True to her word, Alaina had Jensen locked in a room - small, dark and empty - deep in the belly of the mountain. Jensen spent the first hour running his hands over every inch of the room he could reach, searching fruitlessly for a way to free himself.
He spent the next few hours after that fuming at Alaina, the world in general and, finally, Jared and Linsho for getting him into this mess in the first place. Safer at home, indeed. It served them right for leaving him behind, Jensen thought uncharitably. He spent longer than was probably healthy imagining the looks of shock that would be on their faces when they'd found him missing. He determinedly ignored the part of his brain that kept trying to introduce panic and worry into the picture.
After that, Jensen slept with his back propped up against the door. And woke up in exactly the same place hours later with a crick in his neck and nothing to do but wait.
It was impossible to tell how much time passed while he sat there, trapped in the dark.
The closest that Jensen had ever come to being underground before was the summer of his tenth year when he and the others had found a bear cave and decided to explore it - only to be rousted by a particularly displeased bear and been too afraid to try it again. He'd been bitterly disappointed at the time but now, trapped deep in the heart of a mountain, Jensen found himself glad that he'd not subjected himself to this earlier.
Jensen had never experienced darkness like this.
He was used to night under the open sky, which could be deep enough that he couldn't see his hand in front of his face, but was yet alive with the faint rustle of leaves, the whispers of the forest, the faint hints of colour that glinted through the shadows if the stars hit them correctly. It was nothing like this… utter blackness.
The way down through the tunnels had been illuminated by tall, glowing braziers that cast sooty shadows against the walls. Jensen had been afforded no such luxury. His little room was black as the grave; the only time Jensen saw any of it was when the door opened periodically so someone could slide a meager meal into his room before locking him in again.
The quiet was almost worse. There were none of the familiar noises of the forest, and the intermittent footfalls on the other side of the door were muffled and echoed oddly. The walls pressed in around him, threatening and inescapable. Everything felt dead, empty. It was terrifying.
By the time he was dragged out of the room some indeterminate amount of time later, Jensen had retreated to the middle of the floor where he'd been sitting, curled up, with his eyes tightly shut because that, at least, was a darkness of his own making.
The two harpies who came to fetch him bound Jensen's hands in front of him and looped another length of rope around his neck to use as a crude leash. They half-dragged him through the tunnels, the rope chafing Jensen's neck raw with every sharp tug.
It half-blinded him when they rounded a corner and daylight splashed across his face for the first time in Xos only knew how long, and it took the warning jab of a sword in his back to get him moving through the spots and flashes in his vision.
The noise of voices and rustling feathers reached him before he'd finished blinking back the haze, and Jensen was already through the doorway when he realized that he was back in the massive Hall. Alaina was lounging on the throne in a sinuous curve that made Jensen think of cats, not birds. The expression on her face was at once triumphant and hungry; Jensen averted his eyes before he could stop himself.
His captors hauled him across the floor by the rope around his neck until he was in front of the dais. A particularly harsh yank made him stumble and Jensen swore when taloned fingers curled around his shoulder and forced him to the floor. His knees hit the ground with a painful crack and Jensen's face flamed with embarrassment when mocking laughter rang out all around him.
"Well now," Alaina said, in a voice that was rich with satisfaction. "Welcome back, pet. Feeling a little tamer now?"
Jensen mustered enough of himself to glare bloody murder at her from his position at her feet.
She laughed and it sounded like breaking glass. Jensen flinched.
"Ah, little dragon kin. Would you fight more or less if I told you that I like that expression on your face, I wonder. Untie him."
One of Jensen's guards reached down and sliced through the ropes binding Jensen's wrists; her talons snagged on Jensen's skin and Jensen hissed as the copper smell of his blood hit the air.
"That's better. Now then."
Alaina tilted her head significantly in Jensen's direction and one of the other harpies stepped forward bearing a bundle of fabric. She gave Jensen a dark smirk before shaking it out to let Jensen see the shape of what she carried.
It was a long, multilayered robe such as the dragon lords wore at formal occasions. It was stained down one side with blood the colour of fire. Dragon blood.
"A present," Alaina said, while Jensen gaped in horror. "Can't have you looking such a mess. The girls thought you'd appreciate something familiar."
The robe was a crisp, deep saffron that Jensen didn't recognize, which was only good since it meant that, whoever had owned this robe, Jensen didn't know them intimately. He didn't know what he would have done if it had been Jared's grass green, or Chris' burnt red.
