Jared was awoken abruptly by the sound of pounding on the stable door, a regular thunder of enthusiasm that could only stem from one source. He dragged himself out from between his warm blankets and climbed down the ladder to the stable floor. The horses had likewise been roused by the ruckus, and were shifting and whinnying in sleepy annoyance. All but one, the great gray mare at the end, whose ears had pricked up.
"Hell and death," Jared said, unlatching and hauling open the stable door, "Jensen, what?"
Jensen of Ackle pushed past Jared in his eagerness and Jared let himself be moved, despite his greater height. He turned to glare at Jensen as Jensen opened the stall of the great gray mare, and Jensen shot him a grin over his shoulder. Even in the predawn gloom of the stable, Jensen's teeth gleamed.
"You can't be serious," Jared said. "At this hour?"
"Heroism never sleeps, Jared," Jensen chided, giving the mare, Justice, a pat on the nose in greeting. Justice nudged Jensen hard enough to make him stumble, nuzzling in his hair. "Good morning, darling, I know, aren't we excited this morning? Who's going to slay a big, bad dragon? Yes, you are!"
Jared rolled his eyes and resigned himself to the inevitable. "Who is it?" he asked.
"The princess of Harris has been kidnapped on the eve of her wedding, and we, fair Jared, are off to her rescue. The messenger only just reached me. We have to be going at once."
"Uncle Jim is going to kill me," Jared said, fetching Justice's saddle and bridle as Jensen led her out into the middle of the stable. "This is the third quest this month."
"I know," Jensen said, beaming at him, "isn't it great?
"How's the reward?" Jared asked, setting the saddle on the nearest post and handing the bridle to Jensen.
Jensen began to coax the bit into Justice's mouth. She was a good sport, and opened for it easily. He slid the bridle up around her ears and began to buckle it. "Perfectly obscene," he said. "Did you hear the part about the dragon?"
"What kind of dragon are we talking, here?" Jared asked. He unfolded the saddle blanket and laid it across Justice's back.
"Southern Red," Jensen said. "Child's play."
Settling the saddle on top of the blanket and loosening the buckles, Jared said, "What's a Southern Red doing with a princess?"
"I guess we'll find out. Go get yourself ready, and we can be at that little bakery on the edge of town by the time the sun comes up."
Jensen dismounted, and together he and Jared went into the bakery.
The smell of bread had reached them from the road, but inside it surrounded them in a warm, yeasty cloud, promising nourishment and goodwill. The baker, a tall, fair-haired woman named Adrianne, was elbow-deep in a mound of dough, pummeling it into submission.
"Morning, boys," she said, pushing hair out of her face and leaving a little streak of flour across her cheek, "off on another adventure, are we?"
"Princess Danneel of Harris has been abducted by a dragon," Jensen said proudly, "and we are going to slay it."
"Best of luck," Adrianne said. "Bit of breakfast to see you on the road?"
Adrianne's cream puffs were to die for, and they were just cooling on the rack. Jensen bought four, ate two immediately, and bought one more. Jared bought a loaf of rustic, whole wheat bread that would actually keep them sustained on the journey.
"Please, Jared," Jensen said, shoving cream puffs and berry muffins in Jared's direction, "I have plenty of provisions packed, we can afford to be frivolous."
"You can," Jared protested, and allowed Jensen to pay for the bread products all together from his apparently bottomless coin purse.
"Safe travels, boys," Adrianne called after them as they rode away, their backs to the morning sun.
"I thought you'd never ask," Jensen said, which was an enormous lie, because this was the way things were done between them. "I received word that the princess of Harris had been abducted, about three hours past midnight. You saw me at two hours before dawn, so I'm sure you can fill in the interim hour. Anyway, if the messenger from Harris departed immediately upon word of the princess's abduction, one can calculate the time of departure from the distance and the rate of speed—"
"Yes," Jared interrupted, "but one chooses to let you have done that already."
"Nightfall three days ago," Jensen said. "Given time to change horses at regular intervals, and waiting for the ferry at Warringford, naturally."
Jensen shot him a look, but whatever annoyance was in it was tempered by Jensen's excitement. Jared only grinned.
"Anyway," Jensen said, "that does not allow for the time it takes a royal family to worry about scandal, prevaricate, postulate, and delegate, so I'm thinking Princess Danneel was taken closer to midnight four days ago, almost certainly against her will."
"Southern Reds are a very tricky variety of dragon," Jensen said, chewing on a fingernail. "I have known them to be very persuasive."
"Well," Jared said, "yes, given that they have near-human intelligence and are incredible gold hoarders."
Jensen shrugged. "The gold does make them rather attractive, though I'd much prefer to slay them than befriend them. Maybe the dragon has figured out the meaning of the word 'ransom' and is not intending anything more wicked than a bit of a light hostage situation."
"Jensen," Jared scolded, but without much heat. He knew better than to take Jensen's exaggerated interest personally.
