A/N - You may like to cross-reference with Chapter 3 ("Love Struck Out"), Chapter 42 of 130 Reasons Why I'm Fairy Trash ("Mature"), 130 Chapter 45 ("This Is a Box") and the one-shot "Health Bars."

(Posted April 8, 2020)


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Summer of the Low Sun - Spring of the Silver Bird


[Editor's note: H.P. didn't want his memories scanned for this chapter and refused to read over my draft. Actually, I pieced most of this part of his past together from Anti-Cosmo's biography on the guy. Apparently those two talk to each other more than either of them bother to talk to me, which is fine. Just wanted to note that since the boss man's never going to read what's in this chapter, I juiced it up with extra spice that may or may not be true. Guess we'll never know!]

"You have quite the reputation for wrapping gynes around your wingtip," I told Rupert around my toothbrush. I spat foam in the sink. "But you've been here a week and I'm not drooling at your heels. You're going easy on me."

"Am I?" Rupert asked. He leaned his hip against the counter, watching my reflection watch him. "Ooh, that must be so irritating for you. That must be absolutely infuriating."

"Not particularly." I finished rinsing my brush and turned off the sink. "I've been going easy on you because I'm friends with your mother" (He whistled, which I ignored). "But here's the thing: If we keep this up, we'll never know who the better drake really is. What say we play fair? I don't do anything different than I normally would, and you go about your business as usual. Whoever gives in… loses."

Rupert hummed, sliding my bathrobe from my wings. As he hung it back on its hook, he said, "How does playing my usual hand benefit me? Because it looks like I have you squirming right where I want you. I know my golden reputation, hon, and I know exactly the restraint I have on your bragging rights at the moment. Why should I offer even a shred of a chance to let you claim you out-seduced the gyne-tamer?"

"Because as soon as possible, I'll freely gift your mother 15% of the stock in the company I plan to erect, and until I build said company, I'll anonymously send her 3,000 lagelyn a month. She'll never want for money again."

Rupert's hand faltered. I watched, gaze half-lidded.

"It would seem you do have a weakness after all. You love your mother more than anything. Do we have a deal?"

Rupert twitched up to his toes, eyes zeroed on mine. He leaned so close to me, our noses almost brushed. "Game on, H.P. I'll give a fair fight if you will. No cheating, no backsies, no dragging third parties into this. It's no fun if you resist more than would be natural."

"I agree. Let's do this. Shall we call it after six months?"

His lip curved at one end. "Someone's optimistic. I've never needed half that time."

"I suggest you take it, because I'm no longer playing gentle."

When we shook hands, glowing cords of the energy field wrapped briefly around our wrists. They tied into a few colorful knots and dissipated into thin air again. Rupert scooted past me. "The kids are calling you," he said over his shoulder. "Shout if you need anything. Otherwise, I'll see you when you're back from the hospital. Have fun."

Rice waited until Rupert left my bedroom, the door shut behind him. Then he sat up on my pillow. "How will you know who wins?"

"Oh, we'll know." I finished washing my face and left to visit Springs. I could tell from the tension in the air it wasn't good news. The doctor told me he was sleeping, but took me aside to explain the situation.

"He's only two. Is there permanent damage?"

She sighed. "It's too soon to tell. Of course, nymphs are incredibly fragile under the age of five. His body hasn't developed a magical shell yet. My best guess is that he'll pull through this, but his immune system will always be poor. If he stays in the hospital, he should recover his eyesight in a day or two, but we had to pump his stomach. He's on a fragile diet at the moment."

"Thank you," I said.

The Faeheim hospital was the best location in Fairy World - and possibly the universe - to be healed. The energy field was smoothest here, albeit strong-tasting, and the recovery rate always raked the ceiling. Why they even had other hospitals in the cloudlands I wasn't sure. I stared through the window into Springs' room for a moment, hands in my pockets. He slept in the bed closest to the door with one hand beneath his cheek. Technology had advanced, beds had improved, but for a moment, it was almost like looking at Ambrosine's Celebrity Families card, where baby Fergus lay bundled in his arms. I couldn't remember anything from my first few years of life, so I had no memory of being in a hospital until now. I wondered if I'd slept the same way Springs did when I was two. I did sleep with my head on my arm nowadays.

… Wait a second. My father's trading card. Who had plucked that memory from the timestream to create a picture of it? You had to have been there, but my father kept his pregnancy a secret. Praxis didn't know he'd had a kid until my first birthday. I pulled up the image in my mind's eye, young black-haired Ambrosine on a bed of straw lifting a hand to shield his eyes from the sudden candle flame shoved near his face. If Praxis didn't know about the kid, why would the media? The doctors wouldn't have let them in. And wasn't it a breech of confidentiality for a doctor to have sold that image to the card creators?

I waited until Springs woke up so I could talk to him before he told me, politely, that he'd made an appointment with the doctor to go on a walk and touch the trees in the hall. I patted his hair and said good-bye.

But instead of returning to the village, I went to Novakiin and waited in the Wish Fixers break room. Ambrosine paused, floating up and down in the doorway, when he saw me there. His hands brimmed with papers and the semi-circles under his glasses cut deep even for him. "I fought Jean," I said. "I'm not calling him Reddinski anymore. He ran. He doesn't deserve that name."

"Do you need something, H.P.?"

"Can I poke around your office? I won't be long."

For some reason, my father didn't want me in there by myself. He leaned against the doorway, watching me pick up the framed timestream images on his desk. I shook my head after each one, tongue in cheek, and finally found what I was looking for in the back drawer. Ambrosine used to collect cards before I was born, but apparently the war had given him bigger things to think about. He actually met my foster parents in the corner store that used to sell these in Prudoc, though it doesn't exist anymore. I held up the card, tilting it this way and that against the light. It wasn't holographic like my Head Pixie one, but it shimmered a little nonetheless. You couldn't read the words - they'd faded and the card tattered long ago - but the image itself was magic and it shone as clear as the day it had been plucked. The border was yellow. Gold once, maybe. Newborn Fergus, eyes gaping wide, squirmed in a gray blanket. He was an odd, misshapen child and strained his hand at something out of reach. Or someone. A shadow covered half his face, and it couldn't belong to Ambrosine, sleeping in the bed. That was his arm around my stomach.

"Looking for something?"

"… I don't know." I turned the card to him. "Why does this exist?"

Ambrosine shrugged. "You're an aristocrat. That makes you a celebrity and you have a trading card because of it."

"But this is a memory of me in the hospital. Who had access to it?" I pointed to the image of his pale wrist. "Not you."

"I'm asleep," he said pointedly, holding his papers to his chest. "Why would I know?"

I stared at the picture a few seconds longer, searing every face of every shape in my mind. "I never noticed how poor the lighting is in this. Like someone didn't think looking at me was important. Why? I had an interesting genetic mutation. Wouldn't you want to show it? Why stand in front of the candle?"

Ambrosine touched my forehead with his fingertips. "Are you feeling all right?"

"No. I never feel." I dropped the card in the drawer again. "Never mind. Do you remember your doctor? I'd like to ask him if anyone came in there. Maybe Solara. Oh, and I should ask if I absorbed my twin."

"You didn't have a twin."

"But what if I did?"

Ambrosine gave me that tired look, like he wanted his walking stick and a hot chocolate and a nap at the same time. "Okay. Say you did. I conceived twins and only one was born. What would it change?"

I thought about it for a minute. "I guess nothing. Nothing at all. But what if… I wasn't born like this?" I made an up and down motion with my hand. "Maybe something happened to me. Someone changed my reproductive system on purpose. Some doctors performed a surgery wrong and erased our memories to cover it up. Or Solara didn't want me to end up like you, so she tried to sterilize me but didn't finish the job. Or someone came to kidnap me and hold me ransom, but I woke up and started to cry, so they ran out and sold this memory to the trading card producers. Someone might have done this to me and they have the answers I'm looking for."

"That," Ambrosine said, "would be very unfortunate. I would hope your reproduction cycle is connected to your mutation, and that your body underwent a change which also affected your offspring and will allow your progeny to survive." He put the papers down, leaning one hand on his desk, and looked at me very seriously. "If this was caused by an outside source, it wouldn't be tied to your biology. You know what that would mean, don't you?"

"… That my pixies are exactly like any other Fairy born with purple cores. Generation 2 will die with me."

Ambrosine pushed up the bridge of his glasses. "Be careful what you wish for, H.P., and don't go digging for hidden memories. I'm a therapist. Some answers are best left undiscovered."

"They're not purple-borns," I said, not moving even when he floated from the office again. "Venus said all my eggs were half-fertilized around the same time. Non-pixie eggs don't do that, but my body must have reached the yellow stage of magic and realized this was the best time to fertilize my offspring before I missed my chance. My pixies were born of yellow magic. Their cores just look purple because they're identical to me. My body knew what it was doing and it's going to work out fine. It's fine, Dad."

Ambrosine turned back with a sigh. "Sanderson has an extra purple layer of magic around his core. He got that from you, not me; that's proof enough he isn't fully cloned. In a normal Fairy-"

"'Normal,'" I repeated. I pinged away without waiting for his answer, or bothering to leave the building first.

We had another Council meeting after that to coronate the new sylph ambassador. After the meeting, I took Sanderson to the bathroom down the hall, which made us late for refreshments. When we floated in, I was surprised to find Anti-Bryndin sitting with the Purple Robe at the corner table. Sanderson went to sit by Idona, of course, but I approached with my food plate. Anti-Bryndin's ears twitched back, and he seemed startled when he turned to look at me.

"Oh! Head Pixie, I thought you had left."

"I always stay for snack time. And, I like to watch the pranks." I glanced at the Purple Robe, who still had his hood up and was most definitely not looking at me. When several seconds passed, I tilted my head. "I'm… getting the sense that I'm interrupting. Are you continuing the discussion about the hunting laws?" Was that allowed? Eating together seemed like the perfect opportunity to slip Purple a bribe. I mean, he always voted in favor of the Anti-Fairies anyway, but… still.

"Interrupting nothing," Anti-Bryndin promised. So I sat, but Purple didn't say a word to me. When I got up to give Sanderson his five-minute warning, I noticed Anti-Bryndin lean across the table and say something in a low voice. Purple excused himself after that, and Anti-Bryndin turned his full attention on me for the rest of our conversation.

"Did I interrupt?" I asked again, but Anti-Bryndin only smiled and patted my hand.

"It is only business, Head Pixie. Only business!"

Springs left the hospital after a few days, mostly recovered except his rasping had worsened. Luis took him from my arms and stroked his hair. He said he knew a recipe with honey that would soothe the throat. "No honey," I said, twinging with disappointment. "We're deathly allergic."

"Maybe soup?" he suggested, so I agreed. Now that I had drones who could stay home with the kids, I finally began classes at Fairy World University. I let Rupert come with me. Not just to show off that we were partners, but after a few days of finding him moping around inside, I realized he could use help finding safe places to wander with his dysolfactya. I'd invite him and Keefe with me and wave good-bye to them at the park that had the goose pond and ipewood trees. Sometimes we'd go out for frozen yogurt after that. I was expected to walk in front, but I would listen to their whispered conversation and watch as Rupert handed Keefe grass and leaves to touch.

I didn't plan to graduate, but I picked the parenting classes up more quickly than I expected. After nymphhood classes came the adolescent classes and then the adult relationship classes. I took notes and never slept through a single one, and I made it to almost all of them. Primary Exam year was the worst. It fell on the same year I found myself expecting McKinley and covered the previous 500 years of studies. I'd been a decent test-taker in my younger years, but analyzing questions and ticking boxes with a nymph in my head was a new challenge altogether.

"When do you get your degree?" Emery asked after the first week of tests.

"By the end of winter. I know it's not the Academy, but it feels amazing to finally go back to school. Nothing can stop me now."

The exam results were mailed out just before my birthday. I waited for the day of to open them. I hovered by the mailbox, staring down at the wrinkled paper with my mouth agape. The word FAILED was scrawled in green ink next to almost every class. I'd passed only two: Beginning Magic and Teaching Religion.

I'd failed Basic Safety. How the blitz do you fail Basic Safety?