"Put it on," Alaina said. It wasn't a request.
Not that Jensen cared. "May the wind strip your wings, harpy bitch," he snarled.
Alaina's answering sigh was teeth-grindingly indulgent. She didn't even have to move before three harpies grabbed Jensen and hauled him to his feet. He yelled and bucked, struggling against their hold, but was unable to stop them from wrestling him into the robe. He was red-faced and sweating when they let him go, and only a warning yank on the rope still around his neck convinced Jensen that now was not a good time to tear the thing right back off again.
"Hmm," Alaina said, tapping her chin thoughtfully. "Better, I suppose."
Jensen didn't really agree. The robe was longer than it should have been, nearly brushing the ground when he was standing, and clearly suited for someone wider around the middle than Jensen was. Without the bulk of a pair of wings to stretch around, it gapped and sagged awkwardly across his shoulders. The dried blood made the fabric stiff and scratchy.
Not to mention the fact that yellow really wasn't Jensen's colour, a voice in the back of his head that sounded like Jared said. Jensen had to swallow a strangled laugh.
Alaina reached out one hand and the harpy holding Jensen's leash passed it over. Jensen braced himself for a yank and instead found himself reeled in with one slow, implacable drag that didn't take no for an answer. He bashed his knee hard against the floor as he tried to resist that force, and stumbled reluctantly forward when it became clear that his only other option was to fall on his face and then get dragged bodily across the floor.
Alaina's lips curled into a pleased smile. The sight of it turned Jensen's stomach.
"Good boy. Back on your knees now. Before I have one of my ladies sever your hamstrings to make you stay there," she added, when Jensen hesitated.
Alaina tutted. "Already making a mess of your present, too. How uncouth."
Jensen looked down. The harpies' talons had obviously taken their toll in Jensen's struggle not to wear the robe and small spots of blood were beading against the fabric, joining the orange-red stains that were already there. Jensen wondered without humour how much more of his blood would join them before this all ended, one way or another.
"Lovely." Alaina wrapped the end of Jensen's makeshift leash around her hand until Jensen's breath came short, then settled herself more comfortably in her chair.
"Hands," she said, and a harpy came forward to rebind Jensen's wrists.
Jensen let her, feeling abruptly wrung out. What else could he do?
When the harpy had finished, Alaina threw a piercing look over the knots and, without warning, stroked a hand through Jensen's dirty, unkempt hair. He jerked away instinctively and gagged when the motion pulled the rope around his neck taut. Alaina smiled, amused.
"Now then," she said, to the room at large. "I believe Tanya was giving us a report on the victory at Menden."
On his knees, leashed and tied at the feet of his people's greatest enemy while she spoke of destroying everything he loved, Jensen wondered how he could have ever thought he knew despair before this moment.
Jensen's new place, he soon discovered, was more or less wherever Alaina wanted him to be. Most of the time, that equated to on the floor beside her throne, while she carded her talons idly through his hair and spoke of him as a thing rather than a person. Sometimes, it meant that he got paraded around the Aerie like an animal, leash around his neck again to keep him moving while harpies jeered at him and Alaina didn't even bother pretending that she wasn't delighted by the mottled rage and humiliation colouring Jensen's cheeks.
One of the worst things about his treatment, though, was how much concern they clearly didn't have for the thought that Jensen might escape. His hands were always tied, true, and tightly enough that there was no chance of him slipping the ropes, but that was usually the extent of the restraints. Even the leash wasn't used as a controlling tool as much as a means of humiliating him. They let him sit there in his light restraints, right next to their queen, because they were so supremely confident that he wouldn't cause trouble.
And they were right. The urge to lash out was almost a living thing inside him, but Jensen knew that he'd never even make it out of the room, let alone to anywhere that he might be able to stage a proper escape. So he forced himself to sit, stay and face everything expected of him with resentment and resistance, but no actual attempt to escape.
The only time Jensen's hands were released was when he was shoved back into his impregnable cell. This happened every night without fail, at which point he was supplied with food enough to keep him from going hungry and was left there until such time as Alaina desired his presence again, and also on the occasions when Alaina decided to leave the Aerie with her raiding parties.
Those days were the hardest, in Jensen's opinion, because she invariably returned with cooing words and a triumphant smirk as she detailed to him the myriad ways that he was being let down by the dragon lords.
