Jared did not get arrested. Lieutenant Tal and Chris took copies of his financial records and shipping manifests with them and warned him not to leave the state, which reminded Jared of every procedural cop show he'd ever watched. It was an effort not to giggle, though Jared suspected that was at least partly hysteria.
Adrianne was bursting with curiosity by the time they left, so much so that the door had scarcely swung shut behind them before she was dragging Jared off to the rarely used break room to grill him.
Jared answered her questions as best as he could, which wasn't really all that well. He was profoundly unsurprised when Adrianne's eyes flashed fire at the revelation that the police thought Jared was part of some kind of organics trafficking ring.
"I should have thrown them out," she raged. She jabbed a finger at Jared. "You should have thrown them out! Why the hell didn't you throw them out?"
"They're the police," Jared reminded her. "I'm pretty sure that throwing the police out is against the law."
Adrianne sniffed. "Not if they don't have a warrant."
"Oh yes, because demanding they come back with a warrant will definitely help the 'not guilty' verdict along. Hey, it'll be fine," Jared said gently. He rested a comforting hand on Adrianne's shoulder. "You and I both know that they're not going to find anything suspicious in our paperwork. You do way too good a job for that."
A touch of amusement lifted the corners of Adrianne's mouth. "So what you're saying is that I'm keeping your ass out of jail?" she asked. "Sounds like I deserve a raise."
"Pride in one's own work is the greatest reward," Jared said, glad to see Adrianne calming down. "We haven't done anything wrong, so we've got nothing to worry about."
Adrianne sighed. "I know. That doesn't make it any less…"
"I know," Jared said, when the word she was looking for wouldn't come. "But we'll be okay. They'll look through everything and see that we are totally above board and even more talented than we are good looking. And that'll be the end of it."
A smile that wasn't nearly as reluctant as Adrianne would have liked to pretend creased her face. "You know, in your case, it's not hard to be more talented than you are attractive," she said. "Guess it's a good thing you're an overachiever."
Jared mimed a swipe at her. "Brat. See if I ever try to cheer you up again."
"Aw, don't be like that, boss. It's sort of like a compliment anyway, isn't it? That you're so good at your job that they think you have to be doing something illegal to manage it?"
"Not the kind of compliment I really want to receive," Jared said dryly. "But I guess I can live with being scandalously fantastic."
"Good. Because you've got another three clients today and their hearts aren't going to sew themselves back together."
Jared sighed a heavy, overdone sort of sigh. "It's a good thing I love both you and my job because otherwise I'd never put up with this abuse."
"Whatever you say, honey." Adrianne patted Jared's arm. "Now go feed yourself and get washed up before your next client gets here. We're professionals, remember?"
Truly, Jared loved his job. No matter how much he might complain about the hours and the stress - both of which were the banes of a mender's life when they had a private practice - he couldn't imagine another career in the world that would have suited him better.
But that didn't mean that there were some days when he sincerely wished he'd decided to become a car salesman instead.
"No, the copper-platinum mix is better for ventricles," Jared said, phone wedged under his chin and shoulder hunched right up to keep it against his ear. His hands were full of threads that needed putting away and tools that needed disinfecting and he didn't dare look at the clock for fear that it would make him burst into very messy tears. "Straight platinum would just be a waste of money."
"Sounds good, but I'd like to hear you tell my client that," Aldis said, his exasperation coming through loud and clear. Jared could just imagine the faces he was making to go along with it. "She's always convinced that I'm chinsing out on her. Like I'm freaking cutting the good stuff to make a profit."
Jared fumbled a tray of cogs and bit back a curse when a handful clattered to the floor and scattered wildly. "Look just… just tell her that the best money can buy really is the blended plating. Say it's more expensive to refine precise blends than it is to make the pure stuff."
Aldis chuckled. "You and your silver tongue, man. You can spin anything, can't you?"
"Keeps me from wanting to strangle irritating people." The creak of leather drew Jared's attention to the exam chair and the person lying on it. "Gotta go, my client's waking up. You good?"
"Yeah, you're a lifesaver. Never would have even thought of using the copper blend. I'm taking you out for a drink this weekend. And don't even think of saying no!"
Jared smiled, glad Aldis couldn't see how harried the expression was. "I'll hold you to that. Bye, Aldis."
"Later days, Jar-pad!"
Jared's client made a confused noise deep in his throat, eyelashes fluttering. Jared chucked his phone at the countertop and tried to look at least a little bit like a qualified mender as he straightened his shirt and walked over. The spilled cogs would have to wait till later.
"How are you feeling, Mr. Sheppard?" he asked, as his client opened his eyes properly.
"Not sure where my arms went," Mr. Sheppard mumbled.
"That's just the last of the sedatives," Jared promised. "It'll be gone in a minute or so. Now, I just need to take your vitals, if that's okay?"
Mr. Sheppard managed some garbled form of assent, and Jared gave him a quick once-over to make sure everything was doing what it was supposed to. This was Mr. Sheppard's first appointment with Jared and, while it hadn't been a particularly intensive mending, Jared wasn't the type to leave anything to chance, especially with people whose insides he wasn't familiar with.
"Everything looks good," Jared said when he was done. "Your feelings will be a bit tender for a while, but that's normal. You think you can sit up?"
Looking considerably more aware with every moment, Mr. Sheppard nodded and levered himself into a sitting position, wincing only slightly at the pull on his stitches.
Jared walked Mr. Sheppard slowly through the aftercare instructions, both because it needed doing and because it gave the man some extra time to get his bearings. The knowledge of just how far behind he was running weighed heavily on Jared's shoulders, but he refused to rush. His clients deserved better than that.