"It's the stupid baby," I told Emery and Ambrosine in the kitchen, voice half-muffled by his shirt. "I can't have coffee when I'm pregnant and I can't focus without coffee. I kicked butt in class. I just screwed up the exams."

"It's not the end of the world," Ambrosine told me, rubbing behind my neck. "We can pay for retakes and you can try again."

I shook my head, not sure how to tell him I couldn't scrape from my food budget for that.

Emery read my mind. "Look," she said, gesturing to my head with a piece of my celebration cake. "The baby will be born any day now. Go back to class after that. I'll pay for it."

"Parenting's stupid," I said. "I'm not going back just to fail again. If I'm going back, I'm going back for something else."

She rolled her eyes, throwing up her hands. "Then go for something else!"

I stared at the kitchen counter, listening to the flutter of my wings at my back. "Cooking," I said. "That's how we'll do it. With pixie cakes."

Ambrosine loosened his arms. "What's pixie cake?"

In answer, I raised my finger at Emery's plate. "How much did it cost to buy that fully decorated dessert?"

"About fifteen lagelyn."

"And how much is a mix?"

He didn't know, but Emery did. "Like, one bill. And it's barely a coin for the frosting."

"Nothing in between." I paced back and forth in a line, then turned on Emery. "Yes. Yes, that's it. There's nothing in between a fifteen lagelyn cake and a dust-cheap mix. That's an untapped market. Give me some space to think. No, wait. I feel the nymph coming. Happy birthday to both of us." Emery grabbed my arm before I could crumple to the floor.

Baby McKinley was barely larger than my hand. I held him to my chest the next evening as I explained my idea, repeating the points so the exhausted Ambrosine and droopy-eyed Emery would understand. "It's not Fairy custom to celebrate birthdays," I said. "Not unless it's a crowning number, and even then there's just a little party, maybe some drinks. What if I could change that? What if we sold the world on the idea that they deserve a little party every year? Just a bit of cake and a present to celebrate a day that's all about you. Fairies are individualistic. That's how we'll do it."

"Too much sugar," Ambrosine said, his cheek on one hand.

"That's why I'm inventing cupcakes. You always made them for me when I was little. Now it's my turn to make them marketable. Some types will provide a dose of sugar, others will be sugar-free for youth and still taste fantastic. And best of all, the size lends itself to portion control." I looked straight at Emery. "I'm going to culinary school. And this time, I'm going to pass."

Within two weeks, McKinley was living with his milkmother and I baked "cupcakes" every day. The drones helped me and enjoyed it too. I let Sanderson be my official taste-tester, knowing he would give his honest opinion without sucking up. He shook his head or nodded for every taste, frosting smeared across his mouth. When we'd finally agreed on our favorites, I wiped my brow with a rag.

"It's going to be big, Sanderson."

"How big, sir?"

I wrapped my hands around his shoulders and dropped to one knee. His eyes widened. "You don't understand," I said. "This is the biggest promotional event in the history of Fairy World. In another few generations, Fairy and Anti-Fairy children alike are going to read about this in the history books. This is going to land us on every map and never shake us off again."

We invited several friends for the New Year. Sanderson and I watched with frozen lips as each guest took a cupcake and examined it in bewilderment. I held my tongue, even though I wanted to jump in and explain what the product was. No. If they couldn't come to their own conclusions - and enjoy it without me watching - it would never get off the ground.

"You're in a good mood," Iris said, carefully removing the wrapper from her cupcake's base. She kept her eyes downcast, and I couldn't miss Starla Roebeam watching us from across the room (though Rupert and Rice were doing a good job of fighting for her attention).

"Yes. I might have a successful business taking off the ground soon. But then, I'm sure you know all about that. How are your angels?" Even after all these years, this was one of the first times I'd seen her without her Amity vest. I might be biased, but the purple shirt was a better color.

"Good," she said, lifting the cupcake to her lips. "Very good." Then she frowned. "Although, I worry about the Anti-Fairies. Angels are fragile in this stage and Antis might not make the best godparents. But other than that… It's good."

"Iris," I said while her mouth was full. I rocked back on my heels. "I owe you an apology. Several, actually. I'm sorry about Samhain. I wrote you a packet about how to behave at a party, but I forgot to warn you about the tamlin. And I want to apologize if I guilted you into joining me by saying I was looking forward to it. Thank you for coming here tonight. It's great to see you again. You look happier than ever."

"You didn't guilt me," she said, dribbling crumbs. "I wanted to go."

"I'll take you to a better party someday. I promise."

"Well, these events are more fun with friends. That sounds nice. Um… How are your pixies?"

"Growing. Sanderson just turned 4,000 and I'm almost 500. It's… interesting. My little drakes are growing up."

"You seem happier too," she told me seriously. She folded her cupcake wrapper with two fingers. "I wish you the best with your next round of school."

The shape of the cupcakes came through like a charmed dream, but no one enthused about the taste or tried more than one. Some didn't finish. The texture was horrendous. No matter. I could fix that. 500 years later, my culinary degree in hand and newborn Ralston with his milkmother, I asked Ambrosine to join me in my office.

"To be successful," I said, "you have to win the Fairies first. The Fairies will never adopt 'an Anti-Fairy product,' but Anti-Fairies can be baited into accepting a product the Fairies enjoy out of the desire to fit in." I smacked down some papers and leaned back in my chair. "Every Fairy wants to believe he leads the pack. Anti-Fairies are a social species who like to be a part of things. Win the Fairies with a product and you win the Antis." I gestured to the two slices of cake on the platters beside me. "What do you think? They're going public in two months."

"How did they do in the test market?" Ambrosine asked, picking one of them up.

"Test markets are for sissies."

He looked up. "What?"

"I'm an expert now," I clarified, pointing to the degree hanging on my wall. "I don't need test markets."

"Ferg- H.P., you can't release a product without first putting it through a test market. Who's going to want to take the risk to sell this?"

I raised an eyebrow. "I'll just make it a Pixie Village and Pixie Catering exclusive until the shops love me enough to buy my cake mixes by the armful. Exclusivity will up consumer interest. I want this product out now."

"You can't have it now. You haven't finished jumping through the hoops."

I held his gaze, hands folded on my stomach. "Ambrosine, it's almost Spring Turn. The Anti-Fairies only have an extended festival season every seven years. And this year is even more special, because the New Year is on Friday. That means the holiday honoring Dayfry, the Festival of Balance, is pushed off to the Friday after that. All those Anti-Fairies will be milling around Luna's Landing that week looking for things to eat; their celebratory season is extended by an entire seven days. This is my big chance. If I miss this window, I'll have to wait another seven years for the prime time to release my products. The celebration week will be shorter then and the crowds won't hang around as long. This is my year."

Ambrosine removed his spectacles and massaged the space above his nose. "Fergus, please don't do this."

"I have to. If I never enter the business world, I'll never be able to provide for my pixies. Just trust me on this."

"We're down to the last of the Whimsifinado fortune. I'll… have to ask more from Praxis. I suppose it's time anyway. He's far over a million now and I want to try reconciling with him before he dies. Will you come with me?"

"I guess." So, Ambrosine and I visited his father's home in Rowanbeam the next day. I'd only ever seen the town on postcards. The Whimsifinado family owned the biggest manor in the area, and the second widest single residential I'd ever seen in Fairy World (Fairywinkle still had Praxis beat). Ambrosine hovered above the doorstep, running his hand through his hair. From the taste of his signals, I could tell he wanted to bolt. I wondered if he'd invited me along not to attempt amends with my grandfather, but to be his bodyguard.

Praxis let us in, though he wasn't thrilled about it. He didn't offer a tour or any drinks, just spoke to us at the base of the grand spiral stairs. The floor was tiled black and white. A chandelier dangled above our heads and the windows were quite tall. That was all we saw of the house, because he simply leaned on his shillelagh and chewed his cheek and grunted in response to everything Ambrosine had to say. For instance:

"My gyne son didn't kill me," Ambrosine said, placing his hand on my wrist.

"Not yet."

"He won't."

Dead silence. Finally, Ambrosine turned a frustrated stare on me. "Oh," I said. "Was I supposed to answer that?"

Praxis took his fingernail out of his mouth. "Stand up straight or you'll never find a wife."

"Good," I said. Ambrosine winced beside me. And so on. I tied and untied Praxis's shoes in my mind over and over again. Then my father blurted something that caught me off guard.

"Father, did you have Alik with Ilisa Maddington?"

"Alik's dead," Praxis said. "Nettle's dead, Ilisa's dead. What business is it of yours?"

Ambrosine's face flushed almost as red as his vest. "You did. Oh my dust, Anti-Cosmo was right. I don't know why I defended you. Did Mother know he wasn't hers? I told Solara when I expected."

"And if you hadn't, she might have married you." Praxis rolled his eyes. "And this is why I haven't yet picked an heir. What about you?" he asked, wheeling on me. "Change your mind about my offer in the tram station?"

"Money's money," I said impassively. "I'll make sure you go down in the history books with a positive reputation. Let's make a deal."

Praxis gave a sharp nod, ramming his staff on the floor at the same time. "See? The kid gets it. Come along and I'll give you the tour. Not you," he said when Ambrosine tried to follow us. "Unless you're not afraid of Crystal anymore."

Ambrosine's wings stopped beating.

"Ah," I said, trying to keep conversational despite the massive spike of terror now shrieking in the energy field. "Who's Crystal?"

"Oh, my cat sith. Had him since I was a wee juvenile. Of course, he was smaller back then… much like my pants size." Praxis tapped me under the wings with his shillelagh. "Let's walk. Give an old drake your arm, Fergusius. Good boy."

Praxis led me to the second floor and down the a long black and white hall, wispy blue curtain hanging open at every window. When we passed by one that overlooked the garden, I stopped mid-wingbeat. "Uh… Is that Crystal?"

Praxis leaned close to the window, squinting. "Good kitty. I was a mounted soldier during the war. We were paired together and he's kept me company in this empty place. All these years and not a single thieving Anti-Fairy."

I said nothing. My vision wasn't the best even with my glasses, but even from here, I could tell the gray feline was wrapped around the garden fountain and still had tail left for his nose. Every whisker looked thicker than my arm. They trembled when he snored. Multiple colors of blood stained the garden stones, and unless I was mistaken, that was an entire Anti-Fairy wing lying severed on the ground by his paw.

"There must be stinky magic build-up in this house," I said, turning my head. "The energy imbalance attracts the Anti-Fairies. They fly in from afar to fix the situation, just like a repairman you might call to replace a window or check out a twisted pipe. And you just… you kill them."

"Thieves and murderers," Praxis insisted. "It's no loss to anyone. Most only lose their wands or wings anyhow. It's not easy to kill those vermin. That's why I keep inrita poison in the shed. Force a little down their throats and you've got 'em begging for mercy. Takes them a while to regenerate. When they're all floating around as smoke, you can bottle 'em in jars and they won't ever reform. I'll teach you how. As Head Pixie, it's something you'll want to know. You have to watch your backs around 'em, Anti-Fairies. There might be another war in your lifetime and you need to protect yourself."

"There's not going to be another war, Granddad-"

"I've read about your relationship with the High Count in the papers. I hope you take precautions when you cross the border. Anti-Fairies." He shuddered. "They don't clean a smoofing thing and leave their drippings everywhere. They wash themselves once a month in their bathing pools, and never in between. It's not drinking their water that'll make you sick. It's the germs on those hands they stuff up each other's underwear. The rich use snatters to communicate, blitzing the messenger wench without letting her wash in between her deliveries."

I stared at him, unmoving, unblinking, as he spat every bitter word. When he finished, I removed my glasses and pretended to be wiping the lenses clear of spit. "That messenger thing was proven as a rumor, like, 200,000 years ago. And Anti-Fairy World produces soap. They're cleaner than you think. If you want to have a conversation with me, don't be racist." Still, I tried to remember if I'd seen any sinks on my tour of the Blue Castle with Anti-Bryndin. I didn't.

