The handmade windchimes took pride of place in Perceptor’s window. He could roll over first thing in the morning and watch the dawn sparkle through the bits of colored glass.
Or at least, that was what he told Drift, setting off a rampaging throb of emotion in Drift’s core. He’d flushed to the tips of his ears, and Percepter had chuckled and swept him up in a thick embrace and a sweet kiss.
Perceptor liked his gift. There was no greater compliment.
Summer cooled into fall. Their friendship remained, deepening into something stronger. Warmer.
The local vegetation shifted in color, from brilliant greens to an array of oranges, reds, and yellows. Perceptor took Drift flying over the forest for which Kaon was famous. What once had been a vast, swaying carpet of emerald was now flush with pearls of color. Drift had never seen anything like it.
Tesaurus was forested, but the trees were needled, pines and juniper and conifer. Evergreens and the like controlled the canopies while moss-covered shrubs and huge swathes of fern dominated the underbrush. It only browned in the severe winter months, skipping over the slow color shift.
Iacon had been a glittering city of glass and wood. The only natural growth to be found had been in cultivated parks and recreational areas, as if Iacon was determined to mimic the humans in every possible way.
Kaon was something else altogether. Beautiful, in a single word.
The trees here were also the largest Drift had ever seen.
Perceptor said that it was because the entire forest was protected by provincial law. It was old-growth, the trees untouched by human hands for centuries, and now protected from deforesting or destruction. The forest was allowed to freely grow and thrive without any kind of human intervention.
They landed at the very edge of the forest and proceeded the rest of the way on foot. There was a path through the trees and underbrush – a game trail according to Perceptor – and it was chillier in the dim. The forest formed a thick canopy above them. Drift felt small in the shadows of the massive trees, each easily large enough to house a single harpy family. Or even a harpy clan.
Mid-morning and a light mist rose from the leaf-carpeted ground. It cloaked the underbrush in a haze, like magic. There were underground streams, Perceptor explained. They ran through the bedrock like a lattice, and beneath those were rivers of magma, which made the streams just below boiling. There were several natural hot springs in the area. Kaon’s warmer climate, even in winter, was probably due to these numerous thermal vents.
“This is amazing,” Drift breathed as he trailed his fingers through the underbrush.
He couldn’t resist touching. There weren’t any cacti here to attack him, though he did spy the occasional blackberry bush, growing in the rare patch of sunlight.
“It is,” Perceptor agreed. “But it’s the heart of the forest which holds something truly special.”
The deeper they traveled, the larger the trees became, their trunks thicker around than Drift was tall. The sun tried to break through the dense canopy, but only managed in dappled spots across the ground. Drift inhaled deeply, dragging in the scent of earth and flora, his core comfortably at peace.
Perceptor’s fingers brushed against his, and Drift grinned as he brushed back. And then their fingers tangled, as Perceptor slowed to keep apace with Drift, so they could walk hand in hand.
A thrill ran through Drift’s core. They’d only allowed their relationship to turn romantic for a couple months, and they’d gone no farther than kissing and snuggling. It was actually nice, this slow pace. It felt meaningful.
Drift was in no rush to take Perceptor to nest, though it wasn’t because he didn’t want to. Perceptor was beautiful. He was strong and intelligent, and he treated Drift like a person who mattered, someone who deserved affection. Besides, when had a quick romp in the nest brought him anything but pain?
This… this was important. Drift wanted it to last. He didn’t want to ruin it at all.
Perceptor squeezed his hand. “What are you thinking about?”
Drift’s face flooded with heat. “You,” he admitted.
“Is that so?” Perceptor smiled, and his eyes sparkled with humor. Coming from him, it always felt genuine rather than mocking. Drift adored that. “What about me?”
“Well, it’s more about me.” Drift nibbled on his bottom lip, looking away. “How lucky I am, you know. That you want to be with me. I mean, I know you don’t have many other options but–”
“Drift.” Perceptor squeezed his hand and stopped. He curled a knuckle under Drift’s chin, tilting his head up. “It is not a lack of options that drives my interest in you, and it breaks my core you think so little of yourself to assume such.”
Drift swallowed over a massive lump in his throat. “I know what I am, Percy. I’m not the greatest catch. You’re amazing. You deserve someone equally amazing.”
He was plain, especially for a smol, and a touch too big to catch the eye of even the most affable of baras. He wasn’t smart enough for someone like Perceptor. He had no credit to his name, no special skill, nothing to show for his life. He was average in every way.
“Then lucky for me I have found someone who is even more incredible than I am.” Perceptor brushed his lips over Drift’s, even the brief contact enough to send a tide of warmth through Drift’s veins. “And he’s standing right in front of me, with the most beautiful eyes I have ever seen.”
Heat banked at the back of Drift’s eyes. “You don’t have to sweet-talk me.” He licked his lips, tasting Perceptor on them. It was okay, he told himself. Even if Perceptor did change his mind later. “I’m already yours.”
