A/N - This is not a one-shot. This is the M-rated copy of the Frayed Knots chapter "Cageflight," since Frayed Knots is firmly a T-rated story. This piece replaces the chapter, so you can read it and proceed to chapter 30 without missing any plot. You can also read it standalone if you don't mind missing 28 chapters of background context.

Anti-Fairy culture is sociosexual. Here in the Eros Nest, scornful Fairy media hasn't shamed their natural behaviors. It's also Anti-Cosmo's first time acting against his 160,000 years of belief in the fae zodiac, so he's hypersensitive to his experience with Anti-Cinder. I wanted to reflect these things by giving details, and that evolved to the point a rating change was required.


CONTENT WARNING - Contains violence (Killing an Anti-Fairy to force regeneration), manipulation (Pavlov's bell), and sexual behavior (Including dubious consent and mentions of bat/marsupial/magical reproductive anatomy). Consider reading on AO3 for full list of tags. If you came here for marsupial bat people mating like humans I don't even know what to tell you. If bat anatomy squicks you out, this is not the 'fic for you. No wishy-washiness we anthropomorphize like MEN!

Because Anti-Fairy culture is sociosexual, consent can look pretty dubious. If you asked him, Anti-Cosmo would insist he gave full and enthusiastic consent, but as a reader from a non-sociosexual culture, you might be less comfortable. If you're highly uncomfortable with dubious consent, this is probably not the 'fic for you.

Sidenote - Anti-Cosmo is YOUNG. He is legal adult/drinking age in Anti-Fairy World, but still mentally adolescent-ish. Age is blurry with the fae, but what's certain is that he's not yet the grown man we see in the show. Decide for yourself if you are comfortable reading M-rated sex scenes about young Anti-Cosmo and several OCs (male and female).

Thanks for reading my warnings. I want to do this right. Enjoy!


Cageflight

In which Anti-Cosmo tries a new diet fad in the Autumn of the Scratching Pines


When Lyndon slammed the metal door behind me, I tried to remind myself the Eros Nest was not a prison. I'd interned here for centuries, hadn't I? I knew how the cogs turned, how organization flowed behind the scenes. The cherubs had built their menagerie to protect each and every species, not harm them. Each enclosure simulated the environment as naturally as was practical, down to the correct soil composition for every false tree. And the butterfly netting strung in waves all around us was simply decoration, dividing the Anti-Fairies with a preference for meat from those who favoured fruit. That was all. It wasn't a prison. It was my new home. At least until Fairy Court summoned me to trial.

Moist tropical air pattered my face the moment I flew in. My wings scraped against a tree bough dripping pink leaves. I swooped beneath two branches and veered back to catch one in my claws. It felt smooth, lacking the natural roughness I was familiar with back home, but sturdy nonetheless. Once settled upside-down, I tucked my hands in the ruts of my arms and wrapped my wings as tight as they could press. A pity I'd been tossed in on such a cold, dreary evening. It would take hours to properly dry my fur. I shuddered, tucking in my head.

"Ohh… This place feels so much more immense once you're actually on the inside, wot?"

I'd never noticed just how sprawling the Anti-Fairy enclosures were while I'd interned at the Nest. It made sense, of course. Mine were a migratory people, always anxious to feel open air against our wings. I couldn't see a single wall from the tree where I now rested, including the one I'd just left behind. Thick undergrowth and wild purple vines closed me in like a soft embrace. I studied a large yellow flower blooming near me on another branch. The petals were long, swirling like a cone. A whisper flower. I'd seen them in bouquets on Winni's day during the Seven Festivals, but never before in the wild. I flicked out my tongue. The buttered taste of nectar smacked it instantly. My stomach growled.

The false grass here looked violet, not grey, and the leaves a deep, hot pink instead of black or blue. I was accustomed to the cool mountains of Luna's Landing… but I didn't mind the warmth here. This was a place I could roost alone if I chose to without risking a hint of frostbite. Was this the natural environment my people had favoured before we were cast from Fairy World?

My father hailed from a traditional family. Even a few years after the war broke out, Grandnana Anti-Starling still lived with her counterparts in a traditional estate. Granddad Anti-Gonzo flitted by on occasion, leaving her with two sons - Anti-Robin and Anti-Hawk - to raise alongside their Fairy and Refracted counterparts. Although Fairy-Gonzo welcomed him like a brother, my granddad always preferred a live colony to a standing one. He'd roamed back and forth across the cloudlands as he pleased because back then, there hadn't really been a border.

On my mother's side, Grandnana Anti-Miranda had lived in the little town Esterale with her Fairy partner Lucas Rainwings. Her life hadn't exactly been traditional, but she'd certainly dwelt amidst Fairy World flora and fauna. I reached out to brush one of the bright pink leaves waving near my face. Raindrops flicked off its smooth surface and bounced to the mud below. Had my grandparents roosted in trees just like these, with the same colour bushes and grass and flowers sprinkled about them? When I pictured the past, I never envisioned so much colour.

Thunder snapped through the surrounding sound system. I jolted, then gripped my roost more tightly and scowled at the ceiling. Thunder? In an enclosure for those with sensitive Anti-Fairy ears? It echoed all throughout our space, and I doubted the Triplets would switch it off even if we begged. Ha. The Eros Nest was filled with false storms like these. They passed from one enclosure to its neighbour, bringing rain through the overhead sprinklers and all the unpleasant side effects with it. We'd only been spared the lightning. It was "natural." Apparently our buildings weren't. I shook my head.

Now what? Sit here and await my trial? Flee the Nest and live a life on the run thanks to a crime I didn't commit? I picked the end of my wing clean with my teeth, muttering my options aloud. Underneath the noise of rain, crickets chirped. A bird called out, though it sounded synthetic.

Horus had named three creche fathers when I'd asked about the enclosure. Three colonies. Anti-Indigo and Anti-North had already chosen their follower drakes, so Anti-Binky was supposedly the only one who would welcome a foreign male. I dropped from the branch and flapped my way through the trees, rubbing my arms up and down. Cold rain weighed on my wings. I flew low, scraping the undergrowth with my belly so if I lost my balance, it wouldn't be a high drop. My black shirt snagged a lone twig. It ripped, but I flew on. Echolocation was futile in the rain. It took all my strength just to see.

A moment later, I spotted a dark stream rushing past several brown boulders. I landed on one and knelt to take a sip. I'd hardly licked twice when a shadow passed over my head. Two feet thumped down on the opposite bank. Leaving my tongue extended, I slowly lifted my gaze. I knew his freckled face from my escorts across the border, but the build of this drake was much, much bigger. A squeak leapt from my lips. I'd never seen the black facial pattern of pilots so thick before.

He was no von Strangle, but clearly the Anti-Fairy counterpart had been granted the manticore's share of their brawn. Fairy-Binky could have perched atop his bulging bicep without a care. After all these years void of Anti-Fairy touch, I simply couldn't resist sizing him up. His legs were on the thinner side, though his chest boasted of a lifetime spent powering his wings. Black fuzz grew in thick spirals around his pectorals, mixed among a modest amount of purple freckles.

And he stood completely in the buff. Even his pouch had been left exposed, the slit temptingly gaping wide. A certain well-endowed part of that strong body caught my eye and filled my mouth with instant drool.

"Um. Ben'argenta, good drake." I pressed against the boulder, laying my ears flat. "Sina'rija Anti-Cosmo Anti-Lunifly d'colimperia Anti-Coppertalon. Zodii d'Järveii. Canetisana?"

"You are punished?" he grunted, using Snobbish. He meant my black pyjamas. His voice was low, colder even than the icy water dripping down my throat. Even so, I swallowed dry air.

"I was sent to stay here for a time. Not long."

"Stand on feet." I did, but his stare continued to burn my nose. "I am creche father of Sandstone colony. My territory is wide and my strength is fierce."

I chirped assent, eyes downcast. Rain snaked under my collar and drizzled down my back. Anti-Binky stepped across the stream without straining for reach, bringing himself directly before me. That, um, certain body part sort of bobbed between us. A single long barb scratched my stomach and tore my thoughts away.

"You seek to stay here?"

"I have nowhere, Father. I seek a colony. Any who will take me."

Anti-Binky studied me with squinted eyes. I held very still. If he didn't accept me as his follower drake, I had a nightmarish future ahead of me. Neither Anti-Indigo nor Anti-North was likely to take me in, so I'd be left to forage for food and shelter completely on my own. My claws flexed in and out of anxious fists. I kept my eyes low and tried to control which signals I released in the energy field.

In the end, Anti-Binky snorted. "We are the proud people. Here, you wear no cloth of shame. Remove these."

I stripped down without hesitation, keeping my stare fixed on my feet. I'd worn my skirt when I left home with my bachelor colony. I'd kissed Anti-Kanin undressed a dozen times and of course partnered with Anti-Apollo, but I'd never been so positively naked in public before. Even in grappling class at school, I'd always fooped my clothes on instead of changing in the locker room by hand.

Lyndon had let me in through the Employee Access door. I couldn't sense the public visitors' tunnel and its mesh netting this deep among the tropical plants, but I was acutely aware of my bare skin nonetheless. One of these days I'd stray near the viewing area. Any Fairy could walk by and see me. And every Anti-Fairy around would see me.

Blue. Bum. Naked.

"And the ring."

"My… ring?" I glanced down at my right hand, which still bore my turquoise betrothal ring as it always did.

"The ring is your shame. Remove this."

I swallowed. "Um… I don't…"

"Remove it to join the colony. Keep and you cannot."

"Ah." In slow motion, I slid the ring over my claw. I almost never took it off. Actually, I wasn't sure I ever had; it only really came off when Anti-Juandissimo swiped it. I clenched it in my fist, then whipped around and hurled it as far into the undergrowth as I could possibly throw. It clattered against rock somewhere beyond the bushes. My wings crashed down. I shook my head, blinking my nerves away, and faced Anti-Binky again. I held out my upturned palms. "There. It's done, Father. Just as you asked."

Anti-Binky pointed to my eye, and my wings sagged even deeper. "No… Please, I need my monocle to see!"

"It is of outside."

"Yes, but it helps me… Oh!" I covered my face, then wrenched my monocle away and threw it in the mud. "Fine. As you wish, sir."

Anti-Binky clicked his tongue impatiently. I pressed my body close to his, head bowed. Those barbs prickled at my skin. After a moment of silent touch, he grunted and pulled away… leaving me standing there. Out in the rain and more naked, technically, than I'd been the day I was born.

Then I shook my head. Calling out a thankful squeak, I took flight after him.

Anti-Binky led me through the trees, never straying from the stream. Even at our speed it was a long minute's flight, leaving me marvelling again at the size of the whole place. Then the foliage broke apart. The tall, sand-coloured rocks which gave the colony its name littered an open grove. Our stream tumbled over a ledge and into a little pool. A brown cave with a lopsided opening sat nearby. A familiar waterfall, familiar cave. Ah. I glanced into the open viewing tunnel on my left and winced, but hovered faithfully near Anti-Binky's side. At least the Nest had closed for the night.

"Here," Anti-Binky said. "We are Sandstone."

"Sandstone," I agreed, dipping my head. Anti-Binky licked my ear, then flew back to do whatever he'd been doing before he'd stumbled across me.

"Anti-Cosmo?" called a familiar damseline voice the moment he'd gone. My ears pricked. Anti-Wanda? What was she doing here? Hadn't she gotten out? I spun around to find her dangling from an artificial chesberry tree, only to realise a blink later that this dame had red eyes. Not pink.

"Oh, Anti-Wendy!" I flew up to join her, catching the branch lightly in my claws. "Good smoke, I'm delighted to see a familiar lovely face."

