Jensen was on an adventure.
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.
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