Today had been one delay after another. Jared's very first appointment had been twenty minutes late thanks to the morning traffic. One of his consultations had gone on twice as long as he'd expected when the boy's parents got involved. Something that should have been a simple plating patch for another client turned into a full clockwork rebuild when Jared discovered that the wounds in her pulmonary artery had festered since her consultation. That one had pushed Jared back an hour and a half on top of his earlier hold-ups and so, although he'd skipped lunch, Jared was still scrambling to keep up. Adrianne had been on the phone all day, warning people that their appointments were going to be delayed.
When he was finished with the instructions, Jared gave Mr. Sheppard a hand down from the exam chair and walked with him out to the waiting room. He absolutely did not whimper at the sight of the half dozen people waiting for their appointments.
"I can take that, Jared," Adrianne said, reaching out to take the SHEPPARD, MARK file from him. She flashed a bright smile at Mr. Sheppard. "Let's get you settled up."
"Whatever you say, love," Mr. Sheppard said, leaning in with a little smirk that was far more attractive than it ought to have been.
Jared slumped against the desk for a moment while Adrianne dealt with the money stuff, trying to ignore the gurgle of his stomach.
"Breathe, boss," Adrianne advised, not looking over at him as she handed Mr. Sheppard his credit card back and wished him a good day.
"You're asking for a miracle, I do hope you realize," Jared said to her.
"Breathing's surprisingly overrated," Misha spoke up, from where he was lounging on the floor with his legs splayed wide and his back against the side of one of the chairs. Mr. Morgan, who was sat in said chair, didn't seem particularly bothered by his presence.
"I feel like astronauts might disagree with you, darling," Mr. Roché said. He was stretched languidly out on the far couch, just that little bit too close to Mrs. Ferris and her daughter. They looked to be pretty okay with this state of affairs. "And prostitutes."
"It's been like this for the last hour," Adrianne confided to Jared, when the room dissolved into a discussion of the relative value of breathing in different professions. "Just be glad that Miss McNiven was already gone when Misha arrived."
Jared winced. "That would not have gone well." His stomach rumbled again and Jared sighed. "Right now, I'm hoping that eating's overrated too."
Adrianne smiled at him. "Actually, I've got a surprise for you." She glanced at the wall clock and made a face. "Except he's late, the unhelpful-"
The door chose just that moment to swing open and Jared looked over to see Jensen standing there with a massive carry box in his arms. A cardboard tray holding two cups of coffee was balanced carefully on top.
"Jensen?" Jared asked, dumbfounded. He hadn't realized that Jensen even knew where his clinic was. "What are you doing here?"
"Hey, Jared. Special delivery," Jensen said, using one foot to shove the door wide enough to get in without dropping anything. "Ask the lady."
Jared looked at Adrianne.
"Figured everyone could use a pick-me up," she said, looking decidedly pleased with herself. "So I called Jensen and ordered some chocolate therapy."
"Since when do you do deliveries yourself?" Jared asked. "Isn't that what you have employees for?"
"Since it's a delivery for one my favourite customers who I haven't seen recently because he's actually been working for once." Jensen set the box down on the desk and lifted off the coffees so that Jared could remove the lid to reveal three tiers of Jensen's sinfully unhealthy whipped cupcakes. The divine smell of freshly baked goods assailed Jared's nose and he sighed happily.
"Marry me," he said without thinking about it, and fought the urge to flush when Jensen laughed.
"Sorry, Jay. I'd look terrible in a white dress." Jensen's tone was deceptively light and Jared wondered if the threat edging those words was as audible to everyone else in the room as it was to him. Menders tended to notice stuff like that.
"There's enough for everyone," Adrianne said to the room at large. "Thanks for being so patient with us."
"I'll put up with a lot of abuse for baked goods," Mr. Roché said, grinning. The room got to its feet en masse and Mr. Roché winked at Jensen as he sauntered over to claim a cupcake. "I do hope you realize that I'm going to love you forever now, darling."
"I'll always accept eternal adulation. Here," Jensen said to Adrianne, and handed her one of the coffee cups. "My treat. You too, Jared," he added, passing over the other one. "One of those ridiculous froofy things you like because you apparently need a regular sugar infusion to keep from spontaneously combusting or something."
"You're so good at making me happy," Jared said, and regretted it almost immediately; it rang a little too close to the truth for comfort.
He wasn't sure if he was relieved or disappointed that Jensen didn't even notice.
"You alright there, Jared?" Adrianne asked.
Jared nodded, focusing on inhaling his cupcake to give himself a few seconds to regain his equilibrium. "I am now that I'm not dying of starvation. So whose appointment am I late for now?"
Adrianne gestured with a frosting-tipped finger. "Mr. Roché's. Mr. Lehne opted to reschedule his appointment for another day, so after that it's Ms. Boecher, then Miss Ferris and finally Mr. Morgan."
"Don't you worry about me," Mr. Morgan said, around a mouthful of cupcake. "I am perfectly happy to be cheating on my diet instead of getting a consultation." He smiled at Jensen. "You work in a bakery?"
"I own a bakery," Jensen corrected, with a charming grin that Jared recognized. "The Cinnamon Star. On Wilson Street, just below King."
"Well," Mr. Morgan said, smiling wider. He looked Jensen up and down with open interest. "I might just have to stop by sometime, if all of your merchandise is so… decadent."
Mr. Morgan's tone was subtle but not that subtle, and Jared was entirely unsurprised when Jensen's smile went immediately wicked.
"Oh, I'm sure we've got something to suit your tastes," Jensen said. "Why don't I give you my number, make sure you get exactly what you're looking for."
"That sounds like a gr-"
"You smell like vanilla," Misha said to Jensen suddenly, leaning through their conversation with an earnest expression on his face.