"Listen," Praxis said, pulling me close by my other shoulder. "Anti-Fairies are crafty, but I know a thing or two about them. They lure you in, make you feel like you're the center of the universe. But their eyes wander. Anti-Fairies don't believe in love, only pleasure. If you don't give them what they're looking for, they'll find it in someone else. But they won't break ties with you like a Fairy will. Anti-Fairies play long, cruel games with string. Until you cut them off, they'll treat you like a toy. You watch your back with that lover you've found, Fergusius. If the High Count approached you first, you have something he wants."

"And why," I drawled, "would you know this?" I'd figured out myself that Anti-Bryndin wanted something from me, and I knew he pursued other partners when I was away. We'd agreed that was fine, so long as he gave me attention when I needed it.

Praxis lifted one fluffy brow. "Your father used to like those dirty bats. I had his urges wiped in upper school with a little forget-a-cin, but not before one blitzed him. Scratched him up between the legs with those sharp parts of theirs. Carried him to the hospital and they confirmed permanent damage. That's why you came out malformed."

"Mmhm," I said, not impressed. He'd probably say he wiped Ambrosine's memory too so I couldn't confirm the story. I returned my glasses to my nose. Praxis stared at me, frustrated by my lack of spazzing out. He shoved the tip of his shillelagh in my gut.

"Don't get all snuggly with Anti-Fairies. All they know is breaking things."

"Lovely hall," I said, ignoring him. "These windows come from the ni'naya era of design, right? They match the tile better than I expected."

When we joined Ambrosine again two hours later, he was still standing by the front door, head bowed and hands clasped before his waist. Praxis grunted and dropped my arm. "And what have you been doing with your time? Loitering?"

"I paid my respects to the animpa, sir." He didn't look up. I don't think either one of us said good-bye. Praxis either. We all just sort of… left.

Ambrosine and I visited the bank in Cornflower City, me with the access number for the final vault of our family fortune. Praxis was old-fashioned; he still kept his lagelyn there in bills and coins. Under the watchful eye of two guards, I punched in the combination to the fourteenth door. Several rows down, we found what we were looking for. It wasn't a large vault - just a safe tucked in the wall between a hundred others - but I'd still been hoping for a significant amount of coin. My wings drooped when only a thin layer of bills answered my call.

"Large ones," Ambrosine said hopefully. "Happy birthday."

"Not enough of them," I said, flicking through. "This will cover bills and taxes for three cycles. I don't know how I'll afford food. Not unless I'm successful." Sighing, I took a small amount of cash and locked the rest back in the vault. "Okay. When we get home, I need every lamp we have in the kitchen. We're about to start pulling the highest definition memories from the timestream. I want paper images of happy pixies baking tiny treats all over the cloudlands by Fairy Con."

I knew how to make pixie hats, but Iris had better sewing talent than I did. She invited me to her house and even served sandwiches. Cute sitting room, if a little too blue. China wouldn't have liked putting the couch across from the window instead of underneath it, and she would have whispered in my ear about the cluttered shelves all the way home. "The breakfast nook shouldn't touch the same side of the house as the basin," she'd have insisted. But I liked it.

Between the two of us, Iris and I sewed a whole set of little uniforms in a matter of weeks- gray shirts with the pixie logo I invented embroidered over the left breast in thick purple. "Well, um, I'm happy to help," she stammered, holding up the one I'd started and she'd finished. It was for Springs. "After all the years you've worked for me, I can afford to spend a few weeks."

I stared at the sewing machine beneath my hands. It was an older model, but she'd kept it in excellent condition. The same way she kept her whole home in excellent condition. My face reflected back in yellow glass. "I'm really sorry about last Fairy Con. With the other gynes."

Iris looked up without saying a word. Waiting for me to continue. I'd wanted that to be the end of the apology.

"I'm sorry," I mumbled, sliding my gaze around to hers. "My behavior at the ring was unprofessional. I was… very embarrassed to tell the others my alpha drone was a baby. I wanted to show off. I'm very lucky I didn't lose to Reddinski. I don't think I would have beaten him."

"I know," she said. "I'm an alux. I've heard you rehearsing this apology for weeks."

I said nothing, making a mental note not to do that out loud again. Iris tilted her head.

"Is there anything else you wanted to add?"

Was there? I hadn't decided. But I ran my fingers through the back of her hair and flicked my gaze to the ceiling. "Well. There is this party I'd like to invite you to…"

"The Pastel Flower Show, isn't it? Next Wednesday?" Iris went back to checking the shirt for loose threads. "I'd love to."

I laughed, just briefly. "Already given it some thought, I see. Using your eavesdropping abilities for good instead of evil. I like that."

"Yes. And I'd love to go."

So we did, the night after we finished sewing the final uniform. I didn't see her again that year. Fairy Con was a blur, she was busy, and a few short months later, we were serving cakes in Anti-Fairy World in all seven zodiac colors. Anti-Bryndin had ensured a prime location for our tent and even walked around holding cupcakes himself, just so he could point anyone who asked in our direction. Now that was an endorsement. Even Anti-Florensa accepted one, and I thought she hated everything. I kept waiting for Anti-Cosmo to bother me, but he never showed. During the Festival of Focus, I could have sworn I saw him floating behind an excitable damsel who yanked him by the hand despite his dragging feet, but since it was a day of silence, I didn't dare call his name.

Anti-Bryndin's favorite festival game was to lean against the end of my serving table and playfully banter while pretending he didn't know me. I humored him, mostly because I could tell he was a little drunk. But at one point, while describing an upcoming play, he reached out and placed his hand on my knuckles.

"I hope you will find enjoyment of the performing. The story is about a drake who says he doesn't love, but he is only pretending, and he stops his pretending when the partner of his fate is found, which becomes marriage. He is just like you!"

I stopped, my sweat-wiping rag halfway to my head. "What?"

Anti-Bryndin smiled, eyes unfocused. He gave my hand two pats. "Like him, you also pretend you cannot love, but you found me. Then I cured your lack of love for people, and now you can love."

I… didn't know how to respond to that comment. Interestingly, it bothered me. He knew my wings were notched. Did he really believe I hadn't expressed affections to the dame I'd married? What evidence did he have that he of all people had "changed" me in that way? Was that just how Anti-Fairies thought?

I brushed it off and promised to join him for the play. Aside from the strange subject matter, the performance itself was enjoyable and of excellent quality. I approved.

We sold out of cupcakes every day of the Seven Festival and still had requests for orders. Nineteen reservations for catering on top of that. I floated into Wish Fixers and slammed just one of my tall stacks of profits on the break room table. "See, Dad? I told you I didn't need a test market."

Ambrosine studied me, neither smiling nor sighing. "I guess I just don't know enough about big business to spot success when it kicks me in the rear. That was quite the gamble. It could have blown up in your face."

"Good thing it didn't."

"You're a lucky drake."

"I think of myself as clever."

"I know you do."

I brushed Rupert's hair that night and we preened well into early morning. "I still don't know what the deal is with your reputation," I said, watching him work.

"Makes you wonder if the gyne-tamer plays favorites," he purred between licks. I'm not exaggerating the use of "purr." That's the kind of drake he is.

"Or if the gyne-tamer can't tame every gyne."

"Oh?" Rupert wiggled a little closer, reaching forward at the same time to place a single finger on my lips. That shut me up fast. "Or won't," he said. "Some gynes don't deserve the tricks I know. Are you like those gynes, Head Pixie?"

"Give me a mint chipping break," Rice grunted, but we ignored him. Especially me. I tightened my grip on the bed sheets, staring up at that gentle sunshine drake with the stare of steel. Rupert wasn't my usual type, but the sheer level of his confidence outweighed all the physical factors, honestly… There's never been another drone like him.

A few centuries after Thane was born - Sanderson was 5,900 - I sat in the kitchen reading the news when I heard a knock at my door. It was Krisday morning and only half of us were up. I glanced at Caudwell, who seemed just as confused as I was. That wasn't a tiny fist. That was an honest to goodness adult knock. Emery was upstairs and Ambrosine had made it clear he was spending the holiday with Praxis "to try for amends… again." I hadn't invited anyone. Iris would have asked permission and Anti-Fairies didn't consider today a holiday. Nonetheless, I went to open the door. My visitor wore gray, his red beard short, belly thin, but I knew exactly who he was. My jaw smacked open.

"K… Kris Kringle?"

He set his finger to his nose, winking like he knew a secret joke. "Ho, ho, ho, Head Pixie. I won't oversleigh my welcome, but might I come in?"

"Uh… uh…" I held open the door, darting my eyes between his rosy cheeks and the reindeer nibbling on the grass outside. "What are you doing here? I thought you worked at the North Pole these days."

His pheromones tasted like warm cookies straight out of the firebin. I knew he was a gyne, and I'd glimpsed him at the Council meetings, but I hadn't prepared for him to smell like chestnuts and snickerdoodles. My tongue flicked across my teeth, and I closed my eyes in the vain hope he wouldn't sense them rolling back. I picked up more than fifty drones. I held my hand over my face until I could focus again.

"To what do I owe the pleasure?" I asked, glancing up at him. For someone who could still stand, Kringle looked dead tired. His eyes sunk into his skin like dim blue buttons and his hair absolutely dripped with sweat. But he had a kind face. When he smiled, my neck flushed and my wings began to chirp. I placed a hand to my cheek, too flustered to say anything else.

"I heard about your cakes," he said. "I'm interested in a commission."

"A special kind?" Caudwell had slipped softly up behind me, and I blocked him with my knee to keep him from squeezing through the door.

"A cake with fruit. If you're interested, I'd love to pick your brain on marketing."

"Y-yeah… Listen, Kringle… I have something for you. I've been meaning to give it at all the Council meetings, but I mean, I didn't know how to approach you, and it's kind of weird, and… and…"

Kringle watched me stammer in amusement, lifting an eyebrow. "Yes?"

"I've mapped out a more efficient delivery system," I blurted. "For your route, I mean. I made some calculations and new paths, and I have a dozen ideas of ways to improve your factories and worker satisfaction if you haven't already implemented them. Here- Here, let me get them for you!"

"Huh," he said when I returned, my finger pressed to my glasses just to keep them from bouncing down my nose. He held out his hands for my papers and quickly looked over the first pages of my packet. "This isn't bad."

"I would hope not. It's been a multiple-decade side project for me."

"Has it?" He read two pages in silence, finger wandering across my charts and graphs, then glanced at me over his shades. "Of course, I don't actually travel with my reindeer and sleigh anymore. These days, my work can be done from home."

My stomach plummeted. "Oh…" What a stupid slip-up.

"But," Kringle said, still looking at me, "I could really use a mind like yours to help me organize my systems. You're clearly very passionate about your plans, and there's plenty to do so long as you're interested and don't overwork yourself. By any chance, would you like to do an internship with me? Paid, of course."

"Are… are you offering?"

"If you're accepting."

I floated there, silently gaping. "Uhh… yes. Let me grab the suitcase I totally did not pack when I was 600 in case this day should come."

Kringle laughed and nodded and folded his arms at the same time, and I couldn't resist a sheepish smile back. "You're trying to open a business here in Central Star, aren't you?" he asked. "We could even talk about making you a subsidiary of Kringle Inc."

"A subsidiary? It would be an honor, sir. Caudwell, did you hear that? Did you smoofing hear that? We're going to work for Kris Kringle! Hang on- Let me tell me father!"

That's how Pixies Inc. had its start, really. Kringle invited me to tour his workshop. It was smaller than I'd thought it would be, the old clockwork components already switched for steam-powered machines. I'd expected clutter and gaudy winter decorations, but each of the three buildings was sleek and simple. The elves who worked beneath him scuttled around, crafting toys for most all of the year. I didn't step down there myself, but Kringle and I perused the walkways, watching the magic from above.

"You'll need a uniform if you work here," he said. He took his own shaded glasses from his eyes and held them out to me. "Here."

"I can't," I said, taking them. "Mine are prescription."

"Can I have them?" Sanderson asked, piping up behind me. I gave him the dark glasses and he set them on his nose. I tried not to snort and simply rubbed down his cowlick.

"You'll grow into them, manticore."

