Jared got into his first fight when a Quillback named Kiloran called him a liar.
“No way did your great-whatever fight in the war,” Kiloran said, and all the younglings turned to look at him. “That’s stupid.”
Anger and embarrassment flared in Jared’s core, and his face grew hot. “He did too. My daddy always says my Grandpa Aphaniel was the best general Damos ever had.”
“Yeah, well, my daddy says a Silverstreak could never be a general ‘cause all they can do is fly really fast,” Kiloran snapped back. “So you’re lying.”
Everything went slowly hazy and red. Jared stood up and drew himself to his full height, which wasn’t all that much considering he’d only just recently left the nest. That hardly mattered, though, because he wasn’t about to let another dragon, and a stinky Quillback at that, make fun of his family. “You take that back,” he hissed.
Kiloran sneered and flashed a forked tongue. All the other younglings went “Oooh” at the blatant challenge. “Make me,” he said.
The anger exploded inside him, and so Jared did. With a furious cry he jumped on Kiloran, fists already flying. They tumbled to the dirt in a tangle of flailing limbs amidst the cheering of the other younglings, and Jared somehow ended up on top, the red haze pushing everything else aside as he punched at Kiloran over and over and screamed at the top of his lungs, “Take it back! Take it back!”
Beneath him Kiloran snarled, and all of a sudden the world spun and Jared was shoved to the floor by a four-foot-long, dark brown dragon. The breath left his lungs in a choked “Oomph,” and an instant later he couldn’t help but cry out as razor-sharp claws drew four parallel red lines along the bare skin of his shoulder. Kiloran’s red eyes flashed at the sound, bony grey spikes rising up all along his spine as he growled again, sending a blast of hot air over Jared’s face.
You wanna fight for real?
The dragon inside Jared responded immediately to the challenge, uncurling in his mind with an angry roar, and it didn’t matter that the adults always said fighting was bad, that good, honorable dragons never lowered themselves to behaving like violent, bloodthirsty animals—Jared would show them. He’d show them all that you didn’t insult a Silverstreak and live to talk about it. He’d show them—
“What’s going on here?”
The new voice—the adult voice—cut through the cries of the younglings like a Bluewhip through clear lake water. The dragon inside Jared froze instantly, a youngling’s instinctual need to obey its elder slamming into place as the heat and shift of his transformation came to a sudden, abrupt halt. Above him, Kiloran quickly scrambled back, shifting as he turned to face the angry-looking woman steadily approaching their group. His eyes grew wide and his expression guilty as he began, “Mama, I—”
“Not one more word out of you,” Kiloran’s mother interrupted, holding up a hand. Kiloran’s mouth instantly shut with an audible click. She then looked at Jared, green eyes flashing. “And you. Fly home. I don’t want to see you anywhere near my son again.”
Silence fell. As one, the other younglings all turned to stare at Jared, wide, accusing eyes that said, You’re in trouble, You’re in trouble. Heat rose to Jared’s cheeks, and anger and humiliation curled in his gut. His throat constricted and tears burned at the corners of his eyes. That wasn’t even fair. “He’s the one who—”
“I don’t care.” Kiloran’s mother raised her hand and pointed it to the sky. “Go.”
Jared almost didn’t. He almost opened his mouth, almost told Kiloran’s mother right to her face just where she could stick her stupid words. But the younglings were all still staring at him, vicious and accusatory, and as he watched, Kiloran stepped up and took his mother’s hand, and she let him. She had forgiven him already because she liked him best, and nothing Jared said would change that. That’s how mothers were, and Jared knew he couldn’t win this. Not today, and it wasn’t fair.
The tears threatened to spill over and embarrass him further, so Jared swiped furiously at his eyes, shifting clumsily into his natural form and launching himself into the air. He didn’t dare look back, knowing that all he would get would be wide-eyed, reproachful stares from the other younglings. His entire body flushed cold at that thought, and then quickly turned hot again as the anger took over, making his stomach twist up inside him even as he flapped his wings to catch a rising current. It just wasn’t fair. He hadn’t been doing anything but telling a story, after all. Stupid Kiloran was the one who’d been mean, who had to go and call him a liar, and then his stupid mother wouldn’t just listen to him and it was all just so stupid and he hated them.
A strong updraft carried him into the clouds. Jared ducked his head and folded his wings to his body, the currents singing past him faster and faster until everything around him faded into a blur of cool white. He wasn’t quite old enough to make the big boom yet, not like his parents could. Not like his Grandpa Aphaniel could, when he’d fought in the war as Damos’s top general, because Jared hadn’t been lying. It was the truth—his mother told him the story all the time.
He would show them, Jared thought, swiping his claws at thin air and imagining it was Kiloran’s stupid head. One day, he would grow big and go fast. He would become a great hero, even better than Damos himself, and then he’d show them all.
Far below, the waters of the lake abruptly gave way to dense forest, towering evergreens that shivered in the wind and whispered to him of home. Jared took a dive as soon as he recognized the path of fallen trees, beginning his shift as his claws brushed the canopy.
The anger made him clumsy and clouded the movements he had just recently learned to coordinate. Jared ended up half-tumbling through the trees, landing in a shower of pine needles and dead leaves. His mother must have sensed his distress even before his landing, though, because Jared had barely finished picking himself up when a soft, echoing Urrr? of inquiry sounded out, rumbling low and curious through the trees. Jared huffed, kicking angrily at a nearby rock as he answered, “Yes, Mama. It’s me.”
Another low growl, this time tinged with just a hint of worry, and Jared shook his head. “No, Mama, I’m fine. But I…” He sniffed, the anger and humiliation rising up within him again in a sharp, painful wave. His eyes burned, and Jared swiped angrily at them. He was too old for this—only babies cried about stupid little things like this, and Jared was nearly five years old. He it was big now; he should be able to suck it up like the grown-ups. His body, though, didn’t seem to have gotten the memo, because the prickling of tears wouldn’t stop, the anger only getting stronger with every passing moment. Jared couldn’t help himself and whimpered, lower lip trembling. “Mama, I…”
A brief pause, and the air shifted. Jared’s ears popped, and a moment later, with only the soft rustle of leaves to announce her arrival, his mother stepped through some nearby brush. The instant she saw him, standing there beneath the trees with his little fists clenched at his sides and his shoulders shaking with frustration, her eyes softened. “Oh, Jared,” she said, and held out her arms.
Her words broke a dam inside him, the anger instantly boiling over into something ugly and petulant. He ran toward her immediately, his face already wet with tears by the time she finally wrapped him up in a warm, soothing embrace. Jared clung to her slim waist, buried his face in her stomach and sobbed, sniffling hiccups and wet gasps for breath as his mother smoothed gentle fingers through his hair, warm and tender.
“Shh,” she whispered, voice flowing over him like water over rock, forever calm, a force of nature in and of itself. “Oh, sweetheart. Shh, it’s okay. Everything’s okay.” Her fingers paused over the roughness on his shoulder, the slashes from Kiloran’s claws. “Goodness, Jared. You’re all cut up.”
There was no censure in her voice, though, and the cuts were already almost fully healed anyway, so Jared didn’t bother replying. Instead, he just tightened his grip. His mother smelled the way she always did: honeysuckle and spring sunshine, and after a moment Jared felt his sobs subside somewhat. When at last he lifted his head to look up at her, she was smiling down at him in that way that all mothers had, that secret smile that made it seem like it was just them here, and the whole rest of the world didn’t exist. She was truly beautiful—Jared would always think so, would never remember her any other way—and when she reached down to brush his tears away with her thumbs, the touch was so filled with love and care as to be almost painful.
“Now,” his mother said, in that same gentle yet commanding tone Jared suspected she often used to rein in his free-spirited and sky-loving father, “tell me what happened.”
So Jared opened his mouth and told her everything. When he was done, and fresh tears of humiliation and fury were prickling at his eyes, his mother sighed and gave him a soft, reassuring smile, fingers gentle as they caressed his cheek. “You did nothing wrong, Jared,” she said, after a moment. “It’s okay to be angry. Kiloran said something very mean, and you were right to fight, to defend the honor of our bloodline. If Kiloran’s mother couldn’t see that, then that’s her problem, not yours.”
“But it’s not fair,” Jared said, still sniffling. He regretted it instantly, though, because he could imagine what all the other mothers would say to that. Life’s not fair, Jared, they would say, probably with a sigh and one of those exasperated eye-rolls up toward the sky. But not his mother. Jared’s mother only smiled, reaching down to brush his unruly mop of hair out of his eyes.
“You’re right. It isn’t,” she said. “And that’s just one more thing you’ll have to try to change once you’ve grown up, isn’t it?”
Jared wiped his nose on his sleeve and nodded, because, as always, his mother was right. He’d do it, too. One day he’d make the big boom and find the silence, and then everyone would see—everyone would know that Silverstreaks were the best dragons in the world, the fastest, the strongest, the most worthy of being generals.
The angry, ugly thing inside him finally quieted a bit, the dragon for the moment calmed by his mother’s soothing words and soft touch. She smiled again, straightening up and holding out her hand. “Come along then,” she said. “Let’s go say hello to your sisters.” Holding tightly to her fingers, Jared followed her obediently into the brush.
The two hatchlings went into a frenzy the instant they sensed their approach, chirping and whining and falling all over each other as they struggled to breach the top of the nest, tiny claws scrabbling for purchase in the muddy grass. Sai got there first, tumbling over the edge and landing in a tangled heap of wings, tail and long neck onto the soft forest floor. She was up again, though, before Jared could even begin to worry, waddling quickly over to him and bumping his knee happily with her nose. Jared couldn’t help but laugh at that, reaching down and scooping his sister up into his arms, ignoring the tiny pinpricks of Sai’s claws through his shirt as she wriggled happily about, nipping playfully at the tips of his ears. Saria, undoubtedly feeling left out, drew a deep breath, face scrunching up in preparation for a spectacular round of whining, except their mother got to her first, quickly bending down and sweeping her up.
“Oh, no, that’s enough meltdowns for one day,” she said, smiling as Saria squawked, wings flapping madly back and forth as she tried to find a comfortable position within their mother’s arms.
Jared, for his part, scratched Sai gently at that one spot where her neck met the top of her spine, feeling his sister let out a happy whuff of hot air over his face in response. Sai and Saria had yet to see the end of their first year, still infants only able to take their more primal, instinctive form. Still, Jared already knew they would be beautiful as humans, bound to catch the eye of many potential mates. He could see their mother’s beauty clearly in both of them, at any rate, and it made him happy.
Walking over to their mother, he bent down to plant a kiss atop Saria’s scaly head, giggling when his sister squeaked with delight and tried to retaliate by nipping at his nose. Their mother laughed, warm and comforting, before mimicking the movement with her finger, tapping Jared gently on the nose. “Feel better, sweetheart?”
“Yeah.” And Jared did. The anger was still there, yes, but surrounded by his family in their warm, secluded forest home, it seemed suddenly much farther away, just a glimmering light on the horizon. Jared lifted a finger to Sai’s mouth, letting his sister latch onto it with her sandpaper-like baby teeth as he looked up at his mother. “But Mama, tell the story again. About our bloodline, and the Colos…us…sisses, and the big war.”
At that, his mother sighed, although it was more amused than exasperated. “Jared, I’ve told you that story tons of times already. You could tell it yourself by now.”
“But you tell it better,” Jared said. “I want you to—ow, Sai, easy! Please, Mama?”
His mother shrugged, smile easy and warm as it always was. “Well, all right,” she said, gently stroking along Saria’s spine as she paused for a moment, trying to decide where to start.
“From the beginning, then.
“A long, long time ago, eons and eons, in fact, the Sky looked down at the Earth and saw how beautiful she had become, with her green meadows, vast forests and sparkling blue oceans. He fell in love with her, and she with him, and together they produced a child, the first of the dragons: Olim, the Great One. It is said that his wings stretched from one sea to another, that he could scratch out canyons with his claws and his roar could topple mountains. And when Olim came of age, the Earth, who loved him as only a mother could, breathed into him the power of life-giving, and commanded him to make the dragons. With this power, he took the four great elements and fashioned them into the four races: he made the Quillbacks with earth, the Bluewhips with water, the Addersax with fire and, of course, the Silverstreaks with wind. On Olim’s command, the dragons spread throughout the world, and each race found its own niche and made its own bloodlines, that still exist today.”
“Like ours,” Jared said, clutching Sai to him like a doll. “We’re the Silverstreak bloodline.”
“Well, we’re a Silverstreak bloodline, at any rate,” his mother corrected gently. “Anyway, one day Olim was flying through the clouds as he liked to do, looking down at the world where all the dragons, his own creations, were going about their business, when he was suddenly struck with an overwhelming feeling of loneliness. He realized that, although he loved the dragons as a father and wanted only the best for them, he had no actual children of his own. And that made him profoundly sad.
“Looking up at the sky, he thought to himself, ‘I must find a mate.’ And no sooner did he have that thought, then he saw the Sun shining above him, bright and glorious in all his beauty. The Sun smiled at Olim and said, ‘I will give you children, and they will be as glorious as I.’ And he gave to Olim two eggs, each the size of a large boulder, and Olim made a nest on top of Seraphim Peak, the highest mountain in the land, and sat on them to incubate. He waited thus for a long, long time, as each morning the Sun rose and watched them as he made his journey across the sky, and on the first day of the hundredth year, the eggs hatched, and Olim found that he and the Sun had sired two sons.”
“Damos and Deioryn,” Jared said before his mother could continue. Sai nipped at his chin in irritation at the sudden interruption. Saria just stared up at their mother with big golden eyes, transfixed.
Their mother nodded. “Yes, that’s right,” she said. “Deioryn, the elder, and Damos, the younger. They had the Sun’s glory and power, beautiful shining scales and claws bright and sharp as diamonds, and they also had Olim’s size and strength, able to level entire forests and whip up storms with their wings. Olim could see easily that his sons were different from the other dragons, that they would become far more great and glorious than any of his creations could ever hope to be. Because of that, he christened them the Colossus bloodline.
“For eons, the brothers played and fought and competed with each other, as all dragons are wont to do. Then, when Olim at last decided to accept the Sun’s call and join him in the vast heavens, Deioryn and Damos agreed to take their father’s place in watching over the dragons. They did so for many years, and everything was peaceful and good.
“However,” and at this, Jared found himself shivering in anticipation, “soon, something black and evil took root and began to fester in Deioryn’s heart. No one really knows why, but it may be that he was born with that little black seed already planted, and it had only been waiting for the right time to sprout and begin to grow. ‘Why should I waste my time watching over the dragons,’ he began to think, ‘when I could make them serve me instead? If I could enslave them and make them give me their life-force whenever I wanted, I could become more powerful than any other being.’
“Of course, as soon as he had this idea, he went to Damos and asked him for his opinion. ‘Little brother,’ he said, ‘You could rule beside me. Together, no one would dare to stop us.’
“But Damos didn’t agree with his brother. He, like his father before him, loved the dragons and wanted them only to be happy, and he didn’t want to see them forever enslaved. Damos tried everything to placate his brother, to make him see that his plan was flawed, that it was evil and it wasn’t what they were supposed to be doing. ‘The Colossi are guardians,’ he said. ‘That is our job. Our father put his faith in our ability to keep the dragons safe, and what you’re planning to do…it is a betrayal of that faith.’
“Deioryn, however, wouldn’t listen. ‘If you are not with me, then you are against me,’ he said. ‘If you try to stop me, there will be war.’
“And Damos only sighed, because he had known for a long time that this could not end any other way. ‘Very well,’ he answered, though it tore him apart to say it, ‘then war it will be.’”
At this point, their mother stopped to take a breath. Saria whined, nosing at her bosom, pleading for more. Sai lay quiet within Jared’s arms, hardly daring to breathe as they both stared at their mother, waiting for her to continue. After a moment, she did.
“And so began the Lordian War. The first time the brothers met each other in battle, they set the world aflame. Damos had his followers and Deioryn had his, and thus the dragons all became fiercely divided, family members turning on each other and best friends going for each other’s throats. Those were dark times, when the ground itself ran red with blood and the very air turned to poison. It is said that every night the darkness echoed with the wails of the Earth as she mourned the deaths of her children.
“The War went on for a hundred years, and it was during this time that Damos, wanting to end the conflict as quickly as possible, selected your great-great-grandfather, Aphaniel, as his top general. Out of all the races, he considered Silverstreaks the most valuable, because, as you all know, we’re the smallest and fastest of all the dragons, and therefore make fantastic spies and assassins. Aphaniel, like all of Damos’s followers, was willing to do anything to see the success of their leader’s cause, and he soon became Damos’s most trusted confidante and closest friend.
“But the war dragged on, and Damos soon saw the toll it was taking on the dragons. Food was running scarce, the climate had become unforgiving, and many dragons, particularly the younglings, were beginning to die not from battle, but from starvation, from sickness, and from heartbreak. His heart ached as he saw the pain the war was causing, and at last he looked to the heavens and called out to his father for help. ‘Please,’ he begged, ‘Please tell me how to stop this, to end all the suffering. I can’t bear it anymore.’
“Now Olim, from his place at the Sun’s side, had been watching the war unfold from the very beginning, but he was no longer of this world and so he could not intervene. In fact, he was reluctant to help, because although he had a solution to the problem, he did not want to hurt either of his sons. However, Damos’s pleas touched his heart, and at last he decided he didn’t have a choice. So he came to Damos in his dreams, and taught him a spell that would seal Deioryn away inside Seraphim Peak. ‘But this spell comes at a great price,’ he told his son, ‘for the energy for the casting will require all of your life-force. When you seal your brother away, my son, you will surely die in the process.’
“Damos took his father’s words and thought them over for many days. Of all his friends, he told only your great-great-grandfather of this plan. Aphaniel tried everything to persuade him otherwise, begging him not to do it. But with more battles and more deaths all around him, Damos’s guilt was too great, and in the end, he decided to cast the spell.
“In the final confrontation between the two Colossi, no other dragons came onto the battlefield. Whatever passed between the brothers that fateful day, whatever words were exchanged, no one will ever know. We only know that they fought one last great battle, one that tore the very ground apart and stirred up great waves throughout the oceans, and in the end Damos cast the spell with all his life-force, as Olim had taught him. White light covered the world, a searing, flaming wind that made all the dragons run into their homes to hide, and only Aphaniel was brave enough to face the wind, to witness the very moment that Deioryn was sealed into Seraphim Peak, before the wind came upon him and blinded him forever. And when the wind finally disappeared and the smoke and dust cleared away, Seraphim Peak housed Deioryn in his great stone prison, and Damos, his life-force spent, had disappeared without a trace.”
Their mother paused and took a breath. “And that was the end of the Lordian War, and the last anyone ever saw or heard of the Colossi,” she finished, and patted Saria gently on the head.
Nose tucked beneath Jared’s chin, Sai sniffed, curling into his chest for comfort. Jared himself reached up to wipe stubbornly at suddenly-watery eyes. “Mama,” he said, “why did Damos have to die?”
His mother only shrugged, eyes sad. “Because sometimes, that’s what you need to do to protect the ones you love,” she answered. Those words would haunt Jared’s dreams for a long time.
Jared looked down at the ground. “And Grandpa Aphaniel…you said he died of a broken heart, right?”
“Yes.” She sighed. “Your great-great-grandfather was blinded from the great wind, and became crippled and sickly. He grieved Damos’s passing day after day, and only a few months after the war ended, he finally just…gave up.”
Jared nodded, gently running a finger along the webbing of Sai’s left wing. “It’s such a sad story,” he said after a while.
“Parts of it are,” his mother answered, “but remember, this is, in the end, the story of a hero. That’s what Damos was, and it’s important that you remember that. After all, he could easily have joined his brother in his plan and helped him to enslave all the dragons, but instead he sacrificed everything—his pride, his family, his own life—in order to keep us safe. And that’s how we’ll always remember him.”
From his spot seated beside the nest, Jared straightened up, lifting his chin. “You watch me, Mama. One day, I’ll grow up to be a great hero just like Damos.”
At that, his mother smiled, soft and indulgent as she reached out to pat his cheek. “If my instincts are correct, sweetheart,” she said, “you’re well on your way there already.”
Jared’s heart swelled with childish pride at those words. He smiled up at his mother, loving her with all his heart as he thought about his dream. His mother smiled back, warm and loving, and Jared knew, in that instant, that she would always be there for him, and he would never love anyone more than her. They would have forever together. He would make sure of it.
TWENTY YEARS LATER
Jared sniffed tentatively at the shirt. It smelled a little musty, but it was definitely in better shape than the rest of his laundry. Besides, with all the manual labor he was about to do, cleanliness wasn’t exactly important. Shrugging, he slipped it over his head. “Saria! I’m heading out!”
As expected, there was no answer. Jared sighed softly to himself and shrugged on a light jacket before pulling open his bedroom door and heading further into the house. He could just take off, but he couldn’t run the risk, however slight, of Saria panicking if he left without telling her.
Their house was small: just a couple of bedrooms, a bathroom, and a square dining area attached to a tiny kitchenette, but Jared wouldn’t have it any other way. He’d built it pretty much from the ground up, completing the project in only a few short months with the help of several friends, and he had erected it right where their old familial nest used to be, because Saria seemed to be most comfortable here. He thought his parents would have liked it if they had…well. They just would have liked it.
He found Saria making lunch in the kitchenette, slowly stirring a pot of soup atop their small woodfire stove that made the whole place smell of spiced meat. Jared smiled. It turned out he’d been right, all those years ago. His sisters had grown up beautiful, and Saria especially. Her long brown hair and soft, laughing blue eyes were nothing but their mother, and Jared couldn’t help the sharp twinge in his heart at the old memory, quickly packing the thoughts away before they could turn ugly and painful.
“Hey,” he said instead, stepping into the kitchenette, barely able to squeeze his broad frame through the doorway. “Saria, did you hear me? I’m leaving.”
In response, his sister lifted one finger up, pointed toward the ceiling in the universal sign for Just a moment. Jared obeyed, and eventually Saria turned, balancing a ladle full of steaming soup in her hands as she offered it to Jared, eyebrows raised.
He took an experimental sip and found his mouth instantly flooded with pungent, meaty flavor. “Wow. Is that the goat I brought in yesterday?”
Saria nodded, and Jared grinned. “Man, I’d give anything to be half the cook you are. Guess you got the foodie genes in the family. Too bad all the beauty genes went to me though—ow! Saria!”
He rubbed his suddenly stinging shoulder, glaring at his sister. She just smirked in reply, giving him her trademark You’re-such-an-idiot look as she turned back to the stove. Lifting a hand, she waved it over her shoulder in a clearly dismissive motion, and Jared heaved a sigh as put-upon as he could manage.
“Yeah, all right, I’m going already,” he said, and bent down to kiss her on the cheek. “I’ll tell Sai and Laeter you said hi.”
Saria patted his shoulder in response, not looking up from the pot she was still stirring. Jared nodded, turned and headed for the door. He determinedly did not think about how his sister hadn’t spoken a single word in over fourteen years.
Fifteen minutes later, Jared angled up and broke through the cloud cover, allowing his eyes to fall shut as the bright mid-morning sunlight warmed his wings. They were in the peak of springtime now, summer only a few short weeks away, and the dry season got pretty intense here. He would have to enjoy the balmy weather while it lasted.
The Bluewhips and the Quillbacks weren’t having as good a time of it right now, Jared knew. Their eggs would be hatching just around this time, parents scrambling to feed a sudden multitude of new mouths. The timing was perfect, though: spring meant lukewarm water temperatures and lots of tall grass to hide in, each conducive to where Bluewhips and Quillbacks liked to nest. Silverstreaks, in contrast, preferred to hatch their younglings in the fall, when the steady winds that rose for winter were ideal for teaching inexperienced flyers.
Not that Jared would know, of course. When he came of age, he went looking for a mate, as was customary, but quickly found himself hard-pressed to find other Silverstreaks, much less pick out one he actually liked. He didn’t even think it was because he was being particularly choosy, but rather that the pickings were just frustratingly slim.
The first had been a young female, three years his junior, who was pretty enough, but so alarmingly empty in the head that Jared could practically hear her thoughts rattling about inside her cavernous skull. The second, however impossible it seemed, had been even worse: a spoiled, pampered only son with the wits of a snail, so engrained in his sense of entitlement that he hadn’t even bothered to learn how to find the silence. He’d been hard-pressed to get off his high horse long enough to even speak to Jared, and Jared had never been more grateful to leave another dragon behind. Really, the nerve. Just because Silverstreaks were the rarest of the races didn’t mean they were entitled to be snobby, spoiled brats.
His third prospect had been far more promising. He was a strong male from a proud bloodline who held the potential for good, hearty offspring, and he was open and friendly, treating Jared like an equal through and through. Their courtship had been brief, though, because, not three weeks after meeting Laeter, Jared had made the mistake of introducing him to his sisters. One glance at the way Sai’s entire face lit up when their gazes met had sealed the deal. From then on, Laeter only had eyes for her, and when Sai finally came of age, they mated not two weeks afterward. Jared was still trying to figure out why he still wasn’t the least bit upset about that. He’d always been a sucker for making Sai happy, he supposed.
