The cool air cleared Maleficent's head and improved her mood immediately.
She beat her wings and climbed higher, away from the music and lanterns of the wedding party, away from the smoke and acrid scent of gunpowder from the day's battle that still lingered in the atmosphere above the castle. Higher and further, until the lights of Ulstead glimmered distantly beneath her and the landscape changed from farmlands dotted with cottages and traversed with ribbons of little stone walls, to wilder and craggier coastland.
Eventually, she left the land altogether. Steadying her wings, she glid over the sea, inhaling the salt air and soaring upward and downward against the currents. The wind was stronger here, bracing and refreshing. She leisurely tracked right, then flapped her wings and corkscrewed suddenly downward, now veering smoothly to the left, skimming over the waves. How thrilling and satisfying it was to stretch her neck and wing muscles, relishing in the beauty of the moon that was always so much larger from this vantage point, its pale light bathing her skin and the sea below.
Flying was glorious.
Perhaps she should have brought Diaval, she mused with a tinge of guilt. The past three days had been the longest they had ever been apart and, since she had regained her wings five years ago, flying was an activity they usually enjoyed together. She ascended slowly upward again and hovered above some wisps of cloud. She had genuinely missed Diaval and, for all his occasional grousing, she knew his devotion and affection for her was sincere. The separation must have been strange for him, too.
Maleficent closed her eyes, letting the vast cadence of the waves soothe some of the anxieties and emotions of the past few days.
"A fine night for flying," observed Borra, his voice carrying easily over the wind.
She had completely forgotten him. He hovered a respectful distance from her, the small smile he had worn at the castle again on his face.
Irritation that he hadn't announced his presence earlier flashed in her eyes and she responded with stony silence. She forcefully beat her wings forward, in the direction of some cliffs over the shore.
Borra comfortably kept pace, setting down a few feet from where she eventually landed.
"You told me earlier today it was time to come home," he began, without additional preamble. "Where is home?"
"That's your home."
Her irritation subsided. The ramifications of this discussion were too serious and she recognized the earnestness in Borra's question.
"The Moors are a home for all magical creatures. Our people will be safe there. There is space to breathe and room to fly. If the humans of Ulstead and neighboring kingdoms can learn to live in peace with us, then other lands might follow."
Borra considered her words.
"As Conall would have wanted," he finally said.
"Yes," she answered, unable to say more. She bowed her head.
They stood silently for a few moments. Waves splashed on the cliffs in rhythmic distant strikes. Sadness and anger washed over Maleficent again as she thought about Conall-the pain and sacrifice he had endured-for her, for his people. He had saved her life twice and she was robbed forever of the opportunity of even really knowing him. She only knew what he had clearly valued.
"I will protect our people," she said fiercely, out loud.
To her surprise, Borra laughed.
"I have no doubt you will," he said, stepping closer. He regarded her with open admiration. "And what do you want, Maleficent?"
She blinked in confusion. "I just told you. I want to protect our people. And my family."
"But what do you want for yourself?"
"It must have been lonely for you on the Moors, not knowing your people."
There was something that seemed to stiffen in her heart as she thought back on the long bittersweet years of her childhood. As nurturing and good-hearted as the fairies were, she had always been the only one of her kind. She had assumed she would always be. She remembered the brief bright periods of light that Stefan had brought into her life, both as a child and a young adult, and she remembered the black rage and grief-cursed years that had followed his betrayal.
"It was," she said, struggling to say more. Sharing details of her personal history with a practical stranger wasn't easy. But if she wanted Borra and the fey to accept her proposal to make peace with the humans, she at least owed them honesty. "For a long time, it was. But then there was Aurora. And Diaval."
"No wonder you adopted a human child," said Borra, nodding to himself. "Diaval? That's the raven you shapeshift?"
"Diaval is my-" Maleficent paused, searching for the best term. "Servant" seemed woefully inaccurate, though Diaval would likely have introduced himself as such. Diaval was Diaval. First her servant, later a confidant, and finally-for many years-the closest thing she had had to a friend. The rock solid certainty of that friendship was mutually understood, mutually trusted, and never (well, rarely) acknowledged.
And Diaval had also raised Aurora. He was family.
"It's complicated," she sighed.
Borra seemed curious but he didn't inquire further. There was another long, silent pause and it occurred to Maleficent that this would probably be the moment for-what had Diaval called it at the disastrous dinner with Phillip's parents? Small talk?
It occurred to her, too, that outside of Diaval and Aurora, she wasn't really used to conversing with anyone. Conall himself had been only a recent exception. Wallerbogs, Red Caps, and Tree Guardians didn't really go in for long discussion, and the thought of an extended chat with any of the pixies filled her with horror.
"Was the-was our Nest of Origin always your home?" she asked, awkwardly. It's a conversation, she reminded herself. Not a threat, not a demand.
"No, it wasn't. My mother led what remained of our clan to the Nest when I was still young. I had barely learned to soar then." Borra smiled grimly, as if reliving some distant memory. "We weren't even't certain the Nest even existed." His smile faded and his jaw hardened. "Humans killed many of us along the journey."
"But I still remember the country where I was born," he continued. "The sharpness of the light and the stillness of the desert. Miles of golden dunes that stretched as far as the sea we're standing over now."
"It sounds beautiful," said Maleficent.
"Beautiful and fierce," he agreed, gazing at her again. Without exactly knowing why, the way he looked at her was making Maleficent feel increasingly uncomfortable. But Borra certainly posed no physical threat; she was confident she was the stronger of them.
Dark waves crashed remotely below.
Borra seemed content to let the conversation stall once more, without moving from her side. Maleficent's discomfort increased and she searched impatiently in her head for the next small talk was proving more exhausting than she had anticipated.
"You asked me earlier what I wanted," she finally said. "What about you? What do you want, Borra?"
"Right now?" He smiled again, cocking his head to the side as if contemplating her reaction. "Right now, I want to kiss you."
Maleficent looked at him sharply, her pinions bristling in warning.
She wanted to be outraged. She wanted to unleash a self-protective burst of magic. She wanted to tell herself she found him repulsive.
She wanted to believe the way her heart suddenly pounded was from anything but fear.
"A bit inappropriate after today, don't you think?" she said, in as withering a tone as she could muster. But even as she spoke, Maleficent recognized the hollowness in her words. A kiss was no less inappropriate than a wedding, she supposed. She was stalling.
Borra seemed unfazed by her tone.
"I've watched many of our people die, Maleficent. If it would bring them back I would kill every human in Ulstead. We honor the dead with our rage and with our resolve. We don't honor them by not living ourselves."
He spoke sincerely and proudly and, for all his rash impulsiveness, Maleficent conceded there was something-she struggled to find a word-interesting about Borra. She looked him over head to foot. Well, maybe more than interesting, she admitted.
Still, she waited for him to touch her so she could triumphantly blast him halfway back to Ulstead. He didn't move.
"The last man I kissed cut off my wings," she finally said, struggling with the rush of vulnerability she suddenly felt.
Borra's amber eyes widened in shock. He stared at her, slack jawed and stunned. She saw the anger kindling on his face.
Whatever else he might be, Borra was not Stefan. Stefan was dead. The memories of that last night they had shared together were twenty years stale.
And Maleficent, Mistress of Evil, was frightened of nothing.
With a step she closed the distance between them. She cupped his jaw in her hand and kissed him fully on the mouth.
To be continued.