Weight presses Innes into the mattress, flattens him like a wildflower between encyclopedias.
He gasps fully awake and scrapes open his eyes over the layer of sleepytime sand.
All that greets him is a view of the weave of his pillowcase and the faint glow from the streetlamp outside framing his curtains.
He's still squashed.
The weight flows across his back, down his sides, and puddles on the mattress, pinning his hips and knees.
"Ah, hello?" he wheezes as he fails at pushing up on his elbows.
The weight shifts and a concentration of it grinds into his kidney.
"This is not good." Innes raises his voice to nearly conversational, calls, "Partner? A little help, please?"
No response from from Punky reaches his ears, no flash of red greets his eyes.
Innes' heart twists in his chest. He pulls in as deep a breath as he can, says, "Excuse me? Being using me for a sofa?"
Weight snorts and shifts.
"I'm having a mite of trouble … breathing. If you'd move, I'd have an easier time conversing. Please?"
Weight huffs; something nuzzles the back of Innes' head.
"Please move, sweetheart. I'm about to faint."
Weight sighs and rests their chin on Innes' nape.
"How about … how about you come back first … thing in the morning … for coffee?"
Weight snuggles closer.
Innes vision goes smoky red at the edges.
Far off, a voice with an edge of brushed steel sing-songs.
The weight vanishes.
Innes pants and his world slowly regains its proper colors and level of blur. He pushes up on his elbows, then flops over, eases himself to sitting, and pats around on the nightstand for his glasses. His mobile clatters to the floor as his fingers close around a lens.
He gets the specs on his nose and the temples over his ears, then peers through smudges toward the faint golden glow at the foot of his bed.
"Hello, Young MacIver," greets the fairy.
Innes takes another deep breath and says, "Good morning, Your Grace. It's a most unexpected pleasure to see you again."
The fairy's outfit this time consists of a low cut, form-fitting red dress with a shortish skirt. Pink daisies and red roses and little white flowers Innes can't name cling to her skin from her collarbones to the bases of her fingers; matching flowers nestle in her hair like a crown.
She inclines her head. "I will show you something."
"Of course, Your Grace. I'll get myself dressed." Innes slides to the edge of the bed.
"There is no need." The fairy makes a quick gesture.
"But—" Innes' arse meets pink sand and his vision sparkles a tad.
"We will walk from here."
"Yes, Your Grace." Innes scrambles to his feet, grimaces in answer to the complaint from his back, and dusts off his flannel pajamas-clad bum.
The fairy holds out her closed hand. "You may carry her for me while we travel."
"I'm flattered, but I can't accept—"
"This is not a gift, Young MacIver. I lack pockets and she must be returned to her rightful place."
"My apologies for leaping to a conclusion, Your Grace."
The fairy smiles an indulgence and sets something warm in his cupped palms; her fingers brush his skin, sending a jolt of electricity tingling along his nerves.
She withdraws, her smile gone teasing.
Innes inspects his handful, ignoring the continuing tickle and the dancing of the hairs on his nape.
A wingless pink dragon barely the size of his thumb blinks beady black eyes at him as she tastes the air with a minuscule black tongue. She has stripes in light, dark, and medium pink, a short jaw, domed head, barbels like a mustache and beard, extravagant toes on each webbed foot, long spines at the base of her tail, and a stubby horn above each eye.
Innes smiles at his new friend. "I've not encountered this sort before."
"Few humans do and survive. They have the unfortunate habit of suffocating those they visit when they slip through and trespass on your world."
Innes lowers his face nearer Pinkie's. "Ah! You're the reason I was having such trouble breathing!"
Pinkie takes an experimental nip at his nose.
"I'm not very tasty, I'm afraid, so we'll be having none of that." Innes nudges Pinkie into the bowl of his palm.
Pinkie huffs and sets to mountaineering up Innes' wrist.
"I admire your sense of adventure, sweetheart, but this is neither the time nor place for it." Innes closes one hand over the other, pours the dragon into his breast pocket, and buttons up after her. "Hopefully, that'll hold you."
Pinkie wiggles, but quickly settles down.
Innes smiles at his pocket, then lifts his eyes to the fairy.
She nods approval and turns on her heel. Her bare feet displace no sand as she strides away.
Innes follows, pink grains pushing up between his toes at each step.
"Have you thought further about my offer, Young MacIver?"
"I have, Your Grace, and I haven't changed my mind."
The fairy hums a disappointed tone.
Innes keeps shoulders missing Punky's reassuring weight square and scans the horizon.
Transparent, iridescent bubbles, each big enough to hold Punky comfortably, hover and spin in groups here and there. Dunes of pink sand cover the ground, flowing in hills and valleys under a rosy sky, with nary a plant in sight. The perfectly still air tugs stickily at Innes' clothes as he trails in the fairy's wake.
The fairy matches step with him and sighs.
Innes takes a deep breath to cover a cringe.
"With what can I sweeten my offer?" she says.
"I already have everything I want, Your Grace."
"I find that hard to believe. Humans are so rarely satisfied."
Innes shrugs. "I suppose I'm the rare exception, then."
The fairy scoffs, stops, and faces Innes with her head tilted and her chin cupped in her hand. "You do not wish to change your appearance? Be a little taller, perhaps? Different hair, different eyes, a stronger body …?"
"This shape's served me well enough so far."
"I wouldn't really know what to do with them."
She raises a perfectly sculpted eyebrow. "Power?"
