It goes ding when there's stuff (cleflink) wrote,
It goes ding when there's stuff

The Heart of Everything 1/4

Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four

Looking back later in life, Jared always figured it was somehow appropriate that the whole thing began on such a normal day.


"That's the last of it, Jared," Genevieve said, setting the final bottle of milk down with a thunk. She nodded a teasing grin at Jared's supply crate. "Though I don't know quite where you're going to put it."

Jared grinned back wryly. "Me neither." The chaos of the market milled around them, comfortable and constant, as Jared tried to find a place for the bottle among his other foodstuffs. He shifted things aimlessly around for another few moments before giving it up as a bad job and settled for laying it carefully on top.

Genevieve laughed. "Because that's not precarious. Hope you're not planning to stock up anything else today."

"Sack of flour," Jared admitted.

"Unless you're planning on putting it on your head, I don't see quite how you're going to manage that." She hesitated briefly. "Why don't you come back into town next week instead of weighing yourself down like a pack mule? Surely you can manage two trips in a month."

Jared shook his head. "The farm won't run itself," he said easily. It was a familiar enough excuse that he got it off without a hitch. "You know how it is."

That made a Genevieve frown. "You should hire some extra help. You're running yourself ragged managing that farm all by yourself."

He wasn't, really, but that wasn't something Jared was about to admit. He shrugged again. "It's not so bad. I like keeping busy. And it's not that big a plot of land."

It's big enough, Genevieve's expression said before she smoothed it over with a shy little smile. "Well, can you at least spare some time for dinner? I'm making my famous chicken pie."

"Not today, sorry," Jared said, and then felt like a heel when it made her face fall. If she hadn't been so sweet on him, he would have agreed just to make her stop looking so disappointed.

Genevieve huffed out a frustrated breath. "Jared, you can't just-"

Her voice dropped off and Jared started to ask what was wrong before he realized that her attention was fixed on something over his shoulder. He turned and saw a cluster of people gathering at the far end of market, just outside the notary's.

"What's going on?" Genevieve asked, craning her neck to get a better look.

"I don't know." Jared shaded his eyes against the midday sun, squinting through the glare. There was a handful of men dressed in sober grays in the middle of the crowd, their sleeves emblazoned with an insignia Jared didn't recognize. He couldn't hear what they were saying from this distance, though one of them was brandishing what looked like a reward poster in his upraised hand.

Something glinted beneath the sweep of the man's coat, copper-bright under the sun, and Jared stiffened. That was an aether pistol. The man shifted again and his coat fell forward, hiding that telltale gleam, but Jared knew what he'd seen.

And it had no place here, where things were supposed to be so much easier.

"Looks important," Genevieve said, unaware of the way Jared's blood had turned to ice. She looked like she was mere seconds away from climbing right over the stall to go find out for herself.

Jared forced his eyes away from the crowd. "Well, it's got nothing to do with me." He hefted his crate. "It's time I was heading home, anyway."

"You sure?" Genevieve asked, distracted from the goings-on. "There's always room for one more."

Jared dredged up an apologetic smile for her. "Sorry. Maybe next time."

"I'll hold you to that," she said, and it sounded far closer to a warning than Jared suspected she'd meant it to.

He kept smiling anyway. "Fair enough." He tilted his head in farewell. "Take care, Genevieve."

"See you soon," Genevieve called after him, and Jared bit back a sigh as he headed away from the gray-suited men and their unwelcome intrusion.

It quickly became apparent to Jared that Genevieve had been right: there was absolutely no way he was going to be able to carry a sack of flour on top of everything else. He decided to head back to where he'd left his wagon and drop off his crate before heading to the mill. Which was rather a nuisance, since he'd already had to do so once today already, but Jared wasn't particularly partial to juggling so it would have to do.

Jared had managed to sell nearly all the produce he'd brought with him, so there was plenty of space in the back of his wagon to store his crate. His horse shifted impatiently and Jared snagged one of the remaining carrots to feed her.

"Nearly done," he promised. "We'll be out of here soon."

She snuffled at him, clearly unconvinced, and Jared gave her a fond pat on the neck before turning and heading back.

Normally, Jared would have cut straight through the centre of town to get to the mill - it was faster than taking the side streets and he enjoyed these rare opportunities to lose himself in the hustle and bustle of a busy day. But the memory of that pistol was still fresh in his mind and Jared had no desire to risk getting involved in anything that was serious enough to bring tech users into a quiet little village like this. So he stuck to the periphery of the market square, close enough to keep an eye out for trouble, but not so near that anyone would notice him.

