Francis would have loved to rest the two hours it took to reach the estate. He would have been incredibly appreciative, but how could he break that to Cassidy in a way that didn’t dig him too far down into the grave? “Hey, Cass. Can you quiet down and quit asking about my day? I sort of stayed up all night playing cards with a snake and another harpy then slept with a manticore- why, yes, that shovel looks quite lovely. Why do you-” So he skated around it and endured. Really, he was grateful he even had that nap. It was more than enough to work with. And to keep his filter intact.
Which came in handy. Cassidy did ask about his day, which he did tell her he hanged out at The Chalice for most of Saturday. The day, not the entire night –which was day... which was night- which was day- night- day- Maybe he really did need more sleep. He thought he put that paradox to bed long time ago, but, just like him, it was nice and awake now.
So, instead, he turned it around and asked about hers. Turned out she struggled a bit with her test. Not because she didn’t understand, no, but because her “friends” were constantly texting her, asking what she was planning to do with him. And what she was planning to do with him.
“Well? What do you plan to do?” Francis blurted, rubbing her thigh. He had sprawled out in the back, letting her lay on top, using the seatbelts to keep them nice and tight together. If her face wasn’t so red already he might have been surprised with the shade it turned; instead, it only make him chortle. And dig his nails a bit more into her soft down.
“I-it’s... it’s... I-I don’t k-know- y-yet! I d-don’t know y-y-yet.” She scoffed, adjusting, squeezing her legs tighter together as she pushed the hem down, keeping him at bay. “K-keep it u-u-up, and it m-might not be a-a-anything.”
“Punishing yourself? That’s an interesting move. I’m more than happy to w-”
“N-no! I don’t want to w-w-wait. I... I wanted to be yours by Thanksgiving, and this will be the closest before then.”
“Any plans for it?”
“Yes, sadly. We are going to Barcelona for the holidays... We... we won’t be back until after New Years... Which is why I want... I want... I need to!”
She grunted... several times, turning over in the seatbelts until she was flat on her belly on top of him. She huffed as she wrapped her hands around his neck, pulling, goading him to her lips, panting, moaning against them. Her breasts dug through her chest into him, while her dress rose from her rear –not entirely her fault. He groped it hard, squeezed those cheeks, kneading them as her leg slid off to the side, letting the car reek of her lust down below.
Closed away once more as the car came to a halt.
Cassidy grunted a few times again, cursing herself... before glowering at Francis has he simply undid the seatbelts. What reason was there to keep them on any longer? They were only a few yards away from the door to the estate. He righted himself, forcing her to sit up on her own, and she fixed her dress in time for the car to exit the gateways and start for the entrance. Though Francis still felt that twinge of guilt for leaving Beatrice behind, he was starting to get a bit excited. He was seeing Mister Crane again. What would it be this time? Testing dueling pistols? Sword training? Jousting!
“So how’s your dad?” Francis said, unable to keep his excitement in any longer.
“He’s doing well. The holidays are his worst time. Even when we leave for our trip, he’ll mostly be in conference calls and filling out paperwork.”
“So hopefully he makes it interesting today, huh? Is the jerky nice and ready?”
“Very. He has it sitting in his office in ten vacuum-sealed packs-”
“Well, is there more? Is it under a living statue? Will a pitfall open as soon as I start for it and have me fight a Rancor- wait, has he mastered genetic mutations enough to have a Rancor? Am I a jedi?”
“... What?” She shook her head, and grasped his hands. “You get to meet my mom today too, you know. She’s been wanting to meet you.”
“Neat, but seriously. Is he at that forge right now, making the One Ring? Are we going to duke it out over some fine-ass jewelry?”
“I doubt he’s in any mood to fight with mom around.”
Now why did she have to go and completely ruin his mood... The car rumbled to a stop, and the tall boy from before opened his door- rather, he used to be tall. It seemed Francis gained a foot or two since they last met. Now he barely came to his middle, with the tips of his wings towering over the one proud paragon of man, reduced to that a toddler before a god.