I stayed at the workshop for a year. Sleeping, of course, at home and visiting my pixies often. I'm sure I spent more time at the village than the North Pole, but Kringle poofed in personally to pick me up for work every day and I didn't want to disappoint. It thrilled me, as far as a pixie can be thrilled, to have a purpose. A solid job to wake up to every morning. Kringle showed Sanderson and I everything, teaching me how to manage a large company and hundreds of drones. "I know your situation," he told me, and I said, "Thank you. I appreciate all this." At home, I spent my time baking. Calculating. Kringle wanted a cake with fruit to associate with winter, and I had to design the perfect one.

Several times, Kringle explained to me how the modern delivery system worked. Fae children across the cloudlands, along with godkids from other planets, wrote him letters requesting gifts or wishing him well. The event grew so popular that godparents shared their magic with him to take the day off for themselves, and eventually there were so many deliveries to be done that Fairy World in general shut down once a year, sending all Fairy magic straight to Kringle for just one day. Exhausting work, he said, but he wouldn't trade it for the sun.

"How did it all start?" I asked as Krisday evening drew near. I had hot chocolate, he had nervous jitters.

"My drones needed something to keep entertained. I studied languages in school. It started with visits, with conversations, with asking children about their interests."

"It's lovely," I said, hands clasped. "What you do. I'm a biased businessman and raise my brow at the thought of giving away so much for free, but… I respect your work."

Kringle turned to me. "Would you like to try tonight?"

The spittle froze beneath my tongue. "What?"

"All that pure, unfiltered Fairy magic." He tilted his head. "It's not a 'blink and you'll miss it' event. All that power, all that strength, coursing through your blood. Care for a taste?"

"Oh, gee… I shouldn't. I really shouldn't." I twisted my fingers in three knots."Kris Kringle, that's your magic. I have no right to it." Anyway, what if it made me sick? I'd never been good at controlling it and my body could hardly handle what little magic I did possess.

"I insist," he, well, insisted. I rubbed my hand behind my neck as he added, "A little treat for working so hard."

"Thank you, Kringle, but I really shouldn't. I'm not sure what it will do to my system."

"You could deliver to a neighborhood," he coaxed. "Just one. Connect your thoughts with the storeroom. Simply think of the present you're looking for and it will appear in the palm of your hand, no effort at all. At least consider, Head Pixie. The experience is stunning."

"Maybe just… one little sip, sir…" It would be nice to deliver gifts to the Blue Castle. Even if Anti-Bryndin couldn't see me, and even if I hadn't physically worked to create or obtain the gifts myself, it would be a nice thank you to Anti-Bryndin for that year he'd given my pixies presents long ago.

Kringle took the greater portion of magic that night. It rained down on him as though from above, swirling about him and frizzing my hair. When it flooded his person, it manifested physically in electric blue, then deepened into red. He glowed like a flash of light in a dark room- impossible to look at for the first seconds when your paths crossed, but there, still there, nonetheless. I understood the shades now. I lowered my hand, realizing then that I'd backed up and practically flattened Sanderson to Kringle's office wall.

"There," Kringle said, turning to me. No longer the lean, calculating drake I'd come to know this year. His ginger beard had filled out. His belly expanded. He wore a literal coat of magic, which spun itself apart and together again every time he rustled. His energy bloomed. He motioned me forward then, and it took me a few seconds to react. I stumbled across the room, and he took my wrists and pulled me in. One quick touch, a single breath from his mouth to mine. That was all it took. The magic was too potent for him to offer any more.

The universe lit like flame between my lips. I was everywhere then- everywhere and nowhere, both rooted to my boots at the North Pole workshop and flying on the wing in another world. The taste of Hy-Brasilian air exhilarated me, and Kringle's large hands held me steady when I swayed. I closed my eyes for a long moment, shedding the walls of the workshop. When I raised my head again, there I was. Standing in a cold Blue Castle corridor, floating just above a red floor runner and dripping bright sparks. Present and invisible, standing on two different planes, more magic in my body than in the Rainbow Bridge itself. I wiped my mouth on my wrist, which sent my half-visible skin tingling. Traditionally, Anti-Fairies didn't care for Krisday. They preferred their holidays to be exact and the random, ever-shifting placement of Krisday ruined their calendars. I summoned a gift in my hands anyway, and it appeared in a silent pop of air. Nothing much. Just a blanket. I didn't know how often Anti-Bryndin settled in on a couch when we right-side-up folk weren't around, but it seemed like an appropriate gift for Anti-Fairy World anyway.

Fairy magic radiated through my blood like triple streams. And this was a mere taste. I snorted at the thought. There was so much power in me, I no longer had to beat my wings to keep airborne. And my wand? A thing of the past; a snap of my fingers served just as well. This was what it must be like, I realized then, to be a Council Robe. It was probably the closest I'd ever be. I hummed and flew down the castle corridor, searching for Anti-Bryndin in the dining room, the reading room, the hall. It might be Anti-Fairy custom to refuse a gift offered out of obligation, but I intended to prove this one genuine.

"High Count! Guess what I brought-"

I found him in the preening chamber and stopped completely dead. Anti-Bryndin wasn't alone. But he wasn't with the High Countess either. Or his bodyguard. Or his honey-lock partner. Or any Anti-Fairy for that matter. And despite the room they were in, they definitely weren't preening.

A fairy stretched on his stomach across the brown couch where Anti-Bryndin and I had once snuggled for a whole night. His fluffy hair curled about his ears, arms folded in front of his sleepy, pleasured face. I couldn't smell him, but I knew from his size that behind those arms, his cheeks were coated in freckles. This was him. This was the gyne Anti-Bryndin had been preening when he failed to meet me for Samhain. Slowly, my eyes dragged down to the floor. A purple robe lay in a tousled heap by the coffee table. The Purple Robe - er, the fairy who used to wear it - he was completely naked. And so was Anti-Bryndin, kneeling over him and rubbing massage oils on his freckled skin. Between circles of his hands, he'd lean down to kiss Purple's neck or murmur in his ear.

Vieldgarr. His name was Shaiimin Vieldgarr. He turned and kissed Anti-Bryndin back, softly, near the mouth. I blinked. Sparks fizzled down my sleeves. My fingers tightened into the box. Was this how Anti-Bryndin usually acted around Fairies for "business"? Naked? Kisses? Did he want to do this with me? Had he meant anything he'd ever said about the value of non-romantic relationships? Or had he been buttering me up all this time so that I'd be more likely to… to…

My form flickered, half tangible. Neither had noticed me yet. Just a ghost to them. A curl of a shadow. A trick of the light. A whimper of the moon.

What the blitz? 'Business' my crown. Emery was right. That snatter of a smoof just told me exactly what I wanted to hear so he could wrap me around his little claw. He figured me out and nailed the delivery. I grabbed my hair, hissing once through my teeth. And I walked right into it. Worshipper of the Communication spirit indeed.

I stood and watched them be tender and erotic for a minute before I spun around and left. Guess I should have known no one would ever be friends with me unless they wanted something. Idiot. With a fuzzy knuckle in my mouth, I stormed back to the front of the Castle and chucked my present into the camarilla dining room's fireplace. It went up in green flames with a sizzle and a pop.

You know what? I loved him. Anti-Bryndin was my friend and partner. I was raised a fairy, taught that anything less than lifetime monogamy was wrong, and I'd still been okay with him preening with and mating other people. Because when you have a best friend, those relationships don't get in the way.

But he'd lied to me. He told me his feelings for the Purple Robe were "only business" time and time again for millennia. And this wasn't business. If he couldn't respect me enough to tell the truth, how could I trust him on anything else… like if he'd really not manipulate me, or if he'd really keep romance out of our friendship much longer.

… Why, after everyone warned me, did I still give him a chance?

I didn't deliver any presents to the Castle, but I didn't say that to Kringle. When I refocused my attention in his workshop I was there again, blinking and clutching my hand against my cheek. He was busy, a gossamer king, sitting on the floor with his legs folded like a flower. I let myself out of his office, too stunned to disturb him. I'm sure the holiday deliveries went fine. I found a distant catwalk above an empty workroom, the conveyor belts as still as my thoughts, and lay there alone.

"You stupid pixie," I said, and pushed my knees against my eyes.

I stopped accepting his offers to visit then. I stopped doing a lot of things, even eating. The Eros Triplets called me in for a check-up. I didn't say much. I finished the fruitcake recipe, though I don't know whether it was any good. I've never tried it. Kringle called me back to his office a few weeks later. I came slowly, pressing my perscription shades close to my eyes. His office was even grayer and less decorated than I'd realized, even after all the time I'd worked for him.

"Fergus," he said carefully as I sat, "don't take this the wrong way, but…"

"I'm being let go, aren't I?" Too many days off to look after sick pixie. Too many days off to look after sick me.

He knit his fingers and leaned across the desk. "I'm sorry. I know how much this job meant to you. Believe me, I still have your nymphhood letters that you burned in the firepit, begging for me to take you in. It's a shame you gave up the practice of letter-writing when you were older. I could have offered you a job sooner."

"Please don't try to spare my feelings, sir. I have none. Lay on me the facts."

"I've been talking with the Eros Triplets," he said, lifting a mug of hot chocolate to his lips. "You're under a lot of stress and caring for so many pixies. Given your circumstances, I think it would be best if you withdraw yourself from work and devote your time entirely to caring for your family. They need you more than the business world does."

That cracked me. On the outside, I bowed my head and thanked him for all he had done.

"Keep the shades," he suggested when I started to slide them off. "They look good on you."

"You think so?" I tried to muster the enthusiasm to care. Kringle extended his hand, unmittened and plain and exactly like any other fae hand, and shook good-bye.

"Perhaps another time, H.P." He slipped me a card with his crystal ball's serial number scrawled across it. "Feel free to keep in touch."

I found Sanderson and went home. I gathered up my pixies in a methodic way, counting them off by touching their heads as I walked past instead of looking them in the eyes. Without expression, I served them a dinner of cereal and sent them to their beds, except for Wilcox who wanted to pull an all-nighter with a new Sparkletwist novel, and Hawkins who wanted to hang out with his friends (specifically the nix damsel he'd fawned over since childhood and whom I suspected he'd want to court when old enough), and Keefe who kept popping up in search of water, and Bayard who wanted to pass the night wandering the woods in search of animal tracks, and Madigan who went with him because he had just discovered the existence of owls, and Longwood who went with them to supervise. Then I withdrew to my bedroom, and softly shut the door.

Ten minutes passed as I stood there, leaning all my weight on the hand that rested against wood. I massaged my mouth. I did not deal well when unstoppable forces met my unmovable plans.

I don't know. It seemed like this… was like when Pip's dragon pinned me in the canyon crevice long ago. I became overwhelmed by an outside force. Unable to keep myself together no matter how much I wanted to. In my bed, I drew my knees up to my face and wrapped my arms around my head. I stayed there for a while, not making any noise.

"A while" was days. It was weeks. I snuggled down among warm blankets and pillows with my eyes squeezed shut, just wishing the world away. Sanderson pinged himself into my room sometimes to bring me food and water (I don't remember how often) and I could only assume Ambrosine and Emery were looking after my other nymphs. Rice didn't say much during that time. At first he took advantage of having most of the bed to himself, since I preferred to curl among my pillows, but he quickly grew bored of lying at my feet. He took up a position near my face instead. He always did hate me mentioning it, but he passed hours snuggled under my arm by choice, resting a paw on my hand.

"Don't touch that!" became my daily routine once I finally got up again, and "Put that down. Oh dust, come down from there. Careful! Why don't we slide off the roof very slowly? And with our wings extended. Fritz- What did I just say, McKinley?"

I flopped across the couch after a scare with the tree that overlooked the drop-off, still holding young Thane, and mopped my forehead with my sleeve. "I'm not cut out for this."

So I called on Emery the next day, who appeared in the kitchen door without enthusiasm. I flicked my fingers through my hair. "I need a night or two on the town by myself, Em. Can you stay here and watch my pixies for a weekend?"

"Of course, brother dear. I've nowhere to go and my every thought bleeds for you. I exist to serve and live to please."