She glanced over me with a grimace, unfolding her wings halfway. "You shouldn't have come. You're smarter than this. You deserve the outside world."

"As do you, my dear. Sadly, I have no other choice. I was sentenced here to await my trial in Fairy Court."

That didn't translate effectively into Vatajasa, but I repeated it and Anti-Wendy picked up some basic understanding. She nosed my cheek in apology, eyelashes tickling my fur. "And then you'll leave?"

"Someday I must. My betrothed awaits." I pushed my head back against hers, scrubbing gently with my forehead. "I have vakrindu to give and promises to keep."

"Vakrindu," she murmured, sounding sleepy. "So many apologies, still so young." She turned her face so I rubbed my head against her cheek instead of her skull. "How long will you stay? Will you join us for migration? Dm. Venus sends us every year."

"Mm… I don't suppose I'll be allowed to. I am a prisoner, after all."

"Ah." Anti-Wendy turned her head away- the other way. Her entire body shifted about so she no longer faced me. I blinked at her fondly, and she glanced over her shoulder. Those lashes fluttered again, this time in clear invitation.

I knew how to do this. I'd done it with Anti-Apollo. He'd been a Soil year, so I took the dominant role with him despite my utter inexperience. Anti-Wendy wanted this too. She shivered against my cautious touch. A request. Weeping her pleas.

I partnered her gently, mostly through a yawn. When I released her, Anti-Wendy purred in a way that sort of sighed. She stretched her arms. "You have no idea how long I've waited for you to do that…"

"Oh, I've an inkling, dear. We've been friends for a very long time."

"But you don't want to stay?"

I frowned, picking one of my hind claws against the roost. "Well, it's not much of a life, is it? A follower drake instead of father?"

"That depends what you dream of," she mused, thoughtfully chewing the tip of her claw. "Have you ever been a follower drake? Perhaps you can try. Then take over from Anti-Binky if you're unhappy."

"True…" I frowned. "Of course, there's nowhere for him to go if I do succeed him. What's to stop him from wrenching the colony back and throwing me out?"

Anti-Wendy shrugged her wings. "Speak with the damsels. Treat them better than Anti-Binky does. None of us much like him, but he's ours. If you win the damsels, they'll flock to your side even if he tries to scare you off. You don't need to fight him one to one. We aren't Fairies."

"Don't like him? What of his queen?" Horus had told me he had one.

"I'm his queen." She nudged my shoulder. "But I like my drakes soft."

"Oh. I'm terribly sorry- I didn't realise you had another beau. Which colony?"

Anti-Wendy pushed me again. "You."

"Oh!"

… She liked me? But… I was no one of any importance. Just a wandering sort-of noble who never had his head on straight. But if Anti-Binky's own queen held no loyalty towards him, might the other damsels feel the same? Might I perhaps, maybe… if I tried to…

"Hold on," I said suddenly. "I'd be claiming all of Anti-Binky's damsels should I become creche father. Which would make you my…"

"Yes?" Anti-Wendy asked, blinking a slow blink. Ooh. I rubbed one hand behind my neck, scratching loudly with my claws.

"Ahaha… um…"

Anti-Wendy lifted my other hand, gently, linking her fingers in mine. "It would be an honour to call myself queen to my favoured gentledrake."

She wanted me to mate her. Truly mate her, longer and fuller and more passionately than our mere sociosexual exchange a moment ago, 'til our domes unlatched. A low, uncertain noise trickled up from the back of my throat. "Anti-Wendy, I… I don't know."

She blinked again, more startled this time. Her fingers lowered, beginning to break away. "My eyes?"

"Oh no, darling. It's not that, though I certainly will be in heaps of trouble should I transfer the iris virus behind his back." I combed my claws through my hair. "Honestly I'm not opposed to the idea, Anti-Wendy. I'm more than happy to mate you to your core's content someday, but… um… You see… Don't tell your sister, hm?" Ribbons of frost inked down my cheeks. I snapped my eyes away. "Sh-she stood me up once and I'd hate for her to think I'm projecting my thoughts on you. I mean… twins and all. That's sort of difficult to justify, you know what I mean?"

Anti-Wendy tilted her head, catching the light on that perfect curve of her cheek. "What thoughts are there to fear projecting?"

"Um…" Cold assumptions that I intended to complete the neiidõa checklist game sprang to mind…

Smoke, did I really say all that? I stuttered on my words, trying to say something along the lines of Since I didn't hurt you, I don't feel the same way I feel about her, only it didn't quite come together.

"I think I need to become your sister's vlakrina," I said instead. There isn't quite a translation for the word in Snobbish… Something like "The servant indebted to" or "One who submits in utmost obedience with the hope of repairing relations" might be close. I traced my thumb over each knuckle of Anti-Wendy's hands that I could reach, acid prickles stinging behind my eyes. "Anti-Wendy, I destroyed your chance to rekindle your relationship with a father who wanted to love you. I tried to push it inside the temple within Anti-Bryndin's earshot, or Winni's. I threatened the way of things… and I tried to wrench Anti-Wanda from a drake she maybe loved, all without asking her viewpoint first. I've tried to shake her face from memory, but it haunts me now and then. I hurt that good damsel. I need to show apology. I need vakrindu. And until I've apologised before the nature spirits, I can't truly give my core away."

Anti-Wendy eased her claws through my hair, pushing the opposite way my nervous preening had pulled it. I closed my eyes. Would it be too forward to lean my head against her neck? She brushed my bangs to one side of my face and pressed her cheek to mine.

"You're a gentle soul, Anti-Cosmo."

That same hand of hers traced down my face, my shoulder, my side. It found a hold against my waist. As one, we began to speak. To move. To read. "I'm home," I whispered, easing my body against hers. "Oh gods, I'm home."

I hadn't been sociosexual for years before today, flicking instead from place to place, keeping my head low, keeping away… Anti-Apollo had been my last form of gentle touch, and even then I'd thrown myself too soon into everything, desperate to feel like I belonged.

Anti-Wendy kept her chin on my shoulder, our ears twitching as we drank one another's sounds. And wasn't that funny, I thought, turning to nuzzle her neck. I'd grown up in the High South Region and she in the Eros Nest, but our instincts were just the same. She knew the meaning of every careful movement just as I did, every word painted in her brain through careful motion. Welcome, dear friend, I'll guide you here… Thank you, dear friend, your company is wonderful… We parted ways then and I flew into the cave, asking for names and sharing mine.

Anti-Binky came back late, shaking rain from his fur. I was examining a bright blue flower outside the cave entrance. When he passed near, he paused.

"You seek to mate my queen?"

"What? Yours? N-no, you misunderstand! We only partnered. Our domes stayed shut; I would never-"

He shoved my shoulder, knocking me face-first on sand-coated stones. "I have ten damsels and you have none. Do not watch their tails or I will tear your fur apart."

"Yes, Father," I whimpered, getting up to rub my head beneath his chin. I didn't think the protest 'I didn't know she was yours' would get me anywhere with him.

But after that bump in the road, I picked up the social etiquette within a few days. Even in the Eros Nest, haven for instinctive behaviour it may try to be, my fellow Anti-Fairies hesitated to engage in natural practices in view of passersby. Even the ones that were merely sociosexual. True mating was the same way. It wasn't forbidden, simply discouraged. While the curious faces - Alien and Fairy - that pressed against the mesh walls certainly put me in the mood to entertain, they seemed to have the opposite effect on my companions. Anti-Sapphire rolled her eyes and Anti-Tinsel would scoff and turn away. Most clustered at roost during peak visitor hours, pretending to be asleep. Even Anti-Wendy proved herself a little shy.

I didn't mind greeting visitors. After all, some of the most enjoyable conversations of my early life had been exchanged between Anti-Wanda and myself, separated by this very barrier long ago. To those who asked genuine questions, I gave genuine answers, unashamed of my naked, natural self. To those calling for us to entertain them with affectionate displays, I laughed and tipped my crown. Even winked at one fine elf drake, and he melted into a stuttering mess.

But when the searing white lights dimmed in the corridor and we were left mainly to our own devices… Those were the moments it felt like home. There's something in our biology, I think, that makes the dark so welcoming, that makes us feel so awake. So alive. Those were the times we swirled about one another, brushing wings and singing songs.

And no one sneered at the way our bodies touched.

New and unfamiliar one, pleasant roostmate, gentle toucher, cautious friend, one who knows my day, one who is like family, one who deeply cares… Words without sound that hadn't topped my vocabulary for ages. Some for centuries, a few for millennia. I made use of them all. Anti-Binky repeatedly corrected me when I tried to label him Patient or Understanding, but beyond that, I had no trouble mixing with the group. Sometimes the other colonies even joined us. Not all of them were willing to open up with stories and thoughts, but Anti-Kathy, like me, revealed herself as a former outsider. Only she'd joined the enclosure of her own will, ending up under Anti-Indigo's wing in the Yellow Flower colony.

"Why come to the Eros Nest?" I asked her once, roosting together halfway between my territory and hers. Anti-Kathy gave an aimless shrug.

"My honey-lock partner feels at home."

"Do you miss the open skies?"

"From time to time… but our little son has his father now. We're happy here."

Anti-Brindle was just the opposite. Eternally restless, she longed to leave the Nest; a wing that had never healed kept her grounded. Though stuck-up and stubborn, she was smitten by my storytelling and requested a new round of tales every day. Her frigid glares melted at my charming touch. And Anti-Luis, good glory… He flaunted more muscles than a snake. Good fun to walk my claws along those powerful arms, though I only ventured near the Vinetangle colony once.

I treasured Anti-Wendy most of all. Her lookalike had shattered my core and I didn't want to stare at Anti-Wendy and see her twin instead. But, well… she had a curious fondness for me that I simply couldn't ignore. She gazed at me with moonstruck eyes no matter which way I turned. She purred for me at roost and snuggled in my wings. And when she nuzzled her head along my neck, it felt like Plane 23 on 8. We even bathed together. I was never first to the serving table when the food bell chimed, but more often than not Anti-Wendy would save a piece of fruit in her teeth. At roost she would offer it and I'd brush it from her lips, so close and true our friendship was.

Inherent instinct warned me not to mate Anti-Binky's damsels. As his follower drake, the only dames I was permitted were the ones outside his favoured circle, and only then if I could sneak them beneath another creche father's possessive eyes. I tried to heed the rule, I really did. But to be surrounded by bare tails and exposed pouches after a lifetime of coverage did strange, writhing things to my innermost organs. There were days I squirmed inside, plagued by a pounding cycle of thoughts about pleasure, damsels, pleasure…

I wasn't the only one curious to explore my own body. One sleepy morning, halfway through our routine touches, Anti-Wendy wriggled around so her back end rubbed against my legs. One foot, then the second, grasped my ankles. I paused, holding tightly to her hips. Her wings drooped down above her shoulders. One bumped against my nose.

We hung from our sleeping cave roost, tucked between a few other damsels in our colony. Her weight pulled my toes. Anti-Binky was elsewhere in the enclosure… not that it mattered, I suppose. Anti-Wendy leaned back against me, her coaxing wiggle undeniable. I nodded, shivering, and pressed into position behind her. Our first pairing had been a greeting, too casual. A familiar How are you, my darling? I'm well. I wouldn't make the same mistake. This time we'd partner like old friends.

