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The miles creep steadily onward, white stripes on the black freeway curling away and back like those fruit roll-ups Danni used to love as a kid. His mom never let him eat them, of course.

That’s fruit like I’m the Queen of England.

So, of course, every so often he’d sneak them from Danni and hide them in the shoe box in his closet. It was risky because there was no part of Jensen’s room that his mother didn’t think was open territory for her to go after when she was on a purging kick.

“Didja have to keep your room neat as a kid?” Jensen asks Jared now.

Jared is driving. They’d set out from the New Jersey shore to Philadelphia early in the morning, air cold but glowing crisply under a bright sun. Early December was a risky time for travel and they’d been lucky that it had stayed dry and clear. Jensen will be seeing Jared’s family home for the first time, seeing the room where he grew up. Meeting Jared’s parents. He swallows and turns as Jared laughs.

“My room was pretty classic ‘boy’. Every four weeks or so Mom would come in and tell me I’d be grounded if I didn’t dig out and so I’d gather the dirty clothes and chips bags and soda cans and clean up some.” Jared chuckles again. “It was pretty gross.”

Jensen remains silent because he really doesn’t understand that.

If you’re going to leave these paints all over then I’m going to forbid you from painting indoors, Jensen.

But Mom … I wasn’t finished. I wanted the under-layer to dry first before …

Put it away and take it out again if you need to … but you do not leave it lying about. I’ve put up with your messy hobby but no more if you abuse my patience.

“I’m pretty tidy,” he says although even as the words leave his lips he knows how stupid that is, because Jared surely knows that. “Mom liked things in their proper place,” he adds.

There’s a soft huff and Jared mumbles, “I bet.”

Jensen tenses, feels pink heat warm his face. “A cluttered space is a cluttered mind,” he defends, voice hardening.

He maintains his studio with precision. It may not seem like it to a casual observer, but he could find anything with his eyes closed if he needed to. He can get into his zone and not have to think … that kind of order … it’s freeing. It lets his paintings speak for themselves. It’s part of who Jensen is.

“The world has created this bullshit romantic notion of the messy person. Like the disheveled genius professor or the executive with a desk strewn with papers. Like that means they are working harder or better or something.”

A hand gently lands on his thigh and Jared glances at Jensen before returning his eyes to the road.

“Jensen?” Jared looks concerned.

“What?”

“You seem upset. I … I didn’t mean to insult your neatness.”

“I’m not … “ Jensen begins to defend himself but stops because he can feel the tension in his arms, tingling under his skin.

Jared speaks softly. “I know it can be … nerve-wracking meeting my family for the first time. But … don’t worry. They will love you. They know I do and that’s enough for them.”

Jensen starts. “What do you mean? You told them how you feel about me?” This really shouldn’t be surprising given that it’s Jared but it’s still odd. Jensen has not spoken to anyone except Danni about how he feels about Jared and even with Danni he’s never said the words. Hell, he barely says them to Jared.

“Of course,” Jared says, a fond smile tilting his lips. “I couldn’t keep something as huge as falling in love from my parents, my family. They are happy for me. For us. All parents want their children to be happy.”

For an insane moment he imagines looking his mother in the eye and saying I’m in love with Jared. He chuckles involuntarily.

“What’s funny?”

“Nothing,” Jensen says quickly. Then after a moment he adds, “I’m not nervous. About meeting your parents, I mean.”

It’s true. He’d been petrified about Jared meeting his mother. But that was very different. This would be fine. He tries to imagine a feminine version of Jared and an older but still male version of Jared. He’s seen photos and Jared always says his parents are really easy going. It’s a little hard to imagine but, man, that sounds good.

“Not even a little?” Jared asks but his voice has a teasing edge.

Jensen gives him a look. “Hey, have you seen me? They’ll wonder how you managed it.” He laughs immediately.

Jared chuckles and his voice is low. “Got that right. ‘M glad my sister won’t be there. She’d make a pass at you for sure.”

“Well, unless she has a dick you don’t know about I’d say there isn’t much to worry about.”

This time, Jared laughs outright and Jensen gets lost in the deep dimples that form with tantalizing sweetness.

