Things went pretty much back to normal after that. Jensen kept helping Jared in the fields and spending most of the afternoon curled up with a book, though the supply of books he hadn't already read was starting to dwindle alarmingly. Jared kept them both fed and stayed up late drafting increasingly elaborate plans for his boots.
The biggest change was that Jared started spending time in his workshop again. The only conversation they'd had on the issue had basically consisted of Jensen telling Jared he was being a moron and shoving him out the door with instructions to get over himself already. And Jared might have resented that, but he knew that it was just Jensen's charming personality at work and he wasn't about to turn down the offer.
So Jared added another element to his day. He still read and talked with Jensen in the afternoon, but he escaped to his workshop every day after dinner. The sheets and sheets worth of plans he'd drawn up for his power boots turned into blueprints for a new project, one that was far more taxing than he'd expected. It was exhilarating, challenging and time-consuming, and Jared found himself working long into the nights, lamplight burning his eyes as he focused on the precise placement of copper wires and tiny gears.
Jensen never asked what Jared was doing, even when Jared was nearly falling asleep in the potato field after forgetting to go to bed the night before. Which was unsurprising, given Jensen's clearly scathing opinion of tech, but Jared couldn't help but feel a little disheartened by the fact that he was building something complex and frustrating and fantastic for the first time in years and he had to bite back his enthusiasm every time he went to talk about the progress he'd been making.
It definitely added a stilted sort of awkwardness to their conversations around the kitchen table, but the rest of the time they did a decent job of ignoring the whole issue. Jensen gave the workshop a wide berth and Jared focused on his slowly progressing boots in an attempt to distract himself from the ever-growing fear that, one day, he'd get back up to the house and find out that Jensen was gone.
It hadn't been much of a concern in the first month or so: Jensen had been far too ill to think seriously of leaving. Their increased closeness in the time since then had helped Jensen learn to relax in Jared's presence and, Jared hoped, even trust him a little.
But there was no denying that Jensen was growing stronger every day. The last of his bandages had been removed and the skin underneath was shiny, pink and new. A steady diet had put some much-needed meat on Jensen's bones and the hours in the fields had tanned his skin and strengthened his muscles until he was nearly as fit as Jared.
For the first time, Jared was getting to see the man buried beneath all that suffering and it made things both better and worse because Jensen was kind of ridiculously gorgeous. Jared had already admired Jensen for his courage and liked him for his quick wit and quiet company, and now he found himself uncomfortably aware of just how much he'd like get his hands on all that pale skin and kiss the hurt right out of that too-serious mouth.
Jensen hadn't noticed, which Jared was glad of. The last thing Jared wanted was for Jensen to think that he was expecting something in return for his help and Jared would have to be the worst kind of fool to hope that Jensen would decide to stay with him if he knew the truth. Luckily, Jensen had so many better things to be worrying about than the too-tall mechanist-turned-farmer who was kind of in love with him.
The stress had Jared spending even more time in his workshop, pouring his frustrations into making the best damn pair of boots in the history of mankind. The extra effort invariably left him a disgusting, grubby mess at the end of every day and Jared started making a habit of drawing himself a bath before heading back up to the house, both to keep from making a disastrous mess and to save himself the dark anger in Jensen's eyes when they lingered on the grease smears on Jared's knuckles.
One day, after a particularly exasperating fight with a length of leather binding, Jared gave in early and trudged to the bathing room with the sun still hanging a goodly distance above the horizon. He didn't think anything of light glinting through the half-open door as he pushed it open, then immediately froze when he realized that he wasn't alone.
Jensen's eyes were closed, his ubiquitous glasses folded neatly on top of the stack of his clothes and his head tipped back against the rim of the tub. The heat of the water had brought a flush to his skin and the rising steam made everything about him look hazy and indistinct. The curl of his mouth looked almost contented, relaxing his face in a way that not even sleep could manage. He gave no sign that he'd heard Jared enter and Jared lingered guiltily in the doorway, too caught up by a sudden overwhelming surge of desire to back out like he should.
Jared didn't know how long he stood there, eyes trained on the sweat beading on Jensen's upper lip, the graceful fall of his eyelashes across tanned cheeks. Eventually though, Jensen sighed and stirred, water sluicing down his arms as he sat up to reach for the washcloth draped over the side of the tub. He leaned forward and Jared's breath caught abruptly as the light fell on Jensen's back, edging the unexpected shapes there in glistening gold.
