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Warm Nights and Southern Stars

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There's a noise. Some vague buzzing sound that pulls Jared out of the best REM cycle he's had all week. He rolls over in bed, legs tangled in his sheets, gropes under the pillow and knocks his phone to the floor. His t-shirt gets twisted and he loses a sock and now his phone is rattling louder, plastic case sounding hollow against the wooden floor, happily vibrating its way under his bed.

One bleary glance at his clock tells him that it's only been two hours since he'd collapsed into bed, and he's only got time for a couple more before he has to be up and at least marginally functional. And really, he has no idea what he was thinking at the beginning of the semester when he'd optimistically signed on for a seven-thirty lecture in advanced linear algebra, but whatever. His phone is still ringing and all of his blood is rushing to his head as he leans over the side of his bed to reach for it.

"Holy shit, Sophie," Jared mutters, still not opening his eyes. "It's five. In the morning."

He'd be more pissed if he didn't adore her so much. If she didn't keep him grounded and on track in that quiet, constant way she has. He'd met Sophia in a writing class all freshmen were required to take, had become friends over the hassle of having to write five paragraph essays on stanzas that were less than two hundred words long. They'd moved in together at the start of their junior year, and it had worked out so well that they let the deal slide into their senior year too. She pays the rent and all her bills on time, never drinks the last beer in a six-pack before replacing it with a new one. She doesn't throw parties or eat all of Jared's food. Sophia puts up with Jared's weird schedule and his tendency toward procrastination, and Jared puts up with her habit of locking the deadbolt and pulling the door closed behind her while her keys are still sitting in the bowl next to it.

"The spare is under the frog. Remember what we talked about? If the frog is facing the steps it means--"

Jared is cut off by a voice saying his name. Decidedly male and definitely not Sophia. He sits up fast, eyes gritty as he blinks, head spinning and feeling that vague sort of nausea that comes when he hasn't gotten enough sleep. Or any.

"What the hell, dude?" Chad says. "This is the fourth time I've called. You were passed out. Are you drunk? It's like, Wednesday or something. Impressionable young minds like yours shouldn't be getting drunk on a Wednesday."

Something hooks in Jared's stomach. Not really dread, but a kissing cousin to it. In that instant, he can keenly feel the stretch of every mile between them. All that distance between him and Jensen. Each hour it would take him to drive or fly to the left side of continent.

"Chad," Jared says, "it's Thursday."

"Roofies, then. Fucking knew it," Chad says, a sharp edge to it. "What's the last thing you remember?"

"What do roofies have to do with Thursday?" Jared drags his hand over his face, fusses with his t-shirt so it's not twisted around his neck.

On the other end of the line, Jared can hear Chad take a sharp inhale, and when he speaks again, his voice is deeper, talking through smoke. "No fucking clue. Time is a manmade construct."

"Yeah, and right now that construct is kicking my ass. What's going on?"

Chad takes another drag of his cigarette and a small amount of Jared's nerves drain away. Jensen's alright. Chad's moral compass points in a different direction than most people's, but if something irreversible had happened to Jensen, Chad would have led with that. At least that's what Jared wants to believe.

"Jensen's...he's okay," Chad says, and it's halting, stilted. "I mean. I don't fucking know. He needs you."

"Is that what he said?" Jared falls back against his headboard, kicks at the sheets. He's throat is thick and he kinda feels like crying and has no idea where any of this is coming from.

There's a pause, followed by a snick of a lighter and some more rustling. "No, I'm saying it. He needs you, Jared."

Promises and obligations are playing roulette in Jared's head. There are papers to finish and mid-terms to study for and applications for internships to figure out. His boss down at the copy shop is the most lenient dude Jared's ever worked for, but he'll only bend so far. Jared's got deadlines scattered in every direction like interstates on a roadmap and spring break is still a week and a half out.

Then there's Jensen. His oldest and very best friend. Almost two thousand miles away and nonetheless tucked so far into Jared's heart that any attempt to extract him would cause permanent damage.

"Give me fifteen hours," Jared says after a few quick calculations. He ditches his other sock as he swings his legs over the side of the bed, staggers stiff and groggy toward his desk and powers on his laptop. He has two papers to polish up and very little time to do it.

"Yeah. Sure," Chad says, with a note of relief that Jared feels even over the phone. "You got twelve."


Jensen breaks twigs off of a crooked stick, holds it like a crutch under his arm and starts to hobble around his backyard. Jared flops down in the pile of leaves they spent the last couple of hours raking, settles into the dry crunch of them and picks at a new blister the rake has given his palm.

The day is cool, and someone in their neighborhood has jumped the gun and made use of their fireplace so the air smells like woodsmoke, like a winter they really don't get around here.

Jensen's still on the move, walking in smaller and smaller circles around Jared, going between an exaggerated limp to all-out hopping along on one leg. He's getting ready to try out for the part of Tiny Tim in a local production of A Christmas Carol, keeps spouting out lines from the play, pitching his voice so it's higher, all trembling and weak.

