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Finding Grace

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Author's note:  Lovely artwork by Ibrahil entitled "New Orleans" for the Spn_ReverseBang hosted on LiveJournal.   Main Post with link to see art found here: Finding Grace   Thank you to the ever amazing beta work of candygramme and abeautifullie3. Any and all mistakes are mine as I finished this work past deadline.  Huge round of applause to Ibrahil for working with me at the last minute.  I'm grateful for the inspiration, for a fun and renewed look at a city that is very close to my heart.  

           

~*~ Finding Grace ~*~

The city of New Orleans.

Here in every poorly lit bar, there are living pictures—more than signed snapshots of has beens, but of ghosts that can’t let go.  It is The Big Easy after all, laissez les bon temps rouler.  They’re not the only ones.  Haunted creatures that brazenly slink amidst the architecture, roam the buildings as if the modern world veil were permanently lifted. 

Jensen can feel them crowd around all the vivacious energy of this place, hungry appetites fed by the party and the thrill within each new customer.  And there’s always someone new:  kids in droopy cargo shorts and beer soaked tees, the jaded barflies throwing back another in hopes of chasing a strand of happiness, middle-aged loners for whom no amount of alcohol will wipe away their misery.

He lets the liquor past his lips, quick spill of smoke and barrel aged malt burn across his tongue.  Fire trickles down his throat, and there are two more shots of that lined up before his trembling fingers have the chance to pull the glass away from his face.

Thousands of problems in the world, shuffling into the bar and ripe for the picking.  Hundreds of ways to drown the sorrows, forget all your problems for the small price of your soul if the deal is solid.  Jensen has but one earthly problem.   One single, massive problem that threatens to eat him alive—one weight that breaks his spine and hunches his shoulders so far down he’s forced to look at his own sullen reflection in the shiny glossed bar top.    

The damned move about him, circle him with needling fingers and thighs against his own.  Craving his attention where he has none to give.  There’s no answer here.  Never is at the bottom of the bottle, but damned if he doesn’t keep trying.  The whiskey burns his guts like a punishment.  Bar stool rocking as he pushes back, elbows away advances that are not wanted, Jensen fists a ten and lays the crumpled bill on the bar.

That problem will be there in the morning, if he sleeps on it.  Definitely, he’ll have to sleep.  Mind and memories blissfully numb.  Crawl into bed and forget all about his big, damned problem until the next day of spinning his wheels.   When he dreams, his eyes will be full of brunette hair and a pale complexion, a small pout of young child angst held tight against his chest.   When he opens his eyes in the morning, never enough sleep or booze to wrap his head around this agony, that troublesome heart worry will be top priority:

Finding Grace.   

~*~

~August ‘15, two months earlier~

~1200 block of Bourbon Street, New Orleans~

At half past six, during the summer month of August, the heat of the day is baked into every crevice, every cement block of the city, and the humidity is thick enough to cut. 

One dirtied cotton skirt from the courtyard garden, long auburn hair in plaits adorned with lavender petals and a spoon at the ready with precious honey.  Jared’s memory of his mother settles around him, her laughter and patience with a thousand plus little idioms at her disposal.  Yes, Momma, he thinks, thick enough to cut with a butter knife.

His creole cottage butts up to sidewalks in the residential section of Bourbon Street, lazes in the sweltering, moist air.  Interior and exterior refurbished and remodeled, the early 1800’s house sits pretty amongst the neighboring two story townhomes with their wrought iron banister balconies. 

The communal courtyard, shaded palms and potted ferns all along the patio, offers protection during the high sun, and Jared is up early.  Not a lot to do this particular Sunday but relax amid the shade, watch sunlight creep off into the evening, inch by inch across the table where he sits. Not a care in the world but for one small interview. 

Ms. Smith from the neighboring home to the left comes out her back door, her blonde hair tucked haphazard in a silk scarf, and she regards him questioningly, a shocked tone to her, “Good Afternoon.” The blue of her eyes catches on a ray of sunlight, and Jared grimaces in sympathy as she startles and lightly rubs at her closed lids. 

An expected question of hello sounds from the iron gate that separates the busy street from their private oasis.  The small group of homeowners, they’re familiar enough with entertaining visitors.  Technically, Jared entertains the most.  Every week, in fact, but that’s inside, quiet and meticulously hidden from curious eyes.  This particular early evening visit is strictly business.  

Samantha tsks Jared to stay put and quickly goes to the side gate to intercept. 

“You’re too nosy, Samantha.”  Jared laughs, not at all put out by Smith’s eagerness.  She mother hens him too often not to know the drill—eyes and ears open and watchful.  Baked brownies and sweet tea with lemon for his weekly visitors, all brought to his back door along with an innate knowing when to finally back off.  Jared finds that last fact fascinating, has wanted for ages to document the instances in which Sam, as well a few other close acquaintances across the years, have backed off from interactions. 

“I have no witty comeback, Jared.”  Samantha unlatches the gate.  Jared hears a brief introduction and watches as Sam guides his evening appointment over to where he now stands.  Wide-awake and refueled, Jared allows the newness of the situation to settle over him.  He rolls up the crisp white sleeves of his button down to feel more comfortable. 

“Ms. Ackles, this is-” Samantha begins, but is cut short.

“Mr. Padalecki.  I’m Grace Ackles.”  Ms. Ackles extends her hand, to which Jared shakes with gentle ease.  “But then you already knew that because Ms. Smith just said my name.  Okay, so your reputation precedes you… Um, sorry, that’s not what I meant to say.”  Ms. Ackles shuts her eyes for the briefest moment, gives her head a small shake, and fidgets as she smooths the hem of her thin cardigan.

Jared watches as she centers herself to stop the flow of excited gibberish.  He gathers a first visual impression of the girl in front of him, a child really.  It’s a highly fair assumption that she looks every bit of twenty or younger, smartly dressed for the city and the weather in a soft tank and maxi skirt. 

Samantha takes Jared’s polite laughter as her cue to head back inside on the promise of some mint tea.  Grace thanks her as she goes; watches Sam step into her house and close the patio doors before turning to face Jared.

Now, Jared is no stranger to the image he presents:  At 6’4”, he easily towers over most.  At Grace’s presumably 5’ 2”, he’s a giant.  Albeit, a lean one.  For all his height, Jared’s muscle mass doesn’t signal body-builder as much as it does cross fit—still imposing.    

“Sit, please.”  Jared isn’t one for mincing words, assumes that being more level across from one another will make the child feel more at ease, and he gestures to the ornate iron chair opposite him. 

Grace adjusts the lavender seat cushion of her chair and sits, wasting no time in presenting her business card:  the card stock ivory with tiny black and pink flourishes in each corner; her name, number, email, and ‘Freelance Writer’ centered and in black embossed Georgia font.  Not gaudy, not too conservative.  The young woman flips the card between her fingers, pops the top corner as she looks at him hesitantly.  When she stops fidgeting with the damn thing, firmly places it down on the small grated tabletop and slides it too him, her confident veneer slips into place.  This, Jared can work with.

“I’m in town for personal research, and if I’m honest, a retreat of sorts, Mr. Padalecki.  I’m pushing back my senior year at the University of Houston by skipping this fall semester, but even so, my time will be limited—” Grace pauses when Jared hums with understanding. 

“So you said in your voicemail.  A little more vague, but go on.  I’m listening.”  At this hour, the sky above them is painted in muted pinks and dark blue tones, and Jared tilts his head back, taking in the slight twinkle of stars as he waits. 

Grace pulls at the sleeves of her cardigan and then places her hands in her lap as she sits stiffly.  “I’m here for my father.  Or… Rather, I’m attempting to locate friends of my father.  Close friends, Mr. Padalecki.  Men and women he served with throughout his military career.  And, I felt it would be a sentimental gift, small interviews for a birthday project.”

There’s the faintest quiver in her voice that belies her blank-faced neutrality.  Its vibration of emotion irritates Jared, plucks a protective nerve within him.  She’s lying, and his reaction to her unease unsettles him.  He knows his discomfort is evident when Grace absently wraps her arms around herself despite the temperature. 

Before either of them can continue, the stringed decorative lights that crisscross from the corners of Jared’s home to the neighboring homes turn on.  Before the sudden light can hit his eyes, Jared looks away to where he hears Samantha opening her patio doors. 

She brings them sweet tea, the crushed mint and ice cubes swirling lazily in the pitcher.  Sam’s long fingers are damp from condensation, leave the barest wet patches on Jared’s shirt as she brushes the curve of his shoulder. Tendrils of loosened blonde hair fall down her back, fly-aways that tickle across Grace’s cheek as she walks by the girl.  Samantha says goodbye to them, adjusts the nautical canvas grocery bag on her shoulder and leaves through the side gate.  Grace stopped talking to fully turn and watch her, to see the soft swish of Samantha’s skirt as she rounds the house to their left before disappearing down the street into the early night.

“I’m sorry.  Where was I?”  Grace says as she faces Jared once more.  Her icy blue eye are dilated, chest rising a touch harder with quickened breath.     

Amused and unsurprised, Jared pours them both a glass of tea and nods.  “She has that effect on people.”  To say that Samantha doesn’t charm the pants off men and women would be an understatement.  This, however, is prey, a wanted toy to Samantha.  Grace is careful, guarded, transfixed.  An excellent survival skill, and one that’s pleasing if this meeting ends the way Jared is certain it will.  “You were touching on the topic of interviews.”

Grace remains completely tense in his presence—another subject for another day, if they come to that, Jared thinks.  Wasting no more time on college time restraints, she proceeds to enlighten him on how long it’s taken her to track down her father’s friends.

The conversation is kept polite and professional and untruthful.  Perfectly straight white teeth behind barely there pink lipstick that Grace lightly licks as she concentrates.  Habitual, he thinks. It’s late and this interview is entirely what Jared had anticipated the entire month that passed since Grace’s initial call to meet with him, but he wants to hear her offer on her own terms, ball in her court. 

“Not that I’m bored by your enthusiasm, Ms. Ackles, but I have to ask:  How is it that you think I can be of any assistance?”  Jared crosses his legs, sits back in the low light and wonders if he’s cutting the meeting too close.  The neighbors will be out soon, ready to enjoy the evening festivities without the tang of business in the air.

“I was hoping… I’m in need of your professional skills.  You’re a freelance photographer—a brilliant, world-renowned, highly private-bordering-on-hermit difficult to locate photographer, I’d like to add—and I am more than willing and able to compensate for your time and services.”

A click and rattle echoes through the courtyard, the sound of the back door to the house behind Jared’s.    At Jared’s smile, dimpled cheeks and carefully schooled non-predatory, Grace’s composure lessens.  She stands when Jared stands, follows him as he guides her to the side gate, and only then does utter disappointment color her features. 

“Mr. Padalecki, I have this,” this being the small portfolio case she raises, her last name burnt into the rich brown leather, “entire job wrapped up neatly in a bow.  No guesswork.  I brought along time frames in conjunction with cost estimates for your time, food expenditures, travel.  I realize this work is beneath your repertoire, but I’d appreciate your taking this, me, into serious consideration.” 

Blocks down, the noise from Bourbon amps up to a low buzz, patrons enjoying the countless bars, wandering the street blocks where traffic is blocked.  A few stragglers pass Jared’s house and wave as they make their way to the tourist trap scene. Jared acknowledges with hellos that speak of familiarity.  Grace doesn’t greet them, in front of Jared and demanding attention, eyes on him with a stubborn determination set in her jaw, head high to face him.  Another foreign emotion grips him, turns his stomach at the unwanted desire to please and praise this strange girl as much as he does. 

