The sun filtered patchwork across the path, yellow edged with green through the canopy of leaves overhead. Jensen could hear the rustle of the wind through the trees and, somewhere far away, the splashing of water. If he stopped walking and listened really hard, he could just about hear the sounds of the other kids laughing and playing in the valley beyond the forest. Where he was supposed to be.
Jensen swallowed hard. Mama and Papa were going to be angry if they found out he'd gone off adventuring on his own. Again. But it wasn't his fault that none of the other kids wanted to come. Only babies ran away from adventures. Jensen was seven now: more than big enough. He couldn't go back.
Maybe if he made it a short adventure they wouldn't notice.
The path was wide and mostly clear, making it easy to walk and keep an eye out for danger at the same time. Jensen had found a long, solid stick a while ago and he was using it to behead the sneaky looking flowers that were creeping along the side of the path. He was sure it would be useful in case any trouble started.
Jensen had taken this path with Papa once, when they went to give presents to the dragon lords. Personally, Jensen didn't think that vegetables were a very good present, but Papa promised him that vegetables were very important, especially for the dragon lords who didn't grow their own. Jensen had sat in the cart and watched the trees go by while Papa led the pony and talked to the other papas who were bringing their own presents.
It had been a long trip, but it had been worth it to see the big stone dais the dragon lords used to give people a place to put their presents. It was flat and big, like a house with nothing but a floor, and the cracks between the stones sparkled when the sun hit them right.
There had been no dragon lords waiting for them, to Jensen's supreme disappointment. Papa said that the dragon lords didn't usually come just to see them; they were very busy. So Jensen had helped Papa stack their bags of vegetables in the middle of the dais and had fallen asleep in the wagon on the way home, dreaming of dragons.
Jensen still wanted to see the dragon lords, but he figured that the stone dais was probably too far away to walk to by himself. That was okay, though, because there were plenty of other-
Something rustled, shocking and close.
Jensen whirled towards the noise. "Who's there?" he called, brandishing his stick in warning.
No one answered.
"Hmm." Jensen lowered his stick and walked closer to the side of the path where he'd heard the noise, trying to see what had caused it. All he could see was trees and bushes and more trees.
With a sigh, Jensen turned to continue along the path.
A twig snapped.
Jensen looked harder. Nothing.
Carefully, he stepped over the creeping flowers and off the path, towards the place where the twigs had been snapping.
Walking here was a lot harder than it had been on the path. Jensen kept needing to sidestep trees and hop over rocks to keep moving in a straight line. He started to grin. This was a lot more fun than walking on the path.
Strange noises forgotten, Jensen skipped around a low bush and a patch of long grass, delighted to be on a real adventure at last. He warned off low branches and tall plants with adventurer-like slashes of his stick, moving as fast as he could in the thick underbrush. A particularly shifty looking tree stood in his way and Jensen laughed as he cleverly avoided it.
Then he found the hill.
It wasn't a big hill, just a little slope of the ground, but it was enough to make Jensen lose his balance, and he yelped as his skip turned into a run turned into a fall. He tumbled end over end in a wash of dirt and twigs, 'oofing' with every bounce. He plowed into a bramble bush that stopped his fall and held him fast, trapped.
The branches were thick and scratchy; they grabbed at his skin and tore his clothes and Jensen struggled to get up, feeling a whimper rise in his throat when he couldn't get loose.
"Stupid bush!" Jensen yelled, wincing at the sting when one of the branches scraped his neck. "Let go!"
One of his flailing arms managed to find some bush-free ground and Jensen wormed through the branches until he could get his other arm out as well. Dirt rubbed into the scratches on his hands when he grabbed a hold of a tangle of roots, but Jensen didn't care. He tugged hard on the roots, dragging himself clear of the bush.
Free at last, Jensen lay flat on the ground for several long moments, panting with the effort and hurting all over. There were scratches on his arms and legs and rips in his clothes that Mama was going to be very unhappy about. Jensen felt hot tears prickle his eyes and bit his lip hard, trying not to cry. He didn't like this adventure anymore.
It was starting to get dark. Jensen wiped his nose on his tattered sleeve and pulled himself to his feet. Papa and Mama would be looking for him soon. He needed to go home.
Jensen blinked through wet eyelashes at the trees around him, trying to figure out where he was. He'd gone further away from the path than he'd meant to. He wasn't sure he could find it again.
He was lost.
The tears started welling again. "Stop it," he told himself, blinking back the sting. "You're a big boy. And big boys don't cry."
Carefully, Jensen edged around the evil bush, looking for his footprints. That would tell him what direction he'd come from, right? He found a hard groove that had been left in the dirt from the front of his shoe and he set off in that direction, head held high because big boys were brave when they got lost.
Something glinted in the dimness.
Jensen couldn't help but pause, curious. He looked at the distant shiny thing, which he could only just see from where he was standing, then at the forest. He didn't want to forget what way he was going.
There was a tree in front of him with a knot in the trunk just a little higher than his head. Jensen could remember that.
Satisfied that he wouldn't get more lost, Jensen walked towards the shiny thing, moving slowly to keep from falling again. It was half-hidden beneath a tumble of leaves and Jensen crouched down to push them out of the way. He sucked in a delighted breath when he saw what was under them.
It was a stone, nearly as big as the bags of flour that Papa bought at the mill, and coloured the bright copper of the sunrise. There were lighter spots scattered all over the surface that reminded Jensen of his own freckles and it was this, more than anything, that made him reach out to touch.
The stone was warm and smooth and not really very stone-like at all. Jensen petted it for a few moments, then looked around. There was nobody around for ages. The stone had been left there. If it didn't belong to anybody then it was okay for Jensen to take it. All the best adventures ended with treasure, after all.
Mind made up, Jensen wrapped both arms around the stone and climbed to his feet. It was heavier than it looked and Jensen staggered a little under the weight before he figured out how to hold it close to his chest with his arms cradled around it. "Come on, stone," Jensen said to his new treasure. He found the tree with the knot in it and started walking again. "Let's go home."
It wasn't that easy.
As the air got darker, it got harder for Jensen to see where he was going. He had to walk really slowly to avoid the bushes and rocks and tree roots. Carrying the stone started to make his arms tired after a while, but Jensen tried to ignore the discomfort. He wasn't giving up his treasure after all the trouble he'd gone to to find it.
It was a big surprise when Jensen stumbled across the path; he nearly fell over at the sudden lack of brush to push through. He was happy to be back on the path, though, at least until he realized that he had no way of knowing which direction was the right one. Was home to the left or to the right? And where would he end up if he went the wrong way?
This time it was impossible to stop the tears and so Jensen sat down in the middle of the path and cried, stone cradled against his chest and his shoulders shaking with the force of his sobs. It took a while for him to stop and he sat there sniffling in the dark, hoping that there were no big animals in the forest that liked to eat lost little boys.
In the end, it was Papa who saved him, armed with a lantern and calling Jensen's name in the dark. Jensen, who was tired and sore and lost and hungry, didn't even care how much trouble he was going to be in; he jumped to his feet, dashed down the path towards Papa and buried his face against his legs. "Papa!" he sobbed.
Papa hushed him and ran a gentle hand through Jensen's hair.
"I've been looking for you everywhere," he said, while Jensen cried. "Mama and I have been very worried."
"I just w-wanted to have an a-adventure," Jensen tried to explain.
Papa sighed. "We've told you before, Jensen: you can't just wander off like this. What if something bad happened to you out here?"
"M'sorry, Papa! Didn't mean to get l-lost!"
"I know." Papa stroked Jensen's hair until Jensen calmed down, then crouched down to look Jensen in the eye. "I bet you're ready to go home, though, right?"
Jensen nodded fervently. He scrubbed at his wet eyes with one hand, then paused as he remembered his stone. "Wait," he told Papa, and went back over to pick it up.
"What have you got there?" Papa asked as Jensen returned, and Jensen brightened.
"Treasure," he said proudly. "I found it all by myself. It's a stone."
"Well," Papa said. "That does sound exciting." He put one hand on Jensen's shoulder and started steering him down the path. "Let's go home and you can show Mama."
It took them a long time to get home; Jensen hadn't realized he'd been so far away. His eyes started to get heavy and his feet scuffed up little puffs of dirt as he stumbled along at Papa's side. Papa shifted the lantern into his other hand and scooped Jensen up into his arms.
"Hold on tight," Papa said. "And hold onto your stone. We don't want to lose it in the dark."
Jensen mumbled a tired agreement, clutching his stone close as he leaned back into Papa's chest. The stone was warm and not so heavy now that Papa was carrying both of them.
The light was flickering in the window when Jensen and Papa finally made it back to the cottage. Mama was standing in the doorway.
"Jensen!" Mama ran down the path and pulled Jensen and Papa into a hug. "Where on Earth have you been?" she demanded. "We were so worried!"
Jensen hung his head. "M'sorry, Mama."
Mama pressed closer and something wet splashed against Jensen's cheek. She was crying.
Jensen was horrified. "Please don't cry, Mama," he begged. "I won't do it again! I'm sorry!"
Papa cleared his throat. "I think that's enough for tonight. Jensen needs patching up after his adventure and everybody's missed dinner. We can talk about all this in the morning, right Jensen?"
That was the 'Jensen, you're in trouble' voice. Jensen swallowed hard. "Yes, Papa."
"Dear," Papa said to Mama, who stepped back so that Papa could put Jensen down.
"Your Papa's right," Mama said. "Time for all little adventurers to come inside."
"Okay." Jensen paused to get a better grip on his stone before staggering after Mama.
Mama's head tilted. "And what's that?"
"Treasure," Jensen mumbled. "I found it."
"It's a stone, apparently," Papa said to Mama as he doused the lantern. "He seems pretty pleased with it. Wouldn't let it go the entire trip back."
"It's treasure!" Jensen said, a little more strongly. Surely they knew how special treasures were. Mama led the way into the house and Jensen held up the stone so that Mama and Papa could see how prettily it sparkled in the firelight. "See?"
What Jensen didn't expect was for Mama to make a short, dismayed sound and cover her mouth with one hand, or for Papa to say a word that Jensen wasn't supposed to know.
He looked between them, suddenly nervous. "What's wrong?"
"Jensen, honey," Mama said, sounding like she did when he was sick and she wanted him to drink yucky medicine. "That's not a stone."
Confused, Jensen looked down at his pretty copper coloured not-stone. "It looks like a stone."
Mama's smile was smaller than usual. "I know, dear one. But it isn't."
"What is it?"
"It's an egg," Papa said, when Mama didn't answer. He looked tired, like he'd been out gathering the harvest all day, but it was only spring. They were ages away from harvest season.
"An egg?" Jensen said doubtfully. He tilted his not-stone thoughtfully, trying to understand what it had to do with the eggs he helped Mama collect from the chickens every mornings. "It's very big. Are you sure?"
Mama and Papa exchanged a look that Jensen didn't understand. Then Mama crouched down and cupped Jensen's cheek with one cool hand.
"Jensen," she said, and Jensen hated how scared she sounded all of a sudden. "This is a dragon egg."
After dinner, Mama helped Jensen tuck a soft blanket around the egg - a real dragon's egg! - so that the baby dragon inside the egg didn't get cold. Dragons got cold easily, Mama said. The egg shared Jensen's room when he went to bed, since he was the one who brought the egg home. He didn't know much about what made dragon eggs happy, but he figured that they probably liked sharing rooms.
Papa left early the next morning, like always. Sometimes, Jensen was allowed to walk to the fields with him, where he'd play with the big boys whose papas worked with Papa. Today, however, Mama made Jensen stay home; she didn't even let him go outside to play in front of the house.
"No adventuring today," she told him firmly, which Jensen didn't think was very fair, even if he was in trouble. Jensen had wanted to take the egg outside to play - eggs liked playing, right? - but Mama said no, so they played inside. At least the egg was interesting, even though it didn't move. It glinted shiny and orange in the light shining through the window and Jensen traced his fingers carefully across the almost-smooth surface, connecting the dots like Mama did with his freckles when she wanted to make him laugh.
After lunch, the lady came.
Papa brought her, though Jensen wasn't really sure why; he could tell that she made Papa and Mama nervous.
She was even taller than Papa and was wearing a very pretty green dress with a big skirt that looked like it would be hard to walk in. Her hair was brown and her eyes were a yellowy sort of colour that Jensen had never seen before. She wasn't smiling.
Jensen didn't mind, though. He was too distracted to wonder what the not-smiling meant.
Because the pretty lady had horns. They were a dark, reddish colour and they curled around on themselves sort of like ram's horns, only thinner. Jensen stared, fascinated.
"Your ladyship," Mama said, with a funny little head bob. "You honour us with your presence. Please let me express our very greatest apologies for-"
"Your husband has already delivered them," the lady said, not letting Mama finish.
Jensen frowned. "You're not supposed to interrupt people," he told the lady. "It's rude."
Mama made a funny, strangled sound. "Thank you, Jensen," she said. "It's okay, I promise."
Not convinced, Jensen glanced at Papa.
"It is," Papa agreed. He crouched down to Jensen's height. "This is Lady Sharon. You know that the egg has a baby dragon in it, right? Well, Lady Sharon is that baby dragon's mama. She was very worried."
Jensen looked up at Lady Sharon. He thought he understood why she looked angry now. "Oh."
Lady Sharon looked down at Jensen. "Your father tells me that you are the one who took my egg."
"I didn't mean to take it," Jensen protested. "I thought it was a stone. Not an egg."
Mama nudged him. "Manners, Jensen."
He ducked his head, scuffing one foot against the floor. "I'm sorry I took your egg."
"Well," Lady Sharon said. Jensen chanced a glance up and found her smiling at him, just a little. "At least you're honest. And we're very glad that you weren't trying to steal it, aren't we, Jared?"
My name isn't Jared, Jensen was going to say, but just then Lady Sharon's skirt rustled and a boy a few years younger than Jensen peeked around the side of it. He had hair the same colour as Lady Sharon's and horns too, although his were very small, hardly more than pointy bumps sticking out of his hair. His eyes were more reddish than yellow and he had strange marks on his face, like scratches.
"Did you hurt yourself?" Jensen asked him.
The dragon boy clutched at Lady Sharon's skirt. His eyes were very wide.
Lady Sharon put a hand on the boy's head. "Jared was meant to be caring for his egg kin yesterday. Apparently they were playing hide and seek," she said to Jensen's parents, with a little twist of almost-amusement that Jensen didn't understand. Her glance flicked down to Jensen. "He got himself a bit scratched up while searching the forest."
"Oh!" Jensen said, brightening. "Me too!" He twisted awkwardly, trying to show Jared the scratches on his arm. "See? A bush attacked me."
Jared stared at him.
"Jared," Lady Sharon said smoothly. "Would you retrieve your egg kin, please? It's time we went."
"Jensen will show you the way," Mama said.
Jensen nodded. "Come on," he said, and held out his hand.
Jared glanced up at Lady Sharon and she nodded. Shyly, he stepped out from behind her and reached for Jensen's hand.
A weird, tickly feeling zapped through Jensen's fingers the moment they touched and he jerked his hand back, surprised.
"Ow!" he said automatically, although it hadn't really hurt, not really.
Above him, Lady Sharon sucked in a sharp, startled breath.
"Jensen?" Mama asked, sounding worried.
"M'fine," Jensen said. He shook his hand, trying to stop the weird, fizzy tingle in his fingers. He looked at Jared. "You okay?"
To Jensen's surprise, Jared offered him a quiet nod and held out his hand again.
There was no funny shock this time and Jensen smiled at him. "It's this way."
He tugged Jared with him into his room. The egg was sitting in the middle of his pallet and Jensen felt the tension drain out of Jared the moment he saw it.
"M'sorry I took it," Jensen said, abashed. He stared at his feet while Jared hurried forward to touch the egg. "I wouldna done it if I'd known it was an egg."
It was quiet for a moment, quiet enough that Jensen could hear the murmur of voices in the main room.
"She likes you," Jared said suddenly, and Jensen jerked his head up to see Jared facing him with the egg held carefully in his arms. His voice was soft but strong. "You've taken good care of her."
"Oh, that's good," Jensen said. "She?"
Jared nodded. "My hawae." Jensen blinked at him, confused, and Jared frowned. "Uh, my sister? Inside the egg. She's sleeping now, but she'll wake up soon."
"Oh." Jensen stroked the egg. "I never had a sister."
"Actually," Jared said, lowering his voice to a whisper. "I was hoping for a brother."
Jensen blinked at him for a moment and then they both burst into giggles.
"Maybe you should ask for one next time," Jensen said, between breaths. Jared grinned broadly at him.
"I don't think that's-"
"You can't!" Mama's voice said suddenly, loud and unhappy.
Jensen and Jared froze, laughter forgotten in an instant.
"What's wrong?" Jared whispered.
All Jensen could do was shake his head. "I don't know. Let's go see."
They crept carefully towards the doorway and peeked around the corner to where Lady Sharon and Jensen's parents were standing.
"…anything you want," Papa was saying. He sounded upset. "Anything but that. Take me."
Lady Sharon scoffed. "So that your wife and son can starve to death for want of a worker in the field? You owe a forfeit and I have named it. This is not a discussion."
"But why?" Mama asked. "Your child has been returned to you!"
Lady Sharon looked at them. "He is dragon kin."
Papa drew in a sharp breath. "I thought that was a myth."
"It is not," Lady Sharon. "No doubt you've seen evidence of it all his life, though you don't want to admit it. But there is no denying the truth: his place is not with you."
Mama made a short, sharp sound and pressed herself against Papa. Her shoulders were shaking.
Jensen didn't like this. "Mama?" he asked.
All eyes swung their way and Jensen was shocked to see tears on Mama's cheeks.
"Oh, my baby," she said, and opened her arms. "Come here."
"What's wrong?" Jensen asked, as he hurried towards her. As soon as he got close enough, Mama swept him up into a hug that was tight enough to make him squeak.
"Nothing," Mama said. She smiled a watery smile. "Everything will be fine."
"I don't believe you." Jensen glanced up at Papa. "Papa?"
Papa's hand came down to ruffle Jensen's hair. He didn't say anything.
Jared had followed Jensen across the room and he was standing beside Lady Sharon. She stroked the egg with a fond, relieved smile.
Jensen squirmed around to look at her through the fall of Mama's hair. "M'sorry," he told her again. "I'm glad I didn't hurt her."
Lady Sharon smiled at him. It was a much warmer expression than she'd showed before. "I am glad of it. And I thank you for your apology." She looked up at Mama and Papa. Her smile turned into something somewhere between stern and apologetic. "We shall expect you and your son at the circle tomorrow."
Jensen brightened. "I get to come? Is Jared coming too?"
Jared smiled at him, shy but pleased.
"He may," Lady Sharon said, and then put a hand on Jared's shoulder. "Come now," she told him. Jared nodded.
They turned around to leave and Jensen discovered something amazing.
"You have wings!" he said, delighted.
Lady Sharon looked over her shoulder. "We do," she said, with another warm smile. Jensen couldn't remember why he'd thought she was scary. "Until tomorrow, we take our leave."
"Goodbye!" Jensen called after them, waving. Mama and Papa bowed and didn't say anything.
Jensen kept waving until Lady Sharon and Jared were too far across the rolling grass to see, then turned back to Mama and Papa.
"Are we really going to see them tomorrow?"
"We are," Papa said. His voice sounded funny.
Jensen frowned. "But we don't have any vegetables to give them."
Mama bit her lip hard. "They won't mind," she said.
"Good," Jensen said. "I like Jared. He's nice." He blinked up at Mama. "Can people be friends with dragons, Mama?"
Mama's face crumpled and she pulled him close again. Her fingers were digging into Jensen's arms almost hard enough to hurt. "Jensen," Mama said, her voice thick with sadness. "Oh my poor boy."
"Mama?" Jensen asked. "Why are you crying?" He looked up at Papa and panicked when he saw tears in his eyes as well. "What's going on? Was Lady Sharon mean to you?"
Papa shook his head. He didn't say anything.
They were giving Jensen to the dragons.
Like the vegetables.
"It's not our choice, Jensen," Papa said gravely, speaking loudly to be heard over Jensen's noisy tears.
"We'll visit when we can," Mama promised. "And, if you're good, Lady Sharon might let you come visit us too."
"Don't make promises you can't keep," Papa said to her, in a warning tone of voice, and Mama glared.
"I don't w-want to leave!" Jensen wailed.
"We know, sweetie," Mama said, rubbing a soothing hand down his back. "We don't want you to go either. But you have to. Lady Sharon and the dragon lords will be very nice to you."
"Jensen." Papa crouched down on the ground in front of Jensen and put a hand on his head. "I need you to listen to me. Your Mama and I would give up anything if it meant that we could keep you here with us. But there's nothing we can do."
"I'll run away!" Jensen sniffled. "I'll hide where they can't find me!"
"There's no such place," Papa said. Jensen wanted to kick and scream and yell until Papa was as upset as Jensen. "So I need you to be a very brave boy, okay? And never forget that your Mama and I love you very much."
Jensen's tears spilled over again. "Papa…"
"I know, dear heart." Papa rose to his feet slowly, like he was too heavy for his legs to hold him. "I know."
They packed Jensen's clothes into a small bag, along with his blanket and the carved wolf that Papa had bought for him at the marketplace. While Papa packed, Jensen stared around his room with wide eyes, trying not to think about what would happen to it without him here.
Mama, who wasn't coming to the circle with them, fell to her knees at the doorstep and wrapped her arms around Jensen. He clung back tightly, burrowing his face into her neck.
"You be a good boy," Mama said, in a voice that wavered. "Will you do that for me, Jensen?"
Dumbly, Jensen clutched her tighter. He didn't want to let go.
But Mama pushed him back gently and rubbed a thumb across the tear tracks on his face. "My brave little man," she said, with a smile that looked like it hurt. "I have something for you."
