Author’s Note: If your desire is to reach your goals as soon as you can, don’t wait for the right moment to start, as that doesn’t exist. Find a way to make it happen as soon as you’re ready for it, even despite the obstacles that will no doubt arise.
Author’s Second Note: I would not recommend using Anna-Nassi’s quite unconventional method to work through mild basophobia if one is not ready for that kind of thing, though I know her heart was in the right place.
Kaffi felt awkward in this getup, but he refused to give in to embarrassment. This was the first day of training while wearing his own saddle for the first time, and he was not going to be petty about how weird or uncomfortable it might be. To be honest, it wasn’t nearly as bad as he’d expected it to be considering it was in his size and not one of his paddir’s oversize saddles, so he had no real reason to complain. He could easily move his wings and his limbs without anything blocking his movement or chafing at his scales. He could breathe quite easily, and the weight was no more than maybe a few extra pounds on his back. He understood it would put a bit of extra strain on his flight at first. And definitely no more tricky curves or dives for a while, at least until he learned how to maneuver better.
Graymar stood tall before him and adjusted the last belt latch, told him to drop down to all fours, and scuffled back to look over his handiwork. He hummed repeatedly, tilting his head one way and then the other. “It fits well?” he said.
Kaffi nodded. “It fits just fine.”
“Hmm.” He began circling Kaffi, studying him. It made him extremely nervous; his paddir had never watched him with such clinical eyes before. “Extend your limbs, not too far,” he said, and Kaffi responded, stretching his arms forward and his hind legs back. This caused his lower back to arch just a bit, his spine bumping up against the saddle. This in turn caused the straps to tighten ever so slightly. It was snug, but not restricting.
“Hmm,” he continued, coming around his front again. “Straighten up, then wings out, full span.”
Kaffi returned to his previous pose then stretched his wings out as far as they could go without straining. He felt his wing muscles pulling up against the straps; again, not uncomfortably so. No restriction at all.
“Hmm. You may retract them again. This fits you well, Kaffi, better than I thought it would. These strap settings will work for now, until you start building more muscle. Which you will now that you will be carrying extra weight. They should be against your body but only just. As you see, the latches are simple to work, and the straps have a long enough lead so that you can adjust them as necessary.”
“Yes, paddir,” he said. He suddenly felt an itch just underneath the saddle, where the blanket hit his spine. Eiyah, why did that have to happen now? He squirmed just a little bit and it went away, but now it felt as if the saddle had misaligned itself. He moved just a little bit more, and it slid back into place.
“Don’t worry about discomfort,” Graymar said, nodding. “You will get used to it, but the first few weeks may be quite irritating. I sometimes use a little bit of scale polish before putting on the saddle, which helps them from feeling dried out. There shouldn’t be any chafing, but if there is, let me know and we can make further adjustments.”
“I certainly will,” Kaffi said, giving him a quick smile.
“Next, mobility,” he said, and pointed towards the opposite edge of the roof. “Walk to the edge and back, at whatever pace and position suits you.”
It was an easy enough thing to do, though there was a bit of awkwardness to it when he walked on all fours. The saddle’s weight shifted from side to side just enough that had he been walking too fast, it would eventually scrape against his scales. He kept the fours-walking to a minimum and memorized the speed that felt the most natural and with minimal wobbliness. It was much slower than his normal gait, but he’d expected that. Again, something he could get used to over time. Once at the opposite edge of the roof, he turned to face Graymar. He was still standing close to the edge facing the green, on his hinds and holding his hands at his belly, his snout pointing down. It was hard to hear, but Kaffi could just about make out his slow hum of contemplation.
“Good, pahyoh,” he said. “Now back. Try walking on hinds this time.”
He pushed himself up and was surprised at how easy the shift was. The saddle slid ever so slightly, and its weight moved from the middle of his back to his hind legs. It felt no different than if he was carrying something in his arms or in a satchel. There was a lot less movement and no strain at all.