Convincing himself to be civil and ready to be done, Jared tells her, “You have my number.  I can be reached best during the afternoon, and we’ll establish working hours, discuss payment, and the areas I’m willing to travel.”

Past the ‘thank you’s’ and ‘will call’s’, he sees her through the gate to the small rental parked in front of his home.  A small nod to her wave goodbye as she pulls away, Jared feels attention on him from across the street, the balconies two homes over.  The party, blocks and blocks down, is now a steady thrum, the taxi traffic bustling, and yet there is a glaring, quiet awareness that hurts his ears. 

Jared rubs his temple, and lowly, so that it’s below a whisper, says to no one, to everyone, “Relax.”

~*~

The sound of the microwave running, thick iron smell wafting through the back foyer greets Jared as he makes his way down the hall towards plush den furniture.  Signed and framed NFL posters line the walls, interspersed between signed and framed black-industry indie posters.  They bracket a massive flat screen centered on the den wall.  Newly cut magnolias in a pottery vase are a welcome sight as he plops down on the sofa and grabs up the day’s Times-Picayune newspaper. 

That copper smell drifts up from a black matte coffee mug waved in front of him, followed by the sound of it and another mug set on the coffee table.  There’s a grunt next to him, and the recliner footrest pops up.

“I’m petitioning for another investigation into that debunked lore concerning invites into other people’s homes.”

Jared looks over the paper to where his oldest friend sits across from him, maneuvering a leather pillow behind his back.  “Even if, brother, it still wouldn’t apply vampire to vampire.”

“Could always make a visit to Madame Devine’s, pay a penny for a special gris-gris for the Pale Crescent King.”

Jared ugly snorts as he swipes his hair out of his face.  He folds the paper, slides it onto the coffee table, and picks up his mug. “Oh screw you.  How ‘bout you let me know, before she sends your ungracious ass straight to Purgatory, how Madame Devine takes to her hoodoo squandered on fang lore.” 

He sips on his too spicy supper with Malik laughing at the notion of asking the priestess for anything of the sort.  The man doesn’t have a second death wish from frivolity.  Whitfield is Jared’s best, his eyes and ears of the nest while Jared is abroad, but more, the closest he has to surviving family.  If only in intention, and more through trials and tribulations Charles—known as Malik to all who matter—has had a foothold of loyalty by Jared’s side for close to a century.

“Oh, non merci.  The wards she has on that shop of hers, we’d all go up in flames if I set foot on her soil.  Hoo, lord.”  Malik, dressed for work in dark burgundy dress shirt and black slacks, rolls his cuffs up to get comfortable.

They drink in silence, television turned to the local evening news as the female anchor segues over to investigative exclusives.  There’s a young reporter, slip of a woman in a navy blue dress, on scene somewhere near the Industrial Canal, police tape and rescue workers in the background. 

 “…A wide scope investigation sweeping the Lower 9th Ward on west to Carrollton, as yet another body is              recovered from the Industrial Canal near the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain.  Police have not yet identified the  remains of a young Caucasian male, approximate age of 25.  8th District NOPD Commander Lanette Ware is  scheduled to speak with reporters tomorrow on where the department’s central focus lies following intense public  outcry.  Parish meetings throughout the month of May on into June have registered grave concern for the alarmingly  high rate at which local residents, including two school aged children from the 2300 block on N Villere St of the  Lower 7th Ward, have been reported missing.  The broad range of city locale for body recovery, as well the  seemingly random pattern in these cases is but one of many questions that interviewed residents are hoping the    NOPD will shed some light.  For WGNO, this is Mishael Morgan reporting live…”

“Jesus,”  Malik says after hitting the power to the television and tosses the remote onto the coffee table.   

“My summation, nailed it.  C’mon, I’ll do the dishes.”

Two coffee mugs scrubbed and placed into the dishwasher, one bag of type O+ and one of duck blood in the trash.  Malik uncaps the Jameson Black Barrel and pours them both a measure, handing a tumbler to Jared.  Jared swirls the whiskey with a look of thanks and downs it quickly.   

“Still burns,” Jared says and sighs as the welcome heat soothes the back of his throat.  Bagged feeding is considered humane, but it does nothing to quell the itch for the hunt.  That desire that never lessens despite the decades of practiced ethical-feeding; it bunches the muscles and leaves his throat raw. 

“Minor miracle of miracles.  We are but the fountains of youth—vigor and chaos.”  Malik humors in acknowledged thanks as he pours them each another two fingers and caps the bottle. 

“Was that vigor or rigor?”  The bad pun garners a laugh between them both. Jared leans a shoulder against the stainless steel refrigerator and stares into the hall, ignoring the curious collective nest mind that prods his own for information.  “We have a problem.”

“You know it.  Pink silk tank and baby cheeks.  Lying isn’t her strong suit.” 

Jared lowers his eyes, that same unexpected chord of emotion he’d felt as he sat across from the girl, it strangles and closes off his throat.  He hums an answer, a frustrated yes.  He knew, knew the minute the child contacted him those few weeks ago in May that shit was about to hit the fan. 

He pushes off the fridge and rinses his tumbler, places it in the dishwasher with the evening mugs.  He’ll wear a bald spot on his temple for all the stress rubbing he’s done over the last few weeks.  The evening had such promise of new adventure, and now, the reality of danger that entails is making him wish he’d forgone the O+.

“I have leads in Texas, and there’s intel coming in from Idaho of all places, but goddamn if I can’t get a handle on the city I live in.  You still have the packet from Ware?”

They’re down the foyer, standing at the back door of Malik’s townhome.  It’s late evening, and both men have a long night ahead of them—Jared to place calls to his personal assistant and Whitfield to work.  Malik grabs his suit jacket from the decorative coat hooks by the door and adjusts the cuffs of his sleeves before opening the drawer to the foyer’s cherry desk.

He hands Jared a thick manila envelope, no identifying writing on either side.  “It’s all there.  Lanette had to pull some strings, yelled about red tape, but we have what we need on Holt.  Oh and there’s North Carolina and a new turn couple.  Video to prove they didn't know to avoid the headlights of the squad car that pulled them over during a night stop.” 

Jared questions that.  It’s unusual to have evidence of their kind and not hear rumor mills louder, stronger these days due to social media.  Commander Lanette Ware, she’s a staunch supporter of the confidential NewOther Treaty that sanctions protections for their kind.  No hunting allowed and anonymity amongst the humans as long as ethical-feeding protocol is strictly adhered to.  Normally, being a government ally is helpful—not so much when even a person in as high a position on the force as she is faces prejudice across state lines where the treaty has yet to garner favor.  North Carolina set their fate in stone, steadfastly refusing NewOt sanctions to the point of threatening to out nests. 

“Apparently, Ware has an in with a cousin from the Central Business District.  Cousin moved out east and was hired on by Elizabeth City PD.  Remind me to send a gift basket to our new confidante Ms. Morgan for that tidbit.” 

“The reporter for WGNO?”

Malik nods a yes.  “She’s periphery information.  When the bodies of those recent missing children were brought to our morgue, Morgan came in hot with questions.  She’ll stay true to protecting her sources.”

Jared waves off the trust implication. “Your stamp of approval is all I need.”

“Morgan texted me last week, said she overheard Ware at precinct cocktail hour.  So, I had a nice little chat with Ware after her personal look into a deceased family member’s autopsy.  Ware tells me she contacted the cousin, and they forged the papers to extradite the Others back to Louisiana on false felony charges, the original dash-cam tape in tow.”

“Any copies?  And where are the new turns?”

“Living it large in the CBD.  Kelly is hosting them in his apartment, complete with a little training exercise in how not to land us all on Dateline, or worse.”

“Or worse.  I’m stunned the ATS wasn’t sent in to control the situation.” 

The Alliance for Two States, ATS--the boogeyman to all the good little nest members.  An actual execution squad, the secret organization is comprised of humans retired from NavSpecOps special units who swore off any allegiance to the States’ program for Other inclusion. 

Most humans worldwide are unaware of vampire existence, living in a comfortable world of denial that’s fed by revisionist history and the world’s government coalition collaborating to enforce the lie.  Despite proof of large ethical-feeding nests, federal deregulation of the special kill units didn’t sit well with unit members and a large portion of States.

Jared and Malik drop the matter, both uncomfortable with how efficient the ATS is in their task.    

With enough information to keep busy throughout the days ahead, Jared waves off anymore.  Before Malik heads to the hospital for his shift, Jared thanks him once more for his diligence.  Each decade that passes, every technological advance that comes with, threatens their kinds’ exposure, and finding the correct team of insiders within the cities they’ve inhabited proves that much harder to keep Jared and Malik’s kind hidden and protected.

~*~

Grace calls at precisely seven p.m. the following evening, right as Jared is opening a bottle of fresh lamb.  He wants to treat her to upscale dining and therefore needs to be refreshed in color.  He asks if she’ll meet him in an hour for wine downtown.  A new fusion restaurant he wants to try out that boasts outdoor open table.  The night air isn’t as oppressive as usual, he explains, and after, they can head to an exclusive bar a few blocks towards uptown that will provide privacy should they need.  It’s not until a pregnant pause sees no sign of relenting that Jared realizes Grace might misconstrue his reasoning. 

For business, “Strictly business,” he says, and if he could skywrite the words to emphasize how not interested he is in romantic interludes with her, well.

Better footing after the awkwardness, Jared gives her the Poydras Street address.  He dresses in casual soft denim and a white dress shirt, long sleeves rolled up, and sets out himself.  He knows New Orleans, knows five different ways to say her name in two tongues, and her new generation—actual, breathing humans—have been remarkably open to Jared and his small group. It goes against every natural instinct humans have, but the few inside persons working with the New Orleans nest show very little fear.  Meeting with Grace, the family and those she’s looking for, all that has the potential to break apart that peace. 

They meet at the restaurant within minutes of one another, Grace’s Prius rental and Jared’s S550 Mercedes off with valet.  Dinner passes silently if not far more relaxed than the previous evening, Jared selectively choosing the rarest of meats that won’t upset his system, formalities finalized.  After the tip, they both make their way into one of New Orleans' exclusive members-only bars, the tinted glass of the windows and classic upscale business exterior hiding the rich pine and country feel of the interior.  Two of Jared’s nest seat them at a high back leather booth large enough for four and see to their drink orders, finally leaving them to have some semblance of privacy.

The bartender wastes no time in personally serving them and mercilessly throws a charming grin and wink at Grace. 

“Kelly,” Jared reprimands, not amused.  Le Bon Cœur’s signature Bloody Mary redux isn’t the only thing Brock Kelly is renowned for.  The infamous bartender with the James Dean pout can twist patrons into knots with nothing but a look and a wipe of his hands on his black waist apron.  Throw in an insatiable appetite for all things below the belt, and Jared’s heard all the tales on how the boy doesn’t discriminate, and Brock is a never-ending source of pain-in-the-ass trouble.  

Brock shrugs a shoulder with an aww-c’mon-boss slant that Jared—so help him, Alpha—will call bullshit on in a heartbeat.  Jared’s inconspicuous nod towards the office behind the bar is a small threat to Brock of no sleeping through the day and instead spent sorting receipts.  Even if the bar is Padalecki owned and all business and extracurricular matters are kept private, Jared doesn’t need the Ackles situation to snowball.

Kelly, in a blessed moment of not being ditzy, wisely takes the hint and saunters off after brief introductions and a goodbye innuendo that leaves Grace’s cheeks ruddy.

