Wind rushed over Jensen’s scales as the storm clouds rolled thickly overhead. Thunder and lightning rumbled and flashed around him, but he didn’t move from where he was curled around his favorite parapet. He was tired and ached and was unnaturally hot – even for him. The strong gusts of air felt good, and he could only hope the torrents of water promised by the ominous sky would cool him off.
There weren’t many people out and about in the courtyard below. Humans didn’t enjoy the rain as much as Jensen did. Then again, humans didn’t have armor built into their skin.
Unaccountably sad, Jensen let out a low whine and rubbed his snout against the stone of the castle which was still warm from the fiendishly hot and muggy day that had brought in the storm. The action wasn’t scent marking. Jensen felt the need to mark his territory, but not by rubbing his face against things like a cat. No, the instinct was something else, and it terrified him because he didn’t understand it.
Jensen didn’t understand a good many things about himself. He was a dragon. His presence in the land brought good fortune. But neither he nor any of the humans around him knew all that much about dragons. The royal family was not one of the Dynasties. There was no great legacy of dragons in Jensen’s kingdom. He was their first, and most of what he and they knew about his kind was hearsay.
Jensen’s egg was a spoil of war. Or it was more of a lucky find to hear Jim Beaver tell the story. The old blacksmith had been nothing more than a hired soldier when he had stumbled across Jensen’s egg.
The citizens of Sherrock were rough and hearty, their land rocky and sharp. They were not ‘couth’ by any means, but when larger countries went to war they always hired their soldiers from Sherrock. It was said that they were the most reliable. Not only could they weather rough conditions, they would also stay true to their oaths.
Jim had been young and energetic back then. His prowess with a mace had been called legendary. But that wasn’t what Jim was famous for now.
The Battle of Grithock had been a bloody one. Three countries fighting with even more involved once promises of gold and oaths of loyalty were invoked. It was said that part of the earth was still scorched from the dragon breaths that had been exhaled on that piece of land. The great irony of it all was that nobody seemed to know what the quarrel was about. There had only been a mass of men and dragons fighting, but not a man knew why.
Jim still could not explain why the fighting had stopped. The bards and historians said that there was a great dragon fight that had led to such devastation that the warring countries changed their hearts and called for peace. Jim laughed at that. Every time he heard those tales he told Jensen, “Boy, no country set on war changes its heart when things get bloody.”
Still, the fighting had stopped for whatever reason. While mass confusion had reigned for a while after all three sides called truce, the soldiers had dissipated quickly. Those whose fealty was to their country had homes to return to. No victor had been declared, so there was no loot to be disseminated from the losing sides.
Few were the men who stayed to dig through what little was left. Each side took home their dead and wounded, having the luxury to do so when a normal battle would not have allowed them to do so. Only broken weapons and burning wagons were left behind - trash that was unimportant in the face of bleeding men and women who had families waiting for their return.
But Jim had had no family at the time. He was the middle son in a family of too many mouths, and had not yet wed. He had been young in his trade, and had no money to buy metals or other materials with. Where broken blades and shoddy arrows had been sneered at by his richer compatriots, Jim had viewed them as valuable assets. He’d been trying to dig out the head of a broken mace when he had noticed something rather odd in the still smoldering rubble.
Jensen’s egg had been filthy and singed, but it had still glowed when Jim’s hand passed over the smooth shell. A live dragon egg was rarely seen by a country that was not one with a legacy of dragons. Dragons brought wealth and protection to the lands that they were bound to. They were not easy to come by. The Dynasties had long ago formed alliances with the great broods to keep other peoples from gaining the advantage that a dragon brought.
Even when broods became too large for one country to hold, the dragons would not simply seek out a new land. The solitary drakes that would leave a large brood would often congregate together at a new location. There were a few kingdoms outside of The Dynasties that boasted dragon populations made entirely out of drakes. While they never had young hatchlings with their lack of dragon queens, they were never at a loss for dragon protection.
New colonies of dragons were practically nonexistent. Even if a young drake should start out in search of a new land, he would never have chosen Sherrock. It wasn’t anything special and had nothing to recommend it.
But Jim had brought Jensen home with him. Jensen’s egg had been warmed by the forges in Jim’s pathetic blacksmithing shop. He’d hatched to the ringing song of Jim’s mallet hitting against the reforged steel and iron of weapons from fallen foes.
Sherrock was Jensen’s home, and he could no more leave it than he could stop breathing. He assumed it was because dragons were naturally territorial. Truth be told though, he had no idea if dragons were naturally anything except for large and scaly. It wasn’t as if anybody in Sherrock had first, second or even third hand knowledge of dragons. The Dynasties didn’t share their information with the likes of Jensen’s country.
It had been, as Jensen was told, a shock when he first shifted into his human form. Jensen didn’t remember it. He’d been just shy of two years old at the time and had been chasing after a group of older human children. One moment he was just a ball of black, silver and gold scales. The next moment he had been a very naked toddler.
As Jim told it, he had refused to shift back until he was offered a shiny copper coin as a bribe. Jensen still had that coin. He didn’t remember the day he obtained it, but he could remember plenty of attempts to get it out of his claws. Humans could be awfully fixated on things. Even though they were just fine with him amassing his piles of keepsakes, they thought it was hilarious to try to part Jensen from his first bit of treasure.
Jensen knew that it was all in jest, but his insides always twisted in anger when he thought of somebody taking that coin from him. It irritated him and made him snappish even though he tried not to be. The humans in the city were his friends or as close to his friends as they could be.
There was no denying that Jensen’s childhood hadn’t been quite normal for either human or dragon kind. At first, he had been strictly protected and guarded. Whenever visitors came, he would be whisked off to the deepest sections of the castle. He would be hidden away so that no other kingdom would steal him.
As much as the people around him adored him, he was ultimately a great benefit to them as well. A dragon’s presence didn’t just guarantee security, but prosperity as well. The barren hills of Sherrock began to grow thick with grass and flowers and trees. The ore veins and gems that were hidden in its rough and hard rock came easily to the surface. It was the sort of fiscal assurance that The Dynasties took for granted and other lands envied.
But for all that Jensen was adored by the people, he was not one of them. They would bring him treats and baubles, scratch his snout and talk with him. But Jensen was not human. Neither he nor the citizens of Sherrock could change that.
So he felt justified in his envy as the young humans he grew up with began to pair off with each other in matrimony. He might even have clung to a bit of bitterness as they began to have children and establish new families outside of the ones they already had.
Jensen was lonely. He couldn’t help it. Each year was another gone, and he had never even set eyes on another dragon. He could shift forms well enough, but even in a human guise, he was still a dragon. His scales disappeared into his skin, but they left designs on it was they went, turning into intricate tattoos that were oddly delicate and fine. His horns shrunk into his skull, but they were still there, golden nubs barely hidden by carefully coifed hair.
He wasn’t human. No matter how much he had been raised by them, he was still a dragon. That fact frustrated him more than he liked to admit. He never could completely connect with humanity. His instincts interfered with that if nothing else. He wanted to protect them, protect his home. They were his.
Such protectiveness was fine for a giant guardian. It could cause problems with a good friend or lover. Not that Jensen could even imagine being a love to one of his two legged charges. They… they smelled all wrong. He craved something he didn’t understand when it came to sexual desires.
Not having a viable partner didn’t keep him from longing for romantic company. He didn’t speak of his want, not even to Jim. The humans wouldn’t understand. Drakes, as far as they knew, were the most solitary of the dragons. They were the ones who would branch out when broods became too large, and they far outnumbered the dragon queens. They didn’t breed.
As far as the humans of Sherrock were concerned, Jensen should be happy alone. His bowers were always clean, his stomach always full. He did not lack for company, even if said company was human, and they all had to return to their families at the end of the day.
Jensen wondered if maybe there wasn’t something wrong with him. Not physically, no – though he did worry about his inability to spew fire. But he was more concerned about his mental health. Humans could fall ill in such a way. It stood to reason that dragons could as well.
Just thinking about the possibility upset him. As if in response to his distress, the clouds started pelting rain down upon him. Jensen closed his eyes and began to croon to the skies. He didn’t think that they would answer, but the thunder made a good listener.
Jared huffed as he settled down onto the branches of a gigantic tree. It groaned in protest at his massive bulk. But hundreds of years of weather hadn’t conspired to tip it over yet, so Jared doubted it would allow a mere dragon to topple it.
He’d been flying for months now, and hadn’t found a good roost to call home. There had been a few drake colonies that would have welcomed him, but none had felt right. If he must leave home, as his instincts had dictated, then he wasn’t about to settle for someplace NOT home.
The problem was that he was running out of options. There weren’t many nests left to visit, and Jared didn’t think he could go back to his original brood. They would no doubt welcome him back, but the itching under his scales would start right back up again if he did it. He wasn’t meant to be a tenth tier drake, flying loops around the countryside forever.
His broodmates had laughed at him, called him a queen chaser. Jared thought that was ridiculous. No drake wandered out into the world if he wanted a chance at being chosen as a consort. Emissaries sought out drakes from other queen nests if they needed new blood. Drake nests weren’t populated with the best and the brightest.
That particular truth stung, but Jared had to accept it. He had always been strong. His fire burned hotter and brighter than any of his flight mates. It had burned hotter than his own father’s flame, and it was said that it was the strength of his father’s flame that had won over Jared’s mother’s heart.
But Jared was clumsy for a dragon. Fast and agile while in combat, but apt to stumble over his own tail when simply walking: he wasn’t a top pick for mating. His mother had tried to convince him otherwise. She’d told him that it was his father’s wit that had ensnared her heart and made her want him to fertilize her eggs. But she was Jared’s mother. It was her job to tell him how wonderful he was.
Jared huffed, and the heat from his breath made the water clinging to the closest leaves billow into steam. The rain had impeded his flight the night before. Nasty, horrid clouds had messed with his sense of direction, and the topography he found himself in was unfamiliar. He shouldn’t have kept flying. He had known that at the time of the storm, but he had kept going anyway.
Now he was paying the price. There was a leather map in his satchel, but he was loathe to open it. The oiled leather and canvas of his bag was sturdy, but the outside of it was still damp. He didn’t want that water getting inside to the treasures he carried with him. He’d been able to take only his most precious of belongings, and he wasn’t about to ruin them by exposing them.
With a grunt, Jared jumped into the air again. His long wings snapped twigs and smaller branches off the tree, and its trunk shook, but when he glanced behind, it was still standing. Jared envied that tree. It seemed to know exactly where it belonged.
Jensen was playing ladder for a group of naughty school children who were stealing fruit from the orchard when a loud bellowing sound echoed through the air. He barely caught the startled ring leader in his paw before the screeching, roaring noise came again. The sound of alarm bells started ringing in from the watch posts, and cries of ‘dragon’ started being shouted by the guards.
Despite himself, Jensen’s excitement about the incoming beast wasn’t all terror about a potential attack. He’d never set eyes on another dragon before.
“Get into the hold,” Jim ordered, bounding into the orchard, his leather apron still tied about his waist instead of hanging neatly on the peg he always hung it on when he left his shop.
“But,” Jensen’s protest was a single word and a glance to the sky.
“The hold, Jensen,” Jim ordered.
“I’m a grown dragon!” Jensen argued stubbornly.
“And we don’t know what this one’s intentions are,” Jim pointed out.
“I’m supposed to protect you, not the other way around,” Jensen said sullenly.
“And you are, by staying somewhere safe,” Jim reminded him. “What is better? You getting yourself killed while destroying some invader? Or you staying alive and bringing prosperity and health to us? You’re not replaceable, Jensen.”
“I’m not a baby. I can defend myself,” Jensen said even as he pulled his wings tight to his body and obediently started heading towards the hold.
“I know,” Jim said as he walked alongside him. “I taught you how to fight, remember? But you wanted to be a soldier, and sometimes soldiers have orders that aren’t what they’d like to be doing. Strategy isn’t all about bounding into a fight with teeth snapping.”