As Jared skirted past, a young woman broke off from the crowd around the notary's and started heading Jared's way, three small children in tow behind her. Jared considered for a second, then stepped forward.

"Excuse me ma’am," he said, with a friendly smile. She paused and he gestured towards the chaos in the market square. "Can you tell me what’s going on?"

She looked at him for a moment and Jared did his best to radiate harmless curiosity. "There’s a group of men here from Kelio Prison," she said finally. She threw a worried glance at her children and dropped her voice as she added, "They're looking for an escaped prisoner."

Jared blinked, surprised. Those hadn't been Kelio uniforms. "That's," he started, then felt a tug on his trousers.

"They're riding on these fancy machines!" the woman's youngest son told him, beaming widely. He couldn't have been more than five.

"Ben!" The woman swung an apologetic look Jared's way. "I'm sorry about him. He likes to talk."

Jared waved off her concern and crouched down to the boy's level. "Fancy machines?" he asked, in his own wide-eyed excitement voice. "Do they have big wheels on them?"

"Uh huh!" Ben nodded enthusiastically. "And there's a big metal thing on the back with smoke coming out and I could see all the gears inside and they're all little and shiny!"

"That is exciting," Jared said, with all the due gravity that big shiny machines deserved. "But I think you probably don't want to get too close. You wouldn't want to get run over, would you?"

"," Ben said, with a sullen little sigh.

Jared couldn't help a smile. He'd been exactly the same at that age - still was, most days. He fished around in his pocket for a moment and came up with a spare cog he'd probably been meaning to make use of and then forgot about.

"Hey," he said to Ben, in a conspiratorial whisper. "You know what's even better than looking at shiny machines?"

Curious eyes blinked at him. "What?"

"Imagining your own." Jared pressed the cog into the boy's hand and he grinned at him. "But you need to plan them first. Maybe you can draw one for your mommy when you get home."

Ben grinned widely enough to show off the gaps between his teeth. "Yeah!"

The woman nodded a quiet thanks at Jared. "Come on, Ben," she said. "We're going to see Daddy. Say goodbye to the nice man."

"Bye, mister!" Ben waved and Jared waved back as they walked away.

He levered himself to his feet and glanced towards the marketplace. The crowd was still there, even denser now than it had been, and Jared couldn't help but wonder how many more men were already searching the village while these ones handled the locals. The thought sent a chill down his spine and Jared abruptly decided that he could live without flour for another few weeks. Even though it wasn't him they were looking for, Jared had no interest in being anywhere near men like that.

Decision made, Jared turned on his heel and started back the way he'd come. He paused as he passed the mouth of an alley, trying to decide if he felt paranoid enough to avoid the main streets as well.

A faint rustling sound caught his attention and Jared half-turned towards it, alert for any sign of danger. The sound scraped closer, resolving itself into the slow, uneven drag of tired footsteps, and Jared shifted on the spot, squinting into the darkness.

Then a man appeared out of the shadows and Jared bit back a sharp, startled curse.

The man was pale and worn thin, with a pair of bent, smudged glasses on his nose and his filthy hair plastered flat to his forehead. His clothes were clearly meant for a smaller man: his vest pulled tight around his arms and his trousers hung a good few inches above his ankles. His feet were bare.

But the thing that drew Jared’s attention most was the blood.

The man's tattered clothes were striped in shades of scarlet red and rusty brown, thickly enough that Jared could actually taste the distinctive copper tang on the air. Blood streaked down across the man's face like tears and the skin of his cheeks was torn and scabbed. One of the man’s hands was pressed heavily against the wall, looking like it was the only thing keeping him upright. Jared could see the same wicked-looking wounds marring the skin there too and he abruptly felt sick.

The man stopped a few feet away and stared at him, his chest heaving with laboured breaths and his muscles tension-tight beneath his too-small clothes.

"It’s okay," Jared said automatically, holding his hands up in a calming gesture. "I’m not gonna hurt you."

The man said nothing, eyes flicking from Jared's face to something over Jared's shoulder. Jared chanced a backwards glance, but couldn't see anything in the empty street worth looking at.

When he faced forwards again, the man was still standing there, something like desperation fighting through the determined fatigue on his blood-slicked face.

"Are you okay?" Jared asked, which was probably the most inane thing he could possibly have said. He coughed and tried again. "I mean, is there anything I can do?"

" me," the guy said after a long moment, in a voice that was rusty with disuse. "Please."