Wings. Or, the shape of wings, etched in inky blue-black from Jensen's collarbone to his waist. The lines were long and graceful, tracing in wide, arching swaths that tapered into delicate tips with clockwork precision. Jared wasn't even quite sure what made him so certain they were wings - the pattern was more whorls and lines than anything else - but it was impossible to ignore now that he'd seen it. A vague memory of seeing dark bruises on Jensen's back that first day wormed its way to the front of his mind and Jared wondered if the desire to hide this mark was part of the reason why Jensen had never let him help change his bandages.
Jared shifted on the spot and Jensen stilled immediately. "That had better be you, Jared," he growled, not turning around.
"Sorry," Jared blurted, backing up a step. Jensen said nothing, back still firmly turned, and Jared felt abruptly ashamed when his eyes still dropped to the stunning tattoo despite his best efforts. "I didn't mean to…" he started.
Then he fled.
Jared spent the next half hour pacing in his workshop before warily returning to the bathing room. Jensen was long gone, of course, but Jared still couldn't help the heat rising in his cheeks at the memory of what Jensen had looked like surrounded by water and light. Jared bathed quickly, scrubbing the grease and soot off his skin with fierce, heavy strokes. Then he took several deep, fortifying breaths and made his way up to the house.
Jensen was waiting for him on the veranda.
"I'm sorry," Jared said immediately. "I was coming to get cleaned up and then I..."
"Saw my wings and got distracted," Jensen finished. He stood, a head taller than Jared thanks to the added height of the veranda. "Come on."
"Jensen, I-" Jared started and Jensen pinned him with a glare.
Chastened, Jared followed Jensen into the house and up the stairs. He faltered when Jensen headed for the bedroom, but Jensen's stride didn't hitch and, left without a better option, Jared trailed along after him.
"Sit," Jensen directed and Jared sank down on the edge of the bed like his strings had been cut. Jensen stayed standing, that familiar assessing look in his eyes that Jared had pretty much given up trying to understand. Jared waited quietly, feeling like a child about to be scolded by its mother.
Jensen abruptly reached for the laces at his own throat, deft fingers quick and sure as they pulled open his collar.
"Jensen?" Jared asked. "Wha-"
"Anyone ever tell you you talk too much?" Jensen asked and Jared could have sworn there was amusement in there somewhere.
Which gave him the courage to answer with a weak smile and an, "All the time. What are you doing?"
"I would have thought that was fairly obvious." Jensen pulled free the last of the laces and shrugged out of his shirt. It fell in a pool of fabric at his feet and Jared stared at the pockmarks scattered across his pale chest, so much fainter and fewer than they had been.
And then Jensen was turning to face the wall and Jared was left staring at the massive tattoo sprawled across Jensen's back. It was just as striking now as it had been the first time and like nothing Jared had ever seen before; Jared wondered what it meant.
"It's a clan marker," Jensen said, echoing Jared's thoughts so neatly that Jared wondered if he'd spoken aloud. "The sign of my tribe."
Jared bit his lip to keep from asking the obvious question and tried for something a little less invasive. "So it's a coming of age thing?"
Jensen's shoulders raised and fell in a shrug that wasn't quite casual. "You could say that."
"Didn't it hurt?" Jared couldn't help but ask.
Jensen tilted his head to fix Jared with a mordant look. "I've had worse."
"Oh." Jared felt his face heat. "Right. Sorry."
They stayed frozen like that for a long while and Jared took the opportunity to trace every inch of those swirling lines with his eyes.
"Can I touch them?"
The words were out before Jared had realized he was going to say anything and Jensen's eyebrows climbed up right to his hairline.
"Sorry!" Jared said, half-rising. "I'll just-"
Jensen was at Jared's side before he'd managed to gain his feet and he pressed one hand down on Jared's shoulder, thwarting his escape.
"You apologize too much," Jensen said and he sounded amused, for him. "You'll know when you do something I don't want."
Jared kept his eyes fixed on the firm curve of Jensen's bare stomach, not sure what the right thing to say was here. "So-"
Jensen sighed somewhere above him. "Strange, stubborn man," he said, and then he was sitting down on the bed next to Jared, one leg tucked up under him and his back turned once again.