Jensen growled, a little rumbling thing that meant nothing. It shocked him when that rumble was answered by a much larger roar and a downdraft. The other dragon was huge, bigger than Jensen with blood red and orange scales. He looked like his skin was made from the angriest of fires, and his hiss reminded Jensen of the crackle of smoke.
Jim shouted his surprise beside him, and Jensen shifted his bulk, blocking the smaller human from the other dragon’s view. The other dragon roared again and stomped its feet against the ground. Ripe fruit fell off the nearby trees in response to the movement, and Jensen couldn’t help the frown that formed at the thought of the harvest getting ruined because of improper harvesting technique.
The other dragon made a curious trilling sound in its throat and sat down. Jensen stared at it. It snorted and twin plumes of smoke curled up from its nostrils. Jensen watched, fascinated. His own breath never did that, no matter how hard he tried.
“Hello,” Jensen finally tried after a few more seconds of staring at the other dragon.
“Hello?” the other dragon sounded incredulous, almost insulted as he echoed Jensen’s greeting.
“Jensen,” Jim called from behind, small human hands pushing at his hide to try to get him moving. The clatter of footsteps was getting closer, but the other dragon didn’t seem to be too concerned about the arrival of human troops.
“Just a minute, Jim,” Jensen answered politely.
“Don’t you just a minute me, you…”
“Aren’t you going to fight me?” the other dragon interrupted.
“No?” Jensen answered. He hadn’t destroyed anything but a few fruits, and wasn’t hurting anybody. Why would Jensen fight with him? The other dragon must’ve had a hard time of things. He must’ve been one of those dragons from an overpopulated place, and had had a hard time finding a place to stay.
Although, Jensen could only imagine what other dragons were like if the one before him looked the way he did. It made Jensen wonder if perhaps his egg had been castaway as some sort of reject. Perhaps he hadn’t been meant to hatch at all. That would explain why he had no breath of fire.
“You’re welcome to stay,” Jensen offered when the other dragon said nothing.
“You’re welcome to stay,” the other dragon sounded almost mocking as he repeated Jensen’s words again.
“Jensen!” Jim shouted.
“He’s harmless,” Jensen told him.
The other dragon grunted and launched itself into the air, more fruit falling down at his departure. It made a lazy arc around the castle walls before landing on a parapet and turning around so that it could eye Jensen.
“It’ll be fine,” Jensen assured Jim. Jim didn’t look like he believed him.
Jared had never been so insulted in his life. His fire churned unpleasantly in his gut. He’d been teased, certainly, but even the most senior members of his brood’s guardian host would have accepted his challenge to duel. To be so dismissed by another dragon was infuriating.
And it was such a small land too! Its wealth was just beginning to bubble to the surface. Jared had been invited to far more luxurious and wealthy broods. That dragon was too high and mighty for his own good. Jared should leave. He should just take flight and keep heading towards his original destination. If it hadn’t been for that damned storm, he would never have set eyes on the land in the first place.
But he couldn’t do that. As unpleasant as the terrain was, Jared felt more at home in the rocky land than he had in all the verdant pastures and rolling hillsides that he had visited. It wasn’t a grand place, but it fit his scales well. The stern, grey mountains with their foreboding exteriors would one day drip with pretty flowering mosses. Already, tiny trickles of waterfalls were rolling down their faces, the stone crying its way to happiness.
Jared could only blame the other dragon, Jensen, for that. The brood nesting in the land had to be small. More than that, it had to be new. Perhaps four generations of dragons, but closer to three if Jared guessed. This Jensen must be the only living member of the brood as no other dragons had come to watch or fight when Jared had trumpeted his challenge.
Though the existence of just that one dragon worried Jared. Word hadn’t spread to Jared’s Dynasty of a new spot for drakes to come nest.
The thought chased itself unpleasantly through Jared’s mind. Why hadn’t there been notice of a new drake’s nest? Were the other Dynasties purposefully cutting out Jared’s home brood? If not, why would a drake have chosen such a land to settle in the first place? The topography was pretty enough, but it needed more dragons than that silly looking one he’d met in the orchard to make it truly opulent.
It was a conundrum to be sure, but Jared already knew it would become his conundrum. He wasn’t going to give up his nice, if shabby, new home just because some snotty, stuck up brat didn’t think he was good enough to defend a treasure. He’d put that ass in his place, and afterwards, he’d get some information out of him.
Jensen was miserable. He had thought that he’d been sad and lonely before, but that was nothing compared to having company. The other dragon was a nasty, hateful beast. Jensen had tried being nice. He’d brought the new dragon fruits and attempted talking to him, but all the other dragon did was hiss and swipe his claws at Jensen.
And when Jensen didn’t fight with him, he had the gall to look even angrier. Jensen hated him. Jensen hated him because he wouldn’t even give Jensen his name, and yet had given it freely to the king. Jensen hated him because he could spew fire into the air and dazzle with his beautiful scales in the sunlight. Jensen hated him because the dark red horns on his head were swept back with a graceful curve, where Jensen’s own were short and pointy.
Jensen hated him because Jared was so damned pretty, and despite his poor attitude, Jensen was attracted to him. It made sense. It wasn’t like Jensen had much of a choice when it came to romantic companionship. Jared was at least the same species as Jensen.
Still, Jensen wouldn’t be crying many tears if the other dragon packed up his treasures and left. And that was what he hated most of all: that he would shed tears if Jared left because having him near still eased some of Jensen’s ache. Despite the fact that Jared was a horrible, horrible person, Jensen would miss him.
There wasn’t much that Jensen could do about the Jared situation. Being friendly hadn’t worked, and getting rid of Jared wasn’t going to work. The king liked having a second dragon in the kingdom. It was helpful in ways that even Jensen could acknowledge. Jared brought twice the protective power and would bring even more prosperity. If Jensen was injured, Jared would still be there.
The politics of the situation didn’t soothe Jensen’s feelings though. Oh, Jim still badmouthed Jared whenever Jensen came down to his shop for a visit. The humans that Jensen had grown up around would send the red dragon dirty looks as he soared overhead, but their support didn’t ease the sting of rejection.
Truly, Jensen should have expected something like this. He had been raised by humans who admittedly knew next to nothing about dragons. He couldn’t breathe fire, and he doubted his aerial skills were anywhere near Jared’s caliber. Jensen had learned to fly by watching birds. Jim had taken him out to the fields outside the castle walls one a week, and he would run and flap and bruise himself until he finally figured out what to do with his awkward wings.
He wasn’t a fine example of dragonhood, no matter how much the people of Sherrock had marveled at him. And now, now they had somebody better.
Sherrock was an infuriating place. While the king of the humans had come out to personally welcome Jared to his lands, the rest of the humans were oddly hostile towards him. That one blacksmith was downright rude any time that Jared so much as cast a shadow over his shop while making his daily flights. Jared half wondered if maybe the place was cursed with magic of some sort that gave its populace bad manners.
Jensen was still bent on showing off his superiority, still treating Jared like some charity case. No matter how Jared flexed his muscles and blew his flame, the other dragon was dismissive of him. In fact, over the days, Jensen had gone from treating Jared like some weakling to outright avoiding him. It was patronizing in the extreme – especially when Jared realized that Jensen wasn’t all that good at flying.
What drake past puberty couldn’t perform air tricks? Even Jared in his clumsiness was far more elegant in the skies than that stuck up priss of a dragon. And Jensen had the gall to ignore him?
Jared wasn’t about to stand for that. At first, he tried to subtly goad Jensen into giving him the proving fight that he was owed. He would fly up beside him and shove against him, tipping him sideways as he soared. He made sure to laugh loudly as Jensen flapped furiously to regain altitude, but Jensen had an infuriating amount of self-control. He never once retaliated out of rage even though he had to have been feeling it.
Then Jared tried to mess with some of Jensen’s things. Nothing damaging, of course. Jared didn’t want to be that dragon that was caught purposely defacing that which he was supposed to value. The entire point of fighting with his fellow broodmates was to show how capable he was of taking care of that which was most dear. Damaging valuables would show just the opposite.
But moving things around, making pressures treasures appear to be broken when they were not was something that was completely acceptable. A bit of a nasty thing to do, perhaps, but Jensen had long since drawn first, second and third blood with his refusal to acknowledge Jared’s prowess. Jared half suspected it was because the other dragon was incapable of defeating Jared.
Jensen wouldn’t be the first drake that tried to avoid a challenge because he did not want to lose his standing. There wasn’t much room to fall in the brood of Sherrock, but Jensen was used to being top dragon. Jared was almost ensured a victory in their sparring. It was a selfish, prideful thing for Jensen to ignore Jared.
But causing mischief with Jensen’s possessions did not yield any results. He only looked bewildered and frustrated when he discovered Jared’s pranks. Such a reaction had to mean that Jared hadn’t found the possessions most important to Jensen.
After a few inquiries, Jared discovered that Jensen’s more personal treasures were kept deep inside the bowels of the castle, in a room that had been built for him. It was an odd place to give a dragon as his own, but Sherrock was an odd place. The townsfolk had given him the most distrusting of looks when he had asked them about the location of the treasures – as if securing and protecting items of worth wasn’t what a dragon’s whole being was about.
The castle steward had given Jared his own set of rooms. They had been dusty and mostly unused, but decorated with good quality materials even if the paintings were not extravagant. Jared hadn’t the heart to tell them that their idea of a roost was strange. Obviously Jensen and the drakes before him hadn’t had any issues with staying in such accommodations.
Then again, there was a reason that there weren’t more drakes around. Jared couldn’t imagine his home brood living cooped up inside castle walls where they would have to shift forms to enter their chambers. Sherrock would have to invest in some modifications to their architecture if they wished to attract more dragons. Jared would make certain to discuss that with the king once he finally got Jensen to engage him in a duel.
Jensen had never had the limits of his patience tested before. Oh, he had thought that he had. He supposed that every young person had at least once thought himself pushed to the very brink of control, that was youth and hormones. Jared was something altogether different.
There were hormones, yes. That much still infuriated Jensen. He did not need images of the other dragon infiltrating his head at inopportune moments. There was no reason to be so enamored of his looks when his personality was so horrible.
But Jensen found that he could push past that whenever he was actually around Jared. The dragon never radiated anything but hostility towards Jensen. And it hurt. Jensen didn’t know what he had done wrong. Jim assured him that it wasn’t anything, that Jared’s attitude was Jared’s problem, but Jensen wasn’t sure he believed him.
Jared seemed civil to the humans he interacted with. While he sometimes caused a bit of alarm when his large frame grazed against a market stall or his tail bumped into a tree top, his actions did not appear to be malicious. His one and only target of ire was Jensen.
“Be careful what you wish for,” Jensen counseled himself softly as he traced his human form fingers over the smooth surface of the rock he was sitting upon. The waterfall had been a part of Sherrock far longer than Jensen had been alive. The pool it cascaded down into was deep and clear, the current strong. It was a good bit of flying distance away from the castle or any outlying homes because of the rough terrain that surrounded it.
The unfortunate nature of the terrain around the waterfall kept humans from travelling out to it very often. It was rocky; the drop offs sharp and steep. There were a few old ropes laying about from attempts made by heartier or perhaps just more foolish humans who tried to climb down the sharp walls of stone surrounding the lake that was at the bottom of the falls.
It was the one place that Jensen could go to where he could not be followed. Even if he flew out over the countryside, a horse could always be ridden to catch up with him. But the waterfall had always been his sanctuary. He’d been carving out his own hidden place behind its cascade for years now.
The small cave had originally been created by forces of nature, but Jensen’s claws were sharp and his body strong. The boulders were easily hefted and the stubborn rock impeding his headway was scratched and scraped until the rock came loose.
Hammers and chisels were the only things that Jensen kept stored out in his secret place. There were times where not even dragon claws could carve out what needed to be moved, so he had slowly but surely stolen away workman’s tools from the multiple quarries that littered Sherrock. Never once had he asked for excavating tools. He felt oddly protective of his sanctuary.
It shouldn’t have surprised him then that Jared’s unwelcome bulk found its way there.
“Go away,” Jensen grunted as soon as the other dragon splashed down into the water that Jensen had just been staring at.
