Two decades later
Something thumped outside Jensen's window.
Jensen groaned and tugged his blankets over his head.
"Come on, Jensen!" Jared said, sounding obnoxiously cheerful. It was, sadly, his natural state of being. Jensen didn't need to open his eyes to know that Jared was balanced on the window ledge - which was deliberately broad for just this reason - with an easy grace that had only recently grown out of his painfully awkward adolescence. The cobalt arch of his wings would be turning the sunlight a pale, ethereal blue where it shone through the thin membrane. "Get up already! We're gonna be late!"
"Go away!" Jensen growled. The words were muffled by the way Jensen's face was buried in the pillow, but Jared had woken Jensen up more than often enough to know what he was saying. Not that it ever stopped him.
"Can't do that, sorry."
The creak of the window frame was the only warning Jensen got before two hundredweight of dragon landed square on his chest.
"Oof!" Jensen's breath escaped in a rush. "Jared!"
"Jensen!" Jared singsonged back at him. He sounded absolutely delighted to be crushing Jensen's ribs. "The Wingmaster's going to make you run laps again if you're late!"
"Alright, already! Get off me!" Jensen flailed out with his arms until Jared backed away and perched on the side of the bed - as opposed to on Jensen - with a smug grin.
"Good morning to you too, sunshine."
"Ground dweller," Jensen muttered at him, but Jared didn't seem bothered by the slur. Knowing there was no way out of it, Jensen heaved himself reluctantly upright, already dreading the effort it was going to take to get out of the bed.
Jared stared at him expectantly.
Jensen rolled his eyes. "Go away. I'll follow when I'm dressed."
"I could just wait," Jared suggested, like it was the best idea ever conceived of by dragon kind. "Make sure you don't go back to sleep."
"Or you could go and avoid getting my fist in your face."
"So grumpy in the mornings," Jared said, still grinning. "Are all humans so intractable?"
"This one is." Jensen made a shooing motion. "Go. No point in both of us being late."
Jared shook his head. "I think you like being contrary."
"You've figured out my nefarious plan. Congrats. Now go away."
"Okay, okay, I'm going." Jared paused on his way out the window. "Don't take too long."
Jensen didn't bother throwing anything at him because he'd lost three hairbrushes and a book that way - that window was big and Jared could move fast when he wanted to - but he definitely glared at Jared until he flew off with a carefree laugh.
With Jared finally gone, Jensen hurried through his morning ablutions and tugged on his sturdiest set of leathers and a dark green shirt. His mama's pendant went around his neck and Jensen paused to murmur a quick, instinctive prayer to Grimmet of the Plains. He raked his fingers through his hair to wrestle it into a reasonable facsimile of tidy and concluded that he was about as good as he was going to get. He grabbed his pack off the stool by his bed and headed for the window.
The air was warm with summer's grace and the dappled light through the leaves of the Tree signified another beautiful day. Jensen didn't have time for that. He hopped up onto the window ledge and jumped, making the leap from the window to the closest tree branch with ease. It didn't take more than a heartbeat for Jensen to catch his balance when his feet touched down and he started sprinting immediately, hyperconscious of the time.
A sudden gust of wind fanned over him and Jensen squawked as a pair of strong arms hooked under his armpits and carried him up into the air.
"Put me down, you bastard son of a newt!" Jensen yelled. He flailed, hard enough to make Jared work for it, but not truly enough to break loose. He'd been dropped more than enough times to want to avoid it happening again.
Jared just laughed and pinned him closer to his chest. "This is a helpful service, Jensen. Or did you want to get in trouble?""
"You're being an ass!" Jensen told him, even as he tucked his body into the sinuous curve of Jared's spine to reduce drag. His legs dangled free as they climbed higher and higher through the close-crowded branches, but Jensen hadn't feared heights since he was a boy.
"I'm being chivalrous," Jared corrected.
"I hate you so much."
"Lies! It's okay, though. I won't tell anybody."
Jensen wasn't like his friends.
"Sleep in again?" Chris asked, as Jared swooped down with a reluctant Jensen in tow. His amused grin revealed a mouthful of razor-sharp teeth. "I'd almost think you weren't looking forward to this."
"Break a wing and die," Jensen said pleasantly. And, over his shoulder, "My feet are on the floor, Jared, you can let go now."
"Maybe I don't want to," Jared said, holding him tightly enough to make Jensen's ribs creak, because somewhere between his last growth spurt and now he'd become ridiculously grabby. Only with Jensen, though. Because Xos of the Air clearly hated him.