“Eiyah, this is so much more comfortable!” he laughed.
Graymar nodded slowly and smiled at him. “Indeed. This angle is natural for us. This is also the primary reason why we rarely have our rides in saddle when we walk on hinds; the angle is too awkward for them. The only time you’d be in that position with a rider is if you’re about to perform a flat ground take off.”
Kaffi grunted at the thought. “I hate those.”
“We all do, but they must be practiced nonetheless.”
Kaffi came up alongside him and looked out over the central green. “I think I can get used to this,” he said.
“Good,” Graymar said, laying a hand on his shoulder. “Because we still have much more training to do.”
Kaffi gave him a big smile. “I’m looking forward to it.”
Graymar snorted and looked away, back over the green. “I’m sure you are, pahyoh. Soon.”
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Diwa said, squirming nervously. Anna-Nassi’s strong arms held him close to her body and facing outwards, but she’d left his arms completely free. They were standing on the roof of the guest house behind her cousin’s place not that far from the estate, with only the grass to catch their fall. It might have been just a three-story drop, but it was enough that a hard landing would hurt. Diwa tried not to glance down if he could help it. They were just a few feet away from the edge, and the distance to the ground didn’t seem all that high at all, but it made him shiver just the same.
“Relax!” she giggled, giving him a playful hug. “Really, I mean it. Relax your body. I promise I will not drop you.”
“And if you do?”
“Then I go down with you, neh?” she teased. “Seriously, Dee. Stop squirming, you’re only making it worse.” She’d opened her wings to full extension and began walking closer to the edge of the roof. Her wingspan wasn’t nearly as wide as Kaffi’s, but they were just as strong and impressive, folds rippling slightly in the breeze. “Now remember: my arms are strong, and they can certainly hold you, but I’m giving you a little bit of freedom to move. Not squirm! But move. Why is that?”
Diwa tried not to squirm. “So I can move around and complement whatever movement you make instead of being floppy deadweight?”
“Precisely!” she chirped. “And why do you need to know about complementing the flight’s movement?”
“…center of gravity?” he offered. His brain hadn’t quite caught up with the situation at hand just yet.
“Well, yeah, that. But it also makes the flight’s movements a hell of a lot easier. If Kaffi needs to do a ground take-off, which way do you move?”
Diwa exhaled. He could do this. Annie was going out of her way to make sure he could. “Rocking, always trying to keep myself vertical,” he said, thinking of how Kaffi launched himself. He could certainly do it, but it looked so strenuous! Being on his saddle would only add to Kaffi’s strain unless he worked with him, and not against him. “Move with his movements, not against them. Rock when he rocks. Lift up when he evens out.”
“Yay! Someone’s been doing their homework!”
He fought off another nervous shiver. “Yay.”
“Ai! Cheer up, Dee. Next question! You are always safe in a regulated saddle because why?”
This one was easy! “It’s connected to the flight with multiple straps,” he said.
“The ride is always tethered to the saddle in three places: the pommel belt in front of him, and with each leg in the stirrups.”
“My natural posture in a tintrite saddle has my legs gently pushing against his body, keeping me in one place.”
Wait. What else? “And…?”
She squeezed him playfully. “Come on, Dee! One more. The most important.”
Another playful squeeze. “You know this, Dee! The most important reason you are always safe in a regulated tintrite saddle. More than anything else!”
It took him a few moments to understand what she was getting at. “Oh! Right!” He laughed and shook his head. “Because I have complete trust in my ride!” he said proudly.
“Yes!” she chirped and squeezed him once more. “Good! So!”
Anna-Nassi jumped off the roof of the guest house so unexpectedly, he didn’t have time to react.
“Open your eyes, Diwa,” she hummed calmly. “You’re airborne now. You can do this.”
He caught his breath…but he didn’t freeze up.
He didn’t look down.
“Come on, Dee.”
He felt that cold shiver in the pit of his stomach and fought it. This wasn’t falling.
