The books themselves smell of book, that indefinable, instantly recognizable mixture of leather and rendered size and lampblack print, and Jensen's nostrils flare at the taste of it against the back of his throat. He has to look away for a second, breathing lightly: he's never forgotten nor forgiven himself the charred pages of Sunderson's A Treatise In Favour of The Education of the Unfranchised. When he looks back, his hands are already fastened around the first volume, his fingers inching under the calfskin of the cover to the smooth, uncut paper underneath.
After the first few long, drawn-out and travel-worn exchanges, Padalecki's had learned his preferences. Seventy years later, and Jensen can guarantee that while he may not know beforehand exactly what they've sent, he'll find the books useful, challenging, or beautiful. It's provident to keep a sharp eye on what happens below the wooded slopes of his mountain, and Padalecki - his son - his grandson - sends treatises and pamphlets on politics both within the country and without. He sends explorers' diaries and inventers' patents, catalogs of art exhibitions and magazines of fashions at which Jensen can only marvel, amused. He sends almanacs, periodicals and scholarly journals - the Metallurgist's Journal, the Alchemist's, the Purgatorial Papers (bunch of charlatans) and the Annals Draconis. He sends the University magazine, to which Jensen has subscribed for each of his seven degrees, and the Beltane Quarterly, because Jensen would appreciate the warning if the Druids ever do succeed in any branch of thaumatology.
On this occasion, the parcel contains An Explanation with Illustrations on the New Arts Of Glass Blowing, Letters of Engelbert XIV, three volumes of A Short History of the Trade Routes Between Tashkent and Smyrna, Together With Botanical and Geological Illustrations and Hester Hume, which appears to be the tale of an improbably endowed heiress told in three hundred pages of rhyming stanza. Along with various newspapers and broadsheets, and a couple of scurrilous cartoons - has the University Magister really become quite so thin? - the parcel also includes a note.
Jensen unfolds it with care. Across the page, a vividly green dragon spouts orange flame. Its eyes are an improbable blue, its tail oddly kinked, and there appear to be three claws on one hind foot and four on the other. Across the bottom of the page, an unsteady hand has written: Jared Padalecki, age 6.
Smiling, Jensen smooths out the paper and pins it up above his desk, where it joins thirteen previous efforts. The youngest Padalecki's handwriting is definitely improving, although his grasp of anatomy could be better. Jensen picks up his pen.
Master Padalecki, he writes. I am sending you a copy of Milthorpe's Bestiary, perusal of which should assist in further efforts....
Would you be so kind as to ask your father if the annual edition of Annals Draconis was included in the last delivery? Although it appears to be missing, I am reluctant to accuse my courier if the printers have once again been slow.
On a different matter, I cannot help but notice the omission of Annals Draconis in the last four deliveries. Has the editorial committee run into difficulties with the printer again? I would be much obliged if you could ascertain for me the current state of affairs. Should difficulties prove monetary....
The drawings you sent with your last letter were most intriguing. From your footnotes, I gather you and your father are now sharing your house with two kittens, three dogs (my compliments to Sooty for his forbearance), a koi carp and a peacock. Estimable as your protective inclinations are, I am convinced that the carp cannot be content within the confines of a bathtub. The fish are hardy, and perfectly capable of surviving the winter if deep water is found. I would suggest the bathing pool beyond the first set of rapids. Do not fear the fishermen: carp are intelligent creatures.
I am surprised your neighbors have not yet throttled the peacock. I would suggest an isolated monastery. The Levictine order do not consume creatures either feathered or scaled.
I was sorry to hear that the citation of Milthorpe's Bestiary was struck from your last paper. The man was incapable of recognizing a dangerous beast when he saw one, but his diagrams were largely taken from life and his conclusions meticulous. Nonetheless, given that your place at University is not yet certain, I begin to feel you should choose your references carefully.
I fear I may have been too liberal in some of the volumes sent, but I had not realized the extent of the change in emphasis within the academic structure. Jared, take care. Now is not the moment to be labeled radical. The time for that is after you have won your scholarship.
On a related subject, I would certainly recommend a Smyrnian white over a Terebithian red. The high tannin content of the latter, as you have undoubtedly discovered, leads to a most unpleasant awakening. Should you wish to govern your tongue in public, however, a diet of small beer will not fail you. Pray do remember that you are as yet underage, and do not embarrass your estimable father.
Jared. It has been two years since -
Jared, I am concerned -
Crumpled, charred, still smoking, the third unfinished letter sits on Jensen's desk and stares back at him. "Damn the boy," he mutters. "He's busy with his studies. He has friends of his own age. He's married. He's old enough." But Jensen's fingernails, hardening, score into the arms on his chair and a thin trail of smoke spirals to the ceiling, elegantly ringing both the stuffed albatross and winged figurehead hanging from the rafters.
He knows better than this. Humans live such temporary lives. Paper, for all its fragility, is longer lived than the most robust of scholars. On his bookshelves he has books nearly as old as himself: one or two of the scrolls, cushioned in their cedar boxes, may even be older. Jared's green dragon, carefully framed and propped against Jensen's writing case, will outlive the artist.
Jared Padalecki, age 6
He's twenty-two now, Jensen's boy. If all has gone well, he'll graduate this year, standing in the Great Hall of the University where Jensen has stood before him, head bared before the Magister, cap in hand. Jensen had been there when that hall was built.
If he is anything like his grandfather, the boy will be tall. But Jensen has never before thought to ask. He could be fair, dark, slender or muscled: he could have his grandmother's eyes. He has his grandfather's curiosity, the bright, quicksilver mind that challenges Jensen's own and has made watching the youngest Padalecki grow a pleasure. It's little enough Jensen has done, sent some books, given the boy, he hopes, a span of tolerance beyond the strictures of the University. Jared's not his responsibility.
It's nearly ninety years since he had last stood in the Great Hall, long enough for everyone who had known him then to be dead and gone. And it's Spring. Spring has always itched at Jensen's wings, at the skin between his shoulderblades and the beds of his fingernails. Spring is when Jensen looks down from lazy drifting glides around his mountain and remembers the taste of salt spray and the rush of a sea wind under his wings, what it felt like to hold an army poised in the palm of his hand and the moment, the first time, when he and Klaus had sent electricity crackling from pole to pole. In Spring, sometimes, he finds himself at the mouth of his cave singing to the moon, restless, his tail twitching and his wings mantled.
There's a knapsack hanging on the study wall, the straps strengthened for flight and the leather still oiled and supple. He has a pair of good boots, some clean shirts, a comb, a toothbrush. Enough gold to buy himself a kingdom, should he wish. It's six weeks, by horse, from the city to his mountain.
He can fly the distance in two days. He does.
If anything, the city makes him more determined to find the youngest Padalecki. It's too easy to lose things here: possessions, friends, oneself. He can see the floundering, washed up against doorways and in the corners of alleys, dressed in rags, begging.
There are no beggars in the street where the Padalecki family live and work. It's not the friendly, lively street Jensen remembers, with the printers and the cartoonists and the bookbinders. The shops have changed. They're taller, haughtier: the shop fronts are closed and the windows blind. Doorways have uniformed doormen, bowing inside cloaked women wrapped in velvet and furs. Only the Padalecki shop remains the same, with its bow windows and red-painted front door. Seeing it, Jensen breathes a sigh of relief that hisses dangerously close to heat, and quickens his step. He'll walk inside, and the young Padalecki will be behind the counter, maybe with a sweet girl at his side, perhaps with his first - second - child in a cradle. He'll have left the University with no regrets. Jensen will peer down at his fourth Padalecki, maybe this time a girl with her great-grandmother's slanted, sharp eyes, and know that in a year or so there will be a parcel with a blotched, colorful drawing -
The door is not just closed but bolted. The windows are shuttered. The sign hangs drunkenly askew from its cast iron bracket. The two men by the door are not customers. The uniform is new, but the stance unmistakable. They're guards.
Before he can be noticed, Jensen moves back into the shadow of a gilded wooden perfume bottle the size of a barrel. Florenzo's is renowned across the city for the sweet smell of his fragrances, and also the size of his ego, if the advertising's true: Jensen, pressed against painted fluting, can hide most of himself in comfort. He watches, as a couple of students argue at the bookshop's door, and are turned disbelieving away: as an elderly, thin woman in battered robes tries to argue her way inside and is escorted down the street still protesting.
"Magister's orders," he hears the guard say, bored and - doesn't she realize? - consequently dangerous.
"But Bulcher's commentaries!" she says. "His references -"
"Try the library," the guard says. "Don't come back here."
She's gone, hustled up the street.
"You were looking for Padalecki's," a woman says quietly, at Jensen's elbow.