“Make me,” Jared retorted.
“Just leave me be for once,” Jensen pleaded.
“Why should I?” Jared shot back, as angry and rude as ever.
“Because I asked you to?” Jensen snapped. “I want to be by myself.”
Jared scoffed at him. Jensen kept silent. If her said nothing more, perhaps Jared would just go away. He had to become bored eventually.
Jensen’s premise was right in the wrong way. Jared did tire of antagonistically watching Jensen. Unfortunately, he began to pace around in Jensen’s sanctuary instead of flying back to the castle or out over the countryside.
Jensen could not help but hiss at the other dragon. This was his special place. He had made it, and Jared was perilously close to going behind the waterfall and discovering Jensen’s cave.
“Enough!” he shouted, voice echoing up the black stone walls.
Jared turned to stare at him.
“You are determined to fight with me, so be it,” Jensen snarled as he began to strip from the clothing he had on.
“So you will finally accept my challenge?” Jared sounded almost gleeful. That horrible, smug tone drove Jensen to be careless with the rest of his clothes, fairly ripping them from his body before shifting.
The change had stopped feeling strange years ago, but the result of it always left Jensen unsteady for a moment or two afterwards. Going from taking up a small amount of space to a large was disorienting on a mental level even if it wasn’t that way on a physical one.
Jared didn’t seem to have any compunction about taking advantage of Jensen’s state. As soon as he was fully shifted, Jared’s larger bulk was bearing down on him. There was no chance for avoidance, and all Jensen could do was brace himself for the impact.
His scales protected him from the more jagged rocks as his bulk tumbled over them, but Jensen couldn’t help but get a snout full of water as he plunged into the lake that he’d just been watching. By the time that he clambered out of the water, Jared was already hovering in the air.
Jensen shrieked at him and took flight himself. Picking a fight was one thing, showing poor sportsmanship and seeking to humiliate Jensen on top of that only served to lower Jensen’s already poor opinion of the dragon. Jared easily dodged each of Jensen’s retaliating attacks. He twisted and turned in the air in ways that Jensen had only dreamed of being able to do. His jaws snapped perilously close to Jensen’s hind quarters and flanks too many times for comfort.
Then there were the fireballs. Bright orange balls of flame licked over Jensen’s tail and glazed under his belly. If Jensen wasn’t so busy trying to evade Jared’s attacks, he would have spared a moment to envy the magic the other dragon possessed. But there was no place for jealousy when being relentlessly pursued.
It wasn’t a strain for Jensen’s logic to realize that Jared was trying to tire him out. It was a valid strategy in a fight, especially when one knew that no other combatants would be entering the fray. Jensen had no hope of beating Jared in the air, but Jensen had been raised by a foot soldier.
So the next time that Jared swooped in at him, Jensen dove downwards instead of up. He plunged straight down into the lake. The surface of the water hissed and bubbled as Jared’s fireball impacted with it instead of Jensen’s hide.
The water churned as Jensen dove to the bottom of the lake. He could only make out the shadow of Jared hovering above the surface of the water, great wingspan blocking out the sun. Jensen hadn’t much breath in his lungs to wait out Jared at the bottom of the lake, and he had no doubts that Jared knew that.
Jensen was going to have to make the most of his chance. He dug his hind claws into the stone bottom of the lake and launched himself out of the water. Jared’s jaws snapped at him as he sped by, but the bite missed. Jensen barely gained enough altitude to catch a draft with his wings, but fortune was with him as he was able to crest over the top of the rocky gorge that surrounded the lake and land on the rough fields that were above.
Jared followed him with a screech, massive red form coming after Jensen like a specter of war. At least, Jared looked like Jensen had always imagined a battle to look like. Red and terrifying, the other dragon made no hesitation as he swooped down.
This time though, Jensen was prepared for him. Jensen might not have been raised by a dragon, but he had been raised by a soldier. Though nothing more than a hired thug to most of the larger countries, Jim had once been a foot soldier. He had seen dragons fight, and he had seen men combat them in turn.
Instead of trying to gain altitude, Jensen used his mouth and front claws as his javelin and sword. His talons raked down Jared’s under belly, and his teeth scored the flesh again as he chomped down. Jared shrieked in rage and flapped up in the air, trying no doubt to get away from Jensen’s punishing bite.
Jensen let him go – for a second or so. His true target was dangling right before his eyes, and he wanted a clear shot at it. Without a single bit of remorse, he bit down on Jared’s tail and swung his own bulk around, using his weight to slam Jared’s bulk down onto the ground.
A puff of flame scorched the parched grass as Jared landed with a grunt of pain. Jensen gave his challenger no opportunity to catch the breath that was merrily licking its way along the ground. He twisted as fast as the serpent that some called his race and closed his teeth around Jared’s neck. Snarling his rage out at him.
To his surprise, Jared’s body went completely lax in his group.
“Enough, I yield,” Jared’s soft words were so different from his normal tone that Jensen let go out of shock alone.
He backed up a step or two and spat the taste of Jared out of his mouth. “Stay away from this place,” he ordered. “It is mine.”
Jared blinked at him as if confused. The thought that perhaps he had hit his head crossed Jensen’s mind, and he shook his own head to rid himself of it. He cared not if Jared was injured. With an annoyed snort, he turned and went back down to his lake.
Jared did not follow him.
Jared watched as the snowflakes came down and melted on his hide. It wasn’t cold enough out for the snow to stick to the ground, but that time would not be far off. Things had been terribly odd since Jensen had finally accepted Jared’s challenge.
The other drake was avoiding him. When Jared did manage to get Jensen in his sights, the other dragon would either stalk away if in human form, or hiss and bare his teeth if in his natural state. It was most perplexing.
What was more perplexing was Jensen’s crooning. Even now, Jensen was sitting on his favorite perch, crooning to the snow clouds and rubbing his snout against the stones of the castle. It was heartbreaking, and Jared had no idea why Jensen wasn’t over by him asking to be near.
Certainly, Jared had never felt the need for cuddling like some of his broodmates. But he was also more one to bestow affection than to take it. He was warm blooded, even for a dragon. Many smaller dragons had sought out his warmth and touch when their instincts drove them to it.
Jensen though, seemed to prefer the company of stone. His cries were soft and miserable sounding. They made Jared feel horrible. Not for the first time he wondered if perhaps there wasn’t something wrong with Jensen. He did not act like a normal dragon.
He did not look like a normal dragon either. Dark black and grey scales shot through with silver and gold seemed to glitter in both sun and moonlight. The horns on his head were short for a drake’s, making him look almost adolescent instead of full grown.
Perhaps Jensen’s old nest had been unkind to him because of his looks, and he had developed poor manners and an attitude as a result. Such a thing wouldn’t have been allowed in Jared’s brood, but not all dragons would be kind to a dragon with so little color in his scales.
Not that Jensen was homely. He was quite fetching. The black of his scales glittered like onyx, and the silver and gold threads made him look like he was made from thousands of pieces of human jewelry. His human form was fetching as well even if he did style his hair in odd ways and covered up much of his scale markings with clothing.
Jensen let out another low whine, and the skies began to drop more snow down upon them. Jared looked over at Jensen and contemplated going over, but thought better of it. Jensen was a vicious fighter. The bite marks on Jared’s tail had just finished healing, and he wasn’t about to risk Jensen’s temper again.
Jared could admit that he had been wrong in assuming that Jensen was incapable as a dragon. He would even admit it to Jensen if the other drake would allow it. But he was not about to volunteer for another thrashing.
“You can sleep over there,” Jensen said as he watched a rather soaked Jared drag a mattress through the door to Jensen’s hold. He didn’t care for the idea of Jared sharing his space.
For one thing, he was almost certain he hated Jared. For another, his body still liked the way that Jared looked. The way he smelled was even worse, and Jensen loathed the way that his imagination tried to figure out how Jared tasted.
Lust was a terrible, horrible thing to feel. Jensen was quite convinced of that now. He couldn’t believe that he had once despaired over never feeling drawn to the body of another.
Jensen wished for nothing more than to toss Jared out of his chambers, but he couldn’t. The winter storm howling outside was fierce. Not even Jared’s overly warm hide would protect him from it for long.
The damned storm had blown out the windows in Jared’s own chambers. While the craftsmen had hurriedly nailed boards over the openings, it was still unbearably cold in Jared’s rooms. Snow and sleet was still drifting in between the slats.
It made sense to relocate Jared. Even though Jensen hated the dragon, he wouldn’t want to subject him to the torture of unforgiving cold. It just didn’t thrill Jensen that the king had declared that Jared should share Jensen’s space instead of moving to a different set of rooms.
The castle had plenty of space to accommodate Jared, especially if he stayed in his human form. But the king had been rather insistent that Jensen share with Jared. Jensen was no fool, the king wanted his two dragons to get along. More than that, he wanted Jensen to make peace with Jared because the people were not exactly welcoming of their new dragon.
The thought warmed Jensen’s heart. He had grown up among the humans. Even though he had felt left behind as they began to marry and have children, they still favored him over the fancier looking Jared.
“The king was not happy with me,” Jensen blurted out while Jared was busy setting up his bed over in the corner.
“Pardon?” Jared asked.
“He was unhappy with me. Because of your quarrel with me,” Jensen said accusingly.
Jared’s brow furrowed. “What quarrel?”
Jensen blinked. Then blinked again. Perhaps Jared’s skull had hit the ground harder than Jensen thought it had. Jared had been acting rather strangely after Jensen had bested him. Perhaps he had suffered damage to his brain.
“The fight out by the waterfall?” Jensen said slowly, voice inflecting upwards as if making the statement a question would cause Jared to recall the incident.
“Oh,” Jared said, brow creasing so deeply that Jensen was afraid there would be permanent wrinkles left if he held his expression much longer. “Why?”
“Why?” Jensen echoed. “Because of the condition I left you in; that’s why.”
Jared shrugged. “It happens. I can admit that I was a bit surprised by your tactics, but I sort of deserved it.”
“You did?” Jensen couldn’t hide the surprise in his voice.
“I should never have underestimated you. The head dragon of a keep isn’t someone to trifle with in a challenge.”
Jensen scowled. Of course that would be what Jared thought was wrong, not fighting in the first place. “That would be what you think,” he muttered.
“Nothing,” Jensen said, “make your bed. I wish to turn in.”
“You do not,” Jared countered. “You stay up half the night chasing the moon. I half think you believe the morning to be your mortal enemy.”
“No that would be you,” Jensen spat with more venom than he realized he had inside of himself.
Jared took a half step back. He dared to look shocked, and any guilt that Jensen felt for his sharp tongue went flying out his mouth. “Do you think that treating me as you do should just be excused? That because you forced me to ‘prove’ myself to you that somehow I have forgotten your propensity to pick on those you find weaker? No. You are the most horrid man I have ever met.”
“And now, now because I bested you in some barbaric show of muscle you think to pretend friendliness?” Jensen continued. “I am no fool. I trust you about as much as I trust a room full of hounds with a rabbit.”
“I don’t understand,” Jared said.
Jensen laughed - a harsh brittle sound. “How could you possibly expect me to believe that?”
Jared dropped the blanket that he had been trying to fit over the bed and scowled at Jensen. “If anybody was to blame, it was you. You were the one who denied me the right of approval. You would not allow me to show my worth.”
“My fault? I did my best to welcome you. From the day you landed in my orchard, you have been nothing but hostile towards me!”
“Your orchard? So it is not mine to protect even still? It is always yours. Everything is yours!” Jared shouted.
“Of course everything is mine! This is my home. You were not hatched here. You did not grow up amongst the people and see their tears of joy and pain. You haven’t been hidden away each time that visitors came for fear that the only dragon of Sherrock would be taken away by force – one way or the other.”
Jared’s anger seemed to evaporate as his face went pale. “What do you mean you hatched here?” he asked.
“I don’t understand what about that is confusing.”
“This is a drake’s nest,” Jared said.
“Well, yes. Obviously,” Jensen said, gesturing between the two of them. “We are both drakes.”