She reached into her pocket and pulled out a length of cord that she tied around Jensen's neck. Jensen looked down. The cord had a pendant on it, made of brightly burnished bronze with a bit of shiny rock in the middle that had always reminded Jensen of the colour of Mama's eyes.
It was Mama's favourite thing in the world - after Papa and Jensen, she always said.
"So that you know how much we love you," Mama said, when Jensen looked up at her. "Say your prayers to Grimmet of the Plains and remember that we're always thinking of you."
Jensen hugged her again and this time Papa had to pry him away before he would let go.
"Come on," Papa said. "They're expecting us."
And so, with all of his things in the pack over Papa's shoulder, Papa's hand holding his, Mama standing in the doorway and the sun just starting to peek over the horizon, Jensen walked away from his home to go live with the dragons.
The trip was just as long as Jensen remembered, right up until they broke through the tree-line to find a small group of dragons waiting for them at the big stone circle, and then it seemed like they'd only just left. Lady Sharon was there, with a tall man standing next to her. His horns were long and straight; they sort of reminded Jensen of the oxen that Papa and the other papas used to plow the fields, only green.
Jared was there too, peeking out from around the man dragon's legs, and his face broke into a delighted, toothy smile when he saw them. It made Jensen want to smile too, but he was too sad.
"Jensen!" Jared called, running over and nearly tripping on his pants. They were wide and swooshy, and they were a bright green colour that made Jensen's clothes seem very boring. Jared drew up short a few feet away, his eagerness faltering when Jensen didn't say anything.
"Jensen?" he asked hesitantly.
"Jared," Lady Sharon said, gently chiding. "You are welcome," she said, to Jensen and Papa. "I share your grief and I hope that you can find comfort in our happiness."
"I am grateful," Papa said, which didn't sound like an answer to Jensen, but adults were strange like that.
"Jensen," Lady Sharon said. Jensen looked away from the sparkling cracks in the floor to see her giving him a gentle, encouraging smile that made him miss Mama. "We are happy that you are joining our clan. I hope that someday you will be happy about it, too."
The man standing next to her murmured something to her and Lady Sharon nodded. "We must go," she said. "It is a trip better undertaken in the light."
Jensen stared at her, dismayed. "I don't-"
Papa's hand landed on his shoulder and Jensen looked up to see Papa smiling softly down at him. "It's okay," Papa said. "Think of it as an adventure."
Tears pricked at the corner of his eyes and Jensen flung himself at Papa's legs, clinging tight and burying his face against his pants. "I don't want to go," he mumbled.
"That's part of what it means to go on an adventure," Papa said. "If they were easy, everyone would go on them. Not just brave boys like you, right?"
Jensen nodded reluctantly and felt Papa's hand come down to ruffle his hair.
"Good man." Papa held him close for a minute more before gently disentangling them. He took Jensen's hand and led him forward.
Jared waited anxiously as they drew close, practically vibrating in place. "Jensen?" he asked hopefully.
Papa gave Jensen a nudge and, when Jensen looked up, he gave him an encouraging look.
So Jensen held out his other hand and felt a little better when it made a pleased smile break across Jared's face. The three of them walked the rest of the way to where Jared's family was waiting.
Papa let go of Jensen's hand so that he could give Jensen's pack to someone, and Jared immediately pulled Jensen into a swift, hard hug.
"I'm so excited," Jared said into his ear, hushed, like a secret.
Jensen swallowed around the lump in his throat.
"Jensen," Papa said, and Jensen turned to see Papa looking down on him with eyes that shone wetly. He opened his arms and Jensen buried his face against Papa's stomach while strong arms wrapped around him. "Don't be afraid. Everything's going to be okay."
No it isn't, Jensen wanted to say, but he didn't want to worry Papa. He settled for nodding mutely.
"Jensen," Lady Sharon said. "Are you ready?"
And the answer was definitely 'no' but Jensen knew it didn't matter. He had to.
Papa apparently knew it too. He gave Jensen one final pat on the head before detangling Jensen's arms from his legs. "Go with the kindness of Grimmet," he said. "And never doubt how much your mama and I love you."
Jensen bit his lip, hard. It didn't stop his voice from shaking when he said, "I love you, Papa."
There wasn't any more time for goodbyes; Lady Sharon came forward and Papa gave Jensen a nudge to get him moving. Jared tugged encouragingly on his hand and Jensen walked slowly, one step at a time, away from Papa and into the cluster of dragon lords waiting for them.
Jensen, Jared and Lady Sharon sat together in a wagon for the trip to where the dragon lords lived. Jared talked happily most of the way there, even though it was a long trip. Jensen didn't really listen. His chest hurt and he could feel sadness creeping up the back of his throat and threatening more tears.
Lady Sharon watched him and Jared with an expression that Jensen didn't understand. It didn't seem unkind, but Jensen still didn't dare trying to ask her any of the questions that were trying to burst their way free of his chest.
Jensen was so preoccupied with not saying anything and not listening to Jared that the wagon had already rolled to a stop before he'd even realized that they'd reached their destination. He blinked at the little clearing they were in, then up. And up.
Papa had told Jensen stories of the tree cities. Dragon lords lived in massive old trees, Papa said, full of stairways and houses and pathways that all twined together to make a city in the air. But hearing about it wasn't the same as seeing.
Despite his determination not to care about anything, Jensen couldn't help but gape at the network of intertwining branches that arched out far above his head and were alive with the bustle of many people. Bright green leaves hid a lot of it from sight, but Jensen could see some little houses carved right into the tree trunks, and a series of branches that had woven together to make a bridge from one tree to the next. There were windows dotted along the trunks and ladders and swings and wisps of smoke drifting up to the sky from strange little chimneys.
"Wow," Jensen said without thinking, tipping his head far back so that he could get a better look.
Jared beamed. "Welcome to the Tree," he said. He grabbed Jensen's hand again. "Come on! It's this way!"
Next to where the wagons had stopped, there was a broad staircase spiraling up the outside of the trunk of the biggest tree. Only it wasn't a staircase, Jensen realized as he took a closer look; it was a massive row of fungi growing out of the side of the tree.
"The day is growing long," Lady Sharon said, when Jensen didn't move. "So we had best go now. The pathways can be treacherous in the dark if you're not familiar with them."
Jensen looked up again and imagined falling down from that high. He shivered.
"It's fine," Jared said, tugging Jensen down from the wagon. He was stronger than Jensen. "I'll show you the way."
Helplessly torn between misery and curiosity, Jensen let Jared lead the way and, together with Lady Sharon and the other dragon lords who'd taken him away, they started climbing.
"And this is your room!" Jared said, stopping in the middle of the room and flinging his arms wide, practically bursting with excitement.
It had taken them a long time to get here. They'd climbed staircases and walked along bridges and branches on the way; in any other situation Jensen would have been delighted. Right now, though, it had been hard enough just to put one foot in front of the other.
Jensen glanced around his new room disinterestedly. It was very nice, he supposed.
"Jensen?" Jared asked suddenly, sounding upset enough to draw Jensen's attention back to him. Concern creased Jared's face. "What's wrong?"
Jensen stared at him. He didn't know what to say.
"Jared," a voice said from the door and Lady Sharon walked in. "Come along now. Give Jensen some time to settle in."
"But-" Jared started, only to fall reluctantly silent when Lady Sharon gave him a look. "Fine. Come play soon, okay, Jensen?" he asked, over his shoulder as he went.
Jensen managed a weak nod.
Lady Sharon put a hand on Jared's shoulders, between his wings, to steer him out. She paused a moment after he was gone. "I am sorry you grieve," she said. "Take all the time you need to settle in. We are happy to have you."
The door closed softly behind Lady Sharon, leaving Jensen alone.
"I'm not," Jensen told the empty room. He looked around at the furniture and the big window and the collection of things on the shelves that were maybe his now. All of the things that Jensen had brought with him wouldn't even fill one shelf.
A handful of steps brought Jensen up to the foot of his very nice new bed. He sat down gingerly.
It was softer than his bed at home.
Jensen didn't want to like it.
Everything was abruptly too much. A sob caught in Jensen's throat, another spilled out over the top, and Jensen threw himself facedown on his very nice new bed and cried himself to sleep.
Jensen spent the entire first day alone in his room.
And the second.
And the third.
By the fourth day, Jensen felt cried out, lonely and bored. He wasn't used to staying inside and it was hard to be upset all of the time. He could see the crisscrossing mass of tree branch roads outside the window and, even though his head hurt and his chest felt hollow, Jensen couldn’t help but want to go exploring.
He wouldn’t though. The dragon lords couldn't make him.
Maybe if he was lucky they'd send him home again because he was so boring.
Jensen, who had been poking listlessly at the food that had been left for him, looked up.
There was a pair of hands curled around the window ledge and, as Jensen watched, Jared heaved himself through the window, overbalanced and fell with a splat to the floor.
"Owwwww," Jared said, sitting up and rubbing at his nose. He was dressed in a shirt and plain trousers, not that different from Jensen, and his feet were bare. His wings were splayed wide behind him, a deep blue glinting with threads of gold in the light.
Jensen hopped off the bed and ran over. "Jared?" He glanced out the window, taking in the long drop to the closest branch, and then back at Jared's open wings. "You can fly?" he exclaimed, excitement drowning out the sadness.
Jared shook his head. "I mostly glide. My wings aren't strong enough yet. I'll fly better when I'm bigger." He tucked his wings in close and cocked his head at Jensen. "Why won't you come out of your room?"
Jensen's eyes dropped to his feet. "S'not my room."
"Sure it is," Jared said, sounding confused. "Linma and me picked it special. Mine is on th-"
"S'not," Jensen said again. His voice came out wobbly when he said, "I just want to go home."
Jared was quiet and Jensen dared a glance at him through his eyelashes.
Jared was staring at him, wide-eyed and hurt. "But… why would you say that?" he demanded, sounding a little wobbly himself. "This is your home now!"
Jensen frowned because it was better than feeling guilty. "Wasn't my idea."
"That's- you don't want to stay with me?" Jared asked, in a small voice.
"I want Mama and Papa," Jensen said.
"Linma said that you can visit them."
"S'not the same!" Jensen wailed. He jabbed an accusatory finger at Jared. "Would you want to be taken away from your mama and papa?"
"Well, so there."
Jared bit his lip. "Can- will you come with me?" he asked, after a moment. "I want to show you something."
Jensen hesitated. "What?" he said, trying not to sound too interested. "Don't want to play."
Jared's smile was hopeful. "Just come, please. I won't tell."
And Jensen really didn't want to say no.
"Okay," Jensen said, and then, "I can't fly," when Jared turned immediately to the window and started to hoist himself onto the ledge.
"S'okay," Jared said, with a grin. "It's just a little jump and then you can climb down over there. See?"
Jensen looked where Jared was pointing. "I dunno."
"You can do it," Jared said. "Watch me." He readied himself, weight balanced evenly on both feet and wings angling out far enough that Jensen had to back up to keep from bumping into them. Jared pushed off with a mighty leap and Jensen watched him shoot through the air to land almost gracefully at the branch he'd been pointing at before. His arms pinwheeled once, fighting to keep him upright, and Jensen let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding when Jared found his balance and turned to give him a smile and wave a beckoning hand.
Somewhat nervously, Jensen clambered up onto the ledge. Looking down was a bad idea, he discovered immediately; he couldn't see much but leaves and branches, but the gaps between them were the most scary. If he missed, Jensen didn't think it would matter much if he fell all the way to the ground or just to another branch further down the tree.
"Come on!" Jared hissed, obviously trying to be quiet. He wasn't very good at it. "You can do it!"
Jensen dragged his eyes away from the pockets of empty air between him and where Jared was standing. He looked at how far he had to jump, and thought about how Jared could do it and how Jensen was taller than Jared. Jared smiled encouragingly at him, arms out like he was ready to catch Jensen if he fell, and that was enough for Jensen.
Papa and Mama always said that Jensen was their brave boy. He could do this.
Clenching his jaw, Jensen took another careful look at the distance between himself and Jared. He took a deep breath and then, before he could think twice about it, jumped.
It was over in an instant. Wind rushed past him as Jensen tumbled through the air, a yell caught in his throat, and then he was across and he crashed into Jared hard enough to send both of them spilling to the floor in a tumble of arms and legs and wings.
"Wow," Jensen panted, once they'd set themselves to rights. He couldn't stop grinning.
Jared beamed. "I know." His hand slipped into Jensen's and he tugged. "Come on!"
Jensen didn't even try to resist.
Now that Jensen was looking at it properly, the dragon lords' tree fortress was even more amazing than he'd realized. He stumbled along in the wake of Jared's grip on his hand, entirely captivated by the wide, twisting branches and the smooth grooves worn into them by generations of wandering feet. Looking up revealed more branches and little houses and bridges arching right up to the sky; looking down did the same until the leaves blocked Jensen's view.
The dragon lords were going about their business all around them, and Jensen watched, awestruck, every time one of them spread broad wings and took to the air, usually in short trips from one tree to another. Their wings were strong but thin, and the ripple of sun through the leaves made them glow in a vast array of colours.
Jared led him confidently through the twisting maze of leaves and heavy branches, obviously familiar with the route and not taken by the scenery the same way Jensen was.
"It's just up here," Jared said after a short time, dropping Jensen's hand to point at a ladder carved right into the side of the tree. The top of it disappeared into a cluster of leaves overhead.
"Here?" Jensen asked, a little surprised. He was pretty sure that they hadn't gone that far from his room - although it was kind of hard to tell with the way the branches snaked around - and he couldn't imagine what Jared wanted to show him that he couldn't just tell him about instead.
Jared nodded. "Follow me."
He was up the ladder like a shot, leaving Jensen to stare after him in startled confusion.
Jared paused part way up the ladder and twisted to throw Jensen a look. "Come on, Jensen!"
A little nervously, Jensen walked up and gripped one of the rungs of the ladder. The bark was rough against his palms and he swallowed hard before hoisting himself up.
Jensen wasn't used to ladders, had only been allowed to use the one at the miller's house if Papa had been there to make sure he didn't fall, and that ladder had been nowhere near as long as this one. He followed clumsily after Jared, his shoes slipping on the wood and his arms growing quickly tired.
Bright, unfiltered sunlight spilled across Jensen's face when he finally emerged from the leaves and he blinked a few times to clear his vision.
"This is the crèche," Jared explained, while Jensen clambered awkwardly onto the raised terrace - made of neatly fitted planks rather than the lattices that Jensen had seen elsewhere - and narrowly avoided falling over when his weary legs threatened to buckle. "It's where all the eggs live."
A glint of amber gold caught his eye and Jensen was rushing forwards before he'd even thought about it. "Your sister's egg!" he exclaimed.
He joined Jared at the side of the big bed of leaves and cloth that the egg was lying on and watched as Jared petted the egg gently.
"You can touch her," Jared said, when Jensen lingered, uncertain. "It's okay."
Carefully, Jensen laid his own hand on the egg. It was warm, but not hot enough to burn his fingers. "Hi again," he said gently. "Remember me?"
"Of course she does."
Jensen glanced over at Jared in surprise. "How do you know?"
Jared did that funny head cock that Jensen was started to associate with him being confused. "I can feel her," he said, and tapped his chest. "Right here. Don't humans do that?"
Jensen shook his head. "No, never." He smiled down at the egg, which looked bright and beautiful in the light. Even prettier than it had been when Jensen had found it in the forest. "I guess you like the sunshine, huh?"
Jared smiled at him. "All dragons like the sunshine. That's why the eggs stay in the crèche: to keep them warm and happy until they're born."
"Oh." Jensen kept stroking the egg, but his attention started wandering around the terrace. Most of the space was taken up with the huge crèche that Jared's sister's egg was lying on. There were two other eggs there too: one that was the green like the water at the bottom of the river, and another one that looked faintly pink.
Beyond them, squashed between the trunk of the tree and the edge of the crèche in a space that hardly seemed big enough for Jensen to stand, stood a shadowy doorway made by the slant of two branches inclining into each other. Jensen could just make out the curve of a staircase leading down before it disappeared from sight.
Jensen didn't want to ask. He didn't want to be interested in this place that wasn't home.
But he couldn't help it.
"Where does that go?" he asked, lifting one hand to point at the curling, overgrown staircase.
Jared looked at it. "I don't know." He offered Jensen a grin. "Do you want to find out?"
They spent the entire day exploring the tree city, following staircases to their bottoms and then their tops, and scurrying along branches that were wider than the paths through the forest and then skinnier than the path up to Jensen's front door. His shoes kept skidding on the branches until Jensen finally kicked them off altogether, which was more uncomfortable but less slippery.
There was no space inside Jensen to be sad while he was so caught up in the amazing things all around him. For the first time, he felt like he was on a real adventure and not still on his way to find one. Jared was a constant, bright presence by his side and Jensen wondered why it was so easy to feel comfortable with a dragon when he'd never been any good at making friends with the other boys at home.
"Are there lots of humans here?" Jensen asked Jared, while they sat together on a branch eating the spiced potatoes that a nice dragon man had given them because they were hungry.
Jared shook his head. "There aren't any others."
Jensen's next mouthful was hard to swallow. "None?" he repeated. He wasn't sure how to feel about that.
"Nope. Just you."
A little overwhelmed, Jensen stared at his feet. They were dangling over empty air that went on for ages; he couldn't even see the ground from here. "Why me?"
At his side, Jared shrugged. "I don't know. I asked, but Linma didn't tell me."
"The Lady Sharon."
Jensen thought about that. "Linma means mama?" he guessed.
Jared's brow furrowed. "Yes, but more than that. Linma means mama and clan leader. If she was just my mama she would be hwama."
"Huh. So what do I call her?"
"Linsho. It means clan leader," Jared said. He looked a little shy as he added, "Because you're part of the clan now."
"This is confusing." Jensen looked up at Jared. "Is there a name for you, too?"
Jared nodded. "Shoki. Because I'm the future linsho. But you could maybe just call me Jared?" he offered.
"Jared," Jensen repeated, and watched Jared brighten with open delight.
"Can I still call you Jensen?"
Jensen shrugged. "Sure."
Jared beamed at him.
Jensen imagined going on adventures with Jared: trekking through this tree city and searching in the forest for treasures. It made something uncoil inside him and settle into place like he had always been slightly wrong and now he wasn't.
Jensen frowned a little, chasing that feeling and trying to figure out what it was.
"Jensen?" Jared asked him. "Are you okay?"
"I like it here," Jensen admitted, hushed. "I miss Mama and Papa and my house and my friends a lot. But…"
"But I still like it here. It feels safe. Like I'm supposed to be here."
"Maybe you are," Jared offered. "Humans don't live with dragons. Except you now. Linma must have brought you here for a reason."
Jensen wasn't so sure. "Maybe."
"I'm glad you took my hawae's egg," Jared said, all in a rush.
Jensen blinked at him, startled, and Jared's cheeks tinted purple in what Jensen figured had to be a blush.
"Why?" Jensen asked.
Jared shrugged, staring at the drop below them.
"Really," Jensen said. "Why?"
"Because it's like I got a brother after all." Jared peered at him from under his eyelashes shyly. "Right?"
And, much as Jensen didn't want to agree when the loss of his parents was biting an unhappy sadness in his heart, he could feel the truth in it.
"Yeah," he said finally. He reached out to take Jared's hand and met Jared's immediate smile with a tentative one of his own. "I guess it is."
And that was enough, for now.
Two decades later
Something thumped outside Jensen's window.
Jensen groaned and tugged his blankets over his head.
"Come on, Jensen!" Jared said, sounding obnoxiously cheerful. It was, sadly, his natural state of being. Jensen didn't need to open his eyes to know that Jared was balanced on the window ledge - which was deliberately broad for just this reason - with an easy grace that had only recently grown out of his painfully awkward adolescence. The cobalt arch of his wings would be turning the sunlight a pale, ethereal blue where it shone through the thin membrane. "Get up already! We're gonna be late!"
"Go away!" Jensen growled. The words were muffled by the way Jensen's face was buried in the pillow, but Jared had woken Jensen up more than often enough to know what he was saying. Not that it ever stopped him.
"Can't do that, sorry."
The creak of the window frame was the only warning Jensen got before two hundredweight of dragon landed square on his chest.
"Oof!" Jensen's breath escaped in a rush. "Jared!"
"Jensen!" Jared singsonged back at him. He sounded absolutely delighted to be crushing Jensen's ribs. "The Wingmaster's going to make you run laps again if you're late!"
"Alright, already! Get off me!" Jensen flailed out with his arms until Jared backed away and perched on the side of the bed - as opposed to on Jensen - with a smug grin.
"Good morning to you too, sunshine."
"Ground dweller," Jensen muttered at him, but Jared didn't seem bothered by the slur. Knowing there was no way out of it, Jensen heaved himself reluctantly upright, already dreading the effort it was going to take to get out of the bed.
Jared stared at him expectantly.
Jensen rolled his eyes. "Go away. I'll follow when I'm dressed."
"I could just wait," Jared suggested, like it was the best idea ever conceived of by dragon kind. "Make sure you don't go back to sleep."
"Or you could go and avoid getting my fist in your face."
"So grumpy in the mornings," Jared said, still grinning. "Are all humans so intractable?"
"This one is." Jensen made a shooing motion. "Go. No point in both of us being late."
Jared shook his head. "I think you like being contrary."
"You've figured out my nefarious plan. Congrats. Now go away."
"Okay, okay, I'm going." Jared paused on his way out the window. "Don't take too long."
Jensen didn't bother throwing anything at him because he'd lost three hairbrushes and a book that way - that window was big and Jared could move fast when he wanted to - but he definitely glared at Jared until he flew off with a carefree laugh.