He turns around slowly. Her voice is hardly more than a whisper. She's not looking at him. But she's tall, beautifully groomed, uniformed: she has to work on this street.
"Are you a friend?" he asks, equally quiet. "What happened?"
"You're new here? The usual. A couple of raids. Some outstanding debts. The boy struggled, after his father died. By the time he got back after the court case, the Magister's seal was already on the door. That was two days ago."
Jensen has to breathe deeply, once, twice, against the urge to spread his wings and rake out his claws. It's a story he's heard before. But not here, not in this city, not in his University. Not happening to his own Jared, the child who sent him dragons, the man whose happiness and curiosity made his letters so very precious.
"Where is he?"
"You're not the only one looking," she says. She slants him a sideways glance, takes in the good linen of his shirt and the sturdy, workingman's leather of his boots. He's not wearing his scholar's cap, but the ink stains on his fingers are engrained. "He used to drink at the Blind Unicorn," she says, and Jensen knows he's earned a moment's trust.
"Thank you," he says.
It's a student tavern, crammed down in the river quarter along with the cheap hostels and the street vendors' handcarts and the whores. Noise spills out onto the street from its open doors, and the barroom is crowded with young men and women in scholar's robes, tankards in hand. The place smells of cheap spiced wine and thin city-brewed beer, and Jensen breathes in the scent and sound of the place, because the atmosphere is as familiar to him as the inkstains on his fingers and it's the first time he feels as if the city's welcomed him home. Even the barstaff, friendly and overworked, take the time to listen to him before they shake their heads. They know Jared. They know him well, they like him, and Jensen learns that the youngest Padalecki is a smiling, good-natured giant, the kind of man who'll clear tables and walk a barmaid home at the end of the night out of nothing but friendliness. He's given away the shirt off his back, brought the server proofs for his dissertation, has time to listen to other people's stories and lend a helping hand. But after the court case, they've heard nothing.
Nevertheless it's the only lead he has and he sits by the fire for most of the evening, listening to the students discuss their courses and lecturers, just as he had done so many years before, so often. The complaints could be his own, but the courses are not. The University's become hidebound. Theology clings to the edges of the syllabus, strictly orthodox. Magic has gone. Geography confines itself to the known world. Political theory is about procedures of governance, not changing the world. Students pushing beyond the remit of their lecturers are discouraged, and unsupervised personal study is frowned upon. It seems to Jensen, listening, that all the excitement of the University in its youth has faded to a bland, self-perpetuating conformity, and he cannot help wondering how the Jared of the vivid drawings and bright mind felt about his professors.
And. He doesn't like Jared's... he's not going to say friends. There's a group in the corner one of the barstaff points him towards, men and women who studied with Jared at the University. They're loud, brightly dressed. "The bookseller's son?" one of them says, and laughs. "Who cares?" "He's the one who got thrown out," another adds, with a gloating curiosity. "Isn't he the one who wore his grandfather's robe?" a women mocks. "He's nothing. He should never have been at the University. Poor boys and charity girls. Waste of space."
Jensen says quietly, "Is that what they teach you?" He's lost any chance of getting an honest answer. He doesn't care. He can't imagine the man he knows from Jared's letters friends with this privileged, scornful group. It's then that he realizes that it's only the accents of the Old Town he hears, that these students spend freely and carelessly, that their robes are silk and velvet and their thoughts bounded by the constraints of their upbringing. Inasmuch as the University he knew expanded the horizons of the poor, so too it used to challenge the rich. Not so now.
But he stays until the last student leaves, although frustration tightens his shoulders and claws his hands around the wine glass. It's the only lead he has on Jared, and it's going nowhere. The boy's vanished into the City, and here Jensen can't track him by scent, can't glide over the rooftops and hunt him down. His wings are useless. He's reliant on his wit, his human resources, his intuition, and none of them are serving him well. Tomorrow... Jensen glares up at the moon, full, bright, mocking. Tomorrow he'll try the University itself, see if the registration officer has an address, trace Jared's steps through the halls and libraries he himself knows so well.
Tonight, his feet have taken him back to the city wall, the dividing line between rich and poor. The sentries, motionless and suspicious, watch him pass, and the streets are almost deserted. The shops are shuttered, walled against the darkness, and Jensen's footsteps are loud on the cobblestones. The night feels uneasy and hostile, fleeting shadows against glass-shard topped walls, flickers of candlelight behind barred windows. When he rounds the corner and looks at what used to be the bookshop, he's not surprised to see the guards still standing at the door.
There used to be a back entrance, down the alleyway, hidden under the branches of the yew tree that still stands in the yard. Jensen makes himself step lightly, clings to the shadow of the walls, and eases himself around the side of the house. Ivy falls over the edges of the yard wall, the leaves gleaming softly in moonlight, and the door is still in place. The wood's old now, soft and splintering under his fingers, but the latch is freshly oiled and smooth. So freshly oiled Jensen's fingertips are damp.
He stops then. There'd been a half-thought impulse in his mind, something about checking the house, but if the smell on his fingertips reads truth he's not the only intruder tonight. The gate's quiet, eased open. The house is silent, no lights showing in the windows, but Jensen's looking now, and there's a shadow moving where no shadow should be.
Supporting the upper story is a lintel that runs under the windows, and on it is the shape of a man. Fifteen feet above the ground. Pure curiosity holds Jensen silent, despite the frustration of knowing he can't investigate the house himself, not with a thief already in residence. But the man he's watching doesn't have the casual ease of a burglar. He moves stiffly, shuffling, and his hands clutch at the stone. It takes him far too long to open a window, and Jensen's holding his breath as the figure eases itself inside the house. Absurdly, he feels protective, concerned. He should, he supposes, alert the guards. He doesn't. He waits, hand on the gate, and he's surprised at how urgently he wants to see the man safely on the ground. The guards are armed and the drop's not slight.
When the man climbs back out of the window he's cradling a box the size of a couple of books. It's obvious he hasn't thought about how he's going to retreat with it in his hands. There's a moment when Jensen thinks he thinks about throwing it down, when he hesitates and decides it's impossible. Jensen wouldn't either. Instead, slowly, carefully, the man inches along the lintel to the point where the corner guttering leads to the roof. He must have climbed up there, where the braces form an uneven ladder. Going down is far more difficult, and Jensen's thief shelters the box under one hand, clinging to the gutter with the other. There's a moment when something creaks, when he looks down. He freezes. His hand scrabbles against the stone. Jensen wills him to hold on, catching his breath.
Slowly, so slowly the arc of it is almost beautiful, the guttering peels away from the wall and collapses. The man falls with it, at first shocked motionless, then, in a sudden flurry of limbs, flailing. The crash when he hits the ground is spectacular: he grunts, forced and sharp. Jensen yelps himself, half-stifled with shock, and the guards shout in surprise.
"You clumsy fool," the thief in the yard mutters to himself, and branches snap as he levers himself upright. He's okay, Jensen thinks, on a rush of relief so strong he surprises himself. Moonlight highlights the bones of the man's hands and the curve of his cheekbone, shadow spiked by tangled hair. The box is still in his hands. By his silhouette against the house wall, he's tall. Broad shouldered, sweetly uncoordinated in the way young men who have not yet grown into their bodies can be. There's something hauntingly familiar about the set of his shoulders, a teasing tug at Jensen's memory. He's never seen this man before. It's impossible. But knowing doesn't stem the ridiculous, misplaced urge to reach out a hand, and offer a wordless greeting as if he'll be acknowledged without question. He nearly does, but even as he opens his mouth someone shouts, harsh and alarmed, and he can hear running footsteps and the jangle of metal.
The guards are running down the alley.
He almost changes. Almost, as if he has no control over his own body: as if his claws and teeth are an unthinking, essential protective armor for this man he does not know. It's a shocking impulse, and it leaves him almost shaking with the effort to stay human. He's thinking fight, flight, every option he has rolled out in his mind clear as ink on parchment and stained with a vicious anger against the threat of the guards. He ducks into the doorway, drops the latch. It rattles. He's looking at the thief. The man stares back, absolutely still with shock. His eyes are slanted. His hands are broad, clasped around the box. He smells of fear, of dirty clothes and unwashed skin and hunger. It's a smell that twists in Jensen's stomach. If he has to, he can get them both out of here. He's perfectly capable of killing the guards. He will. He shouldn't.
A fist slams against the door. "It's locked!"
"He could have climbed the wall. Here." Their voices are rough and urgent.
He can hear the man breathe. They're checkmated. It's Jensen's move. "If you know another way out of here," he hisses, "Now would be a good time."
"No?" Jensen says. "Can you run?" The guards will come back. Soon. The latch won't hold.