Jared had gotten into professional questing by accident, but Jensen had wanted to be an adventurer since his childhood. Jared had heard stories from his mum, the first time he'd met Jensen's mum, that Jensen would throw his toys into trees in order to rescue them, and often went missing overnight on extended quests to the neighbor's. He had the heart for it, and the drive, and Jared looked on fondly as Jensen accepted accolades and congratulations after every successful dramatic rescue. He'd been offered no fewer than six princesses for marriage, but he'd turned them all down. He claimed that his spirit needed to be free, and that it wouldn't be fair to the princesses who would expect him to settle down, but Jared was the only one who knew the real reason for Jensen's reticence. Well, Jensen's mum had figured out with one look at the two of them together, but she wasn't about to go blabbing it to every kingdom between here and the Great South Sea.
The problem was their mismatch in status. Jensen was the third son of a nobleman, permitted by birth order to do as he pleased with his life, but forbidden by society to marry below him. Jared had been born to a stable lad and a milkmaid, and had grown up surrounded by the horses of families like Jensen's. It had taken Jared the length of three quests together to realize that Jensen was falling for him, and only one minute more to kiss him for the first time, his own feelings on the matter well established.
Jared had refused to take a job as Jensen's personal valet and groom after that, though Jensen had begged him. Serving Jensen was not at all what he wanted, and so he retained his position at the stable in town owned by Uncle Jim (who was not actually his uncle), and was permitted to leave with no notice at all when Jensen called for him. It was a generous position, and Jared was never ungrateful. It meant Jensen had to call on him rather than for him, which suited them both nicely. And it meant they were always ready to set off on an adventure when Jensen heard the call.
But for the first night of their journey, the dragon's lair was not their concern. Jensen found them a level bit of ground to set up camp, near enough to the river that Jared could lead the horses down to drink. When he returned with Justice and Thomas refreshed and in tow, the groundcloth had been laid out, the raincover hung, and a campfire started. Jensen was kneeling at the edge of it with a pair of sausages speared on a fork. Jared tethered the horses and went to sit beside him, and Jensen sank easily sideways into his lap.
"Hello," Jared said, wrapping one arm around Jensen's back. The wool of Jensen's tunic was soft and warm under his hand.
Jensen leaned into him and put his head on Jared's shoulder. "Hello," he replied. "Did you miss me?"
Jared planted a kiss in Jensen's hair. "Terribly," he said. "Spending four blissful hours asleep after a full day of labor was just dreadful."
He felt Jensen smile. "Wasn't it just? You know, you could always move in with me. No more concerns about sleeping apart, ever again."
Jared stifled a sigh. "People would talk."
"You could pretend to be my personal valet."
"I'm sorry," Jensen said. Then, "No, I'm not. I'm going to keep offering until you eventually give in and we both get what we want. I want you by my side, Jared, and I don't just want it when we're safe from scrutiny."
Jared buried his face in Jensen's neck. "I know," he said. "I know."
"Well," Jensen said, sounding understandably, and familiarly, disgruntled. "As long as we're clear."
The sausages were beginning to split out of their skin, so Jensen got off Jared's lap and pulled them out of the fire. Jared took one in his clean handkerchief, holding it by his fingertips, and they ate in silence. Jensen offered him a chunk of the bread from their morning bakery stop. Jared handed over the water canteen he'd filled at the river. When they were done, and the tension had eased a bit, Jared reached out his hand and Jensen took it.
"Bed?" Jared asked.
Jensen's mouth twitched in a little coy smile. "Why, Jared, the sun's barely set."
"Yes, but some of us were awakened before dawn, and some of us were up long before even that."
Jensen shifted again and Jared let himself be borne down to the layers of combined sleeping blankets behind him with Jensen astride his hips. "You're right," Jensen said, "I'm exhausted. Best go right to sleep."
"You're a horrible tease," Jared said, skimming his palms up Jensen's thighs and getting a double-handed grip on his ass.
"I'm just making you work for something you seem to be taking for granted."
Jared bared his teeth, and with a well-practiced twist he had Jensen underneath him, pinned by his hips. Jensen was wide-eyed with delight, and his breathing had gone shallow.
"How's that for work?" Jared asked.
"It’s a start," Jensen said, and he tipped his chin up for a kiss.
Jensen's lips were soft and parted easily to the pressure of Jared's tongue. Jared's eyes slipped closed and he focused on the velvet-slick sensation of the kiss, the drag and catch of Jensen’s lips, the slight scrape of his stubble against Jared's chin. Jensen's hands slipped underneath Jared's shirt, pushing it up his body, as Jared slid his own palms beneath Jensen's shoulders. Their hips were locked neatly together, Jared's pelvis pressing into Jensen's and Jensen's heels digging into his thighs, and through the double layer of their trousers Jared could feel the growing hardness of Jensen's cock.
Jared nipped Jensen's lower lip and Jensen murmured in token protest, even as he yanked fitfully at Jared's shirt. Jared had to break the kiss to tug the shirt over his head, but then Jensen had access to the slope of his neck and the muscle of his shoulder, which Jensen quickly took advantage of, biting and sucking a row of marks across the front of it. Jared moaned softly, the warmth of Jensen's mouth in contrast to the cool night air, and the roughness of his bites worked in counterpoint to the gentle pressure of his hands on Jared's ribs.
"You, too," Jared said, pulling reluctantly away but determined to get Jensen down to the skin. Jensen squirmed out of his tunic and undershirt and threw them aside. There was a fading mark on his collarbone that Jared had left there days ago now that he was instantly determined to renew.