With Jared finally gone, Jensen hurried through his morning ablutions and tugged on his sturdiest set of leathers and a dark green shirt. His mama's pendant went around his neck and Jensen paused to murmur a quick, instinctive prayer to Grimmet of the Plains. He raked his fingers through his hair to wrestle it into a reasonable facsimile of tidy and concluded that he was about as good as he was going to get. He grabbed his pack off the stool by his bed and headed for the window.
The air was warm with summer's grace and the dappled light through the leaves of the Tree signified another beautiful day. Jensen didn't have time for that. He hopped up onto the window ledge and jumped, making the leap from the window to the closest tree branch with ease. It didn't take more than a heartbeat for Jensen to catch his balance when his feet touched down and he started sprinting immediately, hyperconscious of the time.
A sudden gust of wind fanned over him and Jensen squawked as a pair of strong arms hooked under his armpits and carried him up into the air.
"Put me down, you bastard son of a newt!" Jensen yelled. He flailed, hard enough to make Jared work for it, but not truly enough to break loose. He'd been dropped more than enough times to want to avoid it happening again.
Jared just laughed and pinned him closer to his chest. "This is a helpful service, Jensen. Or did you want to get in trouble?""
"You're being an ass!" Jensen told him, even as he tucked his body into the sinuous curve of Jared's spine to reduce drag. His legs dangled free as they climbed higher and higher through the close-crowded branches, but Jensen hadn't feared heights since he was a boy.
"I'm being chivalrous," Jared corrected.
"I hate you so much."
"Lies! It's okay, though. I won't tell anybody."
Jensen wasn't like his friends.
"Sleep in again?" Chris asked, as Jared swooped down with a reluctant Jensen in tow. His amused grin revealed a mouthful of razor-sharp teeth. "I'd almost think you weren't looking forward to this."
"Break a wing and die," Jensen said pleasantly. And, over his shoulder, "My feet are on the floor, Jared, you can let go now."
"Maybe I don't want to," Jared said, holding him tightly enough to make Jensen's ribs creak, because somewhere between his last growth spurt and now he'd become ridiculously grabby. Only with Jensen, though. Because Xos of the Air clearly hated him.
Growling, Jensen shoved an elbow into Jared's gut. He did more damage to his elbow than to Jared's chest - Jensen couldn't compete with both dragon skin and the wall of solid muscle that Jared had hiding underneath it - but it was enough to make Jared huff and back off.
"Poor little Jensen," Julie's voice said, and Jensen looked up to see her half-reclining, half-hovering on an overhead branch. She bent at the waist, legs still hooked over the branch, and scrubbed a hand through Jensen's hair. "Is Shoki being mean to you?"
"Hey!" Jensen ducked, trying to avoid her, but she just stretched out further, the easy beat of wings keeping her aloft. "Hands off!"
"I'm fixing it for you!" she said, laughing and still pressing her advantage. "Grow yourself some horns if you don't want my hands in your hair!"
"Oh, sure, I'll get right on that." Jensen darted around Jared and Chris, putting some empty air between himself and Julie.
She pouted at him. Jensen rolled his eyes. "You look just like Jared when you do that."
"Hey!" Jared protested. "I'm much cuter than she is. Ow! Well, it's true," he said to Julie, rubbing at his arm where she'd hit him.
"Please don't kill each other," Jensen told them, as Jared and Julie started snapping at each other. "I don't think Jeff would be pleased."
"No," a calm voice said behind him, and they all froze with identical looks of chagrin on their faces. "I wouldn't be."
"Wingmaster," Jared said, because he was always the first to fumble for an excuse when they got in trouble. "We, uh, didn't see you there."
Wingmaster Jeff walked around so that he could look all of them in face at once and Jensen wasn't the only one who fidgeted under his steely gaze. His grizzled face and the heavy scar that twisted the side of his mouth downwards ensured that Jeff always looked serious and forbidding, which made it hard to know when to be properly worried about getting punished for misbehaviour.
"Amazingly, I had figured that out for myself, Shoki. Anything else to say in your defense?"
Jared hunched a shoulder. "At least we weren't late?"
"Not something to be proud of," Jeff said, but his tone was light and everyone relaxed minutely. He looked around the assembled dragons and Jensen. "Still, I am glad that you're all here and ready to go."
"Of c-" Jared started to say, and Jensen kicked him discreetly in the shin to shut him up. Jared really had to learn to quit when he was ahead.
Jeff arched an eyebrow at them. "If you're quite done. This is survival training, dragons, and I expect you to give it your full effort. You don't want to know what's going to happen to those teams that fail, trust me."
At his side, Jensen heard Steve swallow hard.
"You must remain in your appointed zone for the entire exercise. I'll know if you haven't and, again, the result won't be pleasant. I'll give each pair their appointed zone now; leave as soon as you've been told. Chris and Steve, you're up first."
Jensen listened with half an ear as Jeff worked his way up and down the ranks, preoccupied with thoughts of the task ahead. As Wingmaster, Jeff was responsible for making sure that all young dragon lords - and Jensen - developed the skills they needed to be valuable members of the clan. This was far from the first time he'd made them do survival training but Jensen would still rather have been getting his ass handed to him in weapons drills instead of living off plants and sleeping on twigs. At least when he had his glaive in his hand he could hit back at whatever was tormenting him; the forest didn't really care how much surly resentment Jensen threw at it.
"Jensen," Jeff said, and Jensen stepped hurriedly forward. "You and Shoki are three leagues southwest of Mijan, up to-"
"Wait, what?" Jensen asked, startled. "I thought I was being paired with Chad for this one." Not that he necessarily minded not working with Chad - of all of them, Chad tended to have the least patience for Jensen's human shortcomings - but it was highly unusual for Jeff to change his mind about something once he'd decided on it.
Jeff arched an eyebrow at him and Jensen belatedly realized that he'd said that aloud.
"Apologies, Wingmaster," he said, ducking his head. "I was just surprised."
"And too outspoken by half," Jeff said, though he didn't sound too upset about it. He turned his attention to the next pair. "Alona and Jake, you're going…"
Jared nudged Jensen in the side and, when Jensen looked over, gave him a bright, happy smile. Jensen couldn't help smiling back. Jared was always his favourite dragon to partner with.
"Alright," Jeff said, when they all had their assignments. "Good luck and try not to get yourselves killed. Dismissed."
Everyone burst into a flurry of motion: seeking out their partners and pulling on their packs before taking to wing.
Jensen fumbled with his pack, gritting his teeth at the familiar awkwardness. Everyone else's packs sat in the small of the back with the straps wound around the waist and legs so that they wouldn't get in the way of their wings. Jensen had quickly realized that he didn't have the lower back muscles necessary to pull that off and so he'd had his pack redesigned to sling over his shoulders instead. It wasn't entirely comfortable, especially when it was so heavy, but it did the job.
He did wonder sometimes if the weight of a full bag was in any way similar to a pair of wings.
"You ready, Jensen?" Jared asked, not waiting for an answer before he launched himself into the air.
"Why do you even bother asking?" Jensen yelled after him, pulling the final strap tight.
"Wouldn't want to leave you behind, wingless!" Jared called, grinning. His wings spread out wide against the canopy of leaves and sky in open taunt.
Jensen made a rude gesture. "I can handle just fine on my own!"
Jared laughed. "Suit yourself. See you there!" He executed a tight turn and , with a powerful beat of his wings, shot off into the everblue sky.
Jensen was in hot pursuit immediately. Because he might not have been able to fly, but nearly two decades of living with dragons had taught him to make do with what he had.
His bare feet dug into the grooves of the bark as Jensen dashed to the closest bridge, mentally ticking through every possible route and path he might take to get down to the forest proper. He rebounded off a nearby 'y' branch, hooking his arm around it to take the turn tighter, hop-skidded across one of the older staircases that had started growing fungi in recent years, and vaulted neatly onto the bridge.
From there, it was an easy task to grab hold of one of the supporting ropes and shimmy down to the next level. It was a signature move of his, learnt as a child with Jared, but useful to him in a way that the dragons didn't need. For Jensen, the Tree - and the surrounding forest - was a network of paths and trails that he needed to be able to navigate with his eyes closed if he wanted to get around with anything even close to the facility of his friends.
It had resulted in a few broken bones over the years, and one horrifying tumble that would have turned him into a Jensen pancake if one of the adult dragons hadn't caught him on the way down, but Jensen's efforts had rendered him as mobile in the trees as he was ever going to get without a pair of wings of his own.
Jensen was down to the level of the tree-line proper in a matter of minutes and then it was simply a matter of running along the branches to get from tree to tree as he angled himself in the direction of Mijan village.
Jared beat him to their designated zone, of course, but Jensen had expected that. He was fast, but Jared had been above the tree-line and it had been a straight shot for him. It still rankled though.
"Where you been?" Jared asked, from his position halfway up a tree. His legs were hooked around the thickest part of the branch he was sitting on, keeping him upright by the nearest of margins. "I thought you'd given up."
"Taking the scenic route," Jensen said, dropping hand over hand down to the forest floor so that he could shed his pack. Jared's was already there and Jensen dropped his alongside it with a sigh of relief, rolling his shoulders back.
"Alright?" Jared asked, appearing suddenly at Jensen's elbow.
Jensen nodded. "Nothing to worry about. Well," he amended, with a grin. "Except for the fact that I'm stuck with you for the next week."
"Oh, and I suppose you'd rather be stuck with Chad?"
Jensen snorted. "As if. Don't you think it's weird, though, that Jeff changed the pairs? He never does that."
"Who knows why Jeff does anything?" Jared shrugged. "Maybe he was afraid that you'd tie Chad to a tree and leave him there?"
"One time!" Jensen protested. "And he totally deserved it. Besides, Jeff'd probably just consider that useful survival training."
Jared shrugged again. "Yeah, probably."
He was silent for longer than Jensen was used to, and Jensen glanced over to find Jared wearing an expression that it took him a moment to parse as sheepish.
"That's-" Jensen said. "Jared, did you ask the Wingmaster to change our assignments?"
"What?" Jared said, unconvincing in the extreme. "Me? No, of course not. I don't know where you get these crazy ideas of yours."
Jensen gave him a look. "Jared."
"I didn't do anything," Jared said, also unconvincingly.
"Do I have to tie you to a tree and leave you here?"
"Maybe Jeff thought that he ought to send someone strong and manly to protect our weak little human."
Jensen rolled his eyes and punched him.
Jared ducked out of the way of Jensen's fist, like Jensen had known he would, and skipped back a few steps. "You know, I'm starting to think you don't like me."
"Only just now?" Jensen asked, and had the answering furrow of Jared's brow to warn him before Jared threw a punch of his own. He dodged with ease and let his own retreat bring him up to the base of the tree Jared had been sitting in earlier. "Oh, come on, you can do better than that."
Jared's response was a teeth-baring grin. "Question is: can you?"
So Jensen smiled back at him and bolted up the tree before Jared could strike.
He was a good halfway to the top by the time Jared caught up with him and Jensen widened his stance to set his balance as Jared squared up across from him, arms loose and wings partially spread.
"You ready for this, Shoki?" Jensen asked, just to make Jared growl. He hated it when Jensen called him by his title.
Their stalemate lasted only a fraction of a second: Jared launched himself at Jensen; Jensen laughed, dodged and then they were off.
It was as much a game of tag as it was a fight. They darted and weaved through the trees, leaving scatters of twigs and torn leaves in their wake. The blood sang in Jensen's veins and he could feel himself grinning wider with every almost-hit, every near miss. His body fell easily into the familiar back-and-forth with Jared's, years of sparring and close company making the movements smooth and instinctive.
Jared was Jensen's superior in strength and speed, but the close quarters caused by the tree branches cut down his maneuverability so Jensen had plenty of opportunity to give as good as he got.
Then his foot came down on empty air instead of the branch that should have been there, and any advantage that Jensen might have had was lost in an instant.
"Shit!" Jensen wobbled, fighting for balance, and it was all the opening Jared needed.
A hand wrapped around his arm and Jensen's back was slammed against the trunk hard enough to make his teeth rattle. His wrists got pinned beside his head before he could shove Jared off him and Jensen growled in frustration.
"Got you," Jared said smugly, as Jensen wriggled without effect. Jared pressed closer, trapping Jensen between the hard line of his body and the tree trunk; Jensen was close enough to track the faint iridescent shimmer of sweat sliding down the scales at Jared's collarbone. Jared's face was inches from his own, his eyes gone dark and wild in a way that Jensen didn't recognize. Jensen's heart was hammering in his chest, his throat felt tight.
"Jared?" he asked, hardly able to hear himself over the pounding in his ears.
"Jensen," Jared said lowly. "I-"
Jared's head jerked suddenly, eyes snapping away from Jensen to something over his head. His nostrils flared once and then he was gone, slithering up the tree and leaving Jensen to slump back against the trunk, breathing hard and completely confused.
"Jared?" he called, when he trusted his voice. The rustle of leaves was the only response and Jensen frowned before hoisting himself up to the next branch.
He found Jared with his head sticking out of the top of the tree, peering into the distance with a troubled expression.
Jensen followed his gaze and found nothing. "What's going on?"
Jared blinked at him, looking a little dazed. "I saw- I, mean, I thought I saw…"
"What?" Jensen asked. "What did you see?"
Jared visibly shook himself out his preoccupation. "We should go," he said. "Get your pack."
"What are you talking about? We can't just leave; Jeff will kill us!"
"Jensen," Jared said. One of his big hands clamped down on the back of Jensen's neck and Jensen startled. "This is important. We're going back to the Tree."
"I, okay," Jensen said, more rattled by the abrupt end to their sparring match and Jared's strange behaviour than he wanted to admit. He followed Jared down to the forest floor. "Don't suppose you'd like to tell me what's going on, would you?" he asked, while he shrugged on his pack.
"You ready?" Jared asked instead of answering.
Jensen nodded. "Although I'd really appreciate it if you'd- whoa!"
Jared scooped him up in his arms like Jensen didn't weigh a thing, slinging him across his front with frightening ease. "Hold on," he said, and put on a burst of speed.
Jensen scarcely had time to thank Xos that the foliage wasn't too dense in this area of the forest before Jared's wings snapped out and he gave one mighty push with his legs to get them airborne. Branches raked along Jensen's clothes and skin as they exploded through the canopy and into the sky and he hissed at the sting.
"Jared!" he protested, as Jared wheeled them around towards the direction of the Tree. His arms locked around Jared's neck - about the only place he could put them to keep them out of the way of Jared's wings - and his legs clamped around Jared's thighs, plastering them chest to chest. "Put me down, you overgrown salamander!"
"No," Jared said, and wrapped his own arms more tightly around Jensen's waist as his wings beat in steady time towards home.
"Oh, for Xos' sake."
Jared ignored Jensen's increasingly creative bitching all the way back to the Tree, not saying another word until they alighted on one of the eastward-facing lattices and Jensen had struggled his way free from Jared's stupidly long monkey arms.
"I need to talk to Linma," Jared said, while Jensen combed his hands through the windswept mess of his hair. "Go wait in your quarters."
Jensen stared at him. "Are you serious? I'm not- Jared!" he yelled, as Jared took to wing again, without so much as a by-your-leave. "What the fuck is going on?" Jensen muttered to himself, before fumbling out of his pack and taking up the chase. "Jared!"
Jensen staggered after Jared's retreating form, cursing Jared's wings and the lingering pins and needles in his own legs as he tried and failed to keep up. Luckily, Jensen had a pretty good idea of where Jared had to be going.
The Hall was the main centre of clan affairs. It was a meeting space, an audience chamber, and a council room, all rolled into one. Jared's mother, the linsho, presided over the space and so, if Jared was looking for her, that would be the most likely place for him to have gone.
There was no sign of Jared when Jensen reached the wide platform that housed the Hall, so Jensen squared his shoulders and marched towards the door.
Only to have the guard at the door hold up a hand to stop him.
"No admittance," the guard, Brock, said, to Jensen's surprise.
"What?" Jensen asked. The guard posting was largely ceremonial; every dragon had a right to participate in matters of state if he or she so desired. To be refused entry was hardly ever heard of. "Why?"
"Shoki's orders," Brock answered, sounding faintly apologetic. Jensen figured that he ought to; Jensen had known Brock since he was an egg. Had helped teach him how to wield the glaive he was holding right now, in fact.
"You sure?" Jensen asked, just in case.
Brock shook his head. "Sorry, Jensen."
Jensen waved a dismissive hand. "Don't worry about it. If, uh, Shoki wants to know where I am, can you tell him to go jump off something high onto something pointy?"
"I'll tell him," Brock said, grinning. "He'll probably just go to your quarters, though."
Jensen chuckled. "Worth a try. Thanks, Brock."
Without any better option, Jensen figured that he might as well change into something that wasn't torn and covered in dirt while he was waiting for Jared to tell him what in Xos' name was going on. He trudged back up to his own quarters, using the door since it was much easier as a wingless to climb out of his window than into it.
Jensen stripped off his filthy, twig-matted shirt and tossed it towards the slowly growing stack of clothes that he needed to take down to the stream to wash, and reached up instinctively to touch his mama's pendant.
It wasn't there.
Startled, Jensen jerked his eyes down and was horrified to have his eyes meet with bare skin instead of the familiar glint of tarnished bronze and well-worn leather.
"No," Jensen breathed, with a rising panic.
Jensen remembered his human parents. Not well, but fiercely nonetheless. He'd had basically no contact with them growing up - mainly due to the dragon lords' desire that he assimilate into the clan as quickly as possible, he suspected - and time and distance had long since worn the edges off once-clear memories.
They weren't his family anymore, not really. They hadn't been there to watch Jensen grow into a man and Jensen hadn't been there to greet two younger sisters and a younger brother. Jensen's place was with the clan, now, and the loss of his human family had dwindled over the years to a faint sadness in the back of his mind.
But that didn't mean he wanted to lose the last connection he had to them.
If he closed his eyes, Jensen could still see the way it had danced on his mama's neck when she moved, gleaming and glinting in the light drifting in through the kitchen window. Sunlight had always been solid then, Jensen remembered, no leaves between it and the places upon which it shone, so bright that it sometimes seemed a dream. That pendant stood for all of the love that his parents felt for him, and all of Jensen's fierce determination never to forget that.
That pendant was precious to him. And he needed it back.
Jensen's mind flashed back to their abrupt return home: the powerful beat of Jared's wings, the impact with the forest canopy, the faintest tugging sensation against his neck amidst the smack of clinging branches.
"The North Wind take it," Jensen swore, grabbing the first clean shirt he saw and yanking it on. He briefly considered the idea of waiting for Jared, but dismissed it almost immediately. He had no idea how long Jared was going to be, and it wasn't as though he needed to be with Jared all of the time. No matter what their friends said.
He opened his door and nearly walked into the back of the dragon who was standing in front of it. "Wha-?"
Ebony wings twitched as the man turned his head and Jensen realized that it was Charles, one of the guard.
"Sorry, Jensen," Charles said, while Jensen stood there staring. "Shoki's asked if you could wait here for him until he's done."
Jensen arched an eyebrow. "Funny way of asking."
Charles' grin was wry. "Won't get any argument from me there. Still means I've got to keep you here, though."
"Right, okay," Jensen said. "Carry on then, I guess."
Charles nodded in acknowledgement and Jensen closed the door between them.
"What the fuck, Jared?" he asked aloud. None of this made any sense.
Jensen glanced down at the place where his mama's pendant should have been be hanging and then at the door. It might as well have been a solid wall for all the use it was now; Jensen would never get out that way.
So he went out the window.
It was painfully easy to avoid being seen by Charles; Jensen said a silent apology to the dragon as he slipped quickly and silently down a conveniently placed tree trunk. He made for the main staircase without anyone trying to stop him, although some of the fledglings nearly knocked him right off one of the bridges when they careened through in a mass of wings and chubby limbs. It was a common enough hazard on the footpaths, and Jensen dodged easily.
"Watch out!" he called after them, unsurprised when they didn't heed him in the slightest. Fledglings tended to be selectively deaf when they were playing and Jensen's standing in the clan wasn't anywhere near high enough to demand automatic respect.
It was approaching the noontime when Jensen reached their abandoned camp spot. Scattered leaves and broken twigs paid mute evidence to their earlier sparring match, and Jensen used that to know where to start looking.
It was slow going. It wasn't easy to tell where they'd broken through the canopy and they'd moved around a lot while sparring, which meant that Jensen had a larger area to cover than he really appreciated. Jensen worked his way methodically through the trees and along the forest floor, his eyes peeled for the flash of metal amongst the flora.
He'd covered a good two thirds of the damaged area and was starting to get frantic when his questing fingers brushed the familiar weight of the metal disc, caught on a thick branch with the ends of the cord dangling loose. The worn leather must have got snagged on the branch and snapped under the pressure.
"Thank Xos," Jensen sighed. He pulled the pendant gently free of the tree branch and tucked it into his shirt. He'd replace the cord when he got back to the Tree.
Mission accomplished, Jensen turned to go and nearly jumped out of his skin when a thunderous cracking sound erupted from a nearby tree. Something large and winged lunged through the air towards him, and Jensen's foot slipped as he tried instinctively to back away. He only had time for a breathless curse before he was falling, smacking into a few tree branches on his way down.
Jensen hit the ground with a thud that punched the breath out of his lungs but didn't do any damage that would last longer than the amount of time it took for the bruises to fade.
The dragon who'd startled him landed with a solid thump a few feet away and strode forwards.
Jensen groaned and forced himself up onto his elbows. "What was that all ab-"
He looked up. His voice died in his throat.
Feathers, Jensen's brain supplied first. Wings as broad as a dragon lord's, but not scaly and rippling in bright colours. These wings were feathered and coppery bright, gleaming in the sun the same way Jensen's pendant did. They mantled around slim shoulders, just brushing the ground near Jensen's head.