"Why -" It's a young voice, faintly accented, uncertain.
"Yes or no?" Jensen says.
"Then come on." It's too late to worry. Jensen throws open the door and runs. Footsteps follow him, uneven, too slow, and behind them, the guards shout. The street's exposed and empty, the gaslamps lit, and he races across it into the alley opposite. There's a wall at the end he leaps up at, hands catching along the top. An unexpected shoulder boosts him up, and he straddles the top and reaches down. One-handed, the thief scrabbles up, lets himself drop over the other side and catches Jensen as he falls. They're running again, ducking through the alleyways, under a string of washing, upturning a water barrel, setting the dogs barking in their wake.
"This your regular entertainment?" Jensen's thief pants, as they pound through the twists and turns of the night-shuttered marketplace stalls.
"Nah," Jensen says. He spins on his heel, ducking down behind a slow-moving night soil wagon, and drags his thief down by his shirt collar. The skin under his knuckles is smooth and young, the cloth frayed. Under the stink of the wagon, the man even smells familiar. "I've got a vested interest in the Padaleckis. Keep your head down," he mutters. "You're built like a young tree."
"Because, this isn't what it seems, if -"
"Run when I say go, yeah?" Jensen hisses. "Go!" He doesn't let go. He hasn't missed the drag in the footsteps following his, although the pair of them slip into the darkness of the University gardens unseen. The University's always favoured the grandiose over the domestic, and the rhododendrons are extravagantly flowered and twenty feet high. He can't hear the guards.
"Keep walking. It's not far. How painful is that ankle?"
"How did you...?" Then the thief stops, jarring Jensen's hand from his jacket. "Where are you going?" he asks, and his voice is different, aware and suspicious.
"You smell of the streets," Jensen says shortly. "But your shirt's good linen under the dirt and someone who cared about you made that jacket. I've got a spare bed for the night and a bath, if you want." He's looking at his thief. He's looking up, which is unexpected and far more comfortable than it should be.
"Everything has a price," his thief says. He's still holding the box. Close. It's got to matter to him, whatever's in there. "What's yours?"
"Nothing you're thinking," Jensen says. "I'm looking for someone," he says. "If they're - if they need - let's say it's a kindness meant for someone else."
For a moment, they stand there in silence. Jensen's thief's frowning. His hands are still tight on the box and his shoulders braced. He's learned not to trust, somewhere, and Jensen's guessing the lesson's still sharp.
"This isn't a good idea. I'm wanted."
"I guessed as much," Jensen says. "Might be something to do with crawling up drainpipes and stealing whatever it is you've got there. Kid, I don't care."
"I wasn't stealing." The words are snapped out. But he starts to walk, this stray Jensen wants safely in his rooms, away from the guards and the University. "It's mine."
"Fine," Jensen says. Whatever -
"Then it'll be safer locked up for the night," he says. "And I've got no ties to the University. No one's going to be knocking on my door looking for you. Look, I'm not going to hurt you and I sure as hell don't need whatever you've got in that box. It's yours."
Now he's listening, it's almost as if he can untangle the threads of that accent, the patina of the University over the clipped harshness of the city's street toughness, and under it, so faint, the traces of a country roll that must be his grandfather's legacy. This is Jared Padalecki, he's blazingly sure of it, so sure that if the man balks Jensen's not going to be above getting his claws out.
He sets a hand to his door, searching his pocket for the keys. "It's a private entrance," he says. "And there's two flights of stairs between here and my rooms. The window's low enough to get out of, if you need." He's beyond bribery. "You can take the keys," he says. "I could do with a drink. I'll get a bath sent up. And food. Just let me in after, eh?"
The man he's sure is Jared is still hesitating. He's got pride, Padalecki's grandson.
"Get your ass inside," Jensen says, and unexpectedly Jared laughs, a short, unexpected bark of laughter, and ducks his head and reaches for the keys. "I'm not gonna knock a gift horse," he says.
"I'll knock three times, with the porter for the bath."
"I got you," Jared says.
Jensen doesn't want to turn away. He wants to follow Jared upstairs, ask him what went wrong, how things changed, what the hell has happened? It's too soon.
But when he glances back, he doesn't see a closed door. Jared Padalecki is still standing in the doorway, frowning.
He's careful. He doesn't even look Jared in the eye when he knocks with the porter, lingers over his thin red wine until he's absolutely certain the man must be done bathing, and when he knocks again, juggling two bowls of soup and a whole loaf of bread - Jared's face is too thin, the skin by his eyes pulled tight with fatigue - it's with no expectation of welcome. But the door's unlocked. Fear flashes through him. He can't lose Jared now: it's an imperative so shockingly powerful he races up the stairs and crashes through the door -
The bathtub's standing in the middle of the floor. Jared's in it, head tipped back, hair curled with damp and dripping onto the rugs. He's asleep.
The relief's so fierce Jensen shivers. It's ridiculous. He's never had this visceral reaction to a human - to any creature. He's always been the one on the outskirts, dry and witty and uninvolved. He's the one with the answers, perfectly poised, perfectly in control. Right now, he's so off-balance he doesn't know what to do with himself. He's restless, uncomfortable in his skin: his wings itch at his shoulderblades, his tail would be twitching if he was dragon. He wants to bare his teeth and howl. He wants Jared to look at him, really look at him, his true self, the size and weight and strength of him, the gleam of his scales and the arch of his wings -
Carefully, Jensen puts the bowls and the bread on the table. Lets himself sit on the edge of the bed, and looks at his hands. He's shaking. He's never, never reacted to a human the way he reacts to this one. He's never felt the way he does now, this confusing, urgent roil of emotion, this urge to protect and claim and, dammit, preen: the fierce desire to rip every threat to shreds - damn the University to hell - and the equal urge to snatch Jared up bathtub and all and take him home. Jensen wants to lay out all the books in his library and see Jared smile. He wants to argue with him over good wine and honeycakes until the candles gutter. For Jared, Jensen wants to lay out the fiercest of prey, defeated, the knottiest of arguments and the sweetest conclusions, share with him the sum of a curiosity that has spanned stranger shores than any University Magister has dreamed.
The boy's a stranger to him. A pretty stranger, with his skin flushed pink and his hands hanging lax on the rim of the tub, the muscles of his arms loose and his shoulders relaxed. His face is unusual, sharp and elegant, and his mouth is the soft pink of the inside of a conch shell, and his fingers are stained with ink and strong. And yet he's so familiar Jensen almost knows the taste of his skin.
There's a moment, sometimes, when Jensen looks at something - a book, a filigree lamp, a crown - and knows it's meant to be his. It's a thing of dragons, the instinctive urge to collect and own and cherish. He feels that way now, looking at Jared, and he's utterly confounded by the thought because Jared's human, living, breathing.
Waking. Jared's head rolls against the rim of the tub and his eyelashes flutter twice, before he looks up.
"Sorry," he says, and his voice now is soft with sleep. "I meant to leave you some water, but it's filthy. I didn't mean to fall asleep." He's reaching for the towel, standing, utterly unembarrassed by his own nakedness. Jensen can't look away. Wet, gleaming, pinked by the heat of the water, Jared's beautiful. His shoulders could bear an ox, his flanks are as elegantly muscled as a racing thoroughbred's, and his chest is a sculptor's dream. He's sparsely furred, and water has drawn the pattern of it into runnels that curve over his belly and lead down to the soft, heavy beauty of his cock, delineate the powerful muscles of his thighs and the bulge of his calves. His wrists are surprisingly delicate for a big man, and the way his hair flops over his eyes makes him seem so sweetly shy, but the stance of him, the set of his hips and the brace of his shoulders, is all reined-in power.
Jensen's mouth is dry. He can hear his own pulse in his ears, and between his legs, for the first time ever and utterly beyond his control, his cock feels heavy and heated. He knows he should look away. He can't. He's as enraptured as a fledgling with their first hoard.
"Should I...?" Jared says, and then he stops, arms upraised, towel in one hand. He's looking back. There's a moment when his eyes go blank and his mouth tightens, and then he says, "Fine." His voice is clipped. He lets the towel fall to his shoulders, looks down for a second, looks up and steps out of the bath. Walks forward.
Bemused, unable to look away, Jensen watches. It's only when Jared drops to his knees between Jensen's thighs, so close that Jensen can feel the damp heat curling from his skin, that he realizes what Jared's doing. "No!" he says, scrambling backwards, hands tangling in the bedclothes, blood rushing to his cheeks. "No, that wasn't, you don't, I don't..."
Jared's still kneeling, but there's the faintest tilt to his head. His eyes are half-closed, looking at Jensen. "I pay my debts," he says.