"You're overdoing it," Jared says to him, as he plucks out a leaf from the pile, twirls it by the stem and holds it up to the light to look at the pattern of skinny veins in it. The leaf is yellow on the edges and green in the middle, a color that reminds Jared of Jensen's eyes although he'll never say that to him, not even if someone dared him. "Don't be so nervous."

"It isn't easy," Jensen says, plopping down next to Jared.

"Sure it is," Jared says off-handedly, and pays Jensen back for the sharp jab to the ribs he gets for it.

"Explain how." Jensen grabs his own leaf, this one dark brown and red, reaches over and sticks it in Jared's hair, repeats it four more times until Jared's wearing a crown like the Statue of Liberty.

"You can just make it less hard," Jared tells him with a shrug, with all of backing of a ten-year-old's faith and flawless logic.

"It's not like last time. I'll have lines, if I even get the part."

He did a really great job in the fourth grade play they did last year. Jensen was a tree and Jared was the ocean and had to kneel on the edge of the stage and wave blue streamers and it kinda sucked. After a minute his arms were tired and so were his knees and it was probably the most boring thing he'd ever done.

"You'll get the part. You made a very good tree," Jared tells him.

It's the first time Jensen will have to speak on a stage. He has a face that people like looking at, like the kids Jared sees on the commercials that cut through Saturday morning cartoons or show up in all the catalogues. To hear Jared's mother talk about it, Jensen's folks have sorta banked on him. He's done some stuff for magazines and one local commercial for a kid's dentist where he smiled pretty in the dentist chair, smiled pretty at the reception desk, and then smiled pretty on the way out the door.

Jared's heard his parents talking about them, speaking quietly at night when Jared's clearing the table and they're sitting on the couch in front of reruns on the television. They say that Jared might be the only thing that reminds Jensen that he's a kid, and more importantly, reminds his folks that he is a kid. Skinned knees and bloody palms aren't the end of the world. A boy needs a little dirt under his fingernails and behind his ears.

One week later, on a bright, sunny morning, Jensen busts into Jared's living room, bounces onto the couch and nearly topples the plate of waffles Jared has balanced on his lap. Jared's still licking syrup from his fingers as Jensen shoves a rumpled piece of paper under his nose, and Jared doesn't have to look at it to know that Jensen has gotten the part.

"That's awesome," Jared says. "Do you want a waffle?"

Jensen's eyes are wide and his smile is so huge it splits his face in half. "My mother says I shouldn't have sweets. They mess with my complexion."

Rolling his eyes, Jared says, "Screw your complexion."

For the next couple of weeks, Jared ends up stumping around the backyard behind him as Jensen perfects his limp and repeats his lines in a hundred different ways. Jared's there in the front row for the first night and all the nights that follow, off to the side in the section reserved for friends and family, stuffed into his good Sunday clothes and mouthing along with every single one of Jensen's lines. Jensen never screws up once. Neither does Jared.


"It's Jensen." Jared stuffs clothes into a suitcase, not really paying a lot of attention to what's going into it. Sophia leans in his doorway, arms and ankles crossed.

She's the only person who comes close to understanding and still doesn't know the half of it. Jared's never been the type of guy to drop Jensen's name. Doesn't see the point in it. Jensen had only visited him once at school, when Jared was a freshman and Jensen was still relatively unknown, running the circuit and getting small roles in television or working in tiny indie flicks. Anyone who had approached them when they'd been out around town had only been able to vaguely peg Jensen as that guy from that thing. A few people had asked for Jensen's autograph and Jensen had obliged graciously, with a nod and a wink, and had told them to hold onto it, that it might be worth five bucks on ebay in about twenty years.

"I know, sweetheart." Sophia pushes off of the doorframe, dodges him as he paces around his room. "Be careful. Just watch out."

"What?" Jared asks, and balls up another t-shirt to stuff into a corner of his suitcase. He spins the ring he always wears on his thumb, a narrow silver band stamped with tiny stars, worn smooth from years of messing with it. He spins it again for luck.

"So far you've packed a dozen pairs of socks and no underwear. All I'm sayin'." Her tone is even and reasonable. She grabs the shaving kit from where he'd laid it on his bed, hands it over to him, and squeezes his upper arm for a second.

The small gesture is enough to make Jared pause. "Thanks," he says, and curves his arm around the back of her neck, drops a kiss to the top of her head and breathes in the comforting smell of her lavender shampoo. "For everything. Don't know--"

"What you'd do without me," she finishes for him. Sophia extracts four pairs of socks from his suitcase and tucks them back into his drawer. When Jared raises an eyebrow at her, she says, "I'm sure Jensen has some you can borrow if you run out."

Jared snorts. "He probably has a team of paid professionals to wash them in the tears of his most devoted fans if it comes right down to it."

"You said it, not me." She straightens the couple of manila envelopes Jared has stacked on the corner of his desk, essays that Jared had rushed toward their finish lines, his professors' names and mailbox numbers printed neatly on the outside of each.

In the last few hours, Jared has emailed all of his professors and his boss, told everyone who matters that he's having a family emergency. It's not a lie. Jensen's family. More than, and he always has been. Jared had called Matt, his on-again-off-again, and begged out of their standing Saturday night date, told him in the vaguest way possible that he was going to be scarce for a while. Everything is lined up. Still, there's a lingering sort of regret like a nasty taste in his mouth that he can't wash out.