Either way, Jared had pretty much given up on the customary mate search after that. Laeter had generously offered to introduce him to some of his unmated relatives, but by then, Jared had already lost interest. If his mate really was out there, he or she could strike out and come find him, thank you very much.
Heaving a sigh, Jared extended his wings to their full twenty-five-foot span, tilting them up against the wind current. The resulting rapid drop in speed brought him out of the silence, the noise of the wind flooding back in with a powerful rush. Shaking his head to clear it, he descended slowly back through the clouds, watching as the great blue lake gradually opened up beneath him.
A small family of Bluewhips zipped through the water immediately below. Their thin, snake-like forms rippled powerfully as they propelled themselves forward with their whipcord tails. It looked to be a mother and three younglings who could only have recently hatched, and as Jared neared the lake’s glassy surface he could clearly see the younglings staring up at him, beady eyes huge with wonder and awe. Tucking his legs in close to his belly, he executed a perfect barrel roll right as he passed over them, smiling at the delighted shrieks and giggles that bubbled up from the water below.
Catching a passing current, he rose up and headed for land. At least he liked younglings. That was kind of important, considering he was soon to be an uncle. It was the whole reason for this trip, anyway: Sai had asked him to come visit, and to help Laeter build an extra wing in their house for the clutch she was expecting in the fall. Jared had been more than happy to agree, and frankly, he was probably just as excited about Sai’s first clutch as the young couple was. Though he had no mate of his own, he was looking forward to helping to raise Sai’s kids—that was, if his fiery, protective little sister would let him get close enough to her children to let him do anything.
His arrival in the small town twenty minutes later went largely unnoticed, which would have been atypical had it been any other place. Dragons were suspicious by nature, and new arrivals were often paid intense (though still polite) attention. Sai’s town, however, nestled at the foot of Veryl’s Crest, a long-dormant volcano, saw so many travelers passing through that its residents had simply stopped caring. That was probably because Veryl’s Crest shared a range with the towering glory of Seraphim Peak and its stone prisoner, a popular attraction for dragons the world over who wanted to see the last remaining relic from the great War.
Jared himself hadn’t been to Seraphim Peak in at least ten years. Maybe he would go this time, just long enough to pay his respects at Damos’s grave. It was the least he could do for his childhood hero, the dragon who had laid down his life to save them all.
The town itself was sleepy and quiet, houses laid out in a vaguely geometrical fashion along well-worn streets. When Jared landed, shifting along the way, he saw a group of young Addersax playing tag in the street, darting between and around houses with the quick grace characteristic of their race, shouting at each other as they ran. Jared was suddenly reminded of that day, so long ago, when he’d fought with that one Quillback—Korlan? Kilian?—over his family’s legacy. He couldn’t help but smile at the memory. Man, but he’d been a stupid kid.
A sudden, deep rumble interrupted his thoughts. Jared barely had time to blink in confusion before the very earth suddenly shifted beneath him, a long, undulating wave through the ground that pitched him abruptly off balance. Flailing his arms, he stumbled about and fell to his knees, hard rocky dirt digging into his skin. When he looked up, he couldn’t help but stare.
The houses were moving. Well, they weren’t moving, not like up and walking away, but they were vibrating all around him, swaying back and forth on fragile foundations. Nearby, something fell over with acrash and a sharp tinkle of breaking glass. The shouting of the young Addersax abruptly cut off, and Jared turned to see them huddled together in a small clump under a nearby tree, eyes wide and frightened as they stared at the world shaking around them. Just what was going on?
Then, as quickly as it had started, the shaking stopped. Jared blinked, not daring to move just yet as everything around him settled into stillness once again. Fear, surprise and confusion warred for property rights in his brain. What in the world had just happened?
Nearby, one of the youngest Addersax, barely out of the nest, abruptly shifted, trying to cover himself with his massive tail as he began to cry in a staccato of high-pitched squeaks. An older boy—his brother, presumably—quickly scooped him up, holding the wailing dragon close as he turned and booked it toward the nearest house, where a pair of adults were shouting at them from the front door. The other younglings, taking the cue, either scrambled into a retreat to their own homes, else shifted and took to the sky. Jared almost decided to follow their example—getting off this unstable ground, at least, seemed the right thing to do—except that was when he heard a familiar voice calling, “Jared!”
He turned to see Sai running toward him from her house at the end of the road, long hair flowing out behind her as she moved. Her delicate brow was creased with worry as she reached out, grasping his arm and attempting to tug him to his feet. “Are you all right?”
“Yeah,” Jared breathed, slowly, carefully standing up. When the ground gave no indication of wanting to shake further, he straightened up and turned to his sister. “What was that?”
Sai only frowned. “No one knows,” she answered. “They only started up about two days ago, but they’re getting worse every time. Pella’s house collapsed during the last one.”
Jared pursed his lips, looking past his sister up at the mountain towering in the distance. “Do you think it might have something to do with Veryl’s Crest? It is a volcano, after all.”
Sai only shook her head, blue eyes bright with worry. “No, the volcano has been sleeping since before the War, so it can’t be the cause. Some people are saying it’s Deioryn expressing his displeasure.” She abruptly rolled her eyes so hard it was a wonder she didn’t strain something, and Jared couldn’t help but smile. While he and Saria tended to take after their mother’s softer, more placating personality, Sai had somehow managed to inherit the strong will and no-nonsense attitude of their father. Jared couldn’t have been more proud.
“Well, whatever it is,” he said after a moment, “we have to make sure you’re safe. Have you and Laeter checked out the foundations of the house? It’s important to—”
“Yes, Jared,” Sai interrupted with a dramatically put-upon sigh, “we checked everything over the first time this happened. And before you ask, yes, we also moved everything off the high shelves and wrapped up all the breakables, so get that worried look off your face before it becomes permanent. It’s unbecoming.”
“You’re unbecoming,” was Jared’s comeback, but that didn’t stop him from bending down to kiss Sai on the cheek. “And it’s good to see you again, Sai. How are you feeling?”
“A little heavy,” Sai answered, patting her stomach where she was just beginning to show. “We think there may be three this clutch. I can’t seem to stop eating, at any rate—poor Laeter has to go out for food at least twice a day now.”
“Yes, but ‘poor Laeter’ also knows he’s going to get a great return for all the work, so he’s generally okay with it,” said a new voice, and Jared looked up to see Sai’s mate approaching. Laeter had what looked like a fine layer of dust on top of his dark hair, but his smile was friendly and his grip firm as he shook Jared’s hand. “Thank you for coming by to help with the house.”
Jared made a face at that. “It’s not like I had a choice. We all know what Sai would have done had I refused—ow!” He turned to glare at Sai, who had just hit him in the same spot Saria had earlier. “Seriously, do you and Saria get together behind my back and make secret How Best to Abuse Jared plans or something?”
“Only when you really deserve it,” Sai answered with a laugh, before her eyes abruptly softened. “How is Saria, anyway?”
Jared understood her concern. “She’s good,” he answered, with only a little hesitation. “You know, aside from…everything.”
Sai’s gaze dropped at that, eyes sad. “I wish I could go see her.”
Jared nodded. It was no secret to him that his sisters were close. Sibling bonds among dragons were always incredibly strong, but Saria and Sai, especially, seemed to have an attachment to each other more intense than most. In all honesty, it made Jared feel left out sometimes, the secret looks his sisters sometimes traded leaving him feeling distinctly awkward and unanchored. If it made them happy, though, he found that, in the end, he didn’t particularly mind, and it was that mindset that made him step forward and place a reassuring hand on Sai’s slim shoulder. “No long flights while carrying a clutch, remember?” he said, voice firm. “We’re not going to do anything that would put your kids at risk. Saria’s doing fine, Sai. Just take my word for it, okay? I can take a letter or something from you when I go back, if you want.”
“Yeah.” Sai didn’t sound entirely convinced, the furrow between her brows never fading away completely. When she carefully built up a smile, though, it was still genuine. “Okay then. Why don’t you come inside and have something to eat? Then we can go over the plans for the kids’ room.”
“Sure.” Jared followed her and Laeter obediently back toward their house, a small, square, simple affair with a back porch and a gigantic kitchen, just the way Sai liked it. Jared should know. He’d helped to build it.
Dragons tended to be pretty clearly divided regarding where to hatch and raise their younglings. While some, like Jared, tended toward building nests in the wilderness somewhere—for Silverstreaks, high cliffs and mountain forests were an especial favorite—others, like Sai, preferred nesting indoors, where the safety of four walls and other dragons only a shout away made predators a near impossibility. Jared could understand the logic of that, but he just couldn’t imagine raising his kids differently from how their mother had raised them, squawking and tumbling over each other in the nest, the green of the forest a cocoon of warmth and safety all around them as a vast blanket of open blue smiled down at them from overhead.
The saying went that you could take the dragon from the sky, but you couldn’t take the sky from the dragon. Jared thought his father would have appreciated that.
They spent the rest of the morning and part of the afternoon at lunch before setting out to plan the new room. It turned out Sai wanted the room built out of the east wing, while Laeter thought the west wing would receive more light. Watching as his sister and her mate argued good-naturedly over the future of their children, Jared couldn’t help that strange feeling in his chest as he thought about how, had things been just a little bit different, it would have been him bickering with Laeter about the room, and not Sai.
He rather preferred it this way, though. Sai was happy, and, by consequence, Jared was also happy. His own mate could wait.
Around mid-afternoon, another sudden earthquake brought them out of the house once again. Jared turned to Sai as soon as the shaking had stopped. “Are you absolutely sure it’s safe here? We can’t take the risk, Sai. Maybe you should move.”
“Maybe you should let me make my own decisions,” his sister answered with absolutely no heat, brow furrowed with concern as she surveyed the damage around them. No one had been hurt, but further down the road, the roof on one of the houses had caved in. Several nearby trees had also split their trunks, slumped over as if kowtowing to the ground.
“I don’t understand,” she continued after a moment. “The earth here has been stable for as long as anyone can remember; even the War didn’t upset it. Why all the shaking now?”
“Maybe it really is Deioryn acting up,” Laeter offered, and Sai spun on him, blue eyes flashing.
“That’s nonsense,” she snapped, “That’s just people being paranoid. If you—”
And that was when Jared felt it. Or, more appropriately, was blindsided by it.
Something rippled abruptly through the air, a presence the likes of which he had never felt before. Ponderous and heavy, as of something just barely contained, blanketed in a shroud of something so incredibly sad that Jared’s heart ached with it. But what was most intriguing was the underlying current of warmth, something deep and familiar that made the dragon inside him restless, itching just under his skin, a feeling both unfamiliar and strangely welcome. Jared’s entire body suddenly started to tingle, as a flush of heat zipped down his spine and a distinct cloudiness muzzed up his brain. He should be confused, he knew, even afraid, but instead he just felt warmth tinged with a sense of itching urgency, suddenly overwhelmed with the burning need to—to move or to fly or to—to—
“He’s coming,” Laeter said suddenly, voice breaking cleanly through Jared’s thoughts.
Jared shook his head, everything fuzzy and out of focus. His voice sounded very far away as he said on a breath, “Who’s coming?”
Next to him, Sai frowned, drawing her thin jacket more closely about her shoulders. “A lone dragon who lives up in the mountains,” she answered. “He keeps to himself for most of the year, but every few months he comes down here where we are. You know, to keep from getting sick.”
Jared nodded, even though he only vaguely registered his sister’s words. Dragons were generally a strong, healthy species, and their natural ability to self-heal made them both impervious to disease and largely immortal, as long as they were well-cared for. However, no dragon ever lived beyond about a hundred years at most, inevitably falling victim to the only two sicknesses the species could suffer: loneliness and heartbreak. This strange dragon must be trying to avoid the former, seeking out contact with other dragons in order to keep from descending into insanity and death.
“We’d better get inside,” Laeter said then, and Jared blinked.
“Inside? Why?” If it was social contact this dragon was seeking, they could help him the most by getting close. Looking around, though, Jared instantly saw that all the other families were also rushing indoors, doors and windows slamming shut with eerie finality from house to house. “What’s going on? Why are they hiding?”
Sai’s expression abruptly grew dark. “The dragon’s name is Jensen,” she said, “and he’s Sealed.”
Sealed. Jared looked toward the forest at the edge of town, where the presence hung heavy and calm, slowly but surely drawing closer and closer. Could that really be what it was? After all, if what Sai said was true, then this Jensen guy would have to be a pretty sinister person indeed. The Seal was considered the greatest punishment a dragon could receive, and the ritual, which involved effectively locking the dragon permanently inside its human body, was a death sentence in everything but name. Dragons were only ever Sealed for the most heinous of crimes, and, as only the Colossi had possessed power enough to perform the ritual, Jensen’s crime must have been from the time of the War. That would make him both very old, and very dangerous.
Still, it was strange indeed to hear of a Sealed dragon still alive after all this time. Most died only a short while after the ritual, shackled to the earth and shunned by all their peers, so the fact that Jensen had survived this long had to be a testament to his determination. And then, of course, there was the presence itself. A soft breeze abruptly brought him the scent of old ash, forest pine, and a faint undercurrent of something sharp and earthy that could only be Jensen, and to Jared, it was like catching the aroma of pungent meat after weeks of starvation. The scent surrounded him and settled into his pores, his very bones, warm and soothing like what he remembered of his mother’s caresses, and Sai had to be mistaken somehow. Jensen couldn’t be Sealed. After all, how could something so wrong feel so right?
“Jared.” Sai’s hand on his arm jolted him out of his thoughts, and he turned to see his sister watching him with a worried look on her face. “Come on. We should get inside the house.”“R…Right,” Jared said, feeling rather like he’d just been hit in the head with something large and unwieldy. Though his instincts screamed out in protest, he allowed Sai to pull him toward the house, all the while never breaking his gaze from the forest.
The instant they were inside, he made immediately for the nearest window. When Laeter made to close it, Jared’s hand shot out seemingly of its own accord to grasp his wrist, knuckles white.
“I want to see him,” Jared said, and something in his eyes must have reflected the desperate howl of the dragon caged just below his skin, because Laeter blinked at him for a moment before nodding a little meekly and drawing back.
Jared took a deep breath and focused his gaze once again on the forest edge, a jagged line of green, eerie and silent. The entire town was quiet now, the mayhem from the sudden earthquake only minutes before now nothing but echoes. Across the way, one of the young Addersax from earlier was peering out a crack in the door, eyes big and round with curiosity. Not an instant later he was yanked back from the threshold, his sharp cry of surprise cut neatly off by the quick creak-slam of his mother pulling the door shut. Jared didn’t even get a chance to smile at that, though, because that was when the single lone figure appeared at the edge of the forest.
Looking back on it, that instant that he saw Jensen for the first time, Jared would never be able to recall anything else from that moment. When pressed, he might be able to tell you that the trees were green, and maybe, just maybe, that the sun was out, but he wouldn’t remember what time of day it was, where he was standing, or even what he had been doing at Sai’s house in the first place. Ask him about any of the details of his surroundings that day, ask him about the mysterious earthquakes or about Sai’s pregnancy, and he wouldn’t be able to tell you a thing.
Ask him about Jensen specifically, though, and you’d better be prepared to settle in for the ride.
The first thing that Jared noticed about the figure that emerged from the trees was that he was tall. Not as tall as Jared, of course—in his defense, Jared towered over pretty much everybody in his human form—but Jensen was probably still a good head or so taller than average, at least six feet if not more. That, of course, led to the second thing Jared noticed about the other dragon—namely, that for all his height, he was quite noticeably thin. While some of that had to be a natural leanness from having to hunt and survive on his own with a serious handicap, it was obvious that the rest of it had to be from that immense loneliness that was worse than any disease. Sai had been right, at any rate. It was the loneliness that had killed Jared’s great-great-grandfather, in the end, and now it seemed it was killing Jensen as well.
The sickness had not taken away from Jensen’s features, though, and when the other dragon stepped out of the shade and into the sunlight, Jared swore his heart stuttered to a halt for a brief instant. Jensen’s skin was pale and there were dark shadows beneath his eyes, but they did nothing to hide his lean nose and sharp cheekbones, the curve of his mouth and the brightness of his eyes. His hair was spiked short, a dark brown bleached almost blond by the sun, and he looked like he hadn’t shaved in at least a couple of days, a dusting of dark stubble clear across his jaw. Jared felt something hot and dangerous curl in the pit of his stomach at the sight.
Jensen may have been a war-hardened soldier who had committed crimes beyond Jared’s worst imaginings, sick with loneliness and slowly dying of despair, but he might as well have stepped out of every single fantasy dream Jared had ever had. He’d never seen anyone more beautiful in his life.
As Jared watched, Jensen came slowly up to the edge of the town, where a large, flat boulder marked the border next to what looked like a communal garden. The strange dragon paused there for a moment, swaying slightly from side to side as if having difficulty keeping himself upright. Slowly, methodically, he looked around the town, taking in the closed-up houses, the tightly-shut doors and windows giving off a silence so cold even Jared could feel it. What was it like, he wondered, to be this hated, this feared? How did it feel to have everyone turn their backs on you at the moment you needed them the most?
Another long moment passed as Jensen continued to look around at all the houses. No one moved; no sound was heard, the dragons making known their hatred more clearly than any physical blow. Jared’s chest tightened. He swallowed hard, watching Jensen stand there alone at the end of the road. With his thin frame and hollowed eyes, Jared just couldn’t imagine him being some sort of heinous criminal. Had he really done something so horrible as to deserve this sort of treatment?
From his spot by the boulder, Jensen’s shoulders finally slumped. He heaved a sigh, a soft, defeated sound. Very slowly, as of an old man who had seen too many years, he lowered himself onto the boulder, balancing carefully on its edge. It couldn’t be a comfortable place to sit, but he settled there with a sort of smooth familiarity that sent a fresh lance of pain through Jared’s heart. This wasn’t the first time Jensen had sat there, he realized. This wasn’t the first time he had been treated this way. How many times had he—
“Jared, what the hell are you doing?”
Sai’s voice cut through the silence more sharply than a knife, startling Jared so badly he nearly fell out the window. At the end of the road, Jensen snapped his head up, turning toward the sound and, for one heart-stopping instant, their eyes met. The world ground to a halt. Pure, passionate emotion set Jared’s blood singing as a wave of warmth and right hit him like a physical blow, a pleasant tingle down his spine and all through his extremities, something that echoed of yesyesfinally. Down the road, Jensen’s eyes abruptly widened, mouth parting slightly in a gasp of half-surprise, half…something else entirely. His green eyes sparkled in the afternoon light, lit with a fire that Jared knew was reflected in his own gaze.
Then, in the next instant, Jensen was gone, the sharp bang of Sai slamming the shutters closed reverberating like a brick through Jared’s skull. He reeled back, a sudden, mind-numbing sense of loss that he couldn’t understand, everything fading away fuzzy and indistinct for an instant as pain ripped through his chest. Blindly he found himself reaching out toward the window, the dragon within howling and demanding that he get Jensen back now, but he was abruptly stopped when Sai seized his wrist in a surprisingly strong grip, blue eyes flashing in half-anger, half-worry.
“You can’t let him see you!” his sister hissed. “That’s only going to encourage him to keep coming back.”
But that’s the idea, Jared didn’t say, instead shaking his head in an attempt to clear it. Gods, what was going on? Why was Jensen affecting him this way? “Sai—”
“You don’t know what he did,” Sai said, voice dropping low, “to be Sealed, that is. It had to be a war crime—a horrible crime, Jared.”
Jared shook his head again. “But…but you don’t know that for sure.”
“We know he’s Sealed, and that’s enough,” Laeter said, coming up behind them. “It’s a punishment only given for a very good reason, Jared. You know that.”
Of course Jared knew that. But it still didn’t change the fact that Jensen was somehow different, that there was something about him that was just too right. “I don’t think—”
“Jared.” Sai sighed, finally releasing her hold on his wrist. “Do you know what they say he did? To deserve the Seal?” At Jared’s silence, she bit her lip. “They say he was a traitor. They say he was one of Damos’s top soldiers, before he betrayed him during the War.”
Jared’s entire body turned cold at that. Jensen…a traitor? But how could that be? Pride was a dragon’s greatest and most treasured virtue, and only those who succumbed to the deepest depths of greed and corruption would dare become turncoats. Could Jensen really have fallen that far? Could that thin, tired-looking dragon, sitting quiet and alone on the hard rock outside, really have betrayed their greatest savior?
“Hey,” Laeter said then, stepping forward and laying a warm hand on Jared’s shoulder. “Forget about it, okay? Let’s finish hammering out those plans for the new room.”
His eyes were soft and sympathetic, a look Jared had never been able to refuse. Taking a couple of big, deep breaths in an attempt to calm his pounding heart and clear his head, he finally sighed, nodding and turning away from the window. It was the hardest thing he’d ever done. “Yeah, okay,” he said, and followed Laeter and Sai further into the house.
Evening found them eating dinner around the kitchen table. The third time Jared’s gaze drifted involuntarily to the closed window, Sai set her fork down with a sharp clink. “Jared,” she said, “you have to stop that.”
Jared just frowned and continued to stare at the shutters as if he could penetrate the wooden partition through sheer will alone. Outside, Jensen’s presence still hung in the air like a fog, heavy and silent.
“I can’t help it,” he said after a while. “He just doesn’t feel evil, Sai.”
“That doesn’t change the fact that he’s Sealed.”
Jared sighed. “But you’re just going off what you’ve heard, right? Has anyone even bothered to ask him about it?”
At Sai and Laeter’s answering silence, Jared turned and blinked. His sister and her mate were both looking down at the table, expressions heavy with guilt, and Jared felt all the breath leave his body. “Has no one ever talked to him?” he asked. “At all?”
The continuing silence was more than answer enough. Jared pressed a hand to his suddenly-throbbing head. “You mean to say,” he said, speaking slowly, “that all this time, all the years that Jensen has been coming here, no one has spoken a single word to him? Ever?”
“It’s part of his punishment,” Laeter said, after an uncomfortable pause. “Complete isolation—that’s what the Seal means.”
Jared just shook his head, looking uncomprehendingly down at his plate. “I don’t buy it,” he whispered, and Sai touched his arm.
“You don’t have to,” she said. “He’ll be gone by tomorrow morning. Just let it go, Jared.”
“I can’t,” Jared said, sighing and turning back to his food. He didn’t taste a thing for the rest of the meal.
Later that night, he lay in the living room on the thick pile of sheets and blankets Sai had set out for him, staring up at the slanted roof overhead. Silence had fallen all around him, Sai and Laeter having long retreated to the bedroom. The only sound Jared could hear was the soft chorus of night insects drifting in from outside. Turning his head slightly, he blinked as the window came into view, still tightly shuttered with only a few weak beams of moonlight leaking through the slats.
The presence still pulsed quietly outside, steady and deep, just as it had since that afternoon. Jensen.
With a sigh, Jared sat up, pushing the blankets aside. Padding on bare feet across the room, he quietly unlatched the window, pulling it open just a crack and peering out into the gloom.
Jensen was still in the same spot where Jared had last seen him, seated alone on the boulder at the edge of town. He appeared to have fallen asleep upright, with his arms crossed and his head bowed. His eyes were closed, mouth slightly open as he breathed. As Jared continued to watch, though, Jensen’s body slowly started to tilt to one side, head lowering further and shoulders slumping with exhaustion. Yet, just when it seemed he might go crashing over, his eyes sprang open and he quickly righted himself again with a soft grunt. A minute or so later, though, the ritual started all over again, and Jared swallowed, watching as Jensen tried—and failed—again and again to stay awake in his seated position.
With the sickness as well as the uncomfortable position he was sitting in, Jensen had to be exhausted. It would be so much easier, of course, if he just got off the rock and lay down on the ground, but Jared knew he wouldn’t do that. A dragon had his pride, after all.
Something swelled up inside Jared at that thought, something warm, deep, defiant, and he was moving almost before he was fully aware of it. Carefully closing the window, he pulled on his jacket and made his way into the kitchen. The remainders of the stew Sai had made for dinner were still in a pot on the stove, and Jared warmed it quickly before doling a generous helping into one of his sister’s favorite bowls. Grabbing a spoon from the drawer as he passed, he unlocked the front door and, without allowing himself to think too much about it, stepped out into the night.
The air outside was cool, but not alarmingly so. Jared took a moment for a deep breath before directing his steps down the road, bowl of stew steaming before him.
Jensen’s eyes snapped open as soon as Jared got within twenty feet of him, the other dragon’s entire body tensing up as Jared approached. By the time Jared finally reached him, Jensen was already half out of his seat, spine straight and shoulders hunched as if ready to bolt. That was unacceptable, and Jared spoke without even thinking about it.
“It’s okay,” he said, speaking slowly, “I just, uh. Thought you might be hungry, that’s all.” He offered the bowl. “It’s stew. My sister made it. She, ah, lives in that house over there.”
Jensen still didn’t move, but the initial wariness in his eyes did lighten a little more into curiosity. Encouraged, Jared took another step forward, making sure to keep his movements deliberate and unthreatening as he placed the bowl of stew on the boulder next to Jensen, careful not to touch the other dragon. “Here. It’s really good, I promise.”
Jensen tilted his head, regarding Jared for a moment. Jared flashed his most winning smile, and they stood there in silence for a long while, watching each other.
