Jensen proved to be an entirely unobtrusive house guest. A lot of that probably had to do with the fact that he spent most of the first fortnight sleeping, but Jared couldn't really fault him for that. When Jensen wasn't sleeping he was usually slumped in a chair in the sitting room, looking grumpy, ill and exhausted. He made very little attempt to speak to Jared and actually seemed to spend a good portion of his waking hours trying to pretend that Jared wasn't there at all. Which was a little hurtful, honestly, but Jared decided that he could be the bigger man in all this. He was used to silence, after all, and it wasn't much of a surprise that Jensen wasn't interested in idle conversation.
Which was not to say that he left Jensen entirely to his own devices. Jared made sure Jensen ate at regular intervals and led him down to the bath often enough to keep his wounds flushed out and clean. Other than that, though, Jared mostly kept out of his way.
Jared's bedroom became Jensen's domain. Jared never asked for it back and Jensen never offered it, not that Jared would have accepted even if he had. Jared stayed out unless he was swapping one set of bloodstained sheets for fresh ones and he manfully resisted the urge to close the permanently-open window to ward off the chill of early mornings. Jensen's stacks of borrowed clothes filled Jared's closet and the not-entirely unpleasant smell of the salve stayed thick and spicy on the air whether Jensen was in there or not. Jensen continued to struggle with his bandages on his own, no doubt contorting himself into all sorts of uncomfortable positions to be able to manage it.
And maybe Jared lingered by the door sometimes, listening to the quiet rhythm of Jensen's breath as he slept, but that was his own business.
For his own part, Jared set himself up on the poor excuse for a bed he'd dragged into his crafting room after the last time he'd fallen asleep at his drafting table and woken up stiff and covered in ink. The narrow pallet made for a generally rotten night's sleep, but it was preferable to bunking down on the floor.
Jared stuck close to the house during the day, focusing on the tasks that could be easily accomplished within either earshot or line of sight. The thought of going into town and leaving Jensen completely unprotected made him feel anxious, so he didn't bother. It meant that they started eating a whole lot of vegetables when Jared's other foodstuffs ran low, but it wasn't like there was much better to do with his crops when he wasn't going into Trescid to sell them.
Jared knew that any other farmer in his situation wouldn't have been able to spend nearly so much time away from the fields, especially in the harvesting season. By rights, Jared's entire crop should have been ruined by that kind of neglect, especially when he didn't have anyone to pick up the slack.
Jared had told people time and again that the reason he rarely came into town was that he was just too busy. It was a good excuse. Most farms this size would have needed at least two hired hands to help with the workload and, even then, Jared should have been out in the fields from sunup to sundown every day just to keep up. Everyone knew that farms couldn't just up and run themselves, after all.
Except, Jared's pretty much could.
Compared to the tech he'd grown up with, Jared's small cadre of farming machines was nowhere even close to impressive. They were simple and utilitarian, with none of the flair and flash of the machines he'd built in his younger days. They suited his purposes, though: not only could he avoid the hassle of taking someone else on after he'd gone to such lengths to get some space to himself, but they also let him spend plenty of time in his workshop instead of messing about with vegetables.
Nothing particularly exciting ever came out of his workshop, if he was being honest. Jared had given up the right to make a living as a mechanist when he'd packed up and moved to the country without stopping to do much more than quit his job. Tech was the purview of the cities, the worlds of monoliths in copper and stone where steam and cogs and innovation were the lifeblood of society. Sometimes, if Jared closed his eyes when there was a storm outside, he could almost imagine that he was listening to steady chug of pistons rumbling under the earth in time with the grinding click of gears.
Jared didn't miss the city, not really, but the love of invention was ground deep into his bones. No amount of country living could change that, regardless of how much he loved his farm, or how much the people around him distrusted the mechanical chaos that the cities thrived on. His house was mostly free of gadgetry, both because he didn't really need it and because it would have been hard to explain if he ever did have visitors, but that didn't stop him Jared spending as many hours as he could drafting and building and generally turning himself into a grinning, sweaty mess of copper shavings and grease just because he could.
