P'rao scuffed the dust with his talons and watched the entrance to the meeting cave for any sign of Meech. His buddy had vanished into the low opening moments before, and though the mouth of the cave enjoyed a steady stream of birds both coming and going, Meech failed to reappear fast enough for P'rao's nerves.
He slicked his crest down and hopped on one foot beside the basin well that served the outpost staff of Milkers, messengers and support workers. Hurry up, dummy. He bounced to the other foot. Meech failed to spawn in the long cave mouth, despite his friend's impatience.
"Where are ya, buddy?"
The Heron across the well turned a long beak toward P'rao. He'd brought a long stick with buckets hanging from the end to the water, and held one half in and one half out of the basin.
"Sorry." P'rao shuffled a step away, checked the cave again. Damn Meech. Probably chattering away with everyone inside.
They'd been at the borders for two weeks now, two long weeks with only the dull work and the occasional rebellious appearance of a Master Plant to keep his mind off a certain hen. Neither was working. He just couldn't get Tr'lia out of his head, and his distraction had started to affect his work.
Not to mention his friendship with Meech.
Maybe his best bud had ditched him for better company inside the meeting hall. He'd probably asked too much, but then, Meech had contacts he didn't. Meech was always the one to make friends, to chum around with the other Milkers and, more importantly, the messengers and delivery fliers who just might have a mission to a particular aerie.
The plan had been Meech's idea, but P'rao suspected he'd formulated it out of disgust. Maybe just to get P'rao to shut up about Tr'ia and maybe just to earn himself some alone time. He didn't care. If Meech was tired of his whining, then he could hurry up and find a Milker who wanted a few days off.
"Come on!" He flipped his crest up and stamped the earth. The heron finished with his water and stalked away, shoulders hunched under the weight across his wings. The cave spit out another crowd of Milkers, and P'rao twisted his neck in an attempt to spot Meech in the flock.
"Hey." Meech's voice came from behind him.
P'rao squawked and jumped into the air. He threw out black wings, staggered to one side and then dropped back to the ground in a puff of dust.
"Your friend's a little tense."
P'rao spun to face Meech and a taller, lanky blackbird with a fully pocketed Milker's vest, a sash full of tools across his breast, and a highly judgmental scowl in the set of his beak.
"This is P'rao." Meech fluffed his chest and titled his head to one side. "He's lost his mind."
"Shame," the Milker grinned now, clacked his beak and nudged Meech with one wing. "Not sure I can trust a loon with one of my deliveries."
"Wait." P'rao's heart fluttered in his breast like a newly molted sparrow. "Please."
"You're right," the blackbird nudged Meech again. "He's got it bad all right."
"Skirl has a delivery coming up in the Northern Reach," Meech said. He shot P'rao a warning look and rolled his eyes toward the Milker. "And he's willing to let you take in exchange for your next shift weeding."
"I could use a little rest and relaxation," Skirl said. "And you ladies have it easy cleaning up the fronts. Trust me."
"We do." Again, Meech glared a warning. "He does."
"And I'll trust him with the delivery." Skirl leaned forward, titled his head and gave P'rao a once over, slowly, raking his gaze up and down until P'rao's feet longed to be shifting. He held his ground though, held his breath until the older bird laughed again. "All right, but if you mess it up, I know where to find you."
"He won't." Meech nodded until his neck feathers riffled.
"I won't." P'rao spoke for himself. Stood taller and kept his crest down. "I'll take care of it."
"You better." Skirl stared at him a second more and the shrugged, turned his eyes to the sky and fluffed his head feathers. "It'll be nice to pull some weeds again for a few days."
He stretched his wings and flexed his claws, scratching at the ground for purchase. "You can pick it up tomorrow at sunup. I'll tell them to look for a green crest."
"Thanks." P'rao stumbled out of the way when the Milker took off. He watched the black tail feathers pass and then shifted to his other foot and stared at the well. "Thanks to you too, Meech. I owe you one."
"Darn right you do." Meech chirped and bounced in place. "Skirl could have us both for lunch if he liked."
"Well, I appreciate it anyway." He did too. In fact, he felt it in his chest now, a knot of appreciation and anticipation. Mostly anticipation. Still. Meech had worked it out. Now he'd be winging his way toward the Northern Reach first thing tomorrow. The feeling in his breast tightened. Kind of a forward move, wasn't it? What if she didn't want to see him? How would he explain just showing up on her aerie door?
"You okay, buddy?"
"You think this is a good idea, Meech"
"Hell no." Meech chuckled, a rumbling that shook him from tail to tip. "It's a horrible idea. You're gonna run after that hen and get yourself caught in a nest before we can even earn our full vests!"
"That' not what I meant."
"I know what you meant. I don't have an answer for that. Either the hen wants to see you or she doesn't." He clicked his beak and hopped a step farther from P'rao. "One good thing, though."
"At least if you find out, you won't be impossible to live with anymore!"
"Don't be so sure of that." P'rao advanced on his friend, but Meech continued hopping, kept his fat body just a step out of reach. Smart, but then, Meech knew him better than anyone. He chased after his buddy and felt the tension unfurl with each bounce.
One way or the other. Meech had a point. What else could he do but fly north and find out?