Growling, Jensen shoved an elbow into Jared's gut. He did more damage to his elbow than to Jared's chest - Jensen couldn't compete with both dragon skin and the wall of solid muscle that Jared had hiding underneath it - but it was enough to make Jared huff and back off.
"Poor little Jensen," Julie's voice said, and Jensen looked up to see her half-reclining, half-hovering on an overhead branch. She bent at the waist, legs still hooked over the branch, and scrubbed a hand through Jensen's hair. "Is Shoki being mean to you?"
"Hey!" Jensen ducked, trying to avoid her, but she just stretched out further, the easy beat of wings keeping her aloft. "Hands off!"
"I'm fixing it for you!" she said, laughing and still pressing her advantage. "Grow yourself some horns if you don't want my hands in your hair!"
"Oh, sure, I'll get right on that." Jensen darted around Jared and Chris, putting some empty air between himself and Julie.
She pouted at him. Jensen rolled his eyes. "You look just like Jared when you do that."
"Hey!" Jared protested. "I'm much cuter than she is. Ow! Well, it's true," he said to Julie, rubbing at his arm where she'd hit him.
"Please don't kill each other," Jensen told them, as Jared and Julie started snapping at each other. "I don't think Jeff would be pleased."
"No," a calm voice said behind him, and they all froze with identical looks of chagrin on their faces. "I wouldn't be."
"Wingmaster," Jared said, because he was always the first to fumble for an excuse when they got in trouble. "We, uh, didn't see you there."
Wingmaster Jeff walked around so that he could look all of them in face at once and Jensen wasn't the only one who fidgeted under his steely gaze. His grizzled face and the heavy scar that twisted the side of his mouth downwards ensured that Jeff always looked serious and forbidding, which made it hard to know when to be properly worried about getting punished for misbehaviour.
"Amazingly, I had figured that out for myself, Shoki. Anything else to say in your defense?"
Jared hunched a shoulder. "At least we weren't late?"
"Not something to be proud of," Jeff said, but his tone was light and everyone relaxed minutely. He looked around the assembled dragons and Jensen. "Still, I am glad that you're all here and ready to go."
"Of c-" Jared started to say, and Jensen kicked him discreetly in the shin to shut him up. Jared really had to learn to quit when he was ahead.
Jeff arched an eyebrow at them. "If you're quite done. This is survival training, dragons, and I expect you to give it your full effort. You don't want to know what's going to happen to those teams that fail, trust me."
At his side, Jensen heard Steve swallow hard.
"You must remain in your appointed zone for the entire exercise. I'll know if you haven't and, again, the result won't be pleasant. I'll give each pair their appointed zone now; leave as soon as you've been told. Chris and Steve, you're up first."
Jensen listened with half an ear as Jeff worked his way up and down the ranks, preoccupied with thoughts of the task ahead. As Wingmaster, Jeff was responsible for making sure that all young dragon lords - and Jensen - developed the skills they needed to be valuable members of the clan. This was far from the first time he'd made them do survival training but Jensen would still rather have been getting his ass handed to him in weapons drills instead of living off plants and sleeping on twigs. At least when he had his glaive in his hand he could hit back at whatever was tormenting him; the forest didn't really care how much surly resentment Jensen threw at it.
"Jensen," Jeff said, and Jensen stepped hurriedly forward. "You and Shoki are three leagues southwest of Mijan, up to-"
"Wait, what?" Jensen asked, startled. "I thought I was being paired with Chad for this one." Not that he necessarily minded not working with Chad - of all of them, Chad tended to have the least patience for Jensen's human shortcomings - but it was highly unusual for Jeff to change his mind about something once he'd decided on it.
Jeff arched an eyebrow at him and Jensen belatedly realized that he'd said that aloud.
"Apologies, Wingmaster," he said, ducking his head. "I was just surprised."
"And too outspoken by half," Jeff said, though he didn't sound too upset about it. He turned his attention to the next pair. "Alona and Jake, you're going…"
Jared nudged Jensen in the side and, when Jensen looked over, gave him a bright, happy smile. Jensen couldn't help smiling back. Jared was always his favourite dragon to partner with.
"Alright," Jeff said, when they all had their assignments. "Good luck and try not to get yourselves killed. Dismissed."
Everyone burst into a flurry of motion: seeking out their partners and pulling on their packs before taking to wing.
