It's freezing outside, chill fingers of arctic ocean breeze seeping in through the cracks in doors and windows, but if anyone asked Jared right now he'd have to admit he's not bothered by the cold at all. Instead, he can still feel the light, tentative pressure of Jensen's fingers on his forehead, his cheeks, the thin skin of his eyelids. Hesitant. Shy. Warm.
He laughs at himself when he's kinda hesitant to shave because the tingles of mentholated crème will wipe out the lingering feel of Jensen's fingertips.
It's dumb, yeah. He'll get to see the guy again, maybe even this morning.
Jared examines himself narrowly in the mirror, twisting his mouth this way and that to pull his cheeks taut on one side and then the other. Drags the back of his hand thoughtfully over his chin and assesses the quality of stubble.
He ends up dropping the can of Barbasol back on the shelf above the bathroom sink and leaving his new five-pack of yellow Bic razors unopened. A little five o'clock shadow never hurt anyone, and it's not like Mr. Manners is gonna expect him to show up in a suit and tie when he'll spend the day sawing and hammering.
He does remember to dress warmly -- T-shirt with the Pepsi logo under a thick stormy-sky gray sweater with only one rip under the arm, paint-stained jeans, lumberjack socks and solid boots. He can't find his gloves, but figures however many out of whatever number isn't bad. His brown windbreaker has deep pockets, so he should be all right.
Jared shivers as he tromps down the steep stairwell leading up to his second-floor apartment, the sharpness of the chill rising as he gets closer to the drafty door. Geez, he hopes Jensen's apartment on the ground floor has better insulation than this.
Smacking his hands together to warm them against the coming trek, remembering at the last minute to snag the spare key from its hiding place under the inside mat, he locks the door behind him and sinks the key in its place in the mailbox.
"Score!" he whoops quietly, trying to keep it down. He doesn't know much about Jensen yet, but one thing he's sure of is that Jensen's not a morning person.
Except that when he hears soft laughter behind him and turns around to see who's chuckling at him, he sees Jensen already set up in his half of the porch. Coffee mug clasped gingerly in his bandaged hands, smoky glasses on his nose, his smile shy but bright.
"Jared?" he asks, not much doubt in his voice. "If you lose that key, Kim's going to take it out of your hide."
Jared grins. "That's so awesome how you knew what I was doing," he says easily, finding his already-accustomed spot to lean against the porch railing. It rattles, but doesn't give way.
He runs over what he just said and winces. "Okay, tactless. Sorry."
"How was it tactless?" Jensen sips his coffee, breathing in the steam.
Jared laughs. "Man, when I know I'm being rude --"
"Hey, I worked hard to be able to identify sounds. It's actually kind of cool that you noticed." Jensen says the last in a near-mumble, turning his face slightly away.
Jared regards the guy, shaking his head and grinning with appreciation. He wants to tell Jensen he's adorable, and he's got his mouth open to do so when the scent of Jensen's coffee goes right up his nose and he almost moans at the aroma. He's gotta find out what kind of beans Jen uses. Coffee has never smelled so wonderful to him in his life, and he's done his share of slopping behind steaming chrome machines at Starbucks.
Jensen reads his mind, apparently, and holds out the mug. "Want some?"
"God, yes." Jared rushes him, remembering to skid to a stop two steps away. Jensen chuckles, and Jared knows he knows what Jared's thinking. "I like your hair. Can I touch it?"
"You want to touch my hair?" Jensen blinks. "Okay, that was random. You really are a freak."
"Shut up. It looks soft. Can I?"
Jensen shakes his head. Jared can tell he's amused. "Knock yourself out. Not literally."
"Smartass." Jared knuckles the top of Jensen's head, then runs his fingers through Jensen's hair. He thinks it might have grown out from a near-buzz once upon a not too long ago time. Now it's soft, blondish-brown, falling over his forehead.
He slides Jensen's smoked glasses down his nose so he can enjoy the green of Jensen's eyes. They can't look back at him and see him, but that doesn't matter. "Man, you're gorgeous," Jared says, tickled when Jensen blushes, mutters to himself, and withdraws the coffee mug.
"Hey, hey, no fair. I was all set for that." He snags the mug easily, Jensen not putting up any real resistance, and lifts it to his lips. The first sip goes down like both heaven and hell, tasting as good as it smells and hot enough to scald the tender insides of his throat.
Jensen snickers at him when he swears. "Oops."
"Oops, nothing. Here, take it back." Jared pushes the mug back into Jensen's hands and wipes his mouth on his sleeve. His lips are sore, burned. "How does the heat of that mug not hurt your hands? Oh, hey, how are those today?" He assesses the condition of the bandages he wrapped around Jensen's palms the night before, still doubtful about whether or not some of the glass cuts would need stitches. They're clumsy and don't look like they're going to do such a great job. "Maybe you should get Chris to fix those when he comes around next."
Jensen shrugs, seeming unconcerned. "I probably will." He slurps his coffee with great satisfaction.
Jared's awed. "I have no idea how you don't burn out your throat. What do you do, boil it instead of using a drip machine?"
"Actually, yeah." Jensen takes a swig like it's nothing. Jared has to admire him for that. Resting the mug on his knee, which is still a big ouch in Jared's estimation, he tilts back to "look" up at Jared. "So you start work today, huh?"
There's something in his voice, way contrasted to the ordinary words, that Jared can't put his finger on. "Yeah," he says, opting for simple truth in the face of confusion. Usually works for him. He finds another place on the railing and crosses his arms. One of his boot-tips nudges Jensen's feet. He stares. The guy's only wearing socks out here in the cold. "Dude. Shoes?"
Jensen twitches his feet behind the legs of his chair. "I like being able to feel where I am."
"Huh." Makes sense to Jared. He gets the weirdest -- but flattered -- sensation that these are things Jensen doesn't tell anyone. Oh, Chris probably knows, and Steve, but anyone else? Nuh-uh.
And now him. It warms him from the inside out better than the coffee. Pleased enough with himself to pop, he starts drumming out a rat-a-tat-tat on the railing, moving his hands because he never can sit still, y'know?
Jensen raises the mug for another chug and smiles around the rim. "That rhythm. Sounds like Steve's knock."
"It does?" Jared knows what he means, having figured out the whole code thing. After the fact, sure, but still. He tries to remember and re-create the pattern. "Like this?"
"Almost. Two short where you had pause, knock, pause. Otherwise, you got it." Jensen snorts softly. "It's not like it's Morse code or anything."
"Do you read Braille?" Jared blurts, the question having popped into his head a half-second before he asks it. In his head, Sera does a facepalm. "Okay. Mmm, toe jam."
Jensen throws his head back and laughs. Really laughs. Not loudly, quietly -- Jensen never makes much noise. Jared beams back at him. If his chronic foot-in-mouth tickles Jensen's funny bone, then he's good with that.
"Nah," Jensen says when he calms down. "I don't read Braille. Never learned. Besides, it's all computers these days, even books, and I have a screen reader."
"No kidding?" Jared's fascinated. "Voice recognition kinda thing?"
"That, and I listen to a lot of podcasts, and I'm good at the touch typing." Jensen waggles his fingers in Jared's direction. "Split keyboard and everything."
