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It took Chime an embarrassingly long time to figure it out. He considered himself a fairly intelligent person, quick enough on the uptake and despite his lingering perpetual state of unsettledness, overall a person who was good at absorbing new information and adjusting his perceptions based on it.

And yet. It was literally turns before he figured out that Moon couldn’t read.

In hindsight, of course he couldn’t; when would he have learned? If he hadn’t learned shifting etiquette, or how to entirely control his spines, or literally any meaningful tail gestures, when would he have sat down with ink and paper and learned writing?

But as with all Moon-related things, in Chime’s defense, the truth was obscured by many, many factors. Not the least of which being, Moon was so stupidly pretty that it was hard to keep a thought in your head beyond that.

About second on the list, at least as far as Chime was concerned, was that Moon had developed so many layers of compensatory behaviors that it was nearly impossible to catch him out at anything. And, clearly, he could read and write in Altanic, just like he could swear in Altanic even if he didn’t know any of the truly filthy Raksuran words; just like he was a consummate master of eye contact, which wasn’t something Raksura generally concerned themselves with on any very deep level.

But even with all of that, it was still a little bit of a blow to Chime’s self-image as a smart person when he finally realized the truth.

 

Moon had encouraged him to go back to his old job of painting book cases. And that was the thing about Moon, that made Chime so hopelessly mushy about him. Most of the time he was so reserved, so self-contained, so impossible to draw out about anything, but on those less and less-rare occasions where he felt truly comfortable, he started to peel aside those layers of compensatory behaviors. At this point, after a couple of turns of relative stability, some of those layers seemed to have completely peeled away. (Although the incident where Opal Night had claimed him had showed just how easy it was for Moon to put those barriers back up, and Chime never wanted to be looked at again the way Moon had instead of telling any of them goodbye.)

But when Moon’s personality got to glimmer through, he was a sweet and playful person with a sharp but kind sense of humor, and seeing him like that made something inside Chime’s ribcage feel like it was swelling up. So when Moon very gently needled him about learning to paint again, it was a pretty custom-tailored assault on all of Chime’s weak points.

He still went and did it alone in the middle of the night when he was pretty sure nobody else would be awake, and he set himself up in a disused corner of a vacant hallway way way down in the lower parts of the tree where nobody really went.

He was rusty, and his fingers were sort of too long now, weirdly, and his hand didn’t quite do what he wanted it to. He’d known that, from writing; he’d struggled with his suddenly-worse handwriting for a little while, but he mostly had the hang of it now. And the same thing, of course, was true of painting. Once he adapted his stroke a little bit, he was able to make lines every bit as fine as he’d once been able to, and as precisely.

He practiced like that a couple of times, alone at night in his disused little corner, and then he carefully scraped all his practice hides clean again. And then, only then, did he turn up at the workshop and just-- start working.

Blossom noticed him, and didn’t say anything the first day. But when he turned up again the next day, she nudged the request sheet over toward him. “When you’re done with that project of yours,” she said, “you could let me know if any of the requests on here look interesting to you.”

He set his brush down and pulled the list over, glancing at it. A lot of them were requests for covers for storybooks intended primarily for children learning to read, and it made the middle of his ribcage feel warm to think of it-- how many new clutches there were.

And in that moment he knew he had to make something for Moon to read to his clutch.

“Perfect,” he said, and pushed the list back over to Blossom.

 

He copied over his favorite of the library’s young reader books, a somewhat-battered old collection of stories designed for children specifically-- firstly, for the teachers to read to them, but then for them to read to themselves as they learned. This one had happened to have a few really fanciful stories that had particularly captivated Chime as a young child. And it was in less than great condition, so it was good to copy it.

Moon caught him at it, but it wasn’t particularly incriminating. And it was then that Chime noticed, for the first time, how Moon sort of avoided books. Chime had been working in the library, since the light was good there. Moon had obviously come looking for him, and Chime had been pleased enough by that to notice, suddenly, how certain he was of that. Because there was no other reason Moon would be down here.

Moon did not go to the library. Moon did not read books. Not for fun, not for research. Even when there was some question they urgently needed to find an answer to, Moon was always one of the ones to pursue more active things, never to sit and help by reading.