Jensen fumbled with his pack, gritting his teeth at the familiar awkwardness. Everyone else's packs sat in the small of the back with the straps wound around the waist and legs so that they wouldn't get in the way of their wings. Jensen had quickly realized that he didn't have the lower back muscles necessary to pull that off and so he'd had his pack redesigned to sling over his shoulders instead. It wasn't entirely comfortable, especially when it was so heavy, but it did the job.
He did wonder sometimes if the weight of a full bag was in any way similar to a pair of wings.
"You ready, Jensen?" Jared asked, not waiting for an answer before he launched himself into the air.
"Why do you even bother asking?" Jensen yelled after him, pulling the final strap tight.
"Wouldn't want to leave you behind, wingless!" Jared called, grinning. His wings spread out wide against the canopy of leaves and sky in open taunt.
Jensen made a rude gesture. "I can handle just fine on my own!"
Jared laughed. "Suit yourself. See you there!" He executed a tight turn and , with a powerful beat of his wings, shot off into the everblue sky.
Jensen was in hot pursuit immediately. Because he might not have been able to fly, but nearly two decades of living with dragons had taught him to make do with what he had.
His bare feet dug into the grooves of the bark as Jensen dashed to the closest bridge, mentally ticking through every possible route and path he might take to get down to the forest proper. He rebounded off a nearby 'y' branch, hooking his arm around it to take the turn tighter, hop-skidded across one of the older staircases that had started growing fungi in recent years, and vaulted neatly onto the bridge.
From there, it was an easy task to grab hold of one of the supporting ropes and shimmy down to the next level. It was a signature move of his, learnt as a child with Jared, but useful to him in a way that the dragons didn't need. For Jensen, the Tree - and the surrounding forest - was a network of paths and trails that he needed to be able to navigate with his eyes closed if he wanted to get around with anything even close to the facility of his friends.
It had resulted in a few broken bones over the years, and one horrifying tumble that would have turned him into a Jensen pancake if one of the adult dragons hadn't caught him on the way down, but Jensen's efforts had rendered him as mobile in the trees as he was ever going to get without a pair of wings of his own.
Jensen was down to the level of the tree-line proper in a matter of minutes and then it was simply a matter of running along the branches to get from tree to tree as he angled himself in the direction of Mijan village.
Jared beat him to their designated zone, of course, but Jensen had expected that. He was fast, but Jared had been above the tree-line and it had been a straight shot for him. It still rankled though.
"Where you been?" Jared asked, from his position halfway up a tree. His legs were hooked around the thickest part of the branch he was sitting on, keeping him upright by the nearest of margins. "I thought you'd given up."
"Taking the scenic route," Jensen said, dropping hand over hand down to the forest floor so that he could shed his pack. Jared's was already there and Jensen dropped his alongside it with a sigh of relief, rolling his shoulders back.
"Alright?" Jared asked, appearing suddenly at Jensen's elbow.
Jensen nodded. "Nothing to worry about. Well," he amended, with a grin. "Except for the fact that I'm stuck with you for the next week."
"Oh, and I suppose you'd rather be stuck with Chad?"
Jensen snorted. "As if. Don't you think it's weird, though, that Jeff changed the pairs? He never does that."
"Who knows why Jeff does anything?" Jared shrugged. "Maybe he was afraid that you'd tie Chad to a tree and leave him there?"
"One time!" Jensen protested. "And he totally deserved it. Besides, Jeff'd probably just consider that useful survival training."
Jared shrugged again. "Yeah, probably."
He was silent for longer than Jensen was used to, and Jensen glanced over to find Jared wearing an expression that it took him a moment to parse as sheepish.
"That's-" Jensen said. "Jared, did you ask the Wingmaster to change our assignments?"
"What?" Jared said, unconvincing in the extreme. "Me? No, of course not. I don't know where you get these crazy ideas of yours."
Jensen gave him a look. "Jared."
"I didn't do anything," Jared said, also unconvincingly.
"Do I have to tie you to a tree and leave you here?"
"Maybe Jeff thought that he ought to send someone strong and manly to protect our weak little human."
Jensen rolled his eyes and punched him.
Jared ducked out of the way of Jensen's fist, like Jensen had known he would, and skipped back a few steps. "You know, I'm starting to think you don't like me."
"Only just now?" Jensen asked, and had the answering furrow of Jared's brow to warn him before Jared threw a punch of his own. He dodged with ease and let his own retreat bring him up to the base of the tree Jared had been sitting in earlier. "Oh, come on, you can do better than that."