"You're awesome," Jared tells him. God, it's a good morning. Jensen really comes to life once you get past those walls. He thinks they're gonna end up being friends after all.
Kissing him the other night, even if it was only just the inside of his wrist, that was pretty legendary too.
"Can I have a special knock?"
"What?" Jensen scoffs. "Like you'd ever need one. I know the sound of your walk. Thump, thump, thump." His imitation comes across like Jared's a six-legged Clydesdale.
Jared thinks about that one. "So why do Steve and Chris have code knocks?" He's honestly puzzled. "Don't you know their gait by now? And hey, why isn't it enough just for them to holler so you know them by their voices?"
Jensen sips his coffee and gingerly strokes the sides of his mug. "I always loved this shade of green," he says, almost musing over it. "It made me think of what jade should look like. Jade's kind of disappointing to me with that sickly pale green."
"Ugh, yeah. Call me a heathen or whatever, but the color of jade always kinda reminds me of snot." Pavlovian to the last, Jared brushes the tip of his nose with his fingers. "Wait, you know what colors are?"
Jensen snorts softly. "I wasn't always blind." Before Jared can ask, he's already rushing on. "So what's your favorite color? I'm going to bet red."
"Nah. It's blue." Jared ponders. "Or maybe purple. Or orange."
Jensen wrinkles his nose. "Orange?"
"What? Orange is a perfectly good color. Nothing wrong with orange. What do you have against it? You snorted OJ up your nose once upon a time?"
"Man, get out of here." Jensen's smile lights up his face. Jared could watch him for hours. Or not, as Jensen reminds him next, "You're gonna be late for work."
Jared jumps, wrist flying up for him to check his watch. "Shit!"
"Where?" Jensen deadpans.
"Shut up." Jared flails his fingers through Jensen's hair, pops a kiss on his forehead without really thinking, and lopes off the porch. "See you later!" he hollers, making tracks.
When he glances back, Jensen's still looking pole-axed. Jared couldn't be better pleased. Damn, but Jensen really is cute.
Jensen slides his glasses back up his nose, licks his lips, and nods. "Yeah," he says, slowly touching his forehead. "Later."
Mr. Manners gave him careful instructions to the site where they're supposed to meet up today, warning him he'd find it easier to walk instead of drive. Jared's grateful for the advice halfway into his trek, as it looks like these tiny, cramped streets haven't been cleared up since the hurricane before last. The sunlight seems weak today, pale instead of bright, and the chill off the ocean cuts near clean to the bone.
He's got long legs, and he makes decent time. According to his watch, he's not late by more than ten minutes when he finds what he thinks is the house he and Mr. Manners are gonna work on first. One project as a team -- he guesses so Mr. Manners can judge for himself whether or not Jared's gonna end up hammering his thumb nine times out of ten and if he can be trusted with a band saw (probably not) -- and then he'll be turned loose on his own.
Mr. Manners is nowhere in sight at the moment, but Jared's almost positive he's in the right place. He's satisfied of his choice when he noses around the back of the tumbledown cottage and spies a pallet of bricks, some paint cans and tarpaulin-covered building supplies.
Rubbing his hands together to warm them up, Jared investigates. He already thinks he's gonna enjoy this, even if he doesn't know much about what he's meant to be doing. How hard can it be to learn, anyway? It's just hammering and laying bricks. Kids do Lego all the time and it's probably the same principle. This is the kind of work he loves best, diving in and getting his hands dirty, finishing up the day with something solid he can point to and say "I did that", enjoying the burn of hard work in his limbs and back.
Jared's deeply involved with prodding at a bucket of weird gray slop that he thinks might be mortar, testing its goopiness, when someone calls his name.
"Padalecki, that you? If not, you've got ten seconds to explain what you're doing here."
Glancing up, Jared sees a compact, grizzled man, hands shoved in the pockets of his paint-stained coat. He's got longish hair that was probably once reddish brown but is now liberally streaked with white and gray, and sad eyes that slope down at the outside corners.
Looks familiar, somehow. Jared studies him, fascinated and curious, wondering if they've met before. Then, he gets it. Dude! This guy looks just like Willie Nelson! Put him in some braids and plaster on a skuzzy beard, and voila.
Standing up, Jared belts out, full-throated, "Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be cowboys." He twangs on an air guitar. "Let them be… um… truckers and fry cooks and stuff, and…"
He trails off. Mr. Manners has a look in his eye that tells Jared he's not only instantly regretting his job offer, but is maybe planning his messy death, too. Oh, boy.
Jared clears his throat and tugs at a lock of his hair. "I'm so fired, aren't I?"
Mr. Manners shakes his head. "Sera warned me."
"She did?" Traitor. Still, if he got the job even after Sera sold him down the river… "Do-over?"
It takes a moment for Jared to realize the slight shift in Mr. Manners' expression equals an exasperated but honest amusement. "We'll see. This over here is mortar, and don't poke at it," he says, coming around to point at the bucket. He picks up a trowel. "I'll set you to working on rebuilding the collapsed back room first. Hope you're a quick learner."
Jared nods. "I'll do my best. I'm a hard worker."
Mr. Manners grunts. "We'll see," he repeats. "Grab the bucket and follow me. Time we got started."
Trailing after him -- and even if he's gotta keep this to himself, Mr. Manners does look like Willie Nelson -- Jared decides he'll throw himself into this at least twice as much as he does his normal jobs. He's not in any rush to hit the road before he's had a chance to get to know Jensen better.
Been a long, long time since he wanted to stay put anywhere, at least for a while. When it sinks in that he's actually considering hanging around the notion troubles Jared more than a little.
He exhales slowly. Lord, Sera's gonna laugh her ass off when she finds out about this. But then she'll hug him and smack him around with love and then it'd all be fine. Maybe he'll call her later, laugh about everything, enjoy a big dose of good old-fashioned sisterly common sense and get it all sorted out. Yeah. That's his game plan.
It doesn't exactly work out that way.
Around mid-morning, maybe a couple of hours later, Jared's already feeling the burn. He's pounded his thumb -- the same one -- three times, mortar's drying crusty on his knees and he knows for a fact that it tastes terrible when you accidentally catch a splash on your lip. He's got splinters lodged in his shoulder from carrying a board the wrong way, and Mr. Manners made him sign a waiver he scribbled on the spot before he let Jared climb up in some scaffolding to start painting a part of the house that's still intact. He's sweaty despite the cold, he's dirty, and he's sore as a mother.
This job is awesome.
Jared sings under his breath as he sloshes the bite-sized hand roller around in its tray of dark green paint. As long as he stays away from country, Mr. Manners doesn't seem to mind.
When he switches to "Bubbly", Mr. Manners curses halfway through the second "crinkle my nose". Jared stops with a guilty flinch and turns to him in question, sheepish grin at the ready.
Then he sees that Mr. Manners isn't even looking at him, and maybe isn't listening, either. He's got a brick in one hand and a trowel full of mortar in the other, and he's paying almost no attention to neither. Carefully putting the brick in its place and slathering on the mortar, he waits until he's done with that to put his hand over his eyes, squint, and whistle softly. He clicks his tongue. "Well, I'll be damned."