Without even a blink, I slipped that long part of me between her legs and curled up against her stomach. My barbs grazed a thin stripe of her fur. Anti-Wendy squeaked. I huffed with amusement and adjusted my grip from her waist to her torso, dragging her closer and reaching as high as I could. I caught her wing in my teeth and bit the rough edge, fighting to stifle a squeak of my own. I'm sure she heard it anyhow, accursed dame…

She dawdled. Two fingers ran down the length I offered, though she'd seen it every day for weeks. She dawdled so long that I lost patience and pricked her with my claws. With a snort, Anti-Wendy bent her head. Her tongue traced along my tip, damp and very cold. That's what did me in; my teeth broke from her wing. I squeaked louder than I meant to, and one of our neighbours didn't quite hide a chuckle. Bodies shifted along the roost. Anti-Wendy wrapped her tongue tight before dragging back. Another teasing squirm blasted my senses into overdrive.

And before I knew it, I was scraping through her pouch. Anti-Wendy was a mite taller than Anti-Apollo and I couldn't plunge as far, but the angle was perfect nonetheless. What I lacked in length I had in girth, and if Anti-Lance's novels were to be believed, that was often better. She clutched my wrists like ropes in a storm. Each time I shifted - even a hair - her claws tightened hard between my knuckles. Her tongue flickered across her jagged teeth.

I moved with confidence, leaning in. The enveloping coolness surprised me most. Anti-Apollo, I think, had been too warm, too passive. Anti-Wendy felt like hands left ungloved on a snowy day. Her pouch wrapped like a net for fish and hooked me deeper, straight into a tunnel. Every tiny touch left me quivering, glittering. I loved the sloping rise and fall of her hips beneath my hands. Each time I exhaled against her neck, her wings jerked forward. The roll of her sharp shoulder, especially when it bumped against my jaw, sped like ghostfire through my veins. I glided inside her like she'd lined her pouch with glass. Sliding back felt like slipping through her fingers. In again like pressing silk to skin.

"Is that all?" Anti-Wendy asked when I withdrew the third time.

"It's tamsõsita," I said in surprise, licking bits of fluff from between my barbs. After all, we were young friends expressing close but casual affections without romantic strings getting in our way. It didn't seem right to wander my hands across her breasts. I didn't know precisely where to find the most sensitive points in a damsel's pouch, and prodding about at random seemed like an insult. We couldn't fertilise a child outside the honey-lock. No need to leave a packet of magic against her pouch's inner ridge, or crack our domes to intertwine energy or anything like that.

"… Oh."

Oh? We were friends.

Weren't we?

Despite having communicated through touch, I puzzled over our relationship the rest of the morning. Of course it would be tamsõsita, the second of the thirteen sociosexual expressions to involve internal contact. Anti-Kanin and I had gone as far as Stage 9 (acid habituation via, um… snogging) and I certainly didn't feel for Anti-Wendy what I still felt for him. Why, I didn't even feel for her what I'd felt throughout my brief infatuation with her sister. I didn't really know her that well. Yes, I thought tamsõsita was perfectly appropriate for our relationship and I stood by it. How could she expect me to progress into lükkato, driving into her with heavy pumps instead of playful flicks? Or mrakkusa, where each thrust pulsed at its most severe?

Did she expect a life partnership? Surely she knew I was betrothed.

That first venture into Anti-Wendy's pouch didn't transfer the iris virus, nor did our next. Since she'd left me disappointed, I ensured our second session lasted longer, which pleased her better than our first. And yet…

Anti-Wendy's hand slipped down, taking a surprise hold of the shaft and trying to shove me deeper. The squeak that left my lips was more of a yelp, eartips suddenly flushed bright. I pressed my nose against her shoulder.

"That's, um… as far as I can reach, my dear."

"No," she mumbled, trying again. "It's not even over the ridge." Another tug. "Back there, at the top. Can you feel it?"

I squeezed my arms her around the middle, too mortified to protest as she shifted about in front of me.

The next time Anti-Binky bathed, I slipped into the water with him. I measured myself, fist above fist, and tried to size him up by eye. I came up more than a little, well… short. I told myself that what I lacked in length I had in girth. That had been a charming thought when I was deep inside a damsel… or rather, when I thought I'd pushed in deep. Now the revelation stung my cheeks. I looked away.

Regardless, Anti-Wendy whined for more. Late one night, the whole colony asleep, she kept me up with her tongue dancing along my neck. Her tail end rubbed unceasing circles below my stomach. She sought intimacy. She wanted my favour.

At first I hesitated. After all, she was Anti-Binky's favourite those rare occasions she received him. It's wrong to sneak your creche father's damsels and I believe that with all my core; they're rightfully his, after all. And I tried not to, I swear! I fully intended to stop after that second time, on my absolute honour as an Anti-Fairy. But you see, Anti-Wendy was eager and gorgeous and we were undressed at cosy roost, tucked safe in a soft circle of sleeping bodies, and when your instincts are screaming there's very little you can do to fight back, you know…

… and as a silent bonus, she felt in my arms the way Anti-Wanda would have felt if she hadn't run off that night with some other iris.

I was over my frustrations with Anti-Wanda, of course. I wasn't intentionally projecting any desperate need for closure on Anti-Wendy, nor did I mean to enact the fantasies of a lost relationship I'd longed for all those months I'd meandered alone. I'm not that kind of Anti-Fairy. I just… longed to resolve whatever conflict she had with me and be done with it. Clearly I'd offended her, and until I apologised, I'd never truly live in peace. That's how it works in our culture. With our perfect memories, we never forget the error of our ways. Our society was built upon conflict resolution.

To keep it fair, I tried to alternate which of the twins occupied my mind while I embraced Anti-Wendy. Not being the type to moan names certainly worked to my advantage. On our seventh pairing, twelve weeks after my arrival at the Nest, I caught her by surprise with deep, powerful passion. Anti-Wendy cried out and I squeaked so long and so loudly, it's a marvel we didn't wake the whole colony. Or perhaps they were simply polite. The dame turned to pudding in my arms when we were done and clutched her palms against my cheeks. I smiled at her weakly and combed back my wild hair, trying to pretend my lustful thoughts were satisfied. And pretend my karmic weave didn't gain another dozen knots each time she wrongly assumed I was thinking of her.

I mean, I did like Anti-Wendy. But she wasn't Anti-Wanda. It was hard to think of Anti-Wendy when the unresolved threads of her sister's story were dangling in my eyes.

Oh gods, how I'd wronged Anti-Wanda… May the gods grant me her forgiveness sweet.

Anti-Binky was pulled from the enclosure for routine health examination the day after that. I waited innocently near the food table until he left, thinking hard. You know, it really wasn't fair to pile my feelings for Anti-Wanda on Anti-Wendy. She was under no obligation to live up to my idealization of her twin. So rather than pressure her, I distributed that unfortunate burden, shuffling between a few of the other young damsels who would take me. The older ones scoffed and shook me off, but that was fine. That was fine.

That was how I lit Anti-Wendy's eyes, along with Anti-Tinsel's and Anti-Violet's too. Anti-Binky couldn't miss it. Before then, I was the only iris there. Even a sheltered creche father knew where such colour came from. Oh, he tormented me dearly with claws and fangs, slamming his barbs against the soft part of my belly, scraping until I bled, doing all this directly before our visitors to make a public example of me, pinning my arms like so… When he thunked my head a few times against a rock and snarled in my ear, an odd spark pulsed through my every vein. My lower body twitched with hope instead of fear. Why, if this was his punishment, it certainly didn't turn me off from continuing my play…

Nonetheless, I kept my jaw clamped shut and signalled appropriate shame. If Anti-Binky learned I'd found his aggressive behaviour more thrilling than repulsive, he certainly wouldn't toy with me that way again.

I was shoved to the end of roost that night, Anti-Wendy forced close under Anti-Binky's wing. My body may not have been satisfied by our ventures, but the memory of how she squealed each beat I crashed inside her left me smoofing drunk. I saw to my body's pleasures alone. I dreamed about her lucidly and was in her pouch 'til dawn, and when I lazily slipped awake I thought that maybe, maybe, I did feel closer to her than her sister after all.

A certain bell rang without fail each day when our meals had been delivered near the employee access door. Tuna and valravn mostly, drizzled in this special cherub-brewed sauce that made my mouth water from thirty wingbeats away. Our creche father was always the first to the rear serving table, alone, while the rest of us watched in supportive silence. Anti-Indigo would follow alongside Anti-North, then the children and the damsels. They had to keep their strength up, of course, keep those plump bodies pretty… we follower drakes always ate last. So I devised a plan.

The bell chimed for brunch. When Anti-Binky left the cave, I flitted along roost towards not-so-frigid Anti-Brindle. I kept it quick; it was just a bit of fun, after all. But Anti-Binky turned back, and he didn't find it as innocent as we did. He bit me sharply on the ear and pushed my mouth against his legs. I grovelled between every lick 'til his annoyance was resolved, feigning the rough scrapes left my tongue in pain.

Next morning, when the bell clanged, Anti-Binky spun towards me instead of food. I was too startled to react. I hadn't looked any damsel's way at all, only sat on a rock by the waterfall. He grasped the scruff of my neck and threw me sideways. I slammed against the mesh divider and flopped on a jagged boulder. I don't know what he hit me with, but whatever it was, it severed my tie with the mortal world.

Poof!

In a wingbeat, I snapped awake on the spiritual plane. The first thing I detected was this horrid, scorching stench. I coughed. Old metal bars loomed around me, familiar in their foreign way. Only this time, the cage had been thrown sideways. It lay on the floor, twisted and bruised. Scattered straw piled beneath my head. And the cage door had crashed open.

I lay a moment quietly, little blue soul I was. Wrinkling my nose (if I still had one) did nothing to block out the putrid stink. It was like… like… a soup of serpent hide and stomach chunks roasting on a fire heaped with dragon dung, stirred by a urine-soaked, sweat-dripping lawn gnome who'd never washed beneath the pits of his arms in his life. From my new position on the floor it was difficult to ascertain my surroundings. Slowly, dragging myself, I fumbled my way to the open cage door. Crawling, mostly. I squirmed out and plopped on cold black marble. Harsh white light reflected off the ground.

"Where are we?" I asked aloud. I hadn't known I could speak. I'd never really tried. The language that left my lips didn't sound wholly Snobbish in my ears. When I pushed myself to two feet, to my surprise they actually held my weight. I examined my glowing arms.

As near as I could figure, I stood in the centre of an enormous private bedchamber. My cage wasn't the only thing on the floor. Gems and jewels three or four times my size towered like mountains with broken tops. Skulls of all shapes formed lopsided pyramids, thousands of them. Drawers had been torn from dressers, contents dumped, curious objects knocked from shelves. A thin stream of gold dribbled towards me from a massive puddle. I took a step back. Was this some nature spirit's private chamber? Had there been… a fight?

The spirit world flickered around me, trying to force me out again. I made the long, desperate scuttle underneath the sleeping pallet. By this point I was gagging, eyes tearing up. The smell burned stronger here. But I'd never left the cage before, and was certainly less likely to be stuffed back in if I ran. Covering my face with both hands, I soon lost myself in a maze of strange boxes and twisted creations that seemed to have been formed from clay.

I pushed back into the conscious world, coughing up the butterflies that hadn't made it from my throat before I collapsed. When I raised my head, Anti-Binky caught me across the face with a rock. I crashed. That rock came driving down to my neck, and I howled. The world went up in smoke again.

I glowed bright blue in the dark beneath the sleeping pallet. Hills of dust engulfed my running legs. When I regenerated, I didn't have time to gasp before Anti-Binky seized my ear and yanked me down. My face slammed against his barbs.

"Ow," I whimpered.