“You were raised here? By, by humans?”
Jensen tilted his head. “You act as if this is news to you.”
“It is!” Jared said, large hand raking through his hair, stopping to grab fretfully at the elegant horn poking through it. “How? Why? This… you were raised human?”
“You keep circling back to that,” Jensen pointed out. “I assure you that Jim treated me perfectly well, and I’ll not allow you to talk ill of him.”
“He’s human,” Jared protested. “What does he know of dragon ways?”
“What does that matter?” Jensen shot back. “I was well taken care of and…”
“You’re a dragon,” Jared interrupted.
“I know that,” Jensen huffed.
Jared shook his head. “What of your bonding? Your nest?”
“My nest is just fine,” Jensen snarled, eyes darting about the room to make certain that his space was still in order.
But Jared was shaking his head, “Not this nest,” he said with a wave of his hand. “Your nest. Your clutch. Other dragons.”
Jensen frowned. “Jim only found my egg.”
“That’s impossible!” Jared proclaimed. “A queen would never let one of her eggs go missing! We need other dragons to thrive, especially in infancy.”
“I thrived just fine,” Jensen informed him. “As for the female that bore my egg, who knows what happened. I was a spoil of war, Jared.”
“Spoil of… The War of Seven Corners?” Jared asked.
“That name sounds perpetually funny, but yes.”
Jared’s frown became even more prominent. “There were rumors that there was very precious cargo being fought over, but nobody spoke of a dragon’s egg.”
“That is ridiculous,” Jensen instantly denied. “I’m certain that, that, that…”
“That it makes a disturbing amount of sense?” Jared finished for him. “If they thought your egg destroyed, why continue fighting? Why risk lives when their spoils were already destroyed. Though your brood must be far away, a missing egg would be reported straight away amongst the Dynasties.”
Jensen snorted. “I’m sure it would.”
“You shouldn’t speak that way about things you do not understand,” Jared chided him.
“I understand politics well,” Jensen countered. “I have no faith in the tongues of men or dragons.”
“Yet you serve the King of Sherrock,” Jared pointed out.
“And he repays me by putting you in my chambers.”
“Then how do you propose your egg came to be here? You think that one of the dragon kingdoms would give away one of their eggs willingly?” Jared asked.
“I think that my egg was a distraction, a ruse. They did not think me viable, which is why they no longer sought me out. It is why I am how I am.”
“You are the way you are because you were not raised in a nest with your clutch! And your theory makes little sense. There is no queen who would allow an egg to be taken from her in such a way. A mother would have known that you still lived within your shell.”
Jensen snorted. “Maybe she wanted to be rid of me then.”
“No mother would…”
“ENOUGH!” Jensen yelled. “Stop with the pretending. You know that I am disabled, and you have made your opinion of me clear enough on that matter. You think me beneath you. What sort of dragon can’t spew fire?”
“Jensen,” Jared said gently, “I have no such opinion of you.”
“You have treated me like scum from the moment we met! You have been determined to fight with me. You would not relent about it.”
Jared paled. “You thought I… But that is what drakes do. We fight to prove our worth to the nest. A drake unable to fight should not be given a wall to defend let alone a parapet. To not issue challenge would be to say that defending the city is beneath us. I thought you viewed me as incapable of it.”
“You were arrogant and pretentious!” Jensen argued, unwilling to let go of his perception of the other dragon.
Jared shook his head. “Jensen, I am sorry.” His eyes widened in earnestness, and Jensen had to look away.
“It doesn’t matter,” he muttered. “Let’s just get you settled so we can both go to sleep.”
Deep, calming breaths had never been the best technique for Jared to use to center himself. His fire tended to light high in his throat and deep breathing just made him shoot out flame. Not that flames couldn’t be soothing, but it was hard to convince humans or even other dragons of that when the source of the fire wasn’t contained in a cozy hearth.
But today was trying, and a deep breath seemed like the only solution. Jensen was a stubborn, stubborn dragon. Forgiveness was perhaps not one of his finer traits. He seemed determined to hold onto his grudge against Jared no matter how nice Jared tried being to him.
Normally, such behavior would have made Jared back off. Sherrock wasn’t the largest of countries, but there was plenty of territory to cover being as there were only two dragons calling the land home. But now that Jared was a touch more enlightened about Jensen’s upbringing, he could not help but see how stunted Jensen’s dragon instincts were.
His flight patterns kept him close to the ground as if he feared falling from the sky or drifting out of sight of the humans below him. He held back from showing his possession of his territory, sharing space and treasures even though it had to annoy him when the humans carelessly moved about or knocked over a collection of rocks he had been building. He never initiated touch with Jared even though he was practically drowning in his need for it.
How Jared could have missed the signs of touch deprivation before was beyond him. He was ashamed to realize how little he had paid attention to his fellow dragon, how blinded he had been by his own pride. The problem was that Jensen was being rather stubborn about Jared helping him. It was difficult to assist a dragon that wouldn’t talk.
On top of all of Jensen’s avoidance, the looming clouds in the sky spoke of a coming storm. The winds had been cold all day, making Jared’s hide chafe as frost formed then dissipated thanks to his body temperature. Jensen didn’t seem to be bothered by it, chasing the cold drafts of air as if he enjoyed them.
All Jared could think was that it was some sort of quirk instilled because Jensen was raised by humans. Back when Jared had been a youngling, he had watched the human children run about trying to catch snowflakes on their tongues. Something about the way Jensen chased air drafts reminded him of that.
“It is getting cold out,” Jared said when he finally caught up with Jensen. The smaller dragon was fast even though he wasn’t using his wings to their best advantage. Jared wasn’t sure he would be able to catch Jensen if he improved his form.
“It has been cold out,” Jensen countered, banking to his left and almost purring as a cold updraft hit them.
“It would be warmer inside,” Jared tried again.
Jensen laughed at him. “Have you forgotten where the door to the keep is?”
That sort of response always caught Jared off guard. Jared’s broodmates would have made sport of him if he had complained about the weather while they did not. They would have accused him of being soft, perhaps called into question his abilities as a defender of the land.
“I was thinking we should retire for the evening, save our strength. No army will be attacking in such a storm. Were they so foolish as to attempt it, the wind itself would fell them.”
“You are overly dramatic,” Jensen informed him, “and too warm blooded. Go inside if you are chilled.”
Jared kept his growl low in his throat and stubbornly kept soaring beside Jensen. Wet flakes began to pelt down on him, wet droplets dissipating into the air with steaming hisses as he took a deep breath to stir his inner fire, and his scales heated up.
“Truly, Jared, go inside,” Jensen ordered. “Even your skin sounds miserable. I have no desire to play games of machismo with you. Your stubbornness will prove nothing.”
“I am patrolling with my flight,” Jared replied, not succeeding in keeping his irritation out of his tone.
“Well, that makes one of us,” Jensen muttered. “I am not patrolling. I’m stretching my wings.”
“Same thing,” Jared reasoned.
“It isn’t,” Jensen disagreed. “Go inside. Quit making me miserable with your misery.”
Jared acquiesced. Not because he agreed with Jensen, but because he was cold and had some plotting to do.
The last thing that Jensen expected when he entered his chambers was for there to be a veritable feast laid out on the small table that he kept. Normally he’d settle for some cold mutton from the kitchens or a tasty bit of whatever he managed to find in the forest when he was out and about. Perhaps he would even break into the secret stash of nuts that he had carefully hoarded up during the fall, anticipating a tasty treat now and then.
But the soup in the center of the table was still steaming. The loaf of bread beside it still smelled fresh. The meats and cheeses on the platter were likely cold, but they looked fresh and the assortment was impressive.
“Are you trying to bribe me?” Jensen asked.
“In a way,” Jared admitted. “All I want is to talk to you, and you’re being incredibly stubborn about it.”
“I don’t want to be friends, Jared,” Jensen informed him.
“Now that? That is a lie,” Jared merrily accused.
Jensen glared at the tips of the red horns just barely twisting out of Jared’s thick mop of hair. They were bigger, thicker and longer than Jensen’s own. Just thinking the words made Jensen shift uncomfortably. Jared was attractive, and Jensen knew that bigger, thicker and longer could easily be used to describe other things about Jared as well. Shifting forms came with no little exposure to the nudity, and Jared was not embarrassed at showing off his form to others.
Part of Jensen was ashamed that he had even looked. After all, he didn’t like Jared despite the other dragon seemingly thinking that they had just suffered from a massive misunderstanding. Another part of Jensen felt fully justified in ogling his fill. Jared was the only other dragon that he had ever seen, and it wasn’t like Jared had been playing at any sort of modesty.
“Jensen?” Jared called out, gesturing at one of the chairs next to the table.
As much as Jensen did not want to sit down and break bread with him, he also could not simply ignore the good manners that had been instilled in him. Jim would be aghast at the thought of Jensen ignoring good food.
“You shouldn’t have,” Jensen said as half-heartedly as he possibly could, slumping down into the chair.
“Oh, I should have,” Jared countered, sunny smile not wavering in the face of Jensen’s obvious ignoring of his efforts.
“I don’t trust this sudden about face in you,” he told the other dragon flatly.
Jared shrugged, seemingly unperturbed by his words. “I can handle that. But I have something you need, and I’m hoping to win you over with the combination of my knowledge and innate ability to charm.”
“Blackmail and ego are not a good combination,” Jensen pointed out, ladling some of the soup into his bowl.
“You’re very pessimistic,” Jared observed. “And it isn’t blackmail. It’s bartering. I don’t have any dirty deeds on you. So far as I know, you’ve been a perfect little dragon, keeping your horns down and your fire in your belly.”
Jensen took a quick bite of bread to keep from having to answer Jared. The last thing he wanted to do was blurt out an admission that he couldn’t breathe fire. No matter how hard he tried, it wouldn’t come. He had no desire to have that sort of discussion with Jared no matter how nice the other dragon was playing at being.
Jared huffed. “You’re very stubborn. How about this? You know that most dragons are drakes, right?”
Jensen paused in between shoveling bites of food into his mouth and made a vague continuing motion. He was interested in what Jared had to say, but he didn’t want to appear too interested.
“Great. So you know that ‘drake’ isn’t exactly the same as ‘male’ is to humans,” Jared said with a smug grin.
Jensen did not spit out his soup in surprise. He had better control over his body’s reactions than that. But the glimmer of satisfaction that entered Jared’s eyes showed that he wasn’t completely successful in hiding his reaction to the news.
Thankfully, Jared didn’t pause to remark on Jensen’s ignorance. Instead he continued on with, “It is hard, sometimes, for humans to grasp that my sister is just as much a drake as I am, or my cousin is one of the few queens born in his age group. They focus too much on how their normal reproduction goes to accept how ours is.”
“How is ours, yours?” Jensen asked.
“Ours,” Jared corrected, voice a little sad, “you’re a dragon, Jensen.”
“I know that.”
“I’m not sure you do.”
“I don’t think you get to make that judgment about me,” Jensen told him.
To his surprise, Jared relented. “Fair enough.”
They ate in silence for a while, but Jensen’s mind couldn’t help toying with the little bit of information that Jared had given him. It was no doubt exactly what the other dragon had intended to do, and Jensen was falling right into his trap.
“How do you tell the drakes from the queens then?” he finally caved in and asked.
“Our eggs,” Jared explained. “Drake eggs are brilliant and beautiful. A queen’s egg is far more subtle. They say that it is because the beauty is growing inside, much like a queen will one day grow the next generation.”
“That sounds sort of nice,” Jensen admitted, “Though a bit unpractical. I mean, there are a lot of eggs at once, aren’t there? How do they keep the baby dragons straight when they’re all hatched and out of their shells? And don’t lie to me and tell me that ‘a mother knows.’ Mrs. McGovern had triplets two years ago. She and her husband had to tie different colors of string on their wrists so they could tell which was which.”
Jared laughed. “You make it sound like dragons have no sense of smell.”
Jensen wrinkled his nose. “So you can smell if a dragon is a drake or a queen?” That made sense.