The booth all theirs, Grace shifts so that she and Jared are sitting more face to face.  Jared stares at the highball glass in his hand, acutely aware of the pain from his tension headache.  Worries from the nest invade his mind, flashes of images the New Orleans nest send, demanding answers as to his involvement with the girl.  They know, after all.

They know and respect that Jared is a solitary alpha, preferring the company of his camera and weekly photography sessions within his various homes throughout the city to that of boisterous social interaction—vampire or human.  Malik is one of the rare few allowed to frivolously occupy his time.  That infamous rumor mill, fueled by his nest’s ability to access and download loose emotions or thoughts of his, it pokes when Jared isn’t calm. 

This with the Ackles girl, he is anything but.  Jared’s emotions are rampant with confusion—he’s familiar with her blood scent in a way that’s infuriating.  It’s not enough to pique an interest for mate, but that word, that feeling won’t abide and the nest has caught on.  The sooner he can have her come clean, the quicker they can move on to whatever it is that Grace’s mission will entail.  The sooner he can be done with the literal painful distraction and the quicker he can move forward and focus on Holt’s actions. 

~*~

“…if you could show me around the more rural areas of the city, perhaps across the river in Algiers or even outside the city?”  Grace opens her leather portfolio and pulls out a file, setting it on the table.  She removes a grouping of pages, flips through them as a few more patrons enter the bar, decadent fashionistas that flirt openly, smile politely. 

Jared smiles back, not looking at Grace when he squares his shoulders, smacks his hand down on a particular page before she can flip further.  With one sharp fingernail, he traces the inset photograph of a baby faced twenty-five year old white male, light brown hair.  “Tyler Johnston, from the prestigious English Turn neighborhood.  A little young to have known your father during his tour of duty, wouldn’t you say?”

Gaped mouth, Grace can’t collect herself quick enough.  She fumbles through an explanation that is nonsensical.    

Aggravated by her failure to ask how he knows anything about her father, he snaps out.  “I’m surprised at your lack of thorough research, Ms. Ackles.  You’re unaware of Mr. Johnston’s late demise?  Body found in the Industrial Canal the same night we first met, in fact.  That reminds me: let’s have a copy of the Picayune sent to your room each morning.”

Undeterred, Grace carries on without a hitch, hands steady, even, as she yanks the pages from underneath his palm and flips to that of another male.  Tall, glasses, early sixties, also white.  Mitch Pileggi.  His residence is listed in the lower Garden District, and Jared highly thinks not.  Would know if a member of the ATS was living right underneath his nose. 

“Mr. Pileggi served as unit consultant for my dad when he was just out of boot camp.  I remember him from years and years ago, probably going on fifteen.  Dad invited him to dinner, once.  Perhaps, if we take some time after a tour of the area, we could start with his interview.”  Grace takes a sip of her drink, swipes wisps of her brunette hair out of her eyes.

The fashionista set at the bar aren’t vampires, aren’t nest.  They’re groupies for lack of a better term, human donors who pay hefty membership fees for that opportunity.  Their human fight or flight instinct kicks in, tangy adrenaline notes filling the air.  One of the women, ombre hair in twists and crushed velvet lips, shoots a withering look of worry over her shoulder as another of her entourage hurriedly settles the tab with Brock. 

Stupid child, Jared thinks as Grace flips several pages, ignorant of the soured atmosphere around her.  Five other people of interest jump out at him from the pages:  two are enemies, members of the Alliance for Two States that Jared and Malik had dispatched personally, bodies burned and ashes spread across the Mississippi; two are prior Naval Special Operation members that retired and went off grid amicably; and the last—

“I can see the similarities.”  There’s only one reason for this particular group of files.  Jared’s not so sure the girl is lying so much as she isn’t aware of what it is she has in her possession.  And the implications of this being exposed are far more dangerous than what he’d originally anticipated.  “My patience has grown thin, Grace.  I want an explanation,” he bites out. 

 

~*~

~October ’15~

~*Central Business District, Houston ~ City View Lofts*~

“At the tone, please leave a message.”  The robotic greeting from the landline answering machine instructs for the umpteenth time.

“Jensen.  Pick up the goddamn phone.”  One call, two calls.  The sound of the answering machine registering a third message echoes across the loft’s wide den space and into the bedroom.  If Jensen puts his pillow on top of his head, pulls the corners tight against his ears, he can almost block out the harsh click of a hang-up.  He snuffles further into the bed, sleepy enough to start snoring into the expensive thread count not twenty seconds later. 

The kitchen phone rings again—again, instantly picked up by the machine, “I swear to the Lord Almighty, son, if you don’t answer this phone… So help me, I’m going to—I don’t even know.  Jensen.  Jensen?  That’s it.” Jensen swings his legs out of bed and sends mental death threats to the machine for not self-muting.  Staggering bleary-eyed out of his room, he starts towards the sound to make it stop and puts a fire under it when he hears, “…Coming over there.  I’m grabbing my keys, Jensen!”

“Whoa there, Ashley.”  He barely gets the phone cradled the between cheek and shoulder before he smacks out an answer, mouth gummy from dehydration.  Morning sun beams cheerily through the loft and blinds him as he reaches to grab a heavy mug from a cabinet.  Coffee first, with due cause for a splash of Irish Crème in order to handle this morning.  “Night shift, we talked about this.”

A low sigh on the other end means she gets it.  Ashley Crow is tenacious as all hell when she misses her granddaughter.  This is her outlet, her way to connect now that Grace has gone and flown the coop for the summer and fall college semesters.  A car engine starts in the background over the line, and Ashley interrupts Jensen’s spluttered protest that she cannot be serious.   

“She hasn’t called me in two weeks, Jensen.  Everything you tell me she tells you—I don’t like being out of the loop.  And I know I really screwed up this time.”

Out on the balcony, high-octane coffee in hand, Jensen has to squint to look over at Houston’s city skyline.  No breeze at all, the day is going to be a scorcher, and not for the first time does he count himself lucky to not have to be out in the midst of it.  He chews over whatever innuendo Ashley is hinting, torn between a loyal friend and the star of his heart who is currently making everyone’s life miserable. 

“I tell her that I tell you about every phone call.  That’s once every four days at the most.  Everything I know, you know.”

“Honestly, Jensen.  This is worse than that summer she spent a solid month refusing to talk to me.”

Heading back inside, he forces himself to not slam the balcony doors.  With his mug drained and placed in the sink, Jensen has to get back to sleep to head off the onset of a migraine.  The reminder of Grace having been that ticked off though—he flashes back to his then 12 year-old who wore graphic tees and an attitude that was stubborn as hell.  The tween boycotted her grandmother for the sheer audacity of refusing her signed special permission to volunteer for maritime research in the Gulf of Mexico.  The long-distance, melancholy Skype sessions in which he chastised and grounded her during that particular military deployment puts a sour smile on his face. 

“What I know, you know.  I can still hear the car running, by the way.”

“Grocery shopping, actually.  It worked, though.” 

Jensen wearily lies down, flat on his back, glad to hear that Ashley has the decency to sound a tiny bit sheepish.  He manages to mutter a half-goodbye, eyes already closing, and tosses the phone off to the side, grimacing as it hits the floor with a clunk.  His cell sits on the bedside table, mocking him.  Ashley intentionally called him on the house phone to get him out of bed, which is now going to backfire spectacularly.  Jensen snorts at the thought of disconnecting his landline solely to best his ex-mother-in-law—decides he’ll be doing it anyway.

The next time he wakes, it’s to the 5 p.m. alarm chime on his cell.  Jensen slaps a hand on his belly and scratches, minds that he’s a tiny pinch fleshier than his prior military days.  It’s his age and metabolism, which he gruffs out-loud in annoyance then kicks the comforter off towards the foot of the bed.  One arm across his face to psyche himself for another night of number crunching, he moves his hand down to lazily rub the bulge of his dick through his boxer briefs.  And groans.  Ages past way too damn long since he’s had more than just his hand for company, he can’t even concentrate because he has to piss like a racehorse.

His own bathroom sits right off the left to his bedroom.  His loft is spacious and well designed.  The rooms are generous in size, although the living room takes up most of the area.  The building was originally a famous brand bakery, eventually converted into luxury lofts that specifically kept the factory feel of the original use—exposed piping and upgraded ventilation ducts, brick walls and steel windows that swing open and closed.  After a final detail station to Texas back in the early 2000’s—the last leg of his military career, Jensen was able to settle Grace in a more nurturing environment.  Moving closer to her grandmother for care rather than a constant turnover of live-in nannies lifted a large weight of guilt off his shoulders. 

Alone now in this place for the first time in years, the loft feels ridiculously empty.  Grace lives with him during her partial school year.  Partly due to cost and mostly because Grace isn’t a bother.  Kid missed so much of her childhood with him due to his deployments, he enjoys the chance to connect during brief moments and weekends together.  Still, after the past few years of modesty, Jensen is reveling in the novelty of stumbling out of bed half-naked to take a shower.  These past glorious weeks, he wanders the loft in nothing but white ankle socks and only because cold feet suck.

Freedom to roam nude makes up for any notions of sad solitude.  Blackout curtains left wide open on the balcony are another issue he’ll have to be more mindful of, but not tonight.  There is the major league ballpark quite literally down the road and satellite parking close to the building, so it’s not all neighbors be damned. 

Occasional worries about Grace off in New Orleans wear him down, and so, in spades, does his boredom at work.  Co-workers make dumb jokes about the summer appearance of unstarched dress shirts and the less than model perfect droop to his lids; the staunch dress code and fresh face gave way to tedious data compilations and eco-friendly, green innovation field-testing long ago.  It’s cushy, this life, and so maybe the life shows:  Stupid whitened smile, stupid economical car, stupid mortgage-newspaper subscribing-everyman, only with a great face and great hair.   

Shaving kit on the side of the sink and wet-faced mirror image staring back at him, Jensen rubs his fingers over his cheek and across his chin, his fingers scraping against stubble.  ‘Shit’, he thinks as he smiles and takes in his crow’s feet and barely there lines on his forehead.  Maybe it’s the worry—nothing near those twenty some years in service, back when a bad night meant a crappy cot in a warded tent, cramped with men and women who would just as soon blow a hole in their comrade if it meant destroying their prime target in a timelier fashion.  All while concerned the target never ever caught up to their loved ones in a snit of revenge.  No, that’s a whole other face-destroying emotional trepidation that puts empty nest syndrome to shame. 

Jensen has to count to ten and mentally visualize his grip releasing the countertop’s edge before his body unclenches.   His pensiveness is broken with a phone call, vibration of his cell from somewhere on his bedroom floor.  He wipes the remaining shaving cream off his face with a hot damp towel and throws on a clean undershirt and boxers.     

“Hello, baby girl,”  Jensen answers, forcing himself to go and relax in the living room.  The couch cushion gives a touch as he sits, and he lets his socked toes curl into the plush throw rug.

“Hi, Dad.” 

Every four days or so, between 5:30 and 6:00 p.m., Grace calls. And the only reason she calls as often as she does is that she loves her father dearly.  Meaning, in Jensen terms, she respects the schedule.  Jensen could break many a rule in becoming the civilian father—let the dishes go a day, not snark too much about a botched bleach job on dark brown tresses, not pull out a shotgun during bad break-ups—but the schedule was sacred and unbendable.  Hygiene, Eat, Sleep, a time and place and a routine for all things.    