Perceptor sighed and cupped Drift’s cheek. “Have you ever known me to lie?”
“Then why do you think when I call you beautiful I don’t actually mean it?” Perceptor sounded hurt, and guilt swamped Drift.
He stared hard into the woods, watching a curl of mist rise up to embrace a bramble bush. It was closer to noon now, and the mist was already beginning to dissipate.
How could he even begin to explain his own inadequacies? Why would he want to remind Perceptor of all the reasons the bara should pick someone else?
“When I say I have never truly desired another until I met you, do you also believe that to be a lie?” Perceptor continued, his words coming quicker now, sharp like a pain. “Are my feelings nothing but misunderstandings? When I say I adore you, I want to keep you, forever if I can, am I only speaking pretty to seduce you into my nest?”
“Of course not!” Drift blurted out, his core throbbing harder and harder. He jerked his gaze back to Perceptor. His talons carded through the feather tufts around Perceptor’s shoulders. “You wouldn’t do that. You’re not that kind of person. You… you…”
Perceptor drew their foreheads together. “Shh. I know. It’s hard to believe. You won’t tell me why, and I’m not going to push for the answers, but someday you will.” His thumb swept over Drift’s cheek. “And someday I’ll have the name of whomever hurt you, so I might make them regret their hatching.”
Drift’s eyes drifted shut. He drew a shuddery breath. “No one hurt me, it’s just…” He trailed off, words failing him.
He didn’t want to admit what it had been like in Tesaurus, a smol too plain to be eye-catching, a smol too trained to be intriguing, a smol who should have been born a bara, but was instead born wrong in every way.
“Some things are just hard to believe,” Drift finally finished.
“I know, cupcake.” Perceptor tightened his grip on Drift’s hand. “We have time. We’ll figure it out.”
“Cupcake?” Drift echoed, and a grin split the tension.
“Oh, haven’t I shown you those yet?” Perceptor gifted him a quick peck on the lips before he drew back. “You’ll love them. We’ll go the bakery next.”
Drift rolled his eyes playfully. “I meant, why did you call me that?”
“Because it’s what you are. Cute and sweet and the perfect size for me to eat.” Perceptor chuckled. He pulled Drift further down the game trail, keeping Drift tucked against his side. “It’s a pet name, Buttercup. Get used to it. I’m fond of them.”
Drift’s feather tufts switched. He tried not to blush and failed.
“I think I like them, too,” Drift said, and hesitated before adding, “…Cherry pie?”
By Adaptus, that sounded ridiculous. They didn’t flow from his lips naturally the way they did from Perceptor’s.
“Mmm. We’ll work on those.”
Drift laughed. Perceptor, at least, sounded amused. It swept away the last of the tension attacking Drift, and he found it easier to focus on his surroundings.
The trees were getting thicker now and further apart because of their size. They would have made a wonderful home for a small aerie of interconnected nests, if harpies enjoyed living in trees. Which Drift knew some of them did. He’d seen at least two such aeries in his journeys across Cybertron.
The air took on a distinct chill, without the heat of the sun to warm it. It was dimmer as well, though Drift’s eyes adjusted quickly enough. Perceptor walked faster, as though eager to show Drift the reason they were here.
“Not much longer now,” Perceptor reassured him.
He was right.
Less than ten minutes later, with the trees so large that their crowns were no longer visible to the naked eye, Drift came to a stunned halt.
The tree in front of him was massive. So much so that he wasn’t sure it qualified as a tree. From where he stood, he couldn’t measure the breadth of the trunk. He tilted, leaning back to see the crown, and couldn’t. Not only because of the branches, but because he suspected it was so far above him, he’d have to actually retreat to stand a chance of seeing it.
The bark was thick and gnarled, like an aged harpy with crooked fingers and a hunched spine. Roots rose and fell from the soil floor, emerging in coils and humps, one large enough Drift could have walked under it.
“It’s a Giganticus Eternis.” Perceptor stood beside Drift, head tilted back to look up and up the length of the trunk. “Many of the trees we passed are actually descendents of this very tree. It’s lived for thousands of years. It will probably live to see the end of the world.” He waded through the brush and pressed a palm to the thick bark. “It’s the oldest of souls.”
“It’s still alive?” Drift breathed.
Perceptor grinned. “Yes.” He moved over and swept aside a thick stand of bamboo to reveal a section of the trunk that simply wasn’t there, like a tunnel. “And it’s hollow.”
Drift boggled. “How?”
“A quirk of evolution. The trunk is quite sturdy. The walls of it are several feet thick. Bark has even grown along the interior, where it’s been hollowed away. It tapers off to solid trunk again, hundreds of feet above our heads.” Perceptor tilted his head toward the dark opening. “Would you like to see?”
Drift did not even hesitate. “Of course!”