Kicking out with his legs he stretches out the kinks and fiddles with the iPhone plugged into the car’s audio jack. A glance over shows Jared’s eyes on the road, hand tapping the steering wheel to the music’s beat. He hopes Jared doesn’t mind that he needs to check out for a little while.

~~

Jensen thinks he should have expected the instant familiarity and easy banter. After all, these are Jared’s parents. Still, it hits like a tidal wave and Jensen has to use every ounce of his people skills to smile through it.

“Yep, I agree with you, Sherri, at least two different pizzerias and ice cream shops would have closed down if Jared hadn’t stayed in town.”

“Boy can eat,” Gerry says, unconsciously patting his own growing gut.

Sherri smiles at them and then says, “Oh. Jensen … tell us your version of how you met. I always find it adorable how slightly different these stories go depending on who is doing the telling.”

“Mom … you already heard this more than—“

“Jay, it’s fine. I don’t mind telling them,” Jensen interrupts. He can see that Jared is somewhat surprised and it irks him a little. Did Jared think he was that socially inept?

“It was right before Memorial Day,” he begins. “Danni … my friend and roommate, Danneel—“

“Oh, we heard about her,” Sherri says. “Jay tells us if he wasn’t gay he’d have brought her back with him.”

Next to him Jared visibly stiffens. “I … I didn’t mean it like—“

Jensen laughs smooth as butter. “I feel the same way, to tell the truth.”

It’s impossible to not feel Jared’s eyes boring into him but Jensen ignores it. Danni is Danni, for heaven’s sake, he’s not sure what Jared’s even thinking about.

“Go on,” Sherri urges, “Tell us how you met.”

“Well Danni loves the beach. I do, too, just … “ Jensen hesitates slightly because it sounds odd. “Just not in summer so much.” He points vaguely to his face. “I tend to burn.”

Both parents nod sympathetically.

“But I took off from the studio that afternoon and went with her. We were heading back when I looked up and spotted pink board shorts on the tallest person I’d seen in a long while.” Jensen knows his face is flushing slightly as he recalls those shoulders that went on forever, a trim waist and legs legs legs. He’d only seen Jared’s adorably swooped profile at first, but then Jared turned and the sun caught his face and Jensen’s breath stopped for a moment … until he realized the other man was checking out first Danni and then himself.

“I turned to Danni and she was staring, too, because that particular shade of pink didn’t really belong in this solar system.” He pauses a moment as Jared’s parents laugh. “Actually they were so bright I had to shield my eyes.”

Jared’s parents are beaming at him and Jensen forces his smile to widen, trying to match theirs. Jared’s father rises and moves behind them on the low-backed sofa, placing a large hand on each of Jensen’s shoulders. Jensen breathes through the squeeze and catches Jared’s whiney, “Daaad. Stop man-handling my boyfriend.”

This doesn’t exactly accomplish much as now Jared’s mother is also standing behind them and she bends down to kiss the top of Jensen’s head. “Jay,” Sherri scolds slightly, “In all your gushing about how handsome he was, you didn’t mention how incredibly charming he is, too.”

Jared looks befuddled as Jensen sits quietly and accepts this surprising outpouring of affection. Jensen wonders if he should be annoyed at his boyfriend’s obvious low expectations. It’s just that somehow with Jared he’s never had to … well, something about Jared just lets Jensen be Jensen.

That doesn’t mean Jensen isn’t well schooled in how to act around people he’s expected to impress. Jensen can’t recall the very first time he heard his mother use the phrase, ‘put your best face on.’ In his darker moments he imagines it came shortly after his father walked out on her, when Jensen had been no more than a collection of cells.

He learns that it is what one does in public situations. As a child he is too clumsy to truly charm. But that is his fault, his mother tried to teach him.

Jensen, stand straight. Don’t speak unless spoken to. Smile, don’t look dour. There’s my little man. Shake hands with Mr. Benson … Mr. Dale … Mr. Rory … Mr. Adam … Mr. Conrad.

Jensen smiles and shakes their hands when they come to pick his mother up, but when the door shuts it’s safe to let his smile slip, wriggling his jaw to be sure it won’t lock in that fake position like the villain in his favorite comic. When she returns in a few hours, his mother pays the babysitter and then shuts the door after another in a series of one-time-only dates and stares at Jensen hard.