They’ve had dozens of touristy conversations in the months since she’s been gone:  Eating hot pretzels while walking the Riverwalk to visit the New Orleans Aquarium, using too little sunscreen while at the Audubon Zoo and blistering in an outline around her tank straps, eating too many beignets at Café du Monde and nearly choking to death on powdered sugar.  Jensen laughed so hard he nearly cried at Grace’s indignant retelling of how a tour guide stopped his group to help her, and once the guide knew she was okay, used her as a cautionary tale about the local treat. 

A few weeks ago, there was a guy with short blonde hair and a killer smile, made the best drinks she’d tasted off anyone’s lips ever.  Jensen isn’t one for indulging his kid to spill details, but he’s amused at the killer bod description.  More intrigued than amused, he listens to her speak of an older woman, soft wavy hair and blue eyes. His only surprise is the age disparity.  Jensen wasn’t aware of Grace being as open as her contemporaries, the college kids and interns who inhabit the Houston nightlife, having no age restrictions in the bedroom.  He listened to his daughter’s fumbles with flirting and apparent good dates, pleased to note that both seem to have made a distinct impression. 

Tonight, there’s hesitation in her voice.  The first time in weeks, quite the difference from the eager to go-it-alone young adult who set off on her own.  Jensen turns on the lamp beside him and reclines back on the couch, looking up at the dust motes swirling around the chandelier.  Decides it’s time to call the house cleaner for an earlier than usual service. 

“—met him when I first settled into the city, out with the photographer.  Brock gave me his number when Mr. Padalecki was in the back office for an emergency call.  And that’s how I was officially invited to a cocktail party in the Warehouse District.  I have all my interview provisions re—“

Five seconds of light constricting his pupils pass before the connection of names finally clicks.  Jensen brusquely sits ramrod straight, brow furrowed. 

“Grace.  What’d you just say?”

Without pause, Grace continues where she was cut-off.  Immediately, it’s obvious she’s said too much and is trying to deflect.  “There’s a boutique right off of Esplanade, entirely commission.  I found a teal dress that looked amazing with my wedges. It was half-off couture, so I—”

“Not that, Grace.  The name you mentioned earlier, the photographer?”

“I swear I won’t spend too much, dad.  I’m leaving the Prius for long distance travels, walking everywhere, which is a good thing because oh my gosh, the amount of seafood and rice I’ve eaten is obscene.”

Jensen has a stream of f-bombs on the tip of his tongue, yellow dots from the lamplight swimming across his eyes, and he’s off the couch and in his bedroom without touching the floor.  There’s a safe in his closet, so he’s down on his knees on the wooden floorboard, hands steadily punching in the digital code as he keeps Grace talking. 

“This project, Grace.  The one for your college credits?  You say the photographer you’ve hired is Jared Padalecki?” 

She doesn’t know everything, he and Ashley left her in the dark on this matter for a reason.  He hits the last number for the code and opens the safe.  Son of a bitch, he mentally pounds out.  The safe is empty.

“Yes, sir.  Jared.  Padalecki.  Dad, I promise it’s not what you think.” His daughter has the nerve to lie and steal, and now she’s bargaining the severity.

Jensen takes a deep breath, chin to his chest.  “Grace, those files that are not in my safe aren’t what you think.  Mr. Padalecki is not to be bothered anymore.  I don’t know what you’ve told him—“  

“He knows.  He knows, Dad.  I know about Mom, and I’m sorry I’ve lied to you over these last few weeks.  Two of those men in your folder, they’re gone without a trace.  Mr. Padalecki has shown me all over the city, everything I told you about touring the area was true.  But there’s more to the story than he’s telling me, a package I’ve seen in his home...”

The floor wants to meet with his face.  Either she’s the best bullshit artist Jensen has ever encountered, or Padalecki hasn’t helped his daughter piece the puzzle together.  Grace is so, so intelligent though.  Just like her mama.  And it’s only a matter of time before she’ll uncover what has been tenuously guarded from the human population in the worst manner possible.  If ATS members are missing...

“No, Grace.  You, baby girl, you have no idea what you’ve started.  When did Ashley give you the code?” He’s livid now, has to skip work and save the fucking world it seems. 

“Dad, leave her out of this.”

Jensen pinches the bridge of his nose.  He has a suitcase out, a bug-out bag stashed with a supply of essentials.  All he needs are his regular clothes and a sparse few bogus uniform pieces kept from missions: lab technician coat, medical profession ids, law enforcement identification that will always be backed by NavSpecOps headquarters.  Once sworn in, always in. 

“You have until tomorrow morning.  Forget what I said earlier and call Padalecki.  He’s better the devil we know, and he’ll keep you safe.  I have one stop to make along the way,” Jensen says.  His clothes are laid on the bed:  blue denim shirt, flannel, and jeans and an olive cold weather jacket. 

Grace protests, of course she does.  Cheers for a round of drinks and the din of slow jazz are audible in the background, chairs scraping across the floor, and there’s a male voice calling her name.  “I have to go, Dad.”

“Grace, promise me you’ll watch your back.  I’ll explain everything once you’re back home.”  He trips over himself to grab his boots from the closet.  The voice calling for her in the background sounds closer, more urgent.  It stops him in his tracks, waiting for her to reply.

“Have to go, Dad.  I love you.”

~*~

He phones Ashley first. There are questions he would very much like answered.  Unsurprisingly, voice messaging picks up both her cell and home lines.  That’s fine, he thinks.  He can grill her traitorous ass for questions as soon as he’s back in Houston, his daughter in tow with the proper convincing to leave New Orleans.  

Two officers from Squadron 1 in San Diego have his credentials updated, security badges active once more, all within the hour it takes him to get his Toyota sedan into Ashley’s driveway.  Actual work has to be dealt with, his boss’s secretary happily taking his message that yes, he will be out unexpectedly for two days.  And no, he will not leave a reason why, that’s fine if he’s reprimanded, and only personal calls will be answered on his cell. 

Pity he’ll be fired by the time breakfast rolls around.  The shift hours worked, and the retirement package was decent.

Ashley’s SUV isn’t in the driveway, but Jensen’s gunmetal gray Jeep Wrangler sits pristine in the two-car garage.  He quickly switches them out, and once behind the wheel of his favored vehicle, his mannerisms change instantaneously.  The Jeep is a workhorse, tough and reliable, and meticulously outfitted for prior service missions.  He places the weaponry vault normally kept in the loft into the back.  The stock of preferred weapons of choice:  one silver serrated hunting knife with a long blade, dozens of syringes filled with dead man’s blood, a motorcycle chain, and a machete.  He’d already holstered his Beretta M9A1, could give a rat’s ass about Concealed Carry laws in New Orleans, and double checks that his Kodabow Crossbow is anchored correctly and quivers stocked.

On I-10, the trip takes approximately five and half hours.  Jensen will need a solid six before reaching the condo Grace is subletting from a college friend in the Warehouse and Arts District.  There’s one pit stop required, a visit to Madame Devine’s shop off the Quarter.  Loretta is a last resort informant.  Her shop of hoodoo, plain as day tan siding for the tourists to spot, it makes for a bad target should things go amiss. The soft-spoken priestess is widely known throughout both worlds of Others and that of humans, tourists and serious practitioners alike.  Those files Grace relieved Jensen of, he’s left with no choice but to contact Madame at this point. 

Loretta shushes his apologies over the Jeep’s aux speaker as he crosses the Huey P. Long Bridge from West to East Baton Rouge.  It’s close to ten at night, and the sky is an inky pitch black with cloud cover, no moon or stars.  One and a half more hours until he’s in her territory, back in the land of NewOt, the treaty name tasting of blasphemy on his lips.  As he drives under the hazy yellow lights along the interstate, the Baton Rouge industrial and urban sprawl profile losing ground to more rural scenery, he curses the name. 

No stray bullets find his gas tank, no follow vehicle in his rear view.  Jensen isn’t being dramatic, he knows that sight unseen doesn’t mean it’s not there, that the Alliance for Two States covert opposition forces aren’t in New Orleans awaiting his arrival. If Naval Special Operations has him listed as Active, then the ATS won’t waste time in tagging him. 

Another call comes through, the machinations of tech gear tracking the private number.  When the name comes across the speaker, Jensen steels himself.   “Yep,” he answers, allows a long, native Texan drawl of the word.

“There’s a problem, Mr. Ackles.” 

Funny for the concern in the voice, Jensen thinks, and he allows sarcasm to color his own, “Of course there’s a problem, Jared.  I can call you Jared, right?  After all that you’ve helped my daughter, I’d like to think we’re on a first name basis.”

“That’s the problem, Jensen—Grace is missing.”

~*~

Tan siding.  Green shuttered doors on the corner of St. Ann and Bourbon. 

There’s a circular placard, black background with the shop’s name in white.  The building is ramshackle, siding weathered and the steps and shutters in desperate need of a coat of paint.   The one story nestles in oddly with the luxury Bourbon hotel across the street.  He doesn’t remember the Drag Queen revue in the yellow two-story club beside Devine’s shop.  Granted, he’s not seen Loretta or been drinking and looking for company in this particular LGBT section of New Orleans in well over a decade.

A buzzed couple in khakis and matching flannels pass him by, early drinking by the city’s hours, and size him up on their way into the yellow stucco bar.  Jensen pays them little mind as he sees a full face illuminated in the hotel window across the way, brown eyes peering down at him.

Jensen avoids the rest of the strengthening bar crowd, bristles at a wolf whistle as he runs across the street and down toward the hotel’s entrance.  The concierge is expecting him, hands him a small burlap cloth with strange drawings in what appears to be black chalk on one side. 

“I take it this was needed to get in the door?”  Jensen holds the burlap up for Loretta to see, and she waves him into the hotel room with a huff.  “You know, I’m lacking on the voodoo and hoodoo knowledge these days, Madame.  Je regrette.”

“You’re fine, darlin’.  Just fine.  That burlap is to help center you.  This is my home, my place of well-being.  I can’t have you all over the map with energy if we’re to find the truth behind that vampire fellow of yours.”  Loretta completely ignores Jensen’s splutter and instead, hands him a warm cup of coffee.

They talk over fresh apple slices and cinnamon honey that Loretta insists upon, more a mother hen insistence than anything related to her practice.  Her dark red nails skim his face as she closes her eyes and whispers to the Loa (spirits) around them for guidance, claps her hands once, loudly, to end the reverence.  

Drawn pictures and oil paintings of her ancestors dating back to the colonial periods of New Orleans are framed and hung along the walls sporadically.  Madame had told him her history once, mourning a beloved grandchild.  Beautiful tear-streaked face, a collection of dark beauty spots dotting along her checks and hair wrapped in a tri-color scarf of blues and oranges.  She spoke of Vodoun and free people of color, priestess immigrants from Haiti, and those enslaved ancestors from West Africa.

Jensen remembers the spit words for the Other who had turned her dearest and does not fail to see the drastic change of demeanor all these years later.  Madame stares intently down at her map of the city splayed before them, a copy of Jensen’s picture of Jared seated at the top left corner of Loretta’s coffee table. 

“Why now, why do you say mine and focus on him when it’s Grace we need to find?”  Jensen’s face heats, burns from embarrassment and frustration.  He doesn’t have the spare time to waste on anything but searching Grace’s apartment, the clues and leads still warm.

“All that time ago, dear,” Madame has his hand in hers, rubs sage into the palm of his hand, “We were both so angry at the Others for what all they’d taken from us. No?”