"You don't owe me anything," Jensen says, panicked, and drags himself against the headboard, as far away as he can get. His skin's flushed, there's sweat prickling in his armpits and at the back of his neck, and his cock's still uncomfortably, crazily hard. It's a fundamentally physical reaction he cannot place: he's got no context for this, the desire to thumb Jared's mouth open, run his tongue up the strong lines of Jared's neck, the heat under his own skin. "It's not like that." It is. His human body has utterly betrayed him. He's undone, incoherent. Years ago, he'd smiled at his human friends, at the convoluted pitch-plunge of their mating dances. He's not laughing now. He's terrified.
There's a horrible silence. Jensen has no idea what to say. Words slide away from him, unformed. From the end of the bed, Jared looks at him steadily, a little frown line between his eyes as if he's trying to puzzle out something strange. Then he sighs, and stands up. He reaches for the towel, and starts drying his hair as if nothing's happened. "That's a first," he says. Then he says, "Thanks for the stew. And the bath. I'll pay you back." He's pulling his shirt on, comfortably, as if he doesn't know Jensen can't stop watching every move he makes. Then his leggings. He sits down at the table and breaks open the bread. "Sit down," he says. "Please."
Jensen finds he can't say no. His knees wobble, undignified, and unclenching his hands is concious and strained, but he stands up. He walks. He sits down. He reaches for the spoon, just to give himself something to hold, although his gorge rises at the thought of eating.
He says, "I know who you are."
Jared's spoon stops halfway between bowl and mouth.
"I've known you for years," Jensen says. "You used to send me pictures. Of dragons. I lent you some books. Your father used to send me parcels."
Jared puts his spoon down. His face has gone an odd color, white at his mouth, pink across his cheekbones.
"You stopped writing," Jensen says. "I was worried."
Jared says, "You can't be."
"You had a dog called Sooty," Jensen said. "And ten years ago you stole the Magister's carp and set them free. You used to like walnut cake and saffron buns. I tried to get you some, but it was too late."
"You can't be him," Jared says. "It's impossible."
"I'm Jensen," Jensen says. "I'm sorry I didn't come before."
Standing up, Jared's so stiff the table squeaks two inches across the floor. His steps as he walks to the window are stiff and jerky, and his back is so tense under his shirt Jensen can see every muscle clench. It's a long time before he says anything, and when he does his voice is low and uncertain. "I used to have this dream," Jared says. "I dreamt that I'd find you, and somehow you'd fix everything, and we'd live happily ever after. I knew it was never going to happen. Even when things started to go wrong, I asked Dad if I could tell you, and he made me promise not to write. He said we owed you enough already."
"Owed me what?" Jensen says. "I owe you. I told him to use the money -"
"Not everything comes down to money," Jared says. His knuckles are as white as the windowframe. "We sold the wrong books, for too long. We let people use the shop for meetings. We had a printing press in the cellar. The University - I was surprised they let me in," Jared says. "It was only later, after... they thought they could teach me better."
"It didn't work," Jensen says.
"It didn't work," Jared agrees. He turns around, and the line of his shoulders is softer as he leans against the wall, and there's a little sideways tilt to the corner of his mouth. "If it had, I wouldn't be talking to you."
"I heard a little, at the Blind Unicorn," Jensen says, and Jared's smiling, just a little, ironic and soft at the same time. It's an easing that allows Jensen himself to loosen his grip on the spoon.
"Then you know what it was like," Jared says. "I couldn't write to you about it, you'd have torn them to shreds. And by that time they were watching us. But I felt... it was good to know you'd think the same way. I missed you. I started letters so many times, you don't know. All the petty little things, the closed collections and the tutorial rules and the books I couldn't even cite... It was my dissertation topic that got me thrown out in the end," he says. "I blame that one on you."
"What?" Jensen asks, shocked.
Jared comes back to the table, pulls up his chair, reaches for his spoon. "I want to prove dragons really existed," he says. "Which is kind of a whole can of worms, because dragons presupposes magic, presupposes limits to a rational universe, subverts the whole alternative history the Magister's got going on with the church." He pauses. "I think I can do it, too," he says. He glances up, and Jensen has no idea what shows on his face, but Jared grins. It's a real grin, toothy and broad, and it's got dimples: his eyes slit, laughing, and his hair falls over his face, and Jensen's helplessly smiling back.
"You said to me, dragons have five claws," Jared says. "You told me Milthorpe couldn't tell a firedrake from a wether, but that he knew someone who could. You said dragons were as real as I wanted them to be. I believed you. I still do."
"But -" Jensen says, and then doesn't know what to say, trapped.
"You know what's in that box?" Jared asks. He waits.
Jensen pulls himself together. It's not as if Jared knows. He can't. All he's got are myths and circumstantial half-truths, a child's puzzle pieces. "If you're going to tell me it's a dragon's tooth, I think you're more credulous than I taught you to be," he says.
"Pfft," Jared says. "That's my notes. All the references. A couple of pages I might have... liberated. I'm going to put them back," he says hastily. "But for the moment they're safer with me. Your letters. Milthorpe. It's not..." he sighs. "It's not like, in the general scheme of things, one dissertation about dragons is going to change the world. But if I prove something that knocks a crack in their whole world view, you know? And do it in public?"
"Hm," Jensen says.
"Plus," Jared says. "Dragons, dude. Dragons!"
Jensen shrugs, leaves the roll by Jared's elbow, and takes a pile of unsorted diaries to the bed. That's the one thing Jared will let him give, time and an analytical eye, and that only because Jared knows it's something Jensen enjoys.
"Did you manage to track down those blueprints?"
"Withdrawn." Jared says it absently. There's a worrisome amount of material that's just from the University library. Jensen's own third dissertation, A Study of the Highlands, surreptitiously sought on one of the evenings when the elderly porter will let both of them search the stacks unsupervised, is no longer available. It's absolutely harmless. There's a survey of a lake seen from above, that's all, a perfect pale blue teardrop between elegantly pitched mountains Jensen's going to show Jared one day. A human could have drawn those maps. But along with one unimportant unpublished text have gone all the back editions of Annals Draconis. The linguistic studies, the atlases, the experiments, the metallurgy and the artwork and the bibliographies, anything which might conceivably contradict the University's emphasis on a circumscribed world. There's nothing new in the library, either. A few journals and some retrospective studies Jensen cannot see as anything other than derivative and bland.
He'd be more worried if Jared didn't tell him about the underground newspapers and the unauthorized reprints of foreign studies. There's a group of scholars in Firenze doing some amazing work on interpretations of language and a theologian from the far north with some radical and fascinating ideas on plural theism, a small outpost of lecturers and students exiled from the University and working from a monastery in the desert. There's a woman in Lisania studying flight and another who believes she can prove the world is flat. Someone's found a set of fossil footsteps in the desert: someone else is digging up bones the size of monoliths, in the peat marshes of the floodplains.
"I'm sorry," Jared says. "It was too dangerous. We didn't want to compromise you too."
Jensen snorts. He's brushed petty tyrants off his scales like gnats. "I wish I'd known," he says. He would have liked that, evenings in the cellar of the bookseller's, spiced wine and discussion and the clattering frame of the printing press in the next room.
Looking up, Jared gives him a wry smile. "There was a reason I wanted to see you," he says. "And besides..."
"Mmm?" Jensen asks.
"You turned up just in time," Jared says. His fingers stroke absently at the cover of the seventh Magister's diaries. She's a white dragon from the ice-bound North. Jensen had liked her, although they'd only once met in passing and she'd been distracted at the time, newly mated. "I was going south, once I had my notes. We'd never have met."
They would have. Had Jared fled, hidden, disguised, Jensen would have hunted Jared down. He can almost feel his wings flex at the thought.
Instead he has Jared safe, in this single room with his books and his notebooks and his smile. And the room itself is beginning to resemble something dangerously close to home. Dragons like stuff. There are a couple of reproduction tapestries, now. Jensen's always had a soft spot for unicorns. Two comfortable chairs, a mess of warm red earthenware bowls on the table, a pair of fluted candlesticks. A heap of sheepskin rugs in front of the fireplace. Some good wine, and the wine glass by Jared's knee with the vivid blue spiral twisting through the stem of it is Venetian.
They're all decoration. The heart of the room's sitting on the sheepskin rug, ruffled and staring back. "I'm glad we met," he says.
Jensen lets his glasses slip down his nose and peers over them. "Shut up," he says. It doesn't work. Jared's starting to smile.
"Have you any idea...?" he says, and then he stops himself, ducks his head, opens the book.
