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Jensen's tending Swooptail when he first meets Jared. The kid comes up through the back path, not walking like he's sneaking in so much as he doesn't realize there's a front gate he could be using. He's tall and gangly, body a little taller than his brain's caught up with. A little old to be a recruit. Of course, a recruit would come in the front gate, too.

And then Jensen notices the hatchling, and all other thoughts leave his head. He grabs his knife from his boot and sprints over, ready for a fight. "What the hell did you do?"

"Nothing!" says the kid, about to throw his arms up, except he has the small dragon in them, so it just comes out as a twitch. "I found him," he continues. "I heard noises, like--not quite screams? I ran over and I found him, there was a panther attacking him."

"And you killed it?"

"It ran when it heard me. I wrapped him up the best I could," he continues. Jensen sees it now, the scraps of cloth wound around the hatchling, tight and surprisingly clean. "I'm studying to be a healer," he adds. "In my village." But from the way he's cradling the dragon, the care and affection Jensen can feel, he's pretty sure healer wasn't the kid's first choice.

"You did a good job," Jensen says, with an encouraging smile. "Here, let me--" he starts, reaching out for the hatchling, but the dragon, weak as it is, hisses and burrows into the kid's chest. "Or not," he says. "Come on, you need to hold him while we check him out."

"Me?"

"He likes you," Jensen says, with a shrug. "It happens sometimes. Especially when the dragon is weak. They pick people they know will take care of them."

The kid's brow furrows. "Take care of him?"

"Let's get him patched up first. Then we'll talk."

It turns out the dragon is a she, and, as Jensen predicted, she doesn't want to leave her new human. The kid is smart and quick, good with adapting the knowledge from his human apprenticeship to dragon care, and they've got the wounds cleaned, sterilized, and re-bandaged in no time.

"So, I'm Jensen," he says. He's rigged up a sling so the hatchling can rest against the kid's chest. "You want something to drink?"

"Water would be great. And I'm Jared."

"Great," says Jensen. "Nice to meet you. How do you feel about being a dragon rider?"

Jared splutters for a good few minutes. "What?" he finally manages.

Jensen hides a smile getting the water. "She's bonded with you; she's not going to take to anyone else. I guess you don't have to ride her, but she's going to be large, I'm pretty sure. It would be a waste to just keep her as a companion."

"But I--" he works his jaw helplessly. "I'm training. Already. To be a healer. They wouldn't--"

"They wouldn't let you apprentice with the dragon riders," Jensen supplies. "Did you not make it to recruitment, or...?"

"No," says Jared, apparently not surprised that Jensen figured out he'd tried for the riders. "My father didn't let me try out. Our village healer is old and I was the only one who could be apprenticed to him. I even started my training early."

"How many years has it been?"

"Four," says Jared. "I have three more to go."

Jensen nods. "And how far is the village?"

"Oh." He sounds confused. "Um. It's a half an hour's walk. Very close."

Jensen clucks his tongue. "Fourth year of apprenticeship, you're not training every day, right?"

"Not every day, no."

"Well, I bet we could work something out. A dragon can be very useful, for a healer."

Jensen wants to tell himself he's not doing it for Jared--the kid's a stranger, after all, and the dragon picked him, it's not charity--but when he sees the kid's brilliant smile, he can't help mirroring it and feeling all lit up inside.

*

Jensen doesn't do training, so he isn't planning on seeing Jared much. He helps get the scheduling sorted out, working around Jared's healer duties, and then disengages. It's not like he knows any of the other recruits particularly well, so why would Jared be an exception?

But then, after his first day, Jared finds Jensen.

"So, what is it you do, exactly?"

"Take care of the dragons who can't fly for whatever reason," Jensen says, glancing over. Jared's new dragon is perched on his shoulder, looking healthy and happy.

"You don't go flying?"

Jensen gives him a tight smile and pulls up the hem of his trousers; the wooden leg isn't a shock to Jensen anymore, not like it was, but Jared would have no reason to know. His face doesn't register surprise, though. He's a healer, he's probably seen worse. "I can't fly either."

"That sucks," says Jared, but it's not the kind of pity Jensen's used to hearing. He looks up sharply to see Jared's sheepish smile. "I haven't even flown yet and I can't imagine losing it."

Jensen's smile relaxes. "Well, I've still got the dragons," he says, rubbing Swooptail's muzzle. "And we'll sometimes go out for short trips, just to check if everything's working properly. I'm not unhappy or anything."

"Can I ask what happened?"

Jensen smiles as Swooptail butts up against him. "I found him, the same as you found yours," he says, scratching the dragon's scales. "He picked me. I was already in training, though." He licks his lips. "We got word from one of the towns, they needed help evacuating in a flood. We got that done with no trouble, but we were stuck in a storm afterward. Crash-landed into some trees." He smiles at his dragon. "But we lived, so I don't have any complaints."

"How long ago?"

"A little over a year," says Jensen. "He might still fly again. Dragons recover well." Swooptail butts him again, and Jensen laughs. "Obviously he wouldn't go into the air without me, though." He smiles at Jared. "Have you named yours yet?"

"Swifttalon," says Jared, scratching under her chin.

"Awesome. I'm glad everything worked out."

"Me too. It'll be pretty busy for a few years, but--so worth it," he adds, flashing Jensen another smile. "Even if I might not sleep much."

"Sleep is overrated," Jensen says. "At least when you're young. Old folks like me, we need our rest."