Jensen hears her melodic, soft southern voice as if in a bubble, ears popping with pressure, and his mind races to forbidden places without his permission: ice blue eyes and amazing curves of a high school friend, a child made his by adoption, a disaster of a fake marriage and its bloody ending at the hands of monsters, culminating toward this moment.  Unable to answer, Jensen is drowning in the image of that same needless violence befalling his daughter. 

“I learned to love, Jensen.  The Loa refused to hear my cries for retribution, for reasons beyond our scope of understanding.  No amulets, no rituals—so much anguish I threw at them.  My granddaughter was long gone to her mate, so I followed the spirits and learned to accept.  You ask why?  You’re here in this city because the spirits call you by this Other’s side.  Oh but they show such gifts amidst this disaster.  You need to know this, dear, clutch this thought tightly to your chest because this city will bring you death.”

 

~*~

“I’m leaving Madame’s, around the corner from Grace’s already.  Where do we meet?”

“I’ll text you the address.  Jensen, I don’t think it’s wise to head off on your own.  There’s more to this than Grace taking a wrong turn.  She was with a trusted friend, one of mine who wouldn’t be overpowered by a random criminal.”

“ATS is the big bad wolf, and I’m no Little Red new recruit.  I can handle myself, Padalecki.”  Jensen swerves, pulling into the reserved parking for Grace’s Carondelet Street apartment.  The brick building is nothing special on the outside, exterior rugged amongst the more upscale buildings in the Arts district.  The interior though, modern furnishings in an open layout with top-of-the-line appliances.  Nothing Grace would have been able to afford if not for cheap subletting. 

He lets Jared hang on while he enters and looks around, both men filling the phone with silence.  Grace, as an adult, is neat and tidy.  There’s nothing amiss in the open spaces or her bathroom, no random clutter that someone could have staged, not a jacket or a wet towel.  Nothing.  

Still on the phone.  Silent but for Jensen’s breathing.

A single photograph sits on Grace’s bedside table; it’s one he’s never before seen.  In it, he wears dress blues, standing tall and sincere before the NewOt special committee board.  A gold necklace with a locket charm curls around the picture, clasp covering the face of one Jared Padalecki at that same board meeting.  They’d made history that day, legal teams and their testimonies convincing the government to begin the slow process towards Other inclusion.  When Jensen picks up Grace’s necklace, a gift given to her by her mother, Jensen is able to better view the picture.  Jared in the background, ancient and brave, facing down an entire room of humans but his face is turned to where Jensen stands—Jared’s eyes soft with awe and pink, pink lips turned at the corner in a grin.  Dimpled grin of wonderment.

Jensen ends the call abruptly, crumpling the picture and tossing it in the waste basket.

~*~

There’s a television mounted above the piano, blue light in the dark of night visible through the full-length window.  The exterior of the raised Creole cottage is pristine, glossy with a fresh coat of beige paint on the siding, and the windows and door shutters are a glossy black coat.  The area of Faubourg Marigny the home is in looks like a community well on its way to making a comeback from the brink of collapse. 

The shutter for the front door opens before Jensen has the back door to the Jeep closed, machete in hand.  The ten o’clock repeat edition news is on, volume so loud he can hear it walking up the driveway, the news anchor citing another missing person’s case.  Pretty boy anchor tells his viewers that the latest case brings the statistic total since June to thirteen. 

Missing.  Not all of them recovered in a body bag.  There’s hope, and Jensen will cling to that.

A petite woman in a black pinstripe suit and green shirt, hair tightly pulled backed in a bun, greets him at the door, her hand held out to stop him before he makes his way inside.  “Weapons outside.” 

Jensen has to give her kudos for not flinching when he leans down the few inches to her height, close enough to be nose to nose.  He can smell the turned, always had a super sniffer that no human could match.  After feeding, their odor is similar to that of a newborn.  Soft and fresh, as if the donor blood scrubs their scent of anything touched by sweat or dirt.  The vampire doesn’t drop her fangs, but her posture screams that she’s itching for a reason not to trust him.  Good, he thinks.  She’s a smart one.

From inside, Jared’s voice rings out.  “Let him in, Ewusie.”

There’s a reason comrades in NavSpecOps were denied access to work on familial cases of targets (Others) gone rogue.  Incidents had shown too high a risk of freezing and/or putting loved ones, yourself, and non-in-the-know civilians in danger. 

Padalecki’s voice in person triggers something in Jensen, a warring want versus a visceral urge to lash out and wreak havoc when that’s the worst way to respond.  Stepping into the house brings back mission memories of thick vegetation and the smell of rotting corpses.  At present, he’s surrounded by Others, and the possible danger and old memories leave him mentally repeating Grace’s name in order to relax his fist around the machete’s handle and keep from chopping off heads.

They’re in the same space once more.  Not images in the video Jensen has studied for years, fast-forwarding to the young Other deftly presenting his case against extermination practices.  Not an 8x10 photograph he’d removed from those confidential informant files he thought he’d squirreled away—fumbled with in the dark and rubbed his thumb along the frozen features while his other hand stripped his dick.  Not that forsaken picture in Grace’s apartment.

Padalecki is here, a non-breathing real being, almost two centuries old.  Inches taller than Jensen’s own 6’1”, Jensen is once again struck with the fact that images and accounts of the Alpha vampire don’t do him justice:  shoulder-length chestnut hair, lean face with defined cheek bones, the commanding presence he exudes.  Hazel eyes roving over Jensen prove the disparity between presence and vulnerability—even now, Jared looks at him as if Jensen were his saving grace.

Jensen is more professional than this.  Twenty years of detail missions that first saw every single Other as the target, and then as years passed, so did the human mindset with what certain nests called ethical-feeding.  NavSpecOps were only authorized kill permits for those vampire(s) and nests who refused to stop killing humans.  Jensen learned to think on his feet—those target missions taught him crisis management during worst-case scenarios. 

Which is why punching Jared wasn’t the way this was supposed to go down, but here they are.  Jensen feels his spinner ring catch on the thin tissue beneath the vampire’s eye, and the speck of blood that wells up is intensely satisfying.  His head knocks back with the responding right hook Jared throws.  This wasn’t even about them, Jensen’s mind scrambles, fighting despite the blood in his mouth making him queasy.

The cacophony of Jared’s group trying to stop their brawl is nothing compared to the splintered cracking of a stud when Jensen and Jared clash, arms locked, and crash into the back wall of the living room.  Downed to the wood floor, framed pictures from the wall crashing around them, they struggle and punch.  Jensen flips their position, straddles Jared, and plucks a syringe of dead man’s blood from his coat pocket.

“Little shit, I trusted you!”  Jensen can’t seem to catch his breath through the intensity of his emotions, can’t see through the sweat pricking at his brow and his eye beginning to swell.  Jared lies dead still beneath him, eyes wide and pupils blown as his Adam’s apple bobs against the pricking needle. 

A slender arm wraps around Jensen’s throat, squeezing off his air supply, and he’s yanked off Jared as if he weighs no more than a child.  The tips of Jensen’s boots drag along the floor as he’s carted off to the opposite side of the room, futilely grabbing at the chokehold.  The arm holding him releases, and he’s unceremoniously dumped in the corner, left there bent over and gagging. 

Worn suede boots then denim knees come into view from where his forehead touches the ground.  A huge hand at the back of his head turns him so that he awkwardly stares up at Jared kneeling before him.  Stupid, Jensen thinks of himself.  Attacking without any information and now, now he’s gonna die not knowing what’s happened to his daughter.  Jared’s fangs haven’t dropped, but Jensen can’t help but note the long nails, filed to a point as the vampire grabs his jaw and gives him a shake. 

Abused muscles of his throat hurt, his voice like gravel as Jensen lashes out.  “Lot’a blood when you cut me. Don’t think you’ll be getting your deposit back.”

“Oh my god, this guy.  This?  This is who we’re hedging our bets on?”  The vamp who greeted him at the door, plucked all 175 plus pounds of him off Jared like a ragdoll, she throws her hands up in disgust, heels clicking as she walks away.  A second vamp, glossy lips thinned in a pissed off scowl, comes to stand behind Jared, her hands on her hips and looking down on Jensen as if he’s a bug.

Jared gives his jaw another good shake.  “Chokehold was Ellen Ewusie.  And she didn’t rip out your throat or snap you in half like a twig.  This is Katie.  Katie is going to restrain herself from kicking in your ribs.  I’ll introduce you to the rest of the nest after you agree to not poison everyone.”   

Giant hand on his head moves with as Jensen nods a yes.  When Jared stands, his fingers absently rub over the shell of Jensen’s ear, and Jensen hisses at the scratch.

~*~

Their introduction consists of Ellen Ewusie, Jared’s personal assistant voluntarily turned Other to be with her mate going on five years; Katie (but you can call me Cassidy because, seriously, fuck you), who he is apparently on a need-to-know basis of never; and a recent, four-year new turn Other named Lee.  Jensen notes that the female vamps only refer to him as Majdoub, Lee’s last name, as they ask him to retrieve bandages from the bathroom and to throw away the bloody cotton gauze. 

Curious, in that they seem unfamiliar, Jensen had assumed everyone in the New Orleans nest was more buddy-buddy rather than just a working relationship.

He doesn’t ask, though.  Jensen keeps a non-imposing figure, off to his side of the room, and he’s honestly surprised to see that his machete now lies on the floor by his side. Not as surprised as he is to witness how the tall Alpha vampire currently sits with his head between his knees. 

Ewusie has her laptop set up, typing away with a blank face.  Cassidy remains livid and wary, watching to make sure Jensen is a good boy.  Blonde hair in a tight ponytail and dressed in work-out gear, she looks like a typical soccer mom, which he almost tells her. 

Jensen wonders when his hysteria turned the corner into suicide. 

It’s not as if they’re out in the middle of bumfuck nowhere, either.  Faubourg Marigny is thick with residences to all sides.  That’s the kicker:  urban New Orleans is mostly densely packed until you travel to the outskirts of the Lower 9th downriver, or to Algiers and suburbs of New Orleans to the South across the Mississippi.  There are areas of overgrowth—small, densely packed acres with a good canopy to hide from the urban sprawl, such as the city park, but they’re few and far between.  The majority of actual thick canopy woodland preserves and honest-to-god bayou with cypress and Spanish moss, those are a good half an hour from the French Quarter in each direction.

Neighbors can be heard down the block, the world waking as garbage is taken to the curb for early morning pick-up and one or two unlucky bastards start their cars for a long commute to work.  Jared whispers to Ellen, beyond Jensen’s hearing, and she nods.  Jared lifts his face, and Jensen is finally capable to take a less rage-fueled look at the Alpha.  If anything, it becomes crystal clear why Padalecki went down with Jensen’s punches. 

The Alpha’s face is sunken so that there are shadows under his eyes, red and blue hues that give the appearance that Jared hasn’t slept in about a year.  He’s unshaven, two-day stubble, and his pallor is sickly white.  Stranger still, the small gash from Jensen’s ring isn’t healing.  Along the wound’s seam, spaced evenly apart, three tiny droplets of donor blood well to the surface and leave Jensen transfixed.   

“Excuse me.  But uh, I’m wondering—why aren’t you downy fresh by now?”

Lee takes a special interest in the question, waiting just as much as Jensen for the answer.  Brown hair, delicate features and slight in stature. The guy is so new to the immortal scene, he’s still baking.  

“I haven’t had anything to eat in a day or two.  Not eating has the loathsome effect of slowing down the healing process.”  Jared touches the gash on his cheek and winces. 

“Try a week.  It’s been a week since he’s eaten.”  Lee offers, naively looking between Jared and Jensen as if this is an everyday conversation.  Christ, Jensen thinks.  Without a doubt, Majdoub is too trusting, wouldn’t have made it past his first week of turn if Ops was still in force.     