Jared was pulling off his coat almost before the guy had finished speaking. "Put this on," he said. "It'll hide the worst of the blood. My wagon's waiting out near the main road. You think you can make it there?"

The man paused in the middle of struggling into Jared's coat to give him a disdainful little look that reminded Jared of the cat they'd had while he was a child. Of course, that look seemed to say and Jared was impressed that this guy could still manage it when he looked about ten deep breaths away from keeling right over.

A glance up the street showed that the traffic was actually a little lighter than it should have been at this time of day. Jared wondered how the men in the gray uniforms would react if they knew that the attention they were drawing to themselves was actually making it easier for their runaway - for there was no way this man wasn't the one they were looking for - to get away.

"We're going to have to go slowly," Jared warned, even though he doubted the man could go much faster than a stagger anyway. "Make sure we don't stand out."

The man nodded, took a deep breath and took his hand off the wall. Jared stepped unthinkingly in, sure the guy was about to end up on his face, and nearly had a heart attack when the man jolted back like he'd been struck, a dark, warning snarl curling his lips.

"Sorry," Jared said, after a beat of startled silence. "I didn't- sorry." He coughed and gestured towards the street. "We should..."

"Yeah," the man said, more of an exhale than a word. He let his arms fall from where they'd come up to protect his face and took a shaky step forward. Underneath all the blood, his face went even whiter.

Jared bit his lip. "Can I... is it okay if I touch you?"

The stare he got this time was longer and filled with things Jared couldn't even begin to understand. Finally, the man nodded.

Jared moved carefully forward, holding out an arm for the man to take. He waited, unmoving, as the man took another step towards him, then another, until he was close enough to fist a hand in Jared's sleeve and for Jared to rest a guiding hand on his hip. The man flinched at the touch and Jared could feel the deliberate way the muscles under his hand relaxed after that initial jolt. The fabric under Jared's hand was tacky and wet and Jared fought the urge to cringe at sight of the tattered flaps of skin that shifted back and forth on the back of the man's hand every time his fingers tensed.

Jared took a deep, calming breath. "Come on," he said.

It took all of Jared's self-control not to drag them both into the nearest alley the moment they stepped out onto the street and into full view of anyone who might happen to walk past. Under his hand, he could feel the man trembling, though he couldn't have said whether it was out of fear or pain. For his part, Jared was pretty sure he was about to jitter to pieces at any moment.

Jared stuck to the back roads and alleys as much as possible, zigzagging them through the village. The few people they passed weren't particularly interested in stopping to talk so Jared was able to get away with casual waves and smiles as they staggered past. His runaway kept his head down to hide the ruin of his face while Jared's coat helped keep the rest of him looking tolerably presentable. His mouth was set in a grim line, his steps slow but determined. Jared couldn't even begin to imagine how he was still up and walking when he was in such a state.

Finally, after what felt like a lifetime, they reached Jared's wagon. "This is it," Jared said, relieved and slightly giddy with adrenaline. He practically had to drag the man the last few steps towards it and he couldn't help quickening his pace for those last few steps towards safety. The man made a wordless, pained sound when Jared let him go long enough to fumble open the stays holding the ramp closed.

"You can lie down in the back," Jared told him as he tugged down the ramp. "It'll keep you hidden and it'll be easier than trying to sit up front."

The ramp touched down with a bump, and Jared turned with a hand outstretched. "Come on, let's get you ho..." he faltered, a thought occurring to him. "Or, um, do you have somewhere you want me to take you? Cause I was gonna bring you back to my farm to bandage those wounds and let you get some rest, but if you'd rather go somewhere else..."

Jared left the sentence hanging and the man blinked at him, eyes glazed with pain and exhaustion. There was absolutely no recognition on his face.

"Right," Jared said, and took the man's arm again. "Come on."

Once he had the guy safely stowed in the wagon, armed with a blanket that Jared had found in the back, Jared took a quick moment to make sure they hadn't left any blood smears in the dirt. Once he was satisfied that they wouldn't be leading anyone straight to them, he clambered up into the driver's seat. His horse nickered in greeting and Jared patted her flank before nudging the wagon forward. No shouted exclamation or frenzied chase followed after them and Jared allowed himself a small sigh of relief. They'd made it.

Now, he just had to hope that the guy would live long enough for Jared to get him home.

After the nervous tension of sneaking the both of them out of the village, it never occurred to Jared that getting the man cleaned up would prove to be the most challenging part of the whole endeavour.