Jared twists around to try and see for himself, since it appears that Mr. Manners isn't going to be too forthcoming. When he spies the object of Mr. Manners' fascination, he lurches in surprise, dropping his paint tray. A splatter of green narrowly misses the top of Mr. Manners' grizzled head; neither of them really notice.
For coming down the debris-cluttered street, led by a gleefully trotting yellow Labrador, is Jensen. He's dressed warmly in a heavy green jacket and a pair of sturdy leather gloves to hide his bandages hands, and has a ski cap of the same hue pulled down around his ears. His glasses have slid halfway down his nose and he's pink under his freckles from exertion. He's going slowly, letting Hannah nose out the easiest paths around fallen branches and scattered shingles, and of freakin' course Steve and Chris are right behind him, but by damn, here he is.
Jared almost bounces. "Whoo! Jen!" he hollers, already trying to figure out how to get down off the scaffolding, something he realizes he might have wanted to get straight in his mind before he climbed up. "Jen, look over here!"
Hannah barks, excited, and tugs on her braided leather leash. Jensen's head snaps up and he waves, getting the direction right. His smile is tentative but bright.
Chris, Jared can't help but notice, has stopped dead in his tracks. Steve's halfway between Jensen and Chris, looking to and fro, pretty obviously exasperated and already tired. He's speaking earnestly to Chris, who looks like he could bite through a handful of the nails Jared dropped earlier.
Jared pretty much couldn't care less. He slithers through the last of the scaffolding and drops to his feet in the hummus of what was once a bed of irises. They tangle around his ankle. By the time he's kicked them off, Hannah's dragged Jensen almost all the way up to him.
"Here I come!" he hollers by way of a heads'-up, dragging Jensen in for one of his top-quality bear hugs as soon as he can wrap his arms around him. "See? Told you!"
Jensen oofs, then hesitantly pats his back. "There you go. Warnings are good. That worked out a lot better this time."
Jared lets him go, grinning. He props himself on the scaffolding and enjoys the view: Jensen, red-cheeked and breathing hard, Hannah almost prancing in circles, she's so pleased with herself. Jared lets her climb his leg, muddy paws planted firmly on his thigh, and tousles up her silky golden head, crooning nonsense endearments.
"Seriously, what are you doing here? Did you come to see me?" he asks after Hannah's done trying her best to lick his nose off. She settles at his feet, doggie love at its finest. Jared wishes he'd had a chance to go pick up those Milk Bones the way he'd half-planned.
Jensen's cheeks blush a shade deeper. "No, I got lost and just happened to end up on a building site. Of course I came looking for you," he says, winding Hannah's leash more securely around his wrist. His smile is hesitant and hopeful. "So, did I find you? You really are Jared and not some other giant klutz?"
Jared laughs. "Damn right you did." He's got other words on the tip of his tongue when a particularly colorful curse rings out from behind Jensen. He peers past that rich green cap to eyeball Chris and Steve. Looks to him like Steve is winning the argument, but only just, and by means of several compromises.
Also looks to him like Steve really needs a solid meal, a back rub, maybe a couple of hours in a hot tub with lots of Calgon to take him away from all this, and a fifth of bourbon. Jared likes the guy, and decides if he and Chris ever do get tangled up in fisticuffs, he'll pop Chris an extra good, hard one to the nose for making life hard on the guy he's pretty sure is Chris's main squeeze.
"Wants to go out for a walk, he says," Chris snarls. "No, doesn't anyone need to go with him, like he's got --"
"Chris," Steve says, making it sound like a warning.
Maybe it is. Chris pulls up short, lips pressed tight. White dents appear at either side of his nose. "I ask to take an extra hour at lunch so I can keep a look out on him, 'cause he won't hear of waiting till after five, nuh-uh. I could lose my damn job over this and he fuckin' well knows that --"
"Chris," Steve says, tired again. "No one made you do anything. He didn't put a gun to your head and --"
Chris cuts him off. "What was I supposed to do, let him traipse on down here all by himself with hands all cut to hell from the glass that damn idiot over there made him drop?"
"It's a thought."
"Steve… swear to… god damn it!" Chris's fists flex.
Steve's quiet and calm, but won't be stopped. "Even if you wouldn't let him go alone. Even if. I could have since I'm on third shift tonight."
Chris exhales noisily. "It's not --"
"Not the same. No. I get that." Steve shakes his head and turns away.
Jensen must realize that Jared's gotten distracted; he pats his chest tentatively, drawing his attention back. Jared's grateful. It's getting ugly over there and Jensen's much prettier to concentrate on. "Don't mind them, okay? Chris talks a lot of smack and he runs off at the mouth all the time. They're just words."
Behind them, Steve's back is stiff with anger, but he's looking down, and his hands are in his pockets, not fists.
"Steve, don't you pull this shit on me," Chris says, sounding more like he's coaxing, worried about Steve too, now.
Steve mutters something Jared can't make out.
Way to harsh someone's mellow. Jared shakes himself out of it and returns all his attention to Jensen, troubled, storing all that away for later.
"So what, you're out here to get a look at the finest in beach house reconstruction?" He snags Jen by the hand and tries to lead him forward. "Oh, hey, there's something you have to see. I've gotta show you this crazy fountain, it's shaped like a goat standing on its hind legs and I guess the water's supposed to come out of its horns, and --"
"Jay, Jay, slow down." Jensen halts, carefully laying his palms over Jared's chest. He's smiling like a kid, wide and innocent and sweet. "I came out here to see you, not some fountain."
For whatever reason, a single butterfly starts swanning about in Jared's stomach. "Really?" He mirrors the flat-palm touch on Jensen's shoulders. "I, uh… wow."
Then, his heart stops as Jensen cautiously lifts his gloved fingertips to Jared's face and traces the shape of his smile, delighted expression on his face when that smile grows into what Jared sees in pictures as a wide, white slice that makes his stupid dimples show.
Jensen pokes one dimple with his thumb. "How girly of you."
"Hey, I didn't ask to be born with them," Jared protests. Anyone else, he'd find something to smart off about in return, or push them away. Not Jensen, though, nuh-uh.
"Not a word about my eyelashes," Jen warns.
Jared can pretend honest innocence. "I wasn't going to!" Although now he's curious and slides Jensen's smoked glasses down again, taking a peek. Wow. Stupidly long and thick and curly. "Now those are girly," he says, blowing warm air over them.
"Hey!" Jensen grasps Jared's chin and shakes him gently. "Smart-ass."
"Yep," Jared replies happily.
"I, um…" Jensen licks his lips. Whoa, those are kinda feminine too, full and pink. Actually, Jensen's all around a pretty kind of guy rather than rugged.
Jared thinks he might like "pretty" better now that he's had a chance to appreciate it properly.
"You, um, what?" he teases.
Jensen turns away, sucking one of those sexy lips between his teeth and nibbling. Jared's about to ask him what's wrong when Jensen exhales, turns back, raises up on tiptoe and kisses him.
Jared stands very, very still. Stunned. Jensen's lips are warm on the corner of his mouth -- he missed by a tad -- then warmer as they brush over his lips proper. It's quick and it's chaste, barely a second's touch of mouth on mouth, and he's still standing frozen like a great big dummy when Jensen settles back down on his feet.