"Oh, swallow it." Releasing Springs into the air, I brushed at my hair with my fingers again. "Right. Ah. Sanderson can't ever be left by himself or he reverts to self-destructive safety behaviors, but you know that. Don't let Hawkins near the fireplace or the stove. Wilcox is a good kid and generally keeps to himself. There's no point in questioning him; he does what he wants. Longwood is coming into his rebellious gyne phase, so I wish you good luck. Caudwell gets anxious around rustling papers and Bayard teases him constantly about it, but then again Bayard teases everyone. If Madigan goes outside, stay with him to ensure he doesn't leap off a cloud after a bird. Keefe needs to take his sore throat medicine with every other meal. McKinley you'll probably have to read to sleep. Sanderson's gotten him interested in music; he might like to sing hymns. Ralston and Walters have a bunkbed and it's the former's turn to be on the top, whatever the latter insists. Thane's been hoarding all sorts of things lately and stashing them under the sink. Meals are in the freezer- they're all wrapped in foil and individually labeled. And make sure Springs eats his vegetables and doesn't wheeze himself to death. Promise me that under no circumstances will you fall for the 'What's that over there?' trick. Ah- I'm running late. I'll scry you tomorrow morning."

"Wait," she called after me as I waved my wand, "which one is which?"

Magic ration or not, I intended to see Iris. I met her in the thin park we often visited, on the wicker bench between the ivy and commelinas. We talked for twenty minutes, and when she finally got up to leave, I stopped her with a touch of my hand. I knelt on one knee, wings spread, fingertips brushing the walking path.

"Iris," I said. "I didn't rehearse this speech out loud for a reason. I wanted to ask this face to face. See, I didn't recognize it at the time, but when you came to Samhain, that meant the world to me. When you called me out at Fairy Con for bartering you, I needed that wake-up call. You were right about that. You were right about Reddinski and not afraid to say so. You've let me talk about my past and problems, and I've enjoyed sharing my secrets and listening to yours. You've always called me H.P. and honored me not only as Head Pixie, but as a friend. I've known you several thousand years now and you've become very dear to me. You bring me greater happiness than I've had in a long time. Would you do the honor of allowing me to court you?"

Iris said nothing. A long moment passed, each wingbeat wrapping a cord around my windpipe. She didn't move her hands to her mouth or stumble back or flutter in delight. Her arms, fists clenched, clutched her chest to grip her shoulders, and her eyes spoke only one thought.

Fear.

"Um," she said. "I think you're a good friend too, but I'm… not sure I want to take another step just yet. It's a little soon. Can I think about it?"

"Oh," I said, not sure what else to say. I'd been turned down by several of the damsels Ambrosine had encouraged me to meet with growing up, and several more during my Earthside wandering. I'd been relieved when China had accepted me, and I thought I knew Iris better than I'd known her when I proposed. Was I misremembering?

"It's not a 'Never,'" she said quickly. "It's a 'Maybe not right now.' I have to think. I'm so busy… I'm not ready."

Maybe she's out of season, I thought. Technically you could ask permission to court any time, but it was normally after two Fairies' heat cycles synced up. That's why couples who grew up with one another married so young. I'd visited Iris at least once, sometimes two or three times a week, for thousands of years. We'd had our share of drinks and laughter. But maybe she was like me, often slow to pick up clues. I hadn't wanted to offer flowers until she gave permission. If she was like me, maybe she hadn't noticed I was trying to bring out her romantic side.

And maybe she wasn't interested at all.

"Yes," I said, standing up again. I brushed grit from my palm on my shirt. "Take your time and let me know."

I decided not to tell her I'd bought two tickets for a certain party, and I'd planned to pay for all the drinks. She didn't need to know, and I didn't want to let them go to waste, so I went to Serentip alone. The glowing sign swaying above the road read Roxanne Roebeam performs tonight. I leaned against the doorway, a thump in my throat.

One step. Just one little step and I would be through the door. The party would be on; no one would care, surely? This was the inviting environment that I so craved, one full of kindness and respect and acceptance of everyone's strengths and flaws. Somewhere there were no obligations or deadlines and you didn't have to stress about letting anyone down. Where nobody paid you a second glance if your crown was broken and your wings were square.

But I couldn't make that move. Instead, after another few minutes, I stripped off my bracelets and slammed them in the trash bin outside. "I'm getting too old for this."

It wasn't long before I had the next nymph. Early. "It's stillborn," I said, hunching in the creaky kitchen chair. "Why is it stillborn?"

"I'm sorry, sir," Sanderson whispered. "I guess on Krisday, too much magic…"

"It's a body. A corpse. It didn't have any magic. It still had flight casings on its wings…" I raised my head to fix him with a strong stare. "Dying dustless is the worst of all fates. When you're dying, you can at least find comfort in the fact that your magic will be recycled through the energy field for others to draw upon someday. You make others stronger with your death. But to die dustless is to die useless. There is no heaven for you then, only darkness. And there's no way back. Ever. Do you understand?"

He gazed at me plainly, quietly, with his hands clasped behind his back. "Yes, sir."

Ambrosine buried the baby for me. I packed the newborn supplies in the bassinet and rolled it from my room into the hall. It came to stop at Emery's door with a thump. She came out to look at it, then at me. I floated there, staring in silence.

I couldn't focus. I pushed everyone away, especially Rupert, and finally couldn't stand to have him around at all. Luis and Dewdrop stayed with me, Juandissimo kept busy with school, but I took Rupert to Arthur Cracklewings and asked if he'd take him in. "I can't do it," I said, voice low so Rupert wouldn't hear me even though we were on the porch and he'd wandered off in the garden. "I'm raising too many kids. I need drones who aren't difficult and Rupert's the most disagreeable one I've ever met. He isn't happy here anyway. He needs someone's full attention and I can't give it."

"Does he preen as well as everyone says?" Crackle asked, tightening the end of his braid.

"Oh, the preening's smoofing wonderful. But don't let him know you like it or his big head will burst."

The week after that, Iris scryed my bowl. She sat in front of a blue wall painted with white stars, but I couldn't see anything else. Someone muttered offscreen, and I thought it might be her coworker Starla, or maybe a family member. Was she scared to do this alone?

"I'm sorry," she whispered, almost choking it, and it confused me to find that she was more upset about this than I was. "I've really enjoyed our meetings and our dinners, and if you're still willing to work with me, I'd love that, but I'm not ready for courtship. Please don't hate me."

"I'm not mad. It was a question. You're allowed to say no."

"Please don't hurt me," she blurted.

Those words hung between us like lights around a trellis. I stared at her for a moment, wondering if that's why she'd called my bowl instead of meeting in person. Because I was a gyne. Because she thought I might lose my temper. Which was ridiculous- had you seen the dame? She ran races and lifted weights for fun. She swam laps in half the time it took me to climb the stairs to her office. If she were a gyne, I'd back the other way down the hall. Might be the only Fairy who could ever beat Anti-Florensa in a fight.

And she was scared of me?

"I'm sorry to hear that," I said, the words fluttering from my tongue just like they had the time she'd told me she wouldn't make it to Samhain. "I would have loved to court you. But this is your decision too, and you're allowed to say no. You don't have to keep working with me. Or if you want to keep working with me, we can talk about your godkid project through scry bowl just like this. I'll get a file basket so you can poof me anything you want to work on." I paused then, working through the next sentence and trying not to show any emotion. "You changed your mind about Samhain late. I won't expect you to change your mind about this, because I trust you if you say this isn't what you want in life. But if you do change your mind, please look me up. It's been a pleasure working with you."

We didn't meet anymore after that. Besides, I wasn't really needed. I'd been invited to get the project started and organize the paperwork. But now that the angel branch had been added successfully, Iris could ask other branch heads at the agency what to do. She didn't need me. Like Rupert and Kris Kringle hadn't needed me.

"You know," I said to Rice that night, "it would have been nice if she said yes. I miss falling asleep with someone next to me who didn't kick and squirm and maybe wet the bed. I miss waking up and finding someone else there."

"What about me?" he asked, sounding legitimately offended. "I sleep with you, like, every night, strudel. And I've only wet once."

I rolled over and looked at him, squinting without my glasses. "You're a cù sith."

"Oh." He lifted his paw and looked at it. "Yeah. I forget sometimes."

Rice lay his head back on my shoulder, nuzzling his cheek into my skin. He yawned. We were quiet for a while. Then I asked, "Did you tell your wife you planned to go cù sith? Or did it just happen?"

"… Well, we weren't sharing the bed anymore. I was already used to being in the doghouse when I took this body." Then he said, "I liked Iris," which I almost want to kill him for looking back on it now.

"Me too," I said, nestling into my pillow. "I just wish I knew how to make friends." Until now, the other party had always done it for me. "I wish… things stopped falling apart. China. The Eros Nest. My parenting classes. Anti-Bryndin lying about the Purple Robe. Kris Kringle laying me off. The stillborn. Now Iris… Nothing seems to go right anymore. The cakes are working out, but that's just business. Friends, damsels, or drones, I can't get anyone to like me. The Anti-Fairies tell me I have this invisible 'karmic weave' that they alone can see, and apparently I'm going to be someone important and influential someday. But what's the point in being influential if no one cares about me?"

"I care," Rice said softly. He placed his chin on my shoulder. "Look… You're my best friend, cinnamon. I'm a lot happier now than I was when you first took me home."

I stared at the wall, curling my fingers in the bedsheets. "Sometimes… I don't think anyone would care if I went back to the Eros Nest. I could spend the rest of my life in there. I'm forgettable. No one would visit me."

"I care, sugarball."

"You're a pet. You don't count."

Rice closed his eyes. "Pals before gals, fudge bar. At least we have each other."

"Friends before it ends," I mumbled, and drifted into sleep.

The universe works in strange ways. One wingbeat you're alone at an outdoor bar enjoying the sound and solitude, gazing at something stupid like the stars by yourself and glad of it, and the next you're waking up in a strange apartment beside a brown-eyed nix whom you vaguely recognize but who looked prettier in the low light of the sugar bar, trying desperately to remember her name as you perch on the edge of the mattress running your palms down your cheeks and wondering what you're doing with your life and why no one has pounced in your lap and asked you for orange juice. And maybe she'll brush back your hair while you heave gray goop all over her bathtub, and that slimy tail of hers might wrap around your ankle and lure you back to the softness of the bed again. And maybe it repulses you and maybe you enjoy it and maybe you can't remember or can't decide, and that's confusing.

Maybe you wipe your mouth on the back of your wrist and thank her for her time, and a few nights later you're tangled in the arms of some other dame, this one equally confusing but she doesn't make you sick.

Maybe there's a third. Maybe you do things with her you've never done with anyone else, even your wife, and it opens your desperate eyes to the possibility that you just haven't found the right partner yet, the right experiences. Maybe that's what keeps you going the next decade of your life, in and out of reality.

I didn't like the term "sentimental," but I always had been a hoarder. For the first time in my life, I began hoarding names. Names of damsels I met for the first time after I had slipped away from home, and names of damsels whose homes I wanted to slip away to so I could have a first time. I kept a jar on my shelf with the serial numbers of their scry bowls, and after long days when I'd been at my wings for hours without a rest, answering questions and being badgered with begging and it all became too much, I would shut myself away for the night and toss one stone at random into my bowl, and play my cards with the hand I drew.

For the first name in the latter list, I spritzed my tongue with a freshener before I even asked, because I knew she would say yes despite the wedding band around her middle finger. Her husband starved that part of her; she married him for his money. Ambrosine had kept up with her father, and through him I had some vague ideas of the whole, well… affair. "Laika," I told her after she'd picked up, "would you care to meet me tonight near Claystrif's glass shrine for a skim? The free food and flowers are on me."

And of course, the night progressed from there in the way one might expect of a leprechaun who'd already mothered the only child she'd ever have and a drake whose reproductive system played by its own set of rules. Despite her vapid attitude and hollow conversation, we parted in the morning on good terms, and she never came off my list. From then on we always knew that we could call one another any time when the need arose. That happened often.

I suppose I was salty, I suppose I needed closure, needed an excuse to let go of the lows of my past, needed to win, because I moved straight down an old list and crossed each name but one off without fail in a matter of decades; that was my weekday project, and Laika my way to unwind come Thursday nights. Fawn Whiteripple hadn't had the chance to know me in my younger years, but I made darn sure she wouldn't forget. Rozika Glitterdust? Swept her up while she was on the rebound, entertained her for nearly a month, then left her back where she had started again when I noticed she was getting attached. Tania Lightriser? She'd never been a 'good girl' to begin with. Rice and Rupert's mother, Starla? I took her dancing once again and made sure he knew it (though Rice didn't speak to me for a week). Charlene Dulcina showed little interest until I waved enough cash beneath her nose, but it's a rare collectible that doesn't have to be bought. Sindri Winkleglint alone I never won over, because she was married and determined to stay that way. That drove me insane for centuries upon centuries, but I wasn't far gone enough then to pursue a darker path and take her by force.