“Puberty finally hit?” He said.
“It hit a long time ago. This is just it catching up.”
“Ah. Well, hopefully, the rest of you joins it.”
“I can assure you, Gerald, the rest of him has,” Cassidy said, slinking onto Francis’s arm again. She urged him up the steps, where the tiny giant went ahead and opened the doors for them. They stepped through, and Mister Crane was walking around the bend. With his own bird on his arm. Francis felt Cassidy tense as they approached the pair, stilling her soft shaking upon seeing them. “Dad. Mom... this is Francis.”
“Nice to see you again, Francis,” Mister Crane stated, holding out his hand. Francis wasted no time taking it- but was intersected by the harpy on his arm... on Mister Crane’s arm- her mother! She caught it mid-glide. The family resemblance was uncanny; save for a plume of pink feathers along her head, Missus Crane could have been Cassidy’s twin.
“Well, hello there,” Missus Crane said. “While it is nice to finally meet you myself. You sure are a tall one, but I suppose that was to be expected for a half-dragon. Such a beautiful array of scales, too. Your mother must be a looker.”
“I wouldn’t know. Never met her.”
She cooed, squeezing his hand tighter.
“Mommy issues, huh? Don’t worry. I can be your mommy.”
“Mom!” Cassidy whined, while the older harpy simply tittered. And released his hand as she covered her mouth.
“It’s true, is it not? You two are dating. If it continues, there’s a good chance you will wed, and then I will be the mommy he never had. I could shower him with all the gifts his true mother never gave him, and so much more.”
“Meh, I already have Eve for that,” Francis muttered. Making the elder harpy gasp.
“I thought you said you didn’t have a mom.”
“She’s more like my parole officer, but a female authority figure all the same.”
“Sounds like a mother to me... How could you deceive me like that? It’s not nice to lie during a first impression.”
“I mean... I didn’t. I never knew my real mom, the one who squirted me out-”
“On that disgusting tangent, I have to wonder: Did you come from an egg or were you live-born? I was always curious about that.”
“I always wondered that too. No one left alive to know, though. Hell, I never even got around to talking to my old man why he didn’t have me Cut down there.”
“Though all of this is riveting to discuss,” Mister Crane interjected. “How about we move this into the dining hall. Chef Olivier prepared fresh Chilean sea bass with garden variety vegetables all in a light butter sauce. Alongside a few dozen pounds of French fries.”
“Now you have me! Let’s get a moving, Papa Crane.”
Missus Crane whined, hugging Mister Crane’s arm.
“Why do you get to be called papa already,” she mumbled, her and Mister Crane leading the way down the middle hall. They passed nine doors before stepping through the opened entry on the left, where Francis was greeted with a whole lot of old wood. With how the manor was set up, he expected... glass. Crystal. Lots of shiny bits... Instead, the dining hall seemed carved out of a large tree, as if it was the base of a mighty oak once long ago, now a mere shadow of itself. It all seemed to stem from the back left corner, not a seam to be seen, even with the wooden chandeliers above. The tables seemed cut out, the chairs released before polished on their ends, four of those grand monoliths with easily thirty seats apiece. Towards the northern part of the room was a grand fireplace, with many a picture of harpies and Mister Crane scattered across it and the multitude of shelves that lined the hall. Under those, though, was the glass Francis expected, old bottles of wine just waiting to be taken.
Four chairs were pulled out on the first, near the southern end, with four, polished, wooden platters before them, with the sea bass and vegetables steaming away... lost to the haze caused by the trough of fries splitting the two rows of plates. Two bottles of PROPER ketchup sat on either side, as well as a small, heated silver pot of rich, creamy cheese. Francis and Cassidy passed the first set of plates, going around the table to the other side, while Mister and Missus Crane settled into their seats.