He looks so incredibly hopeful, and it's making Jared's heart beat way too fast.
"Jen, I --" he starts, not at all sure where he wants to say next and for him, that's a first.
Jensen crinkles his nose. "What's that dried up on your chin?" he asks. Then, he frowns, patting at his jacket front. "What the hell?"
Jared follows in the same direction and groans. He looks at the mini paint roller still clutched in his hand -- dear God, he had it this whole time -- and at the huge splotch of darker green paint ruining Jensen's green jacket.
"I am a total ass," he says with full sincerity.
Jensen swabs one gloved finger through the paint and holds it under his nose, sniffing. Jared's prepared for getting himself chewed a new one when Jen pulls the grass out from under his feet again by chortling. "Is this paint?"
"Uh-huh," Jared admits, torn between shame, confusion and admiration. Style, Jensen has it. "Maybe it'll come out."
Jensen wipes his finger on Jared's cheek. "You're not just an ass, you're a lunatic," he says, blank eyes wide with mirth. "Paint, among other things, never comes out. Menace."
Since it's ruined anyway, and them's asking for a smackdown type words, Jared drags the roller over Jensen's chest. Jensen squawks and elbows at him, trying to dodge.
"My God." Jensen grabs the roller from him and tosses it aside. Jared gets in her way before Hannah decides to play fetch. "I think I'd better get out of here before you start coming up with worse." He lays his hand on Jared's arm, almost hesitantly compared to how he was playing before. "You feel like hanging out tonight?"
Jared lights up. "Absolutely. I can bring food."
"Or I could cook."
"Maybe you could add meatballs to the spaghetti?"
"Carnivore." Jensen delivers the accusation with no heat, only humor. "Fine. I'll handle raw ground beef if it'll make you happy."
"So very would." Jared squeezes Jensen's wrist. "Better get back to Chris before he pops something, anyway."
With one last, nearly shy press of his hand over Jared's heart, Jensen turns to go. Hannah barks at him in farewell and proudly leads the way, her head held high.
Jared watches until they're all three men and one dog far enough away to look about one inch tall against the horizon, then turns back to Mr. Manners. "Okay. Should I finish the painting?"
The expression on Mr. Manners' face is a sight to behold, and it puzzles Jared. "What?"
"That's a first," Mr. Manners mutters, focusing on the men walking away rather than Jared.
Jared recalls what he overheard Chris say, and while he'd rather be shot in the foot -- with a nail gun -- than gossip, he finds himself asking, "He's never come out to say hi to you on site before?"
"I don't know that he's ever left the yard of that house since he moved in." Mr. Manners turns the hammer he's been holding around in his hand, tossing it and catching the wooden handle smoothly as a juggling trick. "From the way I understand it, especially didn't figure he'd ever come out on a day like this."
Jared blinks at him. "What kind of day is this?"
"Better get back to work," Mr. Manners directs rather than answer the question. He picks up a box of ten-penny nails and pokes through them, whistling between his teeth.
Jared's not even begun to decide whether or not he should push when Mr. Manners glances at the sky, already a weak gray and clouding over fast, and grunts. "It'll storm later. Get a move on."
Around an hour later, fifteen minutes after Mr. Manners has headed off to town in search of some epoxy solvent and a new pair of work gloves, Jared thinks he might just have got the hang of it, lining up nails and striking them dead center. Bang, bang, bang, move on to the next one.
He's found a rhythm that reminds him of the secret coded knocks on Jensen's door when something small, sharp and cold pings off the back of his head. He swats at the whatever-it-was, then curses in annoyance and cranes his neck to look behind him.
His heart sinks.
Chris, standing at the foot of the scaffolding with a palm full of rusty nails and murder in his eye.
Jared sighs. "Look, can we not do this now and say we did?" He's not in the mood, not when he can still feel the light warmth of Jensen's lips on his and the leftover tingle of Jensen's fingers on his cheeks.
Also, talk about interrupting a guy's work Zen.
Chris, as might have been predicted, ignores him. "What the hell kind of game are you playing?" he demands as he violently discards the nails and grabs the bottom of the scaffolding, shaking it. "You think this is funny, boy?"
"Excuse me?" Jared's got no idea what's flown up Chris's nose this time. He can feel his good mood evaporating like the fizz in Pepsi. "What'd I do now?"
Chris rattles the scaffolding and damn, but he's strong for such a shorty. "Come here to 'see' you," he mimics, "hey, come take a 'look' at this, you're a 'sight' for 'sore eyes'." He slams the bottom rung, cracking the wood. "This is all one big laugh to you, isn't it?"
Jared would want to kick Chris in the nose, except now that Chris has pointed it out, fierce air-quotes and all, what he said hits home and sinks sharper and deeper than the nails he'd hammered in. Aw… damn.
He runs a hand through his hair, static electricity crackling. "I didn't think."
"Naw, you never do." Chris glares at him, and if looks could kill Jared knows he'd be toppling over dead. "You don't have a single damn idea what you're stomping your big-ass feet in. There are things you don't know about Jensen that…" He stops, breathing harshly. It's a kind of mad Jared's seen before, where a man chokes on too much of his own anger. Sometimes fear, too.
He recognizes that fear in Chris, and it sends a cold shiver down his spine. "Why are you scared of me?" he blurts.
Chris kicks the scaffolding. "Fuck you," he spits, riding over the question, pretending he didn't hear it and certainly not acknowledging his half-second flinch.
Jared pushes. That's what he does. "Tell me why you're scared, if it's something I need to hear. If it's one of those things you said I don't know about."
Chris shoves hair behind his ears. His hands are shaking. "What's it gonna take to get it through to you, boy? Jen doesn't need you. Ten years he's been like this and I've been the one who's picked up all those pieces. You're gonna smash him apart again and from where I'm standing you don't give a good goddamn about it."
"You're wrong. I won't hurt him," Jared protests. "Not on purpose. I swear."
"Yeah? Well, that's worth precisely dick, Jared. You will hurt him. People leave Jensen, they all do, except me. And Steve," he adds. "So, what? You're gonna stay here for the rest of your livelong days?"
"I…" Jared falters. No, he's not staying. He moves on. That's what he does. Jensen knows that.
"Thought so." Chris spits on the ground. "If you care one damn bit about Jen? You'll leave him alone and hurt him a hell of a lot less when you do go."
Jared can't think of what to say.
Chris says it for him. "Leave him be. Stay out of his way until you skip town. Don't get him tangled up thinkin' he loves you, 'cause he will break his heart for you. You think you're the first one? You're not."
He looks old, deep creases at the corners of his eyes, when he adds, like it's bitter on his tongue, "Just… fuck, just go away. Get out of town." His mouth twists. "Please."
Jared knows what that's cost Chris, and knows how bad this is, now, that he'd actually go there.
What he doesn't know is what the hell he's gonna do about it.
What with the turn this day's taken all of a sudden -- which he might have seen all along if he'd only thought to look -- Jared isn't too surprised to discover, come noon, that he'd walked right out the door that morning without his sack lunch. It wasn't much, just a cheese and jalapeño sandwich and a bag of chips and a pack of Grandma's cookies and a banana, oh, and a pudding cup, but when he considers working through, his stomach doesn't like that idea and lets him know as much in no uncertain terms.