The sun was hanging low in the sky by the time Jared's wagon rolled to a stop outside his farmhouse. Jared wasted no time in swinging down and unhitching his horse. He ran an apologetic hand down her neck and promised her a good rubdown later as he put her out to pasture. Then he squared his shoulders and went to check on the guy bleeding to death in the back of his wagon.

The smell of blood was strong on the air when Jared pulled down the ramp and he was dishearteningly unsurprised to see wide smears of red streaked across the wood planking. The man himself was lying bonelessly against one wall, his eyes closed and his chest rising in slow, shallow breaths.

Jared hefted himself into the wagon and edged forwards on his knees. "Hey," he said gently, and reached out to touch the man just above his ankle.

Pain shot through him before he'd even realized the man had moved and he grunted out a surprised breath as he fell back on his ass. The man was out of reach in less than a heartbeat, pressing up against the wall of the wagon like he planned to sink straight through it. He struggled to stand and Jared could see the effort it was costing him carved into the flat line of his mouth and the tension trembling through his limbs.

"Hey," Jared said again, wheezing around the word. His arms wrapped protectively around his stomach without asking him about it first. He wasn't really inclined to care about the show of vulnerability. "Hey, it's okay. Remember me? We're at my farm. You're safe here."

That earned him a hazy blink and a slight lessening of the cornered menace in the man's stance. Jared stayed exactly where he was, keeping his voice low and gentle. "It's okay, you're safe. They won't find you here. We need to get you cleaned up, okay?"

The man didn't answer but Jared decided to take the lack of overt threat as an agreement.

"Good, that's good. I'm going to climb out of the wagon now," he said, gesturing behind him. "You think you can get out after me?"

Jared waited until the man gave a short, terse nod, and then eased himself carefully back down the ramp, doing his best to ignore the groaning of his sore ribs.

The sunshine was over-bright after being in the covered dim inside the wagon and Jared blinked rapidly against the glare. The wagon creaked and swayed as Jared's runaway made his slow, shaky way down the ramp in a dark mass of blood and fabric.

The man looked like he was expecting to be attacked any moment: wary, defensive and considerably more alert than Jared would have expected given the situation. Sunshine glinted off the man's glasses as he turned his head and Jared noticed that the lenses were tinted; they turned his eyes green whenever the light caught them the right way. It was a style Jared hadn't seen since he'd moved out of the city and it added yet another layer of unanswered questions to the mystery surrounding this man.

"It's this way," Jared said. He tilted his head towards the house and took a step back, waiting.

For a moment, Jared felt sure the man was going to bolt after all. His eyes darted from Jared to the road, to the house and back again, desperation riding high on his ruined face. Jared didn't move, doing his best to look calm and nonthreatening. Finally, the guy's shoulders sagged and he nodded.

Jared offered him an encouraging smile. "Good. The wash tub's out back. Follow me."

Turning his back was a nerve-wracking experience in more ways than one, but Jared did his best to seem unconcerned about being followed by a fugitive who was clearly more dangerous while two-thirds dead than Jared was on his best day. The walk around the house to the bathing room seemed to take years and Jared was hyperconscious of the slow, staggering set of footsteps following in his wake. The creak of the bathing room door seemed staggeringly loud as Jared pushed it open.

Jared led the way in, glad that there was still enough sun shining through the overhead windows to save him from having to fiddle with a lamp in the narrow quarters. There was barely enough space for both of them to stand next to the wide, intricately inlaid tub and Jared moved hurriedly over to the boiler to give his guest some breathing room.

"Just a second," he said, bending to light the kindling. The room was deadly quiet behind him and Jared did his best not to fumble the matches, focusing on getting the boiler turned on and the water heated as quickly as possible.

When the kindling was burning merrily, Jared straightened and gave the man a smile. "That should only take a couple of minutes to warm up," he told him. "If you want to get out of those clothes, I'll head up to the house to see if I can find you something clean to wear."

A wordless nod answered him. Jared watched the guy fighting to remove his coat for all of ten seconds before asking, "Would you like me to help?"

"Yes," the man, after another long moment of guarded silence. "Please."

Jared eased back into the guy's personal space and watched him fighting the urge to run.

"That's it," Jared encouraged. He touched one hand lightly onto the man's arm. "Okay?" he asked, and waited until he got another terse nod in response. "Let's get you out of all this, huh?"

Blood had soaked through Jared's coat down the back and shoulders in dark, sticky swathes. It made the fabric heavy and hard to move and it took the both of them to get it off. Jared let it fall to the floor as soon as it was free; he suspected it was rather a lost cause anyway, so the addition of another hour or two before he tried to wash out the stains wouldn't make much difference.