This wasn’t falling.
“That’s it. You got it.”
He shifted his body until it balanced with Anna-Nassi’s movements and the shiver went away. This wasn’t falling. They were flying. They were circling in the air above this back yard, quiet and calm. Only a slight breeze. A ripple of leathery wings behind him. He could see where he was going, where they were going. They were moving through the air, in complete control. They were descending at a slow, comfortable speed, lifting ever so slightly again, circling around once more. Annie whispering calming words into his ear as they came around one last time, lifting and straightening out once more, his feet coming back under him. Then gently gliding down towards the grassy lawn below them. He exhaled slowly. He could do this.
He could do this. For Kaffi.
They dropped safely down to the ground. Anna-Nassi let go of him and folded up her wings. He stumbled out of her grasp and stood there, gaping at her.
And then they both fell to the ground, breaking into gales of laughter.
“Eiyah! Nababaliw ka ba, Annie?” he yelped, wiping at his eyes. “I can’t believe we just did that! You want to warn me next time?”
“Maybe!” she said, nodding and grinning widely at him. “Hee! Diwa, my friend, I am proud of you! I distracted you on purpose to prove a point: You trust me completely. You knew I wouldn’t drop you. So once we were airborne, that was the last thing on your mind. And your reactions once we were gliding proves that even further.”
Wait. Did he just…? It all came crashing at once: he was airborne, for the first time in his life. And he survived! He blinked, trying to process it all. “Yes, but…”
“And you reacted perfectly!”
She gave him two extremely animated thumbs up. “You already have the instinct, Dee. You moved when you were supposed to.”
“I…I didn’t even notice.”
“I noticed,” she hummed happily. “Like I said, you have the instinct. I knew you had it in you.”
“I guess I do…?”
“And you were too distracted to be conscious of the height and the initial descent. We weren’t up all that high, but it could still be dangerous for both of us. But we did it together, Dee. The most important lesson here is that you trusted me, and I trusted that you would know what to do.”
“Trust,” he said, more to himself than to Anna-Nassi. His shoulders went slack as he let that sink in. She was right; he’d been too distracted to be afraid of falling, and that confirmed what he’d known all along. “I get that now.”
“You do?” She swept to his side, leaned against heavily against his shoulder and prodded him in the arm, giving him one of her wide manic grins. “Explain. Test time.”
Diwa face was flush with pride and excitement. Why hadn’t he seen this before? He could do this! He could fly with Kaffi! Ay, yes! Their dream could be a reality! “It didn’t quite connect with me before because I didn’t have the context,” he said, measuring his words. “I’ve always trusted Kaffi. He’s my best friend. He’s my bond. I know he’ll be there, just like I’ll be there for him. And when I said I trusted you, Annie, I meant it. I knew you wouldn’t harm me, no matter how crazy your ideas might be. When I climb into the saddle to fly with Kaffi, it’s not just about the safety precautions. I’m putting my life in his hands.”
She released her weight on him but remained close, touching his arm. “Wings, but I’m just being pedantic,” she hummed. “And it’s not just that. He’s putting his life in your hands as well. You need to learn how he moves, what he’s thinking. That’s part of the training the two of you will need to work on your own, but I’m giving you the basics.”
Diwa nodded, thinking it all over.
Then gave her an easy smile. “You just wanted to get your hands on me.”
Anna-Nassi chirped out a surprisingly loud “Hah!” and immediately clasped her hands around her mouth, the bridge of her nose turning a dark blue. She punched him hard on the arm and fell into another fit of giggles. “Neh! Diwa! Shut up! I did not!”
“So we’re even?” he smiled.
“I owe you for that particular remark, but otherwise yes!” She pulled him into a fierce hug. “I’m proud of you, Dee! We meet tomorrow afternoon after school, same time. I teach you balance!”
“Nababaliw ka ba, Annie?” — (Tagalog) “What is wrong with you, Annie?”