Mr. Manners is annoyed when he gives Jared permission to take the extra time he'll need to schlep back home and get his lunch, so Jared determines to hurry. Needing to rush probably isn't a bad thing, he reasons. If he had all the time in the world he'd be tempted to stop and knock on Jensen's door, maybe hang out while he eats, and right now he doesn't figure that's such a good idea.
He needs to think, needs to stop and figure out what the hell he's doing -- maybe even has to figure out how to back down despite how much he doesn't want to. Jared's not used to thinking things to death like this, and it's giving him one hell of a headache. So. Again, it's most likely for the best that he's got to hurry.
Thing is, he forgets about needing to rush as soon as he sets foot on the porch steps. He's automatically looked up at Jensen's door, not intending anything but just drawn to it, and so he has a great view when the door opens and someone who isn't Jensen, Chris or Steve steps out, carrying a white box with a Red Cross stenciled on its side.
No sirree, this is a stranger, and the size of him almost makes Jared feel small. He's not as tall, Jared wouldn't say, but he's definitely sturdier and he's got the kind of muscles that warn a man not to tangle with him. There's a gruff set to his jaw under a half-grown-in beard of equally mixed salt and pepper, a USMC tattoo on his forearm, and a firmness to his stride that tells Jared this is the kind of man you should automatically address as "sir". Scary, if you get on the wrong side of him.
So of course Jared's on edge right away, wondering exactly who this guy is to Jensen. It's weirdly like meeting a guy's dad, something he tries to avoid.
Trying to be casual about it, Jared sidles around to his side of the porch, thinking maybe he can hide behind the post and keep a weather eye on things.
He always forgets that he's not so good at sneaky. The big bear glances over at Jared in the midst of his epic fail and winks at him. The touch of humor does wonders for big, bearded and burly, warming him from forbidding father to laid-back, like a friendly uncle or an older cousin.
Jared catches himself before he starts singing again. He nods to the guy and offers him a grin.
The man nods back, then returns his attention to the doorway through which he just exited, speaking in a low voice that reminds Jared of the rumbly sound of a love-worn, hard-worked pickup truck's engine. "You remember what I told you, now. You call me day or night if you need me. Understood?"
Jensen appears behind the big guy, standing in the doorway. He's smiling at Beard like Jared had thought Jensen only ever smiled at him. The sight wounds. More so when the big man claps Jensen on the shoulder, jostling him, and Jensen chuckles.
"Jeff, c'mon. You're never going to let me live this down, are you?"
"Nope. You know I never let go of any good blackmail material."
"Sheesh," Jensen says with a sort of fond exasperation. "I promise I won't leave you out of the loop again. Honest. I've got you on speed-dial now."
"You damn well better have me at the top of the list." The guy checks his watch. "Better get going. Time flies, huh?" He tousles up Jensen's hair. "Take it easy."
Jensen grins after him, waving as if he can see the bastard, who, as he leaves, doesn't mention Jared’s presence to Jensen.
Which is how he manages, for once in his life, to remain unnoticed for the next few moments, and without opening his mouth to betray his presence, he observes:
Steve, standing silently behind Jensen. Steve's speaking quietly in Jensen's ear; Jensen frowns as he listens. Doesn't look as if he likes what Steve has to say. Steve lifts one of Jensen's hands, brushing lightly over the brand-new, professionally neat butterfly bandages on his palms.
Jensen tugs away from him, looking troubled. "That's not his fault," he says, stubborn.
Steve doesn't look like he believes Jensen for one second.
Jared tries to look past him, wondering when that junkyard terrier is going to stick his nose in and start yapping. Chris isn't anywhere in sight, but the way Jared knows it works, where Steve is, Chris is never far behind.
He can't be dealing with Chris or any of his hollering right now, because if he gets much more tangled up inside he really will lose his cool and wade in fists first. He'd love to whop some manners into Chris like his momma should’ve taught him -- but he doesn't see the point in getting Jensen upset.
He about hates Chris enough to think it might maybe be worth it, though. Even if all Chris did was point the truth, things were so much better -- maybe for both of them -- before he did.
Jensen retreats; Steve closes the door. Jared stuffs his hands in his pockets and exhales heavily, staring at the door and wallowing in the woe.
What's he supposed to do about all this? He's not good at this. He doesn't stay for this kind of crap. This is why he doesn't stay. He --
"Help you with something?"
Jared pivots, body tensing for attack or defense, a natural reflex by now. He relaxes -- some -- when he sees that it's only that Jeff guy, watching him from the sidewalk. Jeff's another one of those inscrutable types when he wants to be, it seems, and it's impossible to tell if he's warning Jared off or just being neighborly.
"I live here. Upstairs." Jared jerks his thumb in the direction of the side door. "Working with Mr. Manners for a couple of months."
"He finally suckered someone into helping him cobble together those old shacks?"
Jared, surprised, bursts out laughing. "You could say that. Is it just me, or are they gonna come right back down again next hurricane season?"
Jeff taps the side of his nose. "Who cares as long as it pays the bills, though, huh? Don't worry. Manners pays on time and he seems to be a decent guy."
"Puts a roof over my head for now, too," Jared agrees. He's warming to Jeff, even if wanting to ask Jeff who he is and what role he plays in Jensen's life is nigh enough to make his teeth itch.
Jeff tilts his head. "Got any plans for after the season?"
"Not much. I move around a lot."
"Huh." Jeff regards him steadily, and for the life of him Jared has no clue what the man might be thinking. "Good luck with construction today."
Jared's maybe a tad too defensive when he retorts, "Why? Do I need luck?"
Jeff's shrugs is casual and completely neutral. "Mortar won't stick and paint won't dry in this kind of weather, not if it gets much worse."
"It's gonna storm. Big-time." Jeff points at the sky. "Take it easy, kid."
Jared holds his tongue only because he was raised not to sass his elders or men who once served their country. He nods stiffly to Jeff and holds his place until Jeff's gone on his way.
Then, he sits heavily on the porch step and rests his forehead on his palm, thoughts of getting in his truck and just driving away, not stopping until he's three states from there running thick and heavy in his head as silt in a choked-up river. He can almost taste the mud.
A cold, wet nose bumping his knee brings him out of his funk. As soon as she knows he's aware of her presence, Hannah goes damn near crazy with loving on him, standing up with her muddy paws on his knee and washing his face.
"Lord, girl." Jared rubs her silky ears as he laughs, playfully pushing her head away. "You're in bad need of a breath mint treat, aren't you?"
Hannah woofs happily, licking under his chin. Jared doesn't really mind the doggie breath and lets her settle in, making those happy canine whines that means she's as close to heaven as a good dog gets on his earth. He pets her the way he remembers a good puppy likes, rubbing her back and thumping near her tail, which could be considered a dangerous and deadly weapon given the way it whips around as she wags for all she's worth.
It takes a minute for Jared to realize she's out here all by herself. When the understanding comes clear, he catches the leather leash hanging loose from her collar and frowns at the length. Not chewed through or broken.
Fucking damn it. Someone turned her loose to run around all by herself without even so much as taking her leash off so she wouldn't get hung up or choked.