Jared's response was a teeth-baring grin. "Question is: can you?"
So Jensen smiled back at him and bolted up the tree before Jared could strike.
He was a good halfway to the top by the time Jared caught up with him and Jensen widened his stance to set his balance as Jared squared up across from him, arms loose and wings partially spread.
"You ready for this, Shoki?" Jensen asked, just to make Jared growl. He hated it when Jensen called him by his title.
Their stalemate lasted only a fraction of a second: Jared launched himself at Jensen; Jensen laughed, dodged and then they were off.
It was as much a game of tag as it was a fight. They darted and weaved through the trees, leaving scatters of twigs and torn leaves in their wake. The blood sang in Jensen's veins and he could feel himself grinning wider with every almost-hit, every near miss. His body fell easily into the familiar back-and-forth with Jared's, years of sparring and close company making the movements smooth and instinctive.
Jared was Jensen's superior in strength and speed, but the close quarters caused by the tree branches cut down his maneuverability so Jensen had plenty of opportunity to give as good as he got.
Then his foot came down on empty air instead of the branch that should have been there, and any advantage that Jensen might have had was lost in an instant.
"Shit!" Jensen wobbled, fighting for balance, and it was all the opening Jared needed.
A hand wrapped around his arm and Jensen's back was slammed against the trunk hard enough to make his teeth rattle. His wrists got pinned beside his head before he could shove Jared off him and Jensen growled in frustration.
"Got you," Jared said smugly, as Jensen wriggled without effect. Jared pressed closer, trapping Jensen between the hard line of his body and the tree trunk; Jensen was close enough to track the faint iridescent shimmer of sweat sliding down the scales at Jared's collarbone. Jared's face was inches from his own, his eyes gone dark and wild in a way that Jensen didn't recognize. Jensen's heart was hammering in his chest, his throat felt tight.
"Jared?" he asked, hardly able to hear himself over the pounding in his ears.
"Jensen," Jared said lowly. "I-"
Jared's head jerked suddenly, eyes snapping away from Jensen to something over his head. His nostrils flared once and then he was gone, slithering up the tree and leaving Jensen to slump back against the trunk, breathing hard and completely confused.
"Jared?" he called, when he trusted his voice. The rustle of leaves was the only response and Jensen frowned before hoisting himself up to the next branch.
He found Jared with his head sticking out of the top of the tree, peering into the distance with a troubled expression.
Jensen followed his gaze and found nothing. "What's going on?"
Jared blinked at him, looking a little dazed. "I saw- I, mean, I thought I saw…"
"What?" Jensen asked. "What did you see?"
Jared visibly shook himself out his preoccupation. "We should go," he said. "Get your pack."
"What are you talking about? We can't just leave; Jeff will kill us!"
"Jensen," Jared said. One of his big hands clamped down on the back of Jensen's neck and Jensen startled. "This is important. We're going back to the Tree."
"I, okay," Jensen said, more rattled by the abrupt end to their sparring match and Jared's strange behaviour than he wanted to admit. He followed Jared down to the forest floor. "Don't suppose you'd like to tell me what's going on, would you?" he asked, while he shrugged on his pack.
"You ready?" Jared asked instead of answering.
Jensen nodded. "Although I'd really appreciate it if you'd- whoa!"
Jared scooped him up in his arms like Jensen didn't weigh a thing, slinging him across his front with frightening ease. "Hold on," he said, and put on a burst of speed.
Jensen scarcely had time to thank Xos that the foliage wasn't too dense in this area of the forest before Jared's wings snapped out and he gave one mighty push with his legs to get them airborne. Branches raked along Jensen's clothes and skin as they exploded through the canopy and into the sky and he hissed at the sting.
"Jared!" he protested, as Jared wheeled them around towards the direction of the Tree. His arms locked around Jared's neck - about the only place he could put them to keep them out of the way of Jared's wings - and his legs clamped around Jared's thighs, plastering them chest to chest. "Put me down, you overgrown salamander!"
"No," Jared said, and wrapped his own arms more tightly around Jensen's waist as his wings beat in steady time towards home.
"Oh, for Xos' sake."
Jared ignored Jensen's increasingly creative bitching all the way back to the Tree, not saying another word until they alighted on one of the eastward-facing lattices and Jensen had struggled his way free from Jared's stupidly long monkey arms.
"I need to talk to Linma," Jared said, while Jensen combed his hands through the windswept mess of his hair. "Go wait in your quarters."