For a moment or two, undisturbed, Jensen lets himself watch. The curve of Jared's knee straining against the soft wool of his leggings. The unconscious hunch of his shoulder and the idle tapping of one fingertip against the page. Jared's mouth. His hair. His stocking'd feet, high-arched and long-toed. He's got feet like a dragon. Of all the objects in the room, he is by far the most precious and the most fragile.
Dragons have been known to sleep for centuries, but Jared's lifespan is little more than the blink of an eye. He's not only human, he's so young, clean and newly minted. There are times when Jensen feels dragged down by age, watching him. Other times when, laughing helplessly together, he feels almost the same age. Jared's good for him. Jared makes him feel unsure, open, happy. Jared touches him, unconscious little pats, full-on hugs; slings an arm over his shoulders, makes him dance in the street to the jangle of a hurdy-gurdy, matches him glass for glass in the Blind Unicorn and makes him sing on the way home. Makes him breathless, hardens his cock, befuddles and beguiles him, and all of it unconscious. Jared sleeps in the same bed and thinks nothing of waking up curled in a huddle of legs and elbows. He hasn't got a shred of modesty when it comes to baths and no set timetable either, so that Jensen's forever coming home to a steamed-up room and bare, wet skin. He reads in bed, propping his book on Jensen's shoulder and combing his fingers absently against leather and flesh alike, and Jensen lies sleepless and trying to not shiver under that touch. Even now, when he should be reading, Jensen's watching Jared's mouth curve silently around the words of the diary -
Jared's alive with discovery. "Look." All flailing limbs, he climbs on the bed, book in hand. "Look," he says, and splays the thing open under Jensen's nose. They're forehead to forehead. "Look."
His finger stabs at the page. Jensen squints. There's a sketch in the margins. It's a dragon's scale, shed not torn, a simple drawing, although the artist has somehow managed to catch the translucent iridescence of a mature adult.
"Do you think that's what I think it is?" Jared asks. "Do you think there's more?" He turns the pages slowly, frowning. He's bathed. He smells of lavender and honey. It's distracting.
"Jensen." His name's breathed out hoarse with wonder, and on the page there's a drawing of a dragon's paw, three claws seen in profile curled around the roundels of a bedpost. The scales are so faintly shaded they've got to be the Magister's. Three pages on, there's a detail of a wingtip. Chapter seven has a series of tail spikes. Page 172 has an anatomical study of an eye. Incoherent with wonder, Jared's hesitant to turn the pages. His hands are shaking.
"It's not the same," he says. "I mean, the architectural details are solid, you know, the depth of the blocks and the way the runners were laid and the shape of the arches and the size of the theatres. And the linguistics makes sense, and the place names, and the maps. But this is... this is... you could almost believe..." He's almost whispering the last words.
Looking down, Jensen studies his own human hand. It's small, clenched on the bedspread. Faintly pink. His knuckles are creased and his fingernails rounded. There's a faint pattern of freckles across the back, the faintest hint of the shading on his scales when he's real. Jared's never going to see him as a dragon.
Getting up from the bed he walks over to the table, splashes a measure of wine into the glass and drinks it, fast, staring out of the window while Jared rustles pages behind him.
After a while, Jensen realizes the noise has stopped. He turns around. Jared's not reading. He's looking at Jensen, head on one side, as still as if he's been watching a long time. Suddenly, the room's too close, too hot.
"I'm going out," Jensen says, already reaching for his jacket.
"Wait. I'll come with," Jared says.
"Not tonight," Jensen says. It hurts to say the words. He wants to stretch his wings aganst the night sky, fly hard and fast under the curve of the new moon, watch the faint, angled blade of his own shadow knife-edged under starlight. He wants to feel the wind on his wings, and he wants Jared to see and feel that joy. It hurts. It's never going to happen. "Not tonight, " he says hoarsely, and slips through the door before Jared's got one boot on. Fuck the guards. He changes in the street and leaps into sky between the houses, wind screaming under the heavy beat of his wings.
He comes back four days later. He's been home, he's come back: he's ransacked his library. He's brought wild strawberries and books and a sketch of the mountain an artist had painted for him far too long ago, mounted and framed. He drags it all up the stairs, panting, and lays it all out on the table where Jared's books lie in untidy piles, bookmarked and laden with notes.
"Belaforte," he says. "He's good on metals and alchemy. There's a chapter on etchings you need to read. Greiger, on the transmission of knowledge. He's got a theory about how longevity stifles creativity. He's wrong, but there are some good points in the rebuttals. Donna Kateline, on myths, legends and archetypes. She spent some time... you might not recognize some of these. And strawberries," Jensen says. He's suddenly aware Jared's said nothing. "I brought strawberries."
Jared places his bookmark, carefully, between the pages of his book. There are dark circles under his eyes, and his hair isn't ruffled. It's lank. He opens his mouth, closes it, doesn't ask whatever it is he wants to ask.
"I can't -"
"Where did you go?" Jared asks.
"It's a simple question," Jared says. "Where did you go, Jensen?"
Jensen looks away.
The book slams shut. "Can you even tell me where you live?" Jared asks. His voice is frustrated, angry. "I fucking looked for you so hard. I spoke to the guards. I asked everywhere. I chased down those smugglers you get your wine from and your attorney and I even went back to the bookshop. Have you any idea what happened while you were gone?"
It's a rhetorical question, but Jensen says, "No," anyway.
"Someone saw a dragon," Jared says.
"What?" Jensen hisses.
"Just outside the city. It was a farmer, checking stock. People thought it was a joke, until the next report came in, and that was one of the city guard coming home from leave. Then some little girl and her grandmother from one of the villages. They all say the same thing. They saw a dragon."
"Fuck," Jensen says.
"It should have been us," Jared says. "It should have been you and me." Then he says, and it's so much worse, "I wish it had been me." His voice is so soft Jensen turns back to look at him, almost expecting tears, but Jared's rigidly upright in his chair, staring back.
"Where did you go?" he asks. "Where?"
There's nothing to say. Jensen's hands almost clawed. His breathing's too hot. He's almost panting.
Standing up, Jared says, "I can't ask, can I?"
"No," Jensen manages.
"Fuck," Jared says. He kicks the chair back. It nearly topples, wobbling on two legs. Striding around the table, Jared seems to have grown at least a couple of inches since Jensen last saw him. Up close, maybe four. Jensen has to tilt his head back, but Jared's hand are fisted in his jacket and almost lifting him off his feet. "I don't know what to say to you," he says, and he sounds almost lost.
"Jared -" Jensen says, and then Jared kisses him. Hard, messily, open-mouthed, almost biting. Neither of them are yielding. Jensen's bent back over the table under the force of it, Jared's thighs crowding his, Jared's shoulders blocking out the light. Licking across Jensen's teeth, his tongue is cool and forceful, and one of his hands scrabbles Jensen's chin to a painful tilt. His other hand is gripping Jensen's ribs, sliding up to his armpit, thumb pressing painfully against the arch of his back. It's utterly unexpected and utterly new and Jensen's floundering. He doesn't know where to put his hands, he can't seem to breathe, he can't smell anything except Jared's skin, and this thing between them is so much bigger and more alive and - fuck, is that his own voice, those bitten off half-growled moans?
It is. Jared leans back, palms his face roughly, looks down. "You wanna say no again, this is the time to do it," he says, and his voice is low and dark. But Jensen hasn't got a single word left.
The world shifts. Jared's heaved him up onto the tabletop and moved in between his legs as if he belongs there, the heat and weight of him emphatically real. His hands are rolling them hip to hip, and it's only then that Jensen realizes he's so hard he's not even damp but wet and Jared's right there with him. He gasps into Jared's shoulder, and at the sound of it Jared shudders and his hands start to pull at Jensen's belt. He leans back, when he strips it free and jerks Jensen's leggings off and yanks three shirts and a leather jacket over Jensen's head in one go, and his eyes are narrowed and intent. Despite the small fact that they're completely different species and Jensen doesn't even think Jared likes him very much at the moment he still can't say no. He seems to be saying yes. In fact, what he's actually saying is, yes, Jared, oh god, yes, come here, your hands, which is language reduced to the commonest of forms and -
"Oh fuck no that's you -" Jensen says and then he screams. Faintly. Jared's hands are under his ass, his fingers curved viciously tight against Jensen's hips, he's kneeling down, and he's gone down on Jensen's dick as if it belongs to him. The sight of it's dizzying, Jared's lips stretched and pink and his eyes wild under the tangle of his hair, Jensen's own cock glistening with spit and Jared licking at it, sucking it, choking and heaving and pulling every inch of it down until he's got to be nearly swallowing. Then he does swallow, deliberately, the force of it squeezing so hard Jensen screams again and his own hands claw their way down Jared's back. He smells blood. That's too much, he's going to hurt Jared, he tries to heave himself back, drag himself across the table, his legs are flailing, and then Jared pulls off and smiles at him so sweetly and dangerously Jensen gasps.