"They seem most upset to have misplaced you," Alaina said the first time, with mayhem in her eyes and the smell of smoke clinging thickly to her wings and armour. "Shall I tell them where you are?"
"I must admit that I'm surprised the little dragonling hasn't launched a full-scale attack yet," she might say, with a mock sort of sympathy. "I suppose stronger heads prevailed. Or perhaps he's lost interest."
And later: "Little Shoki was quite a sight on the battlefield," she told him. "Although he doesn't seem to be suffering much from your absence any more. Oh, now, don't make that face, pet. You're still far too precious not to fight for. Not as far as they're concerned. Even if your beloved Shoki has decided that you're not worth the effort, they'd happily mate you off to someone else."
On and on it went, until Jensen had to dig his nails into the palm of his hands to keep from trying to rip her throat out with his teeth. He could tell that she was looking forward to the attempt however, so he swallowed down the absolute fury boiling inside him and seethed in silence.
It was hard, though, and grew increasingly more difficult with every day that slipped past without some sign that Jared and the dragon lords were coming for him. And Jensen told himself that he wasn't expecting Jared to storm the Aerie with his glaive held high, but, as the days passed, he realized that, yes, actually, he kind of had been. It just didn't make sense that Jared, whose tendency to leap before he looked had always been something to despair of, wouldn't have launched some kind of dramatic rescue mission. Especially considering how possessive he'd been of Jensen recently. Jensen just couldn't make sense of it. And that worried him.
With nothing to do but suffer and hate, Jensen had too much time to think. About Jared, mainly, and about the impasse they'd been at before Jensen's kidnap. The truth was that Linsho had been right: Jensen would have chosen Jared, if he'd been given the chance instead of having it crammed down his throat. If Jared had said something that day in the forest, so much would have been different.
Except, if Alaina was to be believed, Jensen would still have been dragon kin and who knew how that affected how Jared thought of him.
You belong to me! Jared's voice said in Jensen's mind, and Jensen curled up on the floor of his cell to try and block out the other, darker thoughts that followed.
You didn't think they kept you all this time because they liked you? his memory of Alaina asked, amused and cruel. And she had to be wrong, she just had to, because Jensen had known Jared nearly all of his life and he knew that Jared cared about him. And not just as a possession.
So why hadn't Jared rescued him?
"He told me that I could keep you," Alaina hissed in his ear, and Jensen closed his eyes against the pain.
Fine, then. Jensen would just have to rescue himself.
He was in his customary position - slumped against the side of Alaina's throne and trying to ignore the tingling in his folded legs - when one of Alaina's generals arrived with news that the dragon lords were waging a full-force attack against one of the harpy outposts in an area of the realm that Jensen didn't know by name. Nowhere near the Tree, at any rate.
Alaina looked immediately intrigued, as Jensen had known she would. She was a warmonger, he had discovered. Where Linsho would have reacted to such news with sober determination and well-hidden concern, Alaina was delighted. She reveled in the chaos, the violence. More than once she'd returned from such sallies to paint dragon blood onto Jensen's skin as it dripped off her talons, and her cruelty was never so extreme nor her eyes so bright as when she had the fight still thrumming through her veins.
And this sounded like it would be quite the battle indeed. Which was just what Jensen needed.
Please, please, please ran on repeat in Jensen's head as Alaina and her generals debated how to respond. He fought to keep his expression blank.
"Well, ladies," Alaina said finally, and Jensen held his breath. "I hope you're all ready to make them bleed for this. We'll make this battle one that they won't forget."
A piercing cry of approval rang through the room, shrill enough to make Jensen wish he could put his hands over his ears.
"Tanya, your contingent will stay to maintain the Aerie," Alaina continued. "All other troops, to wing!"
Jensen let his breath out slowly. Just one contingent. He could avoid that many.
"What's the matter, pet?" Alaina's voice pulled him out of his calculations and Jensen bit the inside of his cheek hard, trying to school his expression. "No enthusiasm for our venture?"
"Go crawl on the earth," Jensen muttered at her, and she laughed.
"I'll bring you back a head," she promised, and Jensen shuddered.
Which, predictably, only made her laugh more. "Take him," she said to Jensen's normal guard.
The harpy hauled him to his feet, none too gently, and Jensen grunted at the rough handling. "Don't touch me," he snapped at her, and received a crushingly tight grip around his shoulder for his trouble.
Alaina got to her feet and Jensen watched out of the corner of his eye as she picked her way confidently out to the main promontory, where the bulk of her army would be waiting.
