I made it back to Shencheng in one piece and immediately started looking for Lin. The sun was coming up when I finally found her. I had to chase her down through block after block, using all the freerunning tricks she'd taught me, just to keep up.
Finally, I scaled a fire escape after her and found her standing on the roof of a three story building. "Lin, please, it's okay now!" She glared at me, angrier than I had ever seen her. She must have known by looking at me what I'd done. All my plans for this reunion had involved me telling her and her being impressed; I wasn't sure what to do next.
"That was your answer? You run off like an idiot and almost get yourself killed because you can't stand not being completely in charge of the relationship? What is wrong with you?"
"Nothing's wrong with me! I just didn't want to-"
"Yes, I know, you didn't want the relationship to be 'unbalanced.' It was unbalanced the minute we met and you didn't give a damn then because you were the one controlling me."
"I wasn't controlling you!"
"No? You dressed me up like a doll and showed me off like a concubine. You had me move in with you. You dragged me to all the clubs you like and out on your hunting trips."
I stared at her.
"At least you have the good grace to look more than a little horrified."
"You could have said no," I protested, but weakly.
"And then what? Gone back to living on the street? Begging and whoring and trying not to get killed? You had all the power, because those were my options, Zhenya."
I didn't have an answer for that.
"I don't even want to look at you, and you've practically bound us together. That..." She laughed. "I should throw you off a rooftop or something, but of course you can fly now."
"Er, actually, I haven't worked that out yet."
Lin laughed harder, almost hysterical. "Do you hear her?"
"Who- who are you talking to?"
"The Dragon," she answered. Every time the disdain in her voice got louder, I got more frustrated. I was still convinced, somehow, that I could fix this.
"No." Her skin rippled and scales slid into place. I stared. It was different, watching it with the Firebird's awareness curled up behind my eyes. I felt the energy in the shift.
"No," I repeated. "Not Lin." For the first time, I understood that the Dragon was not really her. He was something else entirely.
I felt a flutter of nervous wings in my stomach; he'd caught the Firebird's attention. The rush of adrenaline I always felt when she transformed was matched by a new sensation: attraction.
"Give her time," the Dragon said. "You owe her that much. Apologize next time you see her."
"What do you think of the Firebird, little ghost?"
"I don't know what to think of her. She doesn't speak. She's just... she's there. I've got this stranger in my head and I don't understand her."
"You have to give up some of your control. Let her spread her wings a bit. Once she settles, you'll understand her a bit better."
"Thank you," I said, biting my lip. I wanted to say more but nothing came.
"And learn to fly," he added, smiling with those sharp, sharp teeth as he lept over the edge of the roof and away.
I had no idea where to start aside from giving her time, so I figured I'd go back to everything I'd been doing. I'd been through this once before, when Lin disappeared for almost six months. I was sure I could get used to it again.
I drove too fast on my bike, just like I'd always done, but the rush of fear was missing. I went out to the clubs, but there were too many memories of Lin there. I ignored my phone for days and finally let it power down and stay that way, the screen blissfully dark.
Instead I bought a new phone and got a new number. I didn't give it to anyone. I just wanted to feel connected, but the connection I wanted was gone.
Everywhere I went, there were people I knew. The questions followed me for weeks.
Where's Lin? Did you break up? Did you dump her?
All I wanted was to dance in peace. The music was loud enough that I couldn't hear someone shouting if they were standing next to me. The beat was pounding harder than my heart, blasting thoughts from my head before I could have them.
Somebody put his hands on me. I could feel that he was yelling, though the music was too loud to know what it was about. Somebody thought I owed him something; that could be almost anybody. I wanted him to disappear.
Little twists of smoke rose where he held me tight enough to bruise. I smelled char before he yelped, and when he pulled away the skin on his hands was black and cracking.
I was running before he found the voice to scream.
My apartment didn't feel like home but it felt away from everything I didn't want to deal with, and that was enough.
I stood on the edge of the balcony, trying to pretend there weren't tears in my eyes. The streetlights were flickering like candles. I wanted to find her.
