsushi would be comfortable too, and then they would both be comfortable.
The easy calm and the physical sensation of having his wings picked through was so familiar that Atsushi nearly dozed off, remembering previous times when Kin-chan had preened his wings like this. Back then they had both been so small that their wings didn’t quite fit them, gawky and overshadowing, and having a friend to help groom was less of a luxury and more of a necessity. They had been so earnest, studying pinions and primaries when most of the kids their age didn’t care what all of the parts in their wings were called, more concerned with whether or not they would be able to fly on them- not everyone could- and now their wings didn’t have anything quite like any feathers Atsushi had ever seen before, and he had seen a lot. He kept ruffling through his feathers to look for down beneath them and had never been able to find any, just layers and layers of alien feathers.
Kin-chan switched brushes, and continued to poke and prod gingerly at the wings. Atsushi appreciated the care, but so far he’d never found a broken feather or experienced any pain in the wings. Possibly angel wings simply did not get damaged, and the white feathers they saw during their More Better transformations had been aesthetic, not something they had shed.
They moved on to the oils soon enough, even though none of the brushes had done much good. Kin-chan cautiously dripped them, one at a time, on feathers at the bottom edge of Atsushi’s wing, since they didn’t know what they would end up doing. They both paused expectantly, noses in the air. Usually oils tended to bond with something on wings and ended up with a scent that was supposed to be something pleasant, but a mismatch could result in something noxious. Atsushi could smell nothing at all; he looked at Kin-chan, who shook his head and ran his fingers over the feathers he’d oiled. None of them were any different than the others.
“Like it just disappeared,” Atsushi murmured.
“That’s impossible, At-chan.” But Kin-chan didn’t sound mad or even dismissive. They were quickly becoming familiar with the impossible.
Atsushi faced forward again and let Kin-chan run his fingers through his wings, in case that could do something the fancy brushes hadn’t managed. It did actually seem to be doing something, somehow.
It occurred to Atsushi that even though they were avoiding a scenario where their wings faced each other, ensuring they wouldn’t have to experience the strength of their feelings combined, their angel wings did still sense and emit any love that was felt by those nearby. Atsushi, with his wings faced away from Kin-chan, could still pick up on something that had to be coming from Kin-chan, swirling through the air and snaking around the floor. And even though Kin-chan’s were folded behind his own back, even in his own house, they would still be detecting any love in the room, and Atsushi knew himself too well to be able to deny the existence of any such love. So they both knew how the other felt; that was no mystery.
Atsushi could live with not doing the dramatic confessions of feelings he knew his other friends were doing just yet; Kin-chan’s pace suited him just fine. They were picking up the pieces of their relationship through the little things like going to the baths together, walking home with each other, and grooming each other’s wings, and those little things were some of the most important things in Atsushi’s life. Magical all-knowing wings didn’t even rank.
Kin-chan made a surprised noise; Atsushi twisted to look over his shoulder without moving his back too much. After a second, Atsushi saw what he was looking at: his feathers were noticeably smoother, all over, even where Kin-chan hadn’t been paying much attention. As Atsushi watched, Kin-chan lifted a hand back up to Atsushi’s shoulder and moved it down one wing, and both wings lost some of their erratic fluffiness, becoming more streamlined and sleek.
Atsushi half-turned so he wasn’t completely facing Kin-chan, and Kin-chan obligingly let his wings out. The feelings drifting around the room surged slightly, but Atsushi couldn’t say if it correlated with the wings being untucked or if Kin-chan was feeling something specific or if he just hadn’t been paying attention before. Atsushi ran his fingers over the front of Kin-chan’s wing, which wouldn’t usually be a good way to start grooming, but the feathers immediately started to settle down.
They looked at each other. Kin-chan wasn’t even touching Atsushi’s wings anymore, but the feathers were still lying smoother and smoother all the time.
“Is it just me,” Atsushi said, “or were my wings kind of less messy than usual even before we got started with the brushes?”
“I thought mine were that way too,” Kin-chan confessed.
“It can’t have happened just because we were thinking about preening, otherwise mine would have sorted themselves out ages ago.”
“Could we find a way to keep taking care of each other’s wings?”
They arranged to meet before school regularly. Atsushi’s heart was beating gladly in his chest, and Kin-chan could probably feel it in the air like a melody on a breeze. Atsushi didn’t mind. Just days ago, walking home from school with Kin-chan had seemed like so much to ask.
Half-jokingly, but wryly aware that there was a good chance it was the truth, Atsushi said, “Do you think we’ll ever face a problem that won’t be solved with love?”
Kin-chan’s smile was small but definite and his reply was soft but rich with promise when he said, “I hope not.”