At long last, the corners of Jensen’s mouth quirked up just the slightest bit, crow’s feet crinkling at the corners of his eyes as he picked up the bowl and took a deep sniff.
“Smells good,” he said. “Thanks.” His voice was low and gruff, scratchy with disuse, and easily the best thing Jared had ever heard.
He felt his own smile widen as something warm and pleasant trickled slowly down his spine. “You’re welcome,” he said, before extending a hand. “I’m Jared, by the way.”
Jensen paused, spoon already halfway to his mouth. His shoulders tensed up again as his gaze flickered from the hand to Jared’s face to the bowl and finally back to the hand again. Jared promptly lowered it, and saw Jensen visibly relax. He frowned, feeling a deep and painful suspicion begin to take root at the back of his mind.
“Jensen,” the other dragon said after a moment, before scooting carefully over on the boulder to make room. “You can sit. You know, if you want.”
“Sure.” Still keeping his movements measured, Jared took a seat next to Jensen. Sharp rock promptly dug painfully into his tailbone—it was a miracle anyone could sit there for prolonged periods of time—but he made sure to keep the smile on his face as he turned to Jensen and said, “Thanks.”
Jensen nodded, and slowly began to eat. Jared watched him, the bunch and flex of his muscles as he lifted and lowered the spoon, the bobbing of his Adam’s apple as he swallowed. Jensen’s condition seemed to have improved a bit from the afternoon; his skin was no longer as pale, and his hands only trembled a little as he ate. Up close, Jared could also see that his eyes were actually a smooth blend of hazel-green, and though they were slightly sunken and bloodshot from sickness, they still shone with a vast depth the likes of which Jared had never seen. At the junction where his shoulder met his neck, right where the collar of his shirt ended, Jared could just make out a small curl of black, the very edge of the intricate symbol on Jensen’s back that, Jared knew, marked him as Sealed.
Taking a breath, he opened his mouth to ask, but Jensen beat him to it.
“That was good,” the other dragon said, looking down at the now-empty bowl with that same trace of a smile. “Please thank your sister for me. She’s very kind.”
The evenness of his tone suggested he was perfectly aware Sai had had nothing to do with this, but Jared just nodded, reaching out to take the bowl. “My pl—”
Their fingers brushed and Jensen abruptly flinched, bowl dropping immediately from his hands as if coated in slippery oil, but Jared caught it almost on reflex. He quickly gave Jensen a reassuring smile even as the other dragon’s face took on a slightly panicked expression.
“I’m sorry,” Jensen began, but Jared just shook his head, setting the bowl down by his feet as he regarded the other dragon. Jensen’s reaction could only be interpreted one way; he hated it, but he had to ask.
“Jensen, when was the last time anyone touched you?”
The question seemed to catch Jensen off-guard, and he didn’t answer immediately, blinking at Jared before dropping his gaze down to his hands quivering in his lap. When at last he lifted his head to fix his gaze on a distant spot far off on the horizon, his eyes were so incredibly sad that it took everything Jared had not to reach out to him.
“I don’t remember,” Jensen said then, and Jared swallowed. Dear gods, to have lived so long without another’s voice, another’s touch…
“Hey.” He waited until Jensen turned to look at him before slowly lifting his hand, palm open and facing him. “Can I?”
Jensen hesitated. Jared could practically hear the gears turning in his head. He didn’t move, though, just continued to watch Jensen, trying to communicate an air of patience and acceptance. It must have worked, because after a long moment, Jensen finally took a breath and nodded, glancing briefly up at him with a quick, stuttered smile before looking back down at his hands. Slowly, deliberately, Jared reached forward and laid his hand on Jensen’s shoulder.
Jensen tensed up immediately, muscles bunching beneath Jared’s fingers as something sharp and uncertain shuddered through his aura. But then, in the next moment, his eyelids fluttered shut and he let out a soft, almost awestruck “Oh” as his body slowly relaxed, bit by bit. Jared smiled, trying to concentrate on Jensen’s face and not on how very warm (supple perfect) the other dragon’s skin felt beneath his fingers.
“Okay?” he asked, and after a moment, Jensen nodded.
“Yeah.” He turned to Jared and offered him another one of those stunning, soft smiles. “Thank you.” The words shook with the depth of his gratitude, and Jared could see why. Already Jensen’s skin was starting to take on a more healthy hue, direct physical contact with another dragon driving away the sickness more cleanly than a gust of wind blowing dust off a window.
It made Jared’s heart ache to think of how Jensen had suffered for so many years, when all it would have taken to make him better was a single touch from a stranger with just an ounce of compassion.
“My pleasure.” Jared tilted his head. “You, ah, seem to run a little warm. Are you an Addersax?”
Jensen abruptly frowned, a flicker of something like pain flashing across his features as he turned back to watch the horizon. “It doesn’t matter now,” he said, softly, and didn’t offer anything more.
Jared sensed he had somehow touched on a sensitive topic, although he couldn’t for the life of him fathom why. It was best not to push it, though, not when it seemed he was just starting to get Jensen to trust him, and they sat in silence for another moment. When the other dragon abruptly spoke, it nearly startled Jared right off the boulder.
“So are you going to ask?” Jensen said, not looking at him.
Jared blinked. “About what?”
Jensen’s left shoulder remained firmly pressed against Jared’s hand, but he lifted his right hand, tapping a finger against the black mark that curled around his neck. “About this. Someone must have told you by now that I’m Sealed.”
“Oh. Well.” Jared bit his lip, looked at Jensen, and decided he might as well take the plunge if Jensen was making the offer. “Rumor has it you betrayed Damos somehow, back during the War.”
“Huh.” There was no anger or defensiveness in Jensen’s voice; in fact, he appeared more thoughtful than anything else, rubbing his chin with one hand. “Is that what they say?”
Jared nodded, watching him closely. “I don’t believe it, though,” he said, and meant it. “What crime did you commit, Jensen, that Damos had to Seal you?”
It might have been his imagination, but he thought Jensen flinched at the mention of the legendary name. He recovered quickly, though, and simply shrugged, a smooth, fluid up-down movement of his shoulders. Jared’s hand rose and fell with it. When Jensen spoke, his voice was carefully neutral. “I killed a lot of dragons,” he said.
Jared blinked. That was…not quite what he had been expecting. It had been wartime, after all—what else could Jensen have done? “Many dragons killed others back then,” he answered, trying not to sound too confused.
“Sure,” Jensen said, but didn’t elaborate.
Jared waited a few beats, but the other dragon remained silent. It seemed this was a topic Jensen wasn’t eager to discuss, and Jared didn’t blame him. Walking around with the reminder of his crime seared into the skin of his back was already punishment enough. In the end, Jared decided it best to steer in a new direction. “So what was it like, then? Fighting in the War?”
Jensen thought it over for a moment. “Pointless,” he said at last, and his entire aura darkened with sorrow. “The Colossi should have resolved their issues the right way: alone, without involving anyone else. If they’d done that, thousands of dragons wouldn’t have had to die.”
“But Damos was trying to save us. He was a hero.”
Jensen flinched again, expression growing abruptly bitter. “Yeah. I’m sure he was.” He cleared his throat then, turning to look at Jared full-on once again. “I’m assuming you were born after the War?”
Jared nodded. “Long after. I’ll be twenty-six this fall.”
“You’re awfully interested in the legends for someone so young,” Jensen remarked, but there was no judgment in his voice, only a quiet curiosity.
Jared just shrugged. “My bloodline goes back to that time,” he answered. “At least, that’s how my parents used to tell it. My great-great-grandfather was apparently one of Damos’s top generals.”
The other dragon tilted his head at that. “Silverstreak?” he asked after a moment, and, at Jared’s nod, added, “Aphaniel?”
Jared did a double-take, not bothering to hide his surprise as he gaped at Jensen. “Yeah,” he said. “But how did you—”
Jared blinked. “What?”
At that, Jensen smiled. “Yes, your great-great-grandfather was indeed one of Damos’s top generals,” he said, “and a close friend.”
“You…” Jared couldn’t help but stare. “You knew him? Grandpa Aphaniel?”
“Yes. I fought by his side many times, in fact.”
Something warm flared up in Jared at that, the same hopeful curiosity he’d had as a child, looking up at his mother as she told him her stories. Over the years, as the gloss of the tale had gradually faded, Jared had found himself questioning more and more the veracity of the story, that natural skepticism that came with age leading him to wonder if his mother hadn’t made the whole thing up in order to keep them entertained. Now, with the evidence being presented to him practically on a silver platter, he had never felt more proud.
“Were you a general too, then?” he asked. Jensen’s name had never popped up before in the various stories he’d heard told over the years, but that didn’t mean anything. He could’ve been a foot soldier, or a captain, or—
Or his name had simply been erased from the books when he’d turned traitor.
Shaking himself, Jared quickly locked those ugly, sinister thoughts away in the back of his mind, focusing instead on his companion. “What was it like, fighting in the War? Were the Colossi really as powerful as they say? Did you—”
“Whoa, hey, slow down before you hurt yourself,” Jensen said, but he was laughing as he said it, a flash of bright teeth and crinkly crow’s feet. Jared thought that if he could just keep Jensen smiling like that forever, he would never want for anything else in his life.
Still, he did have the sense to look sheepish. “I’m sorry, I just—I’ve been hearing all these stories about the War throughout my life, but there’s no way to know how accurate they are, you know? I never thought I’d find myself talking to someone who’d actually been there.”
“Well.” Jensen grew quiet then, laugh lines slowly fading away. “I’m not sure I’m the best person to ask about that, Jared. You have to remember, I did some pretty terrible things.”
And Jared did remember. It was difficult to forget something so obvious when the evidence was there at the base of Jensen’s neck, a sinister curl of black that branded him a traitor, a criminal, an outcast. But somehow, just as he had earlier that evening at Sai’s dinner table, Jared just didn’t buy it. He couldn’t explain why, but something about Jensen’s aura, about the way the other dragon held himself pained but still proud, the way he laughed and talked and looked at Jared with nothing but genuine kindness…calling him a criminal just didn’t feel right. Jensen was too kind, too friendly, too warm, too everything to have deserved being Sealed. It was like trying to match together two pieces from entirely different puzzles—Jared just couldn’t make them fit.
“That was a long time ago,” he offered at last, and Jensen nodded but didn’t look convinced.
“Yeah. I guess it was.”
More silence. Jared fidgeted a little, accidentally kicking over the empty bowl at his feet. The resulting clank startled them both, and seemed to remind Jensen of the reality of the situation. The other dragon abruptly stood up, smoothing down his shirt as he turned to give Jared a small smile. “Well, I guess I should probably get going. Thanks for, uh…you know.”
He made to turn away, and Jared was moving before he was even fully aware of it, shooting up and grabbing Jensen’s wrist. “Wait!” he cried, as the other dragon startled to a stop. “Wait. Just…” He bit his lip, the thought of potentially never seeing Jensen again causing the dragon within to roar in anguish. Jared didn’t know why, but the thought of this being their final conversation just…wasn’t acceptable. “Will you be back? Here, I mean.”
“Um.” Jensen looked pointedly down at where Jared’s fingers were still wrapped firmly around his wrist. Jared swallowed, but didn’t release his grip. Beneath his fingers, the other dragon’s skin was warm and slightly dry, and Jared could feel the steady thrum of Jensen’s pulse through his skin, an echoing rhythm that his body seemed to automatically strive to match, as if he and Jensen were more one being than two.
“I.” Jensen’s gaze darted up to him, and Jared knew he couldn’t be imagining the flicker of regret in the other dragon’s green eyes as he said, “I don’t think so. Not for a while, at least. Jared, can you—”
“Then where do you live?” Jared pressed on, tightening his grip. “I could come visit.” Don’t leave me. Not when I finally found you.
Jensen sighed, looking abruptly old and exhausted. “You have a kind heart, Jared,” he said, “but you seem to have forgotten that I’m Sealed. Remember that little detail? Me being a heinous war criminal and all that? Now don’t take this the wrong way, because I really am very grateful to you for what you’ve done, but why are you so hell-bent on helping me?”
“Well.” Somehow, Jared didn’t think an answer of I can’t sense anything evil in your aura, in fact I’d rather like to wrap your entire aura around me like a warm blanket, and by the way, did you know you’re the most beautiful dragon I’ve ever seen and that you’re going to be featuring in all my fantasies from now on? would go over very well at this point. “You just…feel like a good person, I guess.”
Jensen gave him a slightly confused look at that, but didn’t seem inclined to pursue the matter. Instead, he dropped his gaze, giving his hand a light shake to disengage Jared’s grip. “You should go,” he said then, voice soft.
Jared frowned. “You haven’t told me—”
“No,” the other dragon said, and when he looked up at Jared, his eyes were bright. “I meant you should go. Take your sister and her mate, and leave this place as soon as you can.”
“What?” Jared blinked. “Why?”
“The strange earthquakes,” Jensen said. “You’ve felt them, right?”
“Well, yeah, but—”
“And they don’t feel right to you, do they?” Jensen interrupted. At Jared’s silence, he nodded. “When you’ve lived as long as I have, Jared, you learn to trust your hunches. So trust mine, and leave this place.”
“I don’t think—”
“Please.” For the first time since the conversation started, Jared saw real vulnerability, real concern flash in the other dragon’s eyes that both warmed and chilled him at the same time. “I know we’ve only known each other for a few minutes, and I have no right to tell you what to do, but, just…if anything were to happen to you—”
Jensen cut himself off then, eyes going wide and startled, and Jared knew in that instant that he wasn’t the only one feeling some sort of connection between them. But if Jensen felt it too—if his dragon was responding to their contact the same way Jared’s was, then didn’t that mean…
It was at that moment that the ground suddenly gave another violent heave, a creaking groan as the earth abruptly shifted beneath their feet. Caught off guard, Jared lost his balance completely, the world spinning crazily around him for one nauseating instant before he suddenly found himself on his back, looking up at the starlit sky. Wow, he hadn’t noticed the moon was so bright tonight…
The world was still moving around him, the earth shifting with deep, tremulous groans, but still Sai’s voice cut through the air like a lance. Jared frowned, shaking his head to clear it as he slowly levered himself up to a sitting position. A few seconds later, the shaking finally stopped. When he looked up, he saw Sai and Laeter running toward him, clothing rumpled with sleep and expressions creased with concern.
Sai dropped to her knees as soon as she reached him, patting her hands all over his head and torso to check for injuries. “Are you hurt? Dear gods, when we came out and saw you lying there on the floor…”
“That must’ve been the worst one yet,” Laeter said, shaking his head and peering at the town coming alive all around them. The doors of every house were now being flung open, the residents stepping out in a sleepy, confused daze. “What were you even doing out here in the middle of the night, Jared?”
Jared shook his head, gently pushing Sai’s frantic hands away. “I was—stop it, Sai, I’m fine—I was just getting some air.”
At that, his sister sat back on her haunches, fixing him with a hard glare. “Uh-huh, sure. And you just happened to be getting some air next to the boulder where Jensen was sitting, right?”
At the mention of that name, Jared shot immediately to his feet, glancing quickly around the clearing—but he shouldn’t have bothered. Jensen was gone, the boulder empty, not even a whisper of his aura left in the air. The only evidence the other dragon had even been there was the empty soup bowl, still lying overturned on the ground.
Next to him, Laeter shook his head. “Jared, we told you—”
“I don’t care.” And Jared found with some surprise that he meant it. Everyone else thought they knew better, making assumptions about Jensen simply because of the mark on his back, and Jared was tired of it. Moreover, he was tired of the other dragons looking at him with those pitying eyes like he was some naïve youngling who didn’t know any better, eyes that basically screamed, You don’t know what you’re getting into. Jared knew exactly what he was getting into, thank you very much, and he had absolutely no regrets about meeting Jensen. Everyone else could make their judgments and be all holier-than-thou, but they hadn’t been there to see Jensen’s soft smile, or the way his hazel-green eyes sparkled when he was amused. They hadn’t been there to see how kind he was, how protective, how genuinely caring—so their opinions amounted to nothing, as far as Jared was concerned.
He got to his feet and took a moment to dust off his sleeves before reaching down and picking up the empty soup bowl. When he turned back to Sai and Laeter, they were both regarding him with matching confused, slightly pitying looks. A moment passed as they watched each other. Jared braced himself for what was to come, but at last his sister just sighed, stepping forward and taking the bowl from him.
“You could’ve made him something yourself, at least,” she said then. “I was going to eat this for lunch tomorrow, you know.” There was no censure in her voice, though; only a mild, familiar exasperation. Truce, the undertone said, and Jared decided, in light of everything that had happened, to take it without fuss. He was Sai’s elder, true, but he was also her guest. In the end, it wasn’t worth starting a row over.
“No way,” he answered then, flashing her his best dopey smile, “I didn’t want to make your kitchen explode.”
Sai blinked at him for a moment before breaking into soft laughter, and even Laeter grinned. Just like that, the tension between them lifted. Jared thought of Jensen’s soft laughter, the way the corners of his eyes crinkled up when he smiled, and allowed the memory to warm him as he followed his sister and her mate back toward their house.
“Okay,” Jared said the next day, looking down at the pencil lines spread out on the paper before him. “So two windows total, one here and one here, and if we slant the roof—”
“We’re not going to slant the roof,” Laeter interrupted, shaking his head. “You really want your nieces and nephews hitting their heads on hardwood while they’re learning to fly?”
“Huh.” Jared took a moment to remember all the bumps and bruises he’d gotten during his own fluttering attempts as a youngling, and that had been in the middle of an open clearing in a forest. “Point taken. Okay, a raised roof, then. And how do you want the door, attached to the living room or to your bedroom?”
“The living room, definitely,” Sai said, walking into the room with a full plate of sandwiches. “I don’t care if they’re my kids; I don’t want them crawling all over me in the middle of the night. And it’s already an hour past noon. Time for lunch, boys.”
“Really?” Jared blinked, turning to peer out the window of the living room. The sun was, indeed, already tipping past overhead, and he shook his head. “I didn’t even notice.”
“Time flies when you’re having fun,” Sai deadpanned. Her face promptly broke into a fond smile, though, as she leaned in toward Laeter. “Isn’t that right, honey?”
Something sharp and near-painful rose up inside Jared as they kissed, and he quickly looked away, concealing the urge to grimace by grabbing a sandwich and taking a generous bite. Really, this was getting ridiculous. Just yesterday, he’d watched Sai and Laeter together and had felt happy for them—proud, even. Now, though, watching his sister and her mate pull back to watch each other with nothing but love in their eyes, that happiness was tainted with an overwhelming sense of loss, the sense that he would never have that kind of connection. It made him antsy, made him itch to just drop everything and go out and find his mate, the one who would complete him, who would be everything to him and who would fill in all the missing spaces in his being—and Jared wasn’t stupid. He knew why he was suddenly feeling this way, and he knew exactly who he so desperately wanted to seek out.
No one had heard or seen anything of Jensen since the previous night, when he’d disappeared from Jared’s life as quickly as he’d come after the sudden earthquake. Still, he might as well have stuck around, because Jared hadn’t been able to get the other dragon out of his mind. He’d spent the entire night tossing and turning, thinking of Jensen’s smile, the soft green of his eyes, the gruffness of his voice and the strength of his hands. Sleeping only made things worse, because in his dreams those hands would pin him to the mattress of the bed and that voice would whisper all sorts of hot promises in his ear, and Jared would promptly jolt awake with Jensen’s name on his lips and his cock stiff and leaking in his underwear.
The last dream had been the most vivid, in which he’d found himself spread out naked and flushed beneath Jensen’s strong body, lost in the mesmerizing glint of the other dragon’s eyes as he smirked and thrust abruptly up and in, stuffing Jared full in all the right ways and setting his body alight in all the right places. After that, Jared hadn’t even hesitated when he’d woken up, just slid his hand down past his belly, curled his fingers around his dick and started to stroke. It had only taken two or three pulls to wring out his orgasm, choking on air as he spilled into his underwear, and when he was finished Jared had promptly flopped back on the pillow to stare up at the ceiling, still gasping for breath as his entire body tingled with the afterglow.
There was no denying it after that. Something about Jensen, something about the other dragon’s smile and the way he looked at Jared the previous night had just stuck, burrowed under Jared’s skin and gone straight for his heart. Except this something didn’t have the feel of a disease or an infection; in fact, it was quite the opposite. It echoed of mate, and that was what scared Jared the most.
Contrary to popular belief, Jared was not naïve. Just because he hadn’t yet found a mate didn’t mean he couldn’t recognize the signs when he saw them, and at the very least, he knew he and Jensen shared a connection the likes of which Jared had never felt before. On some deep, unexplainable level, he could feel Jensen, could feel that the other dragon was good and kind, and the warm, pleasant hum beneath Jared’s skin whenever he thought about the other dragon was unmistakable.
What made it all so confusing, though, was the fact that Jared was pretty sure Jensen wasn’t a Silverstreak. All dragons possessed the natural ability to sense others of their own race, and Jared was no exception, able to easily tell another of his own kind by the feel of the aura, regardless of what form the dragon in question was currently in. It had taken no more than a couple seconds in Jensen’s presence, however, for Jared to confirm that the other dragon’s aura definitely wasn’t the telltale feathery, slightly cold presence of a Silverstreak. In fact, Jensen’s aura hadn’t felt like much of anything, which was rather alarming. All dragons gave off something in their auras, something that was distinctive and unique to their race, but Jensen’s presence was different. It was warm, yes, and tinged with hints of a sadness the depths of which Jared couldn’t even begin to comprehend, but everything else about it was also strangely muted, revealing no clue as to Jensen’s true heritage. Jared, in fact, had spent a considerable amount of time attempting to categorize Jensen’s aura, and had been able to come up with nothing but one undeniable fact: the other dragon’s aura just felt, for lack of a better word, right.
It was possible Jensen’s aura had been muted by the Seal, of course, but that was an entire other matter Jared didn’t even want to think about. Even though the very thought of Jensen made the dragon inside Jared shudder with want, it didn’t change the fact that Jensen was guilty of a terrible crime, one so heinous that Damos himself had seen fit to punish him with the worst sanction in the books. That meant only one thing. Even if he and Jensen were destined to be mates, even if they somehow managed to overcome every obstacle and, by some miracle of miracles, achieved their happily ever after, Jared knew it couldn’t last. The Seal would burn them more harshly than any brand. They would be ostracized at best and hunted down at worst, and Jared knew they couldn’t hope to raise a family that way, constantly looking over their shoulders while being spurned and despised by every dragon they came across.
Even if Jensen was his mate—and Jared’s entire being practically screamed that this was true—they couldn’t be together. It was this realization that had turned Jared’s fierce loyalty to Jensen into angry frustration over the course of the night. Knowing Jensen was there, so close and yet so completely out of Jared’s reach—it hurt, enough so that, watching Sai and Laeter smiling at each other, so goddamned happy and in love, it was all Jared could do not to put his fist through the nearest wall. Why couldn’t he have that kind of happiness? And, more importantly, why couldn’t Jensen?
Sai’s voice brought Jared out of his reverie, and he looked up to see his sister watching him, eyes wide and not a little concerned. “Are you okay?” she asked.
Jared sighed, mentally berating himself for making Sai worry once again. None of this was her fault, after all, or Laeter’s. “Yeah, I’m fine. Just got a lot on my mind, that’s all.” He gave Sai his best smile and took a big, measured bite of his sandwich, just to prove his point. This thing with Jensen was just going to have to be something he figured out for himself. There was no need to get his sister involved.
And that, the instant when Jared was just having that thought, was when the world exploded.
The shockwave knocked Jared clear off his feet, a sharp crack sounding out as his head impacted the wall behind him, and everything suddenly became very fuzzy and far away. Distantly he was aware of the ringing in his ears, a low groan as the roof above him started to collapse and the echoes of people shouting and screaming, but it all just seemed so unimportant, somehow. What was going on? And why was everything suddenly so bright?
A sudden roar sounded out in his ears, terrible and deafening, and with a cry Jared tried to turn away. He clapped his hands over his ears and started to curl up into a fetal position, but then somebody was suddenly grabbing at him, delicate fingers tugging desperately at his arm and shoulder as he slowly became aware of a voice—his sister’s voice, Sai’s voice—screaming at him in high-pitched hysterics.
“Jared, get up! For the love of the gods, get up!”
And, even though his head was still pounding, even though he wanted nothing more than to push Sai away, curl up and go to sleep until he felt better, Jared knew, somehow, that something was terribly wrong. Sai needed him, and that thought made him finally open his eyes and struggle to a seated position.
He instantly became aware of two things: one, Laeter was currently crouched protectively over them in full dragon form, and appeared to have used the force of his wings unfolding to break them out of the confines of the house; and two, the sudden brightness surrounding them wasn’t just from Jared hitting his head. The very sky above seemed to have lit on fire, everything covered in a shining white light that was almost blinding. A sudden gust of wind brought with it a searing heat that ripped at Jared’s face and clothes. When he finally summoned the strength to turn and look for the source of the light, he immediately wished he hadn’t.