"Fuck," Jensen groaned as Jared sucked at that spot, "gentle!"
Jared let him go with a wet pop and soothed the mark with his tongue. "Sorry," he said.
Jensen threaded a hand into Jared's hair and dragged him up for another slow, deep kiss. "No you're not," he said, against Jared's mouth.
"Mm," Jared agreed, kissing him again, and rolling his hips slowly against Jensen's. His own dick was stiff in his pants, and he found an answering hardness in Jensen's. The friction was amplified by the constraints of their trousers, and Jensen moaned loudly when Jared dragged their cocks together.
Jared buried his face in Jensen's shoulder, inhaling the familiar scent of his skin and sweat and the lingering traces of his cologne. He rubbed slowly against him, the rocking of their hips mimicking the rhythm that their coupling would take, when they were stripped bare to one another. Jared's cock jumped at the reminder, the promise, of being inside Jensen. Jensen's body was tight and sweet and so responsive, and Jared liked nothing better than to take him apart like that.
Jensen was pressing kisses to the skin he could reach, one hand on the nape of Jared's neck and the other planted in the small of his back. His grip was strong, not to be argued with, especially when he stilled Jared's hips and guided Jared downwards.
"Oh, I see where this is going," Jared murmured, kissing his way down the middle of Jensen's chest. His cock throbbed, neglected, but he ignored it in favor of untangling his hands from the bedclothes beneath them. Jensen's trousers were held up with a truly ridiculous amount of leather lacing, and it would take Jared a good minute or two to get them undone. Not to mention the distortion in the placket caused by the trapped length of his dick.
Jensen jumped when Jared dipped his tongue briefly into his navel, and then groaned deeply when Jared breathed out hotly over the head of his cock.
The smell of his arousal made Jared's gut clench with want, and he began to lick the head of Jensen's dick through his trousers as he fumbled with one hand to unlace his fly. Jensen got a grip again in Jared's hair, squeezing just shy of painful, and pressed Jared's face shamelessly against his crotch. Jared bit him, very gently, no more than the pressure of his teeth along the ridge of Jensen's cock.
Jensen let go instantly. "Sorry," he gasped, "sorry."
"No you're not," Jared echoed, grinning, and peeled open the placket of his trousers. The laces weren't all the way undone, but they were loose enough now that Jensen could shimmy out of his breeches and cast them aside, leaving him gloriously bare to the warm, golden light from the campfire. His cock lay heavily along his belly, its damp head leaving a kiss of wetness on his abdomen. Jared's mouth watered hard, and he leaned forward without thinking to draw his tongue along the underside until he could capture the next bead of fluid that threatened to fall.
Above him, Jensen hissed through his teeth. "God, that's nice," he murmured, pulling his knees up. Jared pushed up on his elbows between them and took Jensen's cock in his hand, angling it upwards so that he could take it between his lips. Jensen met his eyes for a second, his pupils wide in the dark, and then Jensen dropped his head back on the blankets and Jared set to his task.
He started with little wet licks to the head of Jensen's cock, slurping it into his mouth every so often to keep Jensen off balance. As Jensen's breathing sped up and his heels began to shift in the blankets on either side of Jared's ribs, Jared took him in deeper, breathing in the smell of sex and the warmth of Jensen's body. Jensen's cock stretched his lips, rubbed against his palate, and filled his mouth. Jensen's hand found his hair once more, gentler this time, and Jared let himself be guided back and forth, then up and down. He closed his eyes and relaxed his throat, and when Jensen gave him a soft tug down he swallowed Jensen to the root.
"Fuck!" Jensen gasped, as Jared pulled up again just as abruptly. "Jay!"
Jared smirked at him around his mouthful, managing little more than a twitch of his lips, and Jensen struggled up onto one elbow to see better.
"Fucking gorgeous," Jensen said, rocking his hips on the ground and pushing his cock shallowly in and out of Jared's mouth. His balls were heavy and full against Jared's chin, and wet with Jared's spit. "I want to suck you now," Jensen breathed, "let me go."
Jared obeyed, pulling off and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. Jensen dragged him up for a kiss that was mostly teeth, and then pushed him onto his back. He and Jared together wrestled him out of his trousers, and then Jensen was crouching between his knees and swallowing his cock.
Jared arched, hips rising, and Jensen pinned him to the ground with one hand. Jensen's mouth was hot and eager and oh so talented, every swirl of his tongue making Jared squirm. His face was creased with concentration, his brow furrowed and his eyes squeezed shut, and Jared had to look away to keep from coming immediately.
Then Jensen was sitting up and pushing on Jared's legs to make him straighten them. Without a word of warning, Jensen climbed onto Jared's lap, aligned Jared's cock, and sat back onto it.
"Jensen!" Jared yelped, grabbing for his hips. Jensen grinned, rocking gently and getting himself situated. Now Jared could feel the wet slide of lubricant Jared had been using to open himself up while Jared was distracted. His ass squeezed down tightly on Jared's cock, only half as prepared as Jared usually got him, and he was breathing deeply, deliberately, becoming accustomed to the intrusion.