They peeled off the man's vest and shirt in one go and Jared had to wince at the way the scabs and tatters of skin came away with the fabric. His chest was a mess of mottled, blood-clotted skin and Jared fought the urge to gag, horrified. A glance upwards revealed that the man was watching him with a measured blandness, as though he was just waiting for Jared to panic and send him on his way.

Instead, Jared swallowed down his revulsion and faced the guy with a wan attempt at a smile. "I guess we're going to need some bandages too, huh?"

The man grunted noncommittally, then reached down to fumble with the laces of his trousers. He wobbled a little and Jared offered an instinctive arm that earned him a hissed warning for his trouble. "Okay," Jared surrendered and backed off to go check the temperature on the boiler instead.

He twisted on the spigots as soon as the heat gauge levelled off, and a puff of air preceded the sudden gush of steaming water into the tub. "There we go." Jared turned his head and offered the guy another smile. "I'm going to head up to the house to get you some clothes and bandages. Go ahead and get in when you're ready. You can mess with these valves here to change the water temperature. You don't have to worry about running out of hot water; the water's piped right out of the well and the boiler will keep heating it until the fire goes out."

"...thank you," the man said, with a gravity that was tempered with the same wariness that Jared knew was thrumming through every inch of him.

"My pleasure," Jared said. "I'll be right back. Try not to boil yourself, okay?"

The man nodded again and turned towards the tub. His back was as much of a ruin as the rest of him and Jared could see the heavy shadow of what looked like bruising sweeping across his shoulder blades underneath the mess of blood and tattered skin. The man hooked his hands in the waistband of his trousers and Jared left him his modesty as he turned and headed up to the house with someone else's blood smeared all over his hands.

All told, it took well over an hour to get Jared's guest cleaned and bandaged up. The process could have gone a lot faster if the guy hadn't panicked when Jared tried to help, lashing out with both fists and nearly sending Jared sprawling face-first into the tub, but Jared hadn't been about to press the issue. So he leaned up against the doorjamb for the duration of the exercise, watching the guy wince with every stroke of the washcloth, his glasses steamed up in the fog and his wary eyes fixed squarely on Jared the entire time.

Before long the water was muddy and clouded and Jared got a chance to see what had been hidden beneath all that gore. It was terrifying. It looked like someone had been peeling the man's skin off in strips; wide swathes of red, weeping sores spread out across his entire body and, while most of them didn't look to be bleeding freely, more than one was thick with milky pus.

Perhaps the worst part was that it didn't look like the damage had been done all at once. Many of the sores were still puffy and fresh, but some were scabbed thickly over and still others were little more than shiny patches of too-pink skin. It made Jared sick to his stomach to think that this... torture had been an ongoing thing.

Once he was as clean and dry as he was going to get, the guy wrapped the bandages around himself with slow, careful deliberation. Jared had to fold his arms across his chest and dig his fingers into his skin to keep himself from reaching out to help. Spots of red and brown were already soaking through the white fabric by the time the guy was done, the bandages hanging sloppy and not-quite tight. Struggling into Jared's offered clothing was a challenge all its own and Jared could tell that even the man's indomitable will wasn't going to be keeping him upright for much longer.

Jared walked beside him up to the house, ignoring the slurred protests that didn't quite sound like words and the stiff line of the guy's spine against his palm. For wont of a better place to put him, Jared dumped him in his own bed, figuring that at least he'd have enough space to stretch out.

"Rest," Jared said, when the man immediately tried to struggle upright. Daring greatly, Jared reached out to push lightly at one bandaged shoulder. "I'll keep a look out."

His guest frowned at him and Jared didn't need to be a mind reader to know that he wasn't overly comforted by the idea of leaving Jared to keep watch.

"I know," Jared told him soothingly. "We'll introduce ourselves in the morning. But right now, you need to sleep."

He lifted his hand and stepped back, and was relieved when the man made no further attempt to get off the bed.

"Rest," he said again. "I'll be right here when you wake up."

And Jared didn't know if that would be considered a good thing or not but, as he paused in the doorway, he was almost sure he saw relief flit across a ruined face as the man closed his eyes with his hands flat at his sides and his glasses still perched on his nose.

Jared confined his activities to the house while his guest slept, not about to risk him waking up alone in a strange place. He poked his head into the bedroom a handful of times, but the man never so much as twitched. And that could have been a sign of trust, but Jared suspected it was rather more the result of necessity. If the man had been well, Jared was sure, he wouldn't have let his guard down within a league of Jared.