He didn't have to warn me not to cross him again. That much was clear. I squeaked and rubbed my cheek against his chest and signalled submission every way I remembered how. He twisted my ear hard before letting me go. Shaking, I flew to a section of ceiling thick with artificial plants where he rarely strayed and roosted there for hours, trying to gather my bearings. I hung back while the others tore into their meat, sometimes rubbing the cut with my soft wing. My throat burned. That wasn't very fun. No, that wasn't fun at all…

I was still clinging there when the dinner bell rang. Anti-Binky flew straight for me. What? I took off, only to pin myself in the corner. A fat stone sliced my back, and I tumbled down the rocks in a tangle of arms and wings. My speed sent me bouncing past the waterfall and landing plop in the bathing pool. Panic spurred my legs enough to kick towards shore.

When I made it there, Anti-Binky was standing guard. I pressed my cheek to sand, coughing what little water I hadn't swallowed. One of my wings had been twisted awkwardly behind my back. The other bled from scrapes. A rip curved like thistle across the membrane.

I waited for Anti-Binky to force another regeneration. Regeneration would heal my wounds. But he didn't. Instead, he kicked a small scuff of dust in my face, turned his back, and strode away.

Oh.

I dragged my feet from the pool, coughing harder, tongue alight. Then I flopped in the sand, too stunned to move again.

He was the last person I touched for eight weeks. Anti-Wendy flew down to me, softly squeaking, but Anti-Binky chased her off. His other damsels kept obediently to themselves. The other creche fathers, too afraid to cross him, veered even farther. Even the children were hushed and pulled away. An hour later, when I finally found the strength to approach the meal table, I found the other follower drakes had picked it clean. We aren't finicky, Anti-Fairies… My fellows had swallowed even peels and rinds.

I didn't eat anything that day, nor the next. With Anti-Binky spitting in my face every time the accursed bell rang, I didn't dare. The scent of meat upset my stomach, yet the cherubs served it day after day. I nibbled scraps for half a week and threw up every time. After four nights, I at last grew desperate enough to lurch up to the table out of turn and seize a juicy bit of yale. The meat fell soft and warm against my tongue. But not long. All three creche fathers flung themselves on me, shrieking and yanking at my fur, and in the end they tore the food away. Just as well; it disgusted me anyhow. The stuff may as well be poison. I nursed several scratches that night. Thank smoke Anti-Fairy saliva closes gashes before dirt can find its way in.

"Sorry," I croaked aloud to no one, curled on the ground alone. "Please… I'll show you. I'll show you I regret it. Just let me up…"

Only Mother had ever hit me before. Mother and the falling rocks that had killed me in my last life. Mother and the rocks and my brother Anti-Robin, striking me that day in Anti-Fergus's broken home. My body wasn't used to this, but my mind ached even worse.

This wasn't conflict resolution, soft and peaceful. This was hate and fear.

"How did it come to this?" I murmured, clenching my claws in the sand. Why hadn't I listened when Anti-Binky first warned me not to play with damsels? Or the second time? He'd been blatantly clear. Had my two years of wandering really left me so out of touch with Anti-Fairy customs? Or my time spent scuttling through Serentip as a rat? Or caught inside Liloei's genie lamp?

I suppose violence was the only way he had to teach me. After all, I'm a Fairy in an Anti-Fairy's body. Maybe sociosexual behaviour is meaningless to me. Maybe I need physical correction to learn. Maybe Mother knew it from the start.

You know, for a while I thought I had a chance to fit in. Despite having been a Fairy in my past life, at least I had an Anti-Fairy body. At least I'd been surrounded by my culture from the day I was born. But if I was too short to satisfy a damsel…

Had I satisfied Anti-Wendy at all? Had she only requested additional nights because I hadn't? Had all her squeaks been coughed up out of pity in place of pleasure?

… Anti-Kanin had warned me I was short. I'd asked him why it mattered and he'd avoided the whole question. Had… Had he meant shortness in a way besides my height? Or besides the lift of my crown? Tarrow had endowed him with a part both thick and long. Had he feared he wouldn't fit inside my pouch at all? Was that the reason he'd ended our relationship? Because I couldn't satisfy him? Because my body was undersized? Because he knew I'd fail?

I hiccoughed and curled my knees towards my nose, wrapping my hands behind my neck. It was Stamp and Huey all over again. Why had I thought it a good idea to reincarnate as an Anti-Fairy? Why couldn't I have lived like a Fairy again? Or just stayed dead?

Anti-Binky kept me under constant guard. I wasn't welcome at roost any longer. My home became that patch of sand on the far side of the pool, sheltered by rocks and wedged tightly against the viewing tunnel mesh. After the first few attempts, I stopped getting up. What was the point? I was an Anti-Fairy. Food and water were curiosities, not necessities, for a creature like me. I was forbidden meals. I was forbidden touch. I could go nowhere. Even death by dehydration wouldn't free me from this place…

When I didn't move for three days, Juandissimo came to find me. Drk. Cupid had his back, an arrow notched in case anyone tried to strike. Even Anti-Binky sat silently on the enclosure's highest rock, making no move to intervene.

The next hours were a blur even to my sharp memory. The wounds Anti-Binky had given me had healed, but I was locked in quarantine until the ones I'd inflicted myself had gone the same way. I stirred long enough for Juandissimo to feed me soup, though retched immediately at the taste.

"No more meat," I begged, flipping the bowl to the ground. I couldn't escape the mocking chime of the bell, the tear of Anti-Binky's fangs in my skin. I heaved my stomach thrice on the fairy's feet and lapsed unconscious shortly after.

The next time I woke, Juandissimo did push some food in me like a baby dragon. Mushroom soup, and later some tomato with water to drink. Dm. Charite visited me next, Drk. Cupid tagging after her. Perfect timing, as I'd only just noticed the cord leaking fluids in my arm. Not to mention how I was still very naked.

"Did you have a colony before?" she asked, seating herself on the other end of my pallet. I suppose that's what it was called… a massive white cube taking up space in a small white room, a blanket under my head. There were two humming lights in the ceiling, one door, and nothing else. I squinted in the bright.

"No. There were only three of us and I left them. My…" My throat closed, even after all these years. "The drake I wanted, he… he found someone else. I couldn't stand to be his second choice. So I left. I've been on my own ever since. Until I came here."

Dm. Charite took my hand, weighing it in her palm. "All alone?"

"I had my genie."

She asked more questions, so I told her of my travels and where I thought I'd left Lohai's lamp. Drk. Cupid was sent to scout for it, accompanied by Juandissimo. I found that part out later, my mind already wandering a thousand miles the other way.

"Anti-Cosmo?"

Her soft touch on my knee stirred me back to reality. I looked up to find Dm. Charite frowning down at me, brows knitted in what I suppose was concern.

"For your own health, we can't house you with Anti-Binky or his colony any longer."

My stomach sank, squirming in knots. Fare thee well, Anti-Wendy; I loved thee so…

"As such, we think it's best to relocate you to solitary until the Council summons you to Fairy Court."

"Can you put me with the fruit bats?" I asked quietly. Dm. Charite paused.

"What?"

"The fruit-eating Anti-Fairies. I saw how our enclosures were divided by mesh both above and below the viewing tunnel. I… I can't head out into the world yet. Winter migration is just around the bend, and if I travel to Cedarcross then I'll find too many faces that hurt too much." I pressed a fist against my chest, tongue trembling. "I want to be in touch with my instincts again. Please, I need… company I can feel safe with. Can't you house me with the fruit eaters and keep close watch on me a while longer? Perhaps you might assign an intern to run ethograms on my behaviour as I used to watch the pixies long ago. Please?"

Dm. Charite thought about it, tapping perfect pink nails against her knee. "That could be arranged… The fruit eaters' fangs are minuscule and their claws are smaller too. We can ensure you stay on a steady diet. But if you're seeking conversation-"

I cut her off with a bitter laugh. "Oh believe me, darling, I've tried. The whole lot of them were born and bred in your care and there's no holding intelligent conversation with those simpletons, whether you attempt Vatajasa or Snobbish. And that's precisely what I'm looking for. For them, life is instinct. They speak in touch, which I've been so deprived of. I need this, Dm. Charite, if I may deign to beg."

Frowning, she said, "We don't normally transfer outsiders into a Nest-raised enclosure. You'll be approaching your people in their natural state, and that can be… upsetting. Especially with your kind, since certain behaviours…"

She trailed off, giving me a certain pointed look. "Is this because we're sociosexual?" I asked, tipping my head. "Dm. Charite, I know my people's natural ways."

"They never ask consent," she finished. "Your species' sexual behaviours are highly gendered, with drakes claiming either drake or damsel partners - often forcing them - and leaving their partner no choice but to submit."

"Oh, I see! Yes, I understand the confusion. See here, it's the licks, Dm. Charite. Because of our bat heritage, we draw our tongues along the lower body to prompt a certain pleasure. It's uncommon behaviour in most species, but in our culture, such intimacy with the mouth is precious and beautiful. That's how we say yes. Anyone who doesn't show enthusiasm is released in apology."

"I'm an Eros."

I blinked. "What?"

"I'm an Eros," she repeated, insisting it. "I know what consent looks and smells like, and your species lacks the pheromones needed to express it. The fruit eaters can't speak more than a word or two. They're all Nest-raised, as close to natural as you'll ever see your people be. If you want to do this, prepare yourself for aggressive advances. Really, truly think about this and confirm you're absolutely sure. You're awfully small and entering your prime, highly likely to be claimed and mated by the other drakes. Your species doesn't ask."

Doesn't ask? I stayed where I was, head still sideways, just trying to… think about her statement for a moment. My fingertips moved to my chest. I tried not to draw attention to it. "Do… you really think we verbalize the question when we're at home, dame? Because that's an Ivorie trope; any Anti-Fairy can tell you that. My people are sociosexual and we communicate through touch. We only asked Jay Rhoswen to teach us Snobbish because the Fairies thought we weren't people without a verbal language, and Anti-Shylinda created Vatajasa years later to give our mouths easier shapes to use. Sometimes we use it to speak from a distance, but touch is our native tongue."

Was there something unclear about sociosexual behaviour somewhere along the way? That's… how we ask. That's the point. My people use different touches to indicate requests, settle disagreements, soothe one another, and determine where we stand in our friend groups, colonies, and society as a whole. We have hundreds of patterns like these and we use them several times a day. This is clear, isn't it? Tell me I haven't been misleading.

Dm. Charite was silent. Had I overstepped? My teeth burned at the roots, and I ducked my head. I hadn't meant to correct or (smoke forbid) lecture an Eros Triplet, but… Well…

"We approach from behind," I said quietly. "The receptive location is the stomach pouch… We nuzzle, we hug, we nip ears to show affection, and it's all asked through touch. We never, ever push into the pouch until our partner licks what we offer. It's bats that don't give consent. We're Anti-Fairies. We do."

It was bats. She was Dm. Charite Eros. She knew the difference between my people and the wild animals frolicking on Planet Earth… Didn't she? My people couldn't express consent through pheromone cues the way Fairies did, but surely they didn't consider us barbaric because of that? An old memory played across my brain, of a young anti-fairy and a cherub in a room of screens, and a comment about procreation being the only type of Anti-Fairy lovemaking the Triplets ever bothered blessing.

"We're not uncivilised-"

Dm. Charite raised her hands. "No, I didn't say that. I didn't mean your people. I'm talking about the natural behaviours of your species."

"So you mean my people."

"You've evolved. The frugivore species were raised naturally, so they're what your ancestors were like. Don't get me wrong; Anti-Fairies today aren't like this at all."

So… Yes. My people. I lifted two fingers near my cheek. "Forgive my outspoken tongue, Dm. Charite, for I have not forgotten who it is I have the honour of addressing. But we grant consent through touch. This isn't part of our 'current culture;' it didn't 'spring up' in recent times. It's as inherent for Anti-Fairies as pheromone cues are for you, Dame. I simply wish to say that if you consider the behaviours of these 'natural' Anti-Fairies to be uncivilised, to my ears it sounds as though you also consider the behaviours of all other Anti-Fairies to be uncivilised, though of course I know this isn't what you imply and I speak now only in warning for any future conversations on this subject you may have. Esteemed dame."