“Go on. No need to hold back,” Mister Crane said, and both he and Francis reached for those fries, loading the second, wooden plate they were given. They were more akin to bowls with how they curved in, but to Francis that was a plus as he drowned those spuds in a river of gold and red. He picked up one of the forks... but wasn’t sure what it was made of... It wasn’t a metal, but its texture was, also, not any wood. In fact, it was an off-yellow color... Eh. It stabbed into the fries all the same, so he couldn’t complain.
No. He really couldn’t complain. Not after partaking in those fries. There was simply... something about handcut French fries. Something... magical... One could eat three plates before even noticing, but one’s stomach, one’s tongue, would not complain as they took their trip to paradise –true paradise, not the lying town of Paradise.
“Honey, you really should slow down,” Missus Crane muttered, which Francis was about to retort when he realized it wasn’t meant for him. Mister Crane was preparing another load on his plate of those golden spuds, sampling them, replacing those he sampled as he did.
“It’s my cheat day and I’m going to use it, dammit,” he grumbled, sighing almost wistfully as he snapped into a fry covered in the golden goo. “Nothing beats a good cheese fry.”
“Wrong!” Francis said, waving one of those golden delights Mister Crane’s way. “There is one thing that trumps it: Chili-cheese.”
“You are quite right. Shame it didn’t go well with the sea bass.”
“I wouldn’t have complained... So Cass told me you bagged a good one.”
“I did. Did she also mention I had a good portion of it waiting for you in my study?”
“Under lock and key, no less.”
“No I d-” Cassidy said, but her daddy beat her to the punch.
“And lazer tripwires and automatic turrets. Even have an old farmer’s shotgun as a last line of defense.”
“Is that all? I expected a challenge.”
“Well, you can have it after dinner-”
“Are we still watching my videos, dear?” Missus Crane interjected.
“Eh? Videos?” Francis said.
“Oh my. Have they told you nothing about me? It’s okay... I understand... It’s not easy being married to an avian pornographer, and even harder being a daughter of one.”
“Ah-hah! So you DO see it as porn.”
“But of course. Recording birds during their mating season is pornography... I’m, actually, a nature photographer... on the side, but you don’t want to hear about my main line of work. It’s rather... dry... but we are watching my recent findings. Right, dear?”
“Of course,” Mister Crane said, nodding to Francis. “If that’s okay with you.”
“My idea of a first date was to chill with some movies. I’m perfectly fine with it.”
They didn’t say anything else, the two of them kindred spirits, devouring those eyes from the ground. Really, Francis would have been happy if it was only chili-cheese fries. The sea bass was the last thing he ate... and he didn’t have enough room for it. More than enough room for fries, though, and even carried the trough with him as they left the dining hall for the living room –sorry, the lounge... Because calling it a living room was far too simple. No... it was a lounge... It was a room down on the left, and it, too, seemed carved from the tree. Unlike the dining room, however, it ran deep into the roots, long, thick ledges that lead down to a quaint den. Each layer had its own set of seats, its own monitors, all stemming to the entertainment center below.
He might not have been able to fly, but he could at least glide it, speeding it up for the two of them. Mister and Missus Crane were already below, the elder harpy having grasped him by the shoulders and lazed him down there, while he forced Cassidy to walk. Well, no more. He fell with style, all the while still indulging in the fries, making sure they couldn’t tumble out when he landed –actually landed. It took him a few circles around to slow enough, but he didn’t destroy that wood upon landing. Nor did he lose a single f-
He lost one fry.
“That one was calling me,” Mister Crane said, and sighed as he settled back into the thick, plush red couch that made up the inner ring. There was a separator, pulled up to finish the couch as all of them sat. Missus Crane rested against her husband’s arm... and her daughter copied, leaning against Francis. Missus Crane pulled out her phone, and, after it clicked open, pressed an app, which rose a massive TV from the small battleship that was the entertainment stand, form-fitting against the other side. A small, white light blinked to life on its side, and the TV quickly followed, illuminating, showing off a lovely, red checkerboard screen. Then a bird, frozen in time on a treebranch. A bird Francis never saw before.