Swallowing hard, Jensen willed his eyes to climb further and was met with an unearthly pretty face and piercing eyes that reminded him of the predators in the forest looking for their evening meal. She - for this creature was definitely female - had long hair that looked to be at least half feathers. She was feathered everywhere, in fact, and was wearing stiff leather armour dyed a blood-dark red. The feet near Jensen's prone form were spindly and clawed like a bird's.
"Well now," the bird-woman said. One wing moved and Jensen realized too late that the wings were attached to her arms, not separated like a dragon lord's. He shrank back without effect and the woman fisted a hand in the back of his shirt and dragged him upright like he weighed nothing at all. "What have we here?"
Jensen drew himself up as much as he could. "Let me go."
She made a sound that was at once musical and mocking. "I think not. What are you doing out here all alone, little human?"
"Why are you here?" Jensen returned, because he wasn't answering questions from some upstart interloper, no matter how forbidding she looked. "These aren't your lands."
That earned him an indulgent sigh and a hard shake that made his teeth rattle around inside his head. "I don't ask twice," she said, in a tone of voice that suggested that she was very much telling the truth.
Jensen glared at her and said nothing.
Twin thumps echoed through the ground, and Jensen caught sight of two more bird-women, flanking them.
"What is it?" the one on Jensen's left said. Like the first, she had feathers that gleamed in the light, although hers had a dappling of orange thrown in amongst the copper. Her expression was sharp and hungry as her eyes fixed on Jensen.
"A lost little human," Jensen's captor said, with obvious relish. "All on his own."
"He's very pretty," the third bird-woman said, and there were flashes of pitch black in her feathers amongst the copper and brown. "What are you going to do with him?"
The first one hummed thoughtfully. "We could take him home and share."
"Or we could eat him here," the second offered.
"That's very selfish."
The black one huffed. "We're the ones doing all of th-"
Jensen didn't wait to hear what it was they were doing. He twisted sharply and lashed upwards with a precisely angled fist, aiming for the joint of the woman's wrist. Her grip loosened and Jensen jerked himself free, immediately putting his back up against the nearest tree so he could keep an eye on all three of them.
"Well, look at that," the orange-dappled one said, her tone somewhere between amused and condescending. "Looks like the pretty one has a spark in him."
Jensen bared his teeth at them. "Come any closer and I'll rip your throats out."
"Will you indeed?" The first one made a move towards him and Jensen lunged out in a sharp feint that was enough to make her back off without sacrificing the protection of the tree at his back. He'd need all the help he could get when they all came at him in earnest.
"You're trespassing in dragon lord territory," Jensen said, fighting to keep his voice strong. "State your business or go away."
That earned him a look that Jensen thought probably indicated surprise. It was hard to tell when they didn't have eyebrows, though.
"Since when do the mighty dragon lords have humans speaking for them?" one of them said, with clear derision. Her hands flexed. "Forgive us if we choose not to listen."
It happened too fast. Two of them darted in and the defense of the tree trunk became a hindrance when Jensen couldn't back up far enough to avoid the attack. They had talons, he discovered when one of them caught him with a glancing blow that scored thin lines of pain down his arm. They were damnably fast too, and even Jensen, who'd spent a good portion of his life learning to fight, had trouble keeping up.
One of them drove a knee into his stomach and Jensen staggered, the wind knocked out of him and his body throbbing a faint reminder that he'd fallen out of a tree not long ago. Right now adrenaline was enough to keep the pain at bay but he wouldn't be able to ward it off forever. He spared a longing thought for his glaive, tucked away on a shelf in his room. It would have been really useful right about now.
Jensen would just have to make do as best as he could.
Channeling years of practice facing off against dragons who were faster and stronger than he was, Jensen raked his eyes over his opponents, looking for the places where he knew he could hurt. Their arms weren't jointed the way Jensen was used to, but their shoulders looked similar and Jensen could see the knot of muscle where their wings branched out from their collarbones. Hoping to the sky and back that they had the same bundle of sensitive nerve endings there as the dragon lords did, Jensen drove a gauging thumb into the meaty join of the closest bird-woman's right wing. She shrieked, a thin, ringing sound that made Jensen's ears hurt, and staggered back, leaving Jensen plenty of space to do the same to the second while she was distracted by shock.
Jensen took advantage of their distraction to dart away, shifting across the ground until he found a mostly even patch of dirt where he could make his stand. He ignored sensation of blood rolling down his arm and leveled a warning glare at the bronze-winged bird-woman who was still standing in the middle of the path.
She did not look pleased.
"Human," she said, and the sharp, grating edge to her voice made Jensen's nerves quail. "I am going to rip you to shreds." Her talons flexed and her massive feet dug deep into the soil. Her wings beat once, twice, sending a gust of air towards Jensen that was strong enough to make him stagger, and then she was airborne, hovering amid the canopy of leaves and looking more like a bird of prey than ever.
Jensen didn't let the slightest bit of trepidation curdle his soul. He was a human who'd been raised among dragons; if there was one thing he knew, it was how to fight an enemy in the air.
There was a shifting rustle of dry leaves off to Jensen's left and he darted a quick glance over to see that the other two were gaining their feet, each favouring one wing and glaring daggers at Jensen.
In the moment of Jensen's distraction, the one in the air made her move. With a bloodcurdling shriek, she dove through the air, streaking down with hands and feet extended towards him. Jensen widened his stance and waited for an opening, resisting the immediate urge to flee.
The deafening roar of a flight of dragons thundered through the air and Jensen nearly got skewered after all when the bird-woman veered unexpectedly, through the space that Jensen had been intending to use as his escape route. He checked his impulse to jump and instead backpedalled to a safer distance, more than relieved when a half dozen dragons dropped down from the sky, led by a figure whose broadly spread cobalt wings were as familiar to Jensen as his own face.
The bird-women squawked again, even more birdlike in their surprise, although none of them dropped their defensive stances. Jensen looked again at the decidedly martial quality to their clothing and suspected that he was very lucky indeed to have got out of this without any more damage than he'd taken.
With characteristic disregard for good sense, Jared flew right up to the leader, halting only just far enough away to keep their wings from brushing each other. "You are trespassing in dragon lands," he said, with a sternness that Jensen hadn't known him capable of. "State your purpose here."
Despite being faced with a half dozen scowling dragon lords, the bird-woman didn't appear worried. "Oh," she said, with a heavy sort of amusement. "Just visiting. Experiencing the local-" her eyes flicked towards Jensen and he fought the urge to stiffen "-wildlife. They grow rather wild around here, don't they?"
Jared's eyes flashed. "Leave him alone."
A small, secretive sort of smile curved her lips. "Why should I, dragonling?"
Jared growled deep in his throat. "Because I'll kill you if you try."
"Do you always protect your vassals so well, I wonder. Or just the tasty-looking ones?" Jared made an inarticulate sound of rage and lashed out with a sloppy fist that she easily evaded.
"Shoki!" someone at Jared's back called, and it was only Jared's upraised arm that kept them all from attacking.
The woman's smile widened. "Oh my. I'd say that I'm honoured to merit your attention in this matter, only-" her eyes traced over Jensen again, more thoughtfully this time. "-it's not me that's brought you out here, is it, my lord Shoki?"
"Who sent you?" Jared asked, almost chewing on the words. "I demand that you tell me what business you have in our lands."
"No," she said. She made a flicking motion with her fingers and Jensen was grudgingly impressed when the shift of her arm didn't affect the steady beat of her wings. "Take your pet human and go home, little Shoki. There'll be time enough for you later. Go," she said then, and Jensen hardly had an instant to wonder to whom she was speaking when the two other bird-women burst into motion, launching into the air and vanishing through the leaves amid the startled shouts of the assemble dragon lords.
Jensen could hear the sounds of pursuit above the canopy, but his attention was focused on Jared who was practically seething with impotent fury.
"Oh, now don't take it so personally," the remaining bird-woman said. Jensen gritted his teeth at her condescending tone. "No one else would have any more luck. And I'm sure your people won't hold it against you too much. And as for you," she said, ignoring Jared's blistering glare as she fixed Jensen with a secretive little smile. "I owe you a punishment."
"Go ahead and try," Jensen said, with more bravado than he felt.
Her smile widened. "That's the wrong thing to say to a bird of prey, pretty one. We love the chase."
It was Jensen's turn to growl, more than ready to help Jared pull this bird-woman right out of the air, but she chose that moment to dive right at him; Jensen flung himself hurriedly out of her path and rolled to his feet a foot away, heart pounding and Jared's panicked 'Jensen!' ringing in his ears. He looked up just in time to see her vanish into the trees, feathers winking one last farewell before the slowly encroaching gold of sunset hid her from sight.
Jared landed next to him and pulled him immediately into a suffocating hug. "Xos, Jensen, what were you doing? Don't scare me like that!"
Hissing at the pressure on his injured arm, Jensen struggled against the metal bands masquerading as Jared's arms and managed to pull back far enough to fix Jared with an incredulous look. "What do you mean, what was I doing? I was in the forest - like I am every day - and three bird-women dropped out of the sky and attacked me! Explain to me in what eternity any of that is my fault!"
"It's not safe," Jared said, with the particular mulishness that only reared his head when Jared was being stubborn and refused to admit that he didn't have a leg to stand on.
"Since when?! We were out here only a few hours ago, if you'll recall!"
"And I brought you home!" Jared growled back. "You should have realized it wasn't saf-"
"Why?" Jensen poked Jared hard in the chest. "Because you told me to go to my room? Dream on, Jared."
Chris alighted nearby before Jared could come up with a response to that. "They were too fast for us, Shoki," he said apologetically. "Do you want us to keep up the pursuit?"
Jared's jaw clenched. "No," he said, after a long moment. "There's no point. We know where they're going."
Jensen blinked, surprised. "We do? Where?"
"Come on," Jared said, instead of answering. He shifted his grip, obviously planning on picking Jensen up again, and Jensen was officially sick of this.
"Oh no you don't." He eeled out of Jared's grip and backed away from Jared's disgruntled frown. "I'm walking."
"You're hurt!" Jared protested.
"On the arm," Jensen said. "Which has no bearing on my ability to use my legs. You're welcome to come with me if you don't trust me to find my way home on my own."
Jared pouted at him. Jensen was profoundly unmoved. Chris was smirking openly at the both of them.
Finally, Jensen sighed. "Come on then," he said, heading for the closest tree and trusting Jared to follow. The idiot was amazingly transparent sometimes. "Let's go home."
Jensen's arm was one throbbing ache by the time they got back to the Tree. He didn't bother waiting for Jared to get his head out of his ass long enough to come with him when he stomped directly for the healer's quarters.
The scratches were long and jagged but not overly deep, thankfully. The healer tutted over the amount of blood that Jensen had lost, cleaned and bandaged the wound, and warned him not to 'go leaping around like a squirrel' for at least a week while the muscles and skin knit back together. The scattering of bumps and bruises that Jensen had picked up from fighting with both Jared and the bird-women weren't worth worrying about: they'd heal on their own in a day or three. Thinking back on the length of the talons that the bird-women had been sporting, not to mention those feet, Jensen figured that he'd got off very lightly indeed.
When Jensen emerged from the healer's quarters, he was surprised to find no sign of Jared. Jared was usually the worst kind of mother hen when people got hurt, especially Jensen with his 'delicate human constitution'. Normally, he'd already have Jensen in a stranglehold masquerading as a hug by this point, but now Jensen got the distinct impression that Jared hadn't even been here at all.
"Jensen," a voice said, and Jensen turned to see Chris leaning against a tree trunk, arms crossed over his chest and his wings mantling his shoulders in streaks of green and ice.
"Chris," Jensen said in kind.
Chris flicked his eyes over Jensen's tightly wrapped bicep with a professional concern. "How's the arm?"
"Sore," Jensen admitted, flexing his hand a little and feeling the tug of pain. "But it'll be fine. You seen Jared anywhere?"
"He's in the Hall. He suggests that you go and rest and he'll visit you later."
Jensen arched an eyebrow. "I'm sorry?"
Chris shrugged, something similar to amusement lingering in his eyes although the rest of him remained stoic. He'd been like that a lot lately, Jensen had noticed, engaged in but not engaging with what Jensen was doing or saying. It was more than a little frustrating.
"Apparently stress makes him forget that we're not actually his vassals. You'd probably do well to obey though," Chris said. "Jared might actually explode if you go missing again."
"I didn't go missing," Jensen said. "Or has everybody forgotten that I'm allowed to leave my room without asking for permission first?"
"The seasons turn still," Chris said, because he was a cryptic bastard with a fondness for ridiculous analogies. He fixed Jensen with a serious look. "You look worn out, Jensen. Go get some rest and you can be irritated at Shoki in the morning."
"Who says I'm irritated with him?" Jensen said automatically.
Chris' mouth quirked. "The fact that you're still arguing about it, for one."
"Why are you even here, anyway?" Jensen asked, changing tacks. "Shouldn't you be eating berries in the forest with Steve right now?"
"The Wingmaster called everyone back," Chris said, as though it was completely normal for Jeff to cancel a survival challenge before it had even started.
Jensen gaped at him. "What? Why?"
Chris shrugged. "Not my place to tell you, sorry. Now go sleep. Some of us have work to do, you know." He leapt off the nearest edge and caught the air before Jensen could ask him what he was talking about.
Sighing a little, Jensen turned to look around the area, absently aware that, despite Chris' words, he still half-expected to see Jared lurking around somewhere, sheepish and protective. But there was no sign of him.
Jensen looked at the bandage on his arm, remembering the doctor's warning about strain, and then thought about the fact that he'd just been attacked by a trio of strange bird-women but no one would tell him what was going on, even though Jared was presumably talking it over right now with his parents.
It wasn't hard to decide what to do next.
Jensen eased carefully onto the roof of the Hall, moving slowly to keep from making any noise that would give away his presence. The thickly woven leaves were dry and brittle under his feet, but years of practice had taught Jensen how to deal with that. He dropped down to his belly and wormed his way forwards, aiming for the area right above the main Hall where the thatch was just slightly too thin to block sound effectively.
"-the past two moons," Linsho's voice drifted up when Jensen got close enough. There was a tightly leashed worry in her voice that was… concerning. There was very little in the world that worried Linsho.
"They're growing bolder," another voice said, and it took Jensen a moment to place it as Jared's father, the tansho. So this was a family discussion, for some reason.
"We have to do something!" That was Jared and, if Jensen had been surprised by Linsho's tone, it was nothing compared to the furious snarl in Jared's voice. "Take the fight to them!"
"This is not a war yet," Linsho said. "And it is in our best interests not to make it one before we need to."
"They're just going to take advantage!" Jared cried. "How many reports of raids on our lands do you need before you decide it's in our best interests to get involved? How many people have to die?"
"Jared!" Linsho's voice was whip sharp. "I understand that you're upset, but you need to keep a level head."
"You can't let this incident cloud your judgment."
"Incident!" Jared repeated incredulously. "They nearly killed Jensen!"
"But they didn't," Linsho said firmly.
"Only because I showed up in time to stop them." There was a brief, frustrated pause, and Jensen mentally envisioned Jared raking a frantic hand through his hair. "If this becomes a war, I won't always be here to keep him safe."
Jensen wrinkled his nose. Since when did he need to be kept safe?
"That harpy wasn't like the others," Jared said, and Jensen crouched lower to the roof, attention perking. Harpy? "She was clever, really clever. She suspects something. About-" Jared swallowed loudly enough that Jensen could hear it, "-about who Jensen is. I'm sure of it."
"You're worrying over nothing," Tansho said soothingly. "Although I don't blame you, given the situation."
"You didn't see her," Jared disagreed. "The way she looked at Jensen, it was knowing. She was taunting me about it. "
This time, Jensen frowned outright. What were they talking about? He edged closer yet, and had only a creak of warning before an entire section of roof gave way beneath him and he tumbled into the Hall with a surprised yelp.
He landed in a mass of scattered leaves and broken branches, coughing a little with the impact.
The silence around him was thunderous, and he glanced up warily to find Jared and his parents looking at him with matched expressions of surprise.
"Jensen?" Jared said, and Jensen wasn't sure if he was imagining the tinge of panic in the word. "What are you doing here?"
"Leaving," Linsho said, before Jensen could gather enough breath into his lungs for a response. Her expression thinned as she looked at Jensen. "Isn't that right?"
"Those things were called harpies?" Jensen asked. Linsho's eyes narrowed further and Jensen tried to ignore the sliver of terror crawling up his spine as he pushed onwards. "What are they doing here?"
"This isn't your concern," Linsho said.
"I'm clan as well," Jensen insisted stubbornly. "And it sure sounds like I'm involved."
Linsho scoffed. "If you believed that argument would work, you wouldn't have been crawling around on the roof."
"Jensen," Jared said again, sounding more in control of himself this time. "Leave it. Please?"
Jensen firmed his jaw and climbed to his feet. "Not until you tell me why you were talking about me," he said, and Jared jerked like he'd been shot. "What does that bird-woman know that's so dangerous?"
Jared stared at him, wide-eyed and panicked. His mouth opened more than once to answer, but all he managed was a wordless stammer.
Unease prickled in Jensen's mind. "Jar-"
"Those bird-women, as you put it, are called harpies. They are a long-time enemy of the dragon lords," Linsho said suddenly. Jensen turned towards her, surprised at her acquiescence. In the corner of his eye, he saw Jared do the same. "They live in the mountains alongside the Seelie ocean."
"What are they doing here?" Jensen asked.
"Invading," Jared said.
"Making sallies into our lands," Linsho corrected, with a stern look at Jared. "We've observed their scouts haranguing the borders of our territory for the past several months."
"They've attacked villages!"
"Jared!" Linsho snapped, and everyone in the room shrank beneath her ire. "All of their efforts to progress farther have been prevented," she continued to Jensen. "But Jared is right that they are growing bolder. Your meeting with them today reveals as much."
"So… what are we going to do?" Jensen asked, already thinking about what parts of his armour needed oiling.
"You are going to stop asking so many questions," Linsho said. Her expression softened as she looked at the bandages on Jensen's arm and the way that he was favouring that side after his tumble. "And get some rest before you do yourself a real harm." She glanced significantly at the hole in the ceiling. "Or destroy any more buildings."
Jensen flushed at the reminder. "I'm sorry. I'll fix it tomorrow."
Linsho waved that off. "You'll rest that arm and stop climbing on the rooftops. You always have been too impulsive by half. Now," she said. "Why don't you and Jared go fetch yourselves something to eat? You've both had a busy day."
It was a clear dismissal. This time, Jensen didn't bother arguing. He simply nodded and turned to go and abruptly found Jared in his personal space.
"I know the way," Jensen said, shaking Jared's hand off irritably when Jared tried to lead him to the door. "Stop treating me like an invalid."
"Stop getting yourself hurt," Jared shot back, although it sounded more serious than Jensen thought it had probably been meant to. Jared's hand snaked immediately back to Jensen's arm when Jensen let him go and Jensen decided that it wasn't worth the effort to complain. Jared was unstoppable when he was in this kind of mood. Jensen just wished that it wasn't happening so often recently.
"Are you okay?" Jared asked when they got outside. His expression was soft and bruised as he looked over Jensen's injuries. "Xos, Jensen, when I saw you surrounded by them, I-"
"I'll be fine," Jensen said. "I'm here now, aren't I? You can stop worrying any time now."
Jared didn't answer and Jensen glanced over to see a stubborn, tight-lipped expression on Jared's face that Jensen didn't trust in the slightest.
"About what you said back there," Jensen said, gesturing back at the Hall. "I don't need protecting, you know. I mean, I'm glad you showed up, but I'm far from helpl-"
"Don't." Just one word, forbidding and curt. Jared's comforting hand turned into a command and Jensen rolled his eyes as Jared marched them both down the path towards the kitchens.
He really hoped that Jared grew out of this overprotective phase of his soon.
Jared's unnecessary watchfulness only got worse.
Jared took to hovering - constantly. Where before he'd been willing to acknowledge that Jensen was an adult and more than capable of going an entire hour without seeing him, now Jensen could hardly turn around without tripping over Jared's big feet and stubborn solicitousness. Jared was there every morning when Jensen woke up, he lingered before and after lessons to wait for him, and he summarily refused to let Jensen leave the Tree unaccompanied. Jensen got the impression that Jared would have preferred that Jensen didn't leave at all, but Jensen had absolutely no patience for that idea.
The extra attention didn't even stop when Jared wasn't free to harass him, either. In the increasingly common times when Jared was meeting with his parents for all manner of war plans that Jensen wasn't privy to, one of their friends got assigned to be Jensen's eggsitter. It was infuriating.
The situation came to a head on a chilly, deceptively sunny day in late summer when Jared was trying to find a reason why Jensen shouldn't be allowed to join the group heading down to collect tribute and Jensen had finally had enough.
"What is your problem?" he demanded, knowing full well that this was neither the time nor place to get into an argument with the Shoki. Not that he cared. Jensen was fine with being reckless sometimes.
Jared blinked owlishly at him. "What do you mean?" he asked, with what sounded like genuine confusion.
Which, predictably, only made Jensen more irritated. "Treating me like I'm fresh-hatched! Following me around and telling me what I can and can't do, even though they're all things I've been doing all my life. Xos, Jared, I can hardly breathe without finding you in my face these days."
Jared's expression clouded. "Since when am I not supposed to be around you?"
"Since you stopped giving me a choice in the matter!" Dimly, Jensen was aware that everyone around them was pretending very hard that they weren't there and it only ratcheted up his anger. They'd been ignoring all this idiocy so it was up to Jensen to deal with it. "I don't need looking after, Jared!"
"I'm just trying to keep you safe!"
Jensen scowled at him. "That's very noble of you, oh great and powerful Shoki, but it's not your job to keep me safe. I'm not your property."
"Yes, you are!" Jared roared.
The world fell silent.