Jared snorts. "Sure you do, old man." He makes a show of looking around, like he's taking everything in. "So, do you need any help?" he asks, overly casual.

Jensen raises his eyebrows. "Didn't you just finish telling me how busy you are?"

"Yeah. But I want to help."

Jensen shrugs. "Then, yeah, sure. I can always use help changing the hay."

Jared keeps coming back after that. Some days when he's not even on training he'll stop by and help Jensen out. And, Jensen notices, he gets better and better at timing it so he shows up toward the end of the day, when having another set of hands really helps, and then he just sticks around to spend time with Jensen.

It's the opposite of subtle, but Jensen still doesn't quite know how to react. It's been a long time since anyone was so earnestly interested in him, and he hasn't tried to start anything with anyone since his injury. And Jared feels like a different kind of person, the kind who wants a life. Jensen usually spends the night and moves on, just because he's never met anyone who made him want to linger. Jared doesn't seem like the type who's looking for a fun night. He would have just asked.

Jensen doesn't know how to be that person, so he doesn't do anything, just lets Jared keep coming around, brightening his life.

So it's not surprising that Jared loses his patience before Jensen gets his act together.

"Am I barking up the wrong tree here?" he asks, after Jensen brings him some ale. They're in Jensen's room instead of the common room; Jensen pretends it's because it's so crowded, but he mostly likes keeping Jared to himself. "Because you can tell me. I won't stop coming by, I'll just stop hoping."

Jensen wets his lips, but when he tries to speak, words don't come out.

"You know what I mean," Jared says, gently.

"Yeah," he manages. "I know." He licks his lips and says, "You know you could do a lot better than me, right?" It wasn't exactly what he was planning--it sounds pretty weak, honestly. Jared must think so too, because he just raises his eyebrows. "I'm just saying, I'm old--"

"I asked around, you're four years older than me, that doesn't count," Jared interjects. "You're far from old, stop fishing for compliments."

"Older," he corrects. "I'm crippled--"

"Don't even start, I don't care about that. Uh, not in terms of--not for me," he clarifies. "I care that it probably hurts, and it keeps you grounded, but it doesn't make you bad for me, so don't say that." Jared grins. "You can not like me, but you don't get to pretend that I don't like you."

"I like you," Jensen says. "You're not barking up the wrong tree. It's just been a while since I tried to do anything serious." He smiles wryly. "I've never tried to do anything serious, if I'm honest."

"And we'd be serious, huh?" asks Jared.

"You seem like the serious type."

Jared laughs softly. "I guess I probably am. I don't really know. This is the first time I've tried to be serious about someone too."

"And you picked me, huh?"

"What can I say?" asks Jared. "I'm like the dragons. I see the human I like and I know."

Jensen laughs. "I guess if that's what's happening I shouldn't try to talk you out of it, huh? I've seen people try to get dragons to change riders, it never ends well."

Jared grins. "I'd bite your other leg off," he says.

"Well, now I'd like to see that," Jensen teases. "It'd take you a while."

"Stubborn." Jared licks his lips, leans in, slow, like he's still not sure. Still not convinced Jensen won't bolt or turn him down.

So Jensen closes the distance himself, presses his lips against Jared's and smiles into his surprised gasp, deepens it and pulls him close.

He's expecting it to be slow and sweet, because that's how Jared's been this whole time, slow and sweet, earnest and a little nervous. But apparently once the kissing starts, all of his hesitation melts away, and Jared is kissing him with more enthusiasm than anyone else has in his entire life. He pulls Jensen into his lap, and Jensen can feel the new muscle he's getting from his riding, the ways his lanky form is filling out. He's going to keep feeling that, going to get to experience Jared changing, and the idea makes him feel all lit up inside.

"I wouldn't take just one night," Jared says, between kisses. "I'd keep coming back. You couldn't get rid of me."

"If I didn't like you, that would be creepy," Jensen notes. He tugs Jared's shirt off. "How old are you again? Am I creepy?"

"I'm twenty," says Jared, rolling his eyes. "You're twenty-four. No one is creepy. Shut up."

"Shutting up."

*

It's a few more weeks before Jared says, "It's really a pain, coming out here," as they're cleaning out the stalls.

Jensen raises his eyebrows. "I'm so sorry we're inconveniencing you with our giving you a dragon and training you to ride it."

"You didn't give me a dragon. If anything, I gave you a dragon."

"Point," Jensen concedes. "You're dropping out? I thought you liked it here."

"Oh, I do," he says. "There's a lot to like. I'm just not getting much sleep, having to go back to my village every night. I'm here more than there, you know."

"I think we have some free rooms," Jensen says absently. "They'd be happy to give you one, you're a rider, you're entitled."

Jared huffs out a laugh. "Jensen. Why would I want one of the empty rooms?"

"So you can sleep here," he says, slowly. "That's what we were talking about, righ--ow!" He scowls; Swifttalon nipped him. "What was that for?"

"You have a room," Jared says. "You know very well I fit in your bed. Why would I want to leave it and go to my own? It would be cold."

"Oh," says Jensen. "Oh." He flushes. "I should have picked up on that, shouldn't I."

"You should have," Jared agrees. The cheer in his voice rings a little false, and Jensen realizes he hasn't answered.

"I don't really know if my bed is quite big enough," he can't help teasing. "You're quite large, and you just keep growing." He grins. "But I could find a new one. One that would fit you."

Jared's smile is still the best thing Jensen's ever seen. "If it's not too much trouble," he says, trying to play it cool.

"Nah," says Jensen. "Just the right amount of trouble."