The harpy holding Jensen gave him a shove. "Move," she said. Jensen moved.
In his time here, Jensen had grown used to the chaotic snarl of corridors and promontories that made up the Aerie. The tunnels were carved deep into the mountain, the unrelieved stone broken at irregular intervals by open promontories of varying sizes that the harpies used to fly into and out of the Aerie.
The sound of rustling wings and rasping metal echoed in the confined space as the harpy marched Jensen down into the mountain. He waited until they were only a few turns away from his cell and he could no longer hear the noise from the tunnels above, and then made his move.
Spinning abruptly, Jensen drove his free shoulder into the harpy's gut. The harpy stumbled, eyes wide with shock, and Jensen followed up with a knee that had all the force behind it that he could manage.
It wasn't enough.
She lashed out with one clawed foot and Jensen nearly crumpled when it connected with his side hard enough to drive the breath out of his lungs. Her talons raked lines of fire across his skin but Jensen didn't have time to care. Backpedaling hurriedly, he edged closer to the wall, trying not to telegraph his intentions.
"This is new," the harpy said, with a dark sort of pleasure. "The queen will be very pleased; we've all been looking forward to this." She paced closer, unhurried and predatory. Jensen had no doubt that she was more than happy to be the first to show him how much worse his life at the Aerie was about to get.
Not that he intended to give her the chance.
She swooped in, and Jensen lunged to the side, aiming for one of the glowing braziers that lit the tunnels. He seized the brazier in his bound hands and, without a flicker of hesitation, swung it directly at her head.
The heavy metal hit the side of her head with a meaty thud and the harpy dropped like a stone. Blood oozed onto the stone floor and Jensen didn't bother worrying whether or not he'd killed her. Hurriedly setting the brazier aside, Jensen crouched down next to the spilled coals and pressed the ropes around his wrist against one. The smell of burning hemp wafted up immediately but the going was slow and Jensen fought to keep still despite the heat singeing his skin. His heart was beating jackrabbit fast by the time one of the coils had burnt enough for Jensen to snap the rope. He didn't waste any time before untangling the rope and seizing the harpy by the wrists to drag her to his waiting cell.
The keys were on her belt and Jensen took a deep satisfaction in locking her in, the burnt coils of rope thrown in as well to hide the evidence. He took a few moments to assess the damage he'd taken - three diagonal cuts that were mostly superficial and a pain in his side that might have been bruised ribs - before judging it as livable and heading back up the corridor.
He'd chosen one of the smaller promontories from which to stage his escape, both for the fact that it was rarely used and because it was on the side of the mountain that faced the forest, rather than the ocean. Xos was apparently on his side, for once, because Jensen made it there without seeing any other harpies and the promontory - as hoped - was deserted.
He stepped out of the corridor and the wind hit him like a slap in the face, colder and sharper than any wind back home. Jensen ignored the shivers that raced immediately up his arms and strode towards the edge of the promontory.
He looked down.
Jensen had never had much of a fear of heights, even before he'd come to live with the dragons. His fear of falling had been slower in going, but long exposure to the reality that he was perpetually in danger of killing himself with the slightest misstep had made that fear little more than a warning murmur in the back of his head, reminding him not to be too reckless.
Now, standing on a precipice of sheer-edged rock and staring at the very long drop between him and the ground, Jensen realized that perhaps that fear hadn't been as thoroughly banished as he had thought.
"Come on," Jensen said to himself, because this was no time to lose his nerve. The only things he had to look forward to if he didn't try were abuse from the harpies and the cruel, foolish hope that Jared would come to his rescue. Even if there was a way through the tunnels to the ground - which he doubted - Jensen knew he'd never be able to find it. And he didn't want to spend another second underground, not if he could help it.
No, there was only one avenue of escape open to him. And Jensen had never been one to shy away from taking risks.
The wind plucked at his yellow robe, sending it swirling around his legs and Jensen realized that the bright fabric would make him instantly visible against the dun coloured slopes of the mountain. If the harpies came looking for him - as he had little doubt they would - Jensen wasn't about to make it that easy for them. His own forest-dark clothing didn't afford the best camouflage either, but it was definitely the better of the two options. Jensen tugged off the robe, leaving himself in just shirt and trousers again. Thinking quickly, Jensen looked for a loose rock and, upon finding one about the size of a melon, tied the robe tightly around it.