Dm. Charite went quiet. Then, "I wasn't trying to insult you…"

"Please, might I speak with Horus about the colonies?" He wasn't perfect (I still resented the scarf he'd thought was necessary), but as far as cherubs went, he wasn't horrid. Dm. Charite shuffled uncomfortably from the room, muttering something about asking Dm. Venus's permission to place me in the other enclosure.

It was two hours before Horus had time for me. I sat on my strange block in the centre of the room, holding my knees and trying not to gag. Viscous minutes trickled by. I stared glumly at the door, wishing the floor between me and it wasn't white. If it had been, I'd have bolted down the corridor without looking back. But I knew better than to try with all that bad luck coursing from end to end. The faintest grain of salt or black cat pawstep to brush that floor would leave me no choice but to answer.

Did the fruit eaters avoid white like the rest of us did? Did they share our reason why?

At last, Horus entered my cold, stark room. He wore the wool scarf around his neck again, and he said nothing about the floor. I wondered if he knew how easily I could put his eye out with my claw. They'd sharpened since I'd been with the Sandstone colony and that scarf certainly didn't cover him there.

"I brought some hair samples," he said when he came in, pushing the door open with a curled wing. He balanced a tray in his hands. I pricked a curious ear. "Taken from each drake at the scalp just below the scent gland." With that, he set the tray on the end of my block and floated back. I stayed where I was a few seconds, then unwrapped my knees.

"Eight?"

Horus nodded. I pinched the first sample in my fingertips, rubbing it back and forth.

"What's the layout of the colony?"

"One creche father, Leaves year. One queen, Sky. One follower, Fire. Nineteen damsels, two pups, one juvenile, full rotation, none unclaimed."

I dropped the hairs. "Full rotation?" I'd only lived in half rotation and bachelor colonies before. A dozen drool-filled fantasies popped into my head before I could stop them. No exclusive mates at all? This could get interesting…

"Is that okay?"

Was it okay? I shook my head. "It's perfect. Let's not forget this was my ancestors' natural way of life. Yes, thank you- I'll do it."

I was released into the new enclosure once I'd regained my former health, and the mere idea put me in high spirits for days. No meat. Not a whiff! Quickly, I found an herbivorous diet quite to my liking and gobbled up every trace on my tray. Day in, day out- and never once tossed my cookies after.

My new creche father introduced himself as Ki-sat d'ingtolm: a tall freckle-faced drake with creamy white hair short around his ears. The cherubs called him Anti-Cinder and he answered if he heard. To us, his name was Father. Despite his being only two dozen years older than I, his wingspan utterly dwarfed mine. He also sported a broken fang, though no one would tell me where it went. His follower drake was Kru d'mutolm ("Anti-Pepper")- a young and pudgy fellow who moved quicker than he looked. Both regarded me with flattened ears, but I'd learned my lesson on social upheaval and greeted them politely without complaint. Horus had said Anti-Cinder was born a Leaves year, but I didn't let that nag at my mind. He'd been raised without knowledge of the zodiac. It wasn't his fault he thought himself a leader.

Anti-Cinder asked my name. When I said Anti-Cosmo, he cuffed me with his wing. Not hard- oh, certainly not! But I stumbled back, toes scrabbling along our roost. Who was this? Even Anti-Binky had let me keep my Snobbish name.

Nonetheless, I told Anti-Cinder my Vatajasa one. When he heard it, he scoffed and made the sign for "Go back one length before." So Anti-Cosmo I stayed.

It may be a stereotype, but the fruit-eating species do tend to be more gentle and accepting of foreign males. I needed two hands to count the number of drakes around me, and despite their initial unease, they warmed to me before the week was out. They sort of had their groups they preferred to gather in, but all shared the roosting cave and snuggled close at night. As the newcomer, I still took my fruit last from the serving table, but there was more than enough for all of us and no one took more than they were hungry for.

The former lowest-ranking drake of the colony - a spritely anti-habetrot called Lilsü d'tõd ("Anti-Rose" in Snobbish) - took quite a liking to me since my presence boosted his social standing. I suppose you can call it a liking, in his teasing way. The daring juvenile rather liked to push me in the bathing pool and fly off with a laugh. I laughed too and chased him round and round each day, and our nights ended snuggled up at roost instead of curled in the corner with an injured arm.

That's how Anti-Fairy culture is supposed to be.

Unlike our meat-eating neighbours on the opposite side of the net, the fruit eaters paid visitors in the tunnel corridor no mind. Sociosexual behaviour, waste relieving, mating, bathing, self-pleasures, sharing strokes, and even kisses on the mouth- all of it was fair game, crowd or no crowd. I understood this from the start (after all, one wall of our roosting cave faced the viewing mesh, leaving us visible all hours of the day). We hid no secrets. Anti-Cinder had every partner who accepted him and had them loudly. Even the older dames didn't shove him off, but rather nosed him with affection and bragged that he was theirs. Anti-Meredith's two little pups paused their bickering when he flew near, gaping at his strong wings with bulging eyes. I suspected Anti-Sizzle might be their biological sire, but whenever Anti-Cinder paused to nuzzle their mother, the two would pull his hair and nibble on his wings. In their minds, he was Daddy.

"Does that not bother you?" I asked Anti-Sizzle, clinging from the ceiling mesh beside him. For the past ten minutes, he'd been grooming his chest fur with his tongue. When I spoke, he yawned and shuffled off. My gaze slid to the children again. I suppose it's in Anti-Fairy nature for a damsel to favor her mate over the father of her offspring. Both in the Hy-Brasilian legal system and in the wild, it was her right to deny his involvement. Everyone respected that.

So if it was natural, why did the thought make me sick with fear?

Because when Anti-Saffron finds out you lied about being betrothed, she'll leave you in a snap.

… And if I didn't become a creche father, she might leave me for a drake who was. She'd already warned me more times than I could count. I rubbed my face in my hands, then tucked them nervously beneath my arms. Anti-Cinder's probing licks across Anti-Meredith's face turned more affectionate, and I took that as my cue to lure the pups away.

At first, this lack of privacy left me flustered. I'd rarely witnessed mouth to mouth contact, having been raised in the Blue Castle where nuzzling with the nose was far more commonplace. Everything was different in the Nest. When the twinkles in the energy field betrayed such affections nearby, I often spied from below, pretending to wash my ears or draw lines in the dirt. After a week of this I began to peep longer than a few seconds at a time, and by two I openly drank it in. How curious! Was my birth colony more reserved because we were aristocrats? Or were the affectionate ties stronger among this 'Cinder' colony who'd all grown up together? After all, they didn't force their bachelors out…

What would it be like to stay in close contact with your birth family all your life?

These fruit eaters had no fear, no burning shame. Kalysta Ivorie couldn't have written a slice of life half so beautiful as the time I awoke to my creche father thrumming into his follower drake in full view of a touring school group, every hitch tender and faces utterly calm. Anti-Cinder held Anti-Pepper close against him, claws digging low in his hips, while Anti-Pepper gently pressed the curve against his stomach and occasionally bent to lick its tip. I'd seen a thousand couples partner over migration season or throughout the Seven Festivals or simply in the Blue Castle halls, but somehow, blinking awake that sleepy morning, listening to the soft whispers outside and the gossamer squeaks of our creche father nearby… That's what it was to be an Anti-Fairy. Pure and confident, one with nature and its all.

When I'd first arrived at the Eros Nest, I'd worried I wouldn't find enough to keep my brain occupied. At least on the other side of the enclosure, I'd had conversation partners who'd visited the outside world and enjoyed swapping stories for hours on end. Sometimes Anti-Wendy flew close to the netting and we talked about anything, until impatient Anti-Binky cleared his throat to call her back. Then autumn turned to winter and she left to fulfil her duties at Cedarcross Point.

"Should I tell your friends to visit us?" she asked, her forehead resting on the mesh.

"Mm… If you meet an anti-qalupalik called Anti-Saffron, feel free to drop my name."

"Your betrothed, yes?"

"Indeed; charming dame. I do miss her so, but no one else need know I'm here."

"I see."

"Oh," I blurted when she turned away. I grasped the mesh between us tight. "And if she asks, tell her she's in my every dream and I've abstained from sexual relations entirely."

"I see," Anti-Wendy said again, very quiet now. I tossed her a grateful smile and flew down to the bathing pool. With someone as sensitive as Anti-Saffron… lying was what she needed to hear. Oh, how that dear woman's core would faint if she knew what mischief I'd gotten up to without her, ahaha!

Dm. Charite had cautioned that other drakes might pair with me against my will. But Horus had said Anti-Cinder was a Leaves year. And Anti-Pepper, although a Fire, was over 5,000 years younger, so I'd thought nothing of it. After all, I outranked them. How could it be a surprise?

But one day, shortly after waking up at roost, a sudden soft touch appeared between my legs. At first I yawned and ignored it, as I always ignored overeager strangers during migration or the Seven Festivals unless an acolyte or mutual acquaintance introduced us, but a whole minute ticked by and Anti-Cinder didn't remove his curl. It lingered at the lower end of my pouch slit, awaiting permission to press in.

"Oh," I said, groggy-minded. "Sorry. I'm Aurora 72, Year of the Black Lake."

"Hm?" he asked, leaning sideways.

"Really, I couldn't possibly. I'm a Water year, you're a Leaves. It isn't done with us both so close in age. You never hear of Thurmondo coming on to Sunnie, do you? It's always the other way around."

Anti-Cinder had no interest in the zodiac, or my logic. His hands settled around my torso and he pressed his body closer. Silence fell between us. Sounds of morning played through a speaker half-hidden in a nearby tree. Anti-Cinder nudged against my slit, muttering a few cross words in stilted Vatajasa. The click of his tongue suggested concern. The hands at my torso slid down, positioning themselves firmly around my waist. I'm sorry if I offended you, his body said. I considered you an acquaintance, new to our colony. Will you instead accept me as a friend, here to stay?

I hung there, utterly frozen, not sure what to do.

I'd never met a non-practicing Anti-Fairy before. Well, one of my crechemates back home, Anti-Presto, had refused to follow the Zodii ways even when we were children. He loudly insisted on being the dominant partner no matter whom he paired with. Since he was a Fire year, naturally submissive only to Love, it rarely caused a stir.

Anti-Cinder didn't mean to reject the natural order of the zodiac. He simply didn't have a clue what it was. Where did I even begin to explain?

"I'm a Water," I sort of squeaked. Here, dangling in the open completely undressed, I felt like the absolute centre of the world with every last eye on me. I'd never throbbed with so much uncertain anticipation. I inhaled. Taking hesitation for rejection, Anti-Cinder began peeling himself away. I caught his curve and cried, "No- wait!"

"Oh?" Twitching his ears, Anti-Cinder settled himself back into place. He was still there. Still waiting. On me. I stared at my feet, clenched into my roost like ribbons. My fingers trembled around his shaft.

Okay, Julius. Okay.

I'd never had a drake slip inside me before. I mean, yes, back when we were little juveniles the Love and Fire years used to press into my pouch just as I used to do with Anti-Saffron and Anti-Lance and Anti-Poof and everyone else, but that was only practice. Until you get your adult wings, you have a Fairy's small, tight pouch with no sensitive nerves at all. You can't even transfer the virus that way. But I mean officially. Although nearly 160,000 years old, I'd never once roosted near a drake of the right zodiac, cohort, and enthusiasm to partner me. A-and I was sort of, well, you know…

… curious.