Jared sees red. You don't do that to a dog, not even the sorriest and most flea-ridden of them. Especially not to a girl as sweet as Hannah, dying for some love and attention. She's been let loose like she means nothing, not to anyone, and he's so angry all of a sudden that he spits out a string of vicious curses that would horrify his momma.
Hannah tries to bury her head under his arm. He cuddles her right away, soothing away the sting. "Not you, pretty girl. I didn't mean you. Someone else is who I'm mad at."
"Who are you angry with?"
Jared turns, too wound up to wonder how long Jensen's been there. "Did you do this?" he asks, clipping off his words so that they sound like gunfire. "Let her go wandering around alone?"
"Her who? Is Hannah out there?"
Jared's fraying temper is far too close to snapping, but right now he doesn't care. "You didn't even know where she was, did you? God damn it, Jen."
Jensen rears back, dismay fast changing to irritation. "I don't keep track of her every second of the day. What crawled up your ass and died?"
"You don't? She's your dog, isn't she?" Jared climbs the steps and slaps the end of Hannah's leash in Jensen's hand, winding the end tightly around his wrist. "She's meant to be a guide dog, am I right?"
Jensen's expression shutters off. "No, she's not. Steve bought her and gave her to me. I don't need a guide dog. I don't even like dogs."
"No shit. I noticed."
Jensen bares his teeth at Jared. "You're that pissed off about a dog?" He says it like she doesn't have a name, like she doesn't matter worth spit in the wind, and that's it. Jared’s had enough.
"You don't want her? Fine. She's mine." He takes Hannah's leash back, vindictively glad when she gets in tight next to him. "You gave up your right to her a long time ago, as far as I'm concerned. A man who doesn't love his dog doesn't deserve to have a dog."
"Fuck!" Jensen's baffled, Jared can tell, and all his walls are covered with bristles, but he's too far gone to stop and try to mend things right now. "Jared, seriously, what the hell is your problem? Where do you get off being the Grand High Priest of dogs, anyway? Who do you think you are to know so much about her? You don't have a clue --"
"I know about dogs, Jensen. I know because I had two that were my best friends ever, and --"
He stops. Right there, he stops, and even if he'd wanted to say more the words would have been unable to cross over his lips.
"Jared," Jensen says, confused this time, reaching for him with one pale hand, fingers combing the salty beach air.
Jared turns away from him. "Heel, girl," he mutters, turning away. Hannah whines once, puzzled, torn between two masters. After a moment's hesitation it's Jared she follows, hugging him close for comfort.
He doesn't look back or let himself listen to Jensen calling for him until the sound of the ocean drowns him out, and he's halfway to the work site before he remembers the lunch he'd forgotten again.
Doesn't matter. He's nowhere near hungry now.
"You know," Mr. Manners says in between precise whacks of hammer to nail, smart enough to store his nails in the deep pockets of a carpenter's apron, "you might as well go ahead and talk."
"Huh?" Jared blinks out of his self-induced hypnotic painting coma. It takes patience and concentration, a lot more than he'd have thought, to get the strokes even and the green acrylic smooth. "Sorry. What was that?"
Mr. Manners grumps at him and falls silent. Jared's about to think he's let it drop when he steps away from the framework he's been putting together, grunts, and says casually as you please, "What's wrong with you?"
Jared snorts. "You want a list?"
"I don't think I'll live that long." Mr. Manners sits on a stack of bricks. He digs in the pocket not holding nails and comes out with a Slim Jim, which he unwraps, tearing off bites to toss to Hannah without looking or asking permission or commenting about that at all. He pops one fragment of sausage in his mouth and repeats himself around it, clarifying, "What's wrong with you right now?"
And that's not a question Jared wants to answer. Lord, how Sera would laugh to see this.
Maybe. Or maybe she'd hug him. God, would he love a good Sera-hug right now.
Jared shakes his head in disgust at himself and tries to play it off. "I'm good. Maybe a little high off paint fumes, is all."
"Bullshit." Mr. Manners says it like he'd say "water", so bland and flat that Jared double-takes when the meaning sinks in. He stares at the older man, who stares right back at him, unafraid. "See, I know your type, Padalecki. You came out of the womb yakking your fool head off. So when you shut up? The world's about to end. More, it means that you're gonna be flakier than a biscuit, more so than usual, until you've got whatever it is off your chest, so start talking. Might as well tell me as anyone else."
He expects Jared to do exactly as he's said, no mistaking that.
Thing is, Jared doesn't know if he can. He's not that guy. Not anymore. Sera's the only one he still talks to about his troubles, and that's only 'cause she…
He clears his throat. "Nah, I'm fine. Thanks anyway."
Mr. Manners snorts back a nasty-sounding gob of phlegm. "Suit yourself. So, you keeping Jensen's dog for yourself or is she just taking in the scenery today?"
Direct hit. Jared flushes burning-warm and he can't stop it.
"Uh-huh." Mr. Manners tosses Hannah the last bite of Slim Jim and crinkles the plastic wrapper into a ball.
Jared waits, tension coiling along his spine, waiting for Mr. Manners to make the wrong choice and push him. Please God, he prays. Don't let him go there. I can't. Won't. Just… don't.
The relief is immeasurable when Mr. Manners whoofs out a deep breath and stands back up, reaching for his hammer. "Few more of these and we can try standing them upright. Oh! Almost forgot. Did you mix that darker shade of green for the trim like I asked you to?"
Relieved by the distraction, Jared jumps on Mr. Manners' question. "About half an hour ago. Here, let me show you." He grabs the bucket he poured both shades in for the mix. It's heavy as hell at first, half full, then startlingly lighter. The sound of splattering liquid and the icy soaking of his sneaker combine to have him boggling as the last of the paint gushes from the can, its bottom stuck firmly to the bare ground where it had been sitting.
"Son of a bitch!" Jared looks to Mr. Manners, baffled… and sees that the old goat is laughing, rocking back on his heels and covering his eyes, face going dark red with the force of his guffaws.
Jared cracks up. "You son of a bitch!" he whoops, checking the empty paint can. He can see now that Mr. Manners fiddled around with it somehow, making sure the bottom would come loose when it was lifted. The bottom itself is stuck firmly to the bare ground. Tossing the empty can aside, careful not to hit Hannah, he lets it all go and laughs until his chest hurts despite being a hundred pounds lighter. Hannah skirts the puddle of paint with a disgusted shake of her head, which he pets, flopping her ears.
Mr. Manners crosses to Jared, offering to shake. "I think we'll get on fine, working together," he says. The man's got a good handshake, not trying to prove anything but still firm. He thumps Jared on the back. "Come on. I know you'll get me back for that later, but for now let's try and get this nailed together before we have to quit for the day."
Jared tries to wipe the paint coating his sneaker off on the grass. Lord, there's a lost cause. "Do you comp for wardrobe malfunctions?"
"Funny guy." Mr. Manners lopes ahead of Jared, a nail already in hand and hammer at the ready. As he prepares to do his work, he calls back over his shoulder, casually, "By the way, if you've hurt yourself worth more than a pout with anything, you should stop by Jeff's on your way back to the house. It's the sand-colored saltbox shack on the corner of Dunes Street and Coral, not too far from you."
Jared draws up short. "Jeff? Why?"