Jensen stared at him. "Repeat that."
Jared made an obvious - and unsuccessful - effort to rein in his temper. "Jensen-"
"Repeat. That," Jensen ground out. "Because you really don't want to have said what I think you just said."
Jared said nothing.
"Jared," Jensen tried, struggling to keep control of his own emotions. "I don't belong to you."
Slowly and deliberately, Jared locked eyes with him, standing up to his full height. "Yes," he said again. "You do."
Jensen felt his jaw drop. "You've got to be joking."
Gaze fixed unblinkingly on Jensen, Jared lifted his chin and waited.
So Jensen punched him.
"No," he said, in the thunderous silence that was Jared on the floor - hand on his cheek, blood on his lips and shock in his eyes - and two dozen dragon lords watching, open-mouthed. "I don't."
And then he turned on his heel and marched off to find somewhere Jared wouldn't follow him.
All young dragon lords grew up exploring the lees and valleys of the Tree, learning their way around on foot while they waited for their wings to grow strong enough to let them fly instead. Jensen's lack of wings had made it necessary for him to know his way around far better than anyone else and, besides, had always been an explorer at heart. There were nooks and crannies in the Tree that Jensen was sure no one else had any idea about, and it was to one of these that he turned his feet now, escaping into solitude before Jared got over his shock and followed in pursuit.
Jensen wound up wedged in the crook of a gnarled branch that had once been part of one of the lattice works that joined two smaller trees together as part of the Tree but had torn loose in a thunderstorm and left to curdle. It had grown back onto itself, still part of the Tree even when hanging on by the merest threads, and it made for a tidy little niche that Jensen doubted anyone would see even if they were looking straight at it. Jensen squirmed around so that his head and arms were hidden and left the forest greens of his clothes and the nut-brown tan of his feet to blend in with the bark behind him. And then he thought.
Jared had always been fiercely covetous of Jensen's time, even when they were children. He'd taken pains to make sure that the other hatchlings knew that he had first claim on Jensen and, although someone might have expected him to grow out of his fascination with the clan's lone human, this predilection had only grown more obvious as they'd got older. Even after Jared had reached the age of maturation and the strong jut of his horns proclaimed him an adult, he'd continued to seek Jensen's company instead of finding a wingmate like the rest of their friends. It was as though Jensen had his own category in Jared's life, separate and superior to everything else that Jared did.
And Jensen had always been more than happy to be the object of Jared's attention. Jared had been his first friend in the clan, his confidante, his partner in crime, his rock when everything in Jensen's new life threatened to overwhelm him. It had been just as much Jensen's doing as Jared's that they spent nearly every waking moment together, and Jensen hadn't ever realized just how relieved he'd be when Jared showed no interest in seeking a wingmate. He wanted as much of Jared as Jared would give him, and he didn't want to share with Jared's wingmate.
Involuntarily, Jensen's mind flashed back to the moment in the forest, before the harpies had changed everything, when he'd had Jared pressed up against him, close enough to share breath and Jared had stared at him with that look in his eyes that Jensen still didn't know how to interpret. Jensen didn't know what would have come next if Jared hadn't been distracted, but he didn't think he would have said no. Not if it was Jared asking.
Jensen flushed at the thought. No, he definitely didn't mind Jared's attention.
And that was the problem, Jensen realized. Jensen could admit to himself that a large part of why he was so put out by Jared's hovering - aside from the fact that Jensen very patently did not need protecting - was that Jared didn't seem to be concerned about being with Jensen, just about keeping an eye on him, like he was a guardian protecting a valuable trinket. What good was Jared's presence without Jared's company? Jensen claimed Jared as his friend, but Jared had claimed Jensen as property instead.
Jensen was nobody's property. If that was all Jared thought of him then Jensen didn't want anything to do with it.
But he still wanted to be with Jared.
No matter how he looked at it, Jensen had no answers for himself. And maybe Jared would have known, but Jensen wasn't about to ask him now.
The sun climbed high in the sky, peaked and started its descent and still Jensen made no move to go. His stomach started gurgling at midday but he ignored it. Even if Jared had gone with the others to receive the tribute, Jensen had no doubt that someone would descend on him as soon as he reappeared and he wasn't ready for that.
Ultimately, Jensen shimmied free after the sun was nothing more than a memory of heat soaked into the tree bark and the silver glow of the moon illuminated more shadows than it dispelled. His limbs were stiff with the chill and hours of forced inactivity, but he still managed to climb back up to the lattice without tumbling to his death so it didn't really matter.
A dark, angry part of him wondered if it would serve Jared right if Jensen got himself killed while Jared wasn't there to protect his 'property'.
Of course, Jensen had hardly gone twenty paces before one of the guard appeared and shuffled him off to the Hall, obviously in no mood to take no for an answer. Since he knew very well that this conversation was going to happen regardless of his opinions on the matter and had no desire to be dragged there by his hair, Jensen didn't bother arguing.
The guard escorted him to the Hall and Jensen was mildly surprised to find only Linsho waiting for him. He'd expected a more formal dressing down after his very public fight with Jared. He hoped that this degree of privacy meant that he was actually about to be told something about what was going on.
"I've been told that you had an argument with Jared today," Linsho said.
Jensen nodded, but said nothing. He was experienced enough now to know when it wasn't worth the effort of trying.
"It was not his intention to upset you," she said.
"He did a bang up job there," Jensen said without thinking, because apparently some habits died hard.
Linsho ignored him with regal disdain. "Do you know why you're here, Jensen?"
"Because I punched Jared. I'm not sorry. He was being ridiculous."
"You misunderstand. Why are you here, Jensen? Why did I bring you here as a child?"
Jensen was taken aback by the question. "Because I took hawae's egg."
Linsho gave him a long look. "Do you really believe me so cruel that I would uproot an innocent child from his life in recompense for a crime committed in error and easily resolved?"
Jensen's stomach dropped with a formless sort of dread, unnerved by this line of questioning. "I… I don't understand."
"Jensen," she said, almost gently. "The dragon lords are not in the habit of collecting humans, as I'm sure you've noticed. And I never do anything without a good reason."
"What- what was your reason for bringing me here then?"
"Jared has always been very fond of you," Linsho said, which wasn't answer except for the way it made Jensen's heart pound and his skin feel clammy.
Jensen swallowed hard. "Jared said that I belonged to him?" he said, his uncertainty turning it into a question.
Linsho hummed thoughtfully. "A rather imprecise way of putting it, although I understand the impulse behind it." She sighed. "The fact is, Jensen, that Jared has long reached the age when he needs a wingmate. And both Jared and I have chosen you. So yes," she finished, apparently oblivious to the way Jensen's mouth was sagging open with horror. "You do belong to him, after a fashion."
"I- what… you-" Jensen stammered, completely at a loss.
"Really, Jensen," Linsho said. "Surely you can't have failed to notice Jared's behaviour towards you in recent months. He should have claimed you when he first reached maturation but he's always been a difficult boy. He won't be pleased that I've told you, but that's his fault for not acting. It should give him the impetus to act, in any event."
"I… wait. Don't I get a say in this?" Jensen demanded, finding his voice at last.
"Will it make you feel better if I say yes?" Linsho asked.
Jensen stared at her, shocked.
"Whether you realize it or not, it's what you would have chosen for yourself anyway. You will be happy being Jared's wingmate."
"You can't just tell me to be happy that I've been… given to Jared. It's my life!"
"And it is to be shared with Jared," Linsho said, in that calm, authoritative way of hers. "That is why you are here."
"Then I'll leave the clan!" Jensen said recklessly, not allowing himself a moment to think about what he was suggesting. "You can't make me do anything!"
Linsho looked at him evenly. "Actually, Jensen, you'll find that I can. And you're not going anywhere." She shrugged dismissively. "You don't want to, at any rate. You're more dragon than human, regardless of your shape; there's no longer a place for you among humanity. Your place is here, at Jared's side."
Jensen glared at her and her complete self-confidence, hands clenching and unclenching at his sides in impotent fists. "Xos' wrath rip the wind from your wings," he snarled, and strode out of the Hall without waiting to see her reaction. He was sure it wouldn't be good.
Outside, night had firmly fallen and the darkness was pockmarked with patches of light from the windows and lanterns that dotted the Tree. Normally it was a sight that Jensen loved, but he was seething with too much rage and horror to find anything beautiful in it tonight.
Jensen made his way up to his quarters with sharp, angry movements, glad for the lateness of the hour because it meant that he met fewer people on the path. For the first time, he found himself paying conscious attention to the number of the honour guard standing watch and was obliquely terrified by the authority and force inherent in their presence. If he tried to leave, Jensen knew, they would chase him down. And Jensen could hide and hunt and pass unseen just as well as any dragon, but he knew that he'd never be able to evade them forever, not if they were determined to find him.
And Linsho had been right: Jensen wouldn't leave. This was his home.
But that still didn't mean he was going to let himself be treated like an object to be handed over when Jared wanted him.
There was a shadow blocking Jensen's doorway, and he was unsurprised to see Jared's face gleaming pale in the darkness.
"Jensen," he said, just that. His voice was heavy with things that Jensen couldn't even begin to parse.
"Go away, Jared," Jensen said wearily.
"Jensen, I'm s-"
Jensen walked right up into Jared's space and looked him square in the face. "Move."
Jared flinched. "But I-"
"I don't feel like getting told off for punching you twice in one day but that doesn't mean I won't do it. Move."
Swallowing audibly, Jared stepped to the side; Jensen made very sure not to let their shoulders brush as he walked into his quarters. He very calmly closed the door behind him and lay down on the bed, staring at the door. All was silent for a long time and Jensen was on the edge of restless slumber when he finally heard a sigh and the shuffle of Jared's feet on the other side of the door as he departed.
Jensen spent the rest of the night staring out the window. Jared never tried to come in. Jensen suspected that he shouldn't have felt so relieved about that.
The weeks that followed were uncomfortable in the extreme.
The harpies continued making small sallies into dragon lord territory and the dragon lords continued pushing them temporarily back. No one had yet determined a pattern to the attacks, and so the Tree was constantly on high alert; it made everyone edgy and nervous. Jensen was forbidden from joining the parties collecting tribute, although now he might not have joined them even if he had been invited, because it would have meant dealing with Jared.
Jensen did his level best to avoid Jared completely. He spent a lot of time in his room, reading books and sparring with his shadow. He stopped going to class, he stopped asking to leave the Tree, he stopped trying to get information about the conflict with the harpies. It reminded him sharply of the first few days of his life with the dragon lords, when he'd locked himself in his room and tried to convince them that he was too boring to keep.
Jensen didn't spend all of his time in his room, this time. Instead, he took to wandering by himself around the Tree, reacquainting himself with the shape of his home. There was always someone shadowing him, Jensen suspected, though he supposed it could have been his own feelings of betrayal that made him think so. Either way, he deliberately avoided his various hiding places and stuck instead to the more familiar paths, detouring every now and then onto a couple of harder-to-navigate trails that he took mainly to make whomever might be following him have to work for it.
Jared, when Jensen saw him, alternated between looking righteously indignant and miserable. He stalked Jensen from afar - not hard on the Tree where it was easy to be in line of sight without being in shouting distance.
Being estranged from Jared had another unpleasant side effect: everyone was upset with Jensen. It was easy to see in the expressions that followed his progress up and down the well-worn branches, the whispers that dogged his steps, the general air of disapproval that hung constantly around him. A couple of people - Chris included - tried to convince Jensen that he was being unreasonable, but he ignored them. It was his life; he dared any of them to try and make him do something with it that he didn't want to.
The worst part, though, was almost depressing in its predictability: he missed Jared. He missed Jared's voice and his smile and the way that he, more than anyone else, always accepted Jensen for what he was, not what he wasn't.
Not that Jensen was going to be the one to admit defeat. He was more than capable of cutting off his nose to spite his face and this was one battle that he knew he couldn't lose, not if he ever wanted to stand as Jared's equal instead of his property. But he didn't know how to bridge that gap and Jared didn't seem inclined to do anything more than brood from a distance and exude possessive anger all over the place. Neither of which Jensen considered his problem to deal with.
So he kept up his cold front and hoped to the four winds that Jared would realize his mistake soon. Jensen wasn't used to being lonely.
Ultimately, though, it wasn't either of them who brought things to a head.
Jensen was perched in the crook of a pair of intertwined tree limbs, his face lifted towards the sun and most of his attention focused on ignoring the guard he could see in the corner of his vision.
A sudden swell of voices interrupted his attempted calm, and Jensen rolled to his feet so that he could get a look at what was going on.
It was a straight shot from here to the main terrace and Jensen frowned at the large cluster of people standing in front of the Hall. The guards were keeping people out of the building but, as Jensen watched, he saw Jared duck past them to go inside. Something important, then.
Without bothering to warn his unwanted shadow, Jensen vaulted over the bracket of branches and let gravity drop him down to the first convenient handhold he came to. There was a startled exclamation above him and Jensen couldn't help grinning a little as he swung to the next branch down. Served him right for not realizing that stairs were for other people, not Jensen.
Going straight down the side of the Tree meant that it was only a matter of minutes before Jensen was at the Hall, along with the steadily growing mass. He muscled his way to the front of the crowd and was at once surprised and relieved when the guards let him pass with a single nod.
Jared, his parents and a handful of the top generals were inside. All eyes swung towards him when Jensen walked in, but no one told him to leave. And nor should they, Jensen thought to himself, raising his chin. He was the son of dragon lords as well.
"What's going on?" he asked, approaching the circle they'd made around the central table. A large vellum map was spread out across it, liberally dotted with red crosses. Jensen hesitated only briefly before standing between Jared and Tansho, several hand spans away from Jared but closer than they'd been in a fortnight. The relieved expression on Jared's face was something that Jensen chose to ignore for the sake of his resolve.
"The harpies have taken control of a major human settlement," Linsho said, which neatly rid Jensen of any interest in worrying about Jared. "The garrison stationed on the Walay isn't enough to repulse them. We're preparing to lead a full assault."
"Good," Jensen said, with a fierceness that surprised even him. He straightened, half-turning to go back the way he'd come. "What legion do you want me with?"
"You're staying here," Linsho said, and Jensen's shock stopped him for a fraction of a second too long.
"Hey!" he protested, as Brock and Alona grabbed his arms at a gesture from Linsho. Struggling against their hold was like fighting against a tree, but Jensen did it anyway. "What are you doing? Let me go!"
"Escort Jensen to his quarters," Linsho said calmly. "He is to remain there until I come to fetch him. And don't let him climb out the window again."
"Wait!" Jensen said, heels skidding uselessly against the smooth-worn bark as he tried and failed to get loose. "What's going on? Why can't I go with you? Jared!"
But Jared just ducked his head and stayed silent, expression hidden by the fall of his hair.
Jensen shouted something unflattering and probably ill-advised at his back, then yanked again at the hands on him. "I know how to walk," he snarled at his guards, angry and not caring who was suffering for it. "I'm not a prisoner. Let me go."
A moment of wordless communication passed above his head and Jensen felt their hold on him slacken. He just barely resisted the urge to wrench his arms free and surrendered to the inevitability of their presence as they escorted him to his quarters.
"Sorry, Jensen," Brock offered. "You know that we can't-"
Jensen cut him off with a wave. "I know. It's okay, Brock. It's not you I'm angry at." He glanced at the other guard. "You either, Alona."
She smiled at him faintly but didn't offer anything else. She'd been strangely reticent around Jensen pretty much since she and Jared had developed their adult horns. Where they'd once been good friends, Jared and Alona had suddenly became unable to talk about anything without descending into sniping and butted heads. Knowing now what 'role' he was meant to be fulfilling here and remembering the way Alona's eyes had used to follow him when he moved, Jensen suspected he finally knew why.
Brock gave an awkward shrug. "So, um, do I really need to sit outside your window?"
It took an effort to smile, but Jensen managed it. "I promise not to go anywhere. But you probably should anyway." A thread of bitterness crept into his voice. "We all must obey Linsho, after all."
"Jensen," Alona warned.
Jensen sighed. "Right sorry. Have fun watching my door stay closed."
They mumbled their goodbyes and Jensen went inside, closing the door behind him. It didn't lock, particularly not from the outside, but the sound of the latch clicking sounded frighteningly final.
Frustrated at the entire world, Jensen threw himself down on the bed and glared at the ceiling until he stopped feeling like he might fly to pieces the moment he unclenched his jaw.
The noise drifting through the window was focused and intent, the clatter of armour and the rush of feet heralding the fact that the dragon lords were going to war and Jensen wasn't invited. Jensen briefly entertained the idea of going to the window so he could put a visual to the sounds, but decided that it would only be worse to have to watch himself get left behind.
There was a brief rap on the door and Jensen had hardly sat up when Linsho glided in. She was dressed to lead the charge, resplendent in leather armour that glinted with gold stitching and stood in stark contrast to the inky black of the shirt and skirt she wore underneath. Her glaive looked like nothing so much as an extension of her arm and Jensen knew that he wouldn't want to meet her on the battlefield.
"I'm not punishing you," she said, before he could speak. "And don't make that face. This isn't a punishment. You are not the only one staying behind."
"I could help!" Jensen insisted. "You know I can!"
"I do," she said, which caught Jensen up short. "But it is more important to keep you safe."
Jensen huffed. "I'm not that fragile. And you don't make your wingmate stay behind."
"The circumstances are more different than you realize."
"That's because you won't tell me anything!"
Linsho raised a hand. "Enough. One day you will have the answers to your questions, but now is not the time. Just know that, right now, your safety is more important than your desire to fight. I'm sorry that it upsets you, but you will be staying here."
Jensen grumbled a surly 'fine' under his breath and stared fixedly at the wall as Linsho turned to go.
She paused with one hand on the door. "And Jensen."
Jensen turned reluctantly to see Linsho watching him with an expression that was terrifying in its implacability. "Don't try leaving the Tree."
"Because I'm not safe out there?" Jensen asked bitterly.
"Because you're not safe out there," Linsho agreed. "And because I will have you fetched back if you try and I don't want your behaviour to reflect poorly on my son."
With that, she turned and left, and Jensen's favourite mug smashed against the wood scant seconds after she closed it. He stood in the middle of the room for a long time, actually trembling with rage.
Eventually, he slumped down on the bed and settled into a restless half-doze, which was preferable to spending the time staring at the walls and also helped him avoid the urge to climb out the window and get as far away from the Tree as possible.
A heavy knock on the door jolted him awake and Jensen jerked in surprise, nearly ending up on the floor.
"What?" he growled, half-hoping it was Jared so that he could punch him again. He climbed to his feet, grimacing at the stiffness in his limbs, and walked over to open the door.
"About time," the harpy on the other side of the door said, leaning against the door jamb and smiling in a way that showed off a mouthful of very sharp-looking teeth. "This place is like a rabbit warren. And all those nosey dragons to avoid."
Jensen stumbled immediately back and made a lunge for his glaive. A solid body blocked his way and Jensen whirled to see the second harpy that had climbed in the window while he'd been distracted.
"None of that, pretty," she said, seizing Jensen's outstretched arm and squeezing hard enough to make the bones grind together. "You won't be needing this."
Jensen sucked in a breath to yell, but didn't get much farther than "Hel-" before pain exploded through the back of his head and the world went black.
Jensen woke up in midair.
"At least you know enough not to thrash," a voice said above him, when Jensen froze instinctively. "Used to being treated like cargo?"
Resisting the foolish urge to look straight down - he'd never quite grown out of it -, Jensen twisted instead to look up at whomever was carrying him.
The first thing he registered was an expanse of inky bronze that resolved itself into feathers, and his mind flew back to those last moments in his quarters when the winged figure looming at the window hadn't been Jared. He was being held in the harpy's talons; massive as they were, they were still only just big enough to encircle him and Jensen stayed very still. He had no real desire to fall to his death after so many years spent successfully avoiding it.
Looking around them, Jensen felt his heart sink when he realized that he had no idea where he was. There was forest far below, but it was a mass of closely packed conifers, not the broad-leafed deciduous trees that Jensen was used to. The Seelie ocean stretched out on his left and Jensen forgot himself for a moment and stared, awestruck. He'd heard tales of the ocean, but had never seen it himself. It was quite the sight.
They were flying towards the mass of tall mountains that formed the boundary between the dragon lord's territory and the lands to the south. Dark specks flashed and flitted around the tallest peak and, as they drew closer, Jensen realized that was he was seeing was harpies, more of them than he had been expecting.
Fear settled like a stone in his gut.
"Don't worry, little human," the harpy carrying him said gleefully. "You're going to get quite the welcome."
Jensen didn't say anything, not trusting what was likely to come out of his mouth. The rest of the trip was silent except for the steady beat of wings and the whistle of the wind. Jensen was cold and shaky with numbness and fear when they finally alighted on a massive promontory at the pinnacle of the mountain. There was a cave leading directly into the rock and Jensen's captors prodded him in that direction, being none too careful of the sharp edges of their swords against his skin and clothes.
Jensen's shirt had been torn in several places, the edges of the holes ragged with faint tinges of blood, by the time they led him into what was undoubtedly a Hall. Three score of harpies clustered in the middle of the room and, at the far end, a dais stood with a large chair on top of it, draped in a rich amber cloth.
Upon the chair sat another harpy and Jensen nearly got himself eviscerated when he stumbled in surprise at the realization that this was the same bronze-winged harpy that had captured him the first time.
She reclined on the chair with calculated insouciance, even as every line of her body radiated power and control. A massive cloak of dark, copper-red feathers draped over her shoulders, making her look larger and somehow even more dangerous than she had been the last time Jensen had seen her. Her eyes were sharp as ice as they watched Jensen approach.
Jensen glared at her.
Her head cocked, birdlike, to the side. "Nothing to say? No begging for your life or threats of what your precious dragon lords will do when they find me? How refreshing."