“No,” Jared said with a shake of his head. “We can smell how each of our broodmates smells different from the next. And young dragons smell like the inside of their egg.”
“That doesn’t make any sense. There has to be some way besides just looking at an egg,” Jensen said. He wasn’t exactly trusting Jared to tell the truth. For all he knew, this was just a new tactic in their unspoken war.
Jared sighed. “There are differences, of course there are. But they’re small, nothing that couldn’t be waved away as a difference in personality or parentage. Some human women are taller than other human men, after all.”
“I find this difficult to believe. What you’re saying is that a dragon could think he was a drake, then one day wake up pushing out dragon eggs.”
Jared’s face scrunched up in an unpleasant way. “That would be impossible. There would be signs before then.”
“You just told me otherwise,” Jensen pointed out smugly.
Jared rolled his eyes. “Well there are certain biological happenings that only a queen is able to perform. Those functions would have to happen before any sort of little ones could hope to have the chance of hatching.”
Deciding to let the subject drop, Jensen grabbed a piece of cheese and popped it into his mouth. He didn’t miss how Jared’s eyes tracked the movement. “What?” he snapped as he finished chewing and swallowing the morsel.
“I didn’t believe the cook when he said it was one of your favorites. It’s so, so vile smelling,” Jared said.
“Are you certain that you’re not trying to insult me?” Jensen asked.
“I’m simply trying to talk to you. I thought you might appreciate honesty,” Jared told him.
“Well, if you’re interested in honesty, maybe you could tell me about our markings,” Jensen said, gesturing at Jared’s forearm. The bright red marks flicking down it looked almost like flames. They were far different from the black ones that patterned Jensen’s skin.
“They come from our scales,” Jared said simply.
“I figured that much out on my own,” Jensen said, “but why aren’t they scale shaped? I would think that there would be either no pattern at all, or they would keep the same outline or…”
“They take the shape of our flame,” Jared explained, rolling up the sleeve on his tunic. Jensen fought the urge to look away. It was embarrassing to find Jared’s forearms attractive, and Jensen’s human skin was apt to blush. He couldn’t let Jared see such a sign of weakness in him.
“See how it resembles how I breathe my fire?” Jared asked, tracing one long finger around the outside edge of his flame.
Jensen nervously tugged on the sleeves of his own tunic, making sure that they covered his wrists. His own marks looked nothing like Jared’s vibrant flames. They were dark, jagged things. Perhaps that was why he couldn’t breathe fire. His fire was broken somehow, turned to smoke before he was even hatched from his shell.
Unfortunately, Jared did not miss Jensen’s action. “What is wrong?”
“Nothing,” Jensen lied.
“I have already seen your markings,” Jared pointed out. “Covering yourself now…”
“I always cover myself,” Jensen interrupted. “I am no exhibitionist.”
“Not like I am?” Jared asked, lips twisting into a smile.
“I did not say that,” Jensen retorted with a huff.
“It is only natural that your fire would be different, Jensen. You aren’t from any of the Dynasties that I know.”
“You can’t possibly know that,” Jensen scoffed.
“I can,” Jared countered. “Even if they had hid the fact that your egg had been stolen, you don’t look like any other drake I’ve ever seen.”
“There is no need to say such things to me,” Jensen wasn’t successful at keeping the hurt out of his voice.
Jared actually winced at his words. “I didn’t say that there was something wrong with the way you look.”
“Well maybe you should,” Jensen snapped, anger bubbling to the surface. “I’m rather certain that there is,” he admitted a heartbeat later. “I can’t breathe fire, Jared.”
Jared blinked once, then twice. Before he blinked again, his large hands were taking hold of Jensen’s wrist and pushing his sleeve up, exposing his pattern to the dim candlelight of his chambers. Jared’s fingers traced over the dark, black lines of Jensen’s markings, causing his flesh to pebble at the touch.
“If you make a joke about smoke,” Jensen threatened unsteadily.
“These don’t look like smoke to me,” Jared said softly.
“They don’t look like anything,” Jensen said.
Jared shook his head in disagreement. “No, they look like something. I just don’t know what.”
“Well, they’re no fire that I have ever set eyes on,” Jensen said, pulling his arm out of Jared’s grip.
“Lightning,” Jared said, hand clamping down on Jensen’s retreating wrist.
Jensen yanked himself free. “That’s absurd. I don’t spew lightning either. And whoever heard of a dragon spewing lightning? That is utter nonsense.”
“Well, I haven’t heard of it,” Jared admitted.
“See? You’re just, just theorizing when the fact of the matter is that you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I know more than you do,” Jared countered.
Jensen bit his lip and fought back the urge to cross his arms over his chest like a petulant child. “I suppose that you do. But you don’t know about this. So drop it.”
“You know,” Jared said as he alighted on Jensen’s favorite parapet, “I believe you have an unhealthy relationship with that stone.”
Jensen glared at him, green eyes all the more brilliant for how they were framed by dark scales, brilliant flashes of color in an otherwise muted sea of scales. Then again, Jared’s perceptions were a touch biased. Jensen was a rather fine looking dragon even if he was the type to hold a grudge.
“I’m just saying that perhaps you might find more satisfaction in cuddling with something that is actually alive,” Jared suggested, slowly inching closer to where Jensen was draped over his favorite resting spot.
“Perhaps I find the castle more intelligent,” Jensen responded.
“I’m wounded, truly,” Jared said, continuing to encroach on the other dragon’s space. “But that was hardly one of your best comebacks. Barely had any bite to it at all.”
“If you are still set on trying to convince me that dragons have some sort of need to cuddle,” Jensen growled, not bothering to finish off his sentence with words.
Jared chose to take that as an invitation to not use words of his own, merely dropping himself down next to Jensen letting one wing drape over Jensen’s back and daring to curl his tail over Jensen’s longer one. The dark red of his scales looked even more fetching against Jensen’s dark coloring than Jensen’s eyes did – though he wasn’t so stupid as to say such a thing to Jensen.
“What are you doing?” Jensen hissed.
“Cuddling with my new flightmate,” Jared responded simply. “It’s good for us.”
“You’re not serious.”
“I am,” Jared promised. “Cuddling is a highly important function for a dragon’s wellbeing. We crave touch and the warmth that it brings. You are the most touch deprived dragon that I’ve ever met.”
Surprisingly, Jensen didn’t say anything to counter Jared’s words. Jared could ask about that, but he had enough diplomacy in him to know that pushing Jensen to admit that Jared was right wouldn’t end well. So he took Jensen’s silence as acquiescence and snuggled in closer.
“If you are bound and determined to teach me all of the mysterious ways of dragons,” Jensen began as he pulled Jared from the nice, warm bed that he had just been sleeping in, “then I feel it only fair to point out how utterly you failed at fighting me.”
Jared blinked a few times, trying to make his head process the words that Jensen had just spat at him. “What?” he managed to slur out of his sleep heavy tongue.
“All of these lessons you’ve been bestowing on me,” Jensen said. “The flight tips and the culture and the reproductive habits, they’re all well and good. But I bested you.”
It wasn’t something that Jared liked to think about, but he could acknowledge Jensen’s point on that subject. “So?” he asked.
“So you need to learn how to fight enemies on the ground, Jared. Sherrock isn’t going to be attacked by a Dynasty with a flight of dragons at its command.”
“They might,” Jared said. The expression on Jensen’s face said just how much he disagreed with Jared on that subject.
“Get up,” Jensen ordered. “And put your boots on. Today I’m going to repay some of your kindness and teach you about men with cross bows, spears and something to prove.”
The winter passed with much snow and unrelenting coldness. Jensen wasn’t fond of cold, but the snow was nice, soothing even, especially when Jensen plowed into the ground when trying to copy Jared’s increasingly intricate flight patterns. It wounded Jensen’s pride a bit, but he suspected that he wounded Jared’s pride far more often.
Being repeatedly taken out by human ground forces was something of an embarrassment for the big, red dragon. To be fair, Jensen supposed that the average dragon would terrify ground troops and rain fire down upon them before their arrows inflicted any true damage. But there was always the potential that they wouldn’t.
Their mutual training was somewhat cathartic for Jensen. It allowed him to move beyond his initial dislike of Jared. The winter was long, and Jensen was grateful for the company that Jared provided. It was better than flying around in snowstorms trying to see how high he could get the snow to pile on his back before the next gust of wind blew it away.
But spring eventually came, melting away the snow and leaving muddy fields in its wake. Jared was thrilled at the warmer temperatures and seemed to prefer splashing mud and dirt on Jensen’s scales instead of training. It was almost playful.
Jensen hated it. He didn’t object to getting dirty or think he was too dignified for Jared’s antics. But Jared’s laugh, even in his dragon form, was infectious. His silliness did horrible things to Jensen’s insides. It made his lungs feel like his non-present fire was licking up inside of them, desperate to burst out.
He wanted Jared. It was a horrible feeling to have. The fact that Jared had had relationships with other dragons was apparent. His lessons on the subject of dragon culture had been wide and varied, but Jensen knew that it was not uncommon for two drakes to partake in a romantic relationship together.
In fact, it was more common for drakes to partner than it was for a queen to choose a mate. It made sense given their population statistics. But logical conclusions and healthy behavioral patterns aside, it meant that Jared had had relations with other drakes. Jared had told Jensen that he had been romantic towards other dragons though they had been, in his words, “Flirtations, really. Never met one to nest down with.”
And it was good, fine even. But it was painfully obvious that Jensen hadn’t been flying around with other drakes having any ‘flirtations’ of his own. There weren’t any other dragons to be having assignations with. Jensen might not have told Jared about that, but he assumed it was obvious nonetheless.
This made it uncomfortable whenever he wanted to do things to Jared that weren’t strictly friendly. Not that Jensen considered the sheer amount of touching that Jared did strictly ‘friendly’ behavior, but Jared seemed to view it as such, and Jensen had no desire to debate another cultural misunderstanding about it.
Jensen wanted to kiss Jared. At the same time he didn’t want to kiss Jared. What if Jared only kissed him back because Jensen was the only other dragon around? Worse than that, what if Jared rebuffed his advances, choosing to be alone instead? What if Jared said yes, but then said now because it was painfully obvious that Jensen was a virgin and not good at anything?
The whole mess cluttered Jensen’s head and made him yearn for winter to come back. At least then he could use the bracing cold to mitigate the curls of desire that Jared provoked. The icy temperatures of the slowly thawing lakes and rushing streams wouldn’t afford Jensen relief much longer.
“Finally coming in for the night?” Jared asked when Jensen pushed the door to his chambers open. Jensen gave him a faint smile instead of answering and debated requesting once again that Jared be given a space of his own. They were getting along fine now. There was no reason for the king to keep forcing them to share.
“It was nice out,” Jensen defended himself.
Jared’s nose wrinkled in distaste. “It was raining, Jensen.”
“I like rain,” Jensen responded with a shrug, pushing his wet hair around with his fingers, pausing to scratch an itch at the base of his horn.
“Your obsession with precipitation is disturbing,” Jared told him. “And I mean that in the best of ways before you become offended.”
“I’m offended that you think I’d be offended,” Jensen responded with a tiny smirk.
Jared grinned at him. “Springtime suits you.”
Jensen blinked, then blinked again. “Pardon me?”
“It suits you,” Jared reiterated. “You’re practically glowing.”
Jared just grinned at him in response.
Jensen huffed and moved to his bed, fluffing the pillows just the right way and adjusting his coverlet. He couldn’t see Jared’s bed as it was hidden by an ornate room divider that the king had gifted him with the last time he complained about Jared sharing his quarters with him, but Jensen would be willing to bet at least a copper ring or two that it was rumpled and messy.
“Are you hungry?” Jared asked, coming up behind Jensen with barely a hint of sound.
“What?” Jensen asked nervously, trying to hide the fact that Jared had startled him.
“Are you hungry?” Jared reiterated. “Because I am, and I thought I could bring back a bite or two from the kitchen if you were interested in something.”
“I’m fine,” Jensen muttered. “I just…”
“Just what?” Jared asked, sounding genuinely interested in Jensen’s thoughts.