The silent majesty of Veryl’s Crest, the mountain that had watched over the sleepy little town for so long, was no more. In its place, a monster had arisen, a terrible fiend of fire and ash that spewed from the top of the mountain like a vengeful spirit, and this—this couldn’t be happening. Veryl’s Crest had been dormant for hundreds—thousands of years—how could it erupt now? How could—
Another explosion, and this time Jared clearly saw the top of Veryl’s Crest burst open with fresh fire, sending a cloud of ash and dozens of small fireballs into the air. All around them the other dragons screamed, grabbed what belongings they could and took flight into the air. Sai tugged desperately on his arm, practically screaming in his ear.
“We have to get out of here now!” she shouted, and Laeter snorted in agreement, pawing anxiously at the ground. Further down the street, a massive fireball promptly engulfed one of the houses, the whole thing disappearing in a mass of flame and smoke, and Jared spun on Sai, survival instinct clearing his head more swiftly than any medicine.
“Head for the lake—that’s our safest bet!” he shouted. Sai nodded, eyes wide, and abruptly shifted, the air giving a shudder as she flapped her wings and took to the sky, Laeter hot on her tail. Jared hurried to follow, taking a running start as the dragon within him uncurled and burst forth on command. The shift was smooth and easy, as natural as letting out a breath, and Jared quickly beat his wings to pull up above the forest canopy.
The sky was crowded, all the dragons from the town fleeing the eruption, their high-pitched calls of distress echoing along the air current like a separate wind. Up ahead, Jared saw Sai and Laeter headed in the direction of the lake as promised. They would be all right. He took a moment to slow and turn around, beating his wings to hover in the air as he watched Veryl’s Crest unleash its fury upon the land.
It was indeed a sight to behold. A column of ash and smoke easily several miles high billowed up into the sky, while down below bright yellow-orange rivers of lava flowed down the sides of the mountain and into the forest, setting everything aflame and consuming all in their path. The town didn’t stand a chance, and Jared could only watch as the licking flames drew closer and closer, until they were consuming the houses, the gardens, the boulder where Jensen had—
Oh gods, Jensen.
A desperate, wrenching cry echoed through the air, and Jared didn’t even realize it issued from his own mouth as he turned and bolted back toward the mountain. Oh gods, Jensen was Sealed—he couldn’t shift, he couldn’t run—
A blast of hot wind suddenly hit him, so strong it nearly knocked him right out of the air. Jared didn’t hesitate, barely even felt it as he beat powerful wings and nosedived down through the ash and the smoke, dodging house-sized flaming meteors as they fell all around him. One came so close it singed the tip of his right wing, but Jared never stopped, never even slowed down, casting frantically about for Jensen in the world of smoke and licking flames below. Where was he? Oh gods, what if Jared was too late? What if—
The wailing call that tore from his throat was a sound he never knew he could make, a cry for his mate rising from a place deep inside him he’d never even known existed. If Jensen was dead—if Jared couldn’t find him, if—
Sudden movement in his peripheral vision—just a slight disturbance, but, somehow, it was enough. Wheeling around midair, Jared quickly ducked around another falling fireball and dove toward the jagged cliff, something in his heart expanding warm and overjoyed as he saw the familiar figure crouched along the tiny ledge.
Jensen was still dressed in the same clothes he’d been wearing the previous day, but they were now dusty and smudged with soot. His hair and face were covered in ash so that he was almost unrecognizable, but Jared would know those green eyes anywhere, watching the lava flow below as it slowly rose up toward him like some flaming, fatal tide. He didn’t look alarmed, though, or even especially worried. Instead, Jensen’s expression was calm, almost resigned as he watched the rising flames, as if…well.
As if Jensen knew he was going to die, and didn’t much care about it.
Jared had something to say about that. Letting loose another sharp cry, he dove down toward Jensen, coming to a stop in front of the other dragon with a powerful beat of his wings. Jensen, for his part, startled so badly he nearly fell right off the cliff, eyes growing abruptly wide and shocked as he scrambled to steady himself, drawing his gaze up and down Jared’s reptilian form.
“Jared…?” he ventured after a moment, sounding awed.
Jared nodded, inching forward just enough to butt his nose gently against Jensen’s shoulder before turning around and presenting his back, the message clear. Get on.
Silence for a moment. Then: “You…You shouldn’t be doing this. If the others found out—”
Jared twisted his long neck around just enough to snort out a puff of hot air that blew some of the ash off Jensen’s face. You think I care? Get on!
“No.” Jensen shook his head, slowly taking a step back until he was pressed back against the rock wall behind him. “I’ll be all right. Please, Jared, you need to get out of here.”
Jared glared, because of course Jensen picked now to have this argument, with the world going to pieces around them and the sky itself burning to ash. It didn’t take him more than a few seconds to make his decision. This was definitely going to be hitting below the belt, he knew, but it was better than leaving Jensen to die.
Fine. Turning back around, he continued to hover just off the edge of the ledge, looking straight at Jensen. If you’re staying, then I’m staying too, he said, and got a vicious sense of satisfaction from the way the other dragon’s eyes grew even bigger.
“What?” Pure, unadulterated fear flashed across Jensen’s face. “Jared, are you insane? You can’t stay here!”
Watch me, Jared answered, and had never spoken more calmly in his life. You can’t change my mind; no matter what you do, I’m not leaving you. So make your choice.
Jensen didn’t answer immediately, only continued to stare at Jared, eyes wide and alarmed. All around them, the fury of Veryl’s Crest continued to descend in a rain of fire and ash, but Jared didn’t move from his position, hovering in front of the ledge, never breaking Jensen’s gaze. He hadn’t been lying; whatever Jensen’s choice, Jared was staying with him.
Leaving Jensen just wasn’t an option anymore.
Another explosion from somewhere above, and the entire mountain shook. Jensen stumbled and lost his footing, but Jared quickly extended his neck, using his long snout to support Jensen against the rock face. Jensen’s hand abruptly settled at the back of his head, and when he looked up, the other dragon was regarding him with a soft, exasperated smile.
“You always this damned stubborn?” Jensen asked, and Jared nudged him in response, feeling his entire body go loose with relief. When he slowly backed up from the cliff and turned around again, it wasn’t two seconds before he felt Jensen’s weight carefully lower itself onto his back.
“You win this time,” the other dragon said then, with nothing but fondness in his voice, “idiot youngling.”
Stupid old fart, Jared shot back with absolutely no heat, before beating his wings to catch a strong updraft and getting the hell out of Dodge.
The lake was as beautiful as it had always been, sparkling blue and clear as glass. Few dragons were on the bank—the others had probably fled further—but Jared clearly recognized Sai and Laeter standing by the water, holding on to each other for support as they watched Veryl’s Crest give up the last of its fire. Behind them, a multitude of dark, scaly heads poked out from the lakewater like tiny islands, resident Bluewhips watching the terrible spectacle unfold.
Sai gave a shout and started running toward them as soon as Jared landed. “Dear gods, Jared, what in the world took you so long?” she demanded, face flushed with a mixture of worry and anger. “Do you know how scared I got when I turned around and you weren’t there? Did you even think…”
She abruptly trailed off, eyes widening when she finally noticed Jared’s passenger. Jared felt the weight on his back slip off, followed by the soft put of Jensen’s feet hitting the ground. Sai drew in a breath, taking an abrupt step back.
“You didn’t,” she whispered, looking at Jared with horror. “Jared, you didn’t.”
Jared shifted and stepped forward. “Sai, I had to. I couldn’t let him die.”
“It’s as much as he deserves,” Laeter said, eyes flashing, and Jared instinctively moved to shield Jensen from the other dragon. He’d never known Laeter to be combative, but if things got ugly, he would have to be prepared. Jensen couldn’t defend himself in this form, after all.
“Jared,” Jensen said from behind him, sounding worried, but Jared just shook his head, keeping his gaze fixed steadily on his sister and her mate.
“You don’t understand,” he said. “You don’t know him.”
“We don’t have to,” Laeter said, growling and taking a step forward, but Sai quickly stopped him with a hand on his arm.
“Don’t,” she said, and when she turned back to Jared, her eyes were pleading. “We can’t afford to fight, not now. But Jared, please, think about what you’re doing.”
“I have thought about it,” Jared answered, “and I’ve made my choice.”
Sai, however, didn’t even seem to hear him as she straightened her shoulders and shook her head. “You always have to save everyone, don’t you?” she said. “Nothing is ever enough. You’ve always been too kind, too compassionate, too—”
“Too much like Mom?” Jared snapped, unable to stop himself. He regretted it instantly when Sai’s expression abruptly crumpled. Her eyes grew very big and started to glisten, and Jared grimaced, looking away. “I’m sorry,” he said, reaching up to pinch the bridge of his nose against a sudden throbbing headache. He and Sai had had their fair share of arguments over the years, their clashing personalities all but guaranteeing it, but in all that time, Jared had never used their mother against her. The wound was always too fresh and the pain too deep. Now, watching all the fight leave his sister like air out of a balloon, he felt worse than the scum of the earth. “I shouldn’t have said that. I’m sorry.”
Sai didn’t answer immediately. Jared saw her visibly swallow, throat working against what might have been biting words, or probably just an urge to start crying. When at last she spoke, she refused to meet Jared’s eyes.
“We’re going to go stay with Laeter’s parents for a while, at the foot of Seraphim Peak,” she said, voice just this side of breaking. “Come visit if you want, of course, but Jensen…he can’t come. No exceptions. Okay?”
Jared nodded, too ashamed to argue.“Okay.” He glanced briefly up at Laeter, who was still glaring at Jensen, and cleared his throat. “I get the feeling we wouldn’t be welcomed anyway.”
“Jared, hey.” A warm hand touched his shoulder, and Jared turned to see Jensen watching him, looking resigned. “I’ll just go, okay?” the other dragon said, speaking softly, matter-of-factly, as if it were no big deal at all. “It’ll be easier for everyone.”
“What?” The shame and guilt abruptly evaporated, replaced by a surge of something hot, rebellious and very much like panic. “No.”
Jensen sighed. “Look, I know when I’m not wanted,” he said, still in that frustratingly even voice, “and everyone’s under enough stress as it is. Thank you for saving me, Jared, but you don’t have to worry. I can take care of myself.” Turning to Sai and Laeter, he gave them a short nod. “Sorry for the trouble. I’ll just be going now.”
And then he was walking away. Jensen—his mate—was leaving, and that Jared just couldn’t allow, something deep and desperate rising up within him so that his voice came out hoarse with it as he cried out, “Stop.”
Jensen paused, shoulders stiff. Jared stepped forward, suddenly barely able to breathe around the fear clogging his throat. Jensen couldn’t leave, not now, not after everything they’d already been through. Jared had already almost lost him once, and he wasn’t about to risk it again. No matter the cost.
When again he spoke, it was in a voice stretched so thin he barely recognized it as his own. “I saved your life,” he said, stepping forward. “You…You owe me.”
Ahead, he clearly saw Jensen’s back go ramrod straight, muscles tense to the point of trembling. When the other dragon turned around, his eyes were unreadable. “You would hold me to a life debt?” he asked, sounding surprised and, if Jared was reading him right, not a little disappointed.
Jared swallowed. It was an ancient practice, true, one that the dragons hardly used anymore. Demanding repayment of a life debt was considered underhanded and manipulative, after all. That didn’t make it any less of an option, though, and Jared knew he had no other choice. Not if the alternative was losing Jensen.
Squaring his shoulders and taking a deep breath, Jared looked Jensen straight in the eye and said, “If that’s what it takes to get you to stay, then yes.”
Silence. Behind him, Jared heard Sai draw a shaky breath, but dared not turn to look at her; he could do without the judgment in her eyes. He didn’t want to hear other opinions anyway. He knew exactly what he’d just done—by invoking Jensen’s life debt, he’d essentially shackled the other dragon to him, bound him more tightly than any contract to repay what he owed to Jared in only one way, but he didn’t regret it. Jensen might resent him now, might even hate him for what Jared was forcing him to do, but at least he would stay. And to Jared, that was all that mattered now.
Ahead of him, Jensen’s jaw worked for a moment, eyes glittering with what might have been indignation but seemed mostly to be just residual surprise. Jared knew he wouldn’t refuse, though. He couldn’t.
Sure enough, after another moment, Jensen finally sighed, dropping his gaze to the ground. “Very well,” he said, voice soft and utterly devoid of emotion. Jared felt his stomach twist into knots at the defeated tone. He’d never intended for things to end up this way, after all. Hell, the last thing he had expected when he’d left his forest home—and had that only been two days ago? It seemed like forever, now—was to end up meeting his potential mate, dodging an erupting volcano, and shackling said potential mate to him via an ancient and oft-frowned-upon dragon tradition, all practically in the same breath. He would make it up to Jensen though, he silently promised himself. Now that he’d invoked the life debt, they would have to follow through—and Jared felt a flush of heat all through his traitorous body as he imagined just how Jensen was going to repay him—but afterward, they could still find a way to work things out. If Jensen felt for Jared half as much as Jared felt for him, anyway, then there was still hope.
Taking a deep breath, Jared turned back to Sai. “We’d better get going then,” he said. “Anything you want me to pass on to Saria when I get home?”
Sai looked from Jared to Jensen, frowning briefly. She looked about to protest, or at least to demand an explanation about Jared’s behavior, but in the end she seemed to think better of it. “Just…tell her to be careful,” she said at last, looking distinctly unhappy.
Jared didn’t have to be a genius to know what she meant by that, but he forced himself to give her a smile anyway. She was family, after all. “Sure,” he said, stepping forward and wrapping her up in a hug, brief but strong. “I love you. Take care.”
“You too,” she said, releasing him. Jared stepped back and turned to Jensen once again, bypassing Laeter entirely.
“Come on,” he said, and Jensen nodded. The shift was instant, easy, his wings stretching out to feel the rise of the wind, and an instant later Jensen’s reassuring weight settled once again on his back. Lifting off the ground with a powerful beat of his wings, Jared turned and headed for the sky.
The three hours it took to reach the edge of the forest were traveled in silence. Jared tried to make small talk at first, but at his companion’s monosyllabic answers he gave up shortly. And Jared wasn’t stupid—he knew why Jensen didn’t much feel like talking to him. If Jared suddenly found himself owing a life debt to another dragon, forced into servitude and obedience until he could repay what he owed, he would be pretty angry too.
Of course, Jared wasn’t going to let Jensen remain bound to him forever. That went against everything in his nature. They would get everything done and out of the way as soon as possible, and then they would sit down and talk about this, what this…this thing was between them.
Assuming, of course, that Jensen didn’t just up and leave as soon as they were done.
Jared didn’t even have to look to know when to start banking down toward the ground, the route to their little forest home long since engrained into muscle memory. The afternoon sunlight seemed to soak into the roof beams of the familiar house as he alit in the middle of the clearing, giving Jensen enough time to step off before shifting back into human form.
He’d barely adjusted to the feeling of being back on two legs before the front door swung open and Saria stepped out, having undoubtedly sensed his arrival the instant he’d entered the forest. She already had a smile of greeting on her face, but it abruptly faltered and faded when she noticed Jensen, standing off to the side and blinking steadily at the forest all around them.
At his sister’s sudden, hesitant step back, Jared quickly went forward, raising his hands in a placating gesture. “It’s okay, Saria,” he said. “This is Jensen. He’s…a friend.”
Jensen turned at the mention of his name, politely clearing his throat and stepping forward. “Hi.”
Saria bit her lip, eyes big, gaze darting rapidly from Jensen to Jared to the house like a frightened animal. For one resigned second, Jared thought for sure that she was going to turn and bolt back into the house, leaving him to pick up the pieces. But then Jensen abruptly tilted his head, offering a small smile as he said, “You must be Jared’s sister. You both have the same eyes,” and something instantly changed in Saria’s face, the initial fear fading into something a little warmer, a little more trusting.
When she shook Jensen’s hand, the smile was back on her face. And considering it was the first time in years that Saria had met a stranger and not had a panic attack as a result, for Jared, that was more than enough.
When Saria stepped back, her shoulders were straight and her posture firm. Looking to Jared, she put one hand on her stomach and pointed to her mouth. Jared shook his head. “No, we’re not going to eat anything right now,” he said, before turning to Jensen. “There’s, uh…there’s something we have to do first.”
Jensen didn’t even look at him, gaze fixed somewhere in the forest. Jared’s spirits fell. In front of them, Saria made a confused face, tilting her head as she made a gesture with her hands that they had long universally accepted meant What?
“Um.” Inwardly, Jared cursed. How exactly were you supposed to explain to your baby sister that you had accidentally-on-purpose evoked an ancient tradition and bound another dragon to you via a life debt that could only be repaid through sexual intercourse?
Jensen, apparently, thought it didn’t merit explaining at all. “Jared was going to show me around the forest a little,” the other dragon said, gaze flicking briefly to Jared before settling back on the forest once again. Relief loosened all the tension in Jared’s shoulders. Thank the gods; he’d had enough awkward for one day.
Saria took a moment to process that before finally giving a huff of understanding as she shrugged her shoulders. Flashing them both another small smile, she turned and retreated into the house. She left the door open on her way in, though, and Jared couldn’t help but smile at that. It looked like they were making some progress at last.
Silence settled in the air. After a beat, Jared turned to Jensen and nervously cleared his throat. “So, uh. I hope you weren’t actually hungry. I mean if you are, we could still go inside. I might be able to find some—”
“I’m fine, Jared,” Jensen interrupted gently, although his face remained frustratingly unreadable. “Now, is there a particular place you had in mind?”
“Well.” Jared stuck his hands in his pockets. His face heated up. “Yeah, kind of. It’s a little ways off, with more…privacy.”
Jensen nodded. “Okay. Lead the way.”
They trekked through the woods for about fifteen minutes. Jared constantly cast glances back to make sure Jensen was still there, but the other dragon had no trouble keeping up, smoothly picking his way over fallen logs and around gnarled tree roots. Every so often their gazes would catch, and every time Jared looked away first, cursing inwardly at the involuntary flush that rose to his cheeks when he thought of what they were about to do.
At long last, they reached their destination. Jared broke through the foliage first, using one hand to brush aside a stray tree branch as he shielded his eyes from the sudden sunlight with the other. Jensen followed him out of the trees a moment later, and came to an abrupt halt with a soft, “Oh.” Jared didn’t have to look to know that the other dragon was staring.
The dense forest fell away before them, revealing a quiet clearing bathed in the mid-afternoon sunlight, roughly the size of a large pond. Here, outside the shadow of the forest canopy, the ground was blanketed in crisp green grass. The flowers of mid-spring were also blooming in full splendor, dotting the area in splashes of color, pale pink and blushing lavender, bright yellow and deep blood-orange. It was truly a sight to behold, and after another moment Jensen turned to face him, still looking a little awed. “How did you find this place?”
Jared shrugged, trying to sound nonchalant. “I used to play here a lot when I was a youngling,” he said. “Whenever my sisters got too rowdy, I would come here for some peace and quiet.” He didn’t mention how a good portion of the time he’d spent here had also been dedicated to lying in the grass next to an invisible mate, imagining himself curled up with another dragon as they planned their future together in the warm sunlight. Given the circumstances, he didn’t think Jensen would quite appreciate that part of Jared’s childhood fantasies.
It was true, though. Jared had always dreamed of one day sharing this secret place with his mate, and, looking at Jensen painted soft gold by the sunlight, surrounded by the safety and serenity of Jared’s forest home, he couldn’t think of any other place—or any other dragon—that could be more perfect for him.
Jensen didn’t reply immediately, instead taking another moment to look around the clearing. A soft breeze wafted through the forest, setting the leaves above them trembling and stirring the tips of Jensen’s hair. When at last the other dragon turned back to Jared, it was again with that smallest hint of a smile that set Jared’s stomach alight with butterflies.
“It’s very beautiful,” Jensen said.
Jared nodded, returning the smile. “Yes, it is,” he answered, but he wasn’t talking about the clearing.
They stood together in silence for another long while. Jared snuck several glances at Jensen, unsure of how to bring up the magnificent big pink elephant in the room. In the end, as with Saria, it was Jensen who saved him.
“So,” the other dragon finally said, turning toward him, “how do you want me?”
His bluntness caught Jared completely off guard, and he spluttered for a moment. “I—I didn’t…I wasn’t…”
Jensen let him flail for another few seconds before finally seeming to take pity, stepping forward and laying a gentle arm on Jared’s shoulder. “Hey,” he said, and waited until Jared looked at him before speaking. “It’s okay. Just tell me what you want me to do.”
It should have turned Jared on, Jensen being quietly obedient like this, but reality was exactly the opposite. Guilt spiked in Jared’s heart. Jensen was being so reassuring, as if Jared was the one with the short end of the stick. Mate or no, could he really force Jensen like this?
“Jared.” Jensen was still looking at him, softly expectant. Jared swallowed, stubbornly pushing the guilt aside. It was tradition. It had to be done.
“Take…Take off your clothes,” he said after a moment. The words tasted strange on his tongue, coarse and unfamiliar. Jensen just nodded, though, hands immediately dropping to the hem of his shirt and pulling upward. Jared could only stare as smooth, lean muscle was revealed, Jensen’s bare skin tanned golden by the sun. His mouth abruptly went dry, traitorous cock fattening with blood at the sight, and he instinctively turned away to hide the flush of arousal, reaching up to fumble with the buttons of his own shirt.
It was no easy task, his hands shaking as they were, but he finally managed to get his shirt off. When he turned to face Jensen again, however, his entire body froze.
Jensen had his back to him, looking as if he was casting about for a clean place to put his clothes. He was also still half-dressed, pants clinging snugly to his hips, and Jared might have appreciated the view if his attention hadn’t immediately been drawn to something far more conspicuous. Namely, the Seal seared into Jensen’s back.
With nothing to obstruct his view, Jared could see the mark clearly. The sigil covered the entire expanse of Jensen’s back, from the tops of his broad shoulders all the way down to his tailbone. The pattern was unlike anything Jared had ever seen, intricate curves and points like knife-blades emanating from the center of Jensen’s back and radiating outward over his shoulders like artistic wings. Beneath them, running the length of Jensen’s lower spine, a long, thin, black-skinned dragon lay coiled in subservience, head raised and mouth open as if in eternal supplication, seeking an opening in the pattern above that was not there.
Though Jared had never seen a Seal up close before, he instantly knew what the imagery meant. Try as it might, though it may fall to pleading and cries and curses, that dragon would never be free again. Jensen would never be able to feel the wind beneath his wings, or dip through misty clouds in the mornings. He would never break the cloud cover to bask in the sun, or splash happily about in the lake like a bird in a bath. He was cursed now, entrapped within this weak form that was worse than any cage, and he would spend his days forever hated and alone, wasting gradually away until Olim himself finally saw fit to let him die.
And what was Jared doing but adding to this torture?
In front of him, Jensen finally seemed to decide that where he placed his clothes was really of no consequence, and let his shirt drop onto the grass. When he next reached down for the button on his pants, however, Jared found himself moving, curling his fingers around Jensen’s biceps and pressing up against his back.
“Wait,” he whispered, and barely recognized the taut, strained voice that broke the silence as his own. “Stop.”
Jensen started at the first touch, but relaxed quickly. One strong, calloused hand came up to cover Jared’s own as he turned his head, trying to catch Jared’s eye. “What’s wrong?”
Jared didn’t answer immediately. Instead, he tightened his grip on the other dragon, pressing his forehead to the back of Jensen’s left shoulder. “I can’t do this,” he whispered, drawing a ragged breath that smelled all of Jensen. “Not to you. I release you from your debt, okay? Just please…please don’t make me do this to you.”
Jensen was quiet for a long time. Somewhere in the distance, a songbird started up with a merry chirping tune. Jared pressed a soft kiss to Jensen’s bare shoulder, breathing out through his nose.
At long last, Jensen heaved a sigh. “You know that’s not how this works, Jared,” he said. “You can’t just let me off the hook like that. I have to follow through.”
Jared shook his head. “We just won’t tell anyone,” he said. “No one will know.”
“I will,” Jensen answered, eyes bright, and Jared swallowed. Pride.
“I don’t…” He sighed. “I don’t want you to hate me.”
In front of him, Jensen’s shoulders tensed. His grip on Jared’s hand tightened for just an instant, a squeeze that was almost painful. Then he let go, stepping forward and moving to undo his pants. “Let’s just get this over with,” he said at last.
Jared’s heart sank. “Jensen—”
“No.” Jensen shook his head, turning away. “We do this first, the way it’s supposed to be done. But after…” He sighed, gaze flicking uncertainly to Jared. “After, we’ll talk. Okay?”
Jared sighed too, and finally nodded. If that was what Jensen was offering, then that was what he would take. “Okay,” he said, and Jensen nodded.
“Now then. How do you want me?”
Jared felt his face heat up, a rush of heated images flooding his brain, and just like that, his erection was back. His body, at least, seemed to be on board with what they were about to do. Taking a breath, he motioned to a nearby tree, gnarled roots curling nest-like into the soft ground. “Um. There, I guess.”
Jensen nodded and stepped obediently past him. Jared blew a breath out through his nose, quickly undoing his pants and hissing softly as the fabric slid across his sensitive flesh. When he finally kicked his pants off and turned around, the sight that greeted him had all the blood remaining in his brain rushing rapidly south.