A gesture from her had someone seizing Jensen's hands and wrestling them behind his back despite his instinctive struggle. She rose from the chair in one long, languid movement and Jensen couldn't help the way he flinched when she walked down the steps towards him, long talons ringing against the stone.
"Welcome to the Aerie," she said, "I am Alaina. Queen of the harpies and the personal nightmare of the linsho of the dragon clan. And you are?"
Jensen glared harder.
"I'd suggest that you don't make me torture it out of you. My ladies are very good at causing pain."
"Jensen," he admitted, after a deliberately long pause. "My name is Jensen."
"Jensen," Alaina repeated, rolling the sound on her tongue until it sounded vaguely obscene. "Nearly as pretty as you are."
She was right up in Jensen's space now, and Jensen had to tilt his head back to keep her face in sight. All of the harpies he'd met had been bigger than him, but Alaina towered easily over even where Jensen knew Jared's height to be.
Her arm shot out and Jensen didn't even have time for a surprised squeak before she seized his face and yanked his chin up.
"Such lovely eyes," she said, tilting Jensen's head this way and that. Her talons dug into his skin, leaving shallow scratches up and down his cheeks. "I didn't have the opportunity to appreciate them before. You really are a gorgeous piece of work for a human." She paused, and then added, "Well. For most of a human."
Jensen scowled and then had to hiss when her talons dug in harder, deliberately cruel this time.
"Be nice," she said, all the more terrifying for the gentle tone in which she said it. Her grip turned into a pat and the jagged gashes on Jensen's cheeks burned when she touched them.
"I must say," she said. "Your dragon lords aren't very clever, are they? Leaving you behind, scarcely protected, while they charged bravely off to defend their territory. I don't know why it didn't occur to them that harpies never do anything for only one reason."
"So you're going to kill me now?" Jensen asked, pulling his pride around him like a cloak. He sneered at her. "Should have done it back at the Tree and saved the effort of carrying me. Or is it that you like the sound of your own voice too much to resist a captive audience?"
Alaina's smile was thin and dangerous. "It speaks! That's quite the mouth you have there. I'm going to like it even more with a gag in it. If I wanted you dead we'd be picking your bones clean right now," she said, with an implacable frankness that made Jensen's blood freeze. "And your head would be on a pike outside your linsho's council room. No. You deserve so much more, little Jensen."
"Gee, I feel so honoured," Jensen said, and was pleased when his voice didn't quaver. "And what have I done to deserve special treatment?"
She looked at him sharply and whatever she found on his face made a delighted smile arch her mouth. "Oh. Oh, this is too good. They never told you what you are, did they? Just stole you away and kept you safe and sound for their baby prince."
Jensen stiffened in the iron grip of the hands on his arms. "What are you talking about?"
"You're dragon kin," Alaina said, the phrase sparking some kind of lost memory in the back of Jensen's head that had no substance to go with it. "There are hardly any of your subspecies to begin with, and you look just like humans so you're useless in the long run unless a dragon lord happens to run across one of you. They must have been so excited to find you! How old were you when they stole you away?"
Biting his tongue to keep back anything that his mouth might come up with before his mind stopped it, Jensen said nothing.
Alaina's mouth twisted into a little moue of disappointment. "Back to the silent treatment already? You certainly are a sensitive little thing. We're going to have to do something about that." Her voice dropped into a low, throaty whisper. "Do you want to know what makes dragon kin special, little Jensen?"
Mutely, Jensen nodded.
Alaina reached out again and Jensen flinched, but all she did was curve her hand across the rise of Jensen's stomach, as gently as a lover. "All of the greatest dragon lords were the get of dragon kin. There's just something about you that makes for wonderful breeding stock."
Jensen gaped. "I- you… what?!"
"They must have had such high hopes for the younglings that your dear Shoki was going to force on you," she continued, with a little sigh of regret that wasn't in the least bit sincere. "A perfect little broodmare for the future linsho. Too bad he didn't get his dick in you sooner; you might have saved yourself this."
"You're lying," Jensen said, in a voice that shook.
Her talons dragged lightly across Jensen's belly. Jensen's hair stood on end. "You didn't think they kept you all this time because they liked you?"
Jensen had to swallow twice before he managed to speak. "So what do you want with me? Even if I'm… what you say I am - not that I believe you - you're all… I mean, it's not like you can use me to, to-"
"You shouldn't theorize without all the facts. But you're right, in a way," Alaina continued, before Jensen had a heart attack. "I have no need of a broodmare. I do, however, find myself in need of a new pet. And I won't find one more highly prized than you. Take him away," she said to the harpy holding Jensen's arms, while Jensen thrashed in sudden panicked fury. "A few days in the dark will put him in a better mood."
"Bastard child of a vulture!" Jensen swore at her, and received a jerk on his arms that nearly dislocated something. "I'm going to kill you!"
Alaina looked amused. "No you're not." She lifted her hand in a long-taloned wave. "We'll be seeing you again soon, pet."
Jared, Jensen thought, as he was dragged down into the darkness. Help me.
True to her word, Alaina had Jensen locked in a room - small, dark and empty - deep in the belly of the mountain. Jensen spent the first hour running his hands over every inch of the room he could reach, searching fruitlessly for a way to free himself.
He spent the next few hours after that fuming at Alaina, the world in general and, finally, Jared and Linsho for getting him into this mess in the first place. Safer at home, indeed. It served them right for leaving him behind, Jensen thought uncharitably. He spent longer than was probably healthy imagining the looks of shock that would be on their faces when they'd found him missing. He determinedly ignored the part of his brain that kept trying to introduce panic and worry into the picture.
After that, Jensen slept with his back propped up against the door. And woke up in exactly the same place hours later with a crick in his neck and nothing to do but wait.
It was impossible to tell how much time passed while he sat there, trapped in the dark.
The closest that Jensen had ever come to being underground before was the summer of his tenth year when he and the others had found a bear cave and decided to explore it - only to be rousted by a particularly displeased bear and been too afraid to try it again. He'd been bitterly disappointed at the time but now, trapped deep in the heart of a mountain, Jensen found himself glad that he'd not subjected himself to this earlier.
Jensen had never experienced darkness like this.
He was used to night under the open sky, which could be deep enough that he couldn't see his hand in front of his face, but was yet alive with the faint rustle of leaves, the whispers of the forest, the faint hints of colour that glinted through the shadows if the stars hit them correctly. It was nothing like this… utter blackness.
The way down through the tunnels had been illuminated by tall, glowing braziers that cast sooty shadows against the walls. Jensen had been afforded no such luxury. His little room was black as the grave; the only time Jensen saw any of it was when the door opened periodically so someone could slide a meager meal into his room before locking him in again.
The quiet was almost worse. There were none of the familiar noises of the forest, and the intermittent footfalls on the other side of the door were muffled and echoed oddly. The walls pressed in around him, threatening and inescapable. Everything felt dead, empty. It was terrifying.
By the time he was dragged out of the room some indeterminate amount of time later, Jensen had retreated to the middle of the floor where he'd been sitting, curled up, with his eyes tightly shut because that, at least, was a darkness of his own making.
The two harpies who came to fetch him bound Jensen's hands in front of him and looped another length of rope around his neck to use as a crude leash. They half-dragged him through the tunnels, the rope chafing Jensen's neck raw with every sharp tug.
It half-blinded him when they rounded a corner and daylight splashed across his face for the first time in Xos only knew how long, and it took the warning jab of a sword in his back to get him moving through the spots and flashes in his vision.
The noise of voices and rustling feathers reached him before he'd finished blinking back the haze, and Jensen was already through the doorway when he realized that he was back in the massive Hall. Alaina was lounging on the throne in a sinuous curve that made Jensen think of cats, not birds. The expression on her face was at once triumphant and hungry; Jensen averted his eyes before he could stop himself.
His captors hauled him across the floor by the rope around his neck until he was in front of the dais. A particularly harsh yank made him stumble and Jensen swore when taloned fingers curled around his shoulder and forced him to the floor. His knees hit the ground with a painful crack and Jensen's face flamed with embarrassment when mocking laughter rang out all around him.
"Well now," Alaina said, in a voice that was rich with satisfaction. "Welcome back, pet. Feeling a little tamer now?"
Jensen mustered enough of himself to glare bloody murder at her from his position at her feet.
She laughed and it sounded like breaking glass. Jensen flinched.
"Ah, little dragon kin. Would you fight more or less if I told you that I like that expression on your face, I wonder. Untie him."
One of Jensen's guards reached down and sliced through the ropes binding Jensen's wrists; her talons snagged on Jensen's skin and Jensen hissed as the copper smell of his blood hit the air.
"That's better. Now then."
Alaina tilted her head significantly in Jensen's direction and one of the other harpies stepped forward bearing a bundle of fabric. She gave Jensen a dark smirk before shaking it out to let Jensen see the shape of what she carried.
It was a long, multilayered robe such as the dragon lords wore at formal occasions. It was stained down one side with blood the colour of fire. Dragon blood.
"A present," Alaina said, while Jensen gaped in horror. "Can't have you looking such a mess. The girls thought you'd appreciate something familiar."
The robe was a crisp, deep saffron that Jensen didn't recognize, which was only good since it meant that, whoever had owned this robe, Jensen didn't know them intimately. He didn't know what he would have done if it had been Jared's grass green, or Chris' burnt red.
"Put it on," Alaina said. It wasn't a request.
Not that Jensen cared. "May the wind strip your wings, harpy bitch," he snarled.
Alaina's answering sigh was teeth-grindingly indulgent. She didn't even have to move before three harpies grabbed Jensen and hauled him to his feet. He yelled and bucked, struggling against their hold, but was unable to stop them from wrestling him into the robe. He was red-faced and sweating when they let him go, and only a warning yank on the rope still around his neck convinced Jensen that now was not a good time to tear the thing right back off again.
"Hmm," Alaina said, tapping her chin thoughtfully. "Better, I suppose."
Jensen didn't really agree. The robe was longer than it should have been, nearly brushing the ground when he was standing, and clearly suited for someone wider around the middle than Jensen was. Without the bulk of a pair of wings to stretch around, it gapped and sagged awkwardly across his shoulders. The dried blood made the fabric stiff and scratchy.
Not to mention the fact that yellow really wasn't Jensen's colour, a voice in the back of his head that sounded like Jared said. Jensen had to swallow a strangled laugh.
Alaina reached out one hand and the harpy holding Jensen's leash passed it over. Jensen braced himself for a yank and instead found himself reeled in with one slow, implacable drag that didn't take no for an answer. He bashed his knee hard against the floor as he tried to resist that force, and stumbled reluctantly forward when it became clear that his only other option was to fall on his face and then get dragged bodily across the floor.
Alaina's lips curled into a pleased smile. The sight of it turned Jensen's stomach.
"Good boy. Back on your knees now. Before I have one of my ladies sever your hamstrings to make you stay there," she added, when Jensen hesitated.
Alaina tutted. "Already making a mess of your present, too. How uncouth."
Jensen looked down. The harpies' talons had obviously taken their toll in Jensen's struggle not to wear the robe and small spots of blood were beading against the fabric, joining the orange-red stains that were already there. Jensen wondered without humour how much more of his blood would join them before this all ended, one way or another.
"Lovely." Alaina wrapped the end of Jensen's makeshift leash around her hand until Jensen's breath came short, then settled herself more comfortably in her chair.
"Hands," she said, and a harpy came forward to rebind Jensen's wrists.
Jensen let her, feeling abruptly wrung out. What else could he do?
When the harpy had finished, Alaina threw a piercing look over the knots and, without warning, stroked a hand through Jensen's dirty, unkempt hair. He jerked away instinctively and gagged when the motion pulled the rope around his neck taut. Alaina smiled, amused.
"Now then," she said, to the room at large. "I believe Tanya was giving us a report on the victory at Menden."
On his knees, leashed and tied at the feet of his people's greatest enemy while she spoke of destroying everything he loved, Jensen wondered how he could have ever thought he knew despair before this moment.
Jensen's new place, he soon discovered, was more or less wherever Alaina wanted him to be. Most of the time, that equated to on the floor beside her throne, while she carded her talons idly through his hair and spoke of him as a thing rather than a person. Sometimes, it meant that he got paraded around the Aerie like an animal, leash around his neck again to keep him moving while harpies jeered at him and Alaina didn't even bother pretending that she wasn't delighted by the mottled rage and humiliation colouring Jensen's cheeks.
One of the worst things about his treatment, though, was how much concern they clearly didn't have for the thought that Jensen might escape. His hands were always tied, true, and tightly enough that there was no chance of him slipping the ropes, but that was usually the extent of the restraints. Even the leash wasn't used as a controlling tool as much as a means of humiliating him. They let him sit there in his light restraints, right next to their queen, because they were so supremely confident that he wouldn't cause trouble.
And they were right. The urge to lash out was almost a living thing inside him, but Jensen knew that he'd never even make it out of the room, let alone to anywhere that he might be able to stage a proper escape. So he forced himself to sit, stay and face everything expected of him with resentment and resistance, but no actual attempt to escape.
The only time Jensen's hands were released was when he was shoved back into his impregnable cell. This happened every night without fail, at which point he was supplied with food enough to keep him from going hungry and was left there until such time as Alaina desired his presence again, and also on the occasions when Alaina decided to leave the Aerie with her raiding parties.
Those days were the hardest, in Jensen's opinion, because she invariably returned with cooing words and a triumphant smirk as she detailed to him the myriad ways that he was being let down by the dragon lords.
"They seem most upset to have misplaced you," Alaina said the first time, with mayhem in her eyes and the smell of smoke clinging thickly to her wings and armour. "Shall I tell them where you are?"
"I must admit that I'm surprised the little dragonling hasn't launched a full-scale attack yet," she might say, with a mock sort of sympathy. "I suppose stronger heads prevailed. Or perhaps he's lost interest."
And later: "Little Shoki was quite a sight on the battlefield," she told him. "Although he doesn't seem to be suffering much from your absence any more. Oh, now, don't make that face, pet. You're still far too precious not to fight for. Not as far as they're concerned. Even if your beloved Shoki has decided that you're not worth the effort, they'd happily mate you off to someone else."
On and on it went, until Jensen had to dig his nails into the palm of his hands to keep from trying to rip her throat out with his teeth. He could tell that she was looking forward to the attempt however, so he swallowed down the absolute fury boiling inside him and seethed in silence.
It was hard, though, and grew increasingly more difficult with every day that slipped past without some sign that Jared and the dragon lords were coming for him. And Jensen told himself that he wasn't expecting Jared to storm the Aerie with his glaive held high, but, as the days passed, he realized that, yes, actually, he kind of had been. It just didn't make sense that Jared, whose tendency to leap before he looked had always been something to despair of, wouldn't have launched some kind of dramatic rescue mission. Especially considering how possessive he'd been of Jensen recently. Jensen just couldn't make sense of it. And that worried him.
With nothing to do but suffer and hate, Jensen had too much time to think. About Jared, mainly, and about the impasse they'd been at before Jensen's kidnap. The truth was that Linsho had been right: Jensen would have chosen Jared, if he'd been given the chance instead of having it crammed down his throat. If Jared had said something that day in the forest, so much would have been different.
Except, if Alaina was to be believed, Jensen would still have been dragon kin and who knew how that affected how Jared thought of him.
You belong to me! Jared's voice said in Jensen's mind, and Jensen curled up on the floor of his cell to try and block out the other, darker thoughts that followed.
You didn't think they kept you all this time because they liked you? his memory of Alaina asked, amused and cruel. And she had to be wrong, she just had to, because Jensen had known Jared nearly all of his life and he knew that Jared cared about him. And not just as a possession.
So why hadn't Jared rescued him?
"He told me that I could keep you," Alaina hissed in his ear, and Jensen closed his eyes against the pain.
Fine, then. Jensen would just have to rescue himself.
He was in his customary position - slumped against the side of Alaina's throne and trying to ignore the tingling in his folded legs - when one of Alaina's generals arrived with news that the dragon lords were waging a full-force attack against one of the harpy outposts in an area of the realm that Jensen didn't know by name. Nowhere near the Tree, at any rate.
Alaina looked immediately intrigued, as Jensen had known she would. She was a warmonger, he had discovered. Where Linsho would have reacted to such news with sober determination and well-hidden concern, Alaina was delighted. She reveled in the chaos, the violence. More than once she'd returned from such sallies to paint dragon blood onto Jensen's skin as it dripped off her talons, and her cruelty was never so extreme nor her eyes so bright as when she had the fight still thrumming through her veins.
And this sounded like it would be quite the battle indeed. Which was just what Jensen needed.
Please, please, please ran on repeat in Jensen's head as Alaina and her generals debated how to respond. He fought to keep his expression blank.
"Well, ladies," Alaina said finally, and Jensen held his breath. "I hope you're all ready to make them bleed for this. We'll make this battle one that they won't forget."
A piercing cry of approval rang through the room, shrill enough to make Jensen wish he could put his hands over his ears.
"Tanya, your contingent will stay to maintain the Aerie," Alaina continued. "All other troops, to wing!"
Jensen let his breath out slowly. Just one contingent. He could avoid that many.
"What's the matter, pet?" Alaina's voice pulled him out of his calculations and Jensen bit the inside of his cheek hard, trying to school his expression. "No enthusiasm for our venture?"
"Go crawl on the earth," Jensen muttered at her, and she laughed.
"I'll bring you back a head," she promised, and Jensen shuddered.
Which, predictably, only made her laugh more. "Take him," she said to Jensen's normal guard.
The harpy hauled him to his feet, none too gently, and Jensen grunted at the rough handling. "Don't touch me," he snapped at her, and received a crushingly tight grip around his shoulder for his trouble.
Alaina got to her feet and Jensen watched out of the corner of his eye as she picked her way confidently out to the main promontory, where the bulk of her army would be waiting.
The harpy holding Jensen gave him a shove. "Move," she said. Jensen moved.
In his time here, Jensen had grown used to the chaotic snarl of corridors and promontories that made up the Aerie. The tunnels were carved deep into the mountain, the unrelieved stone broken at irregular intervals by open promontories of varying sizes that the harpies used to fly into and out of the Aerie.
The sound of rustling wings and rasping metal echoed in the confined space as the harpy marched Jensen down into the mountain. He waited until they were only a few turns away from his cell and he could no longer hear the noise from the tunnels above, and then made his move.
Spinning abruptly, Jensen drove his free shoulder into the harpy's gut. The harpy stumbled, eyes wide with shock, and Jensen followed up with a knee that had all the force behind it that he could manage.
It wasn't enough.
She lashed out with one clawed foot and Jensen nearly crumpled when it connected with his side hard enough to drive the breath out of his lungs. Her talons raked lines of fire across his skin but Jensen didn't have time to care. Backpedaling hurriedly, he edged closer to the wall, trying not to telegraph his intentions.
"This is new," the harpy said, with a dark sort of pleasure. "The queen will be very pleased; we've all been looking forward to this." She paced closer, unhurried and predatory. Jensen had no doubt that she was more than happy to be the first to show him how much worse his life at the Aerie was about to get.
Not that he intended to give her the chance.
She swooped in, and Jensen lunged to the side, aiming for one of the glowing braziers that lit the tunnels. He seized the brazier in his bound hands and, without a flicker of hesitation, swung it directly at her head.
The heavy metal hit the side of her head with a meaty thud and the harpy dropped like a stone. Blood oozed onto the stone floor and Jensen didn't bother worrying whether or not he'd killed her. Hurriedly setting the brazier aside, Jensen crouched down next to the spilled coals and pressed the ropes around his wrist against one. The smell of burning hemp wafted up immediately but the going was slow and Jensen fought to keep still despite the heat singeing his skin. His heart was beating jackrabbit fast by the time one of the coils had burnt enough for Jensen to snap the rope. He didn't waste any time before untangling the rope and seizing the harpy by the wrists to drag her to his waiting cell.
The keys were on her belt and Jensen took a deep satisfaction in locking her in, the burnt coils of rope thrown in as well to hide the evidence. He took a few moments to assess the damage he'd taken - three diagonal cuts that were mostly superficial and a pain in his side that might have been bruised ribs - before judging it as livable and heading back up the corridor.
He'd chosen one of the smaller promontories from which to stage his escape, both for the fact that it was rarely used and because it was on the side of the mountain that faced the forest, rather than the ocean. Xos was apparently on his side, for once, because Jensen made it there without seeing any other harpies and the promontory - as hoped - was deserted.
He stepped out of the corridor and the wind hit him like a slap in the face, colder and sharper than any wind back home. Jensen ignored the shivers that raced immediately up his arms and strode towards the edge of the promontory.
He looked down.
Jensen had never had much of a fear of heights, even before he'd come to live with the dragons. His fear of falling had been slower in going, but long exposure to the reality that he was perpetually in danger of killing himself with the slightest misstep had made that fear little more than a warning murmur in the back of his head, reminding him not to be too reckless.
Now, standing on a precipice of sheer-edged rock and staring at the very long drop between him and the ground, Jensen realized that perhaps that fear hadn't been as thoroughly banished as he had thought.
"Come on," Jensen said to himself, because this was no time to lose his nerve. The only things he had to look forward to if he didn't try were abuse from the harpies and the cruel, foolish hope that Jared would come to his rescue. Even if there was a way through the tunnels to the ground - which he doubted - Jensen knew he'd never be able to find it. And he didn't want to spend another second underground, not if he could help it.
No, there was only one avenue of escape open to him. And Jensen had never been one to shy away from taking risks.
The wind plucked at his yellow robe, sending it swirling around his legs and Jensen realized that the bright fabric would make him instantly visible against the dun coloured slopes of the mountain. If the harpies came looking for him - as he had little doubt they would - Jensen wasn't about to make it that easy for them. His own forest-dark clothing didn't afford the best camouflage either, but it was definitely the better of the two options. Jensen tugged off the robe, leaving himself in just shirt and trousers again. Thinking quickly, Jensen looked for a loose rock and, upon finding one about the size of a melon, tied the robe tightly around it.