“I’ve never been kissed,” was what came out of Jensen’s mouth. It was an insane thing to admit or say. Jensen didn’t even know why he would admit such a thing. It certainly hadn’t been on his mind. Rather it had been on his mind, but absolutely not as something that he wanted the voice out loud.
A soft chuckle came from Jared’s lips. “I figured that out,” he said in a tone that didn’t sound as mocking as Jensen expected it to.
“I suppose it is obvious,” Jensen admitted.
Jensen spun and cut Jared’s words off with a kiss. He knew it likely wasn’t a very good one. He’d only ever observed humans kissing, and he had no idea about the right pressure or angle or anything else that might make a kiss good. He did manage to avoid getting Jared’s rather large nose in his eye though, so he felt that it wasn’t a bad attempt.
Jared seemed to agree with Jensen’s assessment, pulling him back for a second press of lips when Jensen backed away.
“I’m going to get you some chocolates,” Jared promised as he turned and left the room.
There wasn’t much that Jared knew about courting another dragon. His previous relationships had been, for lack of a better term, convenient. They were sunshine and laughter and excess energy from proving one’s worth in flight after flight and tussle after tussle.
All of the drakes that Jared had been intimate with had known that Jared wasn’t in it for the long haul, and neither were they. Jared had been destined to split off from the brood for years. He was good, very good at defense flights and the like, but he had been an off generational clutch. There weren’t going to be any major advancements in the guard for years. By the time there were, the next generation of dragons would have been old and experienced enough to vie for position.
But Jared had wanted to settle down. In truth, he had wanted more than that. He had always felt the tug to have nestlings of his own. Little ones who would curl up beside him while he told them stories about drakes long since passed into history.
That dream wasn’t likely to become a reality though. Queens were excessively picky about who they chose to mate with. While Jared was attractive for his desire to be a father, he also knew he hadn’t stood a chance of being picked. It was disappointing, but it was a disappointment that he shared with several of his fellow drakes.
Jared had always intended to start looking for a permanent sort of relationship when he finally got to his new protectorate. He had wanted to find a nice drake who would compliment him and let him trace his human form markings with his tongue.
In theory it had sounded easy. In actuality, it wasn’t. Wooing Jensen was a frustrating process. On the one hand, Jensen regarded all of Jared’s romantic overtures with an air of suspicion. One the other hand, when he did seem to believe that Jared was being earnest he was very affectionate in his responses.
The responses seemed to vary day by day. Jared was half convinced that his fellow dragon was trying to do this to him on purpose. Perhaps Jensen was trying to test him to see if he was a suitable mate, like he tested Jared because he thought Jared incapable of defending their land from human invaders.
The thought was uncharitable of Jared. He knew that. Jensen’s actions when it came to skirmishes were just as justifiable as Jared’s own concerns about Jensen’s flight patterns. And he knew, deep inside, that Jensen’s swings in affection had far more to do with his lack of socialization with other dragons than anything else.
Jared could still remember his first relationship with another drake. He could remember the awkward smiles and the hesitant touches. Jensen was most definitely not a teenager, and Jared would be doing him a disservice by thinking that he wasn’t mature enough to handle a relationship.
Jared knew plenty of dragons who stayed with the first drake they courted, and Jensen wasn’t some unsocialized being who wouldn’t know what being intimate with another being entailed. The dragon had been raised by humans, not a roving pack of wolves. Jensen could decide his own feelings well enough.
The problem arose because Jensen knew about relationships. At least, Jared was rather certain that was why Jensen was so hesitant to go beyond kisses and cuddling. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that Jared was Jensen’s only option for sexual intimacy unless he wanted to start crossing species barriers with the humans.
Jensen was also smart enough to realize that so long as Jared stayed in Sherrock, Jensen was also his only option for intimacy. It wasn’t the most ideal situation for proving that one’s affections weren’t at least partially influenced by lack of options.
But Jared couldn’t do much about that other than continuing to bring Jensen treats and tidbits and kissing him senseless whenever the opportunity arose. Eventually he’d wear down Jensen’s defenses – even if he had to shamelessly pander to Jensen’s libido to do it.
Jensen was going crazy. He knew it. It wasn’t just the way that his entire body ached after kissing Jared too long. It wasn’t just the way that he kept rearranging his sleeping area to look more and more nest-like despite its previously orderly state. It wasn’t even that he had gone from habitually collecting things to downright hoarding them, stuffing them away in every nook and cranny of his chambers.
It was Jensen’s cave that was getting to him. Over the winter, Jensen had mostly ignored its presence. He had visited a few times, but he had been preoccupied with Jared’s lessons. When spring had come, he had felt the tug to return to it, and he hadn’t been very good about resisting its pull.
Part of him felt bad about it. His cave was the one place that he had explicitly chased Jared away from. Now that they were… doing whatever it was that they were doing he felt bad about spending time chasing his instincts. Digging out wet boulders and rocks shouldn’t take precedence over courtship.
But Jensen couldn’t combat the urge to go back to his cave and keep working on it. He also still recoiled at the thought of allowing Jared into it despite the fact that he shared almost everything else with Jared.
Ironically, Jensen knew that he probably should speak to Jared about his urges. Of anybody he had ever met, Jared was the most likely to be able to explain Jensen’s need for the space. He was the one who had been raised as a dragon. He was the one whose fire worked.
Jensen shook his head and carefully clawed away at the dirt in his cave. He’d ask Jared. Later.
The roaring was deafening. Absolutely deafening. Jared was worried that the humans in Sherrock were going to lose their hearing, and it was all going to be his fault.
When his old broodmate had appeared in the distance, Jared had been excited to see him. Chad could be a bit weird, rub people the wrong way, but he was a good flyer. Having a third drake would ease some of the pressure of guarding from Jensen’s shoulders – or so Jared had thought.
In actuality, Jensen hated Chad. The only good thing about how much Jensen loathed Jared’s broodmate was that he was now utterly convinced that Jensen had never once hated him.
Granted, Chad’s comments about Jensen’s almost human mannerisms had been out of line. And Jared truly couldn’t defend his friend’s crass remarks about Jensen’s dark, non-flame markings. Chad was a horrible dragon that way.
Still, he didn’t think that Chad’s general rude behavior deserved the sort of fight that Jensen had instigated.
“I told you to stay away!” Jensen bellowed, dark wings snapping like whips in the ever darkening skies.
Chad huffed out a small plume of fire as if he was snorting at the ridiculousness of Jensen’s words. “It’s a waterfall. Nothing special to get your knickers in a twist over.”
“It is mine,” Jensen said. “You had no business being there.”
“No offense, but you have no business being top dragon around here,” Chad shot back. “Maybe you should let those of us who…”
Chad didn’t get to finish his sentence. Jensen bore down on him snapping at his right wing and taking an actual bite out of it. Chad screeched and twisted in the air, breathing fire back on Jensen in retaliation.
Around him, Jared could hear some of the humans screeching and running for cover. The guards and soldiers didn’t move from their posts though, and neither did Jared. This was no attack on the keep. It was a fight for dominance.
Smoke rose from Jensen’s hide where Chad’s fireball had hit, and Jared frowned. Chad should know better than to breathe one that hot. It wouldn’t hurt another dragon, but if it had gone astray, it could have done major damage to the thatched roofs and wooden stalls of the trading commons.
“You are not welcome in my country any longer,” Jensen snarled.
“You don’t get to make that decision,” Chad snapped back. Technically, he didn’t have the right to say that. Jensen was head dragon, and Chad knew it. By outright fighting with Jensen, he was challenging his position.
“I’m asking nicely,” Jensen hissed.
“You wouldn’t know ‘nice’ if it flew up and bit you on your ass! You worthless, pathetic excuse for a dragon! I don’t know why Jared tolerates you! Is your ass that good to plow?” Chad taunted.
His words made Jared growl low in his throat. He hadn’t declared his deepest affections to Jensen yet, but he had warned Chad away from attempting to seduce Jensen back when Chad had first arrived. Chad had a habit of sleeping with several drakes, and Jared hadn’t wanted any awkwardness. At the time he had been worried that Chad would become obsessed with Jensen’s fine snout and pretty eyes. Now Jared wished he had kept his mouth shut.
“Do not speak to me in that manner,” Jensen hissed. Above him, lightning crackled thought the sky and fat raindrops began to fall from the ominous looking clouds.
“I’m making a challenge here,” Chad reminded him, “I’ll speak any damn way I choose. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that you’re a sad, sad excuse for a dragon. Jared shouldn’t even be considering putting his dick in you.”
Jared’s snarl at that was easily overshadowed by Jensen’s scream. Chad’s words were out of line, even for an authority challenge. It was only propriety that kept Jared from taking to the skies to take his own time slapping Chad into place. His choices were his to make.
“What? Can’t take the truth? That you’re not even good enough to fu…” Chad’s words never made it out of his mouth as Jensen’s jaws opened once again. Only this time it wasn’t a scream or a howl of rage. It was a ball of lightning that flew out of his mouth, slamming into Chad’s body.
The electricity of it sparked along Chad’s scales. His wings spasmed and twitched, causing him to drop from the skies and crash down into the market square, taking out the stone fountain in the center of it. The rain intensified and the wind ripped through the skies at an even faster rate of speed.
Jensen’s dark form practically disappeared in the roiling black and grey cloud mass. Only the occasional flash of natural lightning illuminated his form. Even though Chad was now on the ground and doing a very poor job of uprighting himself, Jensen still looked furious whenever Jared caught a good glimpse of him.
Jared had the feeling that Jensen’s egg came from a bit farther away that he thought.
“Go away, Jared,” Jensen whispered. The rush of the waterfall is practically cacophonous thanks to all of the additional water that the storm had brought with it, but he knows that Jared is right outside. He can sense the other drake’s presence even if he cannot see, smell or hear him.
Of course he could not hear Jared so it was a logical assumption that Jared couldn’t hear him either. Jensen should make himself get up and go shoo the dragon away. Somebody needed to be up at the castle, watching for danger. It would be practical to make sure that the citizens of Sherrock knew where at least one of their dragons was.
Jensen didn’t get up from where he was sitting though.
“Jensen,” Jared’s voice echoed on the rocks.
“I thought I told you weren’t to be here,” Jensen scolded halfheartedly. He didn’t want to fight with Jared. He didn’t want to fight with anybody ever again. He had wanted Chad gone, not mostly dead. Then again, he had wanted Chad hurt, not Chad’s blood in his mouth because Jensen had gone over the deep end and bitten him too. That obviously hadn’t happened.
“I figured that we had made it past that point in our relationship,” Jared said softly.
Jensen shrugged. He wasn’t sure what sort of relationship he had with Jared now that he had almost killed one of Jared’s former broodmates while trying to evict him. Silence reigned for a few moments. Jensen felt horrible for obviously leaving Jared of all people at a loss for words, but he hadn’t a clue on how to fix it.
“It’s nice in here,” Jared finally offered. “Dry even.”
“It’s drying out,” Jensen said dully. “That is the point, I think. What good is a wet cave?”
“You think that’s the point?” Jared asked.
“Not exactly like I have great plans for the place,” Jensen admitted. “I’ve kind of been building it on instinct.”
“Huh,” Jared said as he crept closer, finally sitting down next to Jensen.
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“Just ‘huh,’” Jared said.
“I almost killed your friend,” Jensen said.
“I know. He deserved it.”
That made Jensen laugh, but it was dry and ugly. “Nobody deserved that.”
“It would’ve been worse if he had made a challenge back home. The head drakes would never have allowed him to speak as he did.”
“He would never have challenged them,” Jensen pointed out. He didn’t know if that was absolutely true having never been to a Dynasty to see how their flights operated, but he felt fairly confident that Chad didn’t possess the kind of courage that challenging would take.
“You’re probably right about that,” Jared conceded. “But that sort of disrespect would never have been tolerated, so my point still stands.”
“I wasn’t trying to kill him,” Jensen said.
“I know,” Jared responded softly. “I think that scares me more than the idea that you were trying to kill him.”
“At least I finally breathed fire?”