"I'm going to regret that tomorrow," Jensen said wryly, leaning on Jared's shoulders with both hands. Jared slid his palms up Jensen's bare sides, feeling the expansion of his ribs, brushing his thumbs against the hair under Jensen's arms, cupping Jensen's shoulder blades. Jensen gave his shoulders a squeeze and shifted his weight, and then he was moving against Jared smoothly, working Jared's dick in and out of his body. Jared lifted his hips, meeting Jensen as he sank down, and Jensen groaned in appreciation.
"Perfect," Jared murmured, before he could stop himself. "You're fucking perfect."
Jensen flashed him another grin and wiped away the sweat that was running down his temple. "You're not so bad yourself."
Jared's chest squeezed too tightly, and he gripped Jensen's sides in response, trying to ground himself. It felt like too much and not enough; even though Jared was the one doing the penetrating, Jensen had complete control of him, was using him for his pleasure, got under his skin and inside every nerve and took over Jared's mind. His face and chest were flushed with effort and sex, and the freckles on his skin stood out against it. His expression was open and wanton, eager and joyful, and Jared loved him.
Jared wrapped his arms around Jensen's shoulders and pulled him down into a tight embrace. Using Jensen's surprise to his advantage, he rolled them both over, returning to his position on top, and Jensen laughed in his ear. Jared planted his hands and knees and took over the rhythm of their fucking, driving into Jensen faster and harder until Jensen was gasping and clinging to him, his body rocked with every thrust. Between them, Jensen's cock was flushed and leaking, rubbing a wet spot into Jensen's skin, and his balls were pulled up tight. Jensen let go of Jared's shoulder to grip himself, his cock pushing through the circle of his hand almost without his own effort.
"Fuck," Jared said, suddenly on the edge of the precipice. "Jensen."
"Come on," Jensen urged, his short fingernails digging into Jared's skin, "I want to feel it."
Jared let himself go with a groan, hips jerking as he came. Jensen squirmed and jerked himself and murmured, "Yes, yes." He bit Jared's shoulder lightly, making Jared jerk and cry out, and kissed his face as he came back to himself.
He was still squirming and touching himself when Jared had regained his senses and his courtesy. Jared eased himself away from Jensen's body, but before the result of his orgasm could spill out of Jensen, Jared replaced his softening cock with his fingers.
Jensen said, "Oh!" and squeezed his eyes shut.
On shaking legs, Jared crouched between Jensen's spread thighs and twisted three fingers as deep inside Jensen's ass as he could, feeling for the sensitive spot on his inner wall. He brushed past it as he pulled his fingers out again, and Jensen's unoccupied hand found his. Jared sucked a mark into Jensen's tender inner thigh and began to massage that spot, rubbing over it again and again as Jensen stroked his cock almost frantically. His fingers were sliding in a mess of lubricant and his own come, and he said as much to Jensen.
"Oh," Jensen said, as if that hadn't occurred to him, "oh, Jay."
"You're so wet," Jared murmured, pushing in hard and staying there a moment before drawing out again until his fingertips just breached Jensen's hole.
"Unh," Jensen said, his cock visibly stiffening in his grip.
Jared pushed at his thigh, lifting it over his shoulder, and lowered his mouth to the pink, stretched rim of Jensen's hole. The taste of his own come, mixed with the flavorless lubricant, was nowhere near as exciting as the noise Jensen made, nor the sudden jerk of Jensen's body as he spurted over his belly.
Jared sank his fingers deep again, making Jensen cry out, and worked them shallowly in and out until Jensen's whimpering had turned into low, gasping moans, and his leg had slid limply off Jared's shoulder. Then he eased his fingers out and wiped them, sticky with come and lubricant, through the mess Jensen had made on his own abdomen. This he licked contemplatively off, as Jensen cursed at him weakly.
They took their time cleaning one another off with a clean handkerchief Jensen kept for this purpose, and then reluctantly parted in order to dress once more. Jared had never slept naked beside Jensen— in the wilderness was no place to do such an indulgent thing— and suddenly, as he watched Jensen retie the laces on his breeches, he wanted nothing else in the world.
He had to settle for lying down beside Jensen in their blankets and wrapping him in his arms, breathing in the scent of his hair as the dying coals let off their remaining heat.
Before the sun had cleared the tops of the trees, they were on their way again, now headed higher into the mountain passes to search for dragon lairs. Jared led the way on Thomas with Justice following in his path, while Jensen scanned the sky for dragons in flight. He was using the ridiculous magnifying goggles he'd bought from an alchemist in Dean-Morgan, which he swore made it easier to see at a distance but which just gave Jared a headache. Jensen, however, strapped them gamely to his head and peered this way and that at the empty sky while Jared kept them from falling off a cliff.
"There!" Jensen said suddenly, just as Jared was starting to think maybe they should stop for their midday meal. "Jared, look!"
Jared looked up, twisting to follow Jensen's pointing finger, and spotted the speck of red against the pale sky.
"Is it our Southern Red?" Jared asked.
Jensen glared at him through the magnifying goggles. "I can't tell if it's ours," he said, the attitude in his voice entirely ruined by the apparent size of his eyeballs, "but it's certainly within flying distance of the palace."
"How close are we?" Jared asked.