“I thought you might.” Perceptor smiled and dug into the small pack he’d brought slung around his waist. He produced a long cylinder and handed it to Drift before withdrawing one of his own. “Here. A flashlight. It’s quite dark inside.”
Perceptor flicked his thumb against the ridge on the side of the cylinder. A strong beam of light sprung out from the end, forming a spherical halo a fair distance away.
The humans were so inventive!
Drift found his own toggle and switched it on.
“And here we go.” Perceptor held back the bamboo again.
Drift plunged into the dim, sweeping the light of the cylinder in front to illuminate his path.
The interior was dark and vast. His flashlight seemed so meager in comparison, though small shafts of sunlight poured in from overhead. The floor crunched beneath Drift’s feet. He pointed the flashlight at it and found a carpet of dead leaves, insects, and branches. Mushrooms probably lurked in here, too. It felt damp.
“It seems even bigger on the inside,” Drift commented as he swung the flashlight around and around, searching for a wall.
His voice echoed. Something skittered above. Something else fluttered in the dark, soaring through one of the beams of weak sunlight.
“It’s hard to believe it’s still alive,” Drift added.
“The sapwood which forms the exterior trunk, is still functional. It carries nutrients from the roots to the branches,” Perceptor explained as he moved forward, and Drift followed him. “It is the heartwood which has rotted away, and it was already dead to begin with.”
Drift aimed his light toward the ceiling. It was not powerful enough to breach the black. He couldn’t tell where the darkness ended.
“This is amazing,” he breathed.
“I agree. It would make a wonderful aerie someday. I have always thought that,” Perceptor said with a thoughtful hum.
Drift pointed his flashlight toward the other harpy. Perceptor turned to look at him, his expression odd in the beam of light. “You think so?”
Perceptor nodded. “I do.” He reached for Drift’s free hand and drew it up to his lips. He brushed a kiss over Drift’s knuckles. “There are natural snags all throughout the inside. It could easily house a few hundred harpies.”
“It could. With a lot of work.” Drift nibbled on his bottom lip, his fingers warm in Perceptor’s grasp. “Too much work for two.”
“Indeed. We’d need more.” Perceptor’s thumb rubbed over Drift’s palm, the light touch sending a bolt of heat down Drift’s spine. “But imagine it, Drift. Kaon has never been home to harpies before. But the humans welcome us here! Kaon could be a haven to others. Harpies like you and me, who can’t or won’t return to our home flocks, but need a place to call home.”
Drift wouldn’t have to return to Tesaurus or Iacon. He wouldn’t have to worry about relying on the continued kindness of the humans. He could have a home, a real one, with Perceptor.
Drift swallowed thickly. “It sounds perfect.”
“It does.” Perceptor swept Drift into an embrace, his core throbbing so fast and excited Drift could feel it through Perceptor’s chest. “I don’t know how we can invite others. I don’t even know where to begin. It seemed like a distant dream until you showed up.”
Drift thought of Gasket. His dear friend would love the freedom they could offer in Kaon.
He thought of the other harpies he’d met in Helex, those chained to the gladiating pits because they had no other way to survive in an aerie owned by the elite. He remembered Argus, in Iacon, a bara who’d often stared at carrying smols wistfully, his hand on his own belly. Or Runabout and Runamuck, two baras in Uraya, who’d only had eyes for each other, but it was against flock law.
“We’ll figure it out,” Drift said, because Perceptor was right.
A haven was needed. A place for harpies without another home to go and be welcome. Those who were different, and treated badly because of it. Those who had dreams they couldn’t fulfill, or were tired of toiling under a tyrant. They could welcome the curious and the hopeful, anyone willing to work hard for a better life.
The mere idea put a fire in Drift’s belly. He wanted to start immediately, a sense of urgency and need setting his core to throbbing faster. He wanted to do this. He wanted to help. It felt like a calling.
“Maybe Ms. Jessica has some ideas where we can start,” Drift added.
Perceptor swept him up into a kiss, his mouth hungry and sweet. Drift melted against Perceptor, clutching to his feathers with eager hands. Perceptor made a happy warble in his throat and dotted Drift’s face with kisses.
“Thank you,” he murmured against the curve of Drift’s jaw, the hollow of his neck and shoulder.
Drift shivered. “For what?”
Perceptor cupped Drift’s face, bringing their foreheads together. “For not calling me a fool. For believing in this nonsensical idea of mine.”
“It’s not ridiculous. It makes sense. It’s needed.” Drift smiled, placing his hands over Perceptor’s. He rubbed the tips of their noses together. “I want to help you.”
Perceptor kissed him again, relief and joy in the firm press of his lips, the claiming sweep of his tongue, and Drift surrendered to it. Here in the dim, the crackle of leaves beneath their feet, the barest streams of sunlight, the earthy, green scent of Kaon wrapped around them.
They would build a home here in Kaon.
For them, and for anyone else on Cybertron who needed it.