“Not so much, no,” Jared said. “That was lightning, Jensen. And I think… I think that the storm wasn’t some freak coincidence.”
That made Jensen turn his head in Jared’s direction. He could barely make out his profile in the dim lighting of the cave. Jensen was going to have to remember to bring lanterns or at least candles down to provide some illumination for when it was dark or stormy out.
“I think you summoned it,” Jared continued softly.
“No,” Jensen instantly denied even thought a large part of him felt like the answer to that statement was, “Yes.”
“It was sunny this morning,” Jared pointed out.
“Sunny days can turn to storms. It happens,” Jensen argued.
“I would agree, but you hurled lightning out of you, Jensen. Not fire. And your relationship with water is unusual. And your scales… they don’t protect you from fire as they should. Or perhaps they do, but you’re not protected from them the same as I am because you’re not the same.”
“I could have told you that. I have tried telling you that,” Jensen reminded him. “I told you that I was broken.”
“I don’t think you are,” Jared hesitantly told him.
“Well, I know I am!” Jensen shouted. “I’m not normal, Jared. None of this is normal. Have I found you digging out a secret lair?”
Jared took a deep breath. “Some of us, not me, but some of my old brood could control fire, not just breathe it.”
“Your point being?” Jensen asked a bit testily.
Jared ignored him. “There are also stories, legends really, about other dragons.”
Jensen sighed, just wanting the whole day to be over. “Jared, you’re not making sense.”
“I don’t think anything is wrong with you, quite the opposite. I think that you’re too right. I don’t think that you’re a fire dragon at all,” Jared said.
Normally Jensen would’ve tried not to gape, but it was dark in the cave so the likelihood of Jared seeing him do it was minimal. “I don’t even know what that means. Dragons breathe fire. It’s what we do.”
“Fire dragons, yes. These lands are our lands. Most of the humans think only of fire dragons because they don’t know any better. Why would they? Fire dragons are the most common. We have a reputation of breeding quite prolifically, but even that makes us rare.”
“So you’re saying I’m not a fire dragon?” Jensen asked. The whole thing sounded absurd. Types of dragons sounded ridiculous.
“I don’t think you are, no. It is the only thing that makes sense. None of the Dynasties reported a stolen egg because none of them were missing you. You were taken from somewhere far, far away, brought here to likely be a weapon that nobody would expect.”
“You didn’t think that might’ve been a possibility before?”
“Nobody in my Dynasty has seen a non-fire dragon in decades. Over half my broodmates think that they’re a myth – like you do.”
“I don’t think they’re a myth,” Jensen defended himself. “Myths are grand stories that are told and popularly known. This sounds like something the local bard thought up when he got too far into his cups one night.”
Jared blew a slow breath out. “Say for the sake of argument that I haven’t been into the king’s ale. If you were taken from another brood, it would have been one that has far fewer dragons than any brood around here. They would treasure their eggs all the more for their rarity.”
“Sounds logical,” Jensen concedes.
“If my memory stands, taking you would have been a violation of very heavy treaties. It could subject all these lands to war.”
Jensen swallowed – hard. That wasn’t something anyone wanted. But at the same time, “If their numbers are smaller, it would be foolish to attack.”
“Not if you can summon entire storm systems and flood out cities. There is a reason that the Dynasties are in place, Jensen. We could raze countries with our fire, but we could just as easily be destroyed in turn. The balance of dragons keeps us from starting so catastrophic of a war. But what good does fire do in the face of torrential water?”
“Make steam?” Jensen weakly joked.
“I think that there is something desperately wrong with this picture,” Jared whispered.
“Even if that is true, what could you or I possibly do about it?” Jensen asked.
Jared cleared his throat. “Go looking for your brood.”
“No,” Jensen’s response was immediate.
“This is my home, Jared. These people, Jim. They are my ‘brood.’”
“They are,” Jensen hissed.
“That’s not what I meant,” Jared said placating with soft words. “I meant that they aren’t where you came from. Your birth parents, if you will, haven’t given up looking for you. I would guarantee it.”
“Maybe they’re dead,” Jensen suggested. “It isn’t like I haven’t been here a long time.”
“Jensen, be reasonable. Nobody knew you were here. That was the whole plan, wasn’t it? If I live in the same lands as you do and my country didn’t know your country had a dragon, why would a group of other dragons know to look for you in Sherrock?”
Jensen scowled at Jared because he could. “But they would have come around here at some point, right? There hasn’t been any sort of rumor like that from the travelling peddlers or missives sent from our allies.”
“Maybe they didn’t know that your abductors came this way,” Jared theorized
“Or maybe they killed my mother and took all the eggs and sold us one by one,” Jensen said, shivers chasing down his spine at his own gruesome thought.
“I think we need to find out. If nothing else, it will help us avoid a war when word of you finally reaches wherever you came from. You might have chased Chad off, but he is a horrible gossip. Your location and pretty scales aren’t going to be a secret forever.”
“You think I have pretty scales?” The words weren’t the ones that Jensen should’ve been focusing on. He knew that they weren’t, but he couldn’t help himself.
“Of course, why wouldn’t I?” Jared sounded confused.
“Because, they’re not like yours. They’re not even like Chad’s. They aren’t colorful or vibrant.”
“They’re glorious,” Jared countered. “Jensen, they’re dark and sparkle when the light hits them just right. Like black and grey gemstones.”
“Now you’re just trying to flatter me,” Jensen accused.
“No, if I was trying to do that I would be talking about the emerald orbs of your eyes.”
Jensen gave Jared’s shoulder a shove. “Idiot. They’re not emerald.”
“Of course not,” Jensen said with a smirk. “They’re clearly jade.”
Jensen felt horrible. The fact that Jared was leaving was the direct cause of his feeling. It wasn’t that the trip was going to be dangerous, and that made Jensen feel even worse. Jared could be attacked or otherwise injured during his sojourn. But Jensen’s main concern was that Jared was not going to come back simply because he found somewhere else he would rather be.
Sherrock wasn’t some beautiful country. And Jensen had no true claim on Jared. They hadn’t progressed beyond furtive touching and kissing. Jared had called it ‘taking things slow.’ Jensen had privately thought of himself as a coward for taking the out that Jared offered him.
But there was no undoing past choices now. Jared was preparing to leave. Throwing himself at Jared’s feet, begging him to stay would be humiliating and pointless. Jensen considered it anyway.
“I’ll try to be as quick as possible,” Jared assured him. “I don’t want to leave you alone here, being the only dragon.”
Jensen picked at the hem of his tunic. “I managed fine before.”
“I did,” Jensen defended himself with a huff of air and a glare up at the ceiling of his chambers.
“I didn’t say you didn’t,” Jared said as he sat down on the edge of Jensen’s bed next to him. “But I can worry about you and our home. Taking care of an entire country is a lot of pressure for one dragon. We would do better with more drakes around. You wouldn’t be as lonely.”
“I’m not lonely,” Jensen denied.
“Of course you are,” Jared said, snatching Jensen’s hand away from the loose thread that was slowly becoming a fray. He clasped it between both of his own, and brought it slowly up to his face, pressing a kiss on the bend of Jensen’s wrist. “I’ll miss you.”
“I don’t want you to go,” Jensen whispered. “I don’t want to be lonely for you.”
Jared’s answering smile was sad. “I have to go. For Sherrock’s safety but for you more than them. You deserve to know where you came from. What you are.”
“I don’t need that,” Jensen insisted. “I don’t want other dragons invading my home, and I don’t want you to leave me behind.”
“I’m coming back,” Jared replied. “I promise that I’m coming back.”
Jensen pulled his hand away from Jared and put it back in his lap. “You think you’re coming back.”
“I know I am. I want to be here with you,” Jared told him. “I need to protect this place, protect you.”
“I’m not a damsel,” Jensen reminded him.
“But you are a member of my flight. We protect each other. If I was threatened, would you not do the same for me?”
“I’m not being threatened.”
“You could be,” Jared said. “You could very easily be. Jensen, let me do this for you. For us.”
“Us?” Jensen asked, unable to keep his insecurity completely out of his voice.
“Us,” Jared confirmed. “You are the main protector of this land. As such it makes sense that you would stay and take care of it. But I can only help you so far in your knowledge of your abilities when they aren’t the same as mine.”
“It would be enough,” Jensen pointed out.
“You deserve more than enough,” Jared replied.
The stiff winds of the mountains remind Jared of Jensen. The cold, wet bite of them made Jared’s scales sting, but Jensen would love it. The only thing that would make him happier was if rain started pelting down.
That alone was more than enough proof to Jared that he needed to keep searching. The mountain passes were treacherous, even for a fully grown dragon, but they felt like Jensen. He could practically see Jensen darting amongst the currents that were caused by too much wind being forced through too small a space. Jensen’s flight abilities might’ve been hampered because of a lack of a teacher, but his enjoyment of cold eddies was something born into him.
Humans would have thought Jared’s quest silly. Jensen had thought it foolish, and the sad, pouting look that he had given Jared when he had left had almost swayed Jared into staying. Prevention of conflict was more important than being able to fight a battle. It was a lesson that Jared’s original interactions with Jensen had hammered home.
Aside from that, Jensen deserved to know just exactly who his parents were and what had happened to them. Perhaps he was content with Sherrock and its struggling economy and downtrodden castle, but Jared knew that the wondering would always remain inside of him.
He also knew that Jensen would never leave his castle unattended. And if Jensen wouldn’t leave his lands to go searching, Jared would do the searching for him. It wasn’t what anybody back in his home brood would call a traditional courting gift, but Jared found he didn’t mind.
Still, for all of his exuberance about finding Jensen’s place of birth, Jared had been thinking about turning back. It had been two months since he had departed Sherrock. Chasing rumors and seeking information took time, but he did not want to leave Jensen alone for much longer. No matter what assurances he had given the other dragon, Jensen had doubted Jared’s will to return.
It was disheartening, but not all that surprising. He and Jensen hadn’t even been courting for a season. Their relationship had been contentious for longer than they had been together. If he had been Jensen, he would’ve doubted his commitment to return as well.
Aside from wanting to allay Jensen’s doubts by returning, Jared was personally afraid that he might be replaced. Jensen hadn’t taken well to Chad’s arrival, but if Chad could be drawn to Sherrock then other dragons could as well. Other dragons meant competition for Jensen’s affections.
As much as Jared wanted other dragons around, he wanted Jensen to be his. It was a conundrum that irked him. The fear of losing Jensen was stronger than it should be. There would be other dragons, Jared knew that. But Jensen was different.
It worried Jared a bit that perhaps he favored Jensen because Jensen wasn’t a fire dragon. Maybe Jared’s attraction to him was because he wasn’t the same. Jared’s mother would say that loving somebody because they were special was a good thing, but Jared didn’t think that was what she meant when she had talked to him about that.
“Halt!” The command was strong, and Jared slowed to a stop. “What business have you on our lands?”
Jared breathed a sigh of relief as a darkly scaled dragon flew into view. “I come seeking information…”
The warmth of summer beat down on Jensen’s back. He hated long, hot days with a passion. He would bet at least half of his gold coins that Jared wouldn’t share that sentiment. He would bet that Jared loved the annoying heat of the sun.
Jensen snarled at the thought. He wasn’t supposed to be thinking about Jared. He had a very strict, self-imposed quota of how many times per day he was allowed to think about the missing dragon, and he had already used up more than half of them.
Thinking about Jared wouldn’t make the other dragon appear. It wouldn’t bring him back. It wouldn’t summon word of him coming back. Thinking was a wasted exercise as far as Jensen was concerned. At least, that was what he told himself. The truth was not quite as simple.
With a grunt, Jensen rose to the skies from his perch on the ramparts. Below him, guards repositioned themselves to catch the breeze generated by Jensen’s flapping wings. The sight brought a bit of lightness to Jensen’s heart. At least he was still useful to somebody.
Lazily, Jensen let his gaze drift out over the horizon. There wasn’t much to see, but it behooved him to keep vigilant. If Jared didn’t come back, Sherrock would be back down to one protector. Much as Jensen believed in the people of Sherrock and his own abilities, early warning was the best defense.