Said he’s not ready to take on the responsibility. Maybe next time you should just stay in your room.

Jared has repeated his name and Jensen blinks slowly to see three pairs of eyes gazing at him. Drawing in a breath he sinks back into the visiting boyfriend role. “I’m sorry. I didn’t catch the last thing you said, Sherri. I believe the thought of those flowered board shorts might have short-circuited my brain.”

She giggles warmly and scolds Jared that he didn’t tell her Jensen was so funny.

At dinner Jensen shares stories of his days touring with his art. Out of the corner of his eye he sees Jared mesmerized and realizes that he hadn’t shared much of this with Jared yet.

“Twice a year in Florida there’s this large art show where I probably make about a fourth of my sales.” He smiles broadly. “Helps that those retired folks don’t see that well.”

Both Gerry and Sherri quickly disagree. “Jay showed us the link to your art on the web and your paintings are lovely.”

Jensen cringes inside because ‘lovely’ is never a word he’d use for his work. Barren and cold and otherworldly – those he’s heard before.

It doesn’t matter because Jensen knows what he paints.

“There was this older woman once, I believe she said she was ninety-one. She was using a walker and was accompanied by an assistant. She kept returning to one of my snow scenes.”

Jensen blinks and sees the folds on the woman’s face, rippling like the sand on his beach. She is thin and hunched but her eyes are a shocking clear gray and immediately he sees his ocean bubbling in their depths. He’d brought her a chair and she’d settled in front of an oversized snow-scape and her companion had wandered away to see the rest of the exhibit. Jensen had stood silently beside the older woman.

He remembered how he’d sketched the snow drifts over the beach. They blended into the ocean like frozen waves. In his studio he’d disappeared into that painting for weeks. Danni’d brought him coffee and thermoses of soup. The guy he’d been fucking at the time came by and told him off when Jensen never even turned around to acknowledge him.

The old woman’s voice was soft and Jensen squatted to hear her better. “Never saw snow,” she admitted. “Born and raised here.”

Jensen had only nodded.

“Got as far north as Washington, DC once. Wanted to see Lincoln’s Memorial. But it didn’t snow that day.” Eyes forward she continued, “ ’Course it snowed here last year. Remember that? Stopped the town.”

“I don’t live here, Ma’am.”

“No matter. Was more of a dusting. Looked pretty out the window. Didn’t let me outside. Daughter was afraid for ‘m health.” She pointed with a slightly bent finger. “Does it really cover the air like that? Looks different on the TV.”

“That’s how I saw it that day, Ma’am.” He wanted her to see it through his words. “The air gets pink and wispy and the flakes dance like fairies. But when it’s near the ocean it’s like a battle more than a dance. And she wins, the ocean, usually. But sometimes, like on that day, the snow holds its ground, comes down faster than the water can snuff it out and it’s like a layer of cotton sits on the edge of the world.”

Jensen sighs and concludes the story he is sharing with Jared’s parents. “The woman couldn’t afford the painting. But I tracked down her caregiver and asked if she’d mind coming back later and I wrapped it and told her to please take it to her employer.” He rakes a hand through his hair. “I hope she did, take it to her. I mean, I had to man my exhibit and I couldn’t … I’ve always wondered if the caregiver didn’t maybe keep it to resell. But, well, I want to believe it got hung in her room where the ice crystals could cool her even on the warmest Florida days.”

It’s quiet for a long spell and Jensen suddenly wonders if he’s come across as arrogant. His mother always said it was amazing his paintings did as well as they did.

Lucky for you the world will always be full of suckers. Imagine if you had to get a real job.

Raising his head he’s stunned to see both Sherri’s and Jared’s eyes glistening. Gerry coughs and says he’s going to start clearing the table. Jensen wants to help, is used to it, but Sherri insists he sit still.

Everyone has taken something from the table, and despite what they said Jensen feels foolish just staying there. He grabs the couple glasses left behind and heads toward the kitchen. The voices travel and Jensen stops cold.

“You were so worried, why would you be? He seems perfectly comfortable around us.”

“Really, Jay, to hear you, I thought we’d be struggling for conversation the whole visit.”