“Right.  Longer.  Thanks, Lee.”  Jared’s face flinches, and cuts him a look to knock it off. “There’s more to my life than your daughter, Jensen, and a compounding of situations doesn’t help with my appetite.”

Jensen is okay with Jared dieting and throwing himself to hell on someone else’s time.  Not now, though.  “Changed my mind.  I don’t care.  I really don’t give a shit about your other situations or how touchy your stomach is under stress.  I want my daughter.  And if you have her, I swear to God, man, I’ll walk away.  I’ll take her, burn the files.  We’ll disappear, anything you ask.”

Cassidy storms the few feet across the living room and kicks a door open, the sudden blast of wood splintering startling everyone.  “Anything?”  She pointedly grinds out at Jensen.  Jensen can see the bed’s comforter.  There’s not a single crease, pillows propped and fluffed, and a glass vase of mums and a few trinkets on the oak bedside table.  Untouched.  “Two other rooms and the bathroom.  Wanna go see if we have her tied up in the shower?”

“Enough!”  Jared yells.  Cassidy backs down, spitting out curses as she throws her hands up like Ewusie did earlier, joining the other vampire in the corner by the television.

Jensen can’t say that he doesn’t want to vomit.  For all that Jared looks completely run-down, he’s still large and looming and absolutely terrifying when ticked, and Jensen’s muscles ache too much from their tussle to really fight back. 

“We didn’t…  This isn’t us, Jensen, and I think you know that.  You know because Grace showed me those files, and I have my ear to the ground on you.  We can explain everything.  We need your cooperation so that we can find Grace.”

“I’m not the trusting type—” Jensen interjects, common sense warring with an insane need to prove himself.  The Other in front of him could possibly have had his daughter killed, but his gut is screaming at him that it’s the furthest thing from the truth. 

“No.  But you kept the informants a secret, Jensen.  You kept them hidden from the media and ATS when others would have broken the confidentiality without a second thought.  You, Jensen.  You gave us—” Jared stalls, makes solid eye contact with Jensen, and uses the last of the blood energy in his reserves to bleed his eyes red. “You gave me the opportunity for nest safety, so I’m begging you… You put your faith in me once before.  One more time.  Please, trust me.”

~*~

Sleep.  The vampires eye the sunny fall morning warily, and Jensen’s body is killing him from a huge adrenaline dump.  So they make arrangements, blinds closed with Cassidy and Majdoub on the couch curled around one another while Ellen makes a ridiculously large amount of blankets into a palette on the floor. 

Dibs on the bedroom could’ve been ugly—Jared likes his head, wishes to wake up intact.  He mulls that over, embarrassed, before Jensen shows a little mercy.  He tells Jared about a mission back in ’01, how he shared a sleeping bag with a family of angry possums while camped out in the Rockies.  And at one point, shared the same bag with a comrade who lost his sleeping bag to a skunk, and yes, the guy smelled like musk.  “You’re no good this run-down, I emptied my stash with Ewusie,” Jensen reasons, “and I’ll have no problems defending myself with my eyes closed if you get stupid.  In the bed.  Now.”

If the Alpha is put out by Jensen’s demand, there’s no evidence. They leave the door open and don’t turn down the sheets, flopping on the queen bed, iron frame shaking with their sudden combined weight.  Fully clothed, boots on.  There are a thousand places to investigate instead of wasting time sleeping, but their bodies demand it.  Jared flips on his side, shoulders hunched and facing away from Jensen who lies on his back, one arm across his stomach and the other across his face.

The alarm clock on the dresser shows five hours have passed despite having just closed his eyes.  A loud banging pulls away the last vestiges of violent, blood-soaked dreams, Grace dead at his feet, and Jensen struggles to sit up, boots catching on the down comforter.  Jared is gone, the side of his bed cold, and, lord help him, but Jensen spends a brief moment wondering if that’s a body temperature thing to do with vampires.

On the bedside table closest to him, someone left a bottled water and a bottle of ibuprofen.  Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, Jensen uncaps both and pops four pills.  He checks the time once again, ten past five, and grumbles, stretching as he goes out into the living room to join the group.

Lee, Ellen, and Cassidy sit at the long dining table.  Huddled seating in a tight group, rumpled clothing.  Two newcomers, a professionally dressed human woman he recalls seeing on the news earlier and an equally well dressed Other, they stand solemnly with Jared by the head of the table.  Jared listens to a message on  a cellphone, eyes closed.  The room is dead quiet, and as Jensen enters, all eyes turn to him with concern.

The call must end as Jared stops listening and stares at the screen.  When he goes to hand the phone to Jensen, the male newcomer grabs his arm and scolds, “Not yet.”

Jared falters but doesn’t chastise, arm dropping to his side.  “Jensen, this is Charles Malik Whitfield and this is Mishael Morgan.  Think of Malik as an extension of me in all things political and business.  And Ms. Morgan—"

“Is very pleased to meet you, Mr. Ackles.  I’m an investigative reporter on a local affiliate cable news team.  I wish we were able to meet under kinder circumstances.”  Mishael extends her hand in greeting after Jensen shakes Whitfield’s, her strong grip meant for reassurance. 

Jensen nods to her and Whitfield, remembering their parts in the files.  Ms. Morgan was page six in the confidential reports as the child of pro-treaty lobbyists within the government.  Mishael’s background in government and subsequent degree in political science, as well as her current job, make her an equally valuable asset—and target—for both humans and vampires. 

Mr. Whitfield’s own page was the second most important in regards to the NewOt treaty and specifically, the New Orleans nest.  Jensen recognizes the vampire as more than Jared’s second in command.  Malik Whitfield’s history is rich in culture, extending well beyond Jared’s own two centuries. The Battle of New Orleans and the Slave Revolt are but a few of the moments in time that he played a significant role in leadership. 

Lacking the desire to have his face become the symbol for a new order, to organize Others in New Orleans towards the ethical-feeding nest, Malik pleaded to remain in the shadows behind Jared.  His one and only turn. 

“I’m sorry our first meeting will be spoiled by the message I’m delivering, Mr. Ackles.  Perhaps pleasantries will be exchanged after we find your daughter.” Malik places a solid hand on Jared’s shoulder and squeezes, to which Jared apologizes as he hands Jensen the phone.

~*~

Jensen runs out of the house, Padalecki by his side, and vomits into the rose bushes.  There’s a moment he feels the madness creep in, bleeding lip from a thorn nothing compared to the bloody gashes along his daughter’s torso as she hung from a meat hook by cloth-bound wrists.

Deep tissue, circular rubs along his back.  Jared stays quiet as he does his best to support, stares yards away into the early evening light at something only he can see running across the street.

Tell daddy and his Alpha that all the little freaks in this town are being evicted, won’t you sweetie?” His face was masked, dialect one of a sharp northeastern accent, and he was dressed in a white long sleeve shirt ruined with Grace’s blood.  The last images of him pulling back the bullwhip, the crack against Grace’s skin, those moments won’t quit his mind’s replay.

Jensen seizes on a dry-heave, knees going limp when strong hands catch beneath his arms before he falls forward into the bushes.  

~*~

They wait until he’s able to stand on his own, focus, and watch as he jumps in the Jeep, sits in the driver’s seat, engine on but not moving. 

Ewusie, Cassidy, and Majdoub do what they do best—they text and rally Others in the area with frightening ease.  Business associates are waking to find emails asking they put ears to the ground throughout the city’s nightclubs and dining establishments. Whitfield makes a call to Commander Ware, asking for an impromptu meeting with video and message in tow.  They need to make quick work of leads before the trail goes cold.

Morgan walks to the Jeep and offers to drive him wherever he needs to go, but Jensen declines politely. 

“Whitfield has his appointment.  We can head to my home on Bourbon while we wait.”  Jared doesn’t let Jensen interrupt as he buckles himself into the passenger seat.  “Ware won’t tolerate me anywhere near police headquarters, and I’m not leaving your side.  I can show you what advances Grace had made in her research, however misguided.  Perhaps you can get a feel for any hints that I’ve missed.  Fresh pair of eyes.”

~*~

Malik works best alone.  He’s finely attuned to his turn, but Jared’s attentions are elsewhere, held by his potential mate and the loss of that potential mate’s child.  While fabulous for Jared, it’s not to Malik’s own benefit in diffusing the dangerous climate surrounding them.  He rounds the police headquarters, aware of the odd looks he receives when Ware calls down to intake and reception to have him escorted to her office.

Ware sits behind her desk, stern look of observation that Malik appreciates, human or otherwise. He knows her shift ended an hour ago, but that she’s a workhorse with a bulldog attitude.  She offers him a seat after a perfunctory greeting, and he hands her his cell.

Malik looks about Ware’s office, the academy certificates and college degrees hogging up all wall and shelving space.  No personal effects bar a single picture of a German Sheppard pinned to a corkboard on the wall by her office shelving.  There’s a tiny glass bowl of hard peppermint candy, individually wrapped, that sits on her desk.  He hears the last of the video, the masked man’s threat and Grace’s tortured cries and then there's the soft sound of cotton as Ware uncrosses her legs.  An oddly pleased look crosses her face as she hands Malik his cell.

“He knows your personal information, and his voice is highly familiar.” 

“Padalecki and I assumed this is tied in with the missing persons.  Johnston’s autopsy revealed wounds and ligature marks that are indicative of the same treatment Ms. Ackles is being subjected to in that video.”

Ware grabs her desk phone, punching in the number to the records department.  “Late shift rotation,” she says as an aside, and taps manicured fingers on her desk until her call is picked up.  “This is Ware.  Can you pull up everything we have on a Fred Lehne and Joseph Holt?”    

~*~

Jensen sits at the little cast iron table in Jared’s courtyard, Grace’s leather binder in front of him.  There’s very little to Grace’s notes that he wasn’t already aware of, and his eyes begin to droop as people walk by on their way to mid-morning meals.  Defeated, he heads inside where Jared is drawing the curtains to avoid the nasty sunburns all vampires suffer with unprotected skin.

Jared’s home has random mementos, trinkets and old photographs showcased and hung tastefully throughout. Along the grey walls of the hallway, a matted picture of a blonde woman and young boy catch Jensen’s eye.  Both smile, dressed in period clothing that looks to be 1940’s—the child in a dark suit with shorts and the woman in a short-sleeved dress with front pleats down the skirt. 

“I’ll tell you about them when we find her.”  Jensen looks at Jared in the reflection of glass. 

Malik arrives with coffee and beignets—and a second video—just as Jensen wakes from a restless nap.  Whitfield sets the food and his cell near the sink, Jensen groggily leaning against the island counter and scrubbing sleep grit from his eyes. 

“Not enough decadent food in the city to make what I have for you palatable.”  Malik sits at the kitchen island, pulls at the neck of his dress shirt uncomfortably as he lays down his car keys.  Jared stirs awake in the back bedroom, joins them before Jensen has time to pick up the cell phone.

“Another?” 

Malik cuts his eyes up to Jensen in answer, Jared at Jensen’s side by the countertop.  His flannel shirt rubs against Jensen’s arm as he reaches across Jensen to tap the video playback menu as Jensen is frozen in spot. 

The room in the first few frames of the video is dark but for one flickering overhead bulb.  Wooden wall slats are visible now, unlike the first video’s stark black background.  No defining sounds that Jensen can hear, and he asks the same of the vampires.  Both agree, another clue as to what part of the city they should focus on. 