“You’ve been busy,” Moon observed, indicating the long scroll where Chime had been copying. He’d been doing it all in his best, largest, clearest handwriting, and it was too late to hide it from Moon now, but Moon’s eyes didn’t even really move across the writing. He glanced at a couple of the largest letters, and then looked over toward the original scroll, and then looked back at Chime, green eyes warm and amused.

“I have,” Chime said, and most of the thoughts that had been in his head fled completely, because Moon sat down right next to him, close enough to touch. “There’s a lot to do.” He gestured at the book. “Kids’ books. We need more. It’s a nice problem to have.”

“It is,” Moon said, shyly pleased, still not looking at the book. And then he leaned over and put his teeth gently against Chime’s neck, and Chime nearly spilled ink over the book, and that was that as far as that particular copying session was concerned; he beat a hasty retreat back to his bower, towed part of the way by Moon, and left the work undone.

But Chime didn’t forget entirely, even as Moon made him forget his own name and entirely removed his power of speech for a few minutes. That was the other thing about Moon, he was really, really, really good in bed. And sometimes it made Chime feel a little queasy, to think about how many people Moon had slept with just to try and have some kind of connection to someone, ever. But mostly, Chime knew it wasn’t really his place to feel any particular way about that; Moon didn’t seem bothered by it, and since the story had a happy ending it wasn’t tragic. It was just another thing about Moon, that one had to get used to.

“You should write a book,” Chime said, after a little while of both of them dozing contentedly. He was curled against Moon’s shoulder, and it was really pleasant and warm even though Moon was sort of bony.

Moon yawned. “A what?”

“A book,” Chime said. “You should write a book.” He yawned, too, set off by Moon. “About all the places you went and the things you saw.” He had to pause to yawn again. “You know. Before you found us.”

“Oh,” Moon said. He considered it. Something in his body had started to tense up again, which was not what Chime had been after at all.

“You don’t have to, like, tell the sad stories,” Chime said. “I mean. Unless you wanted. I could help you write it. I’m pretty good at making things into stories.”

“Hm,” Moon said, noncommittal. Chime let it drop and fell asleep.

 

Even with all that, though, it didn’t finally crystallize until Chime presented him with the book. Moon was in his bower, asleep, and Chime crawled in next to him for a little while. Moon woke Chime up by rolling him over and pinning him down for the kind of sex that Chime sort of guiltily liked best, where he himself didn’t have to do much of anything except enjoy how much stronger than him Moon really was.

Jade came in as Moon was finishing, Chime already a demolished wreck in a satiated pile underneath him. Chime normally was just a little bit intimidated by Jade, and she had been happy enough to mostly be uninvolved in any interactions Chime had with Moon, but now they made eye contact as Moon shuddered prettily through his climax, and she just looked so pleased as she leaned in the doorway and watched.

Moon subsided with a sweet little hitching gasp, and Chime bit his neck tenderly, running his fingers along the curve of Moon’s spine and watching Jade as she stepped into the room. She was smiling, looking a little predatory, and Chime wondered idly if she’d throw him out so she could fuck Moon, or if she’d let him stay.

Moon knew she was there, by now; he pried his eyelids up and bit Chime’s shoulder, but made no effort to disentangle their bodies. Chime made a satisfied little buzzing noise in his chest and just basked, for a moment.

“Aren’t you cute,” Jade said, unexpectedly, to Chime, and Chime blinked at her, but it couldn’t penetrate his smugness.

“I have my moments,” he said. But that had to be a cue to leave, so he started to gather himself. Moon nuzzled at him and bit his shoulder again, a little harder; it was a clear don’t leave , so Chime gave up on trying to find his limbs. “Did you want a turn?” he asked, managing casualness as he gestured at Moon.

Jade laughed, and came to lean against the edge of the bed, looking down into it at both of them. “Not this minute,” she said. “I’m just enjoying the view.”

Moon grumbled a little, and pulled away from Chime enough that their bodies came unconnected. Chime was sensitive enough that it made him shiver deliciously, which made Moon pin him down again and bite his neck. Chime whimpered.

“You could join us,” Moon said, and maybe he meant to sound confident or seductive, but with his face pressed in Chime’s neck, he sounded more shy than anything else.

“Could I,” Jade said, leaning on the edge of the bed a little harder and reaching a hand in to trail the backs of her clawed fingers down the bumps of Moon’s spine. Then she moved and caressed the corner of Chime’s jaw, making him blink. “I don’t know. I don’t want to crowd Chime too much.”