Knowing that didn’t settle the shock in his system when he saw a dark blob approaching at a fast speed from the north. It was a dragon that much Jensen was certain of before he could even make out the wings of it. No cloud moved that quickly alone.
Below him, the guards started to chatter. Their eyesight wasn’t as keen as Jensen’s, but it was still good enough to make out their approaching guest. They called out to the town crier and word of a dragon’s approach spread quickly through the square.
Jensen swallowed once before flying out to meet his incoming guest. His mind raced as he flew trying to think over all of the protocols and warnings that Jared had given him for this very situation. He didn’t want to offend the other dragon. Jensen wasn’t doing so well on first impressions on his kind. He’d like to change that record.
“Hello,” Jensen called out as soon as he thought that his words would reach the newcomer.
The other dragon did not respond immediately, instead gliding over to hover before Jensen. Its wingspan was broader than Jensen’s own, its scales darker. Its horns twisted and curved back against its scalp the same way that Jensen’s own did though.
The dragon said nothing, but inhaled deeply, snout inches away from Jensen’s own.
“What brings you to Sherrock?” Jensen asked nervously.
“I have come to see you,” the other dragon answered smoothly. His voice was smooth, polished even. His eyes never left Jensen’s face as he spoke.
“Ah,” Jensen choked out. Unnerved at the other dragon’s scrutiny. He opened his mouth and let out the challenging scream that Jared had taught him. It did not come out quite right, but he thought it was close enough to get the job done.
He didn’t expect the other dragon to huff in amusement and swat at Jensen with his tail. The tail his Jensen hard, sending him tumbling through the air.
“Don’t pick fights with queens,” the dragon chided, gliding over to the patch of air that Jensen had managed to right himself in. “We aren’t foolish drakes with more energy than a sack full of puppies. Civilized conversation will do nicely. We are far too vicious in a fight to brawl for fun.”
“You’re a queen?” Jensen asked.
“I am,” the other dragon confirmed.
“How was I supposed to know that? Queens aren’t discernable from drakes,” Jensen said.
“True,” the newcomer conceded. He said nothing else and resumed staring at Jensen.
“I feel like I should apologize for my behavior,” Jensen finally said when the lack of conversation began to unnerve him.
“Don’t be. Your siblings have said much worse to me over the years.”
“My siblings?” Jensen said, heart skipping a beat and eyes widening.
“Jensen…. Your name is Jensen, correct? I believe that was what that very boisterous fire dragon called you.”
Jensen nodded, movement jerky in his dragon form, but a nod nonetheless.
“Your clutch was small, but there were others in it. The rest of your siblings were drakes, though that was hardly surprising. Your father and I didn’t think that I would bear any queen eggs at all.”
“My father? You know him?” Jensen stupidly asked.
“No, I let some drake I didn’t know come and father my clutch,” the dragon said with a mixture of sarcasm and something that sounded like amusement.
“But that makes you, makes you my mother?” Jensen squeaked.
“It does,” the dragon agreed. “You have no idea how happy I am that you are alive. We thought… we thought you dead, Jensen. Truly. I would have laid siege to all of these wretched countries and all of the Fire Dynasties myself if I had known otherwise. I would have retrieved you and brought you home to roost and nest with your broodmates.”
Jensen swallowed and glided down to the ground, no longer wishing to discuss such things while in flight. The other dragon, his mother Jensen thought almost hysterically, followed him down.
“Jared found you,” Jensen stated.
“He did. He’s quite persistent. Fond of sugary treats, but very determined. He is also quite handsome. He will give you good eggs if you choose him. He seems besotted by little ones, so you could do worse.”
“What?” Jensen croaked, panic coming out of his mouth as he abruptly shifted forms. It caused him to be naked before a stranger, but he couldn’t help it. For all that he was a dragon, he felt more comfortable in his human skin when dealing with difficult conversations.
The other dragon shifted in response, forming into a tall, thin man with a rather large nose. His face was kind though, and his lips quirked into an easy smile. “You took after your father’s looks. You have no idea how happy I am to see that.”
“I… Thank you?” Jensen said dumbly before shaking his head. “No, I mean… I can’t have eggs.”
“You were injured?” his mother asked. “Jared swore that you were well, if a bit uneducated due to an unorthodox upbringing.”
“I’m fine,” Jensen insisted. “But only queens have, have eggs and…”
“You remain the only one of my children born with the gift to bring life into the world,” his mother interrupted.
“That is ridiculous,” Jensen stated. “The statistics alone make that ridiculous. Why would anybody steal a queen’s egg?”
“You don’t find the answer to that obvious? A queen is needed to build a brood. A drake will only bond with the land and be useful to it for his or her lifespan.”
“But, but stealing a dragon’s egg in the first place is nearly impossible.”
His mother scowled at his words. “I killed as many of them as I could, but they still took you. They came armed with poisons and clubs and swords. They were skilled thieves, aided by a drake who felt I had chosen your father poorly.”
“Your ex-lover sold me?” Jensen asked.
“Yes,” his mother hissed, brown eyes narrowing in rage. “Your father tore him limb from limb, but it did nothing to bring you back to us. His intention was to take you as his own, go to a new place and build his own brood. A queen will attract drakes from all over once he or she is ready.”
“Proof that I’m not a queen,” Jensen said, determinedly clinging to the thought that his mother was wrong.
“Don’t ‘Jensen’ me… Mom,” Jensen tagged on awkwardly.
“Julian, please,” the other dragon said with a smile. “Not even your siblings call me ‘mom.’”
“Look, Julian, I’m not a queen. I’m just not. If I had magical drake attracting powers, I’d have…”
“Attracted a very large, red drake out to the middle of nowhere to find a country that shouldn’t have had a dragon in residence at all?” Julian asked.
“That was coincidence,” Jensen denied.
“That was a drake restless with the urge to father eggs,” Julian corrected. “Other drakes will begin to flock in over time, but your Jared might be worth keeping around if you like him. If you don’t, it is best you let him know early.”
Jensen didn’t argue with him about that. He was smart enough to connect the dots on the where, when and how of Julian’s reasoning about Jared.
“It isn’t that serious yet,” Jensen said instead.
“Oh, I think it is. A drake doesn’t fly out of his territory to unknown lands because he wants to help a fellow flightmate. He flies out there to prove himself.”
“I didn’t ask Jared to do that. He did it for himself,” Jensen spat.
Julian smiled and shook his head. “He did it for your future. You might be fine, but your eggs? They might need to know about your genealogy. Your disinterest in it doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t be important for them to know.”
“Jared doesn’t think that I’m a queen though,” Jensen reminded him.
“Think, no. But he likely can sense it the same way that he sensed to come to this rather barren place. He was drawn to you.”
“That sounds like a fairy tale,” Jensen scoffed.
“It happens. I don’t know what to tell you beyond that. But tell me I’m wrong. Tell me that you haven’t already made a safe nest for your hatchlings,” Julian said, knowing look in his eye.
“My chambers are how they have always been,” Jensen said. It was a lie, but just a slight one. He didn’t think rearranging things to accommodate Jared could be blamed on any sort of instinct of his when the king himself had decreed he do it.
“I am not talking about your chambers, Jensen. I am speaking of your nest. Built in a secure place? Hidden away from prying eyes and easily defensible?” Julian prodded.
A guilty flush stole up Jensen’s face. He swore that even the tips of his horns turned red with the intensity of it. How long had he been picking away at his spot under the waterfall. He had started when he first came of age but, but the need to finish it had gotten more and more urgent the longer that Jared lived in Sherrock.
A warm hand landed on Jensen’s shoulder. “Have you let him in your spot?” Julian asked.
Jensen gaped at his mother. “WHAT?”
Julian’s eyes widen for a moment before he burst out into a fit of giggles that did not at all correlate to his severe features. “Goodness, Jensen. I meant your nesting spot. I have no desire to know if you’ve been letting a drake defile you for fun and pleasure.”
“Oh, right,” Jensen mumbled into his hands.
“Come, introduce me to these humans of yours as long as I am here. I think that you perhaps you could use the distraction, and I would like to meet the people who had the honor of raising you.”
Jared thought his wings would fall off. There was only so much flying he could do in one day, and he had pushed himself past that limit too many days in a row. Still, he wanted to get home as quickly as possible. He needed to be there for Jensen.
That Jensen’s mother had wanted to see him was no surprise. And there was no disputing that the regal queen was Jensen’s mother. His human form might not have much in common with Jensen’s handsome features, but the rest of his children looked enough like Jared’s intended that he was easily swayed into belief.
The one thing that Jared hadn’t counted on was that the older queen was far faster in the air than he was. “Queen chaser indeed,” Jared grumbled to himself. He didn’t think being bested by a so called storm dragon was anything to be ashamed of, but there was being beaten in a race and there was being schooled.
Julian had most assuredly thrashed him with flight speeds. Jared hadn’t caught so much of a glimpse of the other dragon’s dark tail in what felt like ages. No doubt the older dragon had already reached Sherrock. He had already met Jensen. Jared could only hope that the meeting was going well.
“It is about time you made it back,” were the words Jensen greeted Jared with when he trudged into their chambers, late in the evening.
Julian glanced up at them from his place by the fire. “Don’t scold the poor boy so, Jensen. Fire dragons aren’t built for speed over long distances. They burn things. Creatures that set things on fire don’t generally need to develop the ability to run away.”
“I am glad you are back,” Jensen whispered as Jared pressed inside.
“It is good to be back,” Jared acknowledged. “I missed you.”
Jensen flushed and looked away, but there was a pleased smile on his face. Jared could count that as a win.
“I missed you more,” Jensen mumbled to the floor.
The words made Jared grin. Muscles sore from flying suddenly felt light than they had in ages. “Truly?” he asked.
“Truly,” Jensen said, bringing his gaze up to meet Jared’s.
“As adorable as this is,” Julian interrupted. “I don’t think that you want an observer for this reunion. I think I shall retire to that nice room that your king so graciously provided for me. Have a good night, Jared. Jensen.”
The door clicked shut as he left.
“Thank you,” Jensen said after a moment. “For finding him.”
“You’ve gotten along well then?” Jared asked.
“Well enough,” Jensen admitted. “He told me that I was, that my egg, that I…”
“I know,” Jared said. “They told me. I didn’t know. I swear. That isn’t why I want you.”
Jensen smiled. “I figured that one out on my own. Although Julian thinks you might be a bit touched in the head for not realizing that my waterfall cave was a nesting area for eggs and not just a personal place to horde treasures.”
“Julian has high standards,” Jared dismissed.
“Well, then you’ll be very happy to learn that he thinks you’re quite attractive and would make a good father,” Jensen said.
Jared grinned at that. “I am very fetching. My scales alone…”
“I, however, deducted points for your vanity,” Jensen interrupted with a grin.
“Am I still doing well then?” Jared asked.
“You are doing better than ‘well,’” Jensen told him. “But…”
“But?” Jared prompted.
“But I’m not ready for having clutches of eggs just yet. The idea is going to take some time to get used to. I’m not against it, I don’t think. My instincts certainly favor going in that direction.”
Jared nodded. “It would be a shock to anybody. It was a shock to me.”
Jensen nodded. “You still want to be with me though? I could understand if you didn’t.”
“Of course I do,” Jared assured him. “I didn’t go through the humiliation of crashing into snowbanks for my health this winter.”
“You weren’t the only one taking nose dives,” Jensen reminded him.
“I know,” Jared said. “I know.”
“Good,” Jensen said with a nod. “Then, if you’re amenable, I think I would like to welcome you home properly. It isn’t every day that a dragon gets given his long lost family as a present.”
“Properly?” Jared asked as Jensen caught both of his hands and started tugging him back towards where Jensen’s bed was.
“Properly,” Jensen said with a grin. “I don’t have to worry about clutches and eggs for another two months, or so my mother tells me.”
Jared felt a grin of his own form and leaned down to steal a kiss. Jensen returned it with more than a touch of heat and outside the skies began to rain.