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Harper's Choice

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J’mellison woke with a faint shudder of unease and quickly reached out to his left. The space where Blair ought to be was empty. Empty and with barely any residual heat remaining. He sat up with a jolt of alarm coursing through him. He’d dreamed of danger and of Blair and the shreds of the dream had followed him into wakefulness.

He’s out here, a sleepy voice in his head insisted, with me.

Shards! Why would Blair, who hated the cold with a passion, leave a warm, cozy bed to sit out on a cold ledge with a dragon? But at least he knew that Blair was safe. Sweetheart would no more allow Blair to be harmed than he would J’mellison.

Of course I wouldn’t. The message was tinged with indignation.

“I know that, wherry-breath.” J’mellison grinned affectionately and turned on his side, seeking sleep again. It eluded him, as his mind continued to puzzle over what had drawn Blair from the bed.

They’d been bonded now for two weeks, separating only when J’mellison had flown Thread on the latest fall. Their bond was fuller, deeper, more complete every day and J’mellison’s senses had never been so sharp, or so easy to control.

And yet…

And yet, J’mellison couldn’t help feeling there was something missing. That Blair was holding back, not from the bond, but holding back something of himself. It left him with an unsettled feeling in the pit of his stomach and that was why he was having these dreams – dreams of Blair and of danger.

He rolled onto his back, staring up at the roof of his chamber. Even in the darkness he could see it clearly, something he hadn’t been able to do before. He counted the tiny, metallic flecks in the rock for a while, simply to pass the time and bore himself back into sleep.

It didn’t work.

He rolled onto his side, grabbing Blair’s pillow and holding it to his face so he could breathe in his bond-mate’s scent. Something inside him loosened a little and he thought maybe… but no. He still couldn’t sleep. Fardles! How pathetic was that?

Finally, he rose from the bed and found his pants and a tunic. Foregoing his boots, J’mellison grabbed a blanket and wandered though the archway that led to Sweetheart’s ledge.

Blair was sitting almost at the edge, leaning back against Sweetheart’s vast bulk for warmth. His head was tilted back, staring at the starry sky. It was an awesome sight, but J’mellison barely spared it a glance.

“Mind if I join you?”

Blair simply nodded, his gaze never leaving the stars. “Beautiful, isn’t it?”

“I suppose.” J’mellison winced slightly at the ungraciousness of his tone, but damn it, it was the middle of the fardling night and he wanted his sleep. He sat on the cold rock, close to Blair but not too close, and tossed him the blanket. He waited until Blair had wrapped it around himself. He was warm enough just leaning against Sweetheart. “You’re interested in astronomy?” There, that came out better.

“It’s a hobby. My mother and I used to lie out at nights and she’d tell me stories about the constellations.” Blair’s voice was soft, dreamy. “So many nights since, I’ve done this on my travels.”

“Tell me one of the stories.” Hope flared in J’mellison’s breast. Blair so rarely spoke of anything personal, preferring to babble on about his crazy ideas and pointless, little-known facts. Maybe, finally, he was ready to share that part of himself.

But Blair shook his head. “They’re just silly stories. Children’s tales.”

“I don’t mind. I like…” he hesitated, feeling foolish, but then forced himself to finish the thought aloud. “I like to hear your voice.”

He saw the flash of Blair’s eyes as his bond-mate’s face turned towards him. “You do?”

“Yeah, it…” he shrugged, “it grounds me. Makes it easier to focus my senses. And… I just like it.”

Even the cool clear moonlight couldn’t disguise the colour that seeped into Blair’s face. J’mellison’s nostrils twitched as pheromones wafted in his direction.

Kiss him, you fardling idiot.

But kissing, and sex, had only taken them so far. It wasn’t what they needed now, so J’mellison elbowed Sweetheart’s side and added a quick mental image of a dragon with its mouth roped shut and Sweetheart subsided, grumbling.

“What are you thinking?” he asked, and heard a sharp intake of breath. Blair’s heartbeat began to accelerate and a sour tang of distress tainted the scent of arousal. “Blair, what’s wrong?”

“What’s wrong?” Blair flung himself to his feet, abandoning his blanket, and strode to the very tip of the ledge, with hasty, agitated steps. For a horrible, endless moment J’mellison thought he was going to throw himself over the edge – the drop would surely kill him – but before he had done more that half rise from his sitting position, Blair had stopped and was staring down into the courtyard far below.

It wasn’t much reassurance, but J’mellison forced himself to sink back, his heart still hammering unpleasantly against his ribs. He passed a dry tongue over drier lips and swallowed. “Yeah. What’s wrong? Tell me, Blair.”

“You don’t have any idea, do you? What you expect of me? What I have to give up, to deny myself?” Blair’s voice cracked and he turned his back to J’mellison, wrapping his arms around his body. “I can’t do it. I can’t stay here.”

“What? But… the bond…”

Blair interrupted angrily. “Fuck the bond. This is my life we’re talking about.”