"Well?" Jensen demanded, after Jared did nothing more productive than stare at him. "I'm not going to eat you."
And something about that struck Jared as ridiculously funny. "Well, that's a relief," he said, chuckling lightly. "I'd be pretty worried if your tattoo could eat people." Jensen snorted, shoulders rolling in a get on with it sort of way, and Jared reached out with one slightly shaky hand to press his fingers to the not-quite even skin of Jensen's back.
Jensen's breath went shallow at the touch but he didn't tell Jared to stop. Jared pressed more firmly, feeling the heady warmth of Jensen's skin soaking into his palm. The tattoo looked even darker against Jared's tanned fingers and Jared gave in to the temptation to trace the outer lines, trying to feel the split between skin and ink. He couldn't find one, but he was too busy being fascinated by the complex swirl of black spilling across Jensen's back to be disappointed.
Jensen was still and silent under his fingers, letting Jared touch, and Jared swallowed hard at the intimacy of the moment.
"Thank you," he said into the stillness. For trusting me with this.
"I like that better than all the apologies," Jensen said and Jared was smiling as he let his hand trail down to Jensen's waist, following those inky trails until long after the sun had gone down.
"So," Jared said a few days later. "I'm going to Yousil at the end of the week."
Jensen froze with his spoon halfway to his mouth. "You are."
Jared nodded awkwardly. "For the, um, World Expo. It's a competition for amateur mechanists," he added, at Jensen's blank look. When a scowl flickered immediately across Jensen's face, Jared kind of wished he'd stayed quiet.
"I wasn't aware you were an amateur," Jensen said after a moment.
Jared felt the tips of his ears heat. "Oh, um, not really, I guess, but I'm not employed by any major company, so I still count."
Jensen made a noncommittal sound and returned his attention to his soup.
"You can come if y-" Jared started, only to falter when he caught sight of the glare Jensen was leveling at him. He coughed and tried again. "You can stay here while I'm gone, if you want. I'll go into Trescid and pick up supplies before I go, because if you're anywhere as sick of vegetables as I am, it's gotta be-"
"How long?" Jensen interrupted, as though Jared hadn't spoken all at.
Jared rolled his eyes. "We really need to work on your manners. I'll be gone for about a fortnight. I can catch the train in Bryn, but it'll still take a good three days to get there. The Expo's on for a week."
Jensen nodded and stood "Fine. Great."
Jared watched him turn and head for the stairs, as sure a sign as Jared needed to know that Jensen didn't want to be kept company this evening.
"Jensen?" Jared asked tentatively. Jensen's eyes swung towards him and Jared swallowed down the nervous flutter in his gut. "Will you... still be here when I get back?"
Jensen stared at him for a long moment and Jared wondered, as he always did, just what Jensen was looking for. "I will," Jensen said finally, in a voice so low that Jared nearly missed it.
"Good," Jared said, with a relieved grin. "That's... good. I'm glad."
Jensen's mouth crooked. "I can't imagine why," he said, and disappeared up the stairs before Jared could figure out a response to that.
Jared's next trip into town was quite possibly the most awkward experience he'd had in his life. Considering what he'd been like as a teenager, that was saying a lot.
"Well hello there, stranger," Genevieve drawled as he approached her stall. "Long time no see."
Jared grinned at her. "So everyone keeps telling me. I hope you've been well?"
She shrugged. "Well enough." Her expression went keen. "So, where have you been? We were all starting to think you'd moved away or something."
"Oh, nothing like that." Jared pulled on a sheepish face, doing his best to sound casual when he said, "My sister had a baby so I took some time to go visit her."
Genevieve arched an eyebrow. "I didn't know you had a sister."
Jared shrugged. "We don't always get along so well and she's out in Lothly, so."
"Huh," Genevieve said, and she didn't sound particularly convinced. No one else had, either. "I'm surprised you left your farm in the middle of the harvest season. How are you going to afford to feed yourself all winter?"
"Carefully," Jared said, with an attempt at a cheeky grin. "So," he said then, desperate to get off the subject. "What's been going on round here? Anything new and exciting?"
"Not really," Genevieve said after a moment, and Jared knew right away that she was lying. Worse, he'd heard the same lie from every shopkeeper he'd visited so far. "You know nothing ever changes round here."