Jensen stared at him. "Are you serious? I'm not- Jared!" he yelled, as Jared took to wing again, without so much as a by-your-leave. "What the fuck is going on?" Jensen muttered to himself, before fumbling out of his pack and taking up the chase. "Jared!"
Jensen staggered after Jared's retreating form, cursing Jared's wings and the lingering pins and needles in his own legs as he tried and failed to keep up. Luckily, Jensen had a pretty good idea of where Jared had to be going.
The Hall was the main centre of clan affairs. It was a meeting space, an audience chamber, and a council room, all rolled into one. Jared's mother, the linsho, presided over the space and so, if Jared was looking for her, that would be the most likely place for him to have gone.
There was no sign of Jared when Jensen reached the wide platform that housed the Hall, so Jensen squared his shoulders and marched towards the door.
Only to have the guard at the door hold up a hand to stop him.
"No admittance," the guard, Brock, said, to Jensen's surprise.
"What?" Jensen asked. The guard posting was largely ceremonial; every dragon had a right to participate in matters of state if he or she so desired. To be refused entry was hardly ever heard of. "Why?"
"Shoki's orders," Brock answered, sounding faintly apologetic. Jensen figured that he ought to; Jensen had known Brock since he was an egg. Had helped teach him how to wield the glaive he was holding right now, in fact.
"You sure?" Jensen asked, just in case.
Brock shook his head. "Sorry, Jensen."
Jensen waved a dismissive hand. "Don't worry about it. If, uh, Shoki wants to know where I am, can you tell him to go jump off something high onto something pointy?"
"I'll tell him," Brock said, grinning. "He'll probably just go to your quarters, though."
Jensen chuckled. "Worth a try. Thanks, Brock."
Without any better option, Jensen figured that he might as well change into something that wasn't torn and covered in dirt while he was waiting for Jared to tell him what in Xos' name was going on. He trudged back up to his own quarters, using the door since it was much easier as a wingless to climb out of his window than into it.
Jensen stripped off his filthy, twig-matted shirt and tossed it towards the slowly growing stack of clothes that he needed to take down to the stream to wash, and reached up instinctively to touch his mama's pendant.
It wasn't there.
Startled, Jensen jerked his eyes down and was horrified to have his eyes meet with bare skin instead of the familiar glint of tarnished bronze and well-worn leather.
"No," Jensen breathed, with a rising panic.
Jensen remembered his human parents. Not well, but fiercely nonetheless. He'd had only intermittent contact with them growing up - mainly due to the dragon lords' desire that he assimilate into the clan as quickly as possible, he suspected - and time and distance had long since worn the edges off once-clear memories.
They weren't his family anymore, not really. They hadn't been there to watch Jensen grow into a man and Jensen hadn't been there to greet two younger sisters and a younger brother. Jensen's place was with the clan, now, and the loss of his human family had dwindled over the years to a faint sadness in the back of his mind.
But that didn't mean he wanted to lose the last connection he had to them.
If he closed his eyes, Jensen could still see the way it had danced on his mama's neck when she moved, gleaming and glinting in the light drifting in through the kitchen window. Sunlight had always been solid then, Jensen remembered, no leaves between it and the places upon which it shone, so bright that it sometimes seemed a dream. That pendant stood for all of the love that his parents felt for him, and all of Jensen's fierce determination never to forget that.
That pendant was precious to him. And he needed it back.
Jensen's mind flashed back to their abrupt return home: the powerful beat of Jared's wings, the impact with the forest canopy, the faintest tugging sensation against his neck amidst the smack of clinging branches.
"The North Wind take it," Jensen swore, grabbing the first clean shirt he saw and yanking it on. He briefly considered the idea of waiting for Jared, but dismissed it almost immediately. He had no idea how long Jared was going to be, and it wasn't as though he needed to be with Jared all of the time. No matter what their friends said.
He opened his door and nearly walked into the back of the dragon who was standing in front of it. "Wha-?"
Ebony wings twitched as the man turned his head and Jensen realized that it was Charles, one of the guard.
"Sorry, Jensen," Charles said, while Jensen stood there staring. "Shoki's asked if you could wait here for him until he's done."
Jensen arched an eyebrow. "Funny way of asking."
Charles' grin was wry. "Won't get any argument from me there. Still means I've got to keep you here, though."
"Right, okay," Jensen said. "Carry on then, I guess."