"He's a nurse. Was a Marine Corps medic for twenty-odd years and now he does the patching up when we need some. Works some herbal remedies too, healing ointments and such. Says he learned 'em from his great-grandma. Damned if they aren't effective, too. It's all off the books, but what isn't, around here?"
Huh. Jared chews on that one. He's oddly relieved, or maybe not so oddly when he comes to think about it.
Then he's worried, when he thinks about butterfly bandages on Jensen's palms, healing ointments, and scents the tang of remembered olive oil from the broken bottle strong in his nose.
And then, as he looks up at the gray, gray sky, the first fat drop of rain falls and splatters on his nose.
It's pouring down rain by the time Jared gets back home just after sunset, freezing-cold sheets pissing down on him and soaking him to the bone, feels like. He and Mr. Manners worked as long as they could and finally gave up an hour ago. They only had just enough time to batten tarpaulins down over whatever they could, cuss over the not-yet-dry paint -- Jared's starting to think Mr. Manners hasn't been repairing houses for long if he wasn't prepared for this -- and agree to call time of death.
He's wet and he's cold, sure, but hell, he'll dry. It's Hannah he's far more worried about, kicking his own ass for being dumb enough not to think ahead for her sake. She is not gonna get sick on his watch. Won't be allowed.
So really, all he's thinking about as he coaxes Hannah along the sidewalk is getting her in his own apartment. Drying her off, beating on the pipes to make them give up both gas heat and hot water, then rummaging around to find a decent dinner for both of them.
When she's safe and when she's dry, he's looking forward like heaven itself to settling in and listening to the rain do its worst outside where it can't touch them. Enjoying a dog's solid warmth at his side while he reads or maybe just sits there drowsing.
When, not if.
Hannah whines and balks as they hit the porch itself, tugging Jared toward Jensen's door and not his own. Wiping sodden hair out of his eyes, he crouches down and tries to sweet-talk her around to her new home. "I've got some hot dogs upstairs, pretty girl," he croons, scrunching up the soggy fur at her scruff. "Want a hot dog? I bet you do. You liked that Slim Jim, didn't you? Huh, girl?"
Hannah licks his face and tugs again toward Jensen's. When Jared digs in his heels and speaks sharply to her, "No!" she plops down on her hindquarters, tilts her head back and howls.
Jared? He crumbles. "Aww, baby girl, don't do that," he says despite it already being a lost cause. He kisses the top of her head, not minding the ripeness of wet dog one bit -- they can't help it -- and stands, releasing a heavy sigh that seems to come all the way up from the soles of his feet.
The lightning, when it strikes, startles Jared so that he nearly slips on the wet, rickety boards of the porch. Hannah jumps, yelping pitifully.
"Shit," he breathes, reverent. "That was close, wasn't it, pretty girl?" Petting Hannah's head to soothe her, he stares out into the storm in the hopes of seeing another bright, huge bolt like that. Ozone fills his nostrils, rich, along with the weird electrical stink of a storm.
He yelps, delighted, when a bolt touches down further away, spidery squiggles of white and gold etching their way across the sky. Hannah barks as she might if she got a chance to chase a squirrel, hopping up and down with excitement.
And then, though that bolt wasn't anywhere near as close, even while he watches in fascination the lonely amber streetlight flickers, fizzles, and goes dark.
He rubs Hannah's noggin, happy as a clam to share this moment with a good friend like she already is. With no lights around anywhere in the neighborhood to block out the evening sky and the storm, the power goes to his head.
If he closed his eyes and held out his arms, he thinks he might just fly apart and be rain, too, flying free everywhere.
Which is all well and good for about a minute, and then Hannah starts to whine, nudging his hip. When he tips up her muzzle to see if her eyes hold true fear or if she's just over-excited, he's concerned at the worry he sees there. It's been a long time, but he thinks he still knows how to read a dog.
And right now, she's about out of her mind with fretting.
"What's wrong, baby?" he asks, giving her leash enough slack for her to choose the path she wants to take. Hoping she'll head straight for his door, behind which there might not be hot water or gas heat anymore, but are still towels and might be some candles to read by. And hot dogs, those they can eat cold.
No such luck. Hannah makes a dive for Jensen's door, standing up on her hind legs to scrabble her toenails on the wood. She alternates briefly, trying to dig her way under the jamb, then goes back up, howling and whining almost louder than the storm.
When a dog's this worried, it's not something to take lightly. "Okay, pretty girl, okay," he tries to soothe her, taking the slack back up. He draws in a deep breath and pounds on Jensen's door.
"I know you're in there!" he hollers, hammering on. "Jensen, Hannah's gonna need sedatives so you damn well better open up, hear me?"
For a long, long pause, enough time for the lightning to strike again, there's nothing. Rain blows through slantwise, pelting his skin as unforgivingly as needles. He tries to shield Hannah between his body and the door, bellowing at Jensen and calling him every name he can think of to try and provoke a reaction.
He's stopped, his knuckles aching and his throat raw, ready to try and haul Hannah upstairs by force if need be -- she really will get sick if she's out here much longer -- when the door opens the slightest crack and Jensen's fingers appear, curled around the frame?
"Jared?" he asks, and he sounds more afraid than Hannah, small, with a childlike terror of the storm. "Jared?"
Hannah yelps and jumps up, digging away at the crack that the door's opened up. Jensen steps back, letting her barrel through.
When he reaches for Jared's hand, Jared lets him take it without hesitation. His upset melts away in the face of Jensen's honest-to-God near-panic.
Jensen clamps down on his hand like it's a lifeline, squeezing until it hurts Jared sharply, and God knows it's got to sting Jensen's palm something hellish.
Jared couldn't care less. "What's wrong?" He wraps his free hand around the back of Jensen's neck, trying to see well enough through the driving rain to figure out if he's hurt or something. "Jen, man, you're starting to freak me, too. Are you okay?"
Jensen swallows, his throat working. "Yeah," he says, and Jared doesn't believe him for a second. "Come in, would you? Please. Come in and shut the door."
It's a bad idea. Jared knows it's a bad idea. He ought to leave Hannah there for the night and go upstairs, wrap up in some blankets and just sleep this out, whatever it is.
He doesn't. He's ducking in Jensen's apartment and slamming the door behind him in two blinks of an eye.
And then he finds himself with an armful of shaking Jensen, and he forget all about his plans to walk away from the man.
"Shh, now. Shh, shh, shh," Jared hushes him, over and over again, humming between his attempts at comforting drones. "Come on, now. Jen. Please."
Jensen shakes his head, face buried in Jared's sopping wet shirt. Helpless, Jared hangs on, hoping to God he gets a clue soon or he'll have to try… he doesn't know, maybe slapping Jensen or something. And as many times as he's hurt Jen without trying, the thought makes him cringe.
"Where's Chris?" he asks, helpless. Damn the man. Of all the times for him not to be clinging like a burr. "Steve. Where's Steve?"
Jensen laughs breathlessly. "Chris -- I -- we had a fight. I told him to get out. And he went." He shakes. "Chris went. And Steve's on the night shift at the --"
"I can call Chris," Jared interrupts. "Let me call him. What's his number?" Better Chris than he, right now. Better Chris get him through this, because Jared isn't gonna be around forever and --
Thunder rolls outside.