Jared hummed noncommittally. "The joys of country life, I guess," he said and turned the conversation towards safer things. He concluded his business as quickly as he could without being rude, well past ready to get out town.
"You should come over for dinner," Genevieve said as Jared packed up his purchases. It didn't sound much like a suggestion.
"Can I take a rain check?" Jared asked, doing his best to sound casual. "I've got a lot of work to do to get the farm back in shape right now."
"I'd really like it if you came," Genevieve persisted, and Jared would have found it strange even if he hadn't already received essentially the same invitation today from several different people whom he hardly knew.
"Maybe next time," Jared said, and beat a hasty retreat before she could pursue the matter.
Jared finished the rest of his errands as hurriedly as possible, uncomfortably aware of the fact that he wasn't imagining all the extra attention he was receiving. He'd been greeted by more people on the walk between the mill and Chad's butchery than he'd usually talk to in a year and it wasn't hard to tell that these people weren't at all interested in anything he said.
The part that really worried him was that he didn't know what they were interested in.
Jared had no sooner finished shopping than he was heading out of town, pleading fatigue in the face of the solicitous concern of what felt like half the village. Some vaguely hysterical part of him couldn't help but be relieved when no one went so far as to follow his wagon, but he figured it couldn't be long before someone found an excuse to head out to the farm to 'visit'. And Jared couldn't risk that, not when it might put Jensen in danger.
Jared's brain was a muddle of worry for the entire trip, though he did his best to plaster on a good humour for Jensen's sake. The arched eyebrow Jensen gave him when he started unpacking foodstuffs suggested that he'd done a particularly poor job of it, but Jared had almost expected that Jensen would see right through him. For someone who'd known him for less than a season, Jensen was well on his way to being an expert in all things Jared.
Jared managed to keep his thoughts to himself until after dinner.
"I think you might need to leave," he blurted, and winced when Jensen's expression went flat. "Sorry, that's not what... I don't want you to leave, Jensen."
"But?" Jensen prompted, relaxing a little.
Jared huffed out a breath. "But I think I've made people a little too curious about why I haven't been into town in so long. I'm probably going to get all sorts of 'surprise' visitors in the next couple of weeks." He looked at Jensen somberly. "I don't want anyone to be able to lead those men to you."
Jensen cocked his head. "You really mean that."
"Well, yeah," Jared said, confused. "Of course."
"You are the strangest human I've ever met," Jensen said, and there was something fond and thoughtful in his tone that made Jared's stupid heart jump. "So you think that everyone in town has missed you so much that seeing you today is going to convince them all to see you when they didn't care enough beforehand?"
"Hey," Jared protested mildly. "Lots of people care about me. I'll have you know that I got asked to the last village social by three different boys."
"I'm sure," Jensen said, dry as dust.
Jared made a face at him. "Oh, shut up. It was just... weird. I mean, if people were that worried, you'd think someone would have come out by now, right? It's not like I'm hard to find. But I got, like, a dozen invitations to dinner today and a couple people asking if I wanted some help getting the farm fixed up. Which seems, well, weird."
Jensen propped his chin in his hand. "Your command of the English language is simply astounding."
"That is not shutting up. Are you sure you understand English?" Jared sobered, trying to keep the ache out of his voice as he said, "There's something wrong. It's not safe for you here anymore. And I want you to stay but-"
"Quiet," Jensen said absently. "I'm trying to think."
"Yes, sir," Jared muttered, though he fell silent while Jensen thought about whatever he was thinking about. He fiddled absently with a mechanical butterfly he'd made in his workroom upstairs the last time he couldn't sleep. The wings flapped in a graceful ripple of canvas and Jared wondered how much energy it would take to make it fly.
"I'm going with you to the Expo," Jensen said suddenly, which was pretty high up there on the list of things Jared hadn't expected him to say.
"What? Why? Not that you can't," Jared added hurriedly. "But it's in Yousil; it's dangerous for you in the city, right? That's why you didn't want to come."
Jensen shrugged. "I'll deal with it."
"Jensen. If you need to leave, then leave. I don't," Jared took a fortifying breath, "I don't want you getting hurt."
"I'm going with you," Jensen repeated, in exactly the same tone of voice.
Jared made a face. "Did you listen to a word I just said?"
"Of course. I just don't care what you think."