The results of Jared's tinkering were always interesting. He built a fleet of machines to tend his farm. He designed a water heater for the bathing room that he suspected would make the entire district willing to put aside its distrust of tech if it meant people could draw themselves a warm bath at a moment's notice. He put together silly little toys that could climb walls, crack eggs, heat the floors. Then he'd invariably get bored, dismantle them and use the pieces to start all over again.
His father would have called it inventing for the sake of inventing. Jared considered that a far more positive thing than his father had ever meant it to be.
Jensen's presence, unfortunately, put rather a damper on the amount of time Jared felt he could spend indulging his inner mechanist. The noise from his crafting tools was loud enough to wake the dead, and the clamour that came from shifting and welding and testing was only marginally less dramatic. So Jared restricted himself to working on little fiddly things that could be built with the cogs and belts he had lying around his crafting room and could be assembled with nothing more complicated or noisy than his handheld soldering iron. Which made him fairly itch with inactivity but he did his best to channel his frustration into working at his drafting table, designing instead of building.
After a few false starts, he decided to design a pair of mechanical boots that were more like the work he'd done as a younger man than the utilitarian machines he built these days. He was pulling out all the creative stops on this one: they'd increase their wearer's speed, cut down on their physical exertion and, if Jared was really clever, actually reduce friction between the boots and the ground. Drafting schematics for power boots wasn't a complete fix for the restlessness prickling under Jared's skin, but it certainly resulted in a great many sleepless nights spent at the drafting table while Jared tried to get things just right. He wouldn't know for sure if the pages and pages of plans he drafted were workable until he actually built them, which drove him half mad, but Jared wasn't about to risk Jensen's well-being for the sake of his own eccentricities.
Though the urge to get back into the workshop gave him even more incentive for hoping that Jensen's recovery was swift.
Gradually, Jensen grew stronger. He started spending less of his time in bed and more of it on the couch in the sitting room, powering through Jared's bookshelves. He seemed equally interested in everything except the few books on steam energy that Jared had figured were innocuous enough to have on open display. Which seemed a little odd considering the very urban affectation of Jensen's tinted glasses, but Jared had known other city people who hadn't cared much about technology one way or another. It wasn't his business anyway.
Jared didn't immediately go back to his pre-Jensen schedule once Jensen started showing signs of better health. He did start making more frequent trips out into the fields to see what kind of state his vegetables were in, but for the most part he was content to stay around the house, working on his surprisingly satisfying new project and joining Jensen in spending his afternoons with a book in his hands and a lazy feeling of contentment settling in his bones.
Jensen's attitude improved much more slowly than his body did. He nearly fell out of his chair in his haste to get away the first time Jared joined him in the sitting room, despite the fact that Jared made no effort to approach him. Jensen's back was rigid and tense as he strode away, but Jared refused to be driven out of his home by a prickly house guest and so he stayed right where he was and read for several hours before getting up to make dinner. The next day, he did exactly the same and, this time, Jensen managed to stay in his seat for a good hour before fleeing, though he spent more time staring at Jared than reading. Jared read until dinner time, then marked his page so he'd know where to pick up again the next afternoon.
For the first few days of this system, Jensen was as likely to leave the sitting room when Jared came in as he was to sit and stare blankly at his book with his hands clenched white-knuckled on the cover. Gradually, he calmed enough to go about his afternoon without looking like he was about to do a header out the window, though Jared didn't doubt that Jensen would probably lodge a book in Jared's skull if he dared to move any closer.
Eventually, they settled into a pattern. Jared woke up far too early considering how late he'd been working at his drafting table the night before, made himself breakfast, then went out into the fields for a couple of hours before coming home, making lunch, and slumping onto the couch for a quiet afternoon with his book. Jensen got up at some point after Jared had gone, ate the breakfast Jared had left out for him and then presumably spent the rest of the morning either reading or sleeping until Jared came back and fed them both lunch.
Jared didn't push; he talked what he considered to be an entirely appropriate amount over lunch and dinner and said nothing at all when Jensen was reading. More than once he caught Jensen staring at him over the top of his book when he didn't think Jared was looking, wearing an expression that suggested that he thought Jared was the strangest person in existence. And while Jared could candidly admit that strange was a pretty good word to describe him, it made his insides twist to know that what Jensen was so puzzled by was nothing more than basic human kindness.