"No," Jensen insists, gripping Jared's arms, fingers frantic, digging in. "Just you. Please."
"I can't…" Jared presses his face to the top of Jensen's head. "Okay. I'm here. Try to calm down. You're gonna hurt yourself. Shh, now, shh."
After a space of time in which there are no more lightning strikes to illuminate Jensen's face, leaving Jared in the dark in more ways than one, Jensen's shudders slow, eventually stopping.
Jared doesn't let go of him.
Jensen stills completely. "Fuck," he mutters, probably getting a mouthful of soggy shirt. "Fuck. Jared."
A completely inappropriate joke pops in Jared's mind. He chokes it down with a stern reprimand to his brain. "Jen," he replies, rubbing the man's back in slow, soothing circles. Damn, he's tense as an alley cat with an unknown dog in sight. "You with me?"
"Fuck," Jensen replies with deep feeling. He plants his palms on Jared's chest, so different from the last time he made that move, pushing away from him. He wipes his eyes. Jared realizes he's been so upset that he shed tears, and he wonders for a second what that feels like.
"Jen?" he asks, not reaching out to reel him back in. Just waiting.
Jensen shakes his head. His laugh is unconvincing. "Jeez. I don't know what got into me there. Um. Sorry."
That's not too compelling, either. Jared has an uneasy feeling tingling at the base of his spine, but he's got no real idea what it's all about. All he knows is that despite their stilted conversation made up of cussing and distancing, they're on the brink of something huge.
He wants to turn and run. God, does he want to.
"Hey," he says, risking it and touching Jensen's cheek. "You all right in there?"
"Me?" Jensen scoffs. "I'm fine."
"Uh-huh. Didn't seem that way a minute ago." Jared picks at his shirt, finding warm patches that prove Jensen was upset enough to cry. No. Not upset. Scared. Why? It's just a storm.
Jensen snorts derisively. Jared senses him turning aside.
The tension ramps higher for no reason apparent to Jared. He listens to the rough, ragged hitches of Jensen's breathing and waits for whatever's going to happen to happen. Nothing else he can do.
Except, apparently, run off at the mouth. "Jen, damn. What's bothering you? If you don't tell me, I can't help. Whatever else happened today, I want to help." He needs to. "I --"
Lightning strikes, white brilliance casting the room in eerie shadows. Hannah howls.
Jensen barrels into him with all his weight, and this time it's he who almost knocks Jared off balance. He stumbles back, the doorknob striking him painfully right below his ass, fending off what most closely resembles an octopus attack.
Jensen's hands? His lips, his tongue? They're everywhere. Tugging off his jacket, pushing up his shirt. Biting open-mouthed kisses, wet and scalding, on his stomach. Yanking at his shirt, trying his damndest to get that off, too. Swarming up to his mouth and forcing in his frustrated, almost animal whimpers. Sealing his lips to Jared's and refusing to be pushed off.
And Jared's trying. He never thought he'd be in a position like this, but by God he's trying because this is crashing over him fiercer than the storm outside as it churns the ocean into froth. "Jen," he tries to get out in the seconds that Jensen breathes. "What. Jen. What?"
"No," Jensen pleads, trying once again to pull off Jared's shirt. He whines when that doesn't work, and his hands go to the button-fly of Jared's jeans, popping them open.
He's kissing Jared again -- no, not kissing him, eating him -- when his hand wraps around Jared's cock.
"Stop it. Damn it, Jensen, quit!" Jared seizes Jen by the wrist and hangs on tight, firm enough in his grip to hurt and despite the pain it causes him, meaning it.
Jensen draws away enough for the next flash of lightning to illuminate his face. It's a terrible mask of twisted hunger and terror. "Damn you," he breathes. "God damn you. Don't you do this to me. Not when I'm trying so hard to be what you --"
Jared's stomach turns. Oh, God. "No." He pushes Jensen, maybe harder than he means to, maybe not. Jensen staggers from the force. "God damn you. You don't get to do this to me, either."
His hand is on the knob. "I gotta go. Take care of Hannah. Dry her off."
"Jared --" Jen tries to grab him, to stop him. "Don't you leave me. Don't, please, don't --"
Too late. Jared's out in the rain already, running as fast as he can, long legs eating up the distance he needs to put between them.
Unlike the last time he ran away from Jensen, this time he doesn't stop and go back. He doesn't stop until he's at the churning water's edge, where he tips his head to the sky and finally lets himself rage wordlessly until he's hoarse.
The wildness of the storm takes him over. Jared lets it happen, shouting himself out against the wind. The turbulence catches in his hair, tossing it wildly about his head and stinging his eyes; the crashing mess of water splashes him all the way to his heart.
He thinks he must look like a madman having his fit out there, swallowing as much rain as he breathes of the ozone-sour air. He tastes the tears he didn't know he was shedding, tears and snot running hot down his cheeks and chin, salty on his tongue.
He didn't ask for this. None of it. A job, a plain and simple paycheck for a couple of months. That's all he signed up for.
But then there was Jensen, and he lost himself the way he swore he never would again. Jen's already more than the buddy he'd thought he might be, more than the casual fuck he didn't ever want him to be. He's gone and gotten inside, hooks worked in sharp and deep. Cutting him out would hurt as much as carving on his own flesh.
Be damned if he knows if he can even try. And what’s he gonna do? What's left for him to do?
He can't. He has to. He can't. He's got no choice.
"Fucking damn it!" he swears, throat scraping bitterly raw. "Damn you, Jensen, damn you all the way to hell. Why'd you have to catch me?"
And then, that's it. He's got no more to give.
That's when it happens. He hears Hannah first, baying loud as any bloodhound. Jared would know that sound anywhere: Where are you? Where are you? Where did you go?
His mouth twists. He let her out, the son of a bitch let her out.
Except he didn't. Hannah appears through a driving sheet of near-solid rain, a yellower streak of lightning slicing toward him. And behind her, leash wrapped tight around his arm, is Jensen.
It all drops away from Jared, then. No rhyme or reason. He sees Jensen and his arms open to catch the man and stop him from falling.
"I found you," Jensen's babbling, grabbing onto Jared and holding him like he'll never let go. Dragging him away from the water. Their feet tangle; it's a wonder they don't tumble down. He says it over and over again as he pulls Jared away from the water. "I found you. Crazy, my God, you're insane -- why would you -- Jared, don't you -- don't ever --"
Lightning crashes, striking the wreckage of a beach bar long since left to rot. The crack! is deafening, blotting out the wailing storm. Jensen flinches violently and throws himself against Jared, clinging tight.
With nothing else to do, Jared pulls Jensen as tight as he can and shields him from the storm.
This time, it's Jared who fumbles until he finds Jensen's mouth. He swallows the last of Jensen's scream, drinking it down as bitter as myrrh and letting it burn in his belly.
Jensen tears out of what's not quite a kiss and not quite an attack, seizing Jared with one hand on either side of his face. He rasps this, but Jared hears him as clear as a bell.
"You asked why," he says through the chattering of his teeth. "The last thing I saw, Jared, the last thing I ever saw? It was lightning. And fire."
He drags Jared down to him, and Jared lets it happen.