Charles nodded in acknowledgement and Jensen closed the door between them.
"What the fuck, Jared?" he asked aloud. None of this made any sense.
Jensen glanced down at the place where his mama's pendant should have been be hanging and then at the door. It might as well have been a solid wall for all the use it was now; Jensen would never get out that way.
So he went out the window.
It was painfully easy to avoid being seen by Charles; Jensen said a silent apology to the dragon as he slipped quickly and silently down a conveniently placed tree trunk. He made for the main staircase without anyone trying to stop him, although some of the fledglings nearly knocked him right off one of the bridges when they careened through in a mass of wings and chubby limbs. It was a common enough hazard on the footpaths, and Jensen dodged easily.
"Watch out!" he called after them, unsurprised when they didn't heed him in the slightest. Fledglings tended to be selectively deaf when they were playing and Jensen's standing in the clan wasn't anywhere near high enough to demand automatic respect.
It was approaching the noontime when Jensen reached their abandoned camp spot. Scattered leaves and broken twigs paid mute evidence to their earlier sparring match, and Jensen used that to know where to start looking.
It was slow going. It wasn't easy to tell where they'd broken through the canopy and they'd moved around a lot while sparring, which meant that Jensen had a larger area to cover than he really appreciated. Jensen worked his way methodically through the trees and along the forest floor, his eyes peeled for the flash of metal amongst the flora.
He'd covered a good two thirds of the damaged area and was starting to get frantic when his questing fingers brushed the familiar weight of the metal disc, caught on a thick branch with the ends of the cord dangling loose. The worn leather must have got snagged on the branch and snapped under the pressure.
"Thank Xos," Jensen sighed. He pulled the pendant gently free of the tree branch and tucked it into his shirt. He'd replace the cord when he got back to the Tree.
Mission accomplished, Jensen turned to go and nearly jumped out of his skin when a thunderous cracking sound erupted from a nearby tree. Something large and winged lunged through the air towards him, and Jensen's foot slipped as he tried instinctively to back away. He only had time for a breathless curse before he was falling, smacking into a few tree branches on his way down.
Jensen hit the ground with a thud that punched the breath out of his lungs but didn't do any damage that would last longer than the amount of time it took for the bruises to fade.
The dragon who'd startled him landed with a solid thump a few feet away and strode forwards.
Jensen groaned and forced himself up onto his elbows. "What was that all ab-"
He looked up. His voice died in his throat.
Feathers, Jensen's brain supplied first. Wings as broad as a dragon lord's, but not scaly and rippling in bright colours. These wings were feathered and coppery bright, gleaming in the sun the same way Jensen's pendant did. They mantled around slim shoulders, just brushing the ground near Jensen's head.
Swallowing hard, Jensen willed his eyes to climb further and was met with an unearthly pretty face and piercing eyes that reminded him of the predators in the forest looking for their evening meal. She - for this creature was definitely female - had long hair that looked to be at least half feathers. She was feathered everywhere, in fact, and was wearing stiff leather armour dyed a blood-dark red. The feet near Jensen's prone form were spindly and clawed like a bird's.
"Well now," the bird-woman said. One wing moved and Jensen realized too late that the wings were attached to her arms, not separated like a dragon lord's. He shrank back without effect and the woman fisted a hand in the back of his shirt and dragged him upright like he weighed nothing at all. "What have we here?"
Jensen drew himself up as much as he could. "Let me go."
She made a sound that was at once musical and mocking. "I think not. What are you doing out here all alone, little human?"
"Why are you here?" Jensen returned, because he wasn't answering questions from some upstart interloper, no matter how forbidding she looked. "These aren't your lands."
That earned him an indulgent sigh and a hard shake that made his teeth rattle around inside his head. "I don't ask twice," she said, in a tone of voice that suggested that she was very much telling the truth.
Jensen glared at her and said nothing.
Twin thumps echoed through the ground, and Jensen caught sight of two more bird-women, flanking them.
"What is it?" the one on Jensen's left said. Like the first, she had feathers that gleamed in the light, although hers had a dappling of orange thrown in amongst the copper. Her expression was sharp and hungry as her eyes fixed on Jensen.
"A lost little human," Jensen's captor said, with obvious relish. "All on his own."
"He's very pretty," the third bird-woman said, and there were flashes of pitch black in her feathers amongst the copper and brown. "What are you going to do with him?"
The first one hummed thoughtfully. "We could take him home and share."
"Or we could eat him here," the second offered.