Jensen was seated with his back resting against the trunk of the tree, naked as the day he was born. The last vestiges of sickness were still apparent in the slight pallor of his skin, but that did nothing to hide his strong shoulders and broad chest, all lean muscle honed through pure survival. The casual, almost lazy sprawl of his legs, also, did nothing to hide the gorgeous curve of his cock, already half-hard and rising toward his stomach, and Jared’s mouth watered as he imagined the weight of it on his tongue, how thick and hard it would feel inside him, filling him up.
Jensen let him stare for a moment before cocking his head, a smirk gracing his lips. “I’m not an exhibit, you know,” he said. It was off-handed, but Jared still felt himself flush, suddenly flustered.
“It’s okay.” Jensen let his gaze fall and drag slowly back up Jared’s body, and Jared swallowed, feeling the weight of the other dragon’s attention like an actual touch on his suddenly too-hot skin. Jensen’s eyes darkened ever so slightly then. “You don’t present too bad a view yourself.”
“Uh. Thanks.” Jared rubbed his palms against his thighs, resisting a sudden stupid urge to cover himself up. It wasn’t like this was all Jensen was going to see, after all. Taking slow steps forward, he took a deep breath and settled himself between Jensen’s inviting thighs, a position that brought their faces in such close proximity that they both went a little cross-eyed. Jensen abruptly laughed, a short burst of hot air that ruffled Jared’s hair.
“Hi,” he said, and Jared couldn’t help but return his smile.
Jensen reached up with one hand to gently cup the side of Jared’s face, and Jared sighed and closed his eyes, leaning into the touch, warm and safe. When next Jensen spoke, it was in a voice tinged with something almost like awe.
“You’re so beautiful,” he whispered, softly, like it was a secret. “I…I don’t think I ever told you that, but you are. Gods, the first time I saw you…”
He didn’t bother finishing, instead trailing his hand down from Jared’s face to his chest, pausing to glide a barely-there touch over Jared’s nipple before moving even further down. Jensen’s eyes asked the question and Jared nodded, biting his lip on a moan and giving an involuntary jerk of his hips as the other dragon’s calloused fingers finally wrapped around his aching cock, stroking slow and perfect and sending little sparks of heat zinging through all his nerve endings.
Jared let it continue for a few moments, and it was good—amazing, really, the feel of Jensen’s hand on his cock, squeezing just beneath the crown on every upstroke, just the way Jared liked it. And though Jared thought—knew—he could easily get off this way, it wasn’t what he had in mind. He wanted more, wanted all Jensen had to give and all he would take from Jared in return, and after a few moments he finally reached down to still Jensen’s hand on his cock, looking up to meet the other dragon’s darkened, lust-filled gaze.
“I want…” He swallowed and licked his lips, clearly seeing Jensen’s eyes greedily follow the movement. “I want to taste you. Can I?”
Jensen’s head abruptly fell back against the tree with a soft thunk. “Dear gods,” he breathed, and Jared took that as a yes, scooting back a bit on his knees and curling his body downward between Jensen’s legs. Sometime in the last few minutes, Jensen had grown completely hard, cock flushed an angry red with precome pearling at the tip. Without preamble, Jared shoved his nose into the coarse, wiry hair surrounding the base and breathed deeply, the sharp musky scent of the other dragon’s arousal making him dizzy and lightheaded for a moment. Gods, Jensen smelled wonderful, and almost without thinking Jared flicked his tongue out for a taste, pressing the tip up against velvety-soft flesh and licking a long wet stripe up the length of Jensen’s cock.
Jensen’s response was a full-body groan, one hand abruptly settling at the back of Jared’s head, long fingers curling in his hair and tugging just enough to send heat shooting down Jared’s spine. Throwing all propriety to the wind, he dragged his tongue over Jensen’s slit, moaning at the salty-sweet burst of precome that rewarded him as a result. Opening wide and covering his teeth with his lips, he slowly took Jensen’s length into his mouth, eyes fluttering shut with pleasure at the feel of the hard, hot flesh on his tongue. Above him Jensen cursed, fingers tightening in Jared’s hair as he thrust involuntarily up with his hips, filling Jared’s mouth with the scent and taste of him.
Jared just moaned in response, opening his mouth wide and accepting whatever Jensen gave him, fighting his gag reflex as the head of Jensen’s cock touched the back of his throat. He curled the fingers of one hand around the portion of Jensen’s length that he couldn’t swallow, stroking hard and fast as he reached his other hand between his own legs, rolling and squeezing his balls for a few moments before finally reaching further back to glide over his entrance. The slickness he felt there came as no surprise, his body naturally preparing itself to breed, to fertilize a clutch with another dragon’s seed. Jared groaned around the thick length in his mouth as he slipped one finger in with ease, arching his spine at the burst of heat that resulted. It had been a while since the last time, but his body remembered what it liked, his finger automatically curling to find the spongy gland of his prostate, the pleasure exploding through his nerves making his eyes roll back in his head.
Jensen echoed his moan, voice wrecked as he breathed Jared’s name, and an instant later Jared felt more fingers prodding at his entrance, circling his rim before sliding in next to his own. The resulting stretch was almost too much and Jared had to pull off of Jensen’s dick in order to breathe, drawing in deep, desperate lungfuls of air as he rocked hungrily back onto their fingers, gasping as Jensen curled his knuckles within him, massaging his inner walls. Then, just like that, Jensen’s fingers were gone and Jared whimpered at the loss, looking up to see the other dragon staring down at him, face flushed and eyes gone dark bottle-green with desperation and arousal.
“Need you,” Jensen breathed, barely able to form the words, but when his hands began tugging desperately at Jared’s shoulders, he got the picture real fast. Heaving himself up, he quickly straddled the other dragon’s hips, parting his thighs and rocking slowly down onto Jensen’s cock, both of them groaning as the slick head caught on the edge of his stretched-out rim, sinking in just a fraction of an inch before popping out again. They continued like that for a while, Jared rocking steadily in Jensen’s lap, Jensen’s cock riding the crack of his ass and slip-sliding over and over against his hole in the most maddening of teases, but after a while it seemed to be too much for Jensen, who stared up at Jared with wide, desperate eyes.
“Please,” he whispered, one hand bracketing Jared’s hip while the other came up to card through his hair. “I need…please, Jay.”
Jared smiled at the nickname—no one had ever called him that before, but rolling off of Jensen’s tongue it sounded nothing but right—and decided that he, too, had had enough foreplay. Scooting further forward and bracing himself on his heels, he reached back to wrap his fingers around the base of Jensen’s swollen cock, holding him still as he slowly sank down. Their moans were simultaneous, and Jared threw his head back as Jensen’s hot, hard length finally filled him, stretching him wide and stuffing him so full it nearly punched the air right out of his lungs. There was no burn, not even a hint of pain as he accepted Jensen into his body, just the deep-seated ache of being filled the way he needed, of finally coming home.
When at last he felt the press of Jensen’s balls up against his rim, Jared could barely breathe it was so good. They stayed like that for a moment, staring into each other’s eyes, mouths barely an inch apart. Then, all of a sudden, almost against his will Jensen thrust up, thick cock dragging along Jared’s channel and sending a surge of pleasure all through Jared’s body, and just like that, good became deargodsyesMORE.
It was a little awkward at first, neither of them quite able to find the right rhythm, but they eventually found a pace that worked with Jared sinking down just as Jensen thrust up, and then it was nothing but good, every movement seeming to drive Jensen’s cock impossibly deeper into Jared’s body, the thick wide length of it filling him until he thought he might burst with it. Dimly Jared become aware that he was talking, a broken, disjointed stream of yes Jensen harder please spilling from his mouth like a waterfall, but he couldn’t even manage to be embarrassed because Jensen was obviously affected by it, burying his face in Jared’s shoulder in order to muffle his moans. His hands roamed all over Jared’s body as they moved, digging bruises into his hips before scraping up his spine to feel along the broad expanse of his shoulders, and Jared barely had time to register the fact that Jensen’s hands were turning his head before the other dragon’s mouth abruptly covered his own.
Time stopped. Jared’s entire body immediately froze up, focus suddenly narrowing down to nothing but the feel of Jensen’s soft, slightly dry lips against his own. What—What was—
But then Jensen made a low, desperate sound, swiping his tongue along Jared’s bottom lip, and just like that, all Jared’s momentary hesitation went out the window. He parted his lips immediately and Jensen sighed in response, the both of them moaning as they tasted each other for the first time, tongues tangling and breaths mingling into the same air. Jensen tasted even better than he smelled and Jared whimpered, feeling something warm and wonderful begin to expand from inside his chest as they kissed, bursting outward until it filled all his senses, every fiber of his being vibrating with nothing but Jensen and yes and finally.
He’d known. From the very moment they’d first met, somewhere in the very depths of his soul where nothing but the dragon and its purest primal need resided, he’d always known.
He lost himself in the kiss for a moment, forgetting for an instant even the feel of Jensen’s cock filling him up as their tongues slid slickly against each other. Then, abruptly, Jensen pulled back, and Jared barely had time to cry out in protest as Jensen heaved him up out of his lap, his cock slipping free of Jared’s body as Jared suddenly found himself on his back in the grass, staring up at the bright blue sky above. That view was quickly replaced, though, when Jensen promptly crawled on top of him, bending down to capture his lips again. Jared panted and arched into the kiss, unable to suppress his groan of relief when he felt Jensen enter him once again, immediately thrusting hard and rough and fast. By this point he had completely forgotten about his own neglected erection, but that quickly changed when Jensen reached between them to slide shaking fingers over his cock, the first touch sending explosions of white-hot pleasure tingling up Jared’s spine. “Gods,” he cried, and barely recognized the voice as his own, it was so wrecked, “do that again,” and Jensen was quick to oblige, pulling and tugging at Jared’s cock as his thrusts became more and more erratic.
“I can’t,” he whispered then, the words punched out of him almost like a sob, “Jay, I’m gonna—I can’t, I have to pull out—”
“No,” Jared cried, grabbing at Jensen’s shoulders, wrapping his legs around Jensen’s waist to keep him there, to pull him deeper. He could feel his orgasm bubbling up, the pressure building at the base of his spine as his balls drew up, and to lose Jensen now, to not let him fertilize the clutch within Jared’s body, their children, their future together— “No, please—”
“I’m sorry.” Jensen kissed him again, breathless and heated. “I’m sorry, Jay, I have to, I have to,” and then he was moving back, cock sliding out of Jared’s passage and leaving him feeling empty and bereft. Except that feeling didn’t last long at all, not when Jensen immediately curled downward and swallowed Jared’s cock all the way to the root, shoving two fingers into him at the same time and pressing the tips mercilessly against Jared’s prostate, and that was it. Jared’s orgasm slammed into him and he screamed, arching up into Jensen’s mouth, eyes rolling back in his head as the entire world went white, heat and mind-numbing pleasure searing up his spine and through all his extremities. Dimly he was aware of Jensen moaning around his dick, swallowing everything Jared had to give as his free hand moved frantically between his own legs. An instant later he came too, a long drawn-out groan and a stiffening of his spine as he spurted over his own fingers, thick white dripping down onto the grass below. In the same instant a wave of warmth spread over Jared’s body, soaking through his skin and settling into his very bones, Jensen’s life-force seeping into him with his orgasm, the life debt repaid.
Afterward, they lay there together for a few moments, gasping for breath. Jensen rested his cheek on Jared’s thigh, soft puffs of breath ghosting over Jared’s softening cock. Jared himself was having some trouble finding two working brain cells to rub together, but that didn’t keep him from reaching blindly down to sift fingers through Jensen’s short brown hair, scritching gently at the soft hairs at the base of Jensen’s neck. That earned him a pleased sound, Jensen slowly lifting his head to blink up at him with a soft smile. Jared returned it, feeling that pleasant warmth settle in his chest once again. The next words, when they came, were as natural as breathing.
“You kissed me first,” he said, and had the satisfaction of seeing Jensen’s eyes go almost comically wide for a second before the other dragon coughed.
“I, uh. Yeah. I guess I did.” Jensen glanced up for a moment, eyes uncertain, before fixing his gaze on the ground. “I’m sorry. It was—”
When Jensen just stared at him, Jared smiled again. “You know what this means, right?” he asked. It was a rhetorical question, of course. Everyone knew that any two dragons could have sex however they chose, could come together, get off and everybody goes home happy, but kissing changed everything. Kissing brought emotion into the whole thing, made everything all tangled up and overly complex and indicative of only one thing.
Kissing meant commitment. It meant mates.
At long last, Jensen sighed. “Jared—”
“That’s what you called me earlier. You’re the only one who’s ever done that.” He ducked his head, blushing a little. “I like it.”
“Uh. Okay.” Jensen propped himself up to a seated position and cleared his throat. “Jay, then. What happened just now…it was good. Really good. But I…you know we can’t do this. Getting involved with me…it’ll ruin you.”
Jared swallowed. “What if I’m okay with that?”
At Jensen’s answering stare, he scooted forward a bit, reaching up to touch the other dragon’s cheek. “It’s not just me,” he whispered. “You kissed me first, so you have to feel it too. We’re mates, Jensen. And what I said, back there on that mountain? It’s true. I’m not leaving you. I…I don’t think I could, even if I wanted to.”
Jensen frowned. “You’re still young. You don’t know what you want.”
“And you’ve suffered long enough to make amends for whatever it was you did, and more,” was Jared’s reply. “Please, Jensen. I may be young, but I know enough. To me, you’re worth the risk. Am I not the same for you?”
Jensen didn’t answer for a moment. Jared held his breath. At long last, the other dragon’s let out a sigh, shoulders sagging just a bit, but when he looked up at Jared, his green eyes were bright. “I don’t deserve you,” he said then. “I really, really don’t.”
Jared couldn’t help but smile in return. “Let me be the judge of that,” he answered, leaning in. Jensen met him halfway and they kissed softly for a long moment, the stillness of the forest around them cocooning them more safely than any blanket. When at last Jensen pulled back, his smile reached his eyes.
“So, uh. What now?”
“Well.” Jared shrugged, trying his best to sound nonchalant even though everything inside him was practically bursting with joy at the moment. “How about dinner, to start with? Saria’s cooking is practically a religion.”
Jensen grinned, swooping in to steal another kiss. “I’d like that,” he said, and if the soft, bright green of his eyes was any indication, he meant it.
For Jared, the next few days passed like a dream. Saria, unsurprisingly, was rather shocked when he broke the news over the dinner table that first evening, and for the first couple of days she seemed almost afraid of Jensen, ducking out of the room when he walked in and looking ready to bolt whenever he so much as glanced her way. Jensen, however, in that soft, patient way that he had, simply left her to her own devices, and when it became apparent he was no threat to her, Saria opened right up as Jared had seen her do with few other dragons. Within three days she was letting Jensen sample her cooking right off the stove, offering him warm smiles and dutifully slapping his wrist whenever he reached for something without permission. Jared couldn’t have been happier to see her interacting so positively with another dragon, even though sharing a house with his sister meant they were pretty much banned from having sex indoors.
That hardly put a damper on their love life, though. The forest surrounding the house was vast and, more importantly, private, and by the end of the week Jared was sure he and Jensen had christened every corner of it. Their favorite spot, however, was the small, quiet clearing where they’d first come together, and Jared lost track of how many hours they spent lying together in the grass, talking about this or that or sometimes not talking at all. In the beginning, Jensen would still get a leery look in his eyes whenever he had too much time to spend in his own head, a look that showed he was still having doubts about the whole thing, doubts that were tied irrevocably to the Seal on his back. However, after about the fourth time Jared responded to that look by flipping his mate over onto his back and riding him to oblivion, Jensen finally seemed to accept it. He joked more, laughed more, became more open and unguarded, and every bright-eyed smile Jared received was like falling in love all over again.
Of course, the calm had to be the signal for a storm, so about a week and a half after Jensen and Jared had first arrived in the forest, the trouble began.
It started with a simple proposition on Jensen’s part. He and Jared were once again lazing about in the forest, both of them coming down from their post-coital high, awash in the warmth of the afterglow, their life-force mixed and intertwined in a blanket of heat and soft energy that covered them both. It was mid-morning, the heat from the sun not quite scorching as of yet, and Jared was tracing lazy circles on Jensen’s chest with his finger when his mate spoke up.
“I need to ask a favor,” Jensen said. His eyes were far away.
Jared blinked, propping himself up on one elbow. “What is it?”
“Those earthquakes, back in your sister’s town,” Jensen answered. “We’ve been feeling them as far out as here, now. That worries me.”
He spoke the truth. Though they had only been minor wobbles of the earth, the forest itself had suffered a few small quakes over the last couple of days, and that had never happened before. In all honesty, Jared had been worried about them too, but he’d been able to successfully push the whole thing out of his mind by losing himself in Jensen instead.
It didn’t stop him from offering a smile. “You sure it wasn’t just me rocking your world?”
Jensen smacked him. “I’m being serious.” The laughter that faded almost immediately from his eyes was a sign he really was. “It just…if you consider the earthquakes, and the eruption of Veryl’s Crest right after that…I’ve been thinking about it, and…”
Jensen sighed. When he looked at Jared, his eyes were completely unreadable for the first time since he’d arrived in the forest. It actually threw Jared off for a moment, the last week and a half spent basking in Jensen’s smiles and soft laughter making the sick, lonely dragon who had first stumbled into Sai’s town seem like nothing more than a far-off, forlorn memory. When Jensen spoke, his voice was quietly resigned. “I need you to take me to Seraphim Peak.”
Jared blinked. Seraphim Peak? What sort of business did Jensen have there? And what did the mysterious earthquakes have to do with that?
“Why?” he asked, but Jensen just shook his head, reaching out to card gentle fingers through Jared’s hair in the way that always turned Jared’s insides to mush. The smile he offered was both indulgent and just this side of sad.
“I’ve never asked you for your secrets,” he said then. “Please, just this once, let me keep mine.”
Well, Jared couldn’t say no to that. He could admit it bothered him, Jensen keeping something from him that was so obviously big, but Jensen had also been the one who had given in to Jared in the end, who had set aside all his doubts and insecurities in order to stay by Jared’s side. The least Jared could do to repay that was to take Jensen where he wanted to go.
“We can leave this afternoon,” he said. “Maybe enough time has passed that we’ll be able to drop by to see Sai and Laeter too.”
“Of course,” Jensen answered, but he sounded far away again.
Jared reached up and touched a thumb to Jensen’s bottom lip. When Jensen looked down at him, he grinned, tracing Jensen’s mouth with the digit and watching the other dragon’s eyes darken in response. “By the way, I charge a transportation fee for flying long distances. Do you plan on paying it now, or later?”
Jensen returned the grin, and in the next instant Jared suddenly found himself on his back with his mate crouched over him, eyes predatory. “How about I pay you now,” Jensen said, “with interest?”
“I could live with that,” Jared managed to say, before Jensen swooped down for a kiss and promptly got to work.
Saria saw them off just after lunch with twin pecks on the cheek and hugs for them both. Jared couldn’t help the warm feeling in his chest as he watched his sister pull back from Jensen, her eyes alight with warmth and acceptance. There was no doubt in his mind now that Jensen was a good guy. Saria wouldn’t trust him like she did if he wasn’t.
The three-hour trip was traveled largely in silence and peace, broken only by a brief pit stop for some food and a quick tumble in the hay that ended up thoroughly traumatizing a lone passing Quillback. Jensen was pretty put off by the whole thing, still sensitive about letting others see the Seal on his back, but Jared couldn’t help but giggle about it for the rest of the trip. His mate, while distinctly unimpressed, could only offer him indulgent smiles in return.
The sun was high in the sky by the time they finally spotted the jagged glory of Seraphim Peak emerging through the clouds in the distance. From afar, it looked much like any other mountain, smooth earth and rock covered in vegetation sloping almost lazily up from the valley below to summit in the clouds, but as they got closer Jared could easily make out the misshapen addition to the mountain’s rocky surface, protruding from the side of the Peak like a cancerous tumor. Deioryn, sealed into the side of the mountain so long ago, a stony prisoner for all eternity.
At the base of Seraphim Peak, dotting the valley and extending all the way up to the tree line, lay a vast collection of small buildings, each of them a house for a family of dragons. One of them, Jared knew, housed Sai and Laeter and. Hesitantly, he huffed out the question.
Jensen didn’t even need to think about it, shifting smoothly on Jared’s back and patting his side softly. “Sure, I don’t mind,” he said. Warm with gratitude and relief, Jared banked down smoothly toward the town.
When they landed in the forest near the outermost houses and Jared shifted into human form, however, Jensen hung back. “You should go without me,” he said. “I don’t want to ruin your time with your sister.”
“What? No.” Jared stepped forward, taking Jensen’s hand in his own. “Jensen, you’re my mate. If Sai and Laeter can’t accept that, then that’s on them, not you.”
A small smile tugged at the corner of Jensen’s mouth at the word mate—they didn’t use it very often, this thing between them still new and intensely sacred—but he just shook his head, squeezing Jared’s hand. “Even so, it’s better this way. I’ll head up the mountain first. Do what you have to do, and come find me later.”
And Jared wanted to argue, but the look in his mate’s eyes was firm. He sighed. “All right.” Leaning down, he pressed their lips together in a chaste kiss. “Be safe.”
Jensen grinned. “Jay, I lived on my own in the forest for hundreds of years,” he said. “I think I’ll be fine without your supervision for a couple hours.”
“Sure, but that doesn’t mean I can’t still worry about you,” Jared answered, and saw Jensen’s expression become suddenly and strangely determined.
“Believe me,” he said, “when the time comes, I’ll handle myself just fine.”
Jared frowned, opening his mouth to ask what he meant by that, but Jensen stepped back and turned away. “Say hi to your sister for me. If she’ll allow it,” he said, giving a friendly wave over his shoulder as he disappeared further into the trees. Jared stood there blinking for a few more moments, feeling like he had just missed something important, before he finally shrugged and turned away himself. Jensen had a right to his secrets. Jared, of all people, could understand that.
Weaving his way through the last line of trees, he soon entered the town. He hadn’t visited Laeter’s home since their initial courting years ago, but he instantly recognized the small, nondescript house near the central square, distinguishable from all the others because of its roof, which had been seared almost black. As Laeter told it, that had happened when one of his fights with his little brothers when they were younglings had gotten out of hand. Their parents had been distinctly unimpressed, but since the roof still held just fine, they’d never bothered to fix it.
Sai must have sensed Jared’s aura because he wasn’t twenty feet away from the house when the door opened and his sister stepped out. She looked calm and composed as usual, nothing like the frightened dragon who had fled her burning home a mere week and a half ago, but Jared didn’t miss the way her gaze went past him for a moment, posture relaxing only when she realized he was alone. He tried his best to ignore it, stepping forward and wrapping Sai up in a warm embrace.
“Hey yourself.” She smiled up at him. “It’s good to see you.”
“You too. How are the kids?”
Sai patted her stomach. “Getting heavier by the day,” she answered. “I think I’ll be ready to lay in a couple more weeks. We’ve already built the nest, at any rate.”
“You mean I built the nest,” came a new voice, and Jared turned to see Laeter coming out the front door. The smile he offered Sai, however, was nothing but fond. “All you did was supervise.”
Jared grinned. “In an extremely competent manner, I’m sure,” he said, earning him a huff and a soft smack on the shoulder from his sister.
“Flattery will get you nowhere,” she said, but her eyes were laughing. “You should come inside. It’s been ages since Laeter’s parents last saw you.”
On any other day and under any other circumstances, Jared would have said yes without a second thought. Today, however, he hesitated. Laeter’s parents were proud carriers of the Silverstreak bloodline, every bit as well-put together as their son, and they had always liked Jared and treated him well from the start. However, perhaps by virtue of them being older and more traditional, they also tended to hold views a little too conservative for Jared’s tastes, and he knew by now that Sai and Laeter would have told them about how he had rescued Jensen and taken him under his wing. He wasn’t much looking forward to being judged for that.
His attempt at a refusal, however, was promptly interrupted by a delighted, “Jared!” and he sighed. Too late.
Laeter’s parents rushed out of the house to meet him, nothing but smiles and warm welcomes like they always had. They made all the usual inquiries into his and Saria’s well-being, and Jared was just beginning to hope that maybe they would end up skipping over the whole Jensen topic after all when Laeter’s mother promptly placed her hands on her hips and said, “I’m so glad you broke it off with that Sealed dragon.”
Cold settled into Jared’s bones. “Mama,” Sai said, a warning in her voice, but Laeter’s mother either didn’t hear it, or chose to ignore her.
“I was worried for a moment there, you know,” she continued on, “when Laeter first told me the whole story, but I see you made the right choice in the end. That dragon would’ve been the end of you, Jared. I’m glad you let him go.”
Jared swallowed, doing everything in his power to keep the rapidly-rising anger under control. She doesn’t know, he told himself sternly. She doesn’t know what Jensen is really like. “I’m grateful for your concern,” he managed to grate out, after a moment.
“Don’t get us wrong; it was very honorable of you to save his life like that,” Laeter’s father said. “And invoking the life debt afterward was entirely within your rights. But dragons like that one, who have done such sinister things…they deserve to die alone. I’m proud of you for realizing that.”