In my experience, the soft sensation of easing into another pouch felt electrifying. What did it feel like on the other side? Were the barbs painful, or did they excite? I'd felt Anti-Kanin's spines caress my tongue before, and believe me, those pretty little needles are sharper than they seem. Today I would finally have my answers. I'd waited long enough.

Okay.

I wasn't quite sure what to do about my wings. My instinct was to spread them for balance, feet fumbling for a solid hold on my perch. Anti-Cinder fit between them well enough, though his brushing body prevented me from folding them back in. He cupped himself around me like a shield. Long wings wrapped beneath my arms. I licked my lips, trying to steady the puffs of silver effervescence leaving my body in clouds of crescent moons. There wasn't a single finger's breadth between my backside and Anti-Cinder's front. When I'd lived under Anti-Kanin's colony, I'd always wondered if a drake pushing against me would crush the bones in my tail. But it wasn't like that. His hipbones were firm, not overpowering, and he held my waist as confidently as a manticore.

I looked off to the left, my ears quivering. Anti-Cinder bent his head and gave my cheek a tender lick. A low whine trickled out between my fangs. I leaned back my head, allowing Anti-Cinder enough room to paint a few more.

It's new!

I've got you.

His forearms pressed my stomach in a comforting squeeze. I studied the mass of barbs still awaiting my acknowledgment. Anti-Cinder was larger down there than I was, though to my relief much closer to my length than he was to Anti-Binky. Did the depth of my pouch match how far I could reach? It looked like a snug fit.

Okay.

I took my time with Anti-Cinder. As the subordinate partner, I really had only one job and this was it. I closed my mouth around his tip, carefully gripping with my teeth to avoid the spines until I was good and ready for them.

Leeõri

This part, at least, was familiar to me. I'd always enjoyed taking as much of the length in my mouth as I could, no matter how fruitless the endeavour. In some of my wilder daydreams, I could even take it all. Unfortunately, memories of Anti-Kanin swarmed my mind like fleas. I grimaced. The last time I'd had my mouth on a drake like this was when I took his favour 9,000 years ago. I ran my teeth along it, feeling each ridge and point. It fit so comfortably behind my fangs, and that made it much less frightening. After several minutes of testing it out on my tongue, I straightened and allowed Anti-Cinder to take command.

Okay. I'm ready.

It pressed in like a thick finger, sliding slowly, easing smoothly past my skin. My pouch seemed to know what to do even if I didn't. It clung close, tugging this… this pressure that was Anti-Cinder deeper down like a river leaking through a cave. He was all just this… long shape up there. He was a thick, gently shifting bit of tough muscle actively pushing through me and there he was - a shape! - easing against the trembling inner walls no one else had ever touched. Gliding past my stomach and then my ribs, kept in line by a scrap of skin alone. His barbs rubbed gently, not painful at all. The mere contact made me dizzy. Bright tingles fluttered about in places I lacked a proper name for. I squeaked, then bit my tongue just as fast. When my balance wobbled, Anti-Cinder held me tight, planting licks and kisses behind my ear. My slipping foot found its hold again.

Tamsõsita.

Then it eased away. Anti-Cinder adjusted his weight behind me, fully lifting out his length. My pouch stung from contact with sharper outside air. I turned my head, straining to lick his throat. Nodding, Anti-Cinder pushed in again. I settled back with a sigh. He moved against me like a brush through the neck of a bottle. Downward. Upward. In. Out. Gently rocking. A cool wave bubbled along my skin like soda bubbles. It started where he touched me, I think, though really it sort of started everywhere. My shoulders shivered. Twice.

Lükkato.

After a moment of soft presses, Anti-Cinder pulled back from my pouch again. I stretched my arms above my head, laughing lightly at how beautiful it felt to feel so smoking liked. We'd reached the third stage of sociosexual intimacy, assured of our link as casual friends. I assumed that was the end of it, but to my surprise, Anti-Cinder offered his tip to me again. It trembled there in the light, awaiting my permission and mine alone. Oh! I'd been on the giving side before - once each night with Anti-Apollo, thrice with Anti-Lance - but this was my first time receiving. Hmm. I swiped my tongue around my mouth.

If I refused him, he would leave. If I took it, he would stay. The choice rested solely on me in a way it never had when I was the one who gave.

And that thrilled me to my toes.

This time, I closed my mouth around him without hesitation. And I didn't just lick that gleaming tip with a tentative tongue. I sucked, and I pulled, and I SUCKED my way down his length, soft spines whispering across the back of my throat. Each time Anti-Cinder shifted, his barbs flexed and scratched my tongue. Scratched, but didn't pierce. I made sure of that. Anti-Kanin's were longer, I thought, flashing back to the little cave where I'd taken his favour, then bent my head and forgot about him entirely. It was Anti-Cinder and I now. Anti-Cinder and I and the thick curl easing deeper, deeper down, tickling with every twitch. He slid over Anti-Kanin's favour in my tongue. Then back the other way. My teeth scratched a little roughly as I jolted. He twitched in my mouth, but no hand cuffed my head. I must be doing this right, then. A wispy flame of power lit inside my chest. Think! I, with no formal experience or training whatsoever, was doing this right!

Stage 4. Avuuzi.

Anti-Cinder loved it. And when he grunted, softly groaned, my eyes widened with the realisation that he loved me too. I clenched them shut again, tongue and teeth locked around the weight in my mouth so tightly that I coughed. Good SMOKE! Forget being liked. Was this how it felt to be wanted?

Anti-Kanin and I could have been like this.

I could have accepted Stage 4. I considered myself on Stage 4 with almost all my old crechemates if I were to approach them as an adult. Anti-Apollo and I had stopped at 3. But when my lips popped off the end, Anti-Cinder hitched inside me once more. He didn't even wait for me to gather my bearings. He simply bucked forward in a quick shiver I felt all the way down in the bottom of my chest, followed by another and a third and a fourth and a fifth. It jerked strong and sharp and slicked up and down with my tongue- Oh- Kaoas- I crowed without even thinking- a sort of "Ahahaha!" and "Oh smoke, oh smoke!" blurred together. I tossed my head back and shook out my hair and laughed so hard I cried, and too late remembered the passersby strolling through the viewing tunnel beside us. Ha! I wiggled, pinned against Anti-Cinder's strong form by the shape in my pouch and too bleary-eyed ecstatic to care. I almost, almost thought my forehead dome would pop open of its own accord and declare me a virgin no longer. The first latch nearly broke, I swear…

Anti-Cinder counted exactly thirteen of these little pulses, then dragged himself away and didn't push in again. I whined and nosed his chin, and he smiled back in a tender way that froze my soul. Welcome, he said with every part of being he possessed. We're family.

"Yes… Oh my gods, yes. We are."

He flew off to get a drink. I clung to my perch, softly drooping. At first, I basked long minutes in the wispy afterglow of novelty before cold, dark shame began to swallow me whole.

I'd just been partnered by a subordinate drake.

… And I'd liked it.

I dug my claws into my scalp, twisting my hair in tight fists. My own barbs, dangling, taunted me with their very presence. I clenched my fangs- my mind spun as though I'd flown too many loop de loops down a mountain- WHAT? This didn't make any sense! Why did I enjoy that? I was born in a Water year. He was a Leaves.

Oh my gods.

I was a Water year. He was a Leaves.

My sore jaw trembled with a whimper. In all the fantasies I'd ever played inside my mind, I was nearly always the dominant partner. I'd envisioned Anti-Kanin pressing into me a thousand times, but that was only natural; he was a Love year. Everyone drools over Loves. It had never even occurred to me that my peers later in the zodiac might be an option for the role. Why, this changed everything! Imagine returning to school, dimming the lights in pretended plans to sleep, Anti-Lance with his soft voice and strong hands, pressing in…

"No," I breathed. I wiggled my foot and bit deeply in my wrist. Oh gods, what was I saying? Anti-Lance was born a Sky year; he knew his place. The drake would sooner feed his own arm to a glider snake than upset the natural way of things. He'd never stepped out of line in his life!

But I'd liked it.

I'd really liked what Anti-Cinder had done with me, even if it hadn't lasted as long as I would have preferred. He'd explained our relationship unquestionably, and quite possibly secured his place in my fantasies forever.

Oh smoke, I'd melted at the feel of him nudging deep inside me. My head now swam with honeythoughts. Pushing through someone else's pouch had never felt half as exciting as being on the receiving end. So THAT was the ridge Anti-Wendy had been searching for! Now that I'd felt his barbs scrape across it, I didn't even blame her for protesting when I… when I…

… was too short to…

Oh.

I unfolded my hands from under my arms. Blinking, I stared at every crease until they blurred like rain. I'd yet to mate with Anti-Saffron. But if Creche Father's mere sociosexual touches did this to my fluttering stomach, I already knew she and I would both walk away unsatisfied. Night after night after night after night.

Or I could stay here forever. Would that be such a bad life? Feasting on fresh fruit every morning, swimming in the icy bathing pool, snuggling with roostmates who adored me, letting Anti-Cinder partner, even mate me, to his core's content? Would that really be so wrong? What had the outside world ever done for me anyway? A mother who smacked me with a stick? A brother who'd kept me from my father? Endless lists of chores, a betrothed who demanded complete monogamy, a drakefriend who abandoned me, a genie whose children died, a world that arrested an innocent Anti in the wrong place at the wrong time, a culture prepared to abandon me if they ever learned I'd embraced those silver scales…

What had brought me to the Nest, again? It was on the tip of my brain, but I just couldn't remember…

Nearby, Kuku d'tei squeaked for my attention. I pricked my ears. Her lifted wings suggested a chasing game. Aha! A game! Squeaking back, I released my perch and flew after her.

Winter migration passed us by, but the urge to mate - and I do mean mate - flooded me to the tip of my tail. Perhaps it was the lighting, perhaps the temperature. Both changed when the season turned, chilling the once humid air. Long ago, when some pale-winged damsel and I were children debating Anti-Fairy fertility outside a burning tower, she'd suggested migration stood in for the mating season our culture claimed we'd evolved beyond.

That year, I found no fault in her hypothesis. It was my first time, but I fell into place like I'd done it all my life. Creche Father claimed the soft branches beside the bathing pool. I found a smooth ledge above the highest point of our cave, just beneath the mesh-coated ceiling. From there, I could hear Follower and Second singing from distant roosts.

Deep down, I chuckled. They thought they could be louder than me? Well, I could top that. I curled my claws and cooed a few deep notes in the start of song. The sounds had never left my lips before, but I knew them all the same. A layer of silk reverence swept across the enclosure. Not a hush, seeing as there were seven drakes singing besides myself, but our songs wove together and twinkled in the air. We sang for minutes. For half a day. I almost took a break for water, even knowing I'd have to scuffle with Creche Father at the pool, when a sudden dark blue blur swooped past the corner of my eye.

Please… please…

She touched down on the ledge beside me and tilted her head. I gaped at her, hardly able to believe my, well… "luck." A damsel tonight. Strong, lithe, and beautiful. Shiny scales, enormous ears, and a high crown too. Oh, this was almost too much.

She flickered those tall ears to suggest I initiate my interest, lest she move on and leave me. No, that I wouldn't allow. I shuffled over and pressed my nose against her forehead. Her wings softened. She climbed up to the mesh ceiling beside me and nuzzled my cheek. When she licked my neck, I began to rasp my tongue over her face. She squealed at that and rustled her wings in a mad sort of manner. I picked up speed. So did she. Her own licks wandered lower, down my chest. Then lower than even that. Her soft lips cupped around my barbs. Her nipping teeth were gentle, playful, and I closed my eyes… It was such a welcome feeling. She worked at me for a good while, then let it slip away.