“I don’t … I didn’t mean to make you think … “

His father’s voice deepens. “I don’t sense any shyness or reserve. He’s a perfectly charming young man.”

“Yes,” Jared says except Jared hears an obvious lie in Jared’s tone and can’t help his temper from flaring. This must be partly Danni’s fault. She’s always filling Jared’s head with stories from when they were kids and he knows Jared now has these warped idea that things were wrong somehow.

Jensen takes a deep breath and pastes the smile back on his face and brings the glasses into the kitchen. The dishwasher is open and Jensen places them directly into the top rack.

“Oh, Jensen, you didn’t have to—Thank you,” Sherri says.

“My pleasure.”

Gerry puts up coffee and Sherri ushers them into the living room. “Let’s have dessert in here,” she says.

They settle on the deep sofas once more and Jensen exclaims he’s never had a better slice of cheesecake.

“Do you like it? It’s my mother’s recipe.”

“It’s amazing Sherri. I’ve never tasted anything better.”

Sherri beams and Jared looks between them with a smile. Jensen still feels miffed but nobody would know it.

They spend a little time on current events and Jensen smoothly navigates around any topic that could be touchy in the political arena. It’s not too difficult as Jared’s parents lean toward liberal. More so than Jensen’s mother who is diametrically opposed to anything the president proposes. She’s only liberal when it comes to gay rights and sometimes Jensen wonders about that.

He’s having a side conversation with Sherri about the gridlock in Washington and how ultimately harmful it is to the nation when he picks up on the question Gerry has asked Jared.

“I did apply but I haven’t heard back yet. Dad … let’s talk about it later … I didn’t really get a chance to talk about this with Jensen yet.”

It slips out despite his better sense to bring up anything personal in this situation. “Didn’t get to discuss what with me, Jay?”

Jared looks from one parent to the other, face literally looking pained and Jensen’s heart ricochets in his chest. Outwardly, however, not even a muscle ticks on his composed face.

“There’s this teaching fellowship. It’s, well, it’s sort of renowned.”

There are very few reasons why Jared would look like he’s walking through dog shit when discussing something like that.

“Santa Barbara,” Jensen says with certainty. That’s where Jared was originally going to attend graduate school. It’s the best program in the country for Jared’s specific interests. Of course, that’s where he’s heading, three thousand miles away.

A few months ago it almost split them up.

He takes as deep a breath as he can without showing anything of the turmoil inside. Okay, he tells himself. Okay, it’s okay. He’s had Jared for seven months and that’s a longer run than he could ever have imagined for himself in a relationship. In the past … well, nobody was ever like Jared.

It was good while it lasted.

You have such different educational levels, Jensen. I’m surprised Jared finds topics to talk to you about.

Mom, I’m not … sure I never finished college, but I’m not a moron.

Jensen, dear, of course you’re not. But it is a good thing you inherited my good looks. That’s all I’m saying.

“That’s fantastic, Jay,” he says. “They will definitely accept you. No question about it. Is this the special education program?”

He sees the smile on Gerry’s face and feels proud he’s struck the right tone.

“Yes,” Jared says, voice a little stilted. “Jen … let’s talk later. I never meant … “

“We can talk about it now. We’re with family. Professor Miles, right? You said he was the grandfather of the intuitive learning system you favor.”

“I admire his work, yes. But Jensen … they haven’t said yes yet and even so—“

“They will say yes. This is great news.” Jensen turns to Sherri and Gerry. “I say we toast to Jared, what do you think?”

Sherri rises and asks if brandy is fine and Jensen nods, accepting the sifter and lifting it high, voice as clear as his ocean on the calmest spring day. “To Jared and the many lucky students who will one day thrive under his tutelage.”

The golden liquid is of good quality and goes down smooth and warm. It’s okay, he repeats internally. It’s fine, it’s good. Jared deserves only the best, he deserves to be happy. Jensen can’t wish anything less for him. He wonders now if Danni knew about this. Probably, he thinks, since she and Jared have become freakin’ besties and often plot to ‘handle’ Jensen with news like this.

He gulps the rest of the drink and places the empty glass on the table, careful to first pull over one of Sherri’s coasters. “You know, I think that amazing meal has done me in. Jay, why don’t you take a little time with your parents alone. I’m going to head to bed.”