The first time Jensen actually answered one of the many mostly-rhetorical questions that Jared regularly threw out, Jared's jaw nearly hit the table. He recovered with a decent attempt at composure, though he suspected that the ridiculous grin on his face ruined the effect. Jensen didn't call him on it, just waited silently while Jared found his tongue and turned it into the first real conversation they'd actually had.
The event didn't prompt an immediate flood of camaraderie between them; Jared still ended up talking to himself as often as not and there were some days when Jensen didn't open his mouth at all. But, like everything with Jensen, that got slowly better as well. Their conversations grew easier, their interactions became smoother and the Jensen under all that wary stoicism turned out to be clever, keen and thoroughly enjoyable.
They didn't talk about what had happened to Jensen to leave him half-dead and being chased across the countryside by a group of heavily-armed men masquerading as prison officers. Jensen was clearly waiting for Jared to ask, expectation and dismay flicking across his face any time the conversation even drew close, but Jared had spent enough time in close quarters with the man to know that he wouldn't accomplish anything but driving Jensen away if he asked.
As far as Jared was concerned, it was an easy decision: he'd opened his home to Jensen, Jensen hadn't tried to kill him or steal his stuff, and it was surprisingly nice to have Jensen around. It wasn't much worth his effort to wonder where Jensen had come from. Jensen would tell him if he wanted to and, until then, Jared was perfectly happy with things as they were.
One very early morning, a good five weeks after he'd brought Jensen home, Jared yawned his way down the stairs to find Jensen sitting at the kitchen table, dressed and waiting for him.
Jared blinked. "You're up early."
Jensen ignored him, which was nothing new. "Where are you going?"
"To check on the radishes?" Jared ventured.
That earned him a nod, like Jensen had just had something confirmed for him.
"I'm coming," Jensen said, in a tone of voice that didn't take no for an answer.
"Um, okay?" Jared said and, just like that, their lives shifted yet again.
Every morning after that, Jensen would be waiting at the kitchen table when Jared came down and they would go out into the fields together to help Jared's bots take care of the crops. Jensen's still-healing wounds meant that he couldn't do quite as much mucking around in the dirt as Jared did, but he turned out to be a quick study on the other parts of job and Jared found, to his surprise, that he quite liked having the company while he worked. And that would have made him wonder if he should have hired some help a long time ago, except he had the feeling it was almost entirely because it was Jensen who was out there with him.
So he gave Jensen a hat to keep off the sun and taught him how to check the nutrient levels in the soil.
When things finally did go sideways, it wasn't for any reason that Jared would have seen coming in a million years.
"It's no good," he sighed, sitting back on his heels and swiping a dirt-smeared hand across his brow. The irrigation bot slumped sadly over his lap, its front hatch open to show off the worn down gears that had made the motor coil snap in the first place. He glanced up at Jensen, who was standing a few steps back. "I can't fix this here."
"Now what?" Jensen asked, reaching out to offer Jared a hand. Touching was a recent development and Jared ignored the tension he could feel thrumming under Jensen's skin as he carefully pulled himself up, mindful of Jensen's wounds. "You junk that thing and water the plants yourself?"
Jared shook his head, grabbed a wrench from his bag and reached for the bolts fastening the bot down. "Not if I can help it. Help me out here."
Jensen looked skeptical, but stepped gamely forward to hold the bot upright while Jared worked it free. Between them, they managed to lug the bot to the shed where he kept most of his farming tools and Jared unearthed a wheelbarrow for them to dump it in. He led the way to his workshop, absently aware of Jensen following along in his wake.
"What's this place?" Jensen asked, while Jared fiddled with the lock. "Is this where you hide all the junk you can't bear to g-"
The door rattled smoothly open and Jensen's voice cut off abruptly.
Jared threw him a grin. "It's where I hide all the junk I make myself. Come on."
Jared deposited the wheelbarrow beside a mostly-clear worktop and headed over to the bin of unused gears against the far wall, breathing in the familiar mix of metal and dust on the air.