"Glad?" she pressed.

"Oh. Yes." I nuzzled her ear, squeaking several times to ensure she understood. Satisfied that she had found a way to pleasure me, she returned to her work. My wings fidgeted, but I linked my hands behind my back and forced myself to stay very, very still. I moved only my throat, trilling my low song. A long minute danced between us. My lips twitched in a smile. Finally my damsel pulled back, migrating her licks up my stomach, chest, and neck. One footstep at a time, she adjusted her position until she'd settled right against me - between me - with my curve scooped against her front. Her toes clutched around my ankles. She bent her head. Every lick rasped like a static-charged pillow in a way that made me quiver. Although the dame couldn't take me quite as deeply in her mouth as my fantasies hoped, her short height made a snug, perfect fit against mine. I grazed my fingertips down her sides, pressing into the swell of her waist.

Two or three cores fluttered in my head in place of one. The flicks of a dancing tongue plinked like raindrops on my skin, but when I sensed her tongue easing up, I encircled my arms around her front. My hands locked gently below her scaly breasts. I rubbed my thumb between them both. That only entertained me mere seconds before I cupped them in my palms like music notes. The damsel squeaked around the weight in her mouth… a long squeak. I exhaled in her hair. My effervescence glittered deeper silver than I'd ever seen.

I drew my palm in a circle across her breast. I wasn't sure if that was right, but she made no move to stop me. I'd never explored Anti-Saffron's adult body this way, having fled the Castle when I turned 150,000. And in my past life, well… Damsels hadn't exactly been available. How curious. I slid a claw between two soft scales. Despite spending hour after hour with my magazines (and engaging in fantasies for hours more), I'd never realised touching breasts could bring such a flutter to my thoughts. As much as I liked drakes, this plump swell of skin was a treat they could never offer me.

The dame pulled back, lingering longest at my very tip. It sparked in a way. The moment her mouth released me, I curled inside her pouch. She received me with neither protest nor hesitation. Such a simple little act… Her cheek had gotten dry again, so I pulled her head close and coated it with endless licks. Just one squeal sent my blood racing like hooves across a hill. We moved and whispered, sort of giggled, sort of sang.

And after minutes of it all, my dome clicked open.

I'd never mated before. The rush of it startled me, even after all the self-pleasures I'd ever had. It glowed like honey down my skin, thrumming through my skin like an underwater embrace. I'd never felt so in touch with the inner workings of my forehead chamber. I mean, I'd never really thought about it, but YES. Deep in my core, I pulsed like the rhythm of a song. I touched my tongue between my fangs; my whole body drank it in. I tasted signals - mine, I think - and heard them in my blood.

Now that she knew I'd receive her, her magic reacted too. It was a soft sound, the release of her dome, like a swiff. A dark blue cloud gathered just below her open head, released through a panting sigh. The dame melted in my arms. She'd finished her role, and I loved her for it. We watched, silent, eyes half closed, as the frosty cloud warmed in the surrounding air. It swirled up in a thin spiral. I caught her magic in my empty head. No longer empty (or virgin either). My dome, smugly satisfied, heaved itself shut.

We pulled sluggishly apart in the end. Sleepy feet rustled along the roost. The damsel hung beside me, still rubbing her head against my cheek. If she'd minded that I was short, she kept such feelings to herself.

"You?" I asked after a moment's pause, reaching out to encompass her with my wing.

"Il d'ijärv."

Beauty of the river. What a lovely name. She squeaked as I drew her in, carefully placing one of her feet between both of mine. Her toes strummed along the ceiling mesh.

"You?"

Me? I licked my drying lips. "Pag-sün d'eskel."

There was a pause.

"It's nice," she said anyway, unsure. I grimaced.

"You're welcome. Your eyes."

"Pretty?"

"Stunning."

We slept together for the night, my wings wrapped around Il d'ijärv, our cheeks resting together. So long as I held her tight, no other drake could steal her in my sleep.

The thing about belonging to a species whose drakes carried the young for only thirteen days before transfer to the mother's pouch was, growing pups should be detectable within hours of coupling. When morning came, I lapped a few times at the flat fur on my belly, nosing for any trace of growth. After a moment of this, I raised my head and gave her a questioning look. Il d'ijärv was strong and lithe and beautiful, but…

No pup? I didn't need a damsel who couldn't give me a pup. Did she not know my dream of fatherhood?

Maybe… try again?

"Oh," Il d'ijärv said when I turned my attention from my stomach to licking her face as before. Her claws clinked when she stepped back. "More?"

"More."

We came together again, nearly three times as long as I'd been with Creche Father, and pulled apart. But there was nothing. Nothing! Not a claw! I flitted back and forth throughout the enclosure after that, butting my head against the dangling ropes and empty dishes intended for enriching play. After a few hours, most of which passed as I gnawed on a branch near the ceiling, a cherub appeared with a new supply of fruit. I swept down to shriek at him, and he raised his arm to defend his face.

"Hey, hey," he sputtered, "what's wrong with you?"

"No pup!"

"You'll get your pups when the shipment comes on the 15th. You just have to be patient."

"No! Pup!" I hooked my claws into his wing and shook my head. Didn't he understand?

Oh, why couldn't I have a child?

"No pup!" I screeched again when dinner came around, swooping in a circle around his head.

"Calm down, calm down." The cherub shooed me away with his hand. "I brought you something you should like."

"It's a pup?"

"Um. No, no pup, but I brought you something else I hope you'll like." He held up the most beautiful lantern in the world, all glass and wood with jade stones along the bottom. No flame burned within, but even from my distance, I could detect its warmth. My ears twitched. I hovered before him, my head to one side.

"This is my pup?" I asked.

"It's not a pup. It's your genie friend. Do you remember? She's pregnant. We were looking after her ourselves, but we think it will make you happy to see her again. Would you like that?"

I floated for another moment, watching the uneasy twitch of his wings. Then I flipped myself over, snatched the lantern's handle in my teeth, and hooked myself into the mesh above his head. The cherub watched me settle in, his wings still fidgeting.

"D-do you want to keep her?"

I hugged Lohai's lantern against my throat, taking care not to tip it upside-down. "This is… okay."

"We're taking a risk on you. She's pregnant. Can you be a good guardian? A good friend?"

My grip tightened. I bent my neck and licked at the fur on my chest. Then, dropping my head back, I scoffed, "I have no pup. I have my friend. She will be taken care of."

I avoided Il d'ijärv for weeks after that, even though she occasionally crawled up to my ledge to chatter for a moment or nose my cheek. "Pup?" she would often ask, sniffing at my pouch.

"No pup," I told her each day. "Leave me."

So it was. Long, hot days passed this way, until Friday the 13th lit the air. I recognised it because it made my hairs quiver. I suppose we all lost our minds that day, burning with the desire for mischief but unable to let it out… Honestly I don't remember most of it, though I woke up with a migraine you wouldn't believe. I coughed up blood and butterflies that morning.

Il d'ijärv came looking for me the following night when I sat grooming my leg with my tongue. "Pag-sün d'eskel?" Using her hands and wings, she pulled herself over my ledge. "Pups have come. Come see."

Her Vatajasa was limited, but I pieced together that much. I turned my back. "Not my pup."

She crawled over to me and butted my head with hers. "Pups. Come see. Our pup. We bred. The stork men came. Pups are here."

"That's not…" I didn't know how to translate the thought. "… how pups arrive."

"Prrrip?" Il d'ijärv tilted her head. She gave my cheek another lick. "Our pup. Come see."

Finally facing her, I put my hand on her shoulder and shoved her back. "I have no pup."

She left in a huff, but returned a few minutes later with a soft square bundle in her mouth. This she placed on the ground beside me. When I didn't move, she nudged it towards me with her wing. "Our pup."

"Not my pup."

"Not yours. Ours. Stork men brought. Stork men gave."

The pup kicked its foot and let out a mewl. Without breaking eye contact with Il d'ijärv, I brought my face to the pup's and gave it a few noses and sniffs. Then I sat back, shaking my head. "Not my pup."

"Why?"

"It needed…" I placed my wings to my midsection. "This."

"Prrip?" she asked again.

I placed my hand over Il d'ijärv's face and pushed her backwards. "Go."

She recoiled, but came back to offer my face a few demanding licks. "Stop this now. I chose you. It's our pup."

With a snort, I turned my back again. Il d'ijärv huffed. She shoved Lohai's lamp so it rolled across the ledge. Not far, but enough to startle me. When I looked at her, she puffed her chest.

"Next breeding… I will not choose you."

"I didn't care you chose me. I wanted any damsel."

Il d'ijärv shuffled backwards, her hand to her chest now. "Any damsel?"

My teeth clenched. I crawled towards her and she moved back again, almost crushing the pup with her foot. "I was breeding. Any damsel was good!"

"Any damsel?"

"Any damsel. Even a drake was good."

"Oh."

"Yes."

She knelt and scooped the pup up to her chest. As she walked towards the edge of the ledge, she checked over her shoulder at me. "She is not your pup. I will tell her… she is another pup. My Hu d'idul. You are sad. You are alone."

"I have my genie! That is not alone! I care for my genie!"

Il d'ijärv narrowed her eyes. "You never belonged." Before I could protest, she dropped from the ledge and beat her way to Creche Father's roost. I curled my claws in my hair and hiccoughed several times in a row. My arms crossed over my face and I collapsed, crying and coughing and not really sure why.

Two days later, an oddly familiar clinking sound stirred me awake. I'd been curled in the grass beside the viewing tunnel mesh, but the tap of soft paws was unmistakable. So were those whirring circular wingbeats. The energy field shimmered with cool confidence and hopeful nerves. I raised my head, squinting down the corridor. Three figures were headed my way. My vision was poor without my monocle, but I could make out that much. One was quite large, his silhouette square against the bright light beyond him. He dressed all in grey, including his pointed hat. The second figure was a tiny canine, trotting behind and practically sprinting to keep up. His wings were so oversized, he tripped twice just while I watched. The tags on his collar were the source of all the jingling. And the third…

I licked my lips. "Ru-vika d'hi?"

Ru - I mean, Anti-Saffron - and the mutt both heard me, twitching my way. "See?" said the Head Pixie, pushing his elbow against her shoulder. "I told you he'd be here."

"Anti-Cosmo!" Anti-Saffron rushed forward, her springy hair bouncing like a storm cloud. My core leapt at the sight of her and I erupted in a grin. She wore a brown dress accented along the underside in deep soil red. It hugged her hips with utter grace. The skirts swirled about her ankles and her eyes shone like glitter in the stars. I didn't even know what to say, just pressed my long nose against the mesh. My fellow Anti-Fairies fluttered about and squeaked for attention, but I stayed rooted to the wall. No one would distract me from this.

"What-?" I sputtered- laughing, in fact. "How-?"

The Head Pixie tapped two fingers near his eye and flicked them away again in a salute. "You were acquitted at Fairy Court, dragon hunter. Mary Black knows her stuff. L-word for you, I make an excellent witness."

"What? It's over? I wasn't summoned."

"The Purple Robe came to get you three times, but you were always…" The Head Pixie cleared his throat in his fist. "Busy. We finally just had the trial without you. And now you're unbusy. Irony."

"Oh," I said, flushing under my fur. I picked up Lohai's lamp and pretended to be quite interested in its design.

Anti-Saffron crowded beside him, hardly able to keep her wings still. "Be back in a beat," she puffed, smiling up to her eyes. "Gotta get the guard. See you soon." She flew back through the viewing tunnel, shouting to a fourth figure I hadn't noticed. From the flash of black ponytail when he scrambled off, I suspected Juandissimo. Excited squeaks whizzed all about me. The Head Pixie watched her go, nodding. Then he glanced at me.