He took the stone in both hands, staggered up to the edge and, with all the strength he had, threw it over. It fell silently for a handful of heartbeats, clattered once against the side of the mountain and kept going, tumbling headlong towards the ground.
Hopefully Jensen's trip didn't turn out the same way.
Swallowing hard, Jensen edged his way over to where the lip of the overhang met the solid face of the mountain. The face was steep but not completely sheer and it was the work of moments to find adequate handholds. An easy push got Jensen off the promontory and onto the wall, toes and fingers easily finding the cracks and crevices between the rocks. Jensen took a deep breath, settling himself.
And then, slowly and carefully, he began the long climb down to the ground.
A lifetime of living with the dragon lords had given Jensen ample experience at scaling - and descending - vertical objects. He knew how to curl his fingers to get the best grip, how to shift his weight to keep his balance even while reaching for a new handhold, how far he could stretch his limbs, despite his brain telling him that he'd never be able to reach.
But he quickly discovered that rock wasn't the same as wood: it was too smooth underfoot and jagged in places where Jensen didn't expect. It threw off the familiar rhythm of his body, left him probing carefully for holds that he should have been able to find blindfolded, and cut into his hands and feet in a way that made the skin feel tender and raw.
The one thing that Jensen could feel grateful for, though, was that the mountain face wasn't quite as smooth as he had originally thought. The surface was uneven enough offer multiple handholds for someone as used to climbing as Jensen was, and there were gaps and crevices where Jensen could hide himself from prying eyes.
At the thought, Jensen glanced upwards towards the Aerie. There was no sign of pursuit yet and Jensen hoped that the battle would take long enough that he'd be a goodly ways down by the time they came back. Far enough that he'd be out of their search radius, hopefully. The reminder made him rush his next step, which was about the most foolish thing he could have done.
Jensen's foot skidded and he hissed at the quick slice of pain that raked across the ball of his foot. His leg jerked, toes losing their grip on the wall, and Jensen grabbed desperately at the rocks with his fingers, fighting against gravity. His heart was beating out of his chest with fear and thwarted adrenaline, and it took Jensen several tries before he could bring himself to start moving again.
There was a sharp twinge when he found his footing, too sharp to be just a bruise. Jensen twisted awkwardly, trying to see without throwing off his already shaky balance, and was grimly unsurprised by the small blot of blood that his foot left behind when he lifted it.
"Great," he muttered to himself, the wind whipping the word away nearly as quickly as he'd said it. "Just what I needed."
There wasn't anything that he could do about it now, so Jensen set his jaw and continued his slow descent, packing up the pain somewhere in the back of his head so that it didn't get in his way. Xos knew he'd probably have a lot more of it to deal with before the end.
The sun was halfway across the sky when the harpies returned.
Hurriedly, Jensen cast about for a place to hide and found one only a few feet down and to the side of his current path. He refused to let his hands shake as he sidled his way across to the slim crevice and wedged himself into it. Then he waited.
It was torturous. Without the regular movement of his body, Jensen's muscles started locking up, unused to this level of activity after so long as the harpies' captive. His feet were bleeding freely from a dozen small cuts and scratches, and his fingers felt like they were permanently curled inwards from clinging to the rocks. Add to that the fact that Jensen hadn't eaten since that morning and that his heart was still beating double time and, well, Jensen wasn't exactly enjoying this situation.
Jensen had almost fancied that he'd be able to hear Alaina's bellow of rage from partway down the mountainside, but the fact was that he only knew they'd found him missing when a flock of harpies exploded out of the Aerie and started combing up and down the slopes of the mountain, looking for him. Jensen stayed as still as he could, even though it seemed like they were much too far away to see him. Since they spent so much time in darkness, Jensen doubted that the harpies had eagle eyes in the daylight, but he had no interest in risking it.
Instead, he concentrated on taking deep, careful breaths and trying very hard to think of nothing at all.
Jensen didn't know how long he lay there, as still as death while the harpies scoured the mountain in search of him. All he knew for sure was the extreme sense of relief he felt when they finally gave up just before sunset and vanished back into the Aerie.
"Fuck," Jensen breathed, his whole body sagging with the sudden loss of tension. He levered himself carefully upright, trying to figure out what to do next.
The obvious answer was 'keep climbing before they came back', but the daylight was nearly gone and Jensen didn't trust his odds if he tried to climb in the dark. Better to stay in one place. His current hidey hole wasn't exactly comfortable, though, and he wanted to try and get at least a little rest before morning.