“Jen … no … I’ll come—“

“Jay … I’m sure your parents want some time with you.” He looks to them and they can’t help but nod in agreement. Jared looks at him, lips twisting but he can’t do anything. Jensen kisses Sherri on the cheek and thanks Gerri again for the excellent meal and disappears up the stairs to the room they were shown when they first arrived.

It’s not until the door shuts behind him with a soft snick that he allows himself to breathe faster. Oh god oh god oh god. He clutches the door knob until his knuckles turn white. Not here. He can’t feel anything here. It’s too close to them. He can’t.

No Jensen. Not here. They don’t deserve to see your tears. They’ve looked down on us all our lives. And your grandmother … well … she only came around when she saw how pretty you were, like a doll. Always liked pretty things. Decorative things. When I was with child … well, that’s wasn’t very pretty, was it? All bloated and fat and everyone knowing and your father in the wind. Said I was weak, foolish. And she was right, of course. But you were such a pretty baby. They say not to speak ill of the dead so we can’t Jensen, we can’t. But we know that all these idiots crying don’t know who they are crying over. Don’t we? Sit up, Jensen, and not one tear do you hear me? Not here. Not where they can see.

He makes his way to the bed and sits ramrod straight, hands at his sides, clutching the bedspread in a punishing grip. His chest contracts from the outside and expands from the inside and he feels the pressure until his ears ring.

It’s not surprising he didn’t hear the door open. “Jen?”

“Not here,” he says, voice as gritty as incense.

“Jen, I need to explain, please.”

Jensen looks up and schools his face to placid. It’s like a muscle memory, effortless as reading at this point. “Nothing to explain, Jay. Why’d you cut your time short with your folks?”

Jared’s eyes, mercurial on the calmest of days are now a maelstrom of emotion. Jensen momentarily itches for a sketchpad because will there ever be anything so alive to draw again?

“This wasn’t the way I wanted us to discuss it,” Jared protests.

“Nothing to discuss, Jay. You have to live your life. Follow your dreams. I know what this means to you. To tell the truth, I’ve been expecting it.”

Jared sits next to him and reaches for Jensen’s hand but Jensen deftly avoids being touched. He shifts over and puts space between them.

“Please listen to me. It’s a four-week program. I’m not transferring schools. I’m not. I’ll just be away for the length of the program.”

Danni says Grandmother is in heaven.

She would say that, dear. People say things like that to make us feel better. But I think children should know the truth. Why lie? Your grandmother is in that box. She’ll be in the ground.

But … she … there are bugs and it’s dirty. She wouldn’t like that. Would … would you want that?

No. I suppose I wouldn’t. When I pass, Jensen, you can cremate me. Do you know what that is? You’ll burn my body.

Ashes. That’s all that’s left in the end, Jensen thinks. It’s true of everything. It all goes to dust eventually. His art. Relationships. Life. It’s the natural order of things. His mother is right. Crying about it changes nothing.

His mouth is dry, as if he’s already burned up and he can taste the lingering remains, powdery and bitter on his tongue.

“Sure. Okay. It’s all good, Jay.”

“Jensen … “

“I think I’ll take a shower now. Bathroom is down the hall, right?”

Jared stands and blocks his path, something hardening in his eyes. “No.” He pulls his hair back from his forehead. “I mean, not yet. You aren’t listening to me. A. I haven’t been accepted yet.” Jensen rolls his eyes. Jared ignores that and perseveres. “And B. It’s a four-week program. I will come back. This is not me breaking us up.”

Smooth as glass, Jensen responds steadily. “Never said you were. I’m happy about it. Happy for you. What do you take me for? It’s good, Jay, really.”

He steps around Jared and escapes into the hallway. Closes the bathroom door, strips. When the hot water is pouring onto his back he leans back and braces against the cool tiles. Shit. He wishes he was home more than anything. He needs his space. Needs his studio. He realizes that he’s subconsciously been using his finger to draw in the condensation of the shower door.

Not surprisingly it’s a shore line. The curve of the land swoops up and into the sand dunes. Finger moving swiftly he adds wild grass and a moon, hanging low and sleepy above the water line. God, he wishes he was there, inhaling the salt spray, eyes stinging with swirling sand. It’s easier to explain his tears when the grit burns.