Eggs, how it hurt – a real, physical pain – to hear such words. It was hurting Blair too, J’mellison could feel the pain roiling off him, and Sweetheart was keening softly in distress. He forced himself to speak calmly. “Blair, please… come back here and talk to me.”

Some of the fear he felt must have bled through the bond. It wasn’t as easy to communicate that way as it was with Sweetheart, but they’d both noticed that strong emotions would sometimes filter through.

“Eggs, you think I’d…” Blair looked at him blankly, then down over the edge again, as if he was now contemplating such a desperate act. Then he stepped back. “I don’t want to die.”

“I’m glad to hear it.” J’mellison managed weakly. He patted the rock beside him. “Please, Blair.”

His bond-mate sighed, his shoulders slumping a little, and came to sit beside him. “I’m sorry, J’m. I didn’t mean to…”

“It’s okay.” J’mellison reached across him to pick up the discarded blanket and drape it across their legs. “Look, Chief, you’re right. I don’t know what this all means to you. You have to tell me. All right?”

“I’ll try.” Blair let his head fall forward so the long hair veiled his face from J’mellison’s sight. “My mother was a Trader, or at least, she joined the Traders when she was really young. She never talked much about her family. I never knew whether she was Hall or Hold. She just wanted to see as much of Pern as she possibly could.”

“That must have been tough, always being on the move.” It wasn’t hard to infuse sympathy into his voice. Stability was what J’mellison craved, and he’d found it here among the riders of Benden Weyr.

“Are you kidding? Shards, no, it was great!” Blair lifted his head to look at J’mellison. “I’ve been to every Gather, every Hold and Hall and Weyr. I’ve seen sights most people never dream of.” The enthusiasm faded from his voice as Blair continued, “when I left the Traders to become an apprentice, it was the hardest thing I’d ever done. But I knew once I made Journeyman I’d be able to start travelling again. But, now…”

J’mellison knew what was coming now. He waited, silent, dreading.

“You don’t need me now.” Blair’s pleaded quietly. “The bond’s given you control, better than you had before, right?”

“Yes, but…”

“All I’ve ever wanted to do was to learn more. More about people, more about places. I can’t do that from here.” Blair turned to him, one hand on J’mellison’s arm, his face uptilted, pleading. “I can’t just be your bond-mate, J’m. It’s not enough.”

Behind them Sweetheart made a pained noise, his huge body shifting restlessly. J’mellison could hear the other dragons starting to rouse. In a minute or two the whole weyr would be waking. “Sweetheart, settle down. You’re not helping.

“And you…” He grabbed Blair by one shoulder and shook him slightly. “Does this mean nothing to you? You’re just going to leave…” he choked on the words and couldn’t continue.

“Would you give up your dragon for me? Give up riding?” Blair’s eyes sparked with anger. “It’s no different.”

“It is different.” J’mellison hissed back. “We’re saving lives out there. We’re saving Pern. You’re just… just… it’s just songs and rhymes and words.

Shards!” And if that wasn’t enough to wake the entire weyr, J’mellison didn’t know what would. “Do you have any idea how many times those songs, those rhymes have given us vitalinformation? Clues that have helped in developing new weapons, new methods of fighting Thread?” Blair laughed bitterly. “No, of course you haven’t. If it’s not something you can fuck, eat, or ride, you’re not interested, are you?”

Sweetheart’s roar echoed his own, and J’mellison heard other dragons trumpeting distress, and riders waking, dragging themselves out of bed in alarm. He sent a quick message through Sweetheart to let them know it was simply a private matter, but he knew he’d be facing a barrage of sarcasm and ridicule in the morning. It didn’t improve his temper any.

“Fardles.” The fight had gone out of Blair’s eyes now and a rueful smile quirked the corners of his mouth. “We’re in big trouble now, aren’t we?”

J”mellison laughed shortly. “Relax. It happens, and they all know they could be next.” It wouldn’t stop the humiliation, but it made it easier to bear. “So, have we finished fighting yet?”

“I don’t know. Have we?” Blair’s face was serious, and not at all happy.

He lifted his hand to touch Blair’s cheek, feeling the rough tickle of whiskers against his palm. He hadn’t ever thought of settling down with a permanent partner, and if he had he would never have imagined that partner being a man, but… “I’m sorry, about saying that. You’re right, I couldn’t give up Sweetheart. I couldn’t give up riding.” He took a deep breath, and felt his guts twist painfully. “I can’t give up you.”

Bair’s eyes widened, his mouth softened into a surprised ‘oh’ and he leaned forward without seeming to realise it. “J’m…”

J’mellison kissed him, gently, slowly teasing apart his lips and tasting him. His fingers tangled in the riotous curls, holding Blair still for his explorations. Sweetheart hummed contentedly, the sound vibrating though their bodies.

He drew back reluctantly, gazing down into dazed blue eyes. “We’ll find a way for this to work. For both of us.”