"Good to know," Jared says, briefly, and then he's standing up and Jensen's flat on his back. There are fingers in his mouth and he sucks at them instinctively before they're gone, and then Jared's teeth are biting into the tendons of his neck. Even as Jensen arches into the fierce, enflaming pain of that bite, he can feel Jared push into his ass. Two fingers, firm and implacable and confident, slicked with something more than spit. "You want this?" Jared whispers at him.
He says, "Do it, come on, please, Jay -" and Jared's cock rocks into his ass hard and fast, so big the push of it stings and burns, a pain so bright it's nearly ecstasy.
"Hang on in there," Jared mutters at him. "I swear, it gets better," which Jensen doesn't understand because he's burning up now. Inside him, shockingly intimate, Jared pushes closer, presses at a different angle, higher, deeper, and then oh fucking hell, the world goes white and implodes.
"What, now?" Jared grunts, muffled. His nose is somewhere around the hollow of Jensen's hips and his hands are cupped under Jensen's back, his thumbs smoothing a slow and tender caress into skin. Utterly relaxed, his thighs press Jensen's into the mattress. "I can't move. Ask me tomorrow."
"It is tomorrow," Jensen says, and tugs gently at Jared's hair. He's been running his fingers through the strands of it, mindlessly content, for what must be a half-mark by the candle.
"Will I like it?" Jared asks, opening his mouth against Jensen's skin, heated and damp. He bites. It's not the first time, but it is the gentlest.
"Maybe," Jensen says. He's so full of Jared, Jared's fingers, his smile, his ridiculous, evident enchantment with Jensen himself, his heat and his spend. Jensen wants to give something back, now, while this thing is still fresh and new. "Come on. Get up." He tugs harder.
Flopping over onto his back with a groan, Jared yawns and stretches. "Okay," he says. He levers himself upwards, reaching for his shirt. Jensen's already dragging his own clothes on, but the play of muscle and skin across Jared's back is lovely to watch, almost luminous in candlelight. It's almost as if there's the faintest glow under his skin, an iridescence hidden in the patterns of light.
By the time Jensen's trimmed the wick in the lantern and lit it, it's gone.
He takes Jared up to what used to be Dragon's Landing and is now the Quadrangle, the vast open space at the University gatehouse. It's still dark, too early even for the most dedicated of students, and the only other people there are the two bored guards at the entrance gate. The night is cold and clear, and despite the light of the gas lamps the stars show bright and the moon low and half-full. More than just a reflection, some of the cobbles glow faintly underfoot. Geoluminescence, light-bearing rock, scarce and difficult to mine. There's enough of it in the cobbles on the square to illuminate the gatehouse and the barracks, the new library frontage and the new registry office, although it's not quite dark enough for the pattern to show clearly.
"What?" Jared asks. His shoulders are hunched in his jacket, his hands in his pockets, but his head tilts towards Jensen and there's a softness to his face that's new. "If you brought me here to say the stones give out light, dude, every undergraduate out after curfew -"
"No. Look," Jensen says. "Forget about crawling home after hours, and look at the pattern of the cobbles."
"What pattern?" Jared asks.
"You're standing in the middle of it," Jensen says drily, and waits for Jared to catch up.
"Really?" Jared says doubtfully, but he peers at the cobbles in dutiful puzzlement. There's a moment when he picks up a straight line, angling outwards from the center, and then another. He pulls his hands out of his pockets and starts to follow the shape of them, frowning, spinning slowly on his heels. "It's a... I'd say it's a star, but there are straight lines..." He pulls a pencil and a piece of paper from his pocket and starts pacing the cobbles, measuring by his own stride. By the time he's done, there are faint pink streaks across the Eastern sky.
"It's a star," he says. "Complicated, but a sixteen-pointed star."
"You never knew?" Jensen asks, and Jared shrugs. "There's a circle, here where we're standing," Jensen adds. "But the stones here seem fainter. Maybe the light fades with time, I don't remember it being this way. We didn't even have to use lanterns, last time I saw this place at night."
"So?" Jared says. He reels Jensen in with a tug on his jacket, and settles them together. His hands worm their way into Jensen's pockets and, warm, enclose Jensen's. "So."
"Where do you think would be the best place to see this?" Jensen asks.
Jared shrugs. "The astronomy tower? The clock tower's a bit further away."
"Think bigger," Jensen says.
"What do you - ," Jared says, and then he stops. He spins both of them around again on the spot, slowly, and then he looks up at the sky. "You think this was built for dragons," he says.
"I know it was built for dragons," Jensen says. Then, hurriedly, "Think of the old maps. And the shape of the gatehouse, and the size of the passage to the Great Hall -"
Tightening, Jared's hands hold him silent. "Let me," he says, and for long moments he's absolutely silent. Then he sighs. "Dude," he says. He lets go, and steps back, spins around again with his eyes wide and the start of a smile that's nothing but wonder. "Dude." It's a smile shared equally between Jensen and the stones.
He's nesting. The thought makes Jensen smile, because it's almost as if they're making a home, him and Jared, in this room with their shared books and their shared bed. The smile's wry. Jared's human. Jensen's not, and every moment is precious. Jensen finds himself trying to memorize every word Jared says, the exact configuration of his knuckles, the smell of his skin, the arch of his back under Jensen's mouth.
Even in six months, Jared's older. He's lost the desperate possessiveness of those first kisses, although he's as jealous of Jensen's time as Jensen is of his. He's learnt to phrase his sentences to hint at arguments he can't say aloud, and the dissertation itself has become a covert, elegant challenge to the University's orthodoxy. He's bulked up, shifting crates, and he moves with a confident surety that fascinates Jensen. Jared knows it, too. A sly smile can make Jensen shiver in the heat of the Blind Unicorn's taproom: alone, Jared can be tender, romantic, or so wickedly, dirtily obscene that Jensen finds himself in an almost constant haze of sexual arousal. He'd thought, vaguely, somewhere in his future when he mated he'd find out what all the fuss was about. Now, he's half hard the moment he steps in the room and Jared's there. It makes for long nights, and adds a level of play to academic argument that Jensen's never suspected could exist. Both of them are prepared to play dirty, and while Jared's bigger, Jensen's sneakier.
He's also happy. It's unexpected, shocking, wrong. He's never heard of a dragon in love with a human. Dragons quest, following some ill-defined urge Jensen's never bothered to find out much about. They find a mate. They nest. Sometimes, they have nestlings. It's always seemed a little boring.
There's nothing boring about Jared. He's fascinating. He's so human, and at the same time there's something about him that's almost dragonish: his toothy grin, the shape of his hands, the way he collects things. Sometimes, more and more frequently, Jensen dreams they're flying together, tumbling through the sky in a synchronicity that's all grace and power. In his dreams, Jared's a blue dragon. Always blue. It is, Jensen thinks, something about the shade of his skin in candlelight. Once, looking at Jared's hand clenching on the bedsheets, the sheen of light had fragmented so clearly into a pattern of scales Jensen had blinked.
There's a drawing in the Magister's diary that's hauntingly similar, a human hand so carefully shaded it could almost be scaled. Jared's got it pinned up on the wall. There's another drawing next to it, a sketch of the Magister herself, seated at her desk. Her hands are nearly clawed over the pile of books at her side, her grin is dangerously fierce, and there's a shadow on the wall behind her that's almost winged. Any dragon would know her one of themselves. By the way Jared's eyes linger, Jensen suspects he might think the same, although no dragon has ever, to his knowledge, revealed themselves as a shapeshifter. Certainly not the Magister herself, who had ruled the University for thirty years with an iron fist and an incisive mind, before vanishing in the mountains of the north with the woman who'd been her secretary for most of that time. Sometimes, Jensen wonders what it was like for both of them, in that mountain fastness, as the Magister did not age and her companion did. Was it tolerable? He wonders. Could he... could he and Jared...?
No one knows where she went. They have only her diaries, and a biography written a hundred years after her disappearance which is so racily scandalous the author must either have made half of it up or known the Magister very well indeed, and that's impossible. It's still so scurrilously amusing he and Jared take it in turns to read it out loud. The biography has a formal structure that's almost dragonish, and a warmth of wit that's so human both of them wish they knew more about the author.
The biography doesn't make it into the dissertation, although the diaries do. The maps, the place names, the linguistics all do, but Jared concentrates on physical evidence. "I want something real," he says.
