The moon had begun to set, and the celebration in Indigo Cloud showed no signs of winding down. Jade didn't blame them. After everything the court had been through in the past few turns -- the creeping realization that they were dying out, the Fell attack, the grueling journey to the Reaches, the uncertainty of the lost colony seed, almost losing their First Consort to his birthcourt -- it was more than time for a little fun. It was time, at last, to relax.
But Jade found it hard to do so as she walked through the tree, though she smiled and returned the greetings and waves of others as if she did. Maybe it was lingering tension from the battle against the forerunner; she felt restless, itchy. This was one of many reasons that she always lamented being the only younger queen in the court; if she'd had a friendly sister queen, she might've been able to spar with her, or propose a flying race to bleed off tension. She could do that with Balm a little, but Balm couldn't give her a real workout. She could try asking Pearl, test the new and fragile absence of tension between them... but it seemed wrong to plague Pearl with her frustrations when Pearl was newly-mated and content for the first time in longer than Jade could remember.
So Jade kept walking, speaking to others but not lingering for conversation, smiling even though she didn't feel like smiling, because it wasn't fair of her to push her mood onto them. Others sought her out, regardless -- like when Root bounded over to get Jade to confirm his description of Opal Night's strange half-dead tree, or when Heart offered her a cup of the new sweeter blend of yellow tea they'd gotten from Delin's people. Or when Chime joined her to walk for a few moments as if he, too, felt the same restlessness. Jade said nothing to him, wondering if something about the celebration -- everyone's happiness, perhaps -- had made Chime remember his own sorrows, like Flower's death. But then he brushed Jade's hand with his own and said, "Moon was with Ember for awhile, but now he's up on the empty levels."
And then Jade knew exactly where she wanted to be.
She stopped and turned to Chime. Of course he would understand the fear she had felt, from the beginning of Emerald Twilight's meddling through those awful days when Moon had once again been in the hands of the Fell. They had almost lost him twice over. Now he was back -- and this time he had chosen to come back. He had chosen hardscrabble, precarious Indigo Cloud over a life of ease and security in his powerful birthcourt. He had chosen Jade, and Chime too.
Chime smiled hesitantly at Jade's silence. Jade took him by the shoulders and stepped close, touching her forehead to his for a moment. "Thank you," she said. There was trouble, sometimes, between queens and their consorts' lovers, but she could not imagine ever feeling that way toward Chime. He wanted what was best for Moon. So did she. That would always unite them.
He nodded against her, then shrugged simply. "He's moody again. But you always make him feel better."
Yes. Jade turned and headed off, purposefully this time, to find her consort.
Indigo Cloud was far too small for its hometree. Jade looked forward to a day when this would not be true, and she fully intended to get started on remedying the problem as soon as possible. Hopefully Pearl would do the same. But until the court's population increased substantially, the topmost levels of the colony -- extra spaces for the consorts, Stone had told her, back in an unimaginable time when the court had had too many -- were unused, and in fact the Arbora had chosen to seal most of them to cut down on drafts and unnecessary cleaning. Moon had requested that one door and window remain unsealed, however, and since it was well-known that consorts liked having quiet spaces to themselves, the Arbora had graciously permitted this.
Jade flew up to the consorts' level, then climbed the winding tunnel to the unsealed door, which took her through several switchbacks and a brief vertical climb. Once there, she indeed found the door pushed open, which was a relief because she had no idea how Chime could have known Moon was up here. Maybe it had been another of his strange non-mentorly "magic feelings". Regardless, when Jade saw pale moonlight illuminating one of the rooms, she was relieved to find Moon sitting at the room's center.
He had probably heard and scented her coming, but he didn't turn or speak. Curious, she sat down next to him and tried to gauge his expression. His eyes were a million ells away, his face still.
"I told Ember the story," he said, after a moment. His voice was very soft. "Of my -- of what happened to Opal Night, and me. It's the first time I've ever been able to tell it all."