While Jared and Malik quietly discuss Ware’s information, “…Lehne and Joe Holt? So ATS working the area, working with a fucking solitary vamp—” a masked man breaks Grace’s knee with a hammer.  Her weakened screams are echoed off to her right. 

“…Holt, it seems, has made himself a rogue group of vampires.  He’s Alpha of a separate nest, and Ware has evidence that his business practices have become increasingly—” the camera pans out, showing the emaciated, battered body of Brock Kelly swinging limply beside Grace.  The question of why the young vampire isn’t healing is answered as a second masked man stabs a syringe into Brock’s chest, vial filled with an inky black substance.  There’s one last groan before the dead man’s blood paralyzes him, and Brock makes no additional protest, even as the second man uses a blowtorch on his exposed skin.

Jensen watches in horror, watches his daughter’s body break at the hands of demented, misguided men.  “What is that?  Padalecki, what the fuck is that?”

“Holt is bragging, Jared.  I’ve not seen this aggressive style of territory marking since the early 1900’s,”  Malik explains, watching with them as the camera zooms in on a small area, a table set off to the side of the room.  The video shows a male’s arm, focuses on his hand, long and yellowed fingernails curling into a fist.  The man holds a knife against the inside of his wrist.  Blood wells to the surface along a horizontal cut.

“Is that a goblet?”  Jensen shakes, not turning from the video as droplets of blood drip into the ornate chalice.  “You have a rogue alpha performing a ritualistic turning?  Is that what I’m seeing?” 

A strong, southern Louisiana drawl fills the audio, Holt warning them,  “This is my city.  My terms.  I want you out, Mr. Padalecki.  You, your human mate, your nest.  The next time, I won’t be so merciful.”  The chalice is tipped, empties across the table, dark blood pooling and dripping off the edge.

Jensen pushes off the counter, out of Jared’s reach, and wretches in the bathroom.  He brushes his teeth, ignoring  Jared’s useless reassurance.  “We think we have a narrowed area, Jensen. 

~*~

~Present time, late October ‘15~

Jensen finds a bar and drinks until his face, his hands, his soul go numb.  He dares anyone to touch him, ignores the slick promises to help him forget with tits pressed into his back and bulged groins at his thigh.  Trips his way down the sidewalk, banging his side into the green balcony posts along Bourbon.  The city engulfs him, open shutter doors and large-bulb bar signs along the street that invite him in to have one more drink.  Head blissfully empty but for the whiskey.

Afternoon sunlight floods into the room, Jared seated at Jensen’s bedside with a bottled water and what smells like a turkey sandwich.  It makes his stomach roil, the food and the light and Jared being so attentive that he could scream for the insanity.  Grace is out there, and he’s wasting precious moments recklessly binge drinking, hangover being catered to by a vampire wearing a kicked puppy-eyed sorrow and injuries still unhealed.

“Let’s make a deal.  You eat, I eat.  Eat in the Jeep, stop at Mama B’s BBQ Shack, force a liquid breakfast down your throat, but you have to eat, Jensen. You do that, and I won’t start in on your PTSD coping mechanisms until after we find your daughter.”

Jensen sits up in bed, ignoring the lurch of stomach acid as he grabs the sandwich off the plate Jared holds.  He downs the food without tasting it, offering a polite thank you after.  “Deal, right?”

Out of bed, he whips off his boxer briefs and t-shirt, cringing at the smell.  He feels Jared’s eyes on his ass, sees the unabashed looks roving over him in the dresser mirror as he pulls on fresh boxers and tee.  “After we find her, you owe me a conversation about mates.  For now, heat up your donor crap. I eat, you eat.  Dibs on shower when this is over.”  Jeans, black tee, flannel, jacket.    

They use Jensen’s Jeep, aware that word has spread to the city’s seediest to tag it as a vehicle of interest.  Commander Ware and Mishael tip as much intel their way as possible, but Mishael takes her source confidentiality with a fierce seriousness while Lanette’s hands are tied with a mountain of red tape.

Jared and Jensen, for their part, work as a well-oiled machine.  They break into a small storage space over in New Orleans’ Treme-Lafitte section off N. Broad St.  New Orleans is topsy-turvy, rebuilt neighborhoods spilling smack into the remains of decimation still showing post-Katrina.  The storage unit is jammed full of personal items in black garbage bags, one of which they discover a pair of Grace’s beloved Tory Burch wedge sandals. 

A few hours until early morning, they regroup before checking on the intel.  It’s dark save for the yellow-lit skyline of the Central Business District when Malik calls with a lead on Pileggi, clues scattered like a perverted scavenger hunt.  Photographs of Joe Holt’s rogue Other employees fan across the coffee table, the floor, their laps. Paperwork involving tax evasion and labor fraud with Pileggi and Lehne’s names threaded throughout.

Jared explains, for his own sake, most of what Jensen had already known:  Under the NewOther treaty, vampires weren’t only granted a cease-fire.  They could remain only if members of an ethical-feeding nest, and only if they were assigned social security identification like every other States citizen.  No need for public declaration; in fact, the general public remained blissfully unaware due to a combination of willful ignorance and that of government confidentiality.  Which meant gainful employment and taxes.  Holt, a lone Other, relocated from outside NewOt territory with a successful business plan. Holt Industries led redevelopment in all post-Katrina devastation areas, which, despite Holt remaining solitary, led to blind eyes within the city council.”

“According to Ware, Holt is building a nest. Isn’t there a one nest per city regulation? And how does that tie in with all the fraud we’re seeing from Lehne and Pileggi?”

Jared shuffles another page, yellow highlights on phone transactions.  “Intel from building suppliers in Idaho whose shipments down the Mississippi were at half the cost later and claimed by Holt Industries as twice the amount; varying signed contracts with services required by Lehne and Pileggi from Holt Industries, the services using third party contractors that don’t exist; and there’s the preliminary committee by the State for inquiries into whether money was being siphoned off labor contracts.  And this is only the tip of the iceberg.” 

Jared is manic.  His face is less gaunt, eating properly to honor their deal, and he sips from a mug of donor blood as his favored lamb’s blood is too rich for his system.  He stands to pace the floor, waving to the stacks of evidence in front of them. 

Jensen looks over a Verizon printout for the hundredth time, comparing times and names between Grace’s cellphone calls and those of Holt’s business partners. 

Jared sets down his mug, runs his hands back through his unkempt hair. 

Ackles, the soldier.  Ackles, the pro-Other supporter (and felon should the States ever press charges on the missing informant files).  Father.  Partner.  Obsession.  The undertones of mate in Grace’s voice were meager compared to the possessiveness Jensen’s own betray.  They’re on the same page and for the first time in decades, Jared feels alive.  And that, that’s a heady feeling to have after the mundane loneliness that had become his life. 

From menial tasks like brushing their teeth in the Jeep, spitting foam onto the concrete of an empty parking lot, or the joint effort of using Jensen’s syringes and motorcycle chain on a Holt rogue they’d run across—mouth sassy about knowing how loud Grace could scream—they slot together.  Jared understands the term ‘mate,’ but there’s no way to face that demon until they’ve found Jensen’s daughter.

“What?”  Jensen questions Jared’s intent stare, tongue licking across his lips. The light from the bathroom flips on before Jared has even noticed Jensen moved. 

“You coming, or are we gonna dance around this?”  Jensen stands in the doorway of the bathroom, arms crossed to wrap fingers around the hem of his t-shirt.  No teasing, Jensen sheds the black tee and tosses it into the hallway. 

Jared stares dumbly, eyes trailing to the freckled cut of hipbone above Jensen’s jeans that he’s unzipping, and Jared can’t help that his head cocks to the side in his brief confusion.

“When you do that, you look like a puppy with fucked up, reflective eyes.” 

Momentary confusion aside, Jared sees the question and strange apprehension mar Jensen’s gorgeous features.  They need an escape from the insane amount of horror and stress, and Jared will be damned if he allows the opportunity to slip away.

“I’m kind of putting myself out here, Jared.  I need a release, and if I’m right about us and all that weird mate talk—”

Stalks.  He stalks Jensen, can feel the predatory slide of his grin slip into place.  It only registers that he’s bodily slammed Jensen into the bathroom vanity when Jensen curses. In Jensen’s space, arms outstretched to the mirror, bracketing Jensen so that his lower body pins him, Jared dips in close enough to nip at plush lips.  He pauses, searching  hooded green eyes for approval. 

“We both need to be out of our heads, so if it’s permission you’re waiting on—you have it.”

The last shred of human decency, Jared clings to that when he skates the tip of his nose across Jensen’s own, places delicate kisses across the five o’clock shadow of his cheek to the space underneath his jawline.  Jensen smells delicious here, iron rich decadence that thrums and quickens underneath the soft kisses Jared trails down his neck.  Old enough to know better, his fangs drop like the child Jensen calls him when Jensen slots his covered dick against Jared’s hip and grinds. The friction and smell are maddening, and Jared can’t think but for mate and kill.

There’s an urgent voice in his face, handful of his hair yanked roughly.  He hears Jensen as if they’re underwater and sees his own reflection in the glass of the picture hanging by Jensen’s head.  Narrowed eyes bleeding into red, he struggles against the bloodlust, grabs ahold of the memory of human family and rises above the wave.

“…C’mon, kid.  Don’t leave me hanging.”  If Jensen is scared, and Jared thinks it a wise decision to revisit Jensen’s lack of personal safety, then he’s damned sure hiding it well.   Jared gets that same slack-jawed expression as earlier, staring down at the frantic race for friction Jensen has set against his hip. 

“Not a kid.” Jared grabs Jensen’ hand, lets him grip his dick through the soaked front of his boxers.    

“Then.Fuck.Me.”  Jensen gives him a tug, breaks free and hastily pulls Jared’s jeans further down his hips until he’s able to pull and tuck the waistband of boxers under Jared’s balls.  Wet with pre-come, Jensen sets a steady pace, gentle twist and pull up and down the length of him as Jared frees Jensen of his briefs. Jared stills as Jensen slaps his hand away, pliant as Jensen lines their dicks up and uses their combined slick to make the glide easy. 

Vampires do not growl.  Jared wants it on record that he’s not a child, has been turned for a very long time and that not once in all those godforsaken years has any vampire, rogue or Other, ever rumbled like an animal.  Jared snaps his mouth closed and forces his fangs to recede on a bass growl that vibrates through his chest.

He pushes up, grips Jensen’s jaw in one hand with sharp nails digging in.  They’re both still worse for wear, no sleep and sporting cuts, and Jensen has a shiner that is slowly healing.  Jared gives a small shove, Jensen’s back bowing as his head touches the mirror, compensating for balance on the balls of his feet.  The move slides them within Jensen’s loose grip, and they both groan, long and loud.

“Most beautiful, fucking handsome person… I need this.  I needed you, all these years.” 

Jensen can’t respond to Jared’s rambling, the vampire’s hold on his jaw too tight.  His eyes slam shut when Jared wraps his hand around Jensen’s, squeezing and moving their combined grip, cupping the heads of their dicks to collect more pre-come, and pushing down.

Jared knocks a knee against Jensen’s legs, spreading his bowlegs wider so that Jared stands tall between them.  It finally tips Jensen’s balance, one leg raised to rest between the counter and Jared’s hip.  Jared strips them, rhythm failing as they chase their finishes.  Jensen chokes first, orgasm ripping through him so strong his abs cramp. 

“Look at me, open your eyes.”  Jared squeezes Jensen’s face, demands.

