As Rixel flicked through the mail, a small handwritten envelope caught his attention. His mane flared, and he sat back on his haunches, wings opening and closing in consternation.
He’d nearly overlooked it, hidden as it was among official communiques and reports, news sheets and meeting requests. He’d grown accustomed to datapackets and e-bursts, to the flat impartiality of the printed word. He’d nearly forgotten the feel of ink pressed into paper.
He ran his fingers over the surface of the envelope, tracing the hills and valleys between the strokes. He knew this writing. He knew the hand that had held this pen.
Come away, it said—not outright, but the intent was clear to him, hidden behind the formalities. Come away with us.
Fifteen years ago, he almost made a promise he never intended to keep.
“When you come home,” Shixi had said, “we’ll leave this shore together, all of us. We’ll cross the Deep and make a home there.”
Shixi’s eyes had glowed a gentle green. Her wings were draped over him like a blanket, and Rixel felt the plucking of a harpstring that resonated with love and sincerity. Across the room, Olen strummed an actual harp. Rixel would have promised anything right then.
“I’d like that,” he’d sidestepped. The vague untruth made Shixi ruffle her mane until he nuzzled her cheek, distracting her.
Rixel never wanted to leave. He loved the city, with its copses of green-glass spires and swinging bridges. He loved the crowds, the innate empathic connection to his lovers, his family, his home. But fifteen years ago he left the city and the planet altogether with two dozen of his Saguin brethren hoping to turn the tides of war, and when he came home, he came home broken.
His family tried to fix him: Shixi, with her soft murmurings and kisses; Chi with their patient, kind hands; Olen with his music. But Rixel made them uncomfortable, which made him uncomfortable. He was a null, a void in the fabric. A pulled thread. He avoided his family and spent his time instead among Fleet expats, Humans and Adibans—people who did not share the Saguins’ universal empathic connection—and the quiet humming of machinery. Eventually, his lovers learned to work around him the way a musician learns to work around any missing string, until he closed himself off completely, shrouding himself in his own silence.
He’d asked for desk job at Fleet: something quiet, where thoughts were spoken, not felt. Where he could stay in one place. He couldn’t tolerate speed these days, or heights, the rumble of engines or the slide of wind against his own wings. He walked whenever he could, or he took the mag-lev, gripping the safety bar and pretending not to see the buildings flash by or to notice the silence behind the faces on the train.
The pleasure of your company is requested on the eve of this farewell, read the handwritten invitation in ink that matched the envelope.
They were leaving, his former lovers, across the Deep. It was too far for him, Rixel knew; the shuttles moved too quickly and flew too high.
He owed them a farewell, at least.
He tucked the invitation inside a book of poems. He gathered together his favorite pens, his paintbrushes, a sheaf of fine parchment. Maybe Shixi would write him letters, words like winding roads filling the paper. Maybe they would read each other poetry, and remember him.
He walked to the shuttle landing on the shore of the Deep. If he’d trusted his wings, it would have taken a handful of minutes; walking, it was nearly an hour, but he didn’t mind. He rehearsed his goodbyes. I can’t, he would say, gesturing at the shuttle. And: I’m content enough here. He didn’t trust himself to say happy; they would hear the sour note of untruth, even if he could not.
Shixi met him at the landing. The joy on her face was almost enough to remind him how it felt to hear her smile.
“I can’t,” Rixel started to say, and stopped. Behind her, improbably, a balloon-ship bobbed on its anchor. The setting sun glinted off the water. Chi and Olen swooped and pirouetted in the air, wings nearly touching.
“I know,” she said. “We’ll go the old-fashioned way. We’ll take our time. We’ve always had plenty of time, for you.” And she took him by the hand, leading him up into the gondola, and home to his family.