Jade nodded. If there was one good thing that had resulted from this whole mess, it was that the holes in Moon's past had finally been filled. Not that this would stop River and his ilk from complaining; Moon would never act like the consort-with-a-prestigious-bloodline that he had turned out to be. But now at least, Moon understood that he might've turned out much the same even if he had been rescued as a fledgling by Opal Night. Opal Night was a court ready for war; they had no time for or truck with the airs that a court like Emerald Twilight put on. Onyx's Umber had been by no means delicate; Opal Night liked its consorts strong. In that, Moon's breeding proved true.
"It started me thinking," he continued. "About my father, Dusk."
Jade blinked in surprise. "Did Malachite or the other members of the court tell you anything about him?"
"Just that I look exactly like him." He lifted the strange broken necklace-pendant she'd seen him wearing before. It was not hard to guess the identity of its original owner. The scent of the blood embedded in its carvings was all too similar to Moon's own.
"She has nothing left of him," he mused. "Except Shade and Celadon, and maybe Lithe. And me, now."
Jade shifted, uncomfortable. After all Malachite had put her through -- including making her beg for her own consort -- she was not much inclined to feel sympathy for the older queen. And yet. The past few weeks' fear that she would lose Moon, either to his birthcourt or to the Fell; how much worse would that have been compounded by a whole turn? And how much worse to find him dead at the end of it all, with a clutch of half-Fell children as living proof of his tormented final days?
Moon's thoughts obviously flew a similar path. "It could have happened to me," he said, still gazing at the pendant. "Ranea..." He grimaced. "When you and Pearl attacked the Dwei hive, she was about to... I was trying to goad her into killing me. I thought, better that than what she intended."
He had never told her this. Jade fought back her instinctive reaction, which was rage at the idea of another woman taking her consort against his will. That was pointless; she had already gotten revenge on Ranea for daring to touch him. Still, to think that Moon would have chosen to die -- Flower had been so very right about him.
"You didn't think I would come for you," she said. She said it flatly, not allowing herself to express the hurt that came with the words. "Not at Opal Night. Not then, either."
Moon sighed, as if he'd heard her thoughts. "I'd like to say I considered the matter and just concluded that there was no way you could defeat an entire Fell flight to save me... but that would be a lie. It didn't even occur to me that you might come." He hesitated, then looked at her, and she was struck by the intensity of his gaze. "But that was then, Jade. It's different now."
Because she had come for him, after all, at Opal Night, and at the underwater city. Mostly out of morbid curiosity, Jade tilted her head and asked, "And if you were captured by Fell or a rival queen or whoever now?"
He tried to smile, but it was weak, and then he looked away. "Now? I would think about you... before doing whatever I felt was necessary to save myself, or at least go down fighting."
Well, she couldn't fault him for honesty. Jade sighed and gazed out the window for awhile, because there was really nothing she could say to that. Except the thing she shouldn't have had to say, yet which she would say, over and over again, until he finally began to believe it.
"I would come for you," she said, "even if it means fighting my way alone through the entire Fell race, or every queen at Emerald Twilight, or a dozen groundling cities. Until I'm dead, Moon, assume I'll come for you." She made herself smile, though she hardly felt like it. "Try to assume it."
He did not lift his eyes from his father's pendant. That was her warning. "Jade, it isn't just about whether you'll come. I finally understand why consorts are so carefully-guarded, and what the responsibility of being a consort really means. Ranea almost destroyed Indigo Cloud. She did destroy Sky Copper, and probably more courts than that. But Ranea existed because some poor consort hoped someone would come." He shook his head. "I have to deal with my own problems. It's too dangerous, to me and to everyone else, if I don't."
That was... not an unreasonable way of thinking. But it bothered Jade, for reasons she could not articulate. Frustrated, restless again, she reached over and grabbed him, pulling him into her lap. Surprised, Moon held stiff against her for a moment, but once her arms settled around him, the stiffness vanished. He leaned against her heavily, and let out a weary sigh, as if it was a relief to no longer support his own weight.
And that was when Jade understood.
She stroked his back, tucking his head against her shoulder so that he could breathe her scent. "If you ever get stolen again," she said, because after three incidents she couldn't assume anything, "you'd better stay alive. In fact, I'm ordering you to stay alive no matter what."