"Ah," Jensen said, looking openly taken aback. Jared hid a smile in the rim of his cup; Misha tended to have that effect on people. "That's good, I guess?"
"It is most enjoyable," Misha confirmed. He reached into the box and picked up a second cupcake, then glanced at Jared with a raised eyebrow.
Jared waved him on. "Go for it. If I get stuck eating all of them, I won't be able to get out the door tonight."
"It's the shoulders," Misha said sagely. He lifted his hand - and the cupcake - to his brow in a sharp salute. "It is time I returned to my duties on the high streets. Those traffic cones aren't going to upend themselves."
"Definitely a design flaw," Adrianne said, grinning. She waved. "Bye, Misha."
Misha bowed to her. "Your Grace. Jared and minions. Farewell."
The woman with the blonde hair - Katherine Boecher, Jared assumed - looked up from her Blackberry. "He isn't here for an appointment?"
Jared tilted his head thoughtfully at her. Mrs. Boecher was here for an initial consultation and, though he'd not yet had a chance to talk to her, Jared definitely didn't like the unnatural stillness of her face. Between that and the fact that she'd been willing to sit in his waiting room indefinitely instead of rebooking, Jared could easily tell that there'd been some severe damage done to her heart in the recent past. His bet was the death of a loved one - there was a particular stiltedness to death loss that was hard to mistake - but he wasn't discounting betrayal either.
Jared made a mental note to look over her intake form after he'd finished Mr. Roché's work; he'd be able to tell easily once he took a look at her heart, but he preferred to be prepared.
"Misha just likes to drop in sometimes," Adrianne told Mrs. Boecher. "Apparently the building has positive energies."
Jared made short work of another cupcake and took a healthy slug of his coffee. He looked around. "Adrianne, where's the-"
A folder with ROCHÉ, SEBASTIAN written on it appeared in Adrianne's hand. "Got you covered, boss."
"You got chocolate on it," Jared felt compelled to tell her, and promptly ended up with icing on his sleeve when Adrianne smacked him. "Ready to go, Mr. Roché, or do you need to spend more time communing with the baked goods?"
"Mmm, as long as you can promise that there will be at least one left for me afterwards, I'm more than willing to let you do your magic."
"I'm sure Adrianne can handle that." Jared looked over at Jensen. "Thanks for the cupcakes," he said, trying not to sound too much like a fatuous fifteen year old. Luckily, he was too busy being distracted and behind schedule to sound properly ridiculous.
"You're the one paying for 'em." Jensen threw Jared a cheeky grin. "I should be thanking you for the free advertising."
"Then we'll consider ourselves mutually thanked." Jared noticed how close together Jensen and Mr. Morgan were standing, then jerked his eyes hurriedly away. He didn't want to know. "Whenever you're set, Mr. Roché," he said, coughing.
Mr. Roché turned to him with an exaggerated pout. "Really, darling, I've told you a thousand times to call me Sebastian."
"And I never listen," Jared said agreeably. "Come on. Let's see what needs mending today."
The rest of Jared's week was thankfully less mad than the beginning had been. A last-minute cancellation on Wednesday gave him the time to deal with some of the paperwork he'd been avoiding, which was good because Adrianne might actually have killed him if he'd left it much longer.
Adrianne snagged a date with the older sister of one of their clients, which Jared teased her about mercilessly. She put up with his needling almost gracefully, which was par for the course with them. After all, Adrianne couldn't expect to get away with all that blushing and twirling her hair and fluttering her eyelashes while Jared was around to see her do it.
Jared let her leave early on Saturday, because even he knew that the female ritual of getting ready to go out took at least five times longer than was really reasonable. He fired off a text on Sunday morning to see how it had gone, to which she responded with an entire row of smiley faces. Luckily, Jared was secure enough in his masculinity to admit that he spent the entire day looking forward to Monday morning when he'd be able to watch her be all infatuated and happy.
Only to have Adrianne stagger in looking gray-faced and weary in a way he'd never before seen.
"Adrianne?" he asked, striding across the room to meet her. "Christ, are you okay? What happened?"
The inevitable do I need to kill your date went unsaid, but Jared doubted that Adrianne needed to hear it to know that it was there.
Sure enough, she gave him a shadow of a smile and shook her head. "Easy there, Rambo. The date was fine. Amazing, actually."
Jared frowned. "Then… what's wrong?"
"You read the paper today?" Adrianne asked, which Jared had not been expecting.
His frown deepened. "No, why?"
With a heavy sigh, Adrianne shook out the newspaper she had tucked under one arm and handed it to him.
Heart Stealer Strikes Again! shouted the front page, the title sprawling across the newsprint in solid, inescapable black letters.
"Heart Stealer?" Jared asked. He looked up with a grin. "Sounds like the bad guy in a cheap horror movie."
Adrianne didn't look amused. "Keep reading."
Starting to feel a little unnerved by her mood, Jared returned his attention to the article.
It didn't take long to figure out why Adrianne was so adamant that he read it.
City police are under fire due to allegations that they have been withholding information from the public concerning five potentially linked murders that have taken place within the last eleven months, the first line read. The victims, whose names have not been released, died of blood loss after having their hearts removed; the hearts have not been recovered and sources say that the police are considering this the work of a serial killer.
"Jesus," Jared muttered. "A serial killer who cuts out people's hearts? Why the hell have the police been keeping this a secret?"
"To prevent public panic, probably." Adrianne sighed and propped her chin up on one hand. "Of course, now they're paying for it. This story's on the cover of every paper in the city - probably the whole state. People are totally going to be losing their jobs over this."
