The young man is silent as he looks upon me for the first time. He regards me with the usual mixture of fascination and fear, but he is far more calm than most. Instead of backing away, he moves his dark eyes over my form. I see myself as he sees me; a body emaciated as though near death, the ridges and valleys of bone clearly visible beneath thin skin-binding. I toss my head, proud as a horse. I stamp my hooves like a horse. But I am no horse; the great wings that emerge from my back mark me as Other.
Yes, you know me. Shadow, cold, grief. The long goodbye. You know me.
He is not alone in the forest. A girl accompanies him, with hair and skin that cut through the night. The young man is dark, though not as dark as I; the black sky takes us both into its embrace, a backdrop for the girl who does not blend.
“Go on, Dean,” says Moon Girl, placing her warm hand against my neck and encouraging her companion to do the same. I hum as she strokes my skin. There are few things sweeter than the touch of a kind hand.
“Say hello,” she urges him. “Thestrals are nothing to worry about, I’ve told you.”
Still he hesitates. Refuses to meet my eyes.
I feel your sorrow, Quiet Man, I say in my mind. The stink of death has not yet gone from this place; I blow air from my nostrils, a reflex. Man has done evil here, senseless murder.
There is fear in him still. But it is not me he fears.
“Here.” Gently, she takes his hand and presses it to my snout. Her actions are bold but her eyes are shy; she turns demurely away from Quiet Man, even as the touch of his hand thrills her. I see this and wish that I had the ability to smile.
Quiet Man moves his hand to my neck and holds it there. I feel myself as he feels me; ropy muscle and tough hide laid bare to the elements. No blanket of fur covers me. My heart beats steadily against his hand, strong with life.
Endings and beginnings, death and life. One follows the other.
“You can’t go on pretending it didn’t happen,” Moon Girl says, moving to scratch behind my ear. “The world is different now, but it can be good again.”
He looks at her, disbelieving. Somewhere an owl hoots; a moment later, its mate answers in kind.
I do not look Quiet Man in the eyes; he is not yet ready for that. Instead, I move forward half a step, just far enough to lean my forehead against his shoulder. He starts but does not recoil. A long moment passes, and I feel his thumb begin to rub slow circles against the back of my neck.
Nice. Good. A healing touch. I hum with the pleasure of it, and I do not need to look up to know that Quiet Man smiles.