And it took me decades, but I finally got to pick up where I'd left off with Mary Black at the Academy party. I could still remember kissing her the first time in the school library before Magalee so rudely pounced on us, back when we were kids. Funnily enough, I found her again because we showed up at the same party on the same night. I'm not normally one to believe in fate, but it seemed more than mere coincidence.

I overheard her name, and one look confirmed her identity. I'd never forgotten those deep, dark eyes. Mary looked good. Pointed hat floating above her head, dark hair chopped to her ears, comfortable brown and white clothes, earrings shaped like stars that actually changed color and brightness with her mood. She gazed at the mirror behind the sugarbartender, sipping at a large mug of lemonade. I floated up right behind her. She blinked in alarm, but I put my hands over her eyes anyway. "Guess who."

"Excuse me? I don't-"

"Shhh." I smirked. "I'm a Head Pixie incognito. Call me H.P., formerly Fergus Whimsifinado, and let me buy you a drink."

Mary took my hands, sliding them down to her collarbone. For a moment, she just stared in the mirror, at us. Soda glasses clinked nearby. Then she turned her head, brown-eyed and beautiful. "You came back…"

"Always wanted to. Never had the chance until now." I tilted my head. "You know, you never once called me ugly or a freak. Thank you for that. It's kept you in good standing where my lustful fantasies are concerned. They're rare for pixies, but you're in most of mine."

Her eyes darted down. "Your wing notches-"

"Don't matter. She's gone now, and unlike some people, I don't think flirting's a crime. Good dust, Mary… What's new lately? Don't tell me you still live in Novakiin."

"Dust no. Blitz my parents. I'm a self-supporting lawyer now. I do Anti-Firebox v. Ivywish work, standing up for Anti-Fairy rights. It's disgusting they're all still discriminated against in this day and age, and if it weren't for the clients it brings me, I'd be upset so few of my fellows are willing to take their cases."

Her face started to flush, mostly around the neck. I knew she'd dive into a full rant if I let her get started, and I could listen all night. "Fritz, I've got a thing for lawyers," I mumbled, resting my folded arms on her head. I smiled lazily at that perfect mirror. "You enjoy it?"

"All these years, and still do." Her smile quirked in one corner. She traced her thumbs along my knuckles. "I'm living proof that you actually can make a living in my career."

"Mmhm… Tell me more. How are taxes going…?"

We talked for a couple hours and rented a room in the hotel just two buildings down. Couldn't have kept our hands off longer if we tried; I was kissing her as early as the stairwell, two curls of her hair wrapped around my thumbs like they'd never left. We stayed together all night. That satisfied my obsessive need for closure, though frankly I'd been expecting more out of her given how passionately our younger selves had tumbled around each other in the shadows beneath the stairs, our awkward bodies crammed back there among four other pairs. There was this certain way she would kiss (and still did), pressing in deep and then drawing out with her mouth still open and warm effervescence smelling like a fifty-fifty swirl of our two sugary drinks…

I remember back then I did my best to fight her drawing-out periods, pulling her down again and twisting her wrinkled hair around my fingers, because all my life Ambrosine had forced me after this or that damsel, but she was the one I chose and I'd wanted us to become something. She'd lured me there to the stairs with her talk of politics, because she was so passionate about change and Anti-Fairy rights and everything about restructuring society that I believed in, as well as everything about breaking the rules that I didn't, and I'm not convinced Sanderson didn't somehow inherit his fascinations with music and the color red from her.

What Mary lacked in money she made up for by being brilliant and blunt. Back then I thought that if fairies really did only give their souls away once, she'd been the one who captured whatever fairy was left in me. We'd even begun to mumble about the wing notches we were going to get a year from that day, until one of the drakes in the other couples kicked me in the shoulder as I began to play innocently with my belt buckle. "Not in front of the rest of us, you twit."

That was when we'd separated. Mary in search of her housemate to request the key to the room they'd agreed to rent out just in case, and me for another drink before I'd bumped into Ambrosine and lost my temper. Blitz that key, or I'd be a happily married drake right now. To a lawyer who actually profited from her career, no less. Apart from a pitying glance she'd given me the following day when the gossip was flying through the Academy, I hadn't seen her since. Not really. Then here we were, hundreds of millennia later, and after all my daydreams about could-have-beens, we did become something. Something tasteless, something confusing, something that didn't work…

Dust, I'm always such a babbler when I drink - always, always - and I let slip about my pixies, the parthenogenetic reproduction. Our blissful, sleepless night turned to early morning, and ended with one of us thrown out into the hall and clothes hurled after, the entire hotel jolting awake to witness our shouting… Freak of nature, liar, you said you were clean down there… I gave you a chance to make up for lost time, but this isn't what I signed up for. I fight Ivywish cases, I'm making a difference in the universe, I'm bettering Anti-Fairy lives- what have you done in the last three hundred thousand years that's meaningful at all?

Tch. It's just the way damsels are, even the most promising ones. I thought perhaps it should be said.

I clung to Anti-Bryndin like a flea for centuries, not caring if he'd lied to me. I never told him I'd witnessed his passions with the Purple Robe. We exchanged cold words and split apart a few times, licking our wounds, but our roles as High Count and Head Pixie kept us chained within arm's reach. It seemed that every decade or so a new ambassador had to be coronated, and other politics kept us busy in between. So we never broke our friendship long. He invited me to the Seven Festivals every year, knowing I couldn't resist his soda and massages. I tried so hard, but I love parties. I don't know what happened when I floated away with Ilisa Maddington's trading card in my hand. I think I was drunk. I wish I was drunk.

"Fergus?" Emery murmured, tapping at my bedroom door. "I brought soup and a card game."

I didn't answer, nor did I have the strength to maintain my usual anti-magic bubble around my room. Finally she poofed in and found me sitting at my desk, pointer fingers at my lips, just gazing at the card. She dropped the game, and the soup almost went with it.

"Is that-?"

"Ilisa's holographic card, yes. Anti-Bryndin gave it to me. Only ten copies of her were ever printed, and I'm the only one in the universe who possesses the original. This thing's worth more lagelyn than the cloudlands even have."

We were silent. Then, "Where's your holo card?"

"I gave it to him."

"Was that smart?"

"No. He was pretty clear I'm never getting it back." I cupped my chin in both hands and leaned forward on my elbows. "It's official. Pixies are a neutral race who play for both teams. I've now fallen into vices with both Fairies and Anti-Fairies."

Emery's wings blipped. "You did?"

"Yes… I preened the High Count naked."

"Oh!" She laughed in nervous relief. "I thought you were going to say you went even further."

I swiveled to stare at her. "Further?"

"I mean, the gossip when I was in school was that Anti-Fairies and Fairies actually can blitz if you're creative enough." Emery shrugged, glancing at the ceiling. "At least you didn't do that."

I didn't know how to respond. I just sat there, hands gripping my knees, mouth open. My wing lifted in the direction of Anti-Fairy World. "I preened him naked."

"Yeah, and I'm proud of you for not going further."

"Emery, I went further today than I've ever been comfortable with any drone. This wasn't supposed to happen. My life is falling apart; that's why I didn't see it coming until he breathed that last 'Is this okay?' in my ear. But by then we'd gone so far, I didn't know how to say no. It hit me today that Anti-Bryndin never liked me as a friend. He seduced me because he wanted a political alliance. I mean, he technically hasn't done anything wrong… I'm not even sure he knows I'm mad. I don't know if he's a mastermind planner taking this step by step or if he legitimately does think we're friends. You were right. You were always right. I don't know what I'm doing."

Emery chuckled dryly. "Took you a while to figure that out."

"All I know is that we took things super far today. He manipulated me. It was all a trick. Right?" I ran my hand down my cheek. "Maybe I'm overreacting. He probably didn't mean it; he always asks if I'm okay. He never forces. I'm reading too much into this."

Emery didn't reply, only floated there with her hands clasped at her waist. I brought my steepled hands to my mouth again.

"I thought I meant something to him. He said these courgettes, these platonic relationships, were treated as seriously as romantic ones on their side of the Barrier and I believed it. I blitzing believed it."

"What exactly happened?" she asked, lifting a hand in a lame attempt to calm my lines.

"We usually get undressed for preening in the lava pool… Anti-Bryndin said if I was comfortable being undressed for that then I shouldn't have a problem with sitting on the edge with our feet dangling, only he said it poetically. I don't know." I pressed a few fingers to my eyes, drawing my lower lids down. "Anyway, we were doing our thing and all of a sudden I realized I was in his lap, naked, and he was holding me beneath the wings. His fingers sort of moved down my skin. He was feeling me up like a prize. You don't do that with friends. He seduced me. I think. We were drinking though, so I guess that's partly to blame. We didn't kiss, but we went so far, Emery."

"Not as far as you could have."

I glared at her. "Further than I meant to. Isn't that what's important? I might have stopped if I wasn't so drunk- Dust, Anti-Bryndin can take sugar like a champ. Even when I stay two sodas behind him, I always seem to come off worse. And for a pixie, that's saying something."

"So you didn't try to pair with him even when you were naked," Emery clarified. I rolled my eyes.

"I didn't, but that's not the point. We sat on the steps preening, undressed, and I was in his lap while he touched all around my wing joints."

Emery cocked her head. "He touches them when you get your massages, right?"

"But that's for massages. This is for preening. Preening's not like massages; don't ruin massages for me. We didn't pair up, but I'm not comfortable with how far we went."

"At least he didn't try anything on you."

"Forget it," I muttered. To her, all preening was weird and nuances didn't exist. I covered my face with my hands, rubbing up and down. What Anti-Bryndin and I had wasn't fully platonic anymore. Courgetteship had stepped sideways into amitie amoureuse, or something of the kind, which wasn't what we'd agreed. "I suppose it was inevitable. Anti-Fairies always want to get physical. I can't do this."

Emery squinted. "You're physical with Fairy damsels all the time."

"I don't know," I said. "They're just partygoers. They're not real. Anti-Bryndin was." I clenched my eyes into my cheeks, clenching my hair too. "Em, I believed him. With all my core. He said courgettes were a thing. I should have done follow-up research before I dove into this. He knew what I wanted and he told me what I wanted to hear." Exhaling a sharp cloud of magic, I slammed my hands on my desk and rose to my wings. "I'm done. The day I preen with another Anti-Fairy is the day I wake up on Plane 23."

She fluttered back. "I'm sorry the friendship didn't work out."

"Of course it didn't," I muttered, pushing past her for my washroom. "I was in it. And I'm boring."

I went back to Fairy damsels after that, trying and failing and failing and failing to catch someone's eye when I despised myself so much. I knocked on China's door again with a ring instead of a milkshake, though she didn't open it. I tripped over my feet at Kalysta's booth every Fairy Con, begging for attention. Screaming for it. Nobody else cared about me, but wouldn't she?

"I'm good at following directions," I told her once, leaning so far over her table that she scooted back in her chair. "Write me your worst fantasies and say the word. No desire is too outlandish, no request too brazen."

"I'll consider it, sir," she said, eyebrows raised.

"You can stuff my pouch with as many babies as you want. I don't care. Just take me for me."

"I'll keep that in mind, Head Pixie."

"H.P."

"Please get off my table."

She wouldn't touch me. She wouldn't. Not even Kalysta wanted me anymore. Kalysta who'd found me beautiful once, called me her favored drake, had scrawled erotic fantasies about our nights in bed and scattered them for all to read. With my hands shaking at my chest, I turned and saw Anti-Bryndin floating there in Anti-Fairy World, smiling with those gentle amber eyes. So I flew back to him and let him sweep me in his arms. "Is this okay?" he breathed in my ear, and it was. Dear dust, it was.