"Jesus," Jared said again. "I am totally walking you home from work every day until they catch this guy."
Adrianne looked somewhere between touched and exasperated. "I own a car, remember? You're the one with the hard-on for public transit."
"I could have a car if I wanted one," Jared said.
"I know you could, sweetie. But we have bigger things to worry about right now."
"Bigger than the fact that there's a crazy axe-murderer on the loose?"
"A problem for us. For the clinic," Adrianne said, when Jared continued to stare blankly at her. She gestured at the newspaper still creased under Jared's fingers. "Think about it for a second. Their hearts are missing. Not cut out and left there for shock value. Missing. And the police were here a couple of weeks ago accusing you of using human organics in your mending. That's not a coincidence, Jared."
It took Jared a moment to piece together what she was saying and, when he did, he felt his face pale. "I, you- that's… you think they think I'm a murderer?"
Adrianne nodded grimly. "Or buying human hearts from one, yeah."
"Me?!" It came out dangerously close to a squeak. "How could someone even think…? Seriously! It's insane! It's, it's slander! Or something! They can't do that!"
"I'm pretty sure they can," Adrianne said, almost gently.
The world seemed very far away all of a sudden. "This isn't happening," Jared said faintly.
He went to sit, missed the couch by a good half foot and ended up on the floor, legs splayed comically in front of him. Jared stared at a cat in a top hat that someone had drawn on the wall opposite, fighting the urge to giggle uncontrollably. If he started, he wasn't going to be able to stop.
"Hey." Adrianne went to her knees at Jared's side, putting one hand against his cheek and turning his face towards hers. "You said it yourself: there's nothing for them to find. It'll be fine."
"But what if it's not? What if we're being framed? Or the police need a scapegoat? Or-"
Adrianne's hand landed on Jared's mouth and he obligingly shut up. "Breathe, Jared," she advised, which was probably a good idea. Jared sucked in a large mouthful of air and let it out slowly.
"That's better," Adrianne said. She moved her hand and sat back on her heels. "You feel like getting off the floor yet?"
"Well you never let me lie on the couch," Jared said. It was a piss poor attempt at humour, but it did the trick; Jared could feel the heavy, hysterical tension draining out of the room and he took another deep breath, letting his heartbeat slow.
The tense line of Adrianne's shoulders eased as she rolled her eyes at him in an overdone show of exasperation. "Because lying on the floor is so much more professional. Up."
They both climbed to their feet and Jared forced himself to bring the newspaper with him so he could read the article properly later. Preferably in a few hours when it wasn't as likely to inspire a panic attack.
"Okay?" Adrianne asked.
Jared hesitated. "Is this… do we need to worry about this? Honestly."
Adrianne's expression was somber. "I don't know, Jared. I mean, we both know that they're not going to find anything wrong in our accounts, but if they're looking for suspects and they think we're suspicious…" She shrugged helplessly. "Without any evidence, the most they can do is keep a close eye on us, but-"
Adrianne trailed off, biting her lip nervously. The realization that he was making her even more upset by freaking out made guilt pang low in Jared's chest. He firmly told himself to get a grip; he wasn't helping either of them by acting this way.
"M'sorry, Addi. Didn't mean to lose it on you." He opened his arms. "Come here."
She practically dove into the offered hug, squeezing Jared so tightly that he feared she might actually rupture something. He folded himself around her, letting his head fall to her shoulder.
"What do we do?" Adrianne asked, the words whispered against Jared's collar.
"We let them watch us, if they want to," Jared said, shaky but firm. "And wait until they leave us alone."
"And if they don't?"
Jared shrugged with a nonchalance he didn't feel. "We'll tell 'em where to stick it. We've got a couple of lawyers on the books; I'm sure I can hire one of them to help us out. And if not," he added, in a deliberately light tone, "maybe Jensen will give us jobs at the bakery. I'll wash dishes and you can bake cookies."
Adrianne smiled. "Sounds like a plan," she said, but it was a long time before either of them felt ready to let go.
Despite their best efforts, Jared and Adrianne were both unsettled and out of sorts for the rest of the day, so much so that several of Jared's clients asked if everything was okay. Jared couldn't explain what the problem was - not unless he wanted to unintentionally start a rumour that would wreak havoc on his business - so he put it down to a stomach bug and donned a surgical mask for the rest of his appointments.
Somehow, they made it to the end of the day, at which point Adrianne announced her intention to call up some of her girlfriends for a night of red wine therapy and rom coms. She invited Jared to come with, if he wanted, though she clearly wasn't surprised by Jared's refusal. Gay or not, Jared wasn't exactly a fan of chick flicks.
"You sure you're going to be alright?" Adrianne asked, as she packed up to go.
Jared waved a hand. "Don't worry about me. I'll be fine."
Adrianne gave him a look that was almost equal parts fond, worried and exasperated. "Don't stay here all night," she warned.
"I have no idea what you're talking about."
"Uh huh." Adrianne planted a quick kiss on Jared's cheek. "I'll see you tomorrow, boss. And you'd better have gotten some sleep or there'll be hell to pay."
"Yes, ma'am," Jared said, just a little ruefully. She knew him too well, sometimes.
The thing was, everyone had different coping mechanisms for dealing with stress: alcohol, exercise, meditation, smoking, whatever. For Adrianne, it was wine and rom coms.
For Jared, it was organizing his mending supplies.
Jared locked the front door behind her, flicked off the waiting room lights and headed into the exam room to get started. Sorting his mending supplies was a gargantuan effort at the best of times - he was a hoarder, what could he say? - which made it easy for Jared to get lost in the rhythm of opening cupboards, emptying cupboards, tidying cupboards, refilling cupboards and moving on to new cupboards.