"You can't take the landing site into the Great Hall," Jensen objects, because Jared already has a crate of fire-forged metals and acid-etched engraving plates and a ring the size of a saucer and a carefully preserved, dated mud print of a wether's rear paw. He's packed Jensen's letters and Milthorpe too, as if for good luck.
"No, but they'll recognize it," Jared says. He puts the lid carefully on the crate and stares down at it, his shoulders hunched.
"You'll be brilliant," Jensen says. "I trust you. It'll be fine."
Jared offers him a sickly half-smile, pale, and heaves up the crate. "You ready to go?"
"Yeah," Jensen says, and follows.
The University's always trusted in a formal, public presentation to prove the mettle of its candidates. It's why the Great Hall was built. There's a dais for the examining professors, and a canopied chair for the Magister if they choose to attend. Other University members can use the padded seats of the lower tier. In Jensen's day, those seats were public, but now attendees not part of the University are exiled to the bare stone of the upper tiers which used to be undergraduate territory. In the middle of the hall, there's a desk and chair for the student under examination. The space is wide. Wide enough to hold several full-grown dragons, although Jensen's absolutely sure that the current Magister has no idea why the corridors are so broad and the Great Hall lit by skylights so massive a dragon could leap through them.
It's more than familiar. Jensen can remember when the foundation stones were laid. He's taken his own degree here in the Hall twice, and he knows exactly how nervous Jared must be feeling. Careful of the crate, he knocks their shoulders together, and Jared gives him the smallest of smiles.
"You are going to be here, aren't you?" Jared had asked.
Jensen had blinked. "You really think I'll be anywhere else?"
That morning, he'd given Jared a map. "Look," he'd said awkwardly. "I'm sure everything will go well. But if - just if - it doesn't, this is where I live."
Jared had kissed him. Oddly, it hadn't been one of Jared's enthusiastic, enveloping, so glad to see you kisses, but small and soft and almost reverent. "Thanks," Jared had said.
Now, he's not saying anything, and the sheaf of papers in his hands is quivering at the ends. Although they're early, people are already sitting in the hall. Under the skylight, Jensen's sure he can see some of the staff from the Blind Unicorn. There's a couple of people from the tavern where he rents the room, the woman who sells him cinnamon rolls and Jared honey cakes. The porter from the library is there, and a whole group of people who wave cheerfully at Jared. One of them's the woman from the cartoonist's, and the girl with the inkstained fingers and the notebooks, and the man who unearthed the Magister's diaries and wouldn't take payment. In fact, as Jensen realizes just how many people are waving, it looks as if every bookseller in the city has closed up shop for the morning. Half the librarians are here. There's even a very elderly gentleman in a bath chair who winks at Jensen with disconcerting familiarity.
Even the University seats are filling up, although the students filing into the hall in small knots are edgy and sharp-spoken. They're not waving but pointing, and Jensen doesn't like the way they prop their feet on the seats and snigger to each other as if they're here to mock. Jared's not looking at them. He's unpacking the crate, slowly, head bent. Then he sits down, smooths out his papers and folds his hands. He doesn't look around to where Jensen stands in the shadows of the passageway from the gatehouse. He looks perfectly composed, but Jensen knows by the set of his shoulders that every muscle is tight with anticipation, and he almost stumbles to his feet when the examining professors file into the hall.
Querquinx is the one Jensen's pinned his hopes on. He's no longer teaching, but he knows Jared well, and although Jared's not telling Jensen's sure Querquinx was involved in that illegal printing press. There's a tall woman with a cane whose own early work has been suppressed, and a pair of linguistics professors who've published nothing at all in the last ten years but seem to have an extraordinary volume of correspondence with places most current atlases don't even name. The others... Jensen sighs. Bland, conformist. There's a couple with tenure in the church as well as the University, not a good sign. One of them's been involved in setting the undergraduate syllabus. He's glaring at that one when the professors themselves rise to their feet.
He and Jared hadn't planned on this. The Magister doesn't attend undergraduate presentations. But there's no mistaking that crimson robe, that regal, elegant mane of white hair, or that arrogant aristocratic face. For a moment, then, Jensen considers calling the whole thing off, snatching Jared and taking him home, leaving the University to molder into obscurity. These things come around. In a hundred years' time, there'll be another radical student with the kind of ideas that revitalize a whole generation, it just won't be Jared.
But Jared himself has flung back his head, and his hands have flattened on the desk as he stands, and the curve of his cheek says that he's got that faint smile that always means trouble. Jared's perfectly happy to go to war with the Magister, and Jensen smiles to himself, folds his arms, and leans back against the wall to watch.
When they'd practiced this, Jared standing in front of the fire and Jensen sprawled out on the bed, Jared had started small. He'd been five pages in before he'd even mentioned the word dragon. Now, he puts down his notes, looks around the hall, and says, "When I was a boy, I believed in dragons." He looks at the Magister, the professors, the students, his friends in the upper seats. He says, "I still do. I'm going to tell you why."
He does. Point by point, he talks about language, ethnicity, place-names: he discusses forty-two words for clouds and thirty describing flight. He mentions aphorisms and country sayings, spends three minutes on "by the egg" and two on "sharp as a talon". Our own quadrangle, Jared says, and produces the evidence, was once called Dragon's Landing. Ten percent of the placenames in the Highlands have some reference to flight or dragons. He hands in the statistics.
I believe, Jared says, even as the Magister frowns and the professors shuffle uneasily on their seats, that dragons once moved among us. In this very University. Have you ever wondered, he asks, why our buildings are so massive? Why our doorways are so wide and our passageways so commodious? Every building over a hundred years old, Jared says, was built to accommodate the shape of a dragon. Even this very hall, he says. How many of you have crossed the Quadrangle at night? How many of you have stopped to wonder why the square was inlaid with light-bearing rock, in a pattern that can only be seen from the sky?
On average, he says, our buildings are constructed to allow the passage of something the size of a hay wain. Some are wider. Some of the stones used are so massive we used to believe they were placed by giants. This stone I'm standing on, Jared says, is the size of the Magister's dining hall. It's Rhenish granite, quarried from the mountains west of Firenze. It's ten times the size of the largest blocks the University used to build the new library, and we all know how difficult it was to quarry and transport those. I don't believe, he says, that it travelled here on a wagon. I believe it was flown here by dragons. If this sounds fanciful, he says, I'd like you to look at these blueprints, with their descriptions of stones being lowered from a height. There's a sketch in the corner here of a sling with four attachments, he says, and adds, it was Professor Fawcett who excavated the old library before demolition. Professor, do you remember those harnesses you found, and the strapping on that buried block?
The professor nods, slipping a quick glance at the motionless Magister as he does.
The dimensions, Jared says, match exactly the description on this blueprint. This isn't the fantasy of a bored architect. This is real. Also real, he says, is the physical evidence of objects which could only have been made with equipment - or skills - we no longer have the ability to use. This cup, he says, holding it up, has been etched with such exactness the pattern edges are still sharp two hundred years later. This one is the best modern version I could borrow. It's actually from the University's buttery. You might recognize it, he says, smiling. I'm going to pass both around so that you can compare the quality. No acid we have access to today can replicate the work we were producing two hundred years ago. And I'd like to show you this description - it's from the earliest edition of Lao Tscheng - of warriors dipping stone arrowheads into dragon's blood. How friendly do you think a silvermaster has to be, he says, to persuade a dragon to donate their own blood? I've got here, Jared says, a silver ring made by the same man who made this goblet. They're both signed, you can see for yourself. But this ring - Jared holds it up - is the size of my forearm. Whatever creature it's made for, he says, it's not human.
Silver isn't the only metal I believe dragons helped us work, Jared says. We're all familiar with the tales of magic swords. Elsinor, Icefire, Dragon's Bite - you remember that one, the sword that belonged to our own founding Queen? It used to be on display in the old museum, Jared says, but I believe these days the Magister keeps it in his strongroom. Here, in these journals, Jared says, there's a record of attempts to replicate that forging. It was impossible. No matter how hot the forge, he says, we humans could not achieve anywhere near the temperatures required to bond that particular combination of metals, far less shape that metal into sheets and fold them. There are a hundred folds of metal in this blade, Jared says, and lays down the dagger Jensen had brought from his own hoard. And none of them folded or annealed by a human. We simply can't create that kind of heat and pressure ourselves.
So. Why, then, is there no reference to dragons in our literature? Why are there no draconic epics, no records mentioning dragons, no nursery rhymes, no dissertations, no memoirs? Jared pauses. The fact is, he says, that there are. It's just that we don't see them. There's two reasons, he says, and Jensen sees the Magister's eyes flicker sideways for a moment.