Jared follows, come-sticky and slicking them through to the end.  He doesn’t relax his hold, keeps Jensen locked in his position as he rests his head forward onto Jensen’s neck and kisses the hummingbird beat of his heart. 

“You smell like you belong.”

“That so? To whom?”

Jared stands and rests his forehead against the human’s, releases Jensen, and starts the shower.

~*~

They ride in silence.

There’s a rural bait shop, rare patch of tree growth beside a small waterway on the Eastern outskirts of the city.  Pre-dawn light barely makes it through the canopy, the sound of flat-bottom boats slapping about in the water and the chirp of tree frogs and crickets fill the air.  Jared can hear them, the men they're here to destroy, with their dull thump of hearts and shuffling feet noisy underneath the outdoor chorus of nature.

Malik sent them to the area with word to be prepared.  Holt was last seen near Chalmette to the west, but Jared knows there are two of his employees lurking about.  He and Jensen have to split up, because the men are separate.  One is in the bait shop, the other in a large wooden shed and garage further back. 

The dumpster beside the shop smells of rotten bait and traces of blood scent.  Jared points silently to the garbage, and Jensen nods, bloody machete from the early evening rogue in hand.  No doubt, the men holding Grace and Brock heard the Jeep—there’s little traffic along the pothole ridden backroad.

Jensen steps into the shop, winds his way around the cheap metal shelving stocked with an assortment of diapers and feminine pads, boxes of non-brand pasta.  Air from an old a/c unit kicks on with a harsh mechanical sound as Pileggi steps out into the aisle. 

Pileggi confronts him, loosely holding a 3x5 of Grace as an insult.  Jensen sees his daughter in the picture, standing in front of the dumpster out front, yellow cardigan and pretty grey dress with her long hair pulled off her face, arms crossed casually.  Jensen swallows, adjusts his grip on the machete.

“Pretty thing.  Kinda like her mom, you know?  Can you believe she didn’t know about vampires killing her mama?”  He brings the photo up to his face and smells it, closing his eyes with a shit-eating grin.  Jensen still doesn’t move.  Mitch laughs at him, at the memory of something only he knows.  “She honestly thought her mama had been kidnapped and was living off the grid.  She cried like a little bitch when I told her all your lies, like how there are real monsters responsible for her death.  Monsters like that vampire you stink of.  Even better, I let her know—once her body’s floating in the bayou, I’m going to enjoy making you scream and beg too.” 

Mitch laughs as Jensen’s face contorts, runs forward to attack with the machete raised.

~*~

Jared runs the length of the overgrown property, eyes blazing red from the kill. 

His wounds knit together, Lehne’s blood a disgusting consolation prize.  True to every cowardice Mishael and Katie had gathered on intel, Lehne had thrown Grace’s limp body out the shed’s window as soon as Jared kicked the door in.  After one punch, Lehne had gone down begging, staring up as Jared looked down on him before a killing blow.  Lehne had one last trick up his sleeve, quick flash of silver and Jared was sliced across the shin, knocked off his feet.  He ran and Jared pursued out into the thick bush and weeds.  He followed scent, the acrid odor of violence that poured off Lehne.  He dispatched Grace’s torturer by snapping his neck, absently licked the coward’s blood off his fingers.

Now, as Jared runs out of the cover of trees, he can hear the girl’s heartbeat as a threadbare note.  Final and awful, the pallor of her skin so white that the veins beneath bleed through.  Jared stands above her, fangs dropped at the coppery puddles around her body.

Grace lies flat on her back, wounds raw from the bullwhip with shards of the window’s glass embedded in her face.  Her leg is splintered grotesquely at the knee, shin turned at a right angle up by her hip. 

Jared stares, hears the staccato beat of her heart ratchets violently, adrenaline flooding the air.  She’s a whisper hair from death when Jensen rounds the corner of the workshop, panicked breath misting in the frosty air.

“Jensen.”    

Grace is unseeing, ruined yellow cardigan clenched in Jensen’s hands as he drops to kneel beside her on the cold ground.  Her dress is blood soaked, and Jared hears the last of her pulse fade. 

Still working out the specifics of whether to turn Jensen’s daughter, he flinches when his arm is yanked up, sleeve forcefully pushed back. 

“Do it.”

“Jensen, you have to be sure—“

“They took her mother, my friend.  Ones like Holt and the rogues, the ATS.  They don’t get to take my daughter.  They’re not allowed, not today, not ever!  I’m begging, please!”

The knife against Jared’s skin burns, the silver weirdly uncomfortable.  This is Jensen’s option, an extension of Jared’s body, and Jared gives permission by flexing into a fist. 

Jensen holds Grace’s head gingerly in his lap when Jared presses his wound to her lips.

~*~

Sunlight through her skin as Jensen plucks the last of the glass pieces from her face.  She’s so incredibly pale, paper thin.   She opens her lips and shows him.  Shows them.  Jensen looks up to Jared with thanks on his lips, tears in his eyes met with hazel and a posture so sure, so overbearing, that Jensen wants to hide from it. 

“Until she feeds, we’ll need her away from your neck.”

 

~*~

In 1996, the first purposeful turn ritual was volunteered for documentation to NavSpecOps headquarters.  Jensen and twelve of his squad comrades witnessed the event on invitation.  The Interior Secretary of State had fallen in love with an Other, and the rest, the rest was history.  There was no fanfare, no public announcement of engagement to celebrate, only the news of an up and coming Alpha and his loyal sire who were willing to risk everything for peace.

Jensen can’t leave New Orleans, not with Grace as vulnerable as she is.

After Jared takes him to bed that first night back on Bourbon, opens him slowly and pins his knees beside his ears, Jensen allows himself to think there might be more to him staying. 

October turns to November and sees the Winter Holidays decorate the city in low ‘40’s chill, pretty wreaths around the city lampposts, and the Riverwalk festive with carolers and roaming jazz bands.

Malik and Ewusie sprinkle Brock’s ashes on the Mississippi, and the entire nest pulls together to help Grace adjust to physical therapy and her new life as an amputee and vampire. 

There are nights of seething rage, when Jensen slips into her bed to hold her through the screams and thrashes.  There are nights of pure joy, when she stands from her wheelchair with a fitted prosthetic, smiles as she makes her way across the room with strength and clarity.  They search for a balance, like all humans and vampires.

Jared trains Grace, teaches her with the patience of a saint. Jensen comes clean about his history in the service, crying into the crook of her shoulder as she shushes him, asks for her own forgiveness. The lies end with Grace’s humanity.

There’s a slideshow.  An actual-fact slideshow with bullet points that Jared began as a task in forgiveness.  He began his journey back to life after the loss of the woman and child from the old photograph in the hall.  Friend and her child’s fate sealed when they trusted too much with their hearts.  Jared didn’t always practice ethical-feeding or restrain from temptation, relished in those dark times before he sought the comfort of friends and the protection of the government.

Majdoub brings seasonal flowers, places them in a chrome vase, and happily drills Grace through the terminology.  Jensen only threatens him with his silver blade once.  They practice together:  NewOther Treaty.  Alliance of Two States.  No, vampires aren’t allergic to garlic.  Yes, holy water hurts like a bitch.  Vampires don’t lose their reflection, and as evidence with the loss of nest, immortality doesn’t quite mean what the label on the tin states. 

Ten more Others, refugees from burnt nests in Minnesota and Tennessee flood into New Orleans, ask for asylum in Jared’s nest.  Grace asks that she meet them, steps into the early afternoon sun with a hiss from where she didn’t apply enough sunscreen.

~*~

The Houston loft is sold a little below listing, which is fine as Jensen listed twenty-thousand above cost.

“I’m not comfortable with this.”

“Then don’t sell.”

“Please stop making sense, Jared.  I’m having a brief panic attack.” 

A set of cards lie backside up on the picnic table, worn and yellowed.  “The hell?  You need to take better care of your merchandise.  Nasty looking cards look old as dirt.”  Jensen fits the top corner of the Jack of Diamonds between thumb and forefinger and flicks it back and forth.

“That’s because they’re a century old.” Jared laughs and wipes away the question of mate that lingers on his tongue.  

~*~

It’s not that Jensen forgets. 

Nights when mission flashbacks are too intense, olfactory memory of sawdust and woodchips soaked in blood; when audible memories of his daughter screaming for him cause the urge to break something before he shatters into a billion jagged pieces—those are the nights he wanders.  For all the beauty and dark, romantic anguish of the city that appeal, there are small fissures in the veneer.  For a little price of flesh, the city spoon-feeds morsels of depravity to soothe Jensen’s mind. 

Street brawl gyms in Bywater where the punches thrown are a touch too far on the side of assault. Pubs off Bourbon, the stucco walls of their back alleys where Jared can make him bleed against the building, fuck him raw and too dry, leave his ass dripping in his jeans as the bartender serves them double shots when they head back inside.

There are nights when his head is quiet, when Jared isn’t struggling under the weight of a movement.  The city embraces them both, long garden paths gently lit with fireflies, live-music jazz clubs where they learn to hold hands in public without feeling awkward.  Rides in the streetcar along St.Charles, Jared moving behind him, mouth a blessing along the shell of his ear.

The city offers blessings.  Gris-gris, an amulet of protection and spiritual healing placed in Jensen's hands, Jared’s long fingernails scratching as he folds Jensen's hands over. 

“We’re going to my downtown loft rather than Bourbon, Jensen.”

Jared drives them, nearly crashing the Mercedes into a small oak tree when Jensen lewdly adjusts himself.  The high-rise curtains are open, and Jared undoes his belt, sheds his suit and tie, bracing his hands against the window that looks out over the city.  Jensen forgets Houston.  Forgets Holt and the war on the horizon.  Presses his lips to Jared’s back as he kicks his feet apart, hands slotted over Jared’s as he fucks the vampire in front of the city, and Jensen wants to crawl inside this moment forever.

The love affair is allowing New Orleans to wrap around their bones, seep into the marrow like tributaries.  Hope her roots take hold in those dark crevices of the heart, to weather her storms, her heat, her cultures. 

Each passing day, the miles they walk and drive and eat, the city spills over between them.  Jared can smell the traces of her earth in Jensen’s blood now; struggles with how it translates into itching gums, the tips of his fangs breaking through to claim, finally.        

The plastic garden chair outside the Royale Bakery on the corner of Spain and Chartres groans horribly as Jared sits with momentum.  It threatens to topple, and the white-haired woman at the next table adjusts her earrings as she watches him curiously.

“Nice things that aren’t ours, Jared.”

Fidgety, he cheers on a little black ant making its way to Jensen’s plated sandwich then turns to read off the newest flyers on the bakery’s window.  Jensen tips his newspaper to an elderly couple leaving the bakery, canes wobbling and cooing at the both of them. 

Jensen thinks back to words spoken by Madame Levine, of being by his Other’s side.  “…this city will bring you death.”  Truer words.  He’s ready to let go of the old ways, accepting that this is where he’s meant to hang his hat.  This isn’t giving up life, it’s accepting death and learning to live once more.

Jared responds to the calm that overtakes Jensen, listens to his pulse turn turtle-slow and lazy.  He stops fidgeting, long legs kicked out and exposed toes wiggling in a pair of sandals that Jensen religiously teases him over.

“Jensen?  Are you okay?”

“You smell like you belong.”

Jared’s eyes narrow, bleeding red like a new turn.

“To Whom?”

Jensen leans across the table, into the fresh smell of his vampire's skin, his own nerves fired up at the thought of his mate’s bite.  Jensen kisses Jared so thoroughly the world turns to blush. 

“You smell like you belong to me.”