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.
"Well now," she said, in a voice thick with satisfaction. "We meet again."
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.
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