"Your betrothed's a sweet dame."

"Um. Yes, thank you. She really is."

His voice dropped. "I didn't tell them we shared magic. Or that you changed your shape."

"You…" My claws slipped from the mesh. "At Fairy Court? You lied for me? To the Council?"

The Head Pixie cocked his head a perfect thirty degrees. "I didn't lie… I told them you were with me in Faeheim. Jorgen could back me up on that. I said you wanted to stop the rampage, which you did. I just didn't mention you turned into the silver dragon. You said your people would disown you if they found out you took any form besides a fox. In my opinion, getting you home was the purpose of getting you acquitted in the first place. So I didn't mention the dragon."

"Thank you. Really."

The Head Pixie mimed clapping his hand on my shoulder through the mesh. "Don't read into it. I prefer you on the side of the border farthest away from me."

"I'm certain." And a smile sprang to my lips. I hugged Lohai's lamp to my chest with one arm. "So then… No one knows I dishonoured Her Glory Cadmea aside from you and I?"

"And Rice," he said, pointing to the fairy dog with his thumb.

"Oh yes, and the prince."

"Eastkal saw you?"

"Unfortunately. But I suppose…" I lifted my wings. "No one else knows. My colony will welcome me home. Um, what favour do I owe for keeping the whole shapeshifting mishap between us?"

"No big deal. You've babysat my pixies when I've come to see the High Count, and I don't keep score." The Head Pixie tapped the mesh above my nose. "Let's get you out of there, kid. And shove you in some clothes."

Free. Free. Free! I laughed aloud, throwing back my head.

Juandissimo came around to find me a few minutes later. He brought my clothes from storage, and I buttoned my blue coat for the first time in what felt like years. Even my slingshot and favourite coin were returned. After double and triple checking that this time I did indeed have Lohai, I followed Juandissimo through the Employee Access door and met my visitors on the other side. Anti-Saffron embraced me, nuzzling my cheek. A bright flutter dashed across my stomach. I rubbed my head beneath her chin and half regretted pulling on my trousers. The Head Pixie must have sensed this, because he coughed. Loudly. "Face the other way," I scoffed, stretching on my toes to nip Anti-Saffron's ear. She murmured back, kissing just above my eye. I sensed her twitch beneath her clothes, wishing as hard as I was that the Head Pixie would just leave.

"We sent Anti-Bryndin to secure dinner reservations," he said, ignoring us. "You'll be home in the Blue Castle tonight."

"Charming," I tossed back.

"Señor," Juandissimo said, gently taking the Head's arm. "Did you not wish to visit the pixie who lives here? Come. I will guide the way."

The Head Pixie threw us a frustrated glance, but allowed the fairy to push him down the corridor. He pointed back. "Do not. Leave. Without me."

They disappeared, Rice bounding after them. Anti-Saffron and I were left alone. These passageways were all within the Employees Only section of the Eros Nest, so quite likely we wouldn't be interrupted here. If we were, it would only be by cherub staff members who understood our behaviours almost as well as we did. I pulled back and studied Anti-Saffron's face, not quite sure what to say.

"Thank you. I… I know I've been away a long time. And I never became a creche father like you wanted me to. I'm so, so glad you still care for me."

"Unhesitantly, unquestioningly." Her fingers slid over mine. "And no matter where his travels take him, I would forever wait for my betrothed. Tarrow himself declared us a fated match." She paused then, thumb balanced on my bare knuckle. I bit my lip.

"Um. Anti-Binky made me cast off my ring. But the tugs of desire that pull me to you are as bright and hot as ever, I assure you."

"It's wonderful to have you home again." Anti-Saffron brushed tousled, mud-caked hair from my good eye. She held it there with her claws, studying every hair on my face, before pulling back her hand. "Even if you aren't a creche father. Trying for titles is tedious. What's most important is us."

I smiled, leaning my forehead to hers. "I hope I'm here to stay, darling. Or if I do leave, I hope you'll join me as my queen. I never wish to be apart so long again."

We spoke through touch after that, no words required.

Supper was an hour away. Probably on purpose, the Head Pixie bought us private tram car tickets and followed behind with Rice. "Cheaper than poofing," was the only answer he gave. I suspected he didn't want to see our hands all over each other through the meal and hoped time alone would burn our energy. Anti-Saffron and I exchanged a glance, brows raised. We hadn't undressed in the corridor, knowing the cherubs wouldn't like that. This opportunity suited our needs perfectly. Except…

I entered the tram in silence, glancing back to watch the attendant slide and lock the door. Our car lurched from the station and drifted through open sky. There wasn't a great deal of space. We were utterly alone. Oh, I would have done it. Any other day, I surely would have (Pairing in a tram car was one of my top fantasies, after all). But I stared out a window, biting my knuckles with jabbing fangs.

I'm not at all in the mood.

Which was ridiculous. I was always in the mood. In fact, the very idea that I might not be in the mood was an insult to my species. But following Il d'ijärv's rejection, my own self-deprecating thoughts, my two days of moping in a huddled ball, not to mention Anti-Saffron's upcoming realisation that I carried a certain shortness down below…

"Sorry," I said, smiling weakly Anti-Saffron's way. "I need rest. Wake me when we get there, hm?"

I floated hand in hand with Anti-Saffron through the streets of whichever Fairy town we ended up in, too lost in thought to notice much about our surroundings. That is, until we entered the restaurant where Anti-Bryndin was waiting. I caught one whiff of bacon and grilled pork and crumpled to the ground, pinning my head down with my hands. My feet skittered. "Anti-Cosmo?" Anti-Saffron yelped. The Head Pixie lifted his hands in alarm, scooting away.

Fruit bat! I screeched in my memory. I'm a fruit bat, I swear! I won't eat it, sir! It's yours, it's yours! Just a little scrap of fruit, that's all I ask! Please! My core erupted in pounding leaps, zinging from rooftop to rooftop inside my head.

"Anti-Cosmo?"

"No!"

They both took me outside again. I grasped the Head Pixie's shirt, swaying on my feet, shoving my claws through my hair over and over again. "I'm sorry," I gasped. "I'm sorry… I didn't mean to panic. I'm sorry! I just… I can't do it."

"What happened?" Anti-Saffron asked, holding my shoulder. "I- I mean, if you're sure it's safe to say so."

"No meat," I whispered. "Please. The smell. I can't."

"I'm here." Anti-Saffron took my chin in her hands and lifted my face level with hers. I stared at her through my sheet of tears. Every time I blinked, she disappeared from view. "It'll be all right, Anti-Cosmo. I'm right here. What should I do?"

"Just no meat."

"Fruit then? Fabulous. Fantastic." I was only half-listening, vision blurred, but when she said my name I focused on her soft scarlet eyes again. Her palms pressed gently against my cheeks. "Do you want fruit?"

"I want fruit…"

"Okay. We'll have some fruit. No one is going to make you eat meat if you don't want to."

They weren't? Oh… Oh, good. That was good.

"Anti-Saffry?" Suddenly I struggled with her name. Releasing the Head Pixie's shirt, I grasped her shoulders with my claws. "Will you still like me if I only want fruit? For the rest of my life, I mean. I don't know if… if I can ever go back to eating meat again."

"Of course."

I searched her face, clinging tighter. "Do you… really like me?"

"Of course," she said again, softly, crimson eyes just… soft. The blushing panic in my chest eased away. I let my wings droop.

"I missed you."

"I missed you too, Anti-Cosmo."

Thank smoke the Head Pixie didn't interject with any snarky commentary. Sniffling stupidly, I rubbed my stupid crusty eyes with the edge of my stupid wing. "I want… to be… with you. But not… yet. I want it… to be good… when I ask you these thoughts. I want to… think the words… right. Gods, I'm dizzy. I've been dizzy a long time. Will you wait?"

Anti-Saffron squeezed my hand. "I'll wait as long as you need."

"Thank you. Thank you so much, my dear. Um… Darling?"

"Yes?"

I tilted back my head so I could see her with my undamaged eye. "I love you. I always have, but I was scared. Scared you weren't enough. Scared I wasn't either. So I ran. But I'm not afraid anymore… and I still love you."

Her ears flicked forward. She straightened up, and I trembled with her. For just a few seconds, we stared deep inside each other's souls. Then she leaned forward and wrapped her arms around my neck. When she squeezed, she brought my body right up to hers in full, embracing without trying to slip away. I clenched her sides with my hands, pinning back my ears as the tears bled free. My wings swept around her shoulders.

And then I kissed her.

I kissed her in a way I'd never kissed anyone. Even Anti-Kanin. Our lips skimmed imperfectly, hers softer than nectar and mine rather dry and stiff. I stank of months without a toothbrush and I don't doubt she knew it. But Anti-Saffron snuggled me close and made no attempt to blink her tears away. Each bead slipped down my cheek, sizzling with acid and genuine loving care. The Head Pixie turned aside, tapping his thumbs in that embarrassed way of pixies. I let him wait. But eventually, shoulders shaking, I did have to ease us apart.

"Anti-Saffron…" I pushed her soft hair up with three claws. It sprang back around my hand. My ringless hand for now, though I intended to fix that soon. "I want to marry you someday. Monogamy and all. You, who has never, ever given up on me. You who welcomed me back with open wings every bloody time I flew away. Gods, I love you, woman… I love you more than anything."

Her claws tightened in the backs of my shoulders. "Do you really mean that?"

Swallowing beating lumps, I pushed my head against her cheek. "Every whit of it, my sweet Ru-vika d'hi. Especially that monogamy you love so dearly." (That stupid monogamy.) "Darling, I'll check myself for you without complaint. I'll be everything you desire in a husband to the best of my physical ability. I shall be your only partner. And you'll be mine. And, if you'll have me… I'd like to call you Mona again."

The tips of her lashes burned. A soft drop landed on my arm. "Yes. You have my blessing. Just hang on for me, Julius. I'm right here. I will always be here and we'll make it through this together. Just hang on."

I grasped her claws. "Mona… listen to me. Listen very hard because I'm not certain I'm brave enough to say it twice." I held one palm to the curve of her face, holding her gaze more deeply than a sword. "I'm not ready to be a father. I mean a true father to a child with our kind of lifespan. I've made mistakes and I've hurt the ones I've tried to watch over- Lohai especially, and I shall apologise. I can't trust myself to raise our baby well. But when the time does come, as I'm certain it will… I want nothing more in this life than to raise my family with you."

"Our pups?" she breathed.

"Yes, my dear. Ours… No matter whether my research brings results one day or whether you honey-lock with some other drake." I brushed my forehead to hers and stopped trying to fight the tears. "I want us to be a family, Mona. This I swear. I'll keep beside you every step of it all… And someday, you're going to be a wonderful mother."

END ACT 2


A/N - This was the M-rated version of the Frayed Knots chapter "Cageflight." You can proceed from here to Knots chapter 30, "Gossamer," [once posted] without missing any plot.

I am very grossed out by certain sexual acts and phrases and I did not include them in this story. I write fanfics for fun and this is my first time posting M-rated sex scenes online. The target audience is me, and since my career is in animal behavior, I'm more comfortable researching and writing about sex if I make Anti-Fairies more like bats than like humans. Please respect this. If you are turned on, that's cool and I hope you enjoyed reading, but my priority will always be not grossing myself out.

Thanks for reading, and please review so I can continue to improve my writing! I'm asexual and do not experience sexual attraction myself, so I'm curious about any (polite!) thoughts you have to offer or any places it felt too mechanical. Thank you!