He shifted a little. "Jade, I told you, I think -- "
She shook him a little. "Stop thinking. You're not alone anymore, Moon. Stop trying to carry everything yourself. I'll help you, believe it or not."
"But -- "
Jade sighed in frustration. "Will you just believe in me, if nothing else?"
He fell silent, which did not bother her. It was reassuring, in a way, that Moon would never simply mouth platitudes or say what she wanted to hear. Well, it didn't bother her much.
"I believe you mean it," he said into her neck. "But Ranea -- "
She shook him again. "Shade."
He frowned a little. "What?"
"If the Fell stole you again, if you couldn't get away, if they forced you to breed, I'd come for you. If there were children, I'd adopt them. If they weren't... wrong, like Fell I mean, I'd even love them. Because they'd be yours."
He lifted his head, staring at her. "You're saying you'd do what Malachite did?"
Not quite the comparison Jade wanted, but she restrained a sigh. "Moon, think. I took you when I thought you were a solitary with no bloodline. I've fought queens, and Fell, and Fell-queens, and nameless things from beneath the sea for you. I almost started a war for you, twice. And I'm going to make Indigo Cloud the most powerful court in the Reaches, for you. Because you deserve nothing less." He inhaled, and Jade shook her head at the shock in his eyes. He still didn't understand. "And yes, I'd do what Malachite did. In a heartbeat, if it was the only way to have anything of you. But I want to have you too, you silly man."
He said nothing. Speechless, or disbelieving? There were times when he went as unreadable as Stone at his worst. Worried, Jade lifted a hand, claws carefully sheathed, to cup his cheek; he flinched beneath her fingers. Had she hurt him? Perhaps, but not with her touch.
"How long will you live?" he whispered.
Jade would never cease to be amazed at the strange questions he asked. "If nothing kills me? Two hundred turns, maybe three. That's normal for queens."
"Will I live that long?"
Jade shook her head, amused. "Only Malachite would know the history of your line and its consorts, but if Stone's any indication of consorts in general, you'll probably outlive me."
Moon's body had gone tense again, and did not relax when she caressed him. There was something strange and a little alarming in his eyes when he shifted position, moving to kneel between her legs. "No, I won't," he said, his voice tight.
Jade understood almost before she registered the words, and her belly clenched in almost painful resonance. I wouldn't want to live without you, either. But she said, because it was true, "Things will be different by then. You'll have children, grandchildren, more. By the time Stone lost Azure, half of Indigo Cloud were his get in some way or another, Arbora and Aeriat alike. You won't want to leave them unprotected."
She did not add, That's why Stone stayed alive, although it was true. She didn't like that they were even on this topic of conversation.
"They'll have to make do without me," he said, stubbornly. "I got by on my own."
Jade shook her head and sighed. "You're too ready to die, Moon."
His face twisted into something that made her heart ache, and he put his hands on her shoulders -- tight. If he'd shifted and used his claws, he'd have pricked the skin between her scales.
"No," he said, his voice rough with urgency. "I want to live. Really live, not just 'get by' the way I've done all these years. When I was at Opal Night, and I thought I would have to fly off and be alone again -- When I thought I wouldn't be allowed to go back to you -- " His fingers, impossibly, tightened further.
Before Jade could muster a response to this, Moon abruptly leaned in to press his cheek against hers -- hard, grinding their faces together as if he was trying to scrape his groundling skin off against her Arbora form's scales. If she'd been in her winged form, he might've managed it. He slipped his arms around her and pulled himself tight against her, pressing his face into her neck and nibbling the smooth curve of muscle along her shoulder. When he reached her shoulder, he bit her, so urgently that it was hardly erotic at all. It felt almost desperate, in fact. "Moon?"
"Please." He pressed against her. Jade stared at him in wonder. Moon had never been the sort of consort who had to be coaxed into sex, for which Jade had always been grateful, but he had never been this demanding. He nipped her again now, more gently this time, stroking her sides as if trying to moderate his own need until she could respond. As if she needed an excuse --
-- but then, perhaps the groundlings he'd been with had needed this sort of restraint from him. Horrifying to think of a consort left so desperate that he was forced to beg for sex... or anything else. Yet here he was, again saying, "Please, Jade. Please be with me. Please."