So he climbed again to his feet, wincing at the twinge in his muscles, and kept climbing downwards, eyes open for a better place to stay.
He found a suitable spot about twenty minutes later and fell heavily onto his backside so that he could get a look at his feet in the rapidly fading light.
It wasn't as bad as it could have been, Jensen figured. The leather-thick skin on his soles had resisted the worst of the damage, and so the various nicks and cuts weren't deep enough to be truly dangerous. They burned something fierce, though, and Jensen knew they'd only get worse as the bruising from a day's mistreatment rose to the surface.
Jensen found himself almost regretting that he'd got rid of that robe; it would have been useful for wrapping up his wounds. A sleeve of his shirt got sacrificed instead, the thick fabric tearing not easily but with less effort than it would have taken before it had become the only shirt Jensen owned. Carefully, he swiped at the bloody mess of his feet, trying without much success to get the worst of the dirt and grit out of the wounds before tying wide bands of cloth around them. There wasn't a lot he could do for his toes, unfortunately, not if he wanted to retain their mobility. He'd just have to make the best of it.
Feet attended to, Jensen finally allowed the loss of adrenaline to hit him and he curled up in the lee of a spire of rock and slept.
It took Jensen the better part of the next day to finish his climb down to the forest floor. The trip grew increasingly arduous with every passing hour as he grew more and more fatigued, and there were a few near misses that had Jensen clinging to the rock face like a limpet, wide-eyed and breathing hard. The harpies made another couple of appearances, but in much shorter bursts than they had the day before and with less intense focus. Jensen wondered if they'd found the robe caught somewhere further down and drawn their own conclusions.
When he finally got to the bottom, Jensen pretty much fell the last few feet to the ground and then lay there for several long minutes, chest heaving. Sticks and small rocks poked uncomfortably into his back and Jensen absolutely could not have cared less. He was alive. Somehow, he'd made it.
Now he just had to deal with being injured, lost and leagues away from home. Piece of cake.
Eventually, Jensen managed to heave himself upright and staggered into the forest, angling for the places where the trees grew thickest. Pine needles crunched in irritating stings under his feet and Jensen bit back a wince at every step. He scrounged up some berries to eat and, by some esoteric combination of skill and blind luck, managed to snare a rabbit to go with them.
Jensen had never in his life been so thankful for the Wingmaster's survival lessons.
Jensen spent the night in a tree, a familiar chorus of creaking tree limbs and forest dwellers rocking him to his rest. The bark of the tree was rough and jagged, the branches too narrow and angled to afford a comfortable resting place, and it was still quite possibly the best night's sleep he'd ever had.
Waking up the next morning was considerably less enjoyable and the day followed was in about the same vein. Jensen wandered in what seemed like the approximate direction of the Tree, feeling the brief respite offered from his restful night evaporate in the face of the thousand aches and pains, and the shaky aftershocks of the fear still coursing through his veins.
His feet felt like they'd been flayed - not that far from the truth - and Jensen knew that he was risking infection the longer he went without having a healer tend to them. His muscles burned with exhaustion and his hands were shaking, his palms cracked and bloody.
Grimly, Jensen pressed on.
It was the morning of Jensen's third day on the ground when the forest started to transition from close-packed pine trees to broader limbed spruces that offered Jensen the opportunity to get above the tree-line and get his bearings properly. Climbing was even more painful than walking, not that Jensen had much choice in the matter.
The sun breaking across his face was like a caress from a familiar hand and Jensen smiled almost without meaning to as he looked around, judging his distance from the mountain and trying to determine how much farther he had to go. Not far enough and much too far, were the respective answers.
Something caught his eye and Jensen stopped looking towards the horizon to get a better look at something closer and far more interesting.
Jensen squinted through the glare, tracing the faint lines of chimney smoke as they drifted lazily up into the air. A village.
Jensen glanced back at the ominous rise of the Aerie as he wondered what the likelihood was that this village was still under the aegis of the dragon lords. Then he wondered how cautious he could really afford to be right now. His body felt like one big ball of pain, he was severely dehydrated and it was taking most of his energy just to stay upright.
Once again, it seemed like he would have to take the risk.
Jensen didn't remember much of the walk to the village. Later, all he'd be able to muster up was a vague sensation of utter exhaustion thinly insulated by a determination that was pretty much all that kept him moving forwards.
When the village finally materialized out of the trees, Jensen could have wept in relief.