"Another hour, maybe," Jensen said. He peeled his goggles off and blinked painfully as his eyes readjusted to normal vision. "If we push on we'll get there before nightfall. We can surprise it when it returns from its evening hunt."
Jensen was right about the lair being close. The rocks and greenery underfoot were beginning to take on a scorched appearance, blackened with soot. The sound of animals, too, had quieted, and now there were no birds to be heard singing, nor the sound of insects buzzing in the air. The stillness made Jared's stomach twist: no matter how many dragons they had faced in the past (it was four, though Jensen on his own had slain three more), the anticipation was as uncomfortable, if not more so, than the actual confrontation. At this point, the dragon could be anywhere. It could be lying in wait for them behind the next outcropping of rocks, or it could be circling them from above, watching their progress and waiting to descend, claws outstretched, like a hawk upon a mouse.
Jared shivered, despite himself.
As the path turned again, they came to the top of a crest that gave them a wide view of the valley below. The valley was devoid of trees above a certain point, the land black and cracking, and the devastation centered on a narrow crevasse that, from this distance, barely looked wide enough to admit a human.
"That's it," Jensen agreed, when Jared pointed it out. "How do we get there from here?"
"Fly," Jared suggested.
"There's a ledge," Jared said. "I think if we find a place to stash the horses where they won't get hurt, you and I can get there on foot."
They backtracked a few hundred yards to a stand of trees that had not been charred, and dismounted. The horses were stamping and tossing their heads, anxious about their surroundings. Jensen filled their feedbags while Jared whispered in their ears, but then they had to be left behind, tethered to the trees. If the dragon came this way it might not spot the horses from above, but they would have to risk it. Once the dragon was slain and the princess rescued, they'd come back for their steeds.
Jensen slipped a mail shirt on over his head, and checked his sword in its scabbard. Jared strapped on his protective leathers and hefted his heavy stick from hand to hand. Jensen's weapons were more effective in the killing stage of the dragon excursion, but a wallop from a leaded staff did plenty of damage.
The path that Jared picked out took them around the perimeter of the valley, a thousand yards in one direction and a thousand back, all along the edge of a crumbling precipice. The rocks skidded out from beneath their feet in places, tumbling down into the emptiness below, and more than once Jared grabbed for Jensen's hand out of instinct. Jensen gave him a squeeze before disengaging with a sympathetic smile. Embarrassing. The cliff face hadn’t even been that sheer, and Jared had managed to get a toe-hold that saved his hands from permanent damage, but he couldn’t help the feeling in his stomach every time he accidentally looked down– that swooping sensation, that weightlessness, of going over the edge. Jared’s skin was cold all over, despite the sweat that was prickling down his spine.
"Jared," Jensen said, squeezing his arm, "focus. If you're imagining it again, you're going to get hurt, and then how will I feel."
Jared shook his head sharply. "Sorry," he said, "sorry."
"We're nearly there."
They were. Despite their pace, and Jared's personal issues with the edges of ravines, they had very nearly transversed the whole of the canyon’s perimeter and were creeping up on the blackened crevasse. The mouth of the opening loomed up in front of them, and Jared stepped gratefully onto the wider rock platform that served as the cave's front stoop.
Jensen inhaled suspiciously as they got their bearings. "It smells wrong," he said.
Jared gave a sniff, and discovered that he was right. He couldn't smell the usual odor of dragon droppings or charred meat he had come to expect with the approach to a dragon's lair. It smelled rather inoffensive, really, though there was the aroma of human occupation. Nothing extreme or unpleasant, just warmer than the smell of the valley around them.
Jensen drew his sword and preceded Jared into the cave.
Jared took a few moments to adjust to the darkness of the cave, but soon he could see the rough walls that rose up to a craggy ceiling, and the uneven floor that threatened to twist an unsuspecting ankle. Again, he was surprised by how un-dragon-like the whole place looked. No massive pile of gold glittered in the light that managed to slip into the crevasse opening, no steaming piles of dragon shit, no half-eaten sheep carcass. It didn't even look big enough to accommodate a full-grown Southern Red. The floor, treacherous though it was to unfamiliar feet, appeared swept clean, and the only pile of debris visible turned out to be a straw mattress covered with three heavy blankets and two down pillows. A pair of woman's shoes had been discarded beside the mattress, their green silk insteps embroidered with beads.
"The princess of Harris," Jensen said, picking one up. "This dragon has a really well developed sense of hospitality."
"Jensen," Jared said, "something's not right here."
He should have known better. As he said it, the silence of the cave was broken by the immense wing-beat of the dragon approaching, and a blast of wind rushed into the cave entrance as the dragon landed. Jensen's sword flashed just as the light from outside was blocked, but by now Jared's vision was sharp enough that he could see what they were facing.
The dragon was the size of Jared's childhood home, large enough to pick up a horse in one massive claw. Its body was as long as a riverboat, and scaly, glimmering red; its wings stretched out twice the length of its body, blocking the sky. Its eyes were huge and yellow, its pupils shrunk to slits like a cat’s, and its long snout could have swallowed Jensen down to the ankles, even as he stood there in the mouth of the cave, looking up at it. The dragon opened its mouth, baring fangs the length of Jared's arm, and deep in its throat Jared could see the everlasting spark that ignited its dragonfire.