He took the stone in both hands, staggered up to the edge and, with all the strength he had, threw it over. It fell silently for a handful of heartbeats, clattered once against the side of the mountain and kept going, tumbling headlong towards the ground.
Hopefully Jensen's trip didn't turn out the same way.
Swallowing hard, Jensen edged his way over to where the lip of the overhang met the solid face of the mountain. The face was steep but not completely sheer and it was the work of moments to find adequate handholds. An easy push got Jensen off the promontory and onto the wall, toes and fingers easily finding the cracks and crevices between the rocks. Jensen took a deep breath, settling himself.
And then, slowly and carefully, he began the long climb down to the ground.
A lifetime of living with the dragon lords had given Jensen ample experience at scaling - and descending - vertical objects. He knew how to curl his fingers to get the best grip, how to shift his weight to keep his balance even while reaching for a new handhold, how far he could stretch his limbs, despite his brain telling him that he'd never be able to reach.
But he quickly discovered that rock wasn't the same as wood: it was too smooth underfoot and jagged in places where Jensen didn't expect. It threw off the familiar rhythm of his body, left him probing carefully for holds that he should have been able to find blindfolded, and cut into his hands and feet in a way that made the skin feel tender and raw.
The one thing that Jensen could feel grateful for, though, was that the mountain face wasn't quite as smooth as he had originally thought. The surface was uneven enough offer multiple handholds for someone as used to climbing as Jensen was, and there were gaps and crevices where Jensen could hide himself from prying eyes.
At the thought, Jensen glanced upwards towards the Aerie. There was no sign of pursuit yet and Jensen hoped that the battle would take long enough that he'd be a goodly ways down by the time they came back. Far enough that he'd be out of their search radius, hopefully. The reminder made him rush his next step, which was about the most foolish thing he could have done.
Jensen's foot skidded and he hissed at the quick slice of pain that raked across the ball of his foot. His leg jerked, toes losing their grip on the wall, and Jensen grabbed desperately at the rocks with his fingers, fighting against gravity. His heart was beating out of his chest with fear and thwarted adrenaline, and it took Jensen several tries before he could bring himself to start moving again.
There was a sharp twinge when he found his footing, too sharp to be just a bruise. Jensen twisted awkwardly, trying to see without throwing off his already shaky balance, and was grimly unsurprised by the small blot of blood that his foot left behind when he lifted it.
"Great," he muttered to himself, the wind whipping the word away nearly as quickly as he'd said it. "Just what I needed."
There wasn't anything that he could do about it now, so Jensen set his jaw and continued his slow descent, packing up the pain somewhere in the back of his head so that it didn't get in his way. Xos knew he'd probably have a lot more of it to deal with before the end.
The sun was halfway across the sky when the harpies returned.
Hurriedly, Jensen cast about for a place to hide and found one only a few feet down and to the side of his current path. He refused to let his hands shake as he sidled his way across to the slim crevice and wedged himself into it. Then he waited.
It was torturous. Without the regular movement of his body, Jensen's muscles started locking up, unused to this level of activity after so long as the harpies' captive. His feet were bleeding freely from a dozen small cuts and scratches, and his fingers felt like they were permanently curled inwards from clinging to the rocks. Add to that the fact that Jensen hadn't eaten since that morning and that his heart was still beating double time and, well, Jensen wasn't exactly enjoying this situation.
Jensen had almost fancied that he'd be able to hear Alaina's bellow of rage from partway down the mountainside, but the fact was that he only knew they'd found him missing when a flock of harpies exploded out of the Aerie and started combing up and down the slopes of the mountain, looking for him. Jensen stayed as still as he could, even though it seemed like they were much too far away to see him. Since they spent so much time in darkness, Jensen doubted that the harpies had eagle eyes in the daylight, but he had no interest in risking it.
Instead, he concentrated on taking deep, careful breaths and trying very hard to think of nothing at all.
Jensen didn't know how long he lay there, as still as death while the harpies scoured the mountain in search of him. All he knew for sure was the extreme sense of relief he felt when they finally gave up just before sunset and vanished back into the Aerie.
"Fuck," Jensen breathed, his whole body sagging with the sudden loss of tension. He levered himself carefully upright, trying to figure out what to do next.
The obvious answer was 'keep climbing before they came back', but the daylight was nearly gone and Jensen didn't trust his odds if he tried to climb in the dark. Better to stay in one place. His current hidey hole wasn't exactly comfortable, though, and he wanted to try and get at least a little rest before morning.
So he climbed again to his feet, wincing at the twinge in his muscles, and kept climbing downwards, eyes open for a better place to stay.
He found a suitable spot about twenty minutes later and fell heavily onto his backside so that he could get a look at his feet in the rapidly fading light.
It wasn't as bad as it could have been, Jensen figured. The leather-thick skin on his soles had resisted the worst of the damage, and so the various nicks and cuts weren't deep enough to be truly dangerous. They burned something fierce, though, and Jensen knew they'd only get worse as the bruising from a day's mistreatment rose to the surface.
Jensen found himself almost regretting that he'd got rid of that robe; it would have been useful for wrapping up his wounds. A sleeve of his shirt got sacrificed instead, the thick fabric tearing not easily but with less effort than it would have taken before it had become the only shirt Jensen owned. Carefully, he swiped at the bloody mess of his feet, trying without much success to get the worst of the dirt and grit out of the wounds before tying wide bands of cloth around them. There wasn't a lot he could do for his toes, unfortunately, not if he wanted to retain their mobility. He'd just have to make the best of it.
Feet attended to, Jensen finally allowed the loss of adrenaline to hit him and he curled up in the lee of a spire of rock and slept.
It took Jensen the better part of the next day to finish his climb down to the forest floor. The trip grew increasingly arduous with every passing hour as he grew more and more fatigued, and there were a few near misses that had Jensen clinging to the rock face like a limpet, wide-eyed and breathing hard. The harpies made another couple of appearances, but in much shorter bursts than they had the day before and with less intense focus. Jensen wondered if they'd found the robe caught somewhere further down and drawn their own conclusions.
When he finally got to the bottom, Jensen pretty much fell the last few feet to the ground and then lay there for several long minutes, chest heaving. Sticks and small rocks poked uncomfortably into his back and Jensen absolutely could not have cared less. He was alive. Somehow, he'd made it.
Now he just had to deal with being injured, lost and leagues away from home. Piece of cake.
Eventually, Jensen managed to heave himself upright and staggered into the forest, angling for the places where the trees grew thickest. Pine needles crunched in irritating stings under his feet and Jensen bit back a wince at every step. He scrounged up some berries to eat and, by some esoteric combination of skill and blind luck, managed to snare a rabbit to go with them.
Jensen had never in his life been so thankful for the Wingmaster's survival lessons.
Jensen spent the night in a tree, a familiar chorus of creaking tree limbs and forest dwellers rocking him to his rest. The bark of the tree was rough and jagged, the branches too narrow and angled to afford a comfortable resting place, and it was still quite possibly the best night's sleep he'd ever had.
Waking up the next morning was considerably less enjoyable and the day followed was in about the same vein. Jensen wandered in what seemed like the approximate direction of the Tree, feeling the brief respite offered from his restful night evaporate in the face of the thousand aches and pains, and the shaky aftershocks of the fear still coursing through his veins.
His feet felt like they'd been flayed - not that far from the truth - and Jensen knew that he was risking infection the longer he went without having a healer tend to them. His muscles burned with exhaustion and his hands were shaking, his palms cracked and bloody.
Grimly, Jensen pressed on.
It was the morning of Jensen's third day on the ground when the forest started to transition from close-packed pine trees to broader limbed spruces that offered Jensen the opportunity to get above the tree-line and get his bearings properly. Climbing was even more painful than walking, not that Jensen had much choice in the matter.
The sun breaking across his face was like a caress from a familiar hand and Jensen smiled almost without meaning to as he looked around, judging his distance from the mountain and trying to determine how much farther he had to go. Not far enough and much too far, were the respective answers.
Something caught his eye and Jensen stopped looking towards the horizon to get a better look at something closer and far more interesting.
Jensen squinted through the glare, tracing the faint lines of chimney smoke as they drifted lazily up into the air. A village.
Jensen glanced back at the ominous rise of the Aerie as he wondered what the likelihood was that this village was still under the aegis of the dragon lords. Then he wondered how cautious he could really afford to be right now. His body felt like one big ball of pain, he was severely dehydrated and it was taking most of his energy just to stay upright.
Once again, it seemed like he would have to take the risk.
Jensen didn't remember much of the walk to the village. Later, all he'd be able to muster up was a vague sensation of utter exhaustion thinly insulated by a determination that was pretty much all that kept him moving forwards.
When the village finally materialized out of the trees, Jensen could have wept in relief.
He didn't bother with stealth. He stumbled through the main gate in a clatter of mismatched limbs, ignoring the shocked looks that followed him down the main road. There weren't any harpies around, which was all he cared about right now.
By the time Jensen fetched up in front of a building that looked vaguely important, he'd attracted a small crowd of curious faces. He was intimately aware of his torn, bedraggled state but it was hard to muster up the effort to care. All he wanted to do was lay down and sleep.
A man with a long beard met him on the steps of the building. "Peace, stranger," he said. "What business have you here?"
"My name is Jensen," Jensen said, with what he thought was admirable calm. The assembled crowd was staring at him in varying stages of curiosity and fear, so Jensen gave his best attempt at a smile before continuing, "I think you should send a messenger to the dragon lords to tell them I'm here; they'll be looking for me."
"Wha-" the man started, but it was about then that the gray that had been threatening at the edge of Jensen's vision burst through his defenses, blurring out the world and throwing off Jensen's balance. He staggered, stumbled and fell; the shock of his knees colliding with the hard-packed dirt flared for a split-second, and then Jensen was far too busy passing out to care about the pain anymore.
It was the light that woke him.
Jensen blinked his eyes open and stirred beneath the thin blanket that had been thrown over him. It was a mistake.
"Xos' horns," Jensen swore, clenching his teeth against the pain that seemed to be radiating from every inch of him.
A door opened somewhere nearby and Jensen found himself suddenly attended by a human girl of about 12, who helped him prop himself upright against the pillow at his back.
"Thank you," he said to her, when he'd caught his breath.
She gave him a gap-toothed grin, tentative but kind. "How are you feeling?"
"Sore," Jensen said, with a smile of his own to let her know not to worry. "Where am I?"
"My house," she said, and Jensen glanced past her to take in a room that reminded him so much of his own childhood home that he felt like he'd been kicked in the chest. He swallowed hard around the sudden ache and looked down at himself instead. He was wearing what appeared to be cast offs from a much smaller man: the shirt stretched taut across his chest and strained against the muscles in his arms, and the trousers felt like they were probably a few inches too short. His ribs had been bandaged, as had his feet and hands. The cuts and scrapes up and down his arms had mostly scabbed and Jensen wondered how long he'd been asleep.
"We thought you were gonna die," the girl said, hushed, like it was a secret.
I did too, Jensen didn't tell her. There was no point in scaring hatchlings. "Thank you," he said again, instead. "You've taken good care of me."
She beamed and opened her mouth to say something else but, just then, Jensen's stomach decided to make the fact that he didn't know when last he'd eaten very apparent. Jensen felt his cheeks heat.
"I'll get Mama," the girl said, and was gone with a flurry of noisy, human footsteps before Jensen could respond. He blinked after her for a handful of moments before fatigue started creeping into him and he lay back with a gust of vaguely hysterical laughter. He was alive. And looked like he'd be continuing in that vein for the foreseeable future, which was all he really cared about for now.
The rest of the disasters in his life could wait.
The girl's name was Sydney and her mama, Samantha, was the village healer. Samantha fussed over Jensen in a professional, brusque sort of way that was surprisingly reassuring. She checked him over while Jensen ate and declared him far from perfect but mending well, and told him that a messenger had been sent to the dragon lords. Her curiosity was blatant and unapologetic, but Jensen avoided telling her exactly why the dragon lords were likely to care about him. It didn't seem a good idea to be public about who - or potentially what - he was when he was too weak to protect himself.
After Samantha and Sydney left, Jensen spent most of the day dozing, trying not to chafe at the enforced stillness. He'd had more than enough of that to last a lifetime. When he was awake, Jensen pondered what he was going to say to Jared when he saw him. Things couldn't go on the way they had been, that much was certain, but Jensen wasn't sure he dared to ask Jared about what it meant to be dragon kin. Not when the answer threatened to break him in a way that everything else he'd suffered hadn't been able to.
Jensen fell asleep that night with the word 'property' spiraling inside his head. Needless to say, he didn't sleep well.
It wasn't until the next afternoon, just after lunch, that things changed.
There was a sudden flurry of activity outside and Jensen barely had time to swing his feet over the edge of the bed and onto the floor before the door was flung open. A massive silhouette of muscle and half-spread wings filled the entire doorway.
"Jensen?" Jared demanded, sounding out of breath.
Jensen's entire being lit up fast enough for him to be embarrassed about it. He tried to cover it with a casual smile and a slightly grumpy, "What took you so long?" but Jared was across the room before he could manage either.
"Oof!" Jensen's breath escaped in a rush as Jared dropped to his knees in front of the bed and wrapped him in a hug that was more than tight enough to make his ribs protest. Jensen made a small, involuntary sound of distress and Jared released him so quickly that Jensen swayed from the sudden lack of contact.
"Jensen," Jared said again, almost a benediction. His eyes roved openly across Jensen's body, and Jensen could read Jared's distress in the furrows in his brow as he took in the damage. His entire body seemed almost to thrum with energy right below the surface, like a tuning fork. Jensen knew, somehow, that the wrong word right now would make all that frenetic energy explode. If only Jensen knew what that word would be.
"Hi," Jensen settled for, since it seemed like as safe a place as any to start. "Thanks for coming."
"Thanks for-" Jared gaped at him. "Jensen, how could you ever think I wouldn't?" His expression was as close to anguished as Jensen had ever seen. "I thought I'd never see you again!"
Jensen swallowed and reached out to touch Jared's face, trying instinctively to ease that pain.
The bandages on his wrist brushed Jared's cheek and his face crumpled. "What happened to you?"
"A lot of this is my fault," Jensen offered. He shrugged self-deprecatingly. "My escape plan wasn't exactly hazard free."
Jared's gaze sharpened. "Escape plan?"
Jensen rolled his eyes. "What, did you think that the harpies got tired of holding me prisoner and dropped me off here before heading off to destroy another village? Use your head, Jared."
Jared was staring at him, openly shocked.
Jensen didn't like it. "Jared?"
"The harpies had you? At the Aerie? How did you escape?"
Jensen offered him a tired but pleased grin. "Clobbered one of them over the head and then climbed down the side of the mountain."
"You… climbed down the mountain?" Jared repeated, aghast. "Are you crazy? You could have killed yourself!"
"Well, it wasn't doing me much good sitting around and waiting for you lot to stage a daring rescue!" Jensen snapped back, because, yeah, it had been fucking dangerous but it had worked and Jared should have been so much more impressed than this.
"I would have," Jared said, with so much righteous fervor that it made Jensen want to cry. He cupped Jensen's hand in both of his own, bringing it down to rest against the side of the bed. "I would have stormed the Aerie by myself and fought through every single one of them if I'd realized-"
"And got yourself killed before you'd gone three steps, oh that's a great plan!" Jared's wording caught up to him and Jensen frowned. "What do you mean 'if'?"
Derailed, Jared paused in his tirade. "What?"
"You said 'if' you'd known. Jared," Jensen said, with a dawning sort of horror, "tell me you knew that the harpies had captured me."
Jared averted his eyes. "Jensen, I-"
"Where did you think I was?" Jensen was aware his voice was getting louder but he was too busy trying to rein in a sudden surge of anger to care. Jared didn't say anything and Jensen clenched his jaw. "Jared! Where under the stars did you think I was?"
"We thought you left, okay?" Jared said, all in a rush. "You've just been so-" an obscure gesture that Jensen most definitely did not want to know the meaning of "-about everything recently and then you were gone without any hint about where you'd gone, we just…" Jared shrugged.
Jensen stared at him. His family thought he'd abandoned them. Jared thought he'd abandoned him. Did they really think so little of him?
"Out," Jensen said, in a voice that didn't sound like his own. Jared blinked at him and Jensen took his hand back to point at the door. "Get out. Now."
Jared balked. "Jensen-"
"What part of this do you not understand?"
Jared's jaw thrust out. "I'm not going anywhere."
Jensen looked Jared square in the eyes. "Jared. I've spent the last Xos only knows how long wanting nothing more than to see your stupid face again, and I will still climb out of this bed and kill you with my bare hands if you don't get out of here right now," he said calmly. "So I suggest you do so."
"Like you could," Jared muttered, but Jensen recognized the surrender in Jared's voice. "I'm not leaving the village," Jared said, as he climbed to his feet. "So don't-"
"I'm not going to fucking run off," Jensen snapped, with a venom in his tone that surprised even him. "Just… go away." He shut his eyes on the lost expression on Jared's face and was careful not to react when Jared wavered there for a long moment before finally turning to go. Jensen waited until the door had opened and closed before he opened his eyes and fell back against the bed, feeling wrung out and hollow.
Apparently, being dragon kin wasn't the only thing he should have been worrying about.
"He's still outside," Samantha said, not looking up from replacing the bandages on Jensen's feet. Jensen could hear the nervous almost-fear in her voice as she added, "I don't think he's moved all day."
Jensen frowned. "He's not angry with the villagers, is he?"
Jensen doubted very much that Jared would hold the fact that Jensen wouldn't talk to him against the village, but he understood their worry. Human villages depended on the dragon lords' goodwill for their prosperity, especially with the threat of the harpies hanging over their heads. Protecting Jensen when Jared wanted to talk to him could definitely have been interpreted as a slight.
Samantha shook her head. "Aside from requests for food, he hasn't done anything. He just… sits there."
It had been two days.
Two days since Jared had come and Jensen had learned that Jared thought so little of him that he'd believed Jensen would abandon all of them just to suit his own whims. Two days since Jensen had told him to go and Jared had gone no farther than outside the door, where he'd apparently parked himself and refused to budge. Two days of wondering just what had happened to make even the easy things in Jensen's life go so wrong.
"Everything's healing well," Samantha said, breaking into Jensen's increasingly depressed thoughts. "It will still be some time before your feet are back to normal, though."
"Am I safe to travel?" Jensen asked, and added a hurried "by air" when her eyes narrowed at him. As much as he did not want to make the trip back to the Tree in Jared's arms, there was no way Jensen would manage to walk back and he didn't feel safe in a village this close to the Aerie.
He also really, desperately wanted to go home.
"It wouldn't make me happy," Samantha said. "But, yes, you're healthy enough to be moved. But only if you're going to be resting once you get to wherever you're going."
Jensen offered her a weak smile. "Trust me, rest is pretty much the only thing I want right now. And the healers at home will probably tie me to my bed if I do otherwise." Especially if Alaina had been telling the truth about the fact that he was… fertile, but Jensen didn't want to think about that right now. "Would you mind helping me up?"
Between the two of them, they got Jensen up and re-dressed. Samantha forcibly dressed him in one of her husband's shirts when Jensen's was found to be more hole than cloth but his trousers had been washed and were serviceable enough to get away with.
"Thank you," Jensen said to her once he was ready to go. "For everything."
"Her patients surviving is all the thanks a healer needs. But if you'd take some advice," Samantha added, in a tone of voice that meant Jensen wasn't actually being given a choice in the matter. "I think that you should forgive him."
"Because it's not a good idea to upset the dragon lords?" Jensen asked, only a little bitterly.
She gave him a knowing look. "Because you're clearly miserable being apart from him, as is he from you. And I doubt you'd be so ready to condemn him if you'd seen the face he's been wearing since he arrived."
"I'm not condemning him," Jensen protested. And then, because he apparently couldn't help himself, "What face?"
"The face that says he's just lost something precious to him and he wishes to every god there is that he could fix it."
"It's not that easy," Jensen said quietly.
"Perhaps it should be." Samantha laid a hand on his shoulder and squeezed briefly. "May Grimmet watch over you both. Are you ready to go?"
Jensen nodded and she took his hand to help him outside.
Jared was slouched in a chair right outside; when the door opened, he looked up with an expression that was so blatantly hopeful that Jensen could barely stand to look at it.
"Jens-" Jared jolted to his feet. His eyes flicked rapidly between Jensen's face and the mess of bandages holding him together, cataloguing the improvements. "I'm so sor-"
Jensen held up a hand. "Don't talk to me; I'm still mad at you. Let's just get out of here."
Jared's face creased into a frown. "What? Where?"
"Back to the Tree," Jensen said. "Or did you want to stay in an unguarded village in the shadow of the Aerie?"
Jared didn't look convinced. "I'm not sure you should be traveling."
"I've already got permission from my healer," Jensen said, with a gesture towards Samantha, who was watching silently. "And I'm sure Linsho will be eager to hear about all the tactical meetings that I overheard while I was their prisoner. The layout of the Aerie, too."
"It's perfectly safe, I can recover just as well at the Tree as I can here and I just-" Jensen sighed, breathed out slowly. "I just want to go home, okay?"
Jared's face softened. "Right yeah, of course. And you're okay if I carry you?"
"Don't have much choice do I?" Jensen meant for the words to come out neutrally, but the way Jared's eyes went bruised and wounded made it clear that he hadn't managed it. Jensen bit back another sigh. "Let's get this over with."
Jared nodded. "Right."
He stooped to hook an arm under Jensen's knees and lifted him in one smooth, easy motion. The position left Jensen entirely supported by Jared's arms, his shoulder against Jared's chest and his head at just the right height to tuck into the hollow of Jared's throat.