“This is a Viridian Ironbeak,” Missus Crane explained, letting it go back to the flow of time. The room erupted with soft wind carrying sharp chirps, all the while the roar of the ocean emanated through all. The bird swooped off-camera, which it was quick to follow in quick, jittering jerks. It zoomed out, showing a tropical forest, heavy with morning fog with the sun just peeking through the gray mire. “I recorded about 700 unique specimens in my time in the remote location. They are the most active between 5 A.M. and 9 A.M. As their name suggests, their beaks are incredibly hard and are used to crack open tree nuts to get grubs that have their way in.”
The camera zoomed in again, focusing on the bird in its nest.
“They prepare their homes on the ground floor of the forest. Upon discovery, I noted a faint, rotting smell. As you can see on those twigs -see, right there- it has a almost a slimy texture... It turns out that their feathers produce a toxin that, when consumed, causes severe distress to the mucus membranes in the mouth and esophagus, as well as upsets the balance of pH in the stomach. Upon further reflection, I deduced that the smell was close to chlorine, meaning the toxin has a high alkaline base. As their diet is mostly the grubs in the treenuts, I, also, deduced that the grubs in the area have adapted to secrete a high pH, which is probably because of the water of the area.”
“Which would explain the chlorine,” Mister Crane stated. “There were a few estates near there, correct? With pools?”
“Exactly. They aren’t filtering or disposing of the chlorinated water properly, leading to his shift in the ecosystem. It’s becoming rather drastic, as well. The last time I was there, there were at least ninety different species. Now, it is down to the Viridian Ironbeak. Most likely they only survived because they were already eating those grubs, while the other birds depended more on rodents and sealife. The rats died off or were the meal of a starving snake, and then those snakes turned to those birds. But it lead to an interesting set of checks and balances for the Viridian Ironbeak, as well. They aren’t immune to the alkaline. They can get sick and die from it, as well. So they don’t want too high balance nor do they want too low, leading to an interesting mating ritual.”
The video had sped up during, but slowed as the bird rose from its nest. It raised its foot, lowered its head... and slashed down along the side of its face. Blood welled quickly, but it was soon lost as it fanned the area in it, coating the twigs, the plastic it used for its home in a crimson cloud. It stopped a moment to turn around, cut itself again, and continued to dowse the area, while its rear, those feathers, flecked out the black, greasy toxin that formed on its plumage, covering the blood. It turned around again, still shaking its rear on that half, and Francis saw that both of its eyes were matted shut.
“The Viridian Ironbeak, which I have dubbed the blood dancers, spread a layer of their own blood on their nest, then cover it in their secretion, attracting a mate to the clashing scents. If the acidity of the blood is stronger, the local wildlife will take notice- like this hungry green snake here. Ooh... This Viridian Ironbeak was not lucky. Turned out he was a bit too weak. Meanwhile, if the secretion is too strong, it’ll detract mates and release a gas that will burn the bird’s eyes and lungs, which will suffocate them.”
“Brutal,” Francis said. “It’s a sort of all-or-nothing deal. They better be damn sure they’re ready to settle down if they want to get some poon. Here I thought modern dating was a crap chute.”
“Of the 700 I recorded, 100 conducted the mating ritual... Only 4 were successful.” She pressed a few buttons on the tape, and the screen flashed, honing in on a fresh crimson dancer that just finished his routine. He settled down in the middle of his nest, and the video sped up. It showed him wiping his face under his wing, trying to clear his eyes- only for it to slow as another, less colorful bird swooped into the nest. The Ironbeak hopped up and seemed to “dance” with the bird, keeping it apart until, at last, the duller bird swooped on it, pushing it down. “This was one of the successful attempts. The female took control of the situation after assessing the situation and has begun to groom and clear his face. This, also, allows her to see if her own body can handle his secretion. I’ll speed it up here to get through the grooming... and... There. She seems fine with it, so she tucks herself under his wing and they stay like that for two days. I didn’t manage to stay long to see how long the gestation process takes for their eggs, but I did find a few that were ready to hatch.”