"Vente, you're an asshole," Jared said, with a heavy sigh. "You were so much easier to deal with when you were bleeding half to death."
Something unpleasant flashed across Jensen's face and Jared forced himself to keep his tone light when he said, "Do you want me to start apologizing again? Because I can do that if you're too sensitive to handle a little teasing."
"Clearly I'm not the only asshole around here," Jensen said, the shadow around his eyes fading slightly. He stood then, rolling back his shoulders once before heading for the door. Jared sat there, watching him go, and Jensen paused to throw Jared a look over his shoulder. "I'm still coming, whether you like it or not."
"Any chance you're going to tell me why?" Jared asked and had to figure himself for kind of an idiot when Jensen's unrepentant little smirk made him want to swoon just a little.
"Not much of a chance, no," Jensen said. "Better get used to it."
Jensen left the room and all Jared could do was hope that he really would have the chance to do just that.
They left on a bright, cheery morning, Jensen perched on the bench at Jared's side and Jared's mechanical boots tucked neatly away in a crate in the back of the wagon. The weather was decently warm, though the occasional crisp edge on the wind said that autumn wasn't all that far off.
The trip to Bryn was entirely uneventful, thankfully, and Jared negotiated stabling for his horse and wagon before leading the way to the train station. The look on Jensen's face when he saw the train was more than a little amusing.
"I hate you," Jensen said, as they settled themselves in their seats, Jared's luggage and boxed-up boots sitting on the floor between them.
"It was your idea to come," Jared pointed out.
Jensen opened his mouth to retort, only to snap it shut again when the train chose that moment to roll into motion. His entire body went stiff as a board and he clenched his hands in the fabric of his trousers until his knuckles were white.
Jared rolled his eyes and reached out, settling a light hand on Jensen's arm.
"Hey," he said, and he had a smile ready when Jensen's eyes fixed on him with lightning-sharp concentration. "You're making me nervous, you're worrying so hard. Chill out a little, okay? It's perfectly safe."
Jensen shot him a haughty little look. "I know that. I'm fine."
Jared patted him on the hand. "Of course you are."
And Jensen proceeded to glare at him for a solid hour, but Jared figured it was totally worth it. The more time Jensen spent being irritated with Jared, the less time he spent worrying about the train, after all.
They spent a full two days on the train and Jared was reminded of why he hated sleeping in moving vehicles: they just weren't built for people his size. Jensen was jittery and nervous the entire time, though to a much lesser degree than he had been to begin with. Aware that Jensen had plenty for reasons for feeling that way, Jared did his best to act as a buffer between Jensen and the rest of the people on the train.
Their debarkation at Yousil was a chaotic mess of noise and steam that had Jensen hovering so close to him that Jared was impressed that they didn't trip over each other's feet. Jared suppressed the impulse to take Jensen's hand as he hoisted his crate and shoved through the crowd towards the aerial lift platform.
There was the usual swarm of people waiting at the platform. Jared bought their tickets and shuffled Jensen into line.
"Another train?" Jensen asked with a pained expression.
Jared grinned at him. "Not exactly."
One of the aerial cars arrived in a rush of steam and hydraulics and Jensen jumped, the beginning of panic written in every line of his body.
Jared felt a pang of guilt. "Sorry," he said, doing his best to keep his voice down and still be heard over the noise of people disembarking and a new group climbing aboard. "I should have warned you."
"You think? What is that thing?"
"Aerial lift," Jared told him and pointed up at the massive steel cables supporting the weight of the car. "Runs on suspension cables between here and Yousil."
The line shifted forward and Jensen craned his neck to get a better look as the full car started pulling away. "Aerial, huh? Why don't they use a road like normal p-"
Jensen's voice trailed off and Jared glanced over to find Jensen staring out after the car in slack surprise.
"Because Yousil's not exactly accessible by land," Jared said, more than a little redundantly at this point.
Jensen nodded faintly. "I can see that."
Jared grinned and peered out at Yousil with him.
The city itself was only barely visible at this distance, little more than a cloud of smoke and steam at the top of a high, inhospitable-looking mass of slate-gray rock. Jared rather doubted that that was what had caught Jensen's attention though.
"Why," Jensen asked, staring at the massive swath of open sky stretching out between them and Yousil. "Would someone build a city on a mountain in the middle of a crater?"