Jensen raised the sword and took up a fighting stance. "Jared," he said over his shoulder, "on my count: one—"
"Stop!" yelled a voice behind them, and a young woman darted between Jensen and the dragon. She was barefoot, and her auburn hair was pulled away from her delicate face in a low ponytail. She wore a green tunic over linen trousers, and she held up both hands in front of Jensen. "Stop," she said again, "wait."
"Princess Danneel," Jensen said, "I'm going to need you to step out of the way."
"Whoever you are," Princess Danneel said, "I'm going to need you to stop, right the fuck now."
Jensen started, his sword point falling inexcusably. "Excuse me?"
"I said stop, jackass," Danneel said. "Don't argue with me."
"Princess," Jensen said, "I'm sure it hasn't escaped your notice that there is a dragon behind you."
The dragon, at this point, was looking pretty irritated. There was smoke rising from its nostrils, and Jared realized he'd never been close enough to a dragon that wasn't actively trying to kill him to see how expressive its face was. The dragon opened its mouth and growled, and Danneel turned around to look at it.
"Gen," she said, "I got this."
Fire flickered in the dragon's open maw, as if to make a point, but didn't come rushing out char them all to death.
"Princess," Jensen said, raising his sword once more with obvious intention, "I've come to kill the dragon."
Princess Danneel punched him in the face.
Jared caught Jensen as he staggered and went down, gushing blood from his nose. The sword clattered inelegantly to the ground. Danneel shook her hand in obvious surprise, and then hugged that hand close to her body.
"Hell and death," she hissed, "that hurt!"
The dragon rumbled, and it sounded like laughter.
"What the hell was that for?" Jared demanded, shoving his handkerchief in Jensen's face and holding it there.
"I'm sorry," Danneel said, "it kind of seemed necessary."
"Did it, really?"
"He was going to stab her," Danneel said, still rubbing her fist.
"It's a dragon," Jared protested.
Danneel shook her head. "It's complicated," she said. "Are you going to stab her?"
"Well, the only one in this room who's actually caused any damage so far is you," Jared said, "so probably, no."
"Good," Danneel said, and came over to kneel at Jensen's other side. Behind her, beyond the mouth of the cave, the dragon lowered itself to its belly and began to curl itself up, folding its massive wings along its back and tucking its feet underneath itself. It lay its gigantic head, the size of a grown bull, just inside the cave's opening, and its pupils expanded and rounded to accommodate the low light. With its eyelids lowered and its mouth closed, it looked positively docile.
Jensen glared up at Danneel, and shook Jared's hands off of him. "Tell us what's going on," he demanded, muffled by the handkerchief.
"Did my parents pay you to come out here to find me?" Danneel asked. "Ugh, I should have figured. Frankly, I'm surprised it took them so long." She glanced behind her at the dragon and her face changed, softening into a smile. "It's almost sunset," she said, addressing Jensen but looking at the dragon's half-closed eye. "Everything will make sense in a couple of minutes."
The dragon's eye closed altogether, and Danneel got to her feet. She offered Jensen a hand up, and Jared stood as well.
The sunlight was fading, its last rays visible on the tops of the trees beyond the crevasse opening. Soon the valley would be entirely dark, making it impossible for Jared and Jensen to get back to the horses, not to mention the bloody great dragon that lay between them and safety. Jensen didn't take his eyes off the dragon even as Danneel puttered about in the cave, building a fire in a well-established fire ring and offering them something to drink. Jared accepted a cup of water and made Jensen put his sword away.
"Until we know for sure what's going on," he said.
Jensen narrowed his eyes skeptically, but obeyed without looking at Jared.
Danneel said, "Should be just about time. There, watch." She was holding a dressing gown.
As they watched, the dragon opened its mouth in a yawn and began, inexplicably, to shrink. A golden glow surrounded it as it got smaller and smaller, and then it started to change shape. The glow intensified until Jared had to look away, his eyes stinging, and when he looked back, Danneel was draping the dressing gown over the pale, petite, crouching body of a woman.
The woman got up, slipped her arms into the sleeves, belted the dressing gown, and pushed her black hair smoothly out of her face. She smiled at Danneel, and Danneel smiled back, and then they both looked at Jared and Jensen.
"That," Jensen said, "was not what I was expecting."
"We probably should have seen that coming," Jared said.
"You!" Jensen cried, pointing a finger at her and shaking it. "Genevieve, the elusive Princess of Cortese!"
Genevieve shrugged one shoulder and picked absently at a callous on her bare foot. She had gotten dressed in a soft tunic and pair of trousers like Danneel's, and now they all sat around the merrily crackling fire. "I was a princess once," she said, "but I've been through some pretty big changes in the last few years, and I'm not really sure that's appropriate anymore."
"How—" Jared began, and stopped, wondering if it were really his place to ask. He charged on. "How does something like that happen to—"
"Someone like me?" Genevieve smiled. "It's not actually as outrageous as you might think, although the circumstances are pretty unusual. It's my mother's fault."
Jensen snorted derisively. "Oh, your mother was also a dragon?"