Chime blinked at her again, and she ran her knuckles along his cheekbone, looking at him with an expression she’d certainly never turned on him before. “I uh,” he said. “I wouldn’t, uh. Mind.”

Jade laughed, but climbed into the bed, and Chime watched in increasingly wide-eyed fascination as she very slowly and sweetly and thoroughly took Moon the rest of the way apart.

Chime had always kind of guiltily had a little bit of a thing for how much stronger than him Moon was, but Jade was even bigger and stronger than Moon, and this was the kind of thing that was pretty much guaranteed to reduce his brain to a pile of mush. He was too incoherent to participate much, but Jade bit his neck with surprising delicacy as she demolished Moon, and made him feel not entirely useless or unwelcome.

Moon curled up in a drained little bundle, finally, and Chime was back in his element now and knew what to do, tugging him close and snuggling into his chest. Jade petted both of them, a little possessively, and it felt really good in a way Chime hadn’t supposed he had the capacity to feel.

It did make him a little sad, that he’d never be able to make clutches; mating was a lot different, he’d always figured, when you were doing it toward a purpose other than recreation, and he’d never know that for sure now. But it was hard to be sad when Moon was tangled around his body, catching his breath and looking dazed.

Chime hummed softly in contentment, and dozed off.

He couldn’t have been asleep for more than a couple of minutes. Jade recovered first, unsurprisingly, and got out of the bed, puttering around Moon’s bower. Moon woke up, at that, though he stayed where he was for a little bit. But eventually he stretched, and Chime figured that was enough basking, and sat up.

Jade had found the scroll he’d brought, and was reading it. “Oh,” Chime said.

“This is beautiful work,” Jade said, flipping the cover over to look at it, then unrolling the scroll. “I mean, really exquisite. Did you do this, Chime?”

Moon sat up, and looked keenly at what she was holding, then back at Chime, and he looked-- he looked delighted, and it made Chime’s insides go all warm and sloshy.

“Yes,” he said, a little bashfully.

“The writing, too,” Jade said. “The calligraphy is really something. Is this new?”

“I, I just made it,” Chime said, twisting a little bit of the blanket between his fingers. It was a fur blanket, and he combed through the soft fur nervously. “I thought it would be. Appropriate.”

Moon leaned over and bit his shoulder, looking pleased, then climbed out of the bed and went over to Jade, plopping down onto the cushion on the floor. Chime would bet his legs were sore as anything, after all that. “That’s really nice,” he said admiringly.

“Is it for our clutch?” Jade asked, looking a little surprised, maybe.

Chime combed at the fur a little more. “Yes,” he said. “And because. Because Moon told me I should. Should try painting again.” He waved a hand, not looking up. “I hadn’t since. You know. Before.”

“Oh,” Jade said, and Chime couldn’t make himself look up, but she came over and leaned on the edge of the bed. “Oh, Chime. Of course.” She reached in and gently stroked his hair, cupping the base of his skull and making him look up at her.

He didn’t have his expression entirely under control, and she gave him a soft look before leaning in and nipping his jaw lightly. “It’s beautiful work,” she said.

“Thanks,” he said, and got himself together enough to climb out of the bed and put his clothes back on.

Moon was sitting on the floor looking at the book, and finally, finally, all of Chime’s strange little certainties collided: Moon was looking at the book upside-down, tracing a finger over one of the ornamented initials.

“Oh,” Chime said, and Moon didn’t seem to hear him, but Jade looked over at him, and her expression went resigned.

She’d already known.

Chime maintained eye contact with her for a long horrified moment as he sorted through all of it in his mind. Moon glanced up, saw them looking at each other, and glanced back down at the book. He didn’t move for a moment, then suddenly turned the book around to be right-side up, and looked back up at Chime, carefully and intently nonchalant. He was a terrible actor.

But Chime was if anything a worse actor, so he didn’t even know what kind of face he ought to make to convey that nothing had happened. Moon’s face went blank and wary.

That wouldn’t do. Chime took the last few steps over to him, sat down next to him, and said, “Part of the gift was that I was going to read it to them.”

Jade sat down next to him and nipped at his shoulder, then leaned over and put her hand around the back of Moon’s neck. “By the time they’re old enough to notice, you’ll be caught up.”

Moon bit his lip, but whatever he saw in Chime’s expression melted the worry off his face, and he laughed. “Thank you,” he said, to both of them.