Jared shrugged. "Resources."
Jensen glanced at him, one eyebrow cocked, and Jared explained further.
"This area's got a lot of coal deposits in the earth and the stone's good quality. The crater's mostly because of digging. See the conveyors?" Jared asked, pointing at the series of flat barges making their slow way along the far side of the crater. "They transport the coal from the mines up to the refinery on the other side of the city."
"So they built a city that runs on fire and steam in the middle of a coal mine," Jensen said. "That sounds like a stunning plan."
"There are a lot of security measures in place. And it means that Yousil doesn't have to worry as much about being attacked by foreign armies so there's plenty of time for other pursuits. There's a reason they hold the World Expo here every year."
Jensen made a thoughtful noise and then didn't say anything more until after they'd boarded the aerial lift and started the slow trip across the Yousil Chasm.
Jared had been expecting Jensen to be twice as uptight about relying on mechanics when suspended miles above the ground as he had been on the train, but Jensen apparently lived to surprise him. Jared watched with mild concern as Jensen leaned out over the side of the car without any apparent regard for his own mortality, chest pressed close to the railing and one hand hooked loosely around one of the ceiling supports.
"Please don't fall off," Jared said to him and Jensen actually laughed, an exhilarated, wild sound that made Jared feel like falling out of the car might not be so bad after all if he was falling with this man.
It was going to break his heart when Jensen left.
"I won't," Jensen promised, and it took Jared a moment to remember what Jensen was responding to. "So," Jensen said then. "Are these aerial lifts of yours the only way to get into the city?"
"Sort of." Jared leaned on the railing next to Jensen, gripping tightly onto the chill metal. "There are seven gates in the wall: one for the aerial lift and the others for airships. Yousil's famous for its aeronautics. There's one over there, see?"
Jensen looked at the airship, head cocked to the side like a curious bird. "It's not very fast," he noted critically.
Jared laughed. "Well, they fly faster than me, so I guess they'll have to do."
The car drew ever closer to the city and it wasn't long before Jared could pick out the point where the mountain stopped and the city walls began. The tops of buildings peeked over the top of the massive edifice, wrapped in the permanent swirl of nearly-white smoke that hovered over the city.
The copper gate gleamed like fire in the light of the sun and Jared felt the same wondrous awe he always did as their tiny car passed through that massive space. He could taste the oily tang of grease on the air even before they climbed out of the cable car and was surprised to discover that he'd missed that sensation. The chunking whir of gears followed them out of the station and onto the street, as regular and familiar as the beating of Jared's own heart.
Jared turned to grin at Jensen but his elation died when he caught sight of the expression on Jensen's face.
"Jensen?" he asked.
Jensen acted like he hadn't heard him, radiating hurt and anger strongly enough to take Jared's breath away.
"Jensen?" he tried again, carefully not coming any closer. "Everything okay?"
"No," Jensen said faintly, then caught himself. "Yes. It's fine." The tightness in him shifted to something less intense but no less frightening. "I'm fine. Where are we going?"
"...the inn," Jared said, after a moment. "We'll get settled in and then decide what to do with the rest of the day. The Expo doesn't open until tomorrow, so we've got plenty of time."
Jensen nodded. "Fine, good. Lead the way."
Giving a nod of his own, Jared gathered up his belongings and set out. Jensen trailed along wordlessly and Jared filled the silence between them by pointing out different parts of the city as they passed, from the Aeronaut Academy and the central clock tower to the automated lifts that climbed up the sides of the taller buildings.
"You know a lot about this city," Jensen noted in the middle of Jared's monologue about the use of non-regulated steam temperature in the fountain in Riaci Square.
Jared shrugged as best as he was able to while carrying his bag and a crate full of very heavy metal. "Well, I grew up here, so it'd be pretty poor if I didn't remember at least some of it."
There was no reply and Jared glanced back to find Jensen standing a few paces back, surprise evident on his face.
He slowed. "Something wrong?"
Jensen shook his head and propelled himself back into motion. "It's nothing."
Jared rolled his eyes. "You can ask me, you know. It's not like it's a big dark secret."
The moment the words were out of his mouth he wanted to flinch, but if Jensen caught the unintended insinuation, he didn't give any indication of it.