In the quiet of his clinic, Jared could let his furiously spinning mind slow down in time with the steady grip of his fingers as he rewound spools of thread, or the smooth glide of the cloth across metal plates and cogs. The hours ticked by unannounced until well past midnight. Jared didn't really notice.
A sudden, loud thump jolted Jared out of his reverie and he whirled towards the door, rattled and confused. The sound came again, and again, and Jared realized that it was someone banging on the clinic's front door, loudly enough to wake the dead.
He untangled himself from a coil of thick umber thread - stability and wholeness - and set it down on the closest surface, then headed out into the waiting room. The light from the exam room spilled out behind him and across the black floor, illuminating the edge of the reception desk, a stripe of rose-coloured carpet and the front door, where a familiar figure was pounding on the glass with one upraised fist.
"Misha?!" Jared said incredulously.
When he caught sight of Jared, Misha started hammering even more frantically, hard enough to make the lock rattle. A garbled approximation of Jared's name echoed mutedly through the glass.
Shaking his head, Jared walked over to the door and reached for the lock. "It's the middle of the night, Misha," he said, swinging open the door, "if you're high again I swear to G-ack!"
Misha's hand clamped down on Jared's arm and yanked; Jared went stumbling over the threshold and barely managed to keep from sprawling on his face when Misha started dragging him down the street.
"The hell are you doing?" Jared demanded, trying without success to squirm out of Misha's hold. He was stronger than he looked. "Misha, the door, I didn't-"
"Later," Misha said, sounding serious enough to bring Jared up short. Misha never sounded serious. "No time."
"But-" Jared started, but Misha clearly wasn't listening. They were halfway down the street by this point and Jared gave up with a sigh. It would be easier all around if he just did what Misha wanted and saved worrying about the unlocked door for when Misha finally released him.
The city was quiet and lifeless with the night and the clatter of their hurried steps against the pavement was gunshot loud in the dark. Misha hauled Jared grimly along and Jared blinked when he realized that he recognized the route they were taking.
"Jensen's bakery is just up h-augh!" Misha took a sharp turn down a dimly lit alley and nearly sent Jared crashing into a wall.
"Could you stop that?! Seriously," Jared said, as they made their way through the thickly sprawled shadows. "Would you just tell me what's going… on… "
A body. On the ground. Right in front of them.
Jared stumbled to a stop, both literally and figuratively.
"Don't just stand there," Misha said, tugging again on Jared's sleeve. "Help him!"
"He's alive?" Jared staggered to his knees at the guy's side, feeling wet warmth seeping across his jeans.
Blood, his brain told him unhelpfully. Jared fought down the rising panic in his throat.
"What should we…?" he asked, hands reaching out to not quite touch. The man was curled up on his side in the foetal position, face mashed into the floor and one arm sprawled limply to the side. The back of the shirt was pale and unstained but, even in the dim, Jared could see the creeping spread of dark blood around the curve of the man's ribs.
Misha dropped into a careful crouch beside Jared. "Help me turn him."
Between them, they managed to roll the man carefully onto his back. The body was slack and heavy, and Jared cringed at the wet, sucking sound the man's shirt made when it pulled away from the pavement. The man's head lolled back, the grasping light from the street providing just enough light for Jared to see-
Horrified shock punched Jared's breath out of his chest and he stared, incredulous, at the familiar planes of Jensen's face drawn slack and still. Blood was smeared in the corner of his mouth and was dripping, ever so slowly, down the length of his frighteningly pale cheek.
Almost despite himself, Jared found his eyes drawn to the bloody mess on Jensen's chest. A large portion of the left side of Jensen's shirt had been torn away; the remaining fabric was blood dark and stiff with it. Jensen's chest was rising and falling in slow, shallow breaths that darkened the stain on his shirt. Jared shifted closer, trying to see what was wrong, but it wasn't until he reached out a hand to push aside the clinging fabric that he realized that the hole in the shirt, the hole where all the blood was oozing from, was right over Jensen's heart.
"This is why I came to you," Misha said quietly. He sounded considerably calmer than Jared felt. "There was someone else here but they ran when they heard me coming. They took something; I couldn't see what."
"The heart stealer," Jared said, brain and mouth running away in tandem. "That killer who was in the paper. He must have attacked Jensen but-" Jared frowned. "But that doesn't make sense. If his heart was gone, Jensen would be d-d… you can't live without a heart. It's not possible! Dammit, I need to-" Jared pressed careful fingers against Jensen's blood-slicked skin and cringed when he felt the precise pair of incisions marring the flat surface of Jensen's chest. Whoever was responsible definitely knew their way around a scalpel. "Okay, that's not good." He went to pull back the skin so he could check the damage, but the ambient light in the alley was too faint to let him see what he was doing.
Jared made a wordless sound of frustration.
"Do you have," he started, then checked himself and fumbled into his pocket for his phone. "Here," he said, thrusting it into Misha's hand. "Hold that up."
Misha got with the program quickly, and Jared tilted his shoulder out of the way so that the bluish light of the display spilled over Jensen's chest. Swallowing hard, Jared gripped the torn skin again, trying to avoid putting his gloveless hands too close to Jensen's insides. Even with the help of his cell phone, the shadows didn't skitter far, but there was just enough light for Jared to be able to see when he drew away the skin and looked carefully inside.
The whole left side of Jensen's heart was missing. The rest was still beating.
A frisson of pure revulsion rolled down Jared's spine and he let go of Jensen's skin like it had burned him, flesh crawling at the sheer wrongness of a person with half a heart. "Holy Christ."
"Jared," Misha said, and Jared turned to him, sure that every one of his emotions was raw on his face. "You have to help him."