The waiting felt interminable. Jared spent most of the time puttering around aimlessly, tackling the myriad of household chores he never seemed to get around to and tinkering with the few small machines he'd left lying about the last time he'd been stuck inside with nothing better to do. The entire time, he was hyperconscious of every creak and shift of the house and his body twitched with the need to race upstairs at the first sign that his guest might need him.

Which made it all the more ironically appropriate that the man announced his return from the land of sleep not with noise, but with stillness.

Jared was in the kitchen, throwing together something vaguely resembling stew for lunch. He'd just started dicing up some leftover chicken when the sudden sense of being watched made him pause. The only noise he could hear was the quiet ticking of the clock in the front room, but there was no mistaking the palpable sort of silence lingering in the space behind him.

Slowly, Jared set the knife he'd been using in the wash basin, grabbed a cloth to dry off his hands and turned around with his smile at the ready.

"Good morning," he said to the stiffly wary man standing in his kitchen. "How are you feeling?"

"Where am I?" the man demanded, in a voice that sounded like it had been dragged down a gravel road behind Jared's wagon.

"My farm," Jared said. "About twenty five miles outside Trescid. You've been asleep for nearly two days. Do you remember how you got here?"

"Moving room," the guy said after a moment, obviously still a bit muddled from the blood loss.

Jared nodded anyway. "In my wagon, yeah. Got you washed up some, but those wounds are going to take time to heal." He tilted his head towards the small pot on the kitchen table. "I made up a salve that should help. Do you think you can eat?"

The guy shook his head like he couldn't understand a word Jared was saying. "What?"

"You should probably try," Jared continued, never losing his easy tone. "Your body's going to need a whole lot of energy to put itself back together. You lost a lot of blood."

"...what are you talking about?" the guy demanded, with a frown that pulled sharply on the scabs across his cheeks. "Who are you?"

"I'm Jared." Jared said. He raised his hand in a half-wave. "Hello."

The man's expression darkened. "Is that supposed to mean something to me? What do you want?"

Jared shrugged. "Right now, I mostly just want you to eat something, if you can. It's not just those clothes that are making it look like you're nothing but skin and bones, you know."

It was true. The hems of Jared's trousers were puddling on the ground around the guy's feet and the cuffs of his shirt were hanging down over the guy's hands, but the way everything gaped slackly around his middle was too extreme to be explained away by oversized clothing. Besides, Jared had seen him naked yesterday; the chicken carcass on the counter had more meat on it than this guy did.

"Sorry," the man said, bitingly cold. His teeth bared on something that couldn't be called a smile. "My last jailers didn't pay too much attention to feeding time."

"Your-" Jared trailed off when he realized just what the guy was implying. "A jailer? Me?" Jared gestured around his cozy little kitchen. "You cannot seriously think this looks like a prison. My horse could break in here. And she doesn't have thumbs."

The guy snorted, like any other possibility wasn't even worth considering. "You really expect me to believe that I could walk out of here right now and you wouldn't stop me?"

Jared nodded. "Yep."

A touch of what looked like genuine anger shaded the edges of the man's scowl and Jared held up his hands.

"Look," he said. "If you want to go I'm not gonna stop you, honest. The door's over there. I'll give you directions back to Trescid. But you're more than welcome to stay, if you like." The guy was staring at him like he had two heads and Jared shrugged sheepishly. "You might want to wait until your skin's not falling off before moving on."

"Why are you doing this?" the guy asked, sounding heartbreakingly bewildered beneath the all the anger and desperation. "There are people after me."

Jared shrugged again. "We're pretty isolated here; it'd take my closest neighbour at least twenty minutes get here from his house. And he never comes to visit anyway. You should be safe."

"You don't even know me!"

"No, I don't," Jared agreed. "But I refuse to believe that anyone who'd treat another person like you've been treated can possibly be in the right. No matter what you might or might not have done. You can stay as long as you like."

That earned him a long, considering look. Jared waited it out.

"Jensen," the guy said finally, which didn't make much sense until he held out a bandage-wrapped hand and offered Jared the shade of what looked like a gorgeous smile. "My name is Jensen."

Jared couldn't have kept from beaming if he tried. "Jared," he said again, and reached out carefully to shake Jensen's hand. "Nice to meet you." He waved his other hand vaguely in the direction of the stove. "I was just making lunch. I hope you like chicken stew."

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Tags: challenge: spn_reversebang, fandom: cwrps, genre: au, pairing: jared/jensen, verse: heart of everything
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