"That's very selfish."
The black one huffed. "We're the ones doing all of th-"
Jensen didn't wait to hear what it was they were doing. He twisted sharply and lashed upwards with a precisely angled fist, aiming for the joint of the woman's wrist. Her grip loosened and Jensen jerked himself free, immediately putting his back up against the nearest tree so he could keep an eye on all three of them.
"Well, look at that," the orange-dappled one said, her tone somewhere between amused and condescending. "Looks like the pretty one has a spark in him."
Jensen bared his teeth at them. "Come any closer and I'll rip your throats out."
"Will you indeed?" The first one made a move towards him and Jensen lunged out in a sharp feint that was enough to make her back off without sacrificing the protection of the tree at his back. He'd need all the help he could get when they all came at him in earnest.
"You're trespassing in dragon lord territory," Jensen said, fighting to keep his voice strong. "State your business or go away."
That earned him a look that Jensen thought probably indicated surprise. It was hard to tell when they didn't have eyebrows, though.
"Since when do the mighty dragon lords have humans speaking for them?" one of them said, with clear derision. Her hands flexed. "Forgive us if we choose not to listen."
It happened too fast. Two of them darted in and the defense of the tree trunk became a hindrance when Jensen couldn't back up far enough to avoid the attack. They had talons, he discovered when one of them caught him with a glancing blow that scored thin lines of pain down his arm. They were damnably fast too, and even Jensen, who'd spent a good portion of his life learning to fight, had trouble keeping up.
One of them drove a knee into his stomach and Jensen staggered, the wind knocked out of him and his body throbbing a faint reminder that he'd fallen out of a tree not long ago. Right now adrenaline was enough to keep the pain at bay but he wouldn't be able to ward it off forever. He spared a longing thought for his glaive, tucked away on a shelf in his room. It would have been really useful right about now.
Jensen would just have to make do as best as he could.
Channeling years of practice facing off against dragons who were faster and stronger than he was, Jensen raked his eyes over his opponents, looking for the places where he knew he could hurt. Their arms weren't jointed the way Jensen was used to, but their shoulders looked similar and Jensen could see the knot of muscle where their wings branched out from their collarbones. Hoping to the sky and back that they had the same bundle of sensitive nerve endings there as the dragon lords did, Jensen drove a gauging thumb into the meaty join of the closest bird-woman's right wing. She shrieked, a thin, ringing sound that made Jensen's ears hurt, and staggered back, leaving Jensen plenty of space to do the same to the second while she was distracted by shock.
Jensen took advantage of their distraction to dart away, shifting across the ground until he found a mostly even patch of dirt where he could make his stand. He ignored sensation of blood rolling down his arm and leveled a warning glare at the bronze-winged bird-woman who was still standing in the middle of the path.
She did not look pleased.
"Human," she said, and the sharp, grating edge to her voice made Jensen's nerves quail. "I am going to rip you to shreds." Her talons flexed and her massive feet dug deep into the soil. Her wings beat once, twice, sending a gust of air towards Jensen that was strong enough to make him stagger, and then she was airborne, hovering amid the canopy of leaves and looking more like a bird of prey than ever.
Jensen didn't let the slightest bit of trepidation curdle his soul. He was a human who'd been raised among dragons; if there was one thing he knew, it was how to fight an enemy in the air.
There was a shifting rustle of dry leaves off to Jensen's left and he darted a quick glance over to see that the other two were gaining their feet, each favouring one wing and glaring daggers at Jensen.
In the moment of Jensen's distraction, the one in the air made her move. With a bloodcurdling shriek, she dove through the air, streaking down with hands and feet extended towards him. Jensen widened his stance and waited for an opening, resisting the immediate urge to flee.
The deafening roar of a flight of dragons thundered through the air and Jensen nearly got skewered after all when the bird-woman veered unexpectedly, through the space that Jensen had been intending to use as his escape route. He checked his impulse to jump and instead backpedalled to a safer distance, more than relieved when a half dozen dragons dropped down from the sky, led by a figure whose broadly spread cobalt wings were as familiar to Jensen as his own face.
The bird-women squawked again, even more birdlike in their surprise, although none of them dropped their defensive stances. Jensen looked again at the decidedly martial quality to their clothing and suspected that he was very lucky indeed to have got out of this without any more damage than he'd taken.
With characteristic disregard for good sense, Jared flew right up to the leader, halting only just far enough away to keep their wings from brushing each other. "You are trespassing in dragon lands," he said, with a sternness that Jensen hadn't known him capable of. "State your purpose here."