The slam is hard enough to make him jump. He yelps. “Jay, what the hell?! We’re in your parents’ house … you can’t—“

But it seems Jared believes he can as he shoves the shower door aside and Jensen is pushed against the tile, ass sliding on the slick surface as Jared muscles in beside him. “You can’t be in here with me—“ Jensen sputters, face turning red.

“Good,” Jared says with a mocking expression. “There is still blood pumping through your veins.”

Jensen is aware of anger emanating off Jared but, well, Jared is naked and dripping and the shower’s steam is wafting off him as if he’s self-generating it. Jensen’s thinking is momentarily muffled.

Jared brings his arms up and brackets Jensen in against the tile. The shower is spraying mostly on Jared now, dripping down his nose, his cheeks. Jensen breathes hard.

“Okay. Good. Pod person gone.”

This lets Jensen find his voice although it’s still much fainter than he’d like. “What the fuck are you--?”

“I’m trying to talk to you. To you. Not to whomever you think you need to be during this visit.”

“That was me,” Jensen argues, anger rising because he can’t stand the idea of what Jared imagines is the true Jensen. Some sort of emotionally stunted, anti-social idiot.

Jared sighs. “Yes. I know it is … with my parents. They adore you. I think if I didn’t love you like I do they’d be crushed. But I know you were shocked about the fellowship and that is not how I wanted us to talk about it for the first time.”

“I don’t need a soft sell. I don’t need to be ‘handled’. You’re going to California. No surprise really.”

“It’s for four weeks.”

“Right,” Jensen says.

Jared leans in and his voice is rough. “Would you like to know what my parents and I talked about when you so kindly gave us time to ourselves?”

Jensen tries to fight the heat that keeps emanating from Jared. It’s damned distracting. He nods his head yes.

“I told them it was a good thing they liked you as much as they did because you were it for me.”

“Jay … “

“I’m going to say it again. You. Are. It. For. Me. So that’s that.”

“But your education … “

“Second place.”

Jensen squirms because it’s suddenly airless in the small, wet space. Jared lets him go. He runs a hand to wipe the water off his face.

“Jared … “

“There’s only one question.”

Jensen looks at him and waits.

“Do you love me?”

He wonders if Jared is really asking about that, because if there is one truth in Jensen’s life it’s the crazy way that Jared has molded himself around his heart. Jensen nods.

“No. Not this time. Do you love me?”

Jared has never forced the words before. Jensen feels overheated and it takes a few breaths before his lungs feel full. A glance over Jared’s shoulder and he can make out the last dripping remains of the seascape he’d etched on the glass, the curve of that fat moon that had illuminated the ocean. The balm over the rough waves. There would be no ocean without that moon.

“I love you,” he says voice gravelly as if he had swallowed that sand. “I love you so much I don’t know how not to.”

“I’m not going to make you figure out how not to. I promise. I won’t. Four weeks and I’ll be back.”

His lips find Jared’s and it’s sweet like cheesecake and smooth like brandy and bright as moonlight.

Jared pulls back first, gasping sexily. He snorts. “We really can’t … my parents … “

Jensen grins. “Fucking tease.”

Jared moves closer and Jensen can feel every delicious inch of him. “I can be quiet.”

Jensen laughs into Jared’s shoulder. “That would be a first.”

Before Jared’s lips reach his again Jensen hears his mother’s voice whispering not here but this time he turns it off and meets Jared’s lips with every ounce of what he feels surging through his veins.

Maybe it will all go to dust.

He supposes the trick is what one does before that.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The Ashes
by Karin Gottshall

You were carried here by hands
and now the wind has you, gritty
as incense, dark sparkles borne

in the shape of blowing,
this great atmospheric bloom,
spinning under the bridge and expanding—

shape of wind and its pattern
of shattering. Having sloughed off
the urn's temporary shape,

there is another of you now—
tell me which to speak to:
the one you were, or are, the one who waited

in the ashes for this scattering, or the one
now added to the already haunted woods,
the woods that sigh and shift their leaves—

where your mystery billows, then breathes.