"Goodness, no. I definitely don't want any more responsibility. I have enough difficulty keeping my partner out of my neighbors' iceboxes."
The corners of the fairy's mouth turn down. "You are most frustrating."
Innes spreads his hands helplessly. "I've been worried about wearing out my welcome since I met you, Your Grace."
She smiles, showing very many perfectly white teeth. "It is amusing to be frustrated by a human now and again."
"That's somewhat of a relief."
"I do rather enjoy a challenge," she purrs.
"Come along, Young MacIver." The fairy waves negligently and sets off across the sand.
"Yes, Your Grace." Innes exhales the three breaths he'd been holding and pursues.
They pad in silence up one dune and then down the other side.
Pinkie wriggles and pokes her head from Innes' pocket.
"I'd rather you didn't linger so near the edge, sweetheart. Why don't you take a nap?"
Pinkie peeps, but hooks a paw over the pocket hem.
"No, sweetie. Back down you go." Innes gently pushes Pinkie's head with a fingertip until she slides into the dark pouch.
After some frustrated squirming, she huffs, rolls herself up, and stills.
Innes takes a deep breath and thanks his lucky stars for sleepy dragons.
The fairy calls, "What do you think of this world, Young MacIver?"
"It's lovely. I could see myself passing a pleasant holiday here."
"The atmosphere will poison you in four of your hours."
"Maybe only a short stay, then."
The fairy laughs.
Innes smiles to himself.
"You are the first of your people to see this place with their own eyes."
"I'm honored, Your Grace."
They crest another dune.
An ocean spreads out before them, blushy water ringed and ruffled with lacy white wavelets.
The fairy starts down.
Innes picks his way after her, slip-sliding every second step.
At the edge of the water, the fairy stops.
Innes halts a half-step behind.
"The dragon belongs here. Release her."
"Yes, Your Grace." Innes crouches at the very edge of the floral-scented water and unbuttons his pocket.
"Try not to touch the liquid. Some of the compounds in it are psychoactive in humans."
"Thank you for the warning." Innes gently prods the dragon-lump. "Good morning, sweetheart."
Pinkie pops her head clear of the fabric and peeps a greeting.
"Hello again, my little friend! Thank you for behaving so well on our journey."
Pinkie blinks and yawns.
Innes scoops her from his pocket and cups her in his hands. "There you go. Back home."
Pinkie trills, wiggles her hindquarters, and flings herself into the water.
Innes hops back and overbalances to land on his bum (thankfully) well clear of the splash.
Pinkie flicks her tail and swims off, quickly vanishing beneath the surface.
"Thank you, Young MacIver," says the fairy, inclining her head. "You've done us a great service returning that one to her place. She is the mother of all her kind. Without her, there would be no more."
"You're welcome, Your Grace. It's my honor and joy to help such an excellent dragon and to see you." Innes hauls himself—
"We will meet again and sooner than you think."
—crashes down on his mattress on his arse, blinking black spots from his eyes.
A small red comet impacts his chest, knocking him flat on his back. The greeting squeak catches up a moment later.
"'ey, buddy! I'm fine! No need—"
Punky plants a forepaw on his mouth and thoroughly investigates his eyes, his ears, his hair ….
Innes gets his hands around Punky's middle and lifts him clear.
Punky scrabbles and scolds.
"I'm fine. Really. The fairy envoy needed me to shift a dragon for her."
Punky narrows his eyes and looks down his snout.
"Cross my heart that's the truth. I'd never've left you behind if I'd been given any choice."
Punky grumbles a concession, wiggles himself loose, and wedges himself firmly into Innes' armpit.
Innes curls that arm around Punky, lets the other flop to the duvet, and sighs every molecule of air from his lungs.
A portion of his brain notes what looks like bright daylight leaking around his curtains.
And that thought's shattered when his mobile screams from the floor.
Innes flails off the side of the bed, dodging a fluttering and squawking Punky as he goes, nabs the thing with his fingertips, puts it to his ear, and says, "Hell—"
""Oh thank God! You're all right!"" hollers Sarah.
"Uh, yeah. That I am." Innes slides the rest of the way to the rug, lies there. "Is something wrong?"
""You—you!—are ninety minutes late meeting me for our shopping holiday. I was about to call the police to kick in your door."" She takes a deep breath and says more quietly, ""I was afraid you'd had a fucking heart attack or something.""
"My heart's intact. It's my, ah … my alarm didn't go off. What, what time is it?"
""It's ten of twelve.""
Innes groans and bonks the back of his head against the floor.
""You're fresh awake, aren't you?""
""Do you still want to do this?""
"Yes, very much so."
""Then how much time do you need to get ready?""
"A quarter hour should do."
""Awesome. That gives me enough time to finish my tea.""
"Quality." Innes pushes up his glasses and rubs his eyes. "Remind me to tell you about the wild dream I was having."
""Definitely. I want to hear what was so entrancing it made you late."" Sarah sighs. ""See you in a quarter hour.""
"With bells on!" Innes thumbs closed the connection and tucks the mobile into his breast pocket. "Hey, buddy?"
Punky chirps from the nightstand.
"Do you know where I left my 'man about town' trousers?"
Punky makes a disgusted noise.
"The hamper? Aww … that is not what I wanted to hear. I need to look somewhat presentable if I'm going to set foot in these places with my head held high."
Punky glides to a gentle landing on Innes' chest and nuzzles his chin, humming.
"Ah, of course. I don't have anything to worry about when I've you along, do it?"
Punky whistles a cheerful affirmative.