Despite being faced with a half dozen scowling dragon lords, the bird-woman didn't appear worried. "Oh," she said, with a heavy sort of amusement. "Just visiting. Experiencing the local-" her eyes flicked towards Jensen and he fought the urge to stiffen "-wildlife. They grow rather wild around here, don't they?"
Jared's eyes flashed. "Leave him alone."
A small, secretive sort of smile curved her lips. "Why should I, dragonling?"
Jared growled deep in his throat. "Because I'll kill you if you try."
"Do you always protect your vassals so well, I wonder. Or just the tasty-looking ones?" Jared made an inarticulate sound of rage and lashed out with a sloppy fist that she easily evaded.
"Shoki!" someone at Jared's back called, and it was only Jared's upraised arm that kept them all from attacking.
The woman's smile widened. "Oh my. I'd say that I'm honoured to merit your attention in this matter, only-" her eyes traced over Jensen again, more thoughtfully this time. "-it's not me that's brought you out here, is it, my lord Shoki?"
"Who sent you?" Jared asked, almost chewing on the words. "I demand that you tell me what business you have in our lands."
"No," she said. She made a flicking motion with her fingers and Jensen was grudgingly impressed when the shift of her arm didn't affect the steady beat of her wings. "Take your pet human and go home, little Shoki. There'll be time enough for you later. Go," she said then, and Jensen hardly had an instant to wonder to whom she was speaking when the two other bird-women burst into motion, launching into the air and vanishing through the leaves amid the startled shouts of the assemble dragon lords.
Jensen could hear the sounds of pursuit above the canopy, but his attention was focused on Jared who was practically seething with impotent fury.
"Oh, now don't take it so personally," the remaining bird-woman said. Jensen gritted his teeth at her condescending tone. "No one else would have any more luck. And I'm sure your people won't hold it against you too much. And as for you," she said, ignoring Jared's blistering glare as she fixed Jensen with a secretive little smile. "I owe you a punishment."
"Go ahead and try," Jensen said, with more bravado than he felt.
Her smile widened. "That's the wrong thing to say to a bird of prey, pretty one. We love the chase."
It was Jensen's turn to growl, more than ready to help Jared pull this bird-woman right out of the air, but she chose that moment to dive right at him; Jensen flung himself hurriedly out of her path and rolled to his feet a foot away, heart pounding and Jared's panicked 'Jensen!' ringing in his ears. He looked up just in time to see her vanish into the trees, feathers winking one last farewell before the slowly encroaching gold of sunset hid her from sight.
Jared landed next to him and pulled him immediately into a suffocating hug. "Xos, Jensen, what were you doing? Don't scare me like that!"
Hissing at the pressure on his injured arm, Jensen struggled against the metal bands masquerading as Jared's arms and managed to pull back far enough to fix Jared with an incredulous look. "What do you mean, what was I doing? I was in the forest - like I am every day - and three bird-women dropped out of the sky and attacked me! Explain to me in what eternity any of that is my fault!"
"It's not safe," Jared said, with the particular mulishness that only reared his head when Jared was being stubborn and refused to admit that he didn't have a leg to stand on.
"Since when?! We were out here only a few hours ago, if you'll recall!"
"And I brought you home!" Jared growled back. "You should have realized it wasn't saf-"
"Why?" Jensen poked Jared hard in the chest. "Because you told me to go to my room? Dream on, Jared."
Chris alighted nearby before Jared could come up with a response to that. "They were too fast for us, Shoki," he said apologetically. "Do you want us to keep up the pursuit?"
Jared's jaw clenched. "No," he said, after a long moment. "There's no point. We know where they're going."
Jensen blinked, surprised. "We do? Where?"
"Come on," Jared said, instead of answering. He shifted his grip, obviously planning on picking Jensen up again, and Jensen was officially sick of this.
"Oh no you don't." He eeled out of Jared's grip and backed away from Jared's disgruntled frown. "I'm walking."
"You're hurt!" Jared protested.
"On the arm," Jensen said. "Which has no bearing on my ability to use my legs. You're welcome to come with me if you don't trust me to find my way home on my own."
Jared pouted at him. Jensen was profoundly unmoved. Chris was smirking openly at the both of them.
Finally, Jensen sighed. "Come on then," he said, heading for the closest tree and trusting Jared to follow. The idiot was amazingly transparent sometimes. "Let's go home."
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