Firstly, Jared says, we don't see dragons in our written history because we expect our ancestors to react to dragons the way we would. If a dragon walked into this hall today, Jared says, we would be absolutely amazed. It would be a paradigm shift beyond anything we've experienced in our lifetimes. The story would be around the city in minutes. There'd be early editions of all the newspapers, people would be on the street corners shouting - you remember what happened when a little girl thought she'd seen a dragon, six months ago? But for our ancesters, Jared says, I believe dragons were so normal they weren't worth comment. There are clues, he says, and he discusses the Magister's diaries and the memoirs of one of the architects who worked on the Great Hall and a couple of references Jensen didn't even know he had. Not only these, Jared says, but I believe the dragons themselves were producing written material. I'd like you to take a look at this dissertation. There are maps in here of places it would take a human six years to survey. Yet this dissertation was completed in the statutory twelve months, and it was examined and passed without comment in this very hall.
Very deliberately, Jared holds the bound papers up before he passes them to Querquinx, and that's the moment when Jensen realizes it's his.
He has no idea how Jared got his hands on that particular piece of evidence. It's uncomfortably close, although Jared can have no idea who he actually is. Surely. And for one awful moment Jensen really can't remember what name's on the cover. He can see the thing now, clean and newly bound, in the hands of that young boy from the printer's - oh fucking hell. Fucking hell.
But when he looks up - when he can't help looking up - the man in the bath chair (How old is he? Seventy? Eighty? Older? Old enough?) gives him the smallest nod.
I want you to know, Jared says, that I was given this dissertation by someone unconnected to the University. And that although I've detailed and indexed all my references, you won't find most of them in the University library. When the library was built, he says slowly, the University vowed that it would be a repository for all published scholarship. Impartial. This, Jared says, is no longer the case. I'm not just using sources the library doesn't have, he says, and taps volume 2C of the fifty-years-out-of-date library catalog. I'm using material which was once available to all of us and has now been removed from the library's accession records. Some of it I can't trace -
"Just to clarify. Are you saying material has been removed from the library?" It's the thin woman with the cane. She's - she's the woman the guards had escorted away from the bookshop.
"Yes," Jared says. "I've given some example references in appendix E, but if you prefer to search for yourself, I have one of the older indices here for comparison with current records."
"Thank you," the woman says, and as she leans back she gives the Magister a look that's so fiercely contemptuous Jensen thinks for the first time, Jared's done it. He'll pass.
I'd very much like to know, Jared says, what's so very dangerous about dragons that we have come to believe - have been led to believe - that they're nothing more than a myth. And, he says, if we have been led to believe this myth... how many other falsehoods have we come to believe? This is only one investigation on only one subject, he says, and rests his hands on his work.
Then he cocks his head on one side. "How do you feel about unicorns?" Jared asks.
Even as the thin woman starts to smile, Jared says, "Ladies, Gentlemen, professors of the University, I'm done."
He sits down so abruptly his knees must have gone weak.
The hall is silent. Utterly silent. Querquinx seems lost in thought. The thin woman's still smiling. The booksellers seem to be passing notes. The students are not even shuffling their feet. Usually, there are questions. Sometimes, there's a spontaneous round of applause before questions. People's parents have been known to shout encouragement. But, here, there's absolute silence. Jensen doesn't know what it means, and in his seat Jared's back straightens as if he's bracing himself.
It's almost a shock when the Magister rises to his feet. His mouth's working, and his hand is clenched tightly on his staff. There's a moment when Jensen thinks the man's not going to be able to get his words out, and then he says, "I have never heard such a fandangle of arrant nonsense."
One of the students laughs, short and nervous. Another. They're shuffling in their seats.
"I don't know what you were trying to achieve, Jared Padalecki, with this mess of lies and children's tales, but I can absolutely say it's a laughable failure. Laughable," the Magister says sternly, and his eyes scan the hall.
Another student laughs. Another, nudging sniggers that spill across the row of them, and one of the professors points and says something under his breath that makes the woman next to him giggle nervously. He laughs. The man next to him laughs, and then the Magister's secretary stands up and gestures at Jared and says, "You foolish boy -"
Jensen changes. He didn't know he was going to do it, didn't even consciously choose to change until his claws are scratching at the stone and his wingtips brush the passageway. He's a big dragon, as dragons go, and his coloring's a dramatic and elegantly sheened black. His claws are the size of a man's forearm, his teeth razor-edged, and like all dragons his breath smells of brimstone and ash. He's intimidating enough for people who are used to dragons. Now, he's the stuff of nightmares, and he knows it. When he saunters into the hall, one of the sniggering students faints. The Magister collapses onto his chair, white-faced. The professors are on their feet. The booksellers are on theirs. People are shouting, screaming; dislodged papers flutter over the tiers of seats, someone's trying to scramble to the exit over one of the fellows.
Jared doesn't look around. His head's still bent. He's... Jensen snorts. If he thought he was infatuated as a human, it's nothing to the way he feels about Jared as a dragon. He'd tear out his heart with his own claws and lay it at Jared's feet, if Jared needed.
Gently, Jensen folds his wings. He lowers his head and pushes the table out of the way with his nose, and then rubs his head along Jared's thigh, eyes closed. It's precisely the same affectionate caress he'd give his mate, an instinctive action all the more poignant for being entirely new.
Jared reaches out a hand and scratches the exact spot behind Jensen's horns that he can't quite reach himself. Then Jared glances down. He's smiling, just a little, less astonished than he should be, and Jensen growls at him softly.
"Yeah, I know," Jared says quietly. "You're gorgeous. You're going to be on the cover of every newspaper in the city."
Huffing, Jensen nods to the Magister.
"I think you proved my point," Jared says drily. "But let's get out of here before he calls the guard, eh?"
Tapping a claw on Jared's dissertation, Jensen growls again, louder.
"It doesn't matter," Jared says. "I don't think we're going to be forgotten, pass or fail." There's a note to his voice that's sadder than it should be, and when he stands up he's not standing tall and proud and happy as he should, although his head's held high as he packs up his materials and hefts the crate. When he leaves, he's walking by Jensen's side, through the corridor that was evidently built to take a dragon's bulk.
If Jensen makes a very rude sign with the end of his tail as they leave, Jared will never know. Although by the sounds of things, no one really notices -"What else have you lied to us about?" Querquinx is shouting.
They stop in the center of the star. Jensen looks at the sky: it's a bright morning. The clouds are high and fast, a slipstream wind heading home. In a day, he could be in his own library.
"Thank you," Jared says, and Jensen ducks down so fast he nearly gives himself whiplash, but Jared doesn't step back. He's nearly whispering. "Thank you. For today, and the baths, and the books -" His mouth is white around the edges and his eyes are so sad Jensen nearly whines.
"I'll always remember you," Jared says. "So will they," he adds, on a glimmer of a smile so forced Jensen's never seen it before. "And I'll pack up your things. I'll send them on -"
Very gently, Jensen curls his front claws around Jared's waist. He turns his head to one side, and for the first time in years, sends a gush of pure white flame into the sky. Then he fixes Jared with one unblinking eye, and waits.
"I guess... I guess that wasn't what you wanted to hear?" Jared says, and Jensen tilts his head a little further.
Curling his tail around Jared's shoulders, tucking the tip of it around his waist, Jensen tightens his grip and flicks the trailing edge of his wings at the sky.
"Oh," Jared says. He ducks his head. He's starting to blush. "Really? Seriously?"
Snorting, Jensen runs the end of his tail across Jared's cheeks and through his hair. It's the softest caress he can manage, although the way the light falls on Jared's skin makes it look as if the touch is bruising. Blue dapples shimmer like shadows.
"Are you sure?" Jared says. "Really, truly, sure?"
But his hands are as tightly fastened on the coils of Jensen's tail as Jensen's claws are, now, in Jared's belt. Jared's eyes are so bright they could almost be a dragon's, and his pupils seem a little misshaped. Oval, lengthening, when they should be round. Jensen drops his shoulder as low to the ground as he can manage, tugs Jared forward, and gingerly wraps one front paw around the crate. When he snorts, impatient, Jared huffs out an amazed laugh that turns into an astonished gasp as Jensen heaves him upward. There's a space between Jensen's cervical spines that could have been made for a human exactly Jared's shape, although he feels heavier than Jensen expected, as if Jared's mass is more than his size, and the heat of his thighs is warm even against Jensen's scales. When Jared's hands fasten onto the barbed curve of Jensen's sixth spine, his hands cling so fiercely they could almost be clawed.
There are some things not even dragons tell each other. Jensen, showing off, beating up from a standing start to the most pointedly elegant of flybys, has begun to wonder if humans and dragons are more closely linked than either he or Jared had thought.
wonders how long it will be before Jared changes. He can't wait to find