She paused the video and the screen flashed to a scene above a nest, with a huge play button burned into it all. It disappeared as the sounds of the jungle returned, and the camera zoomed in on those blue-and-orange eggs, jostling and twitching.
“The parents were away hunting at this time,” she clarified. “I managed to stay downwind and got close enough... And... you can see the first one’s foot break through there- ah! The second’s wing ripped the membrane. I didn’t catch that upon my first six watches... They have incredibly delicate shells. I... sort of... learned the hard way. If this was any other ecosystem, the Viridian Ironbeak would not have survived. Too many predators that would love how soft their eggs are... However, due to human error, we have our little blood dancers. But what does that mean for the environment in the long run? Will it evolve to depend on humanity more, or will it create its own alkaline, possibly even a new compound. Will this compound attach to a bacteria... and, if that happens, what happens to the progenitors, to humans?”
Francis hummed... then huffed, shaking his head. “You know, I expected birds fucking and you to get more and more horny watching it.”
She guffawed, waving him off.
“You won’t believe how many believe that. My dear here makes the joke all the time... No. My research is purely academic... The videos in the bedroom, though-”
“Mom!” Cassidy barked, and hid her face in Francis’s arm as the room erupted with laughter.
“Still,” Francis said between barks and guffaws. “That’s interesting to say the least. I always hear humanity destroys ecosystems, ruins nature.”
“Nature is nature. It simply is. There’s no creation or destruction. Only change. It’s understanding that change and adapting to it that’s important –which humans are terrible at... while himan are the opposite. It seems we retained that evolutionary drive to continue to adapt and mutate and evolve to our surroundings, while modern humans haven’t changed in the last 4000 years.”
“Get the leg up on them, huh?”
“And to save us if anything goes south. They will endure.”
“Like freakin’ cockroaches.”
“Yes, well, this cockroach likes fries,” Mister Crane said, easing the trough from Francis. “Now, I don’t think the kids want to hear anymore, darling.”
“I don’t mind, actually. If there’s more blood sport action, count me in.”
“Sadly, that’s the only material I have on-hand,” Missus Crane said. “However, if you want, you can find my Youtube channel. A lot of my older thesis and findings are all on there –after being screened by the government, of course.”
“I’ll give it to you along the way,” Cassidy said, standing and trying to have him do the same. “We’re going to the mall.”
“The mall?” Mister Crane said. “Make sure to pick me up something nice, okay? Well, I know this wasn’t as exciting a visit as last time, Francis, but I hope you enjoyed yourself.”
“Oh I did. And it was great meeting your wife,” Francis said, and held out his hand to her- this time taken by Mister Crane.
“No fair,” she said, slapping his shoulder, both of them tittering... then winked at Francis. “Remember my offer, Francis dear. I’ll be your mommy.”
If things go well, your daughter’s gonna be calling me daddy, he thought, and finally allowed Cassidy to pull him up the steps. He waved them off, and joined the harpy in stride, egging her faster, faster, FASTER up to the door, eased shut behind. The entry was open, the tiny giant waiting, leaning against the right door with his phone in-hand.
“Later, Gerald,” Francis said as he passed, giving him a two-finger salute as Cassidy dragged him down the steps and, finally, back in the car. She practically flung him onto the backseat, jumping on him. She wrapped her arms around his neck- and squeaked as the driver shut their door walking around... before kissing him.
“Now the real date can begin,” she uttered, moaned into his lips as the car made for the gateways. “My mother is so embarrassing.”
“I thought she was cool,” he mumbled, but was forgotten as she continued to indulge in his face.