Learn to fly, the Dragon said. I'd seen Lin do it a hundred times. It just happened, natural as could be, when she needed it; should be the same for me, right? But there's knowing the theory stacks up, and then there's actually jumping.
I wasn't not that sure.
I wanted to believe Lin. I felt fire in my spine, not a gentle warmth. It was uncomfortable, itchy.
I climbed up onto the ledge and set my mind to what I was doing. The street below emptied; suddenly everyone would rather be elsewhere. So would I, to be honest. Wind cut through me.
The Firebird made it clear she disagreed - she wanted to be here. She wanted it badly.
Without making a conscious decision, I stepped forward.
I don't know what I was expecting. Not that. There was a second of falling, then everything stopped as if a wand had been waved. The Firebird had been a quiet nudge in my chest; now she reared up in full force.
My arms stretched in ways that shouldn't have been possible. The itchiness was the push of feathers through my skin. I am not the bird, though, not really. It was her, the Firebird, who flapped our wings and found an updraft and soared into the sky.
I was only watching. I'd given up control completely, and I'd never felt so free.
The shift from bird to woman was so smooth that I didn't notice until my foot touched down on the top of the Lupu Bridge that I was myself again. The wind was sharp as I looked away from the river below.
I took my time, studying Lin from behind. I had been chasing her, in one way or another, for almost a year now. Her hair had grown out and probably reached well past her waist now, though it was hard to tell as the wind whipped it around her head. She sat with a regal bearing, as if she watched over Shencheng because it was hers.
When she finally turned, we stared at each other for several long minutes. I fought back the temptation to speak first. I had to leave this in her hands.
She stood up before speaking. "What do you want, Zhenya?"
"To talk. To explain things."
"You have five minutes," Lin growled. "I suggest going with the short version."
"Okay, first thing. I'm sorry."
"Seriously. I've been thinking about it. I let myself get caught up in my own issues. I was an idiot."
I bit my lip.
"But have you learned anything?"
I suspected it was a rhetorical question and stayed silent.
"Right now you think it's okay to give in, because you got what you wanted. What if I told you my destiny was to be emperor of- of the whole world? Will that gnaw at you too?" Lin seemed halfway between herself and the Dragon, taller, her eyes burning, her claws sharp and ready.
I hesitated, trying out the idea. I didn't want to rush this. "No. Ruling the world seems like a lot of work, and it's not my calling. But if you want, I'll help you get there."
She was in my face in a minute, claws ready. "Do you think I need your help?"
No fear, the Firebird whispered. Show your throat. Let them know you aren't a threat. I did as she told me, stretching my neck and letting Lin's claws brush against it.
"No. I don't think you need it. But if I can make things easier, I'd like to. I love you."
"I mean it. I fucked up, and I'm sorry. If there's anything I can do to fix it, tell me. I'll do it. I'll renounce the Firebird, if that's what you want."
I heard laughter, but Lin was still serious. It took me a moment to realize it was coming from my own throat.
"That's adorable. She thinks it's her decision." The Firebird's voice was higher than my normal register and more melodic. "Yevgeniya, dear, you gave me an invitation but that doesn't mean I'm here at your beck and call."
I didn't have enough control to panic, but I wanted to.
When Lin spoke again, her voice had dropped to the bottom of her range. "I'm growing tired of waiting for these children to work things out."
"You know it's better in the long run if they don't hate each other as well as resent us."
Lin shook her head. "I can make my own decisions, you know. And I'm willing to give her another chance. You don't have to push me into it."
"Thank you," I told Lin, only realizing it was my own voice when I heard it out loud.
"Next time you're thinking about doing something stupid, talk to me first," Lin said as she sat back down on the bridge.
I sat next to her. "I'm looking to cut down on doing stupid things, actually. I hope you're not disappointed."
"I'll find a new court jester, I'm sure." She smiled, all teeth, but the laughter in her voice sounded genuine. "But if I'm going to be emperor of the world, would you like to be my concubine?"
"Not empress?" I smiled back.
"You have to earn that."
I laughed hard enough that I almost lost my balance, more from relief than anything. "Yes, your majesty. I would like that very much."