Jared stared at him, feeling lost and overwhelmed and terrified. "Misha, I… I don't know what to d-"
"If we leave him here, he's going to die," Misha said implacably. "We've got no time."
The faint slickness of blood coated the tips of Jared's fingers. The rise of Jensen's chest was dangerously slow and getting slower. They were in a dark alleyway with no light and God only knew what kind of grime piled in it and Jared didn't have anything on him besides his cell phone and a pocketful of change left over from lunch.
"Jared. He needs you."
Jared ran a shaky hand through his hair. "Shit, okay, we've got to get him back to my clinic. I can't do anything here. Can you get his legs?"
Misha nodded and they lifted Jensen carefully off the ground. He hung like so much dead weight in their arms, the hole in his chest and the blood on his shirt put on lurid display by the bow of his body.
"Try to keep him level," Jared said, grunting a little under the weight as he firmed his grip under Jensen's armpits. "We need his body temperature and heartbeat to stay as steady as possible."
Misha nodded, his mouth set in a thin line as they manouevered awkwardly out onto the street. The stillness that had unnerved Jared before was now a relief; he did not want to be caught walking around at dark o'clock in the morning with a probably homeless guy and a not quite dead body.
It was a slow process that was not at all helped by the fact that Jensen's body felt heavier with every step. Every time Jared made the mistake of looking down, he saw the bloody mess over Jensen's heart and had to swallow down the bile that rose up in his throat.
Eventually, Jared and Misha reached the clinic where they had to do an impressive juggling act to wrestle the damn door open without dropping Jensen on his head. Jared found himself eternally grateful that Misha hadn't given him the chance to lock the door before dragging him off.
Jared bypassed the light switch and bee-lined for the still-lit exam room.
"In the chair," he said and they staggered over to settle Jensen down.
"Now what?" Misha asked.
"I need to…" Jared scrubbed up in the sink, absently noting the swirl of red blood against the stainless steel. His rolled up his sleeves and donned a pair of gloves on autopilot before sitting down at Jensen's side and pulling the cart holding his tools in close. He picked up a scalpel and a pair of forceps without thinking too much about what was happening.
Every attempt to look up at Jensen's face made Jared's hands want to shake. Which he absolutely couldn't afford, considering that he was putting Jensen's life in them. He steeled himself against the impulse and focused on treating this like any other client or, better yet, like diagnostic exams back in college.
Jensen's skin was tacky with drying blood and Jared made a mental note to wipe some of it away before he started mending. Provided there was anything for him to mend.
Not thinking about it, Jared reminded himself. He took a deep breath and peeled open Jensen's chest, bracing himself.
One look was all Jared needed to figure out why Jensen's attacker had left part of his heart behind.
He wished it had been for any other reason in the world.
It had been broken once, Jensen's heart. The scar tissue was sickly yellow and brittle, threaded through with thick veins of granite black that paid mute evidence to the age and severity of the wound. Hairline fractures radiated out from the break, letting drops of blood bead up to the surface. Where Jared should have been able to see the complex flush of colours and emotions painted across beating muscle, all he found was dull, unrelieved gray that showed only the faintest hint that it even remembered how to feel. Jared was distantly aware that he was staring, horror and grief warring on his face.
How had he never realized that Jensen was hiding this kind of damage?
The average heart size of an adult human male was 300 to 350 grams, depending on the relative physical and emotional health of the individual. But Jensen's heart looked like it wouldn't have been much more than 200 grams even when it was whole; it was shriveled and limp, wasted thin in a way that made Jared feel abruptly sick to his stomach. Hearts weren't supposed to look like this. Hearts were supposed to be fierce, dynamic expressions of all the love and fear and hurt and joy inside a person. Not this… grim apathy.
Jensen should have had this mended years ago. There was no reason he couldn't have; Jared knew that Jensen's bakery was more than successful enough that he could afford a mending and, even if he couldn't, that was what the government plans were for. But Jensen had clearly opted neither to have the physical damage mended nor to attempt to come to terms with his feelings. And so the wound had festered and Jensen's heart had withered with it.
Well, Jared found himself thinking inanely, as self-loathing rose up sharp and fast inside him. Hearts were the one part of a person he was supposed to understand, dammit. That explains why he doesn't like dating.
"Well?" Misha asked and Jared started in surprise. He'd been so distracted by the damage that Jensen had inflicted on himself that he'd all but forgotten Misha was there.
"I, what?" he managed.
Misha looked at him evenly. "What will you do?"
"I-" Jared looked again at Jensen's poor, pitiful heart, weakly pulsing out the last of his life. It would never survive long enough for Jared to build something to sustain it and they'd be able to do no more for him at the hospital. People weren't meant to live with half a heart, let alone one as broken as Jensen's. It wasn't possible.
But Jared couldn't let Jensen die. He just couldn't.
Jared's own heart was pounding frantically in his chest, pumping blood hotly through his veins in a way that Jensen's probably hadn't in years since his heartbeat would have slowed over the years for want of a strong heart to keep it flowing. Jared had always taken good care of his heart and he'd never felt its strength quite so keenly as he did now when Jensen was dying of something that Jared's heart could have borne so much bett-
A thought - a dangerous, idiotic, propitious thought - coiled in the back of his brain, tempting him in the worst possible way. But Jared couldn't. It would be morally grey at best and he stood a very good chance of killing both of them in the process. He couldn't.
Jared looked at Jensen, at his pale, familiar face, at his bloody clothes, at the pulled back skin exposing the death sentence someone had carved out of his body. He thought about Jensen's smile and about the amazing fact that he still cared about what happened to the people in his life - sort of - even when his heart was in tatters.