With his return came the massages, and I stopped being mad at him for fondling my wings. I just melted at his touch. We preened naked more frequently after that. I stopped caring. He liked me, and that was all that mattered.

Out of curiosity, I even dared to spend a night with sweet Irica Caudwell, whom I'd always remained good friends with following my return to Novakiin after Sanderson's birth. Frankly, I didn't care if she was a tomte. Like I said, I'd grown numb. I absolutely knew how to play the game without fritzing my lines, without blending our magic and putting myself at risk for asphyxiation… Tomtes aren't people to be afraid of if you aren't one for emotions like me.

"How did you know you loved my mother?" I asked Ambrosine one night as he stepped from the drone cabin. "Was it all because of her hair?"

He exhaled, combing his fingers through his own. "Solara was gorgeous; I won't deny that. And playful and charming and free… Everything I longed for as a child in Praxis's stuffy home."

Playful meant easy. Charming meant seductive. I leaned my head to one side. I was conceived after their first night together, living proof that a moment's flaming passion could unbalance the rest of your life. The desire to melt momentarily into one another's bodies came so easily to them. "Hey, is…"

My throat clouded on the word. Ambrosine looked at me curiously, and I grit my teeth.

"Is there something I can take?"

"'Take?'"

"We're Wish Fixers. If anyone knows the in and out of drugs, you do. What do I need to take to experience sexual desire?"

Ambrosine paused. "You don't need to lie to me. I know how you spend your vacation days."

"I'm glad we're on the same page," I said, refusing to blink. "Yes, I've had the company of a few damsels. I find them entertaining. I like how hard they try to crack my smile. They never win. It's part of the brand image I'm building up. But I want to try something with intense throes of passion, and I'll need an artificial supplement for that. What's a heat cycle supposed to feel like?"

"It's different for everyone, but for most, the phase begins at the end of winter, just as the cherubs begin their migration. Then you enter eighteen months of dropping hints. It's more of a want than a need; there's a strong itch to get out of the house and mingle, especially with damsels. You're a little more forward, a little more willing to touch someone's arm or wear shirts that show a little more pouch. You'll see most drakes cut or tie back their hair to expose more neck and pheromones. I remember that in the off centuries, I wanted snuggles for intimacy. During heat, that wasn't enough. I recall aggressive peers. Competition. Flushing. Daydreams." Ambrosine placed a hand on his stomach. "A longing to be pregnant. As scary as it was to learn I was expecting you, I felt immense relief and satisfaction. When you don't get pregnant, you spend the whole phase squirming for damsels' attention. You never sleep well and you grow more and more desperate. And if you reach the off years without pregnancy, it's a blow to your mood. Off-cycle depression is a very real thing."

I frowned. "I've heard some drakes get so desperate, they deliberately create negative energy in the field to attract Anti-Fairies. Then they try seducing them."

"You read too many tabloids," he said, drifting down the steps. "But yes, that happens sometimes. Horrible encounter for all involved. Hmm… It's possible your brain isn't recognizing fertile damsel pheromones. We can run a few scans."

"I know who's fertile," I said, not following him. "I just don't care. I don't have a drive to mate with anyone. Mating has its moments, but there's no spark down there. Growing up, I thought describing our species as 'seasonal breeders' with 'heat phases' was an exaggeration. Everyone always seemed, I don't know… controlled. I'm finally starting to realize they've had to work for that control, and that left unchecked you get gynes like Reddinski who just take what they want without consent. I…" Ambrosine had turned back to me, waiting with a thoughtful stare in his blue eyes. I rubbed my knuckles. "That's who I've been sleeping with: somewhat young damsels in heat who haven't mastered control. But they don't love me. They just need someone, anyone, who's willing to scratch that itch for them, let them enter so they get their release even if I don't get mine. These sexual feelings are real to everyone except me… and I don't like what I'm turning into. Can you give me something so my heat phase is more typical?"

"How much do you weigh?"

"164 petals."

Ambrosine shrugged. "I'm happy to try. Who knows? Maybe we can fix your interest in Anti-Fairies too."

I hovered there between the drone cabin and my manor long after he'd gone inside. My brain buzzed, forming criss-crossed webs in complex circuits from my head to my chest.

"Smoofing dust," I said aloud. "I think I'm into Anti-Fairies."

It made too much sense. I'd never had a steady Fairy partner in my younger centuries. I hadn't felt intense marital passions for China when I'd married her. I didn't get along with my peers in school. I preferred to surround myself with Unseelie friends, and with friends like Rice who weren't opposed to cross-Court relationships. And considering who my foster parents were, was it really a surprise?

I'm into Anti-Fairies.

Of course I hadn't noticed. I'd grown up in Ambrosine's household, after all, and his dislike for their kind had taught me to suppress such deviant thoughts. Where I grew up, liking Anti-Fairies was not an option.

"I like Anti-Fairies," I said again. The thought lit new curiosity in my veins. And it felt… right. Rice had theorized that Wilcox was into Anti-Fairies, and we were genetically identical. Wilcox had to get it from somewhere, didn't he?

Ambrosine brought me a scented candle and a pill bottle the following week. "Here," he said. "Witch's hip flowers dipped in pheromones that were manufactured to mimic Ilisa Maddington's are the most potent aphrodisiac we know of, not counting Eros arrows. When you suspect you're entering the time you would normally have a heat phase, take these every evening. Not in the morning. It's very important that you only take one, and let me know when you do so I can adjust the dosage if necessary."

I took two that night and didn't tell him, figuring that since I wasn't in my phase, two would make it like I was. I did this for a week until I threw up, then switched to the single pill like he'd initially suggested. I went out in the evenings having showered, wearing short shirts, and tried to frequent the places I expected to find damsels. Some days I went out looking like the Head Pixie in case that was attractive. Some days I went out without my glasses and with my hair brushed the wrong way, in case that was better. I felt a little more aroused, but didn't find any takers, so I went off the pills and resolved to try again at the end of winter.

And… I fell into vices with Anti-Bryndin. On purpose.

It had nothing to do with the pills; I'd stopped weeks ago. But I had to know if I liked Anti-Fairies, and after months of practicing in my head, I finally worked up the courage to ask if he's teach me the Anti-Fairy way.

He studied me curiously. "You cannot use magic to alter your body for intimacy, Head Pixie. Our species are different and it cannot be done."

"You can't maintain a magic transformation if you go tingle-fritzy," I corrected. "I'm a pixie. We're above extreme emotions. I didn't go tingle-fritzy when I mated with a tomte. I risked it even though I would've died had I lost control. I can maintain a calm attitude with you."

Anti-Bryndin hesitated, pressing a single knuckle to his lips. His ears flicked back. "I cannot do this. You are Soil. I am Breath, and younger. It is you who takes the lead, and you will not know how to use an Anti-Fairy's parts, and I will have to explain, and I will be ashamed and ruin it."

"Fairies don't interest me. Maybe Anti-Fairies will. Just give me this. I have to know."

"It is unlawful. When the Council learn, we will both be punished."

"Then you'd better keep your squeaky mouth shut."

Anti-Bryndin stood there, stiff, with his arms dangling. Finally he said, "My people are a reject of Tarrow's first attempt to create the Fairies. I am smoke who was cast out and cut down. I displeased the spirits. I am below you. Why would you want me, Head Pixie?"

"You treat me right."

He stared at me in bewilderment. The fur stood on end around his neck. "Is this about wealth and my position as High Count? Is this status what guides you to lust for me?" His finger snapped up, jabbing in some direction to the side. "If I were not High Count, would you still want me?"

I tilted my head. "I probably wouldn't have met you. So… I guess not."

Silence.

"Wrong answer?"

"I am only of worth as a person because I was born a leader?" he asked, floating forward. A second hand came up to meet the first at his mouth. "Is my kindness nothing? … In your head, do you call me friend, or High Count?"

I had to think about that. "Does it matter?"

You could have flicked a coin into his bulging eyes. "I am offended! I would like you even if you were not Head Pixie, if you had taken time to know me. If you like my soul only in this incarnation as Anti-Bryndin and would reject it in all others, that is mockery! I am the same person if I am High Count or born in another status for a life! I am equal regardless of species or language or body!"

I waited until he quieted, holding his fists by his mouth with his elbows pointing down. Then, "Kitigan, I have a schedule to keep. Are we going to blitz or not?"

And I had him there. Gaping. Helpless. Beautifully dangling at my hand. Because Anti-Bryndin had seduced me for political reasons, and now he'd tangled himself up. When we'd begun, I was the new ambassador drowning under too many pixies. I needed him. Now I'd gained enough experience to master my role, and my people were destined to reproduce exponentially. He couldn't deny me and lose the alliance he'd worked so hard to secure. He needed me. The puppet strings worked both ways.

Clutching his crossed hands to his chest, Anti-Bryndin took a step back, rapidly shaking his head. "I will not do this, Head Pixie. I am offended."

"You mate with people all the time," I pointed out, skimming forward. Anti-Bryndin moved back and hit the cold stone wall. "That's how you express friendship in your culture. I thought we were friends."

He shook for awhile, wringing his hands and messing up his hair. Afraid of me. Just like Iris. Wow. Just… after all the times I was nice to him, wow. I was willing to share my people's intimacy with him, preening him over and over. He couldn't do the same. So I walked out of the room with my arms up in disbelief, giving him time to think it over. I looked up and down the hallway both ways to see if Anti-Cosmo floated there eavesdropping as he so often had before, when I was a few millennia younger and could stand under stress without collapsing. He always used to eavesdrop. I'd come to appreciate his snide commentary. I'd kept my promise of bringing him thorny flowers, and I think he loved our bickering sessions because his mother never gave him the attention I did. His self-esteem wasn't very good and I could see it grow when he defended himself to me, bragging that he was better than he was.

But Anti-Cosmo wasn't there. Gone off someplace with a bachelor colony. Gone like everyone else I'd tried to count on. Our paths wouldn't cross again until that three-headed dragon ravaged Faeheim…

Anti-Bryndin didn't speak to me for four years. He didn't even pretend to hang out with other ambassadors to make me jealous. Or if he was then he didn't do a good job of rubbing it in my face. I tried to sit with him every Council meeting, but he never stayed for refreshments, and Sanderson was too innocent for the discussions I wanted to have anyway. Most likely, he wanted an apology letter written out in flowing script. Possibly in blood.

Whatever. If he wanted to walk away from our friendship, I wouldn't stop him.

Having lost interest in the world of Anti-Fairies, I turned my bored attention to the Fairywinkle family. I craved stimulation and taunting them with my presence satisfied that hunger nicely. I walked up and down the border, always keeping on my side by deliberately not scarfing my pheromones. I spent a lot of time simply floating in the Emper tram station. That meant I came to know Florensa Cosma well. Charming damsel once you get past her scathing personality, actually. I almost seduced her… except I made the mistake of asking her to a nice dinner instead of just suggesting we sleep together.

"I have a husband," she snapped, shoving me from her desk with two hands.

"Oh, yes," I drawled. "I forgot dames like you prefer garbage kings like Fairywinkle to self-made millionaires like me."

Her jaw fell open. "What did you just say?"

"I said you wouldn't hesitate to tangle souls with Fairywinkle if he ever got you alone. And here I merely suggested dinner."

Florensa lunged from her seat, flying into my face and waving her nagging finger. "You listen here. Who do you think you are, denouncing my moral compass like that? I respect my husband's memory and have no intention of defacing it with an affair! You ought to be ashamed!"

She ranted on quite a while, not unlike her nephew Anti-Cosmo when things didn't go his way. Spittle flew in my face. I took off my glasses to polish them clean while the dame continued frothing, and decided Fairywinkle could have her after all.

I spent several cold winters meandering the fields where snowflakes and sharp green droplets that leaked from the acid lakes on Plane 4 above, because it was dangerous and burned me and no one would bother me there. I found a sturdy zinflax tree, the black bark thick with spines and roots twisting above the ground. "I'd better practice my Anti-form," I decided. Just in case. Taking on the looks of our anti-self was frowned upon in school, and since I hadn't had a reason until now, I'd never really bothered. My first time shifting turned out to be a flop, and I could only maintain it briefly before snapping back to normal. After a few weeks, I could roost from a tree branch, the ground swimming above my head.