Silence greeted that pronouncement. Then Jared said, "I seem to remember there being some kind of publicity statement that you were being sent off to boarding school."
Gen nodded. "Yes. When I turned eighteen and began to manifest the more obvious characteristics of my heritage, my father and my stepmother decided it was best for me to be removed from the palace. They told everyone I was going to be put in a young women's school to complete my learning among my subjects, but the identity of the school would not be released. It was for my anonymity and my protection, they said. Then they drove me out to this part of the wilderness and released me into the care of my birth mother."
"Who was a dragon," Jensen said.
"Who was a dragon."
"That must have been a bit of a shock," Jared said.
"We'd met once before," Gen said. "When I was ten years old, she came for a visit and told me what to expect. I didn't believe her at the time, but." She smiled sardonically. "Well, look where I am now."
Danneel handed Jared a ceramic bowl and sat down beside Genevieve with another one. Into both she ladled the rich, brown stew that was simmering in a small pot on the fire. To Jensen, she said, "Sorry, we've only got the two. Don't really have a lot of guests."
The stew was hot and meaty, lumpy with potatoes and carrots, and filled Jared with a sense of homeyness and contentment. He ate his portion quickly, warmed on the inside, and passed the bowl over to Jensen.
He watched the women together, trying not to stare too obviously and doing a pretty poor job of it. The cave was quiet, and there wasn't really anywhere else to look. They were sitting close together, knees touching, comfortable in the nearness of the other. That they were lovers was not obvious, since Jared had known plenty of girls whose friendships had grown very close, but could be read in the way that Danneel passed her fingers over the back of Genevieve's wrist, or the gentleness of Genevieve's smile when she glanced furtively at Danneel's profile. That there was only one bed in the cave certainly helped his assumptions along, as well as the fact that no one but a serious romantic attachment would have been able to persuade Jared to leave a cushy life in a palace, to live in a place like this with a shapeshifting dragon. He'd probably do it for Jensen, Jared thought absently, glancing at the man in question. Probably.
"How did you end up here?" he asked, when Danneel was scraping the bottom of the bowl with her spoon and licking it off.
Genevieve got up and took the bowls away, and they could hear the splashing of water towards the back of the cave. Danneel watched her go, and then turned back to Jared and Jensen.
"I think it was nine years ago—"
"Ten," Genevieve said from a distance.
Danneel smiled. "Ten years ago, the royal family of Harris went on a diplomatic visit to the ruling clan of Cortese. There were rumors of trouble in the North, and my father and mother wanted there to be a show of solidarity between the Midland Kingdoms. It was only a week's visit, but Genevieve and I got along so well that when my family went home again, I stayed another month. A few months later, Genevieve came to visit us."
Genevieve returned and sat down again beside Danneel, snuggling up to her more conspicuously now, tucking herself under Danneel's arm. She had a jar of amber liquor in her hand, which she offered to Jared. Jared accepted, sipped it, winced in appreciation of the burn, and passed it on to Jensen.
"We were like sisters," Genevieve said, grinning, "until we were not, exactly."
Danneel was blushing.
"So when your marriage was imminent," Jensen said, "you made your escape."
They both nodded solemnly.
"If my father hadn't insisted," Danneel said, "it wouldn't have needed to happen this way. But I was suspicious already of Gen's departure. She wouldn't have gone away to school without telling me how to get in touch with her. The dragon thing was a bit of a surprise."
Jensen scrubbed a hand across his face and sighed. "I suppose it's useless then, to ask you to come back with me."
"I'm afraid so. No rescue needed, thanks very much."
"Won't you get lonely out here?" Jared asked.
Genevieve's expression darkened. "Of course we will," she said. "I warned Danneel about that when I came to see her."
"But imagine what it would have been like," Danneel said, in a tone that suggested they had had this argument before, "to live out your life completely on your own. This way, at least…" She trailed off, but Jared understood.
Jensen looked like he had a hundred more questions to ask. Jared had a hundred of his own.
"Can we sleep here tonight?" he asked, instead. "We don't have any of our supplies, and our horses are tethered across the ravine."
Danneel and Genevieve shared a look. Then they nodded.
"Suppose you'd better," Danneel said. "But if either of you gets up in the middle of the night and tries to slay the dragon or rescue the princess, you've got another thing coming."
"That sounds dirty," Jensen muttered under his breath.
Jared stifled a snort. "We promise," he said. "No slaying, no rescuing."
"Morning lads," Danneel said. "Gen's off with the sun, so we get an early start."
Jensen rolled over at that, facing the opening of the cave, where Genevieve's nude silhouette was just visible against the lightening blue of the valley. Jared looked too, and they watched as the sun reached her and her form began to shift. In a moment, she had transformed entirely into the huge, red, glittering monster they had come here seeking. She stretched her wings luxuriantly, glanced back into the cave, and blew out a little puff of flame before she took off.
They caught Danneel smiling after her, but she quickly rearranged her face. "Breakfast?" she offered.
Breakfast was an oatcake and a cup of milk each, both of which made Jared frown in confusion.
"Where does all this come from?" he asked.
"The garden," Danneel said. "Come on, I'll show you."