And he realized that he'd already made his decision. God help him.
"Right, okay. Do you… you can stay, if you like," Jared said to Misha, who was still waiting, patient and placid. "Those couches are pretty comfortable."
Misha shook his head. "No need. I will go." His eyes shone with a creepy sort of intensity as he added, "I know you'll help him."
"I hope so," Jared said. His hands wanted to shake again. "I need to-"
"I'll see myself out." Misha gave an odd little bow. "Good luck."
Jared nodded, hardly listening any more. He headed for the cupboard where he kept the sterile needles and sedatives; he didn't like the idea of drugging Jensen when his heart rate was already so low, but the last thing either of them needed was him jerking awake while Jared was wrist deep in his chest.
A quick check of Jensen's frighteningly thready pulse gave Jared the cue for how much he needed and he gave Jensen the drug carefully, watching for any sign that it was doing more harm than good. Jensen didn't so much as twitch, which Jared took as both a good sign and a bad one.
"Come on, Jensen," he muttered. "You've got to give me a chance to fix this. Hang in there just a little bit longer, okay?"
Abandoning the empty syringe, Jared dove into his cupboards and started yanking, completely ignorant of where half the stuff ended up. After an eternity, he unearthed the small skein of gold thread that he'd tucked away for emergencies. Gold was the colour of purity, of miracles and divine intervention; Jared had never needed that more.
He hurried back to Jensen's side, already reaching for the scissors to cut loose the remains of Jensen's shirt. A few quick swipes with a medical sterilizer got rid of the worst of the blood and a local anesthesia numbed the skin around the incisions. Jensen didn't stir.
With shaking fingers, Jared unbuttoned his own shirt and stripped it off. He'd done minor mendings on himself many times before, so it wasn't as awkward as it could have been to give his chest the same sterilizer-anesthesia treatment and pull the mirror around to face him. He waited a few, painfully jittery minutes for the numbing agent to kick in, then picked up his widest scalpel and set blade to skin.
The edge sliced cleanly through skin and muscle and Jared forced himself to proceed carefully as he pulled the gap wider and pinned the loose skin out of the way. His heart lay steadily in his chest, still thumping harder than usual, but not so much that it would distract Jared from his work. It would begin to even out before long at any event - it always did when he was mending.
"Right then," Jared said. He glanced at Jensen's slack body and took a deep, fortifying breath. "Here goes."
It took nearly half an hour for Jared to cut his heart in half, cauterize the incision and extract the left side - carefully - from his chest. He felt the dull ache of loss the moment he pulled it free, but half of Jared's strong, healthy heart would manage much better on its own than Jensen's would. Jared could handle this.
It was beyond strange to be handling a beating heart instead of his cogs and plates, let alone something so large. Jared felt like he was holding a delicate, fluttering bird as he eased his heart into Jensen's chest and lined it up with the blackened edges of what remained of Jensen's. Jared threaded a silver needle - vitality and calm - on autopilot, all of his attention on where his stitches would need to fall to make the strongest bind possible.
Jared focused on the steady rhythm of prick, slide, pull as he stitched their hearts together, settling into the quiet place where the work was all he could see. The gold thread glimmered against dark flesh and Jared felt an absent sense of wonder at how smoothly it slipped in and out, obeying the command of his needle with powerful grace.
It could have been minutes or hours later when Jared made the last stitch and knotted the end of the thread, leaving a little extra hanging to giving the knot some room to stretch. The bloody needle went into the tray and Jared sat back, observing his work.
It was grotesque. Jared's half was a rich, fleshy red, healthy and hale and tinged at the edges with shy pink and unrequited purple. It all but dwarfed Jensen's half, which looked withered and pale in comparison. The gold thread glinted bright and strong between the two sides, holding them firmly together and stemming the trickle of blood.
Jared heaved a great breath, not sure whether he was relieved, pleased, appalled at himself or all of the above. A quick glance up the length of Jensen's body showed that he hadn't woken, but Jared could already see the colour returning to his sallow cheeks as the sluggish rhythm of his pulse started to gain momentum.
"Thank god," Jared said, slumping back in his chair like his strings had been cut. He'd need to sew Jensen up in a moment, and do his best to sterilize his chest cavity while he was at it, but he figured that he probably ought to deal with himself first.
Stripping off his gloves and donning a clean pair, Jared threaded a fresh needle and pulled the mirror back over to take a look at what he'd left of himself. His chest cavity looked distressingly empty with only half a heart in it, but Jared's pulse was still steady and his half heart didn't appear to be labouring any harder than it usually did. That would change in time, Jared knew, but for now it was in about as good shape as he could ask for.
Or it would be, once he stitched up the honking great wound he'd carved into it. And that would be the easiest thing he'd had to do all night.
Jared had sewn them both shut and managed to wash up and put away the majority of the supplies he'd tossed out of the cupboards by the time Jensen started stirring an hour or so later.
"Jensen?" Jared abandoned his work immediately and stood beside the exam chair, every nerve strung taut. "Jensen, can you hear me?"
Jensen's eyes fluttered open and he made a noise that sounded very much like 'warbelegahhh' as he winced against the brightness of the overhead light. His instinctive attempt to roll away made him jolt in startled pain and Jared reached out to bring him carefully onto his back again before he pulled the stitches.
"It's okay, Jensen," Jared said, in the calm, soothing tone of voice he used on his more distraught clients. "You're safe. Everything's fine."
Jensen blinked at him a few times and Jared could see awareness flooding back into those green, green eyes. "Jared?" he asked.
"Hi there," Jared said, too softly. He tried to cover it with a gently chiding grin. "About time you woke up."
Jensen made another muzzy, bewildered noise. "Wha's goin on?"