He didn't bother with stealth. He stumbled through the main gate in a clatter of mismatched limbs, ignoring the shocked looks that followed him down the main road. There weren't any harpies around, which was all he cared about right now.
By the time Jensen fetched up in front of a building that looked vaguely important, he'd attracted a small crowd of curious faces. He was intimately aware of his torn, bedraggled state but it was hard to muster up the effort to care. All he wanted to do was lay down and sleep.
A man with a long beard met him on the steps of the building. "Peace, stranger," he said. "What business have you here?"
"My name is Jensen," Jensen said, with what he thought was admirable calm. The assembled crowd was staring at him in varying stages of curiosity and fear, so Jensen gave his best attempt at a smile before continuing, "I think you should send a messenger to the dragon lords to tell them I'm here; they'll be looking for me."
"Wha-" the man started, but it was about then that the gray that had been threatening at the edge of Jensen's vision burst through his defenses, blurring out the world and throwing off Jensen's balance. He staggered, stumbled and fell; the shock of his knees colliding with the hard-packed dirt flared for a split-second, and then Jensen was far too busy passing out to care about the pain anymore.
It was the light that woke him.
Jensen blinked his eyes open and stirred beneath the thin blanket that had been thrown over him. It was a mistake.
"Xos' horns," Jensen swore, clenching his teeth against the pain that seemed to be radiating from every inch of him.
A door opened somewhere nearby and Jensen found himself suddenly attended by a human girl of about 12, who helped him prop himself upright against the pillow at his back.
"Thank you," he said to her, when he'd caught his breath.
She gave him a gap-toothed grin, tentative but kind. "How are you feeling?"
"Sore," Jensen said, with a smile of his own to let her know not to worry. "Where am I?"
"My house," she said, and Jensen glanced past her to take in a room that reminded him so much of his own childhood home that he felt like he'd been kicked in the chest. He swallowed hard around the sudden ache and looked down at himself instead. He was wearing what appeared to be cast offs from a much smaller man: the shirt stretched taut across his chest and strained against the muscles in his arms, and the trousers felt like they were probably a few inches too short. His ribs had been bandaged, as had his feet and hands. The cuts and scrapes up and down his arms had mostly scabbed and Jensen wondered how long he'd been asleep.
"We thought you were gonna die," the girl said, hushed, like it was a secret.
I did too, Jensen didn't tell her. There was no point in scaring hatchlings. "Thank you," he said again, instead. "You've taken good care of me."
She beamed and opened her mouth to say something else but, just then, Jensen's stomach decided to make the fact that he didn't know when last he'd eaten very apparent. Jensen felt his cheeks heat.
"I'll get Mama," the girl said, and was gone with a flurry of noisy, human footsteps before Jensen could respond. He blinked after her for a handful of moments before fatigue started creeping into him and he lay back with a gust of vaguely hysterical laughter. He was alive. And looked like he'd be continuing in that vein for the foreseeable future, which was all he really cared about for now.
The rest of the disasters in his life could wait.
The girl's name was Sydney and her mama, Samantha, was the village healer. Samantha fussed over Jensen in a professional, brusque sort of way that was surprisingly reassuring. She checked him over while Jensen ate and declared him far from perfect but mending well, and told him that a messenger had been sent to the dragon lords. Her curiosity was blatant and unapologetic, but Jensen avoided telling her exactly why the dragon lords were likely to care about him. It didn't seem a good idea to be public about who - or potentially what - he was when he was too weak to protect himself.
After Samantha and Sydney left, Jensen spent most of the day dozing, trying not to chafe at the enforced stillness. He'd had more than enough of that to last a lifetime. When he was awake, Jensen pondered what he was going to say to Jared when he saw him. Things couldn't go on the way they had been, that much was certain, but Jensen wasn't sure he dared to ask Jared about what it meant to be dragon kin. Not when the answer threatened to break him in a way that everything else he'd suffered hadn't been able to.
Jensen fell asleep that night with the word 'property' spiraling inside his head. Needless to say, he didn't sleep well.
It wasn't until the next afternoon, just after lunch, that things changed.
There was a sudden flurry of activity outside and Jensen barely had time to swing his feet over the edge of the bed and onto the floor before the door was flung open. A massive silhouette of muscle and half-spread wings filled the entire doorway.
"Jensen?" Jared demanded, sounding out of breath.
Jensen's entire being lit up fast enough for him to be embarrassed about it. He tried to cover it with a casual smile and a slightly grumpy, "What took you so long?" but Jared was across the room before he could manage either.