Sai must have sensed the change in Jared’s aura because she immediately stepped forward. “Yes, well, now that that’s been said, why don’t we just—”
“You may be a little less proud,” Jared said, looking straight at Laeter’s parents, “to know that we’ve mated.”
Silence descended. Laeter and his parents stared at him with matching shocked expressions, and even Sai looked taken aback, looking up at Jared with wide blue eyes. When she spoke, her voice came out slightly strangled. “You…You did what?”
“Mated,” Jared repeated. “Jensen and me. We’re together now, for life.”
More silence. Laeter’s father’s aura abruptly became dark and angry. “Leave,” he said, just the hint of a hiss seeping into his voice. “Now.”
Resignation mixed in with the anger, and Jared straightened up. He’d always known it would end up this way and, just a week and a half ago, he might have felt badly about what he was doing. Now, though, with the memory of Jensen’s smile and bright green eyes, his mate permeating his soul and filling in every little gap that Jared had been missing all his life, he found he just wanted to turn away from the rest of the world and get back to Jensen as soon as possible.
Let Laeter’s parents think what they would. Jared wasn’t giving up Jensen for anything.
He slid his gaze over to Laeter himself, and they watched each other for a moment. The other dragon was the first to avert his eyes, clearing his throat and looking away. Jared sighed, looking down at Sai. She simply continued to stare up at him, eyes still wide and startled, and after a moment, Jared spoke.
“Saria gave us her blessing,” he said, voice low, and saw Sai take in a breath. “Won’t you?”
Sai swallowed; Jared clearly saw her throat working. She said nothing for a long time, and Jared felt something within him slowly grow cold and sad. So this was what would finally do it—this was what was going to drive them apart. He should have known. The instant Sai had said Jensen’s name with that poisonous disdain in her voice, he should have known.
He sighed. “Take care of yourself, Sai,” he said, and turned away.
He hadn’t taken two steps, however, before he heard her call out behind him. “Wait!”
She ran up to him, reaching down to take his hands in her own. Her touch was soft, her skin warm and dry and vibrant with life, and when she looked up at him, eyes shining, he saw nothing but their mother in her.
“Saria accepts you?” Sai asked then.
Jared nodded. “From the very beginning. She would never let something like a Seal cloud her judgment. You know that.”
“Yeah.” Sai bit her lip. “I do.” She was quiet for another moment before finally taking a breath, straightening her shoulders and giving Jared’s hand a firm squeeze. “Well, Dad would call you a moron for doing this,” she said, making Jared smile a little in spite of everything, “but Mom…I think Mom would tell you to do what feels right. And...And if this is what feels right, if this is what makes you happy, then…” She looked up, giving Jared a little half-smile. “Then I guess I’ve got no right to judge you for it, have I?”
The cold thing inside him abruptly thawed out and disappeared, and Jared huffed out a breath, feeling warm relief seep slowly up his spine. “You mean that?” he asked, and when Sai nodded, he pointed his chin toward Laeter and his parents. “What about them?”
Sai shook her head. “Last time I checked, you’re my brother, Jared, not theirs,” she said. “Let them think what they want to. It’s our family’s business to worry about.” She paused, smile broadening into a mischievous smirk. “Besides, you know I’ve got Laeter wrapped around my little finger. I’ll be able to get him to come around, no problem.”
Jared couldn’t help but chuckle at that. “Yeah, I’m sure you will.” Bending down, he wrapped his sister up in a tight hug, burying his nose in her soft hair. “Thanks. I love you.”
“You’d better,” was her answer, but her smile didn’t waver as she pulled back. Jared turned away from her, making sure not to spare Laeter’s family even a passing glance as he shifted and launched himself into the sky.
Finding Jensen took no effort at all. Over the week or so since their first mating and the subsequent fusion of their life-force, Jared could now locate his mate with nothing but a small mental push, Jensen glowing like a beacon in his mind against a sea of everything else gray and unimportant. And right now, that beacon was shining just above the tree line, at the base of Deioryn’s prison where a simple, tombstone-like monument marked Damos’s grave.
He made a split-second decision to land in the woods, sweeping in through the trees to hit the ground on two feet. Shaking leaves from his hair, he stepped forward through the forest, picking his way around fallen branches and brushing aside stray vegetation as he made his way toward Jensen. His mate was standing only a few feet away from Damos’s grave, looking up at the protrusion in the mountain, a twisted arched structure that might have been the tip of Deioryn’s tail. As Jared got closer, he slowly became aware that Jensen was speaking.
“I know what you’re trying to do,” Jensen said, softly, a bare whisper. He sounded resigned, and also very far away. “But it won’t work. I did it once, and I’ll do it again.”
“Do what again?” Jared asked, stepping through the trees.
Jensen startled at his voice, but when he turned around it was only with a warm, familiar smile. “Hey, Jay,” he said, stepping forward and tugging Jared down for a heated kiss, all soft sighs and slick tongues, and by the time they finally broke apart, Jared had quite forgotten what he’d been asking in the first place.
“So how did your visit with your sister go?” Jensen asked. He looked genuinely curious, so Jared went with it.
“Good. Okay. I told her about us.”
Concern flickered through Jensen’s eyes. “How did she take it?”
“Honestly? Way better than I thought she would,” Jared answered. “Laeter and his family, on the other hand…let’s just say they weren’t nearly as open-minded.”
Jensen’s expression abruptly grew sad. “Jay, I—”
“No, hey, it’s okay,” Jared interrupted, stepping forward and taking Jensen’s hands in his own. “I stopped caring a long time ago about what the other dragons think. My family has accepted you, Jensen. To me, that’s more than enough.”
Jensen didn’t look convinced, so Jared bent down and kissed him again, just a quick brush of lips, before pulling back with a smile. “So, are you ever going to tell me why you wanted to come here?”
Jensen shrugged and looked away. “Just…playing a hunch.”
“What kind of hunch?”
His mate was quiet for a moment. Then, at last, he reached down, took Jared’s hand and pressed it to the rock. “Feel that?”
Jared blinked. “It’s warm,” he said. That was actually an understatement. The smooth rock beneath his palm was hot, almost to the point of searing, and seemed to vibrate beneath his skin as if barely containing some incredible power. It had been a while since Jared’s last visit to this place, but he distinctly remembered that it hadn’t been this way when he’d last come here. “What does that mean?”
Jensen didn’t answer right away, instead letting go of Jared’s hand to stroll over to the monument marking Damos’s grave. The stone was old and cracked with age, shaped into an arch scored paper-smooth by years and years of wind and dust, but Jared could still clearly make out the markings on the surface, etched in intricate script.
Our hero, our savior.
May he fly forever free in Olim’s great skies.
Jensen knelt down before the stone, reaching a hand out to trace the markings. “You know the legend, right? About how Deioryn was sealed away?” he asked, voice thoughtful.
“Of course,” Jared answered. “Who doesn’t?”
Jensen hm-ed softly. “Ever heard the alternate version?”
Jared blinked. Alternate version? He’d only ever been aware of one way the legend had been told. Yes, stories changed over time and through numerous tellers, but he’d thought the basics were common knowledge to everybody. “Um…no?”
His mate hardly seemed surprised, continuing to run his fingers thoughtfully over the worn stone. “It faded from the books a long time ago. I guess people liked the one with the happy ending better.”
Jared frowned. He’d never considered the ending of the Colossus legend to be particularly happy. What could possibly be worse than Damos sacrificing his life in order to save the world? “How…How is the alternate version different?”
“Well.” Jensen drew his hand back and regarded his fingers carefully, as if inspecting them for something that might have rubbed off from the contact. His voice suddenly grew far away again. “There are some who say that Damos didn’t die, for one.” At Jared’s stunned silence, he huffed out a soft, humorless breath. “At least, not in the way that it’s assumed he did.
“The legend says that Damos died when he used up all his life-force in order to seal Deioryn into the mountain, right? Well, some have said that, in that instant when he cast the spell, Damos didn’t actually die. Olim had seen into the future and knew that, one day, Deioryn would find a way to break out of Seraphim Peak to terrorize the world once again. And when that happened, Damos had to still be around to fight him. Therefore, he purposely worked the spell so that when Damos cast it, not only was Deioryn sealed away—Damos himself was too.”
“So then…” Jared looked up at the ominous shape above them. “So then both of them are here? Sealed into Seraphim Peak?”
“That’s the way the story goes,” Jensen said, straightening up. “If you believe it, anyway. Both Damos and Deioryn will rise again one day, and when they do, it’ll likely be a fight to the death.” He sighed, sounding abruptly old and tired. “I don’t expect the world itself will be enough to withstand their battle when that happens.”
Jared frowned, looking briefly down at the well-worn stone before bringing his gaze back to his mate. “Why…are you telling me all this?” he asked, even as, in the darkest recesses of his mind, the first tiny, barely-noticeable seed of suspicion was planted.
Jensen was quiet for a long time. When at last he spoke, it was in a voice so soft Jared could barely make out the words, yet simultaneously so old and vast the very earth seemed to hum with its weight. “Because it is almost time.”
For years to come, Jared would always look back on that moment and wonder why he didn’t realize it sooner.
He opened his mouth, intending to ask Jensen what he meant by that, when suddenly the earth shifted beneath his feet. The movement was violent, jolting, and sent him to his knees instantly, hard, rocky earth digging painfully into his skin. Jensen immediately tugged him to his feet, though, shouting something unintelligible over the sudden din of falling rock. The words didn’t matter. From the panicked glint in Jensen’s eyes and his white-knuckled grip on Jared’s arm, Jared got the message.
He turned and took a running start, calling for his dragon as he went, and he was just beginning to feel the heat of the transformation, just beginning to unfold his wings and extend his neck when all of a sudden there came a shout behind him, Jensen’s hand abruptly loosening its grip and disappearing as if snatched back by some invisible force.
Jared spun, just in time to see rock and rubble shower down all around them. Jensen’s face showed fear and surprise an instant before his mate vanished beneath the falling earth. Jared’s entire body froze, and everything suddenly became echoing and very far away.
The ground was still moving beneath him, a sick undulation that felt like the very earth was trying its damnedest to dodge his feet, but Jared didn’t care, falling to his knees and tearing blindly at the pile of rocks. “Jensen! Jensen!”
He shoved at the rocks, throwing big chunks aside and coughing at the dust that arose, bits of it stinging in his eyes and he couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think beyond the fact that he had to get Jensen out, had to
(get her out, find her but he can’t, his hands are too small and the rocks are too big)
find his mate, couldn’t lose Jensen like this, not like he’d already lost
(her, buried before he could even blink, and Sai is wailing and crying next to him but he can’t take care of her right now, he has to find their mother, their mother and Saria, buried beneath the rubble)
everything else important in his life, and he couldn’t, not Jensen, not now. Dear gods, please, not now.
A fresh cloud of dust exploded in his face and Jared stumbled back, hacking and coughing even as he reached blindly for the next rock. He couldn’t stop now—he had to find Jensen, had to find
(his mother with her dead blank eyes, staring up at nothing when he finally pushes aside the next rock, and underneath her little Saria, crying and terrified and alive, alive but their mother is not and it’s like the entire world is suddenly closing in on him, just him and no one else because his mother is dead, she’s dead dead DEAD)
him before it was too late. He couldn’t fail a second time. He wouldn’t.
“Jensen, hold on! Jensen!”
To his right, something suddenly gave way with a sharp clatter. Jared turned just in time to see a dusty hand burst through the rock, groping wildly at empty air, and with a hoarse cry he dove at the spot, tearing at the rock with renewed fervor. An instant later, Jensen finally emerged through the rubble with a ragged gasp for breath, dusty and bruised but unmistakably alive, and Jared could breathe again.
His mate coughed, shaking stray dust out of his hair as he shoved feebly at the rocks still around the lower part of his body. “Gods,” he managed after a moment, “That’s not something I ever want to try again. Jay, did you ever—Jay?”
Jared didn’t understand at first when Jensen’s face suddenly became creased with concern and his mate reached out toward him, and it wasn’t until Jensen’s fingers brushed his face that he realized it was wet with tears. The realization only seemed to make things worse, though, and he ducked his head, taking deep, trembling breaths even as Jensen’s hands roamed worriedly over his face and his shoulders, concern present in every touch.
“Jay? What’s wrong?”
But Jared couldn’t answer. How could he? How could he make Jensen understand just how close he’d come to reliving the worst moment of his life, the moment when he’d lost his mother, his guide, the most important thing in his life?
He couldn’t. But Jensen, apparently, hadn’t gotten that particular memo, because his mate only continued his press, fingers gently touching Jared’s face, eyes bright. “Jared?” he asked.
Jared took a deep breath. Jensen was here, he told himself. His mate was here, alive and unhurt. Jared hadn’t lost him. He hadn’t.
“I.” He swallowed hard around a suddenly closed-up throat. “I thought you’d d-died.”
Jensen huffed a soft laugh at that, but Jared got the impression he was doing it mostly for Jared’s benefit, if the way his fingers curled protectively in Jared’s hair was any indication. “I’ve lived alone trapped in my human form for well over a thousand years, Jay,” he said. “It’ll take a lot more than a small rockslide to kill me.”
It provided little comfort, and Jared shook his head, ducking down to press his face to Jensen’s shoulder. “I can’t lose you,” he whispered, voice trembling. “Not you. Not after…after my…”
He couldn’t finish, voice breaking, and Jensen pulled him close. “Shh,” his mate whispered, kissing his hair, his temple, his lips, anywhere he could reach. “It’s okay. Hey, help me out of here, huh? Now that the quake has stopped, we should get to a safer place.”
It was only then that Jared realized that the earth had, indeed, stopped shaking. He hadn’t noticed in the chaos of his own world falling apart, but things around them had fallen silent once again.
He tried to help Jensen remove the rest of the rocks keeping him pinned, but his hands shook so much that in the end it was largely his mate freeing himself on his own. Jensen didn’t seem to mind, catching Jared’s hand as soon as he got free and pulling him into a warm embrace. “Hey,” he said, the words rushing warm over Jared’s bare neck. “You okay?”
Jared let out a breath, holding on for dear life. “I…I don’t know,” he answered honestly.
His mate hm-ed softly and pulled back, squeezing Jared’s hand. “Let’s get out of here, huh?” he said. Jared nodded and couldn’t agree more.
He didn’t miss how Jensen’s gaze flicked up to the protrusion of rock above them as they stepped away. “Jensen?” he asked after a moment, following his mate’s eyes. He didn’t see anything different from before the quake, though; Deioryn still appeared to be neatly sealed into the side of the mountain, but Jensen’s expression was strangely thoughtful. “What is it?”
His mate glanced briefly at him before looking back up at the mountain. At long last, he sighed, sounding suddenly tired and old, and strangely resigned. “It’s nothing,” he said. “Let’s go.”
It wasn’t until they re-entered the treeline that Jensen spoke again. “So…where do you want to go?” he asked.
Jared looked up at the rapidly-darkening sky and thought about the town only a little ways away, Laeter’s parents with their venomous looks and their treacherous words, the other dragons who would look at Jensen with nothing but hatred and distrust in their eyes. Suddenly, he didn’t feel much like going any further.
“Can…Can we spend the night here?” he asked, turning to his mate. “Just you and me?”
Some of the vulnerability he was feeling must have shown on his face, because Jensen’s expression softened at his look. “Of course,” his mate answered with a soft smile. “Just…someplace soft, okay? I can still feel rocks digging into my rear.”
Jared managed a smile in return, and set about looking for a place to settle for the night. They finally decided on a large towering tree, its thick curling roots easily reminding Jared of where they’d mated for the first time. He had to give Jensen credit: his mate didn’t ask until after they had settled against the trunk of the tree, curled up on the ground next to each other.
“Hey,” Jensen said, and Jared tensed up despite the soft caress of his mate’s fingers along his collarbone. “Will you tell me now? What happened that scared you so much about the rockslide, I mean.”
Jared took a shaky breath against the sudden pain in his chest, feeling Jensen’s arm tighten around his waist in response. “You don’t have to,” his mate said immediately, but Jared just shook his head.
“No, I…I should. You’ve given me so much of yourself, Jensen; it’s only fair I return the favor. Besides, you’re my mate. You deserve to know.”
He felt Jensen nod, a brief movement of his chin, stubble brushing Jared’s cheek. His mate said nothing further, however, waiting patiently for Jared to begin. After a moment and another deep, trembling breath, Jared did.
“Shortly after my sisters reached their fourth year, my mother decided to celebrate their new freedom to leave the nest by taking us on an outing. It wasn’t anything particularly special, just a small canyon a few miles away from our home, but you know how it is with fledgelings. Every new piece of progress deserves a celebration, right?”
That got an amused hum of agreement out of Jensen, but nothing more. Jared licked his lips and continued on. “My father was out hunting that day, so it was just my mother, my sisters, and me. We hadn’t planned on doing much, really, just letting Sai and Saria test out their wings in the narrow canyon.
“Shortly after we arrived, Sai started to get ahead. She’s always been that way—pushing forward, wanting to be the best at everything. Saria, on the other hand, was always the shyer of the two, always liked to hang back with our mother more. So when Sai started to leave us behind, my mother told me to go with her to keep an eye on her. So I did, and we flew ahead.”
He paused to wet his lips again. Jensen remained silent.
“I…I don’t remember it clearly anymore. All I know is that one moment Sai and I were flying through the canyon, chasing each other around the rocks, and the next…there was this, this explosion or something, a loud rumbling, and when we turned around, there was a huge dust cloud in the air where we had left Saria and our mother. We hurried back immediately, and when…when we got there…”
His throat closed up again at the memory, the dust in his mind parting to reveal the giant pile of rock, and beneath it…
Jensen brushed a gentle kiss over his temple, and spoke for the first time. “What happened then?”
“I…” Jared squeezed his eyes shut, feeling the warm prickle of tears spill over to run in rivulets down his face. “I got there first, and…and they were buried. It was…this huge pile of rocks, and Sai was crying and I could hear Saria screaming from somewhere underneath, but my mother…I couldn’t hear anything from her. I couldn’t hear anything.”
He struggled for his next words, and felt Jensen’s aura flare up to wrap them both in warmth and protection. That was the only thing that finally gave him the strength to keep going. “I…eventually, I dug them out. It took a r-really long time because I was so small back then, so d-damned small…but it was already too late. My mother…she was dead.”
Jensen’s aura flickered with compassion, even as his mate nosed gently at his hair and whispered, “I’m sorry.”
Jared swallowed several times, swiping at his eyes before continuing. “She had…in order to protect Saria from the rockslide, she used her body as a shield. The rocks crushed her like a…like a t-toothpick, or something. She died almost instantly. I—I think that’s the only comfort we were ever able to take from her death.
“After that, I somehow got my sisters back home. I don’t even remember how; it’s all just a fuzzy blur, but somehow, I did. And then, when my father came home…” Jared’s gaze drifted uncomprehendingly down to the ground. “I think he blamed himself for what happened that day, maybe thought he could’ve prevented it if he had been there or something instead of out hunting. He came down with the grief sickness, and died a few weeks later. And Saria…” He let out a breath. “Saria never spoke again after that.”
Silence fell. Somewhere from the direction of the town, the angry call of an adult Quillback sounded out—a mother scolding her children for some misbehavior or another. Jared remembered how his mother had never raised her voice in such a way with them—she’d never had to. They all loved her too damned much to let her down.
Except that one time when he had. The one time that it had mattered, and he had failed.
Jensen must have somehow sensed what he was thinking, because his mate abruptly shifted, turning Jared until they were face-to-face. Jensen’s expression when he looked at Jared was serious. “You did all you could back then, Jay,” he said. “What happened to your mother was a tragedy. But it’s not your fault.”
And somewhere deep down, Jared knew that. He’d only been a youngling, after all, and even an adult dragon wouldn’t have been able to get back in time to save his mother. Still… “I should have done something,” he whispered, and felt the pain spike within his heart once again.
“And what could you have done?”
“I…I don’t know. I just should have done something.”
“Hm.” Jensen nodded in the direction of Damos’s grave, obscured in the distance by the thick trees. “You know, Jay, he thought the same thing a long time ago. He should have done something, right? He should have found a way to end the war without sealing his brother away.”
Jared frowned, drawing back a little in horror. “But then the war would still be raging. More would have died—countless more.”
He thought Jensen flinched a bit at the words, but it was gone so fast that it might have been his imagination. His mate nodded. “You could use the same logic for what happened to you. For example, if you had chosen to stay with your mother and sister that day, or if you and Sai had flown back before the rockslide…Jay, what do you think might have happened?”
Jared swallowed, looking down. “I…” I would have saved them, his mind screamed, the little part of himself that was still that small nine-year-old youngling, angry and grieving and so utterly alone. They would have been okay, because I would have found a way to save them somehow. But he knew that wasn’t true. It was nice to think about, all the what-ifs and the best-case scenarios, but the truth was that things could only have gone one way. And he had never said it, had never dared even think it before because he was afraid to make it real, but the truth was…
“I would have died too. And if I’d died, then Saria would have suffocated beneath the rock, and Sai wouldn’t have made it out of the canyon alone.” He drew a breath, the words rolling strange and unfamiliar off his tongue. “We…we would have all perished.”
They would have all died. If anything about that day had been different, none of them would be here today. Sai would not be happily mated and expecting her first clutch, Saria would not be quietly tending their family home, and Jared…Jared would never have met Jensen, would not be here right now safe in his mate’s embrace, would not be looking into Jensen’s eyes right now and seeing, for the first time, true acceptance and love. And with that thought, somewhere deep in the recesses of his heart, something slowly began to loosen, something that had been knotted tight for all those years ever since that fateful day in the canyon, and Jared found that he could breathe again.
Jensen reached out to touch his face then, eyes soft, knowing. “But you didn’t,” he said, gently. “And because of that, you and your sisters are alive, with your mother living through you more strongly than ever. All things considered, I think you did exactly what you should have done, Jay.”
And, for the first time in his life, Jared found himself believing it.
He looked at Jensen and bit his lip, feeling his heart suddenly bursting with emotion, overflowing with endless love and fondness. He didn’t deserve this wonderful, brilliant being, but, somehow, Jensen was his. Jared almost couldn’t believe it.
“Th-Thank you,” he managed after a long moment, voice slightly choked, but Jensen just shook his head.
“No, I should be the one thanking you,” he answered, “for sharing with me one of your greatest secrets.”
“Yes, well.” Jared smiled, and found he didn’t have to force it. “I suppose that means you’ll have to return the favor.”
Jensen returned the grin, although something tightened in his expression, a fleeting, unrecognizable emotion flickering through his eyes. “Soon, Jay. Not now, but soon.”
Jared didn’t bother arguing. The emotional toll of telling his story chose just that moment to make itself known, and he suddenly felt exhausted, limbs growing heavy and dull. “Let’s sleep for a bit,” he said, barely hiding a yawn, “okay?”
Jensen nodded his agreement, and they arranged themselves into a more comfortable position, arms and legs entangled. Jared felt the heaviness of sleep come upon him as soon as he closed his eyes, so that he barely caught Jensen’s last words, whispered into his hair.
“My secrets will destroy us.”
Surely they can’t be that bad, Jared thought, before promptly drifting into dreamless nothing.
Something woke him an unknown amount of time later, a jolt of pure adrenaline that brought him abruptly out of sleep, survival instinct taking him from zero to sixty in less than a second. Bolting upright in the grass, Jared became aware of several things at once.
First, it was hot. In fact, it was so hot the very air seemed to be on fire, the woods a sudden furnace. His skin felt scorched and his clothes stuck to his body in a layer of sweat, and confusion clouded his mind. Jared couldn’t remember the atmosphere ever getting this hot before, not even when Veryl’s Crest had been erupting. Just what was going on?
Also, Jensen was no longer by his side. Panic erupted at that realization, but when Jared shot to his feet and looked around, he immediately spotted his mate standing a few feet away, back tense and shoulders hunched, looking up at Seraphim Peak. Jensen was here; Jensen was safe, and some of the panic drained away.
It abruptly returned, however, when Jared realized that Seraphim Peak was glowing.
He’d never seen anything like it. The entirety of the mountain seemed alight in brilliant white, but when Jared threw up his hand as a shield and squinted between his fingers, he quickly realized that that was an exaggeration. The mountain itself wasn’t glowing—rather, it was only the unnatural protrusion from the side, the gnarled and wind-worn rock that formed Deioryn’s stony outline. And, now as Jared looked more closely, he could clearly see that the glow wasn’t coming from the rock itself, but rather from gigantic cracks and fissures that were forming, the bright light seeping through from beneath, like sunlight spilling through cracks in window shutters. The light was breaking through the rock—Seraphim Peak was having trouble containing the power within, and that, Jared realized with a sinking feeling in his heart, meant only one thing.
Dear gods. It couldn’t be.
Jensen must have somehow sensed his awakening because he straightened then, turning slowly to face Jared. Dust streaked his face, partly from the rockslide the previous day, and partly from what was unfolding before them now. His green eyes glinted strangely in the half-morning light, and his expression, when Jared saw it, was grave.