The cave was deeper than it looked, and beyond a turn in the rock there was a passage that led upwards at a gentle slope, until they emerged on the top of a grassy acre. The wind was bracing, but the sun was only just above the horizon.
"It gets plenty warm up here," Danneel explained. "Gen started growing things as soon as her mum got her settled. She had a few years before the changing was permanent, and she used to get to spend the daylight hours with thumbs." She grinned. "Sometimes I think she abducted me just so I could keep house for her."
The dirt was shallow up here in the mountains, but vegetables took root in rows and the oats and barley were growing high. There was a goat tethered near a roughly built shack, and Danneel milked it a little awkwardly, as though she weren't quite used to the task, before pulling up its stake and walking it to a fresh patch of grass.
"What about the meat," Jensen said, "last night?"
Danneel grew sheepish. "Gen brings it back," she said. "She cooks it for us before the sun goes down. She's got a dragon's appetite, but if she gorges herself in that form she gives herself a terrible stomachache."
After a moment's consideration of the garden, the goat, and the princess standing there in her tunic, her red hair whipping in the wind, Jensen said, "What do you want us to tell Their Royal Highnesses? I'm contracted to bring you back, and I can't return without any kind of word."
Danneel winced, screwed up her face, and thought. Then she said, "Tell them the truth."
"That you've shacked up with a dragon and are living in a cave?"
"Tell them it's Gen. Tell them I'm safe. My dad's always going on about find my place in the world and making decisions I'm proud of. He'll be angry, I'm sure, but maybe he'll understand."
"Do you miss them?" Jared asked.
"Not yet," she said. "Maybe in a few months, I will, but we're still honeymooning. You boys had better go see to your horses."
The trip back along the ravine was no less exciting as it had been on the way over, but now Jared had something else to think about. When they were on stable ground again, he looked up into the sky and spotted the distant speck of the dragon beyond the mountains, circling high above the plains of Cortese.
"Dreadful, isn't it?" Jensen said glumly, as they untied their disgruntled horses and fed them breakfast.
"Living in a cave?" Jared asked. "I don't know, it seemed like they'd got themselves pretty well sorted."
"I was thinking more along the lines of turning into a dragon every day," Jensen said, "but living in a cave is a close second."
"Well it's not ideal," Jared agreed, "but they've got each other. I think it's sweet."
"You're not thinking of your reward are you?" Jared asked.
"No," Jensen said, "but it would have been nice to slay something. Not Princess Genevieve," he said quickly, looking guilty. "Never mind."
He thought about it all the next day, despite Jensen's anxious looks in his direction, and when they dismounted that afternoon at the stable, Jared said, "You go on ahead, I'll bring your things up."
"Up," Jensen said, frowning, "to my house?"
"Yes," Jared said. "Don't you have a messenger to dispatch?"
Jensen nodded slowly. Jared took Justice's reins from him. "So go on, and I'll meet you at yours later."
When Jensen was gone— and not without a little more protest and confusion— Jared unburdened the horses and brushed them both thoroughly, and put them away in their stalls with generous treats and clean hay and plenty of fresh water. Then he went up into the loft and packed the rest of his meagre belongings into an old saddle bag. With these on one shoulder and Jensen's pack hanging off the other, Jared walked through town with his head held high, headed for Jensen's house.
Villa would have been a more appropriate word. Jensen's father had been Earl of the county, and now Jensen's older brother held that title at the family seat, twenty miles north. Jensen himself had refused a position in the local government of Padaleck, but his family wealth had set him up with a fine place overlooking the river, with a dozen rooms and a courtyard with fruit trees in it.
Jared was met at the door by Sam, Jensen's head housekeeper.
"Hello, Jared," she said, letting him in and taking Jensen's belongings off him. "Jensen's not in yet, but I'm guessing he's tying up loose ends in town, if you're here."
"He is," Jared agreed. "D'you mind if I wait in the study?"
"You can wait in the bedroom for all I care," she said with a wink that made Jared blush. "Is it a surprise?"
"No," Jared said, scuffing his feet on the floor. "I'll just—"
"I can bring you something to drink, if you like," she offered. "Bit of a snack, something to tide you over?"
Jared shook his head. "Thanks, though."
He decided not to wait in Jensen's bedroom after all, though it was as familiar a room to him as the rest of the house. It felt too presumptuous all of a sudden. Instead he paced Jensen's study for a while, his gaze always drawn back to the pile of his things in the corner, and then he went and sat in the courtyard, hoping that the trees would calm him.
Jensen's arrival went unnoticed until Jensen was sitting down beside him on the bench under the apple tree.
"What's going on?" Jensen asked, putting his hand on Jared's back. "Tell me what's wrong, please."
"I'm not going to be your valet," Jared said firmly. "I'm not going to work for you." He turned to Jensen, whose confusion had only grown since they'd parted at the stable. "But I'm not living in a cave, either, not when you've got this perfectly nice house just sitting here."
Jensen's face cleared, and he began to smile. "Jared," he said, "are you sure?"
"Can princesses turn into dragons and abduct other princesses?" Jared asked.
"Apparently they can," Jensen said, grinning now. His eyes were a brilliant emerald, glittering with possibility.
"Then I think stable boys can move in with landed gentry, and everyone else can go fuck themselves."