"Shouldn't take too long to get him up and running again," he said over his shoulder, picking out a couple of gears that looked like they'd be about the right size and reaching to pull a length of wire down off the shelf. "I don't have a spare motor coil on hand, but they don't take long to make so- are you okay?"
Jared paused in the act of laying his armload down on the worktop, startled by the sight of Jensen standing frozen in the doorway wearing an expression that Jared couldn't have deciphered if his life depended on it.
A trickle of concern ran down his spine. "Jensen?"
Jensen started like he'd just woken up from a deep sleep. "You're a mechanist," he said and Jared had never known anyone who could make such a simple sentence sound so accusing.
Jared shrugged. "More or less. I mean, I keep my hand in but I don't do it for a living or anything anymore."
Jensen's shoulders stiffened and Jared realized too late that that had absolutely been the wrong thing to say.
"For a living," Jensen said, in a precariously calm tone of voice. "You worked as a mechanist for a living."
"I-" Jared started, and then didn't know what to do with the rest of the sentence. Jensen had sounded almost betrayed, which Jared didn't know how to deal with at all.
Jensen took a few short steps into the room and looked around, eyes sharp as they snapped from object to object as if cataloguing their faults. It made Jared want to squirm and apologize, though he had no real idea what for.
Then Jensen's gaze landed on Jared's main worktop and his expression went deadly dark. "What is that?"
"What?" Jared glanced over and realized that he'd left a bottle of drakis on the table. It had crystallized across the top where some of the fluid had seeped out around the cork.
"Oh, hell," Jared cursed, hustling over to grab the bottle and put it away in the storage cellar where it belonged. It wasn't until he was crouched, one hand tugging on the heavy ring on the cellar door that he realized just what he was forgetting.
"Um," he said, and twisted around to find Jensen still stood in the middle of the room, his face like a thundercloud.
"What. Is. That," Jensen bit out and Jared had to fight down the sudden, violent urge to flee in the face of his obvious anger.
"Drakis," Jared managed, forcing the word out around an unexpected thickness in his throat. "Needs to be stored in warm places or it crystallizes before you can use it."
Jensen's expression didn't change. "Use it for what?"
"Pretty much anything," Jared said, hoping that honesty was the best way to go right now. "It conducts heat better than any metal I've ever seen and it actually makes steam run hotter. You can make all sorts of crazy tech work when you use drakis on it."
"Is that how you're going to fix that machine?" Jensen demanded, spitting out the word like a curse.
"No," Jared said truthfully. "It'd be a waste to use it for something so basic. The Metallurgy Guild makes the stuff and, since they've got a monopoly on the creation process, it's really expensive. Besides," Jensen was glaring at him like he was trying to burn a hole in his head and Jared ran an awkward hand along the back of his neck. There was no point in shutting up now, though, so he took a deep breath and continued, "It feels kind of like cheating, you know? I'd rather make things that work because I did a good job designing them, not because I'm using some wonder metal to hold them together."
Jensen was silent for a moment and Jared dared a glance up to find Jensen still staring at him with that bottomless expression.
Jensen turned on his heel and left, the door banging loudly shut behind him.
An immense silence followed his departure and Jared sat there for a long moment, bottle of drakis held forgotten in his hand. He wished he knew what had just happened.
Eventually, Jared roused himself and put the drakis carefully away before levering himself to his feet and turning his attention to his neglected irrigation bot. Chasing after Jensen wouldn't do anything but make things worse and finding something to do with his hands sounded fucking fantastic right now.
Jared spent a good couple of hours replacing the bot's mechanics and hammering out a new motor coil. The entire time, he was hyperconscious of the whine of the machines, the steady pump of steam up out of the engines. When he was done, he wheeled the bot back into the field and spent another half hour getting it reattached to its rails and making sure that everything was working properly.
Then he dithered around on nothing in particular until he could gather up enough courage to head back to the house.
Though he half-expected to discover that Jensen had disappeared from of his life as abruptly as he'd entered it, Jared was relieved to find him in the sitting room, staring at the large painting hanging above the mantle. Jared was sure Jensen had to have looked at it a thousand times before now, yet the man was studying the whorls of black and gold paint like he'd never seen them before.