Taking on fangs and claws was easy enough, but my fur came in green. And try as I might, I could not turn it blue. Turns out I could be any other blue creature in the universe, but the moment I deliberately tried to be an Anti-Fairy, green was the only color choice available. I'd heard rumors that the only Fairy form an Anti-Fairy could shift into was one identical to their host, and vis versa. I suppose that applied to Pixies too.

A century or two passed. This will sound super Zodii, but when Anti-Bryndin did finally throw himself in my lap, blinking at me with massive puppy eyes… I could have sworn his entire personality had undergone a complete flip. He seemed a little distracted, he didn't make the same gestures, and though the accent was there, his speech didn't stutter in the same way. Like he'd mentally checked out and let the nature spirit that supposedly lived inside his head - Winni - take control of his body for this. I kind of wish I would have asked who flirted with me that night, but at the time, as long as I learned how Anti-Fairies did things, I didn't care. He undressed. I changed my form. Anti-Bryndin shared his magic until I was stable, and we melded together as one.

"How does it feel, Head Pixie?" he asked afterwards, flitting up to me where I sat on the couch, back in my own body. Neither of us had dressed yet, though I had a blanket. And a mug of cocoa in my lap. I took a long sip, considering my answer.

"Confusing. I had hoped I might have some latent interest in Anti-Fairies. I thought maybe I'd suppressed it since I grew up with a father who's always hated your kind." I glanced up at him, still hovering naked and unashamed. "You're High Count. You have more concubines than I have fingers. What's physical desire supposed to feel like?"

Anti-Bryndin pondered this, combing his hair with his claws in a very un-Anti-Bryndin way. "Very cold. Like ice which covers the body. The more you fight, the tighter it holds you. It squeezes in until you gasp and cry. When you shiver all your body and you wish to fall on your knees and flap your wings every way, that's when you know you love. But you are not an Anti-Fairy, so I suppose it is the opposite. Hot instead."

I stared into my mug.

"… Did you not like it, Head Pixie?"

"I wanted to like Anti-Fairies. I wanted this more than anything."

"And you had one." Anti-Bryndin hesitated audibly. "Was this wrong for you?"

"Dust, I need to think." I pinched the bridge of my nose. "I know how your kind pair up now. I've mated with an Anti-Fairy. I, a Seelie Courter, know what that feels like. If I liked Anti-Fairies, this should be the most satisfying moment of my life. Yet here I am. In the end, during this aftermath cooldown… It's not much different than mating with a Fairy. Why did I think it would be?"

Anti-Bryndin stared at me very hard in a way that prickled my skin. Those eyes sizzled in a way I'd never seen them sizzle before, like in his mind he was examining each of my limbs from every angle in preparation for tearing me apart.

"I guess… mating's not that special to me." I thought for another second, then corrected that statement. "It was special to have you be the one who did it with me. I will say that. I like you as a person, but there's no attraction there."

"But you did not hate pairing with me."

"No, no… It was fine. You did good. I enjoyed it, as far as I ever enjoy mating."

"Interesting," Anti-Bryndin said, drawing out the word. His glittering eyes pressed deeper. I stared into my cocoa. It had marshmallows and peppermint flakes. I took another sip, then closed my eyes.

"Thanks. You're a really good friend. Better than I deserve. I'm glad you waited until you were comfortable with this before we did it. And I'm glad to know for sure I don't like Anti-Fairies."

So what's wrong with me?

Maybe I'd bitten off too big a bite with Anti-Bryndin. Anti-Fairies are only capable of mating upside-down. That alone had been bizarre. On top of that, I'd had no choice but to take their drakes' parts, dissimilar to my pixie anatomy in more ways than I'd ever imagined. In their culture, those born in the Soil year ranked above Breath, so Anti-Bryndin had insisted I take the dominant role. No amount of guidance could make fumbling blindly for his stomach pouch feel at all comfortable (I'd barely kept my confused and flushing magic focused on maintaining my form). I was more familiar with the recipient role, and nothing under Anti-Fairy clothes makes a lick of sense.

Too much, too fast. I had to try again. I hadn't liked preening with drones at first either, but it had grown on me in time. So when the Seven Festivals came around again, I slipped from Pixie Village in anti-pixie form again. Since Anti-Fairies mate like crazy, someone would take me. Someone had to.

I learned pretty quickly that anti-pixies weren't welcome there. Just like Fairies, the Anti-Fairies didn't want me. So I withdrew to Anti-Bryndin's side and tried to swap our roles. "Take the lead," I pled, and he said no, said he could not make advances on an older drake, said he would not dishonor the nature spirits. I probably lost my temper, he probably spilled some tears. We split up again. This time longer than ever before. Unless you count Anti-Cosmo drooling for my attention when hypersexuality consumes his brain, I never did find another Anti willing to humor my curiosity. Figures… The only person who enjoys my company has a disorder that literally turns him off to anyone with strong pheromones. I finally find an Anti-Fairy who likes to flirt with Seelie Courters and he has the brain of a drone.

I suppose that's why Anti-Fergus clings so tightly to Anti-Kalysta. Anti-Fairies like to believe they're "subspecies blind," but just try hooking up with someone at a party if you don't fit the mold. Nothing shatters your confidence like several dozen rejections from a species who normally can't keep their hands to themselves.

And the most hilarious part? I did all of that just waiting, I suppose, for someone to tell me not to. Waiting for Ludell to grow sick of spying my face on the screens, waiting for Venus to tell me it "wasn't necessary," waiting for Charite to haul me back to a world where someone else was always there to provide for my pixies so I didn't have to, waiting for Ambrosine to deliver a calm warning about controlling my gyne instincts, waiting for Emery to call me bad names, waiting for Dr. Ranen to sit me down for another STD talk even when it became obvious that the same mutation which had stolen my reproductive rights had stolen the reproductive risks too, waiting for my old pal Sparkle to slap me on the back and cheer and beg for details when he heard I hadn't been a virgin for millennia, waiting for Pip to plant me another tree and then pull me into one of those acidic kisses that I'd hated in the moment but had never forgotten, waiting for Kalysta to materialize in a fit of jealous rage over the way I willingly chose to give myself to them and not to her, waiting for China to gaze at me from a distance and turn her mournful head away without a word, waiting for Sanderson to put his foot down and tell me to stop living in the past like I'd always told him every time he begged to return to the way life was before Longwood had been born, waiting for my Refracted counterpart to write a letter denouncing my sins the way she used to back before she lost her husband and fell into the same desperate search for a reason to love life that I did, waiting for Anti-Fergus to clear a place for me among the dishes and old food containers on his dirty couch, waiting for Nephel to pay a visit to the cloudlands in order to see me for once instead of Hawkins, waiting for Leonard to visit me since I couldn't cross Fairywinkle's border into Emper, waiting for Rupert to sneak out at night, waiting for Iris to change her mind, waiting for Kris Kringle to mark me on the "naughty" list and try to find something else he could take away from me when I really had nothing left…

… No one even cared that I had chosen not to care. What kind of living is that? I didn't think I was subtle about how much I hated myself then. No one bothered to ask the psychologist's son why he didn't know how to work through himself what his father and sister worked through with others. No one came. Those who came didn't listen. Those who listened didn't stay. Those who stayed weren't willing to fix my problems while I wallowed in bleakness on and on.

It's a dirty cycle. It traps you like a drug, pins you by your core. Before you realize it, one weekend becomes two, then three, and six, and twelve, and years, decades, on and on- and when the world stops spinning you find yourself hovering dangerously close to the tip of the clouds that overlook the Atlantis Ocean, hands in your pockets, wondering if it's fact or myth that gravity would suck you straight down to the bottom if you slipped. Or jumped.

It's an odd sensation, wishing you were selfish enough to die while at the same time hoping beyond hope you'll live forever.

… Palomar helped. One might even say with little exaggeration that he fished me back to reality. His name means 'dove' or 'bird of peace,' and I chose it well. As my biological clock chimed and began to reset, I went through the usual motions of locking away the coffee and soda in favor of the obscure food cravings and broody home-makeover tendencies. I swear he was born with a patient nod upon his face. Even without using magic to draw upon my memories, I can recall standing there on my manor's front steps, staring out over my plot of cloud while Wilcox and Bayard tumbled about changing shapes and nipping one another's legs. I remember holding Palomar to my chest just before I planned to find him a milkmother, saying to Hawkins, "It's just not enough. Nothing fills the void."

I'd been looking for comfort in the wrong places; all shady street corners I'd never dared to walk in the days before I'd begun the Academy, sugar bars that I knew were bad for my health, damsels I should have learned to let go of. I didn't want to live in the past, and yet it was sapping up my time and attention. That wasn't right. Lines had to be drawn and slaps administered upside the head by my own hand. Dust, it hurt. But I could do this. I knew I could. I had to be strong for someone, and it was entirely acceptable for that person to be the me I wanted to become.

So over the next few months, while Palomar was with his milkmother, I ditched the cookies and pastries. I took that jar of damsels who were down to meet with me on short notice, rode the tram past Mistleville, and chucked it over the edge of Fairy World to the ocean far below. I found new stones, new serial numbers, and made some calls with shaking fingers. I networked. I joined a baking club. I took up reading the paper again. Even wrote an article for it. Almost two, but I didn't finish that one. That was okay.

Anti-Bryndin and I talked about how I'd offended him by implying I only cared about him because he was High Count. We worked out a lot of things about our relationship and went on break from preening - on break from each other - for a long time… a really long time. And I accepted that.

I went on walks again. I kept up with local events nearby. I attended picnics and charity banquets. I forced myself to get up and get out, and it seemed like maybe it was working. Oh dust, I wanted this to work. No one was coming to rescue me.

I drew out some funds of mine. Ambrosine loaned me more. I hired an architect and she built me a bigger building - a big, big building - and I looked upon it and saw that it was good. I erected a sign out front, and I told anyone who'd listen that this was Pixies Incorporated. Pixies Inc. for short; a business that sold a few things, shipped a few others, and would aid those who struggled with any part of their legal documents. Any kind of documents. They came to me. Just a trickle at first… but maybe someday we'd be something more. We had to start somewhere.

Palomar came home from his milkmother, weaned and gentle, his tiny hands bound in mittens to keep from scratching his face (though it never stopped him from trying). I was ready for him.

And… yes. It was spontaneous, but I sat down one night with Sanderson and Longwood and spilled all of it in a very calm and stoic way. I told them I didn't want to do this anymore- the disappearing act, the slipping away both physically and mentally, dances and damsels. I wanted home to be the place I went when the stress began to wear on me. 'Sprigganhame' was to be my place of refuge, and forget that trash about turning my back on society.

We signed a contract on chesberry parchment, because I knew that would make me stay. Then they both took my hands, and I let them lead me wherever they wanted to go. I listened to their juvenile advice about what they did to perk themselves up when they were, well… "sad" (although frankly, I'm not sure how Longwood thought sewing hats was supposed to help; I found myself getting frustrated every time my stitches weren't as even as his).

My pixies combed their shiny hair, straightened their spines, and pulled on the white shirts and gray suits that matched so well with the pointed caps disguising their broken crowns. They wanted to work for this fledgeling company, this Pixies Inc. They were ready to search for meaning too. For me.

Curious, you know. How when all the world is black, gray can look so white. We worked together every day, me taking care of my pixies and them looking out for me. Our village slowly began to be something.

That started to be enough.

END ACT 3


A/N: I've now released my FOP headcanon sideblog on Tumblr. I've organized my worldbuilding notes, timelines, house layouts, family trees, maps, and fanfic summaries on there and will be releasing character profiles on a regular basis. And I draw stuff. The sideblog is named Riddledeep. Check it out if you're interested in the nitty-gritty details about my interpretation of the FOP world and/or want hints about my future 'fic plans. I'm trying to be less dumpy with side details, so the Riddledeep blog is a helpful way for me to share my love of worldbuilding without bogging down story events. It's purely bonus content; you're definitely not required to read my posts to continue enjoying my writing on FFN or AO3.

Origin of the Pixies and Frayed Knots are now both on hiatus while I work on some other projects. I hope you've enjoyed the stories thus far, and as always, thanks for your love and support!