"Oof!" Jensen's breath escaped in a rush as Jared dropped to his knees in front of the bed and wrapped him in a hug that was more than tight enough to make his ribs protest. Jensen made a small, involuntary sound of distress and Jared released him so quickly that Jensen swayed from the sudden lack of contact.
"Jensen," Jared said again, almost a benediction. His eyes roved openly across Jensen's body, and Jensen could read Jared's distress in the furrows in his brow as he took in the damage. His entire body seemed almost to thrum with energy right below the surface, like a tuning fork. Jensen knew, somehow, that the wrong word right now would make all that frenetic energy explode. If only Jensen knew what that word would be.
"Hi," Jensen settled for, since it seemed like as safe a place as any to start. "Thanks for coming."
"Thanks for-" Jared gaped at him. "Jensen, how could you ever think I wouldn't?" His expression was as close to anguished as Jensen had ever seen. "I thought I'd never see you again!"
Jensen swallowed and reached out to touch Jared's face, trying instinctively to ease that pain.
The bandages on his wrist brushed Jared's cheek and his face crumpled. "What happened to you?"
"A lot of this is my fault," Jensen offered. He shrugged self-deprecatingly. "My escape plan wasn't exactly hazard free."
Jared's gaze sharpened. "Escape plan?"
Jensen rolled his eyes. "What, did you think that the harpies got tired of holding me prisoner and dropped me off here before heading off to destroy another village? Use your head, Jared."
Jared was staring at him, openly shocked.
Jensen didn't like it. "Jared?"
"The harpies had you? At the Aerie? How did you escape?"
Jensen offered him a tired but pleased grin. "Clobbered one of them over the head and then climbed down the side of the mountain."
"You… climbed down the mountain?" Jared repeated, aghast. "Are you crazy? You could have killed yourself!"
"Well, it wasn't doing me much good sitting around and waiting for you lot to stage a daring rescue!" Jensen snapped back, because, yeah, it had been fucking dangerous but it had worked and Jared should have been so much more impressed than this.
"I would have," Jared said, with so much righteous fervor that it made Jensen want to cry. He cupped Jensen's hand in both of his own, bringing it down to rest against the side of the bed. "I would have stormed the Aerie by myself and fought through every single one of them if I'd realized-"
"And got yourself killed before you'd gone three steps, oh that's a great plan!" Jared's wording caught up to him and Jensen frowned. "What do you mean 'if'?"
Derailed, Jared paused in his tirade. "What?"
"You said 'if' you'd known. Jared," Jensen said, with a dawning sort of horror, "tell me you knew that the harpies had captured me."
Jared averted his eyes. "Jensen, I-"
"Where did you think I was?" Jensen was aware his voice was getting louder but he was too busy trying to rein in a sudden surge of anger to care. Jared didn't say anything and Jensen clenched his jaw. "Jared! Where under the stars did you think I was?"
"We thought you left, okay?" Jared said, all in a rush. "You've just been so-" an obscure gesture that Jensen most definitely did not want to know the meaning of "-about everything recently and then you were gone without any hint about where you'd gone, we just…" Jared shrugged.
Jensen stared at him. His family thought he'd abandoned them. Jared thought he'd abandoned him. Did they really think so little of him?
"Out," Jensen said, in a voice that didn't sound like his own. Jared blinked at him and Jensen took his hand back to point at the door. "Get out. Now."
Jared balked. "Jensen-"
"What part of this do you not understand?"
Jared's jaw thrust out. "I'm not going anywhere."
Jensen looked Jared square in the eyes. "Jared. I've spent the last Xos only knows how long wanting nothing more than to see your stupid face again, and I will still climb out of this bed and kill you with my bare hands if you don't get out of here right now," he said calmly. "So I suggest you do so."
"Like you could," Jared muttered, but Jensen recognized the surrender in Jared's voice. "I'm not leaving the village," Jared said, as he climbed to his feet. "So don't-"
"I'm not going to fucking run off," Jensen snapped, with a venom in his tone that surprised even him. "Just… go away." He shut his eyes on the lost expression on Jared's face and was careful not to react when Jared wavered there for a long moment before finally turning to go. Jensen waited until the door had opened and closed before he opened his eyes and fell back against the bed, feeling wrung out and hollow.
Apparently, being dragon kin wasn't the only thing he should have been worrying about.
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