Jared stopped a careful distance behind him and waited.
Thankfully, Jensen didn't leave him in suspense for long. "You haven't been in that... room while I've been here," he said, with his characteristic ability to ask questions that weren't really questions.
Jared shrugged. "I've been a little distracted, I guess."
Jensen didn't react to that in any way Jared could see. He tilted his head. "What is it?"
"What is what?" Jared asked, confused.
"The painting," Jensen said, waving a hand at it. "What is it?"
Jared looked past Jensen's shoulder at the massive bird-like creature soaring across the canvas. "A dragon."
Jensen glanced at him, one eyebrow raised. "A dragon."
Jared shrugged again, embarrassed. "Well, that's what it's supposed to be, anyway. S'not like it's really accurate or anything."
"Because dragons don't exist?" Jared hazarded.
Jensen made an impatient sound. "Why do you have this painting?" he clarified.
"Because I bought it?" Jared shoved his hair back with an impatient hand. "Honestly, Jensen, I don't know what you want me to say here. I just like dragons, okay?"
Jensen's jaw tensed and Jared suppressed the urge to throw his arms up in sheer despair of ever figuring out what in Vente's name was going on.
"You have paintings all over the house," Jensen said after a moment. "Are they all supposed to be dragons?"
"Look, I know it's stupid," Jared said. "But I don't care if they're not real. There's something so powerful and mysterious and, and amazing about them, I just..." He shook his head, words deserting him. "I just like them. So when I find a new painting, I buy it. "
Jensen snorted. "Right."
Jared frowned at him. "What? I'm old enough to act like an idiot if I want to."
Jensen rounded on him, eyes fury-bright. "You're a mechanist," he growled, harsh enough to make Jared flinch. "Why in the stars are you pretending to be interested in some imaginary flying beasts when your head is too full of gears and steam and fucking progress to care about anything real?"
Jared blinked at him, stunned by the sudden vehemence.
"Well?" Jensen demanded, stepping forward and shoving Jared hard enough to send him stumbling back into the arm of the couch.
"Jensen," Jared said, feeling his way very carefully. "Being a mechanist doesn't mean I don't care about other things."
Jensen's dark scowl didn't falter and Jared struggled for a way to make things better.
"Look at me, Jensen. I own a farm. You really think I think steam power's the only important thing in the world? Just because my inventions are made out of copper and leather doesn't mean they're all that different from growing vegetables. It's all creation."
Jensen said nothing for a long moment, eyes never leaving Jared's face. Jared looked right back at him with as much openness as he could muster.
"You're serious," Jensen said finally.
Just as slowly, Jared nodded. "Yeah."
"Fine," Jensen said, and Jared blinked.
"Oh. Um, good?" he tried, and figured the worst was over when Jensen neither left the room nor hauled off and punched him. Jensen's gaze went measuring and Jared shifted, feeling suddenly awkward. "Right, so. I'm going to, um. Make lunch, I guess. You hungry?"
Jared breathed a quiet sigh. "Great," he said, and was halfway to the door when Jensen's voice stopped him.
"Hey," Jensen said, and Jared twisted round to look at him. Jensen was back to staring at the painting with faraway eyes. Jared wondered what he was seeing. "Which one's your favourite?"
"The one in the bedroom," Jared answered without hesitation. "The blue one with the wings big enough protect my whole house."
Jensen cocked his head at him. "Or destroy it."
"Or destroy it," Jared agreed. He laughed a little. "Probably eat me as soon as look at me. But I'd like to think they're maybe a little nicer than that."
Jensen's mouth quirked with a secret sort of amusement. "Well, they're your imaginary pets, so I guess you can think what you want."
"Honestly?" Jared said, returning the almost-grin with a relieved one of his own. "I think a dragon would make a lousy pet."
Which made Jensen out and out laugh and Jared couldn't have helped the warm little curl of contentment that sound lit in his heart if he'd tried.
He was in so far over his head. And the worst part was that he couldn't quite bring himself to care.
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