The mountain rumbled. The ground shook. Another large crack appeared in the mountain above, the rock giving way with an eerie groan. The air itself shifted for a moment, an invisible wave of freshly-released energy, and, before Jared’s very eyes, Jensen seemed suddenly to change. Jared noticed it in his aura first, how it erupted with sudden power, but almost immediately afterward he saw the physical change as well: Jensen’s eyes slid from green to a haunting slitted gold, vast and heavy with a depth that, Jared realized with a tightening in his chest, he had always been waiting to see. The infinite, powerful—colossal—wisdom in Jensen’s eyes that explained everything.
That was the moment that Jared knew. Jensen smiled, eyes sad and full of regret. “I’m sorry I got you involved in this,” he said then, and his voice echoed of something vast and deep, of a legend as old as the earth itself.
Jared swallowed and stepped forward. “It’s okay,” he said. “You were worth it.” And he meant it.
He reached out and Jensen took his hand. “Would you like to see?” his mate asked, soft and almost shy. Jared didn’t even have to think about it; he nodded, and Jensen reached forward. Jared’s last thought, before their foreheads touched and images flooded his mind, was that, somehow, he’d always known—who Jensen was, what he had been through, and everything that had happened to lead them here to this point, the both of them, together.
It ends today.
He crouches alone on the edge of a cliff overlooking the valley, watching as the fires burn below, spouting thick pillars of smoke up into the thunderous sky. The clouds hover low, angry and dark, pregnant with poisonous rain, every drop scouring on his thick scales. He no longer remembers what the sun feels like.
Distant, chilling like a cursed wind, his brother’s call floats to him through the ash-clogged air, a whisper of fire, of sin. Find me. Fight me.
It is not too late. Find me. Rule with me.
A rustle behind him, as of brittle-dead leaves being brushed aside. Aphaniel approaches, bowing low. “Damos.”
He makes no reply. It matters not. They have had this conversation before.
When next Aphaniel speaks, his voice is taut and vibrating with emotion. Damos thinks of the toys the younglings used to play with, the stone tied onto the end of a string that they would swing round and round, round and round until it finally broke with a snap. The younglings would laugh as they watched the stone sail through the air, but they are all dead now, he knows. They are all dead, and he is to blame.
“Damos.” Aphaniel steps forward. “Please, I beg you to reconsider.”
He does not think about his words. “Begging does not suit a Silverstreak.”
“Please. As your soldier, your general—as your friend. Please.”
He rises without turning around. The fires burn bright, little pinpricks of light scattered throughout the valley, a macabre sprinkling of color. If he listens hard enough, he can hear the screams. It is not only the ghosts who haunt his dreams now.
“Take shelter,” he says, and feels Aphaniel stiffen behind him. “And live. For me, my friend. Live.”
He draws power on a breath, the spirit of the earth singing through his veins as he unfolds his massive wings. The world fades away, nothing but sky, the call that is in the hearts of all dragons, and thus beckons him most of all. Just beneath, like an electric current, his brother’s challenge continues its sinister whisper.
Find me. Fight me.
So be it.
Launching himself into the air, he tells himself the broken cry that sounds out behind him is merely a burst of wind, and not his closest friend mourning something already long lost.
Within moments, the mountains emerge from the clouds like beasts, forlorn and blackened by fire and battle. He thinks it oddly appropriate—the color matches that of his brother’s scales, yet he is still able to easily distinguish Deioryn’s massive form, coiled atop the summit of Seraphim Peak, as of one guarding a recent clutch. His brother smiles as he approaches, uncurling claws that leave huge gouges in the ash-covered rock. His eyes glitter in the half hell-light.
Damos has always thought them beautiful, like diamonds in a sea of coal. He will always remember them this way.
The ground shakes with his landing, a beat of his wings that sweeps the area clean, dead trees and chalk-white bones. Habit makes him bow his head. “Jo’sen,” he says, slipping into the ancient tongue. Elder brother.
Deioryn darts out a forked tongue, eyes flashing in the dark. “Jensen,” he answers. Little brother.
Silence settles like a shadowed twilight. Deioryn’s eyes peer at him, venomous twin embers. “For a hundred years you have defied me. Noble, Jensen, but so very naïve.”
“Olim-el’wah does not desire this,” he answers. “Please, Jo’sen. I entreat you to see reason. This fighting is meaningless. Too many have died.”
The sky rips open with a roar, his brother’s anger ringing thunderously clear. “They die because they are weak,” he hisses. “For years we have watched over them like younglings, like infants, and they give us nothing in return. They are atobah, mindless and ungrateful. How can you defend them so?”
“How can you hate them as you do?”
“They know nothing. They deserve to be in chains.”
“They deserve to make that choice themselves.”
“Su’jah!” Lightning tears across the sky with the echo of Deioryn’s furious roar. “Imbecile! You would let them dominate you so? We are Colossi—we are their gods!”
Despite his best efforts, he feels his own anger rise, an ugly, suffocating feeling in his chest. “As was Olim-el’wah, and he showed compassion!”
“You are blind in your obedience to him!”
“And you,” he answers, even as his heart breaks, “are unworthy of being his son.”
The sound that tears itself from his brother’s throat is a terrible, anguished thing, and he knows, even before Deioryn springs from the mountain, that they will both face their father’s judgment today.
He closes his eyes. Soon, El’wah. We are coming.
The spell rises within him like a wave, a burning heat that sears through his very nerves even as he recalls the echoes of his father’s voice. Feel it, direct it. And do not dare hesitate.
He does not.
The heat explodes into a fire, a volcano erupting within his body. Everything is set alight—he is being ripped apart. Distant, echoing, a roar, a scream—Deioryn’s or his own, he does not know. He knows nothing but the pain now, the agony that rips through him like a thousand burning blades, and somewhere, deep in the depths of his being where his very life beats, something is suddenly ripped out of him, torn shrieking and struggling from his ragged soul. He reaches blindly after it—his dragon, his being, his life—but he knows it is futile, even before the darkness descends like an angry storm, suffocating his world in black emptiness.
Except he does not.
The pain wakes him, not the blazing-white agony of before but a sizzling-hot sting on his face, his arms, his bare torso. With it comes the sensation of wet. It is raining.
His first instinct is to shift. He seldom takes human form for just this reason—with the protection of his scales and his thick hide, the poisonous rain would be nothing, a mere tickle on the periphery of his senses. But when he reaches deep into himself, grasping for the dragon within, he finds with a jolt that there is nothing.
His dragon is gone. Bleak emptiness is all that remains, a vast deep vacuum that tugs at the very remnants of his being like a starving beast. For an instant he flails, reaching desperately out like a drowning animal seeking a lifeline, but try as he might there is nothing to grasp. Everything is suddenly thrown off-balance, a sinking, falling feeling as one sometimes gets between wakefulness and dreaming, except now there is no yielding ground to hit, nothing to cushion his fall and jolt him awake as if from some hellish nightmare.
He is alone. He is nothing.
The rain continues to fall in stinging, sour drops, and with the cry of a wounded animal he forces himself to stand just long enough to scramble into the shelter of a nearby outcropping of rock. It is dry here, but unnaturally warm, and when he looks up, he immediately realizes why.
The rock was not there before. It is a new formation, fresh with heat and sizzling smoke, barely subdued power. Deioryn, encased eternally in stone, imprisoned by his hand. Furious, unyielding, and forever bound. Cold, dark remorse hits him like a physical blow, stealing his breath and bringing the sting of tears to his eyes. Dear gods, he murdered his own brother, extinguished his bloodline in the ultimate betrayal. Very slowly, he reaches out with a trembling hand and presses a palm to the stone, but the apology dies on his lips when he feels it.
His brother is not alone.
When he feels the low hum, the familiar warmth beneath his skin, all the breath leaves his body. His dragon—his soul—it, too, has been trapped in the stone, and with a broken cry he claws desperately at the mountain, ripping and tearing until his nails crack, until his fingers bleed red into the unyielding rock. It is so close—his entire being sings out for it, his claws, his wings, his only chance for the sky, but he cannot reach, he cannot get through.
His dragon is trapped. The sky will never be his again.
Suddenly his knees no longer support him, and he sinks to the ground, sobbing like an infant that has lost its mother. He wants to die. He should have died, paid dearly for his treachery, all those innocent lives sacrificed because of his weakness. But it seems, even in this, he has failed.
He failed to save his brother. He failed to protect the dragons. And finally, here, he has failed to pay penance for all that he has done.
…Or, perhaps, he has not yet begun.
Tears still sting his face as he reaches slowly back over his shoulder with shredded fingers. He can see nothing from that angle, but he does not need to. Already he can feel it, the brand on his skin, deceptively cool to the touch, and, somewhere deep in a dark corner of his mind that even he is afraid to dwell, he knows.
His father would never wish them dead. Their battle is not yet over; it is only postponed. One day, he will be needed again. One day, they will finish their fight—but until then, he must fade into silence.
Strange indeed that the punisher should thus become the punished, the brand he once placed on the backs of sinners now seared into his own fragile skin. This, then, is to be his penance. How long, he does not know, but neither, he discovers with the heavy weight of resignation, does he particularly care. For what he has done, he may walk the earth forever in this form, and it will not be enough.
It will never be enough.
He thinks, even as he stumbles awkwardly to his feet and steps back into the downpour, that Deioryn, at least, would find this amusing. In seeking to keep the dragons from being enslaved, he has instead slapped the chains on himself. All things considered, he thinks it a worthy end for an altogether unworthy life.
The rain continues to fall, every drop an arrow of stinging pain. He does not feel it. He feels nothing.
It is three days before he finally makes it down to the valley, stumbling right into the path of a lone Addersax. She gasps in surprise, scrambling quickly back with wide eyes.
“Who are you?” she demands. “I’ve not seen you before in these parts.”
He looks at her and thinks about how, with a shift and an easy swipe of her claws, she could end him as easily as expelling a breath. Maybe one day, it will happen just so. He cannot think of an end more fitting for his sins, although he knows that that is not his fate. He is destined to finish the fight. Only then will he be allowed to die as he deserves.
She continues to watch him with those wide, accusing eyes. He looks down at his hands—human hands, bloody hands—and does not meet her gaze when he answers.
“I—I am no one,” he says, words stumbling from an unfamiliar tongue.
She narrows golden eyes, slitted eyes that cut through him more cleanly than any blade. “What is your name?”
He nearly tells her. He wants to tell her, but his lips will not form the word. Damos no longer belongs here, not in this broken form, this hollowed-out shell with nothing but blood on his hands and a brand on his back. The name is too sacred.
He has only one other.
“Jensen,” he whispers at last, each syllable scalding on his tongue. “My name is Jensen.”
Jared stumbled back, gasping for breath. Tears prickled at the corners of his eyes, and at first, when he looked at Jensen, he couldn’t even form words. Dear gods, to have sacrificed so much and to have endured such pain and such hatred for so long—and for what? A misplaced sense of self-blame?
His mate, for his part, didn’t speak for a long moment. When another deep rumble sounded out and a fresh crack appeared in the mountain above them, however, Jensen finally seemed to take a breath, eyes soft and irrevocably sad as he looked at Jared.
“You should go,” he said at last, voice gentle.
Jared stared at him for a moment. Go? In this moment when Jensen had finally laid everything at his feet, this moment when his mate needed him the most?
He finally found his voice. “Are you insane? I’m not leaving you alone here!”
Jensen, however, only shook his head, expression still sad. “This is my battle to fight,” he said. “I’ve waited thousands of years to finally bring this to an end. Please, Jay. Despite everything I’ve done…please don’t deny me this.”
“As my personal—and possibly final—request.” Jensen swallowed. “Please, go to your sister and fly far away from this place. I can’t fight my bro—Deioryn unless I know you’re safe. Please, Jared.”
Jared’s heart tightened in his chest, something vast and infinite blooming inside him at the look on Jensen’s face. Every atom of his body rebelled against the idea of leaving Jensen here to fight this battle alone, of flying off somewhere distant and safe while his mate waged the war in his stead. Still, though, Jared knew he had no choice. Jensen had been committed to this battle long before Jared himself was born, and, painful as it was to think it, Jared knew he had no place standing between Jensen and his brother.
It was the hardest thing he had ever had to do in his life, letting go of yet another person he loved with all his heart, but he had no choice. It had to be done.
Slowly, he stepped forward, threading his fingers into Jensen’s short hair and bringing his mate close so that their faces were bare inches apart, sharing the same breath. When he spoke, the words barely got out around the emotion clogging his throat. “You come back to me, you hear?” he whispered, struggling for each word. “I can’t…raise a family with you if you’re dead.” Jensen’s eyes widened, and Jared just smiled, feeling it wrench painfully at his heart. “So come back to me. That’s all I ask.”
It took Jensen a moment, throat working as he processed the depth of the offer Jared had just made. At long last, he swallowed. “I’ll try,” he answered, “I promise.” He brought their lips together for a kiss, slow, warm, and loving. When they drew back, his eyes were distinctly wet. “I love you.”
It seemed to take all the strength he had, but Jensen finally pulled away, turning and heading into the wood back toward Seraphim Peak, which was now covered in fissures and cracks that looked like some elaborate glowing spider’s web. Jared let him take two steps before speaking.
“It seems you’re always putting your life on the line for us, time and time again,” he said, and watched as Jensen came to a stop, back still turned. “And I don’t think you’ve ever been properly thanked for that. So thank you…Damos.”
His mate didn’t respond for a long time, shoulders straight, back tense. When at last he turned around, though, there was the barest hint of a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. His eyes glowed, brilliant ancient gold, and when he spoke, his voice echoed from somewhere deep and vast, as if inviting Jared to places more magnificent than he could ever imagine. “Sorry,” he answered. “My name’s Jensen.”
Clenching his fists and employing every ounce of willpower he had, Jared forced himself to stay standing where he was as he watched his mate turn back around and disappear into the trees.
The trip back into town took less than two minutes by flight. Jared swept in on a scene of utter chaos. Several of the houses had collapsed from the shaking ground, and the town’s inhabitants screamed and scrambled about like confused fledglings, grabbing valuables and launching into the sky every which way. Jared didn’t blame them. The heat was now so great it was near unbearable, the atmosphere scorching to the point that Jared almost expected his skin to catch fire any moment. The earth, also, never stopped moving for more than a moment at a time, the ground shifting and shaking beneath their feet as if furious at some wrong they had done it, adding to the mayhem and panic.
He spotted Sai not far from the ruins of Laeter’s house, a wailing young Quillback in her arms. As he watched, the Quillback’s mother reached them, holding her hands out for the youngling, who left a deep series of scratches in Sai’s shoulder as it scrambled out of her grip. Sai, however, didn’t even seem to notice, her expression crumpling into pure relief when she spotted Jared.
She started running toward him instantly and Jared met her halfway, sweeping her up into an embrace just long enough to feel the warmth of her body pressed against his and get a whiff of her spicy-sweet scent. When they pulled apart, his sister’s eyes were distinctly glistening. “I’m so glad you’re safe,” she whispered, voice wavering.
“Same,” Jared answered, but was kept from saying more when a deafening creak, as of two great metal plates being drawn against each other, sounded out. When he turned, it was just in time to see part of Seraphim Peak begin to crumble, rock and dust flying every which way as a long clawed foot—black-scaled and spiked, with talons easily the length of a tall tree—broke free and began to thrash.
Next to him, Sai drew a terrified gasp. “Is—is that—but it can’t be—”
Jared swallowed, staring as Deioryn slowly freed himself from his stone prison in the distance. Almost instinctively he reached out for Jensen, but something in the air—perhaps the vibration of the ancient spell being broken, perhaps the jumble of Jared’s own mind—prevented him from feeling anything of his mate in the vicinity. It produced in him a strangely unanchored feeling, and he hoped desperately that Jensen was okay.
A shout behind them, and they turned to see Laeter running toward them, his parents in tow. “Are you all right?” he asked, coming up to them.
His mother’s eyes widened when she saw the slash marks in Sai’s shoulder. “Dear gods, what happened to you? It was that Sealed dragon, wasn’t it? I told you—”
“Mom,” Laeter snapped warningly, but Sai didn’t even spare her a passing glance, turning instead to Jared with a worried expression.
“Jensen,” she said, and to her credit, Jared no longer sensed a trace of derision in her voice when she said his mate’s name. “Where is he?”
“Not here, as we can see,” Laeter’s father said, “and a good thing, too. Probably undid that binding spell himself and then ran off like the coward he is—”
“My mate is no coward,” Jared snapped, and something in his voice must have spoken to the fury roused in his heart by those calloused words, because everyone seemed to take a collective step back at that. “While you stand here dragging his name through the mud, Jensen is preparing to fight Deioryn to save you. He’s going to kill him, his own brother, for you!”
Silence fell, broken only by a rumbling roar in the distance as more rock tumbled from Seraphim Peak. Sai’s eyes were so big Jared could see the whites all around her pupils, and when she spoke, it was in a voice so timid and tentative Jared actually had a brief flash of her as a tiny youngling, looking up at him as her god-like big brother, asking him to shield her from all that was ugly and evil in this world.
“You…Jared, are you saying…?”
Jared nodded. “Damos isn’t dead,” he said, straightening his shoulders and looking at each of them in turn. “He gave up his power to save us in the war, and then he endured thousands of years of hatred and derision from the likes of dragons like you” –he had the satisfaction of seeing Laeter’s parents flinch at that— “and, despite that, he now fights for you again. All things considered, I think you should watch your words when you speak of him next.”
More silence. Laeter’s expression matched Sai’s, a look of utter shock, bewilderment, and a clear undercurrent of remorse. Laeter’s parents, caught off guard, floundered for a moment to Jared’s satisfaction before abruptly deciding the situation was altogether too much to handle and promptly taking to the air.
Sai made a face at their departure and seemed about to say something about it, but Jared interrupted her. “Let them go,” he said. His voice sounded tired even to himself; Laeter’s parents could think what they wanted. Jared believed in his mate, and that was all that mattered. “They’ll come around eventually.”
Laeter stepped forward, expression apologetic, but in that instant there came another creaking groan from Seraphim Peak. Jared turned around just in time to see the last of the rock give way, and a great, magnificent beast burst forth the likes of which he had never seen. Deioryn was almost as big as the mountain he had been sealed into for millennia, with scales as black as night and eyes the color of burning embers. As he launched himself from the mountain with an ear-shattering roar that rocked the earth itself, stretching out massive webbed wings that seemed to block out the sun itself to cast the land in darkness, Jared could only stare and feel something cold and terrible settle in the pit of his stomach.
Gods help us.
All around them, dragons were screaming and yelling, tripping over each other in their haste to flee. Jared saw one adult Addersax trample a tiny youngling as he took to the air, and he gritted his teeth, turning to Sai and Laeter. “We need to get out of here now!”
They needed no convincing, and an instant later they were in the air. It wasn’t two moments, however, before Jared heard a great roar sound out behind them, and he turned just in time to see Deioryn swoop down from the sky to unleash a massive wash of flames that consumed the town and half the forest, setting everything burning and alight. His eyes glinted with fury and his voice echoed for all of them to hear, ancient and evil.
Where are you? Come out and fight me!
Jared didn’t even notice that he had stopped in mid-air until he heard Sai call out to him in distress. Even so, he stayed where he was, hovering with steady beats of his wings, watching as Deioryn continued his assault, firing another wave of flames into a group of fleeing dragons to incinerate them in mid-air. He thought he heard their dying screams as they were engulfed.
I can smell you, you traitorous snake! I offered you the world and you betrayed me instead! For that, little brother, I will have your head!
With a jolt, Jared suddenly realized why Deioryn was so angry. He wasn’t aware that he had been sealed. Deioryn didn’t know that thousands of years had passed since Jensen had cast the spell. He thought they were still in the middle of the war, and he was looking for Jensen to meet him in battle.
Jared realized with a sinking feeling that he could still sense nothing of his mate. Somewhere deep down where their life-force kept them connected, he knew that Jensen was alive, but there was nothing more than that. That meant that the Seal was still in place. It meant Jensen needed more time.
Time that, Jared realized with sudden resignation, only he was capable of buying for him.
Turning in mid-air, he looked at Sai and Laeter, the both of them clearly torn between staying by his side and flying as far away as possible. Sai must have sensed what he was about to do because she gave a cry, darting forward to butt her nose pleadingly against his. No, Jared. Please don’t.
Jared’s heart broke a little at her words, but he knew what he had to do. Go, he answered. Take Laeter and get as far away from here as possible.
Please, Jared. I’m begging you. Don’t do this.
I need to, Sai. You would understand, if it was Laeter in Jensen’s place.
They stayed like that for a moment, noses touching. Jared felt Sai’s aura flare, worry and love and, finally, understanding. When she looked up at him, her slitted eyes said it all. Be safe, she whispered.
You too. He nuzzled briefly at her, and then she drew away, turning to fly back toward Laeter. The other Silverstreak nodded.
Give ‘im hell, Jared.
Pivoting in mid-air, Jared launched himself back in the direction of Seraphim Peak, and didn’t dare look back.
Deioryn was now flying over Veryl’s Crest, chasing the other dragons as they fled, each powerful beat of his wings sending a fresh shockwave through the air that nearly knocked Jared right out of his trajectory. Quickly righting himself, he tucked his legs in close to his body, drew his wings down, and found the silence.
The entire world jolted for a brief moment, the vibrations of the big boom resounding through his body even though he couldn’t hear it. All sound fell away, quiet settling over him like a familiar blanket as the rest of the world faded into an indiscriminating blur flying past him like a harmless wind. Instantly Jared felt his entire body relax, his mind settling into a stillness even more quiet than the silence that surrounded him. This was where a Silverstreak truly belonged, this intermediate dimension only achieved through the speed and agility of their race. Jared only hoped it would give him the element of surprise he needed.
The silence brought him even with Deioryn in a matter of seconds and, taking a breath, Jared brought himself back into the world, jolting back into chaos and flaming ash and the furious roar of Deioryn’s voice.
Show yourself, brother, or I will kill them all!
Arcing up over the Colossus’s giant body—and it was giant; Deioryn’s wing span fully covered half the forest below—he called upon his dragon, warm energy flowing up his spine to gather in that special spot between his throat and his chest, increasing in pressure until it seemed to be screaming to be let out. Jensen, he thought, this is for you.
The energy burst from his mouth in a ball of blue-white light, zinging through the air faster than any projectile to strike just behind Deioryn’s shoulder in an explosion of light and flying sparks. Deioryn roared and spun immediately, and Jared instantly banked sideways, barely avoiding a swipe of giant, razor-sharp talons.
Deioryn’s deep voice broke inside his skull, like waves crashing onto rock. Aphaniel. I should have known.
Jared didn’t reply, and plainly saw Deioryn draw his lips back from his teeth in a dragon’s equivalent of a sneer. I shall rip you apart for what you have done.
You can try, Jared retorted, and turned and shot past the mountains. Instantly he felt Deioryn in hot pursuit, and sent a silent prayer of thanks to the gods. Hurry, Jensen. I don’t know how long I can last.
The flight seemed an endless procession of zigzagging turns, Jared’s Silverstreak instincts the only thing that kept him veering away just in time to avoid Deioryn’s flaming attacks. He gave as good as he got, of course, firing energy blasts back at the giant Colossus at every opportunity, but they hardly seemed to slow Deioryn down, bouncing harmlessly off of his armored scales. The third time Jared narrowly avoided being bitten cleanly in half by giant teeth, he found himself glancing desperately back at the base of Seraphim Peak, the last place he had seen his mate. What was taking Jensen so long?
And then he saw it. It was small and barely distinguishable, but there was clearly a glow coming from somewhere at the mountain’s base, flickering bright like a thousand lightning bolts. It was accompanied by a distinct heavy presence, a presence that, even though it had been until recently muted by the power of a Seal, was warm and protective and familiar.
Jensen. Thank the gods.
It was the last thought he had before something abruptly slammed into him, a heavy, bone-splintering impact as of getting hit by a boulder. Pain spiked through his body, white and blinding, and then he was falling, the wind rushing past his wings as he clearly heard Deioryn give a triumphant roar. Desperately he tried to right himself by flapping his wings, but that only served to slow him down a bit and when he went tumbling into the earth he clearly heard a sharp snap, agony erupting in his left leg and searing through all his nerves so that he couldn’t help but scream.
Somewhere between hitting the ground and rolling to a stop his body had instinctively shifted into his smaller form, and Jared reached down to clutch at his leg. It was bent at an odd angle and he could see the bloody bone protruding from his skin. The pain was so intense that it was all he could do to keep from vomiting or passing out, and at the deafening roar that sounded out he looked up to see Deioryn descending upon him, claws extended.
Now you die, you insolent fool.
This was how it felt to be utterly helpless, completely defeated. He could run, but his leg was injured. He could shift, but he stood no chance. So this was it, then. Jared curled in on himself, shutting his eyes and waiting for the pain.
It never came.
Something bright suddenly exploded beyond his closed eyelids, and Jared opened his eyes and looked up just in time to see Deioryn washed aside by a pillar of flame, the blast knocking him right out of the air to land somewhere in the forest with an impact that shook the ground. A deep roar sounded out—different from Deioryn’s, rougher, warmer, safer—and another dark shape descended from the sky, landing carefully over Jared with a resounding boom.