Jade growled softly. "Hush." And then, because he was already kneeling before her, already between her legs and ready, so ready, she simply raised herself and closed the distance between them, joining him to her with a single deft movement.
He yelped and stiffened all over, and she shivered at the quick hot pulse of his orgasm. "S-sorry," he blurted, looking both glazed and horrified. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to -- "
"Hush." She whispered the word, cupping his face between her hands and stroking hair away from his flushed cheeks. He was so beautiful, especially during sex. "That's a good start. Now we can go slow." Very gently she undulated against him, working strong muscles within herself that existed precisely for this purpose. He hissed softly and shuddered all over, his eyes going hazy and unfocused. Jade chuckled and pulled him against her shoulder so she could bend around him and nibble at the back of his neck. He always smelled exquisite, so rich and fertile that it was astounding he'd doubted his own ability.
Moon made a raw, ragged sound, and after just a few moments of this he began to push back against her, ready again. His fingers were tight, trembling, on her hips. "Jade," he groaned against her breast. "Jade."
She would never, ever, get tired of hearing him say her name like that.
"I'm right here," she whispered, stroking his hair as she rode him. His quickening groans and the lovely wavelets of pleasure that he stirred in her were her reward. He licked at her throat and she purred out a sigh. "I'm not going anywhere, Moon, not ever -- " His hands gripped her hips and he strained upward, moving harder; she had to stop and close her eyes for a moment as heat washed through her. Beautiful. She pressed her face against his neck to say the rest. " -- and even if I did go away, I'd come back for you. I'll always, always come back for you."
To her surprise, he suddenly twisted free of her arms and teeth, leaning back so he could see her. His face was all openmouthed lust, but there was something more powerful than that in his eyes. "P-promise it," he said. He was trembling, on the brink, breathing so hard that the words were barely intelligible. "Promise -- Don't ever -- "
Of course his body betrayed him. Consorts were bred for pleasure, after all, and Moon was needier than usual this time. Jade hissed and let her head fall back as she felt Moon gasp and go to pieces, bucking upwards even as he kept struggling to speak. It was enough to spur her back to the peak as well, and this one was the best of them all: spine-stiffening and thigh-tightening and belly-clenching and tail-curling, better than even the first time she'd taken him. It left her weak, so powerful was it; weak and wrung-out and tingling all over as it passed.
But even as lassitude set in, Jade made herself answer his half-babbled plea. "I promise," she breathed. "I'll never leave you alone for as long as I live, Moon."
He was panting, slumped against her, but she felt him shiver all over as she spoke. That was nice, so she said it again, even though it was hardly necessary. She had taken him, hadn't she? But Moon was not Raksura enough to understand the promise implicit in their mating. He needed words too, and deeds as proof. So she would give those words, and that proof. Over and over again she would give it to him, until he stopped needing it. Because that was what a good queen did for her consort.
Moon pressed his face into her breast. His arms came up around her, gripping her back just beneath where the join of her wings would be, in her other form. And though Jade did not understand why hot tears suddenly began falling on her skin, she did not question it. He needed this too. So she shifted and folded her wings around him to help him hide his pain, and she tightened her arms around him so he would know he was safe. Then she let him cry.
They slept for many hours. When Jade woke, Moon was already up, sitting in the window of the empty bower and gazing out at sunlight filtering through the suspended forest. When Jade stirred, he turned to look at her, and she searched his face for signs of the melancholy that had gripped him the night before. A hint of it was still there, but only a hint. The rest of what she saw was something raw and tender and determined -- and tense. As if he wanted to say something important.
"I do believe in you," he blurted, as soon as she sat up.
Now that was worth waking up to. Jade smiled and got to her feet, going over to him. He shifted forward at her prompting and she slipped into the window behind him, propping her back against its curve and then pulling him back against her. When she settled her arms around him, he relaxed at once. As he relaxed, she found herself doing the same. "Good," she said, and privately vowed to never give his belief a reason to waver.
They sat that way for the rest of the day, together, in their own private, silent celebration.