"You were attacked," Jared told him gently. "Do you remember anything?"
"I… someone… ripped my heart out?" Jensen tried, like he wasn't sure that was anything close to the right answer. He craned his neck to look past Jared and his entire body went taut when he registered where he was. "Oh."
Jared managed an almost-smile. "Yeah."
"Not a dream, then."
"I'm afraid not. Misha found you in an alley not far from the bakery."
Jensen's nose wrinkled in confusion. "Misha?"
"You met him here last week, remember? When you came by with those cupcakes? Dark hair, more than a little scruffy. Said you smelled like vanilla."
"The homeless guy?"
"Yes. Well, probably." Jared shrugged, a little helplessly. "To be honest, I've never been quite sure whether he's homeless or just really eccentric."
Jensen made a dismissive sound. "So how did I get here?"
"Misha came and got me and we carried you back." This smile came a little easier. "You're damn lucky I was here so late."
"So that's it then?" Jensen asked, in a tone of voice that Jared couldn't read at all. His expression was flat, uncurious. "I'm officially heartless?"
"What? No! That's not… your heart it kind of… split when they tried to take it," Jared said, carefully skirting around why, exactly, that had happened. Somehow, he doubted very much that Jensen would be happy to hear either a lecture on proper heart care and the lack thereof, or a monologue on how guilty Jared felt for not realizing what Jensen was going through. "You still have half of it."
"Oh, and that's so much better."
"Hey," Jared said. "It kept you alive long enough for us to get you here. Even I couldn't have done anything if you'd lost the entire thing."
"You make it sound like a set of car keys." Jensen struggled into a sitting position and Jared's hands hovered awkwardly, ready to help if Jensen needed it but hesitant to touch without an invitation. Inside Jared's chest, the thump of half his heart was hollow and worried.
Jared had made no attempt whatsoever to salvage Jensen's shirt and had instead draped a blanket over him to keep him warm while he slept. When Jensen sat up, the blanket slipped down towards Jensen's lap and put the meticulous lines of red stitches on his chest on open display.
Jensen looked down at himself, fingers ghosting close to the stitches without quite touching. "You did this?" he asked, not really a question.
Jared nodded. "Yeah." His voice was thicker than he would have liked. He coughed and tried again. "Yeah, I did."
"Red?" Jensen asked, glancing up at Jared. "What's that do?"
"Strength and passion," Jared told him.
Jensen's lips quirked. "Passion, huh? Guess I could always use more of that."
You don't know the half of it, Jared thought. He shied away from the memory and threw a critical glance over Jensen's hunched form and still-haggard face. "How do you feel?"
"Like I got my heart ripped out?" Jensen tried, though the snark was lackluster at best. He chewed on his lower lip, eyes distant. "I feel good," he decided finally.
Jared bit back a sigh. "Jensen-"
"What do you want me to say, Jared?" Jensen demanded, sounding peevish. "I'm not dead and don't feel like I'm going to become dead any time soon. Is that good enough?"
"No irregular heartbeat?" Jared asked. "Trouble breathing? Dulled emotions? Desire to eschew human contact for the rest of your life?"
"No more than usual," Jensen said and Jared let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. "So what did you do?" Jensen asked. "Missing bits of a heart seems like serious business. Not as bad as it looked?"
"Oh, it was plenty bad." Jared turned back to putting his supplies away, deliberately focusing on anything that wasn't Jensen's face. "Luckily, I am very good at my job."
"So I've heard." Jensen flattened an experimental hand across his chest, no doubt tracking the steady thud of his freshly mended heart. "So am I part metal now? I hope you didn't use the good stuff - not sure I can afford your going rate."
"Not exactly," Jared evaded and it was an act of will not to cringe at how shifty he sounded. A practiced liar, Jared was not.
It was a sad testament to how much attention he paid to Jensen that he could actually hear the man frowning at him. "Not exactly metal or not exactly expensive?"
Jared shrugged with a casualness he didn't feel, still focusing on slotting things onto the shelf. "Does it matter? I'm not about to charge you. I do expect a damn good discount at the bakery from here on out, though. Payment in trade and all that."
There was silence behind him.
"Jared," Jensen said slowly, and Jared turned around to see Jensen staring at him with a dangerously watchful expression on his face. "What did you do?"
"What have you done?" Jensen demanded, louder. He flailed his way off the exam chair before Jared could stop him. His legs buckled immediately, too weak after a night full of bodily trauma and sedatives to support him, and he pitched forward with a sharp, startled curse.
Jared was across the room in an instant; he caught Jensen under the armpits and hauled back, fighting to keep them both on their feet. Pain lanced across his chest as the strain pulled on his fresh stitches and Jared sucked in a quick, distressed breath before he could stop himself.
Jensen's eyes widened, in sudden, startled realization. A heartbeat of silence fell between them that Jared didn't like at all. Their faces were far too close together for Jared's peace of mind and he could feel the pebbled heat of Jensen's skin against his palms. And then Jensen's fingers were attacking the buttons on Jared's shirt and Jared panicked.
"Jensen, wait-" he tried, voice climbing sharply up the registers. He tried to twist away but Jensen followed doggedly afterwards, leaning against him in a way that forced Jared to stay put or let Jensen fall. "It's not what you-"
But it was too late.
Jared's shirt fell open with a surrendering shush of fabric and Jensen's entire body stiffened when he saw the neat rows of red stitches on Jared's chest, the mirror to Jensen's own. Jensen lifted a hand, fingers questing oh-so-lightly over the puckered skin, and Jared flinched involuntarily at the touch. Jensen jerked back like he'd been burnt.
"Jared," he breathed, soft and horrified. "What have you done?"
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