Jared stared. The dragon now crouched protectively over him was fully Deioryn’s match in size and strength, easily twenty or thirty times bigger than Jared in his dragon form. His claws, sharp as diamonds, drew long gouges in the earth as he moved, and his wings seemed strong enough to be capable of conjuring up hurricanes. He was, in fact, Deioryn’s spitting image, from his long snout to his curved neck to the giant spikes that ran down his spine to the end of his tail, but whereas Deioryn’s scales were pure jet black, this dragon’s skin was instead a dark mottled green, the color of faded moss, of ancient forests, of all things aged and great. His eyes, too, were not the twin red-gold embers that Deioryn had, but were rather pure gold with what looked like flecks of green, a color that, Jared realized with a warm rush of relief and pure unadulterated affection, he recognized all too well.
Damos—Jensen—had reawakened at last.
From somewhere in the distance, Deioryn’s body broke the treeline, snarling in fury. Jensen’s only response was to spread his wings and lower his head, unleashing a powerful roar that Jared felt resound in his own ribcage, an admonition and a challenge all in one. Deioryn gave a cry of his own, launching himself into the air and heading back toward the mountains, his desire to fight somewhere else clear. As Jared watched, Jensen turned away from his departing brother to bring his head down to Jared’s level. His golden eyes were bright, partly with concern but mostly with affection, and, ignoring the pain his leg, Jared reached out to touch the tip of Jensen’s nose, the scales rough but warm beneath his skin.
“You’re…” He swallowed, looking up into Jensen’s bottomless gaze. “You’re beautiful.”
Jensen gave a soft snort, a blast of warm air that ruffled Jared’s hair as he nuzzled gently at Jared’s chest. Warm energy rushed through Jared’s body, his mate’s life-force in all its grand power, and he felt his leg instantly begin to mend, bones and tissue stitching back together as easy as breathing. Jared felt his heart swell, sudden tears gathering in his eyes as he leaned down to brush a gentle kiss over Jensen’s skin. “Remember your promise,” he whispered. “Come back to me.”
The low rumble Jensen gave him in response held no words, but the message was clear. His mate looked down at him with such warmth and love in his eyes that Jared thought he might burst with it.
However this works out, Jensen said then, voice deep and echoing in Jared’s head, know that I don’t regret anything about us. You saved me, Jay, in more ways than one. So thank you.
And, before Jared could reply, he beat his wings and launched himself into the air, straight on his brother’s tail. Jared was left standing alone at the edge of the forest, watching as his mate drew away, taking the majority of his heart with him.
“Who saved who, now?” he whispered, to no one in particular.
The final battle was enough to generate mythology of its own. For years afterward, dragons would disagree on who struck first—whether it was Deioryn who turned and fired the first shot, or Damos who overtook him and began the brawl. To Jared, it hardly mattered. All he cared about was that Jensen got out of it alive.
It was a spectacular fight. Even from his spot far removed from the action, Jared could still clearly see the bright blasts and explosions as the two Colossi fought, diving in and out of the clouds as they chased each other through the sky, coming together again and again in a flurry of slashing claws and snapping teeth. They seemed about equally matched—Deioryn was faster and stronger but hampered by thousands of years of immobility, and Jensen was weaker and slower but more aware of how the environment around them had changed in subtle nuances he could play to his advantage.
The very earth, too, seemed to be joining in the match. With another ear-shattering explosion, Veryl’s Crest erupted once again in a fresh cloud of smoke and flowing lava, and Seraphim Peak, unable any longer to bear the force of the Colossi’s fury, abruptly collapsed and crumbled into dust with an almost human-like groan. Jared could barely breathe through the ash clogging the air, but still he forced himself to remain where he was, watching as Jensen and his brother fought like demons, a bloody duel that would decide the fate of the dragons, the world that they had built, the very planet itself.
After what could only have been a few minutes but felt like several years, they seemed to have gotten nowhere. Deioryn was bleeding from several deep gashes in his side, and a particularly well-aimed blow from Jensen’s tail had mauled his right eye, now nothing but a bloody mass of flesh and hanging skin. Jensen, however, was no better off, scales singed from his brother’s fire and one wing ripped nearly clean off, the once-magnificent webbing now hanging in ragged, bloody tatters. Seeing the injuries, it was all Jared could do to stay where he was and not go rushing to help his mate. He knew that would only make things worse, though, diverting Jensen’s concentration when he needed it the most.
They were stationed now at opposite ends of the forest, Deioryn crouched atop a nearby mountain while Jensen stood looking up at him from the valley below. Behind them, Veryl’s Crest continued to spew smoke and flaming ash into the air, fireballs raining down all around, but neither dragon seemed to feel it.
Deioryn’s one remaining eye flashed furious in the light, glowing red like a smoldering flame. When he spoke, his voice echoed deep and vast for all to hear. You would defy me until the end then? He sounded angry, exhausted, and utterly disappointed.
Jensen’s voice when he replied was no different in tone. Your insanity leaves me no choice.
And you would murder your own brother to save these—these wretches?
I do what I must.
Deioryn hissed. Your measly spells will not stop me.
At that, Jared swore he heard Jensen heave a sigh, sad and resigned. I don’t plan on using spells.
Deioryn roared, a terrible, biblical sound. Fine! Then let us settle this once and for all!
He launched himself from the mountain but Jensen met him in mid-air, the both of them clawing and biting at each other as they rose steadily upward, breaking through the cloud cover. Jared watched, scarcely able to breathe, as Jensen finally kicked out, dislodging his brother from him and sending Deioryn plummeting down toward the fire of Veryl’s Crest, and he felt the warm rush of hope start to take hold in his heart—this was it, Jensen was going to win—
But then—no. No, Jensen was falling too—no, he was diving, colliding into his brother and wrapping himself around Deioryn like a snake, keeping him entrapped, ensuring he could not use his wings to escape and they were both falling, falling toward the volcano and fire and a burning, fiery death—
Even as Deioryn snapped and cursed and struggled to get away, Jensen’s eyes slipped closed, and a heartbeat later Jared heard his mate’s voice in his head, soft and gentle, for him and him alone.
I’m sorry, Jay.
“…No!” The shift was instant, unconscious, his dragon bursting forward on pure instinct at the thought of losing his mate, and Jared shot toward the two falling Colossi, the silence enveloping him so that everything else faded away, everything but the wind and the scene before him, Jensen falling to his death, his lover, his mate, another loved one Jared couldn’t save.
Jensen and Deioryn slammed into Veryl’s Crest. The mountain exploded upon impact, bright light and searing heat bursting forth like a supernova and this time Jared couldn’t withstand it, air and sound rushing back in as he suddenly couldn’t see, couldn’t move, helpless as a leaf in the wind as the shockwave knocked him clean out of the air to go tumbling onto the ground below. The impact knocked the wind clear out of him and he could only lie there for a moment, gasping for breath and struggling to remember where he was.
It seemed forever before he finally came back to himself. Sounds and smells came first: the distant calls of frightened dragons, the unmistakable charred scent of fire and ash. Then came sight, blurry at first and Jared had to shake his head a couple of times to clear his vision. A tree branch had fallen across him in his tumble through the woods, but one quick flick of a wing took care of that, and when he finally sat up and looked around he saw that he had landed in the forest not far from the spot where he and Jensen had slept the night before—and had that only been one night ago? It seemed like forever, now.
This part of the forest seemed to have been spared Deioryn’s attack from earlier, only a few of the trees still burning, and with a gasp and a cough Jared finally turned to look toward Veryl’s Crest, heart seizing up at what he saw.
The eruption was over, the volcano no longer exploding outward in a rain of ash and fire. Instead, lava was flowing steadily down its sides, columns of smoke billowing quietly out the top…and there was a distinctly dragon-shaped lump sprawled along the edge of the crater, tail hanging limply halfway down the mountain. From this distance, Jared couldn’t tell what color it was, but it might have been green.
A wretched, anguished cry sounded out, echoing along the mountain range, and Jared didn’t even realize it had issued from his own mouth as he launched himself into the air, shooting toward Veryl’s Crest as fast as he could. Dear gods, please, let it not be Jensen. Let Jensen survive, because Jared couldn’t live without him.
Jared didn’t want to live without him.
The smoke made it almost impossible to see as he approached, but Jared hardly paid it any attention, breaking through the last of the ashy clouds only to be hit by the noxious smell of burning flesh. With another cry he dove down toward the body of the dragon, covered in lava and slowly melting into the rock beneath it, and he felt relief rush through his body so fast he made him lightheaded when he realized that the dragon was black. It was Deioryn, single eye still open and unseeing, lips still drawn back in a silent roar, and there was not an ounce of life that could be sensed in him.
Deioryn was dead. The war was finally over.
But then where was Jensen?
Desperate, Jared reached into that deep part of himself that was linked so intimately to his mate’s life-force, searching desperately for any flickers of Jensen’s aura in the vicinity. Cold fear settled in his stomach when he could sense nothing. Where was Jensen? Dear gods, what if he was—
Then, all of a sudden, he felt it: a tiny, weak flare pulsing like a dying beacon somewhere close to Deioryn’s body. Looking down, Jared finally spotted the tiny human shape, curled close in the shelter of Deioryn’s claws, the giant, diamond-hard bone the only thing keeping the lava at bay.
He dove down immediately, shifting in mid-air to land smoothly on the ashy rock next to his mate. The rock was hot, burning the soles of his feet, but Jared hardly even noticed, crouching down next to Jensen and feeling tears spring once again to his eyes when he saw his mate up close for the first time.
Jensen was in bad shape. Fully half his body was burned beyond repair, skin already starting to blister and peel, and his shredded wing had translated to his right arm, skin and muscle hanging off the bone as if he had been mauled by some great beast. His eyes were closed and, as Jared bent closer, he found that though Jensen was breathing, it was shallow and labored, each breath an almost indomitable effort.
Swallowing against the lump in his throat, Jared reached forward, running a gentle finger down the side of his mate’s face. “Jensen?” he whispered, alert and hopeful, but Jensen didn’t respond. Even his aura remained still, muted and dull.
Jared’s mate was dying. He needed to get Jensen help now.
He shifted cautiously, careful not to disturb his mate as he took on his primal form. Then, with utmost care and hardly daring to breathe, he gently scooped Jensen up in his claws—eerie how small Jensen was now, cradled to him like an infant—and booked it as fast as he dared away from the mountain.
Within minutes, he spotted a small gathering of dragons in the distance, Sai and Laeter’s auras clear among them. When he banked down and landed among them, however, shifting as he went, he clearly saw several of the dragons back away, staring in horror at Jensen, still bleeding in Jared’s arms.
Sai, however, had no qualms about rushing immediately forward. “Jared! I’m so glad you’re—dear gods, what happened to him?”
Jared swallowed, reaching up to gently brush his fingers through Jensen’s short hair. His hand came back red with blood. “He fought for us,” was his only answer, barely able to get the words out, his voice shook so badly.
A few feet away, another dragon, one Jared faintly recognized as having come from the same village where Sai and Laeter had initially made their home, stepped forward, eyes flashing. “You dare bring this traitor here? You can’t just—”
But before Jared could even turn to address him, a dark shape flew over them and Laeter in all his Silverstreak magnificence landed between him and the other dragon with an angry roar. The other dragon stumbled back in shock, and when Laeter spoke, his voice was firm. He once sacrificed everything for us, and now he’s done it again, he snapped, So yes, Jared can just.
There was conviction in his voice, and belief. Jared swallowed, nodding in thanks, but in the next instant Sai was speaking, words soft and tentative but enough to bring Jared’s entire world crashing down.
“Jared, I…I think he’s…dead.”
Jared’s heart stopped. “Wh-What?” Looking down at Jensen, cold, motionless—lifeless—in his arms, he felt his heart crack and splinter into a thousand pieces. Slowly, he lowered his shaking palm to Jensen’s face, and felt no movement of air. Jensen wasn’t breathing.
His mate was dead.
“No,” he whispered, and Sai reached out, eyes glistening.
“Jared, I’m so sorry—”
“No.” Jared ducked his head, gathering Jensen to him as the dam finally broke, tears running hot down his face as his entire body shook with sobs. “No, please. No!”
Jensen was dead. Jared’s mate, his life, was gone from this earth, and Jared felt his entire being crumble into dust. This was how it felt to lose everything. This was how it felt to be truly alone.
What followed next was something none of those present would ever forget. Jared curled protectively over Jensen’s body, shoulders shaking as he sobbed. Sai gently rubbed his back, tears streaming down her own cheeks. Laeter growled, turning on any dragon who dared approach, determined to keep them at bay at all costs.
And then, all of a sudden, there rose a strong wind, a blast of heat and pure power that emerged from places unknown and swept over them in a wave, knocking the other dragons backward but passing over Jared and Jensen as easily as a soft breeze. It carried with it a vibrating energy, an aura Jared didn’t recognize. In that instant, a voice sounded out inside his head, deep like Jensen’s but fraught with an age and power greater than the universe itself, and filled with nothing but love and what almost felt like pride.
My son is in your hands now.
Then, just as quickly as it had come, the wind—and the presence that accompanied it—was gone. The other dragons picked themselves up off the ground, dazed, and Laeter turned to look at them, confusion evident in his golden eyes. But before Jared could say anything, Sai suddenly gasped, grabbing his arm. “Jared, look!”
Her gaze was fixed on Jensen, and when Jared followed it he quickly saw why. The first thing he noticed was that the ash and dust initially covering his mate’s body was gone, not a trace of dirt left; Jensen looked almost washed clean. And then there were his wounds—or rather, the distinct lack of them. His right arm was whole again, no sign of blood or injury, and the burns on his body were gone, skin smooth and perfect once again. Whatever had passed over them in that wind had healed Jensen more thoroughly than any amount of magic or medicine ever could—and Jared figured they could expect no less from who he suspected had been responsible.
His thoughts were promptly interrupted, however, when Jensen suddenly shifted in his arms, eyes shooting open for the briefest of moments in a flash of green before he began to cough, taking in deep, gasping lungfuls of air. Next to him Sai made a sound almost like a sob, half-surprise and half-relief, and Jared joined her, barely able to breathe as he watched his mate come back to him, a promise made and finally, finally kept.
Jensen settled after a moment, falling once again limp in Jared’s arms as he slipped back into unconsciousness, but by then Jared already knew they were going to be all right. Ducking his head and gathering Jensen close, feeling his mate’s breaths wash warm over his skin, he closed his eyes and thought, Thank you.
There was no reply beyond a light breeze that blew through the trees, but it was more than enough.
Jared woke groggy and disoriented, struggling to awareness like a mole nosing out of the ground. He couldn’t see well at first, the dim moonlight seeping through the window slats just barely enough for him to distinguish his bedroom in the house he shared with Saria. What had woken him? Some sound drifting in from the forest outside? A tree branch knocking against the window? The spot next to him in the bed, cold and—
Dear gods. The spot next to him in the bed was empty.
Panic set in immediately, cold rushing through his body as all the alarm bells in his head went off, and he clenched his fists in the sheets. Only two days had passed since Damos and Deioryn had fought their final battle, just two measly days since he almost lost Jensen and just barely got him back by a very much divine stroke of luck. And to lose him now…
He was out of the bed and halfway across the room before higher brain functioning finally took over. Jared stopped where he was and drew a slow, shaky breath. He was being ridiculous. Jensen had done nothing but sleep ever since Jared and Saria finally got his freshly-healed body settled in Jared’s bed. In these past two days, Jared himself had never left his mate’s side, watching over him and turning him as necessary during the day, curling up next to him in the bed during the night. He would have sensed it and responded appropriately had something come for Jensen in his sleep, which meant nothing had, which meant his mate was fine.
The jack-hammer pounding of his heart abruptly slowed, and with a freshly cleared mind Jared closed his eyes and concentrated, awareness flowing in like water flooding a cave: Saria’s aura in the next room, soft with peace and the sedation of sleep, and just a little ways away, from the roof above him—Jensen’s presence, calm and just the slightest bit sad, but also very much alive.
Jared breathed a short sigh of relief and tamped down on the urge to kick himself. What was next, he thought, tying a bell around Jensen’s neck?
They never built an indoor pathway to the roof; never felt the need for one. That was how Jared found himself standing in the cold night air a moment later, pondering the rooftop as the front door shut softly behind him. His dragon responded immediately when he called, and he donned the form like a well-worn cloak just long enough to rise up over the house, shedding it just as fast as soon as he cleared the roof. His two feet hit the smooth wood next to the chimney, and Jensen, seated on the shingles at that junction where the two slanted edges met each other, turned without hesitation and offered him a soft smile. “Hey, Jay.”
His voice came through sharp, clear, and unmistakably alive. A warm, wonderful something rose in Jared’s chest, and he swallowed, suddenly unable to find his breath. Here was Jensen, alive and whole despite everything that his brother and Jared—and, indeed, all the dragons in the world—had done to him. Here was Jensen, smiling at him as if he hadn’t just fought the greatest battle in history, as if he hadn’t for the second time nearly sacrificed his own life to save the world.
What the hell was Jared supposed to say to that?
At his silence, Jensen slowly stood up, each movement ginger and careful as if he still thought himself injured. He wore the same threadbare sleeping-clothes Jared and Saria had dressed him in two days ago, and stubble dusted his jawline—Jared hadn’t trusted the steadiness of his hands to shave him while he’d been asleep. His hair, too, was nothing but a mess of haphazard spikes, but still he was the most beautiful thing Jared had ever seen.
Being so far away from his mate suddenly became unacceptable. Jared swallowed against the wave of emotions rising in his throat, and stepped forward. Jensen seemed to have the same idea, though, because they easily met halfway, and Jared immediately pulled Jensen close, wrapping his arms tightly around his mate’s shoulders as he slid his mouth over Jensen’s, familiarizing himself once again with his mate’s sweet, subtle taste.
It was, quite possibly, the best moment of his life, and they kissed for what felt like hours, years. Even so, not nearly a long enough time passed before Jensen pulled back, eyes dark and lips swollen, face painted soft pale by the moonlight as he looked up at Jared with some strange mix of smug and sheepish. “Well, um. Hi.”
Jared’s entire body went slack with relief, and it was all he could do to smile and kiss Jensen again. “Hi back,” he managed after another long moment. His lips brushed Jensen’s with each word.
Their auras twisted together and intertwined, as they always had, as they always would. Jared took a moment to revel in the feeling, the way his mate’s life force enveloped him in a familiar embrace.
Jensen finally stepped back. Though his gaze slid briefly to the horizon in the distance, his hand never lost its grip on Jared’s own. “So. Care to join me?”
They settled next to each other on the rooftop, hips and shoulders pressed together and hands still joined. For a long while no one spoke; Jensen seemed content to look out into the black distance. Jared let him alone with his thoughts for as long as he could stand, but eventually his curiosity got the better of him and he had to speak. “So…aren’t you going to ask me what happened?”
When Jensen only turned and blinked at him, he continued, “After the…you know. The battle, I mean.”
“Oh.” Jensen’s gaze dropped to the ground for the briefest of moments before lifting back up again, and there was a certain tightness around his eyes that wasn’t there before. “You don’t have to, Jay. I knew everything when I woke up.”
“Yes. A parting gift from my father, I expect.” Jensen took a shaky breath, as of a post-marathon runner still flushed with adrenaline. His expression grew sad. “He was always efficient like that.”
Sympathy rose almost painful in Jared’s throat. He bit his lip. “I see. Then…you also know that your brother is…”
“Yes.” Jensen squeezed his hand. “Yes, I know.”
Gods, to lose your brother and your father all in one day. Jared swallowed. “I’m sorry.”
Another brief silence. Jared watched Jensen, but couldn’t read anything in his aura beyond the sadness, deep and profound. He almost didn’t want to ask, but he knew he had to. It was his right, his duty, as Jensen’s mate. “Are you all right?”
“Honestly?” Jensen cracked a smile, brief and utterly brittle. He didn’t look at Jared, and instead continued to fix his gaze somewhere in the far distance. “No. I’m really not.”
Jared sensed no anger in his tone, though, nor any frustration directed at anyone but himself. It made his heart ache, knowing that Jensen blamed himself for this, would probably always blame himself for this, when in fact Jensen was quite possibly the only one not at fault here. But how to make him understand that?
”I mean,” Jensen continued then, and the smile faded as quickly as it came, “we can say what we want about Deioryn—he was corrupt, he was evil, he deserved to die—but that…it doesn’t change the fact that he was family, Jay.” He turned to look at Jared, and his eyes glittered with pain. “And I killed him anyway.”
The profound sense of loss emanating from Jensen’s aura nearly took Jared’s breath away. He swallowed, squeezing Jensen’s hand, and tried to put all his sincerity into his next words. “You had no choice.”
Jensen shook his head. “That doesn’t make it right.”
Jared couldn’t think of an answer to that. What Jensen said was true; even after the war, after all the battles they’d fought and all the lives that had been lost as a result, Deioryn was still Jensen’s brother, the one who had raised him and been his friend for thousands of years. Knowing he was dead—knowing Jensen had killed him…it had to hurt.
They sat in silence for another long moment. Jared extended his aura, threaded it through Jensen’s and tangled them together, warm and reassuring. He felt some of the sadness fade away in response, and Jensen shifted, bringing Jared’s hand up to brush a kiss over his knuckles. “I’m not all right, Jay, not right now,” he said, but when he turned to look at Jared, his eyes had softened considerably. Jared saw in them just the faintest glimmer of hope, and he allowed that to warm him as Jensen continued, “But…but I think, eventually, I can be. I will be. I just need some time.”
“And me,” Jared added, and had the satisfaction of seeing Jensen smile. “You’ve still got me.”
“Yes, well, I suppose you’ll do,” Jensen answered, but there was laughter in his eyes, something Jared realized he missed terribly, and he couldn’t resist the urge to lean forward and kiss Jensen again.
“Hey,” he said, after they finally pulled apart. “Your brother…he thought I was my grandfather. He called me Aphaniel.”
“Did he now?” Jensen smiled again. “I guess some things never change.”
Jared looked down at their joined hands. “And some things do.”
His mate nodded. “I wasn’t lying, you know, when I said I don’t regret anything about us. I don’t, Jay. Meeting you…it’s honestly the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Jared swallowed. “And I wasn’t lying when I said I want to raise a family with you.”
Jensen didn’t answer immediately. His aura darkened with uncertainty and a certain tinge of self-doubt, and Jared instinctively pressed closer. Jensen wet his lips and turned to look at him. “You’re certain?” he asked. “Because I…I’m not sure I’m fit to be a parent.”
Jared gave him a slightly withered look. “You saved the lives of all the dragons on this planet, not once, but twice,” he said. “I think you can handle a couple of younglings, Jensen.”
“Yes, I suppose so,” Jensen answered with a small smile. His aura didn’t change, however, and Jared felt some of that uncertainty bleed over into him.
“Do you… not want to?” he asked. He’d never considered the fact that Jensen wouldn’t want children, but it wasn’t unheard of in mated partnerships, and if Jared was just being selfish with this…
“No, gods, of course I want to,” Jensen answered, gently stroking a thumb over the back of Jared’s hand, augmenting his relief. “I just…” A tremor went through his body, and his gaze flicked back up toward Seraphim Peak in the distance. “My brother and I have caused so much trouble for this world, Jay. I don’t know if the Colossus bloodline should even be continued, not with our track record.”
Jared really hoped his exasperation wasn’t detectable in his aura, because telling a Colossus just how big of an idiot he was being wasn’t usually conducive to a continued state of being alive. That didn’t keep him from giving Jensen a pointed look, however. “And what, exactly, is your track record, Jensen?” he asked, and continued before his mate could answer. “You saved the world—not once, but twice. Even when your brother laid the world at your feet, you refused and fought for us instead. Before that, you were considered the kindest and most noble of all the dragons. Not to mention, you’re somehow willing to put up with me for prolonged periods of time. Jensen, all things considered, you’re probably the only dragon on this planet who should be passing on your bloodline.” He paused and looked straight into his mate’s eyes. “Don’t take responsibility for your brother’s mistakes, Jensen. They were his, not yours, and I want to have a clutch with you, not him. Okay?”
Silence fell. Jensen’s gaze remained on the horizon as his aura flickered and shifted all around them with unease. Jared kept his mouth shut and squeezed his mate’s hand instead. Somewhere in the distance, a night creature made a long, high-pitched chittering sound.
At last, Jensen took a breath. His aura infused itself with warmth, a glow without color that Jared still felt all the way to his bones. A well of hope, a decision made. When his mate glanced sideways at him, his eyes spoke only of love and determination. “Okay,” he said. “As long as you know what you’re getting into. I’ve seen thousands of younglings throughout my lifetime, Jay, and trust me, they can be a handful. And if they’re going to be getting half of your unmanageable genes…”
Jared couldn’t even summon the will to be exasperated, too overwhelmed by unadulterated joy at Jensen’s agreement, at the knowledge that they were going to do this, that they were going to have a family. He could barely even find the breath to reply, “Shut up. At least I’ll make them hot. Gods know you’ll be no help in that department.”
“I’d rather you didn’t call our potential children hot,” Jensen replied, but he didn’t protest when Jared kissed him, and when they pulled apart after a few moments, his expression was nothing but fond. “So, uh. When…When should we start?”
Jared grinned because, out of all the decisions they’d had to make so far to stay together, this one was by far the easiest. “I was thinking now’s as good a time as any,” he answered, and kissed Jensen’s smile.