"You grew up here," Jensen said and Jared nodded. Jensen huffed out a resigned sort of laugh. "I guess that explains why you're a mechanist."
"Yeah, probably," Jared agreed. "I think I'd still love it either way, but it'd have been hard to get a chance to study mechanism if I'd lived in the country my whole life."
"Why did you leave then?" Jensen asked and Jared shrugged again.
"Mostly it was because I didn't think I belonged here." Jared glanced around, taking in the once-familiar mix of steam and whirring gears and faceless crowds. "It's hard to think in the city, sometimes. And I might be a mechanist, but I don't think that technology should try to replace everything else. It can work with nature as well as in spite of it."
Jared caught Jensen nodding out of the corner of his eye, though whether it was in agreement or in response to something else entirely, Jared didn't know.
Jared coughed. "Come on. The inn's just ahead."
"Wait," Jensen said, falling in step beside Jared. "If you grew up here, shouldn't you be staying with your family?"
Jared shook his head. "They wouldn't want to see me. I'm kind of a disappointment. And they don't live here anymore, anyways."
This time, Jensen's silence was thoughtful. Jared was relieved when he let the subject drop.
Jared got them checked into the room he'd booked, using his charming personality and a hefty tip to get the man at the desk to switch his single for a double. He just hoped that Jensen wouldn't be too uncomfortable about sharing the room itself.
Jensen didn't say anything about the sleeping arrangements, just settled himself down on the bed closest to the door and stared at Jared.
Jared set his things carefully on the floor, groaning with relief as his muscles relaxed. Jensen kept staring at him. Jared glanced at Jensen. "That's a little creepy, you know."
"I do know," Jensen agreed. He raised one eyebrow, as if daring Jared to make him stop.
Jared sighed and walked over to flop down on the other bed. "I was supposed to go to the Aeronaut Academy," he said, eyes fixed on one of the copper pipes snaking its way along the ceiling. "Become an aeromechanist, bring prestige to the family name, solve world hunger, yadda yadda yadda. I had two apprenticeships under my belt and the skills to get in, and my father had the connections to make it happen."
"Why didn't you?" Jensen asked quietly.
"I didn't want to." Jared laughed self-deprecatingly. "Vente, it sounds so childish now. But I wasn't interested in building airships and I didn't want to be forced to make things I didn't want to. My dad was furious. Sometimes, I'm surprised he didn't disown me."
"But you said you made a living as a mechanist."
Jared nodded. "Had to pay the bills somehow, right? It was never anything exciting, small jobs here and there, but it was better than nothing. And then-" Jared took a steadying breath. "Then my mother died."
Jensen stilled. "Jared-"
"She was sick," Jared continued, pushing the words out fast so he couldn't even think of trying to hold them in. "Weak lungs. Not easy to take care of in the middle of the city. Too much smog. I told Dad to use my academy money to pay for doctors. I think it's probably the only time we ever agreed with each other. Not that it did any good."
Jensen was silent but Jared could feel his eyes, unwavering and nonjudgmental.
Jared kept going, hurrying to get to the end of the story. "Neither of us really wanted to deal with each other after that. Dad started signing on to longer and longer flights until he was away more often than he was home. He sold the house eventually. Gave me the share that would have been my inheritance and told me to go make something of myself." Jared smiled a little. "Somehow I don't think growing vegetables and building irrigation bots was quite what he had in mind."
"Then why come back at all?" Jensen asked.
Jared's shrug was impeded by the way he was splayed bodily across the mattress, but he figured Jensen got the gist. "It was a long time ago. Hardly worth remembering now but I guess I want to prove to myself that the things I make are worth something. Even if I'm not the kind of mechanist my dad wanted me to be."
"Do you know why I asked you for help?" Jensen asked suddenly, and Jared raised his head to stare at him, not sure where that had come from. "That day in the village."
"Why?" Jared asked, hushed.
"The way you spoke to that boy," Jensen said and, for the life of him, Jared couldn't remember what boy he was talking about. "In a town full of people I couldn't trust, you were the only one I thought might be willing to help." He met Jared's gaze steadily. "You're a good man, Jared. And that makes you the only kind of mechanist worth having."
Jared blinked, swallowing hard. "That's, I- thank you. That means a lot to me."
Jensen shrugged. "It's only the truth," he said and didn't say anything else for the rest of the night.
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