"Okay?" Jared asked, and Jensen nodded. "Thank you," he said to Samantha, who bowed deeply.
"My Lord Jared," she said.
"Bye," Jensen said to her, and got a fond smile in return.
Jared's grip tightened and Jensen braced himself as Jared launched them into the sky. The sun on his face and the wind on his hair felt divine after so long without, and it was only when Jensen felt himself relaxing that he realized how tense he'd been.
Jared's head bent low towards his ear. "Jensen, I-"
"I don't want to hear it," Jensen said shortly. "Not right now. Just take me home."
There was a long, pregnant pause, and then Jensen felt the brush of Jared's hair against his temple when he nodded. "Fine, okay."
He fell silent and Jensen settled gingerly into the cradle of Jared's body, hyperconscious of every point of contact as he turned his eyes deliberately towards the horizon and home.
Jensen couldn't remember another flight that had felt so long.
The Aerie was farther away from the Tree than Jensen had realized. Tired and sore of mind and body, Jensen dozed a little on the trip home. Jared never faltered, his wing beats steady and his arms holding Jensen close. Jensen felt completely safe in his arms, which was at once comforting and irksome to realize.
The Tree was a flurry of activity when they arrived; Jared must have sent word ahead, Jensen thought, because his friends were waiting for them, along with Linsho and her wingmate. Jared landed smoothly but didn't put Jensen down right away. Instead, he pulled him closer, fingers tightening their hold in a way that Jensen doubted that Jared was even aware of.
"Jensen!" a whole host of voices exclaimed, and Jensen found himself surrounded by a cluster of faces washed white with worry, remorse and relief. It was unexpected and overwhelming after so long alone, and Jensen found himself abruptly glad that Jared hadn't put him down: it gave him something to hold onto.
"That is quite enough," Linsho said. Everyone fell obediently silent and she walked forward to stand at Jensen's side. "Jensen needs rest. Jared, will you take him to his room, please? Alona, go fetch the healer."
Jared nodded. "Yes, Linma."
"I can walk," Jensen protested automatically, although he wasn't entirely sure he was telling the truth.
The faintest sliver of Jared's grin quirked towards him. "I rather doubt that," he said, and started off towards the closest staircase with Jensen held secure in his arms.
The trip to Jensen's quarters was conducted as silently as their flight back home had been, and Jensen found himself relieved when they reached their destination. Jared got him settled in the bed - and, oh, how he'd missed it - and then lingered for a moment.
And Jensen still didn't know how to deal with this. "Jar-"
"Thank you," Jared blurted, and Jensen blinked.
"For coming back."
"This is my home," Jensen said, harshly enough to make Jared wince. "Where else would I go?"
"No, I mean…" Jared took a deep breath. "Thank you for being strong enough to bring yourself home when I let you down. I didn't- I didn't know what I was going to do without you."
Before Jensen could react, Jared wrapped him in a hard hug that lasted all of three heartbeats before letting go and stepping back.
"I'm glad you're back," he said, before vanishing out the door.
Jensen stared after him for a long moment, wondering what in the air he was supposed to do now.
"He missed you a great deal, you know," Linsho said, in a conversational tone that was anything but.
Jensen had been back at the Tree for a fortnight and was finally at the point where moving didn't make him feel like he'd been beaten by sticks and then thrown out of a tree. In that time, he'd had more visitors than he knew what to do with, most of whom had been surprisingly willing to bring him up to speed on how the battle with the harpies was progressing.
Jared hadn't visited once.
In his absence, Jensen had been surprised to find Linsho visiting frequently, sometimes to collect Jensen's intelligence about the Aerie and the harpy forces but, more often, simply to see how he was doing and to share idle talk in a way they hadn't since Jensen was a child. Linsho never stayed long but, somehow, it was just what Jensen needed from her: a reminder that he was a valued member of this clan, and not simply something to be locked up and kept safe until it was needed.
He'd halfway hoped that they'd never get around to talking about why he needed that reassurance in the first place, but Jensen had always known that he couldn't avoid it forever.
It still didn't mean that he was looking forward to this conversation, though.
"I'd kind of hope so," Jensen said, when Linsho raised an expectant eyebrow at him. "Considering we grew up together, and all."
"He wanted to do a full-scale search of the forest, inch by inch," Linsho said, undeterred by Jensen's attitude. "There was a point where I thought he was going to suggest burning the entire forest down to smoke you out."
"Nice to know he respected my theoretical desire to be left alone."
"Jared wanted to beg you to come home," Linsho said, with a warning edge to her voice. Jensen wisely shut up. "He blamed himself entirely. There was nothing anyone could say to convince him otherwise. It was all he thought about: that he'd driven you away from your home when all he wanted to do was keep you close. Every day that passed just made it worse."
Linsho paused and Jensen was horrified to realize that the threat of tears was glistening in her eyes.
"I have watched him his entire life and I have never seen Jared like that," she said, serious as death. "He was utterly lost, Jensen, do you understand? He had no idea how to face a life that didn't have you in it. And now you're back at the Tree, and he's losing you all over again."
"So I should just do what Jared wants?" Jensen asked, in a smaller voice than he would have liked.
"No," Linsho said, to his surprise. "Jared is going to do what you want. Whatever it takes to get you back into his life. And right now that means giving you your space but…" her eyes roamed over Jensen's face, lingering on the smudges of exhaustion under his eyes, "-it isn't a great leap to say that distance is the last thing that you two need."
Jensen stared at his bedspread. He had no idea what to say.
"Jared spends most of his days in his quarters," Linsho said, without even an attempt at subtlety. "When he's not fighting, that is. I think he's trying to destroy the entire harpy army in your name."
"He could leave me a couple," Jensen muttered, and was beyond shocked when Linsho nodded.
"I do believe he could. It's quite clear that you are just as competent a fighter as any dragon lord." Her expression turned briefly sorrowful. "It grieves me that I ever thought otherwise of you, Jensen."
Jensen shifted, discomfited by the almost-apology. "Linsho…"
"I want you to rest for another few days, at least," she continued. "After that, however, you have more than proven your right to join the attack forces."
"I- thank you, Linsho," Jensen stammered.
She waved him off and got to her feet. "When your wounds have finished healing - and I mean properly - come see me. Until then, I shall leave you to yourself. Farewell."
"Linsho," Jensen called after her, and she turned to look at him past the curve of her wing - cobalt and gold, just like Jared's. Jensen wondered if Jared's hatchlings would be the same. "What does it mean to be dragon kin?"
Unexpectedly, she smiled. "I suggest you ask Jared. He's the one who most owes you that answer. You wanted to choose what to do with your own life," she continued, while Jensen puzzled over that. "Here's your chance, Jensen. I suggest you choose wisely."
Jensen sat alone in his room for a long time after she left.
Then he went to find Jared.
Jared wasn't in his room.
Jensen, who had let himself in through the window, sat down on the ledge with a graceless thud. He stared around in complete shock for a few moments, then huffed out a little laugh. "Typical," he said to himself. "I finally get up the guts to talk to him and he's not even here."
Thwarted by Jared's absence, all of the nerve that Jensen had mustered for this conversation wilted. It was almost enough to make Jensen turn tail and go back to hiding in his room, except he'd done enough agonizing over this. And after the difficulty he'd had in even convincing himself to come to Jared rather than the other way around, Jensen was damn well going to see this through. For both of their sakes.
So he climbed down off the windowsill and settled gingerly on the bed to wait. Somehow, despite all the time he'd spent trapped in the Aerie, Jensen couldn't help but feel that it was about his turn.
It was either an instant or an eternity later when Jensen heard the doorknob turn, sudden and loud in the silence. He lurched to his feet in a sudden fit of nerves and, when the door opened to reveal Jared on the other side, Jensen couldn't help but stare. First of all, because he'd never seen Jared use a door when there was a window handy, and secondly, he'd never in his life seen Jared look so worn down. His face looked haggard and drawn with some terrible combination of exhaustion and sadness. There were dark circles under his eyes and the defeated slump of his shoulders made his wings lie awkwardly and unattractively against his back. His glaive was hanging loosely from his hand, blade tipped carelessly towards the ground in a way that would have got Jared in serious trouble from Jeff, and the haft looking in very real danger of slipping out of his fingers altogether. Jared wore his armour like it was at once crushing him into the ground and the only thing keeping him from flying to pieces.
Jensen's heart twisted at the sight of him.
Jared didn't look up until after he'd rid himself of both glaive and armour and left it all in a careless pile by the door. When his eyes finally lifted, they caught on Jensen fidgeting by the bed and he did a startled double-take. "Jensen?"
Jensen offered him a weak smile. "Hi, Jared."
"Hi," Jared echoed, and they both stood there in silence for a long, awkward moment.
It didn't take a genius to know that Jared wasn't going to make the first move, so Jensen gave Jared another smile and sat down on the bed. "We need to talk. Come here, okay?"
Jared was at his side in a heartbeat; Jensen listened to the creak of his wings as he sat down and the sound was familiar enough to make a lump rise in his throat.
The hollow look in Jared's eyes was being washed away with what looked like genuine anguish. "Jensen, I'm so sor-"
"No," Jensen said, and cursed himself when Jared bit his lip hard, his expression turning bruised. "Fuck, no, I didn't mean it like that. I just-" He took a moment to organize his thoughts, fighting to keep on track. "I have some things I need to ask you first."
"Anything," Jared said immediately.
Couldn't have said that earlier, Jensen thought dryly. He took a deep breath. "Okay. Let's start with the easy question. Why am I mad at you?"
Jared swallowed. "Because I didn't come and rescue you?" he tried, not sounding all that convinced.
"Because you believed that me being mad at you would make me abandon the entire clan without a word," Jensen corrected, still bitter despite his best intentions.
"Yes it is. Do you really think so little of me?"
"No!" Jared said, and flushed when Jensen arched an eyebrow at him. "I mean, well, not exactly-"
"Oh, take your time," Jensen said, while Jared failed utterly at saying anything. "I've got nothing to do but sit around and heal for at least a few more days."
Jared's eyes jumped to the various bandages and scratches covering Jensen's body and went immediately wet with guilt. Jensen was irritated to discover that his vindictive satisfaction had a little kernel of compassion inside it; even now, it seemed, he didn't like seeing Jared unhappy.
"Still waiting," Jensen reminded him, when Jared seemed to get distracted by the staring.
"I didn't know what to think," Jared said finally. "You'd just been so angry. You wouldn't even look at me and you told Linma that you were going to leave because you didn't want to be my…" Jared's cheeks went pink, "my wingmate."
"At which point she told me that she'd have me dragged back by the hair if I tried it," Jensen said.
Jared nodded. "I've never seen her so mad than when we found you gone. But none of the search parties could find you and then the harpies started moving faster so Linma had to stop the search so that we could deal with them and I couldn't cover as much ground on my own, especially since we had so much fighting to do, so-"
"You kept looking for me on your own?" Jensen almost didn't recognize the voice as his own; he didn't think he'd ever sounded so vulnerable.
"Of course," Jared said, as though it was obvious. "Jensen, I- of course I was."
"Even though you thought I left you?"
Jared's hair swung to shield his face as he ducked his head. "Well, I was kind of hoping that I could convince you to come home. You wouldn't have left forever, right?"
"I wouldn't have left at all," Jensen reminded him, but it was softer than before. "Didn't it even occur to you that it might not have been my idea to leave?"
"I was a little distracted," Jared said, a touch defensively. "And it wasn't like it was obvious that you'd been kidnapped."
"Did Alaina, er, the harpy queen really not mock you about it?" Jensen asked curiously. "She made it seem like that was all she did in battle."
Jared shook his head, a snarl furrowing his brow. "I wish she had. I would have torn her apart."
Jensen sat back, thinking it all through and not finding Jared's explanation as wanting as he had expected. "Huh."
"That's your thinking sound," Jared said, going from homicidal dragon to kicked puppy in an instant. "Does this mean you forgive me?"
"More than I did," Jensen admitted, and it was almost painful to watch Jared's face light up. "But you've still got to answer the hard question."
"Right, sure, what did you want t-"
"What does it mean to be dragon kin?" Jensen interrupted and Jared recoiled like he'd been slapped.
"Where did you-"
"The queen of the harpies told me," Jensen said crisply. Jared's mouth closed with a snap. "So thanks to you and Linsho for giving her something else to mock me with."
Jared's eyes darted towards the window as though he was contemplating throwing himself out of it to avoid this conversation.
"I, uh, don't think I should really be-"
"Jared," Jensen said again, with a growl of his own. "I single-handedly rescued myself from the entire harpy Aerie because you were too busy having your feelings hurt to realize that I would never leave on my own. I think I deserve to know just why they decided to kidnap me."
Jared's entire body sagged in defeat. "Okay, okay." He ran his fingers along one of his horns like he always did when he was nervous. "Dragon kin are, well, they're mostly human and a little bit dragon, probably through some ancestor way back no one remembers."
"And I'm one of them," Jensen said, not quite a question.
"Yeah," Jared said. "I don't really remember, but Linma says that it was obvious as soon as you and I met. That's why she brought you to live with us," he added, more quietly, as though Jensen might not want to hear him. "Dragon kin are very rare and very valuable."
Jensen digested that for a moment. "Because we can mate with dragons," he said, testing out the idea.
"And…" Jensen had to try more than once to get the words out, "Bear children. Even me."
Jared had gone pink again. "Yeah."
And Jensen had known this was coming, but it was still a punch in the gut to hear it from Jared. Some part of him had still expected Alaina to be lying.
"Jensen?" Jared asked, his face heavily creased with worry and contrition.
"When did you find out?" Jensen asked. "About… me?"
"When my horns started growing," Jared said, tentatively, like he wasn't sure that was the right answer. "Because all of the other drakes were pairing off with the women and all I wanted was you."
To his horror, Jensen felt his cheeks warm. "Oh," he managed.
"So I talked to Linma." A brief smile flicked across Jared's face as he looked down, talking more to his knees than to Jensen. "I was so worried, Jensen, because I thought she'd tell me that I couldn't choose you since I needed to have offspring. But instead…"
"She told you that I'm dragon kin," Jensen finished and Jared nodded. "You never tried to court me."
Jared shrugged helplessly. "I was waiting for… fuck, I don't even know. For the right time to tell you, I suppose."
"That worked out really well," Jensen said, though not unkindly.
"Yeah, not really. I was afraid," Jared admitted, with a heavy sigh. "You never showed any interest in courting and I didn't want to take Linma's word for it that you cared the way I cared."
"Jared-" Jensen started, but Jared was still talking.
"I was so afraid that you'd say no, Jensen. Absolutely fucking terrified of it. That's why I didn't say anything." Jared lifted his head and his expression was absolutely desolate as he added, "and now, with everything that's happened, I guess I was right to be afraid."
Jensen couldn't help it: he laughed.
"What are you talking about, you utter imbecile?" he asked, while Jared gaped at him, looking shocked and betrayed. "By Xos, even a blind bat would have noticed that I had no interest in courting anyone because I was interested in you. Bird brain."
Jared appeared to be having trouble computing. "I, you- what? But you rejected me!"
"You said that I belonged to you! That's not the same thing as asking me to be your wingmate! I might be dragon kin, Jared, but I'm not an object."
"I know that!" Jared protested, flushing with a strange mix of embarrassment and something else that Jensen couldn't name. "I never meant to make you think that I- fuck. You're not doing this because Linma said you have to?" he asked warily.
Jensen rolled his eyes. "Where do you even get this stuff? I love you, dumbass. I'm in love with you." He faltered a little, sounding more hesitant than he would have liked when he added, "I'm hoping that you still feel the same way."
"I- yes," Jared said, dazed but still heartbreakingly honest. "I really do. And wow, this is not the conversation I thought we'd be having. You… really want to be my wingmate? Even after everything?"
"Yeah, well, I'm not exactly happy about it right now," Jensen said gruffly. "Since I still mostly want to punch you in the face, yell at you until I pass out and then wake up and start yelling again, but it was always going to be you." He reached out and pressed his hand on top of Jared's. "It's only ever been you."
"Jensen," Jared said wonderingly. Jensen only had a moment to think that it was a good look for him before Jared leaned in and kissed him.
It was artless and messy and Jensen had no idea what he was doing either so it probably wasn't anything even close to a good kiss, but it still felt electrifying and almost terrifyingly right. Jensen made an embarrassing noise deep in his throat and arched into the hands that were suddenly on his hips, encouraging the touch.
"Jared," he panted. "Oh, wind, Jared-"
"Yes," Jared answered. "Yes, yes, always yes."
Jared's hands ran up Jensen's sides, taking his shirt with them. Jensen shrugged obligingly out of the shirt, and was affected more than he probably should have been by how carefully Jared navigated around his injuries. Then he decided that this was an unfair balance of nakedness and reached out to do something about it. Jared was more than happy to help.
Their clothes vanished in snatches of awareness until Jensen found himself naked save for the bandages, skin-to-skin with Jared. Jared was hot and hard against him as Jensen let Jared press him back into the bed. His scales were glass smooth under Jensen's fingers and Jensen ran his hands restlessly up and down Jared's arms, marveling at the way the texture contrasted to the rougher warmth of Jared's skin.
"Jensen," Jared gasped against his mouth, between deep, drugging kisses. "Oh, Xos, I've wanted this so long."
"Should've said something," Jensen said breathlessly.
Jared pulled back enough to look at him, his eyes dark with heat. "Can I have you?"
A shiver ran down Jensen's spine at the hungry timbre of Jared's voice. "Fuck, yes, do it. Just don't-"
Jared's tongue darted out to lick the sweat pooling in the hollow of Jensen's throat and Jensen keened.
"Don't - haaah - don't think this means I forgive you."
"Mine," Jared hissed. His fingers dug into the meat of Jensen's hips, hard enough to make Jensen's breath punch out in a pained little gasp. "My pretty wingmate." He ground down into Jensen, his cock painting a searing line against Jensen's belly. "Get you all swollen with my brood, show everyone."
Some small corner of Jensen's brain that wasn't completely focused on his dick snagged on those words. He wrapped both hands around Jared's horns and yanked him until they were eye to eye. "You and your dragon spunk knock me up before I get a chance to help kill those bastards and I will end you," he warned.
Jared gave a strangled laugh. "Don't worry," he said, sounding something between his usual self and this mating-frenzy version. "I need to be in season for you to take."
And Jensen didn't know what that meant, but he would deal with that later. Right now, he wanted to see Jared stake the claim that he'd promised.
Between them, they fumbled through preparing Jensen: Jared's long fingers petting Jensen's tongue while Jensen got them good and wet with saliva, Jared muttering nonsensical reassurances while Jensen panted around the awkward intrusion of Jared's fingers inside him, Jared stretching him slowly and carefully even after Jensen started cursing him and demanding that he hurry the fuck up already.
"Please!" Jensen begged finally, halfway to tears with arousal. "Jared!"
"Wingmate," Jared hissed, punctuating the word with a short jab of his fingers.
Jensen's whole body arched. "Yes, fuck, wingmate, my wingmate, my Jared, would you please-"
Jared's fingers pulled out abruptly enough to make Jensen groan, and the hot, wet weight of his cock pressed between Jensen's cheeks.
"Yes?" Jared asked, wild-eyed and clinging to his self-control by the skin of his teeth.
Jared's cock punched home and they both roared, Jared in triumph and Jensen in pain so sweet it felt like pleasure. Jared immediately set a relentless pace; his hips pistoned sharply, sliding the full length of his cock in and out of Jensen's body like he was trying to forge new space inside him and remold him according to Jared's desires.
Every not-quite smooth glide of Jared's cock burned as it stretched him, and Jensen's body twitched and jerked with the conflicting sensations of too much and not enough. He was making noises, Jensen registered dimly, gasps and whimpers and groans that sounded more animal than human.
Pinned fast under Jared's weight and the rapid snap of his hips, Jensen could do nothing but lie there and take it, his hands clamped tight over Jared's shoulders and his breath escaping in helpless little 'uh, uh, uh,' gasps.
Jared growled out a garbled sound that might have been Jensen's name and one of his massive hands wrapped around Jensen's leaking cock. Jensen hissed at the contact and Jared flashed him a breathless, feral grin as he worked Jensen's cock at a speed that was just this side of painful.
It was enough. Jensen felt every muscle tighten as he tumbled over into orgasm and yowled when it made Jared's cock feel even bigger inside of him. Jared snarled out Jensen's name again, his thrusts growing erratic and shallow. His hips pumped forward three times, four, and his roar when he came was loud enough to shake the walls. He ground in hard, hips jerking in small circles as he emptied himself into Jensen and Jensen lay there, hands fallen limp at his sides and eyes wide with the shock of sensations rolling through him.
Jared pulled his cock out without warning and Jensen hissed at the unexpectedly sharp sting of its withdrawal. He felt loose and wet down there, but didn't have long to dwell on the strange sensation before Jared collapsed on top of him, nuzzling into Jensen's neck.
They both lay there panting for several long, breathless minutes, before Jensen returned enough to his body to realize that Jared was really fucking heavy, and he shoved at him until Jared rolled away to land beside him on the pallet instead.
"Alright?" Jensen asked him, brushing a hand through Jared's sweaty hair and curling a few fingers around one of Jared's horns.
"My Jensen," Jared mumbled, busy pressing sloppy, open-mouthed kisses to Jensen's collarbone.
"Yes, yes," Jensen said, feeling tired and pleasantly used. He'd make Jared get up in a moment and clean them both up, after which point Jensen was planning on sleeping for a minimum of eight hours. Then he was going to wake up Jared and they'd do it all over again, before Jared went off to fight and Jensen concentrated on getting his strength back as soon as possible.
And then he and Jared were going to bring unholy vengeance unto every harpy they could get their hands on. Together.