Step off. Or not. It’s one of those decisions that hovers at your peri­pheral vision — are you ready? Wings unfurled at your back, that sen­sa­tion of almost-moistness lingering — will they hold? There’s a time limit… go too early and you plummet to the bottom of the chasm, fall below the cloud cover, thin scream echoing; go too late and no egg will ever ripen in you, no fire ever form to forge new life. There’s del­icate chem­istry at work, all hinged on self-knowledge, self-trust bal­anced against cocky teenage arrog­ance and the thrust of exuberant dis­play and strut.

The mists rise, pun­gent. Near the bend in the banded rose-and-ochre rock, new­found mates arc and circle.

Step off. Ignore the clam­ouring fear of fraud — what are you doing here at all? Egg-carrier with no interest in nesting? Or not. No shame in walking away, becoming one of the Keepers instead of a Mate.

And yet… there’s an edge. Desire. Those mists, calling.

Stretch out a wing – sun­light glints gold off purple and teal. Step off —

— and fall, for a ver­ti­ginous moment, into warm air and indigo mist that tingles — breathe in — and feel sparks deep inside, crack­ling — breathe out — and without thinking, bank right to realise — flight! — as the shudder of aware­ness and now and everything pools deep at the muscle where wing meets back and — breathe in — sparks, up-down up-down — breathe out — wheel down on a cry —

There is a moment when every tendon, every capil­lary, every bone feels that it is being recon­figured — searing pain, trans­form­a­tion without the kind­ness of a chrysalis. Reach out — wingtip to wingtip, tail to tongue, belly to back — breathe in. Breathe out.

To the left, a sudden tum­bling, ungainly. Time halts as one body drops far too fast but at the last moment catches a claw on a ledge and scrabbles back to panting, whim­pering still­ness, cradling torn pata­gium and time resumes.

The rest of you carry on as if there had been no inter­rup­tion; indeed, will barely acknow­ledge that it could have been any of you on that ledge — the wrong draft, a dis­tracted breath into cold reedy air instead of filling spiced warmth.

The heat in your belly is growing insistent, drum-pulse needy now. Up-down, up-down. Slowly rise above the crags and look across the ravine — so many Drake, all the way to the horizon, ver­mil­lion and cobalt and pearl — up-down, up-down — there — wings fold in just so, and this dive is pre­cise and graceful — wheel again —

And there he is — silver and violet and eyes like fire, wheeling next to you — up-down, up-down — breathe in together, sparks —

— and sud­denly you are every Drake that has ever stepped into the unknown, over­laid a thou­sand­fold through time; you are nesting, awaiting young­lings; you are breathing fire to quicken your wife’s eggs; you are laying, crying out as the fourth egg passes too quickly; you are mating slow on the wing at dusk at the end of the War, injured; you are emer­ging reborn from fire back in the Phoenix-time, before… Breathe in. Sparks, crack­ling. Fire, then, not eggs? That makes fierce sense, and he seems to know it too — tangles tail, teasing, breathes in. Up-down, up-down. Too much to risk now to fall, steady beating of wings together: up-down, up-down. Breathe in. Sparks, crackle, heat. Breathe out — fire. Meld breath and soon bodies.

There’ll be time later to find out whether your new nest will need a third for young­lings.