"How long will you be gone?" Sophia asks.

Jared is partially leaning on his suitcase, elbow set into it, forcing the zipper to close. Sophia takes over for him, mostly lying on top of the thing, squirming a little and trying not to laugh as Jared's knuckles brush her exposed stomach under the hem of her shirt.

"I don't know. Whenever I've managed to piss out whatever's caught fire out there." It comes out harsher than he intended. Less funny.

"But school. Your internship. The fucking GRE, Jared."

The last few inches of the zipper snick closed and they both step back. Jared pulls it from the bed and it lands with a heavy thump before he rolls it toward the doorway.

"It's Jensen," Jared says again.

Sophia tilts her head back, her small smile pointed up at him. "Don't forget your toothbrush."


A couple hours ago, Chad had sent him a message with his flight information. Jared types the confirmation number into the kiosk at the luggage check. Laughs to himself when he finds out he's riding first class and there isn't a return ticket. The woman behind the counter makes a point to call him 'Mr. Padalecki' no fewer than five times, reminds him to make use of their executive lounge and enjoy their complimentary this, that and the other.

The last time he saw Jensen was a couple of years ago. Jensen had bought his parents a house on one of the Virgin Islands with some of the paycheck he'd gotten from one of his bigger movies, so even their holidays don't line up anymore. Sure, Jared was there at the arthouse theater near campus for the opening night of Jensen's first indie. He gets his tickets a week in advance for each and every feature film, reads the reviews and his heart jumps each time a critic has something nice to say. He always shoots Jensen a quick text as soon as he walks out of one of his films, always says the same thing: eh. you were alright, i guess.. Jensen always writes the same thing back: fucker.

It's rare that they talk and they never email. That doesn't mean that Jensen's not always there in a way. Jared has a gift card to Starbucks that has never run empty, and the same goes for Whataburger. In a quiet, unacknowledged way, Jensen has kept him caffeinated and fed for the entirety of his higher education. Jensen's is the sarcastic voice in Jared's head, the part-time angel and devil on his shoulder. He knows all of Jared's inside jokes and the provenience of most of Jared's scars. Their relationship is the standard to which everyone in Jared's life is compared and found wanting.

So yeah. If Jensen needs him, he's there.

Jared feels weird being a college kid in ratty blue jeans and a frayed knit hat sitting on the plane next to a businessman with gold cufflinks and a rolex on his wrist, but he can't deny that the extra legroom is close to heaven. He declines the snacks and says yes to some water, leans his head against the window. His eyes sting with exhaustion when he closes them and he's out cold before the wheels leave the ground.


Jared's balance is off and there's something fucked up happening to his left ear from the landing as he finds his way to baggage claim. He needs both hands to count the times he's landed in LAX and it never fails to strike him as off-kilter, the combination of seventies cheesiness and weird Jetson's-style space-age modernism. His first impression of Los Angeles still matches his lasting one. Nothing in this city matches, nothing makes a lick of sense.

A line of people are waiting outside baggage, a whole bunch of folks in dark suits holding up dry-erase placards with names on them. Chad is impossible to miss in his huge mirrored aviators and purposefully ripped up blue jeans, and old, stretched-out tank top with the Natty Bo logo on it. His skin is darkly tanned and his hair is sunbleached, spiked up with so much gunk that it could probably cut glass. He's holding a sign the size of a poster board that reads J-PAD in purple sparkly letters.

Chad fetches him up in a tight hug, backs off to hold him at arm's length and look him up and down. "Looking great, brother. Damn, it's good to see you."

"You look like Hollywood threw up on you," Jared observes.

Jared wriggles his pinky finger in his ear, tries to hold his nose and blow to get it to clear and nope. His ear is definitely fucked, and Chad sounds like he's underwater as he says, "Nah, man. That was last week. C'mon."

He grabs Jared's suitcase and leads him toward the garage, and Jared has to jog a few steps to catch up with him.

"Are you gonna tell me what's going on now?" Jared grills him. "What's he gotten himself into?"

"It's not something I can explain." Chad admits, and Jared's chest tightens. The familiar flare of irritation that lights up is oddly comforting, all things considered. "It was a bad night last night." He pauses at the end of a long line of cars, pushes his sunglasses on top of his head and squints more than usual. "Shit. That's right. Wrong floor." He doubles back toward the elevators, punches the button for one floor down.

The consistency with which Chad screws up even the most basic job is another thing that Jared thinks is oddly comforting.

"Define bad," Jared says once Chad is striding purposefully toward an SUV sitting dark and shiny across two parking spaces. A long time ago, Jared learned that it's best to let the guy concentrate on one thing at a time.

"Bad. As in not good." Chad hefts the suitcase into the car and opens the passenger door for him. The interior of the truck is tricked out. Moonroof, all kinds of gauges and gadgets. The seats are soft tan leather and when Chad hits a button, some lumbar spine support thing happens, hugs at the small of Jared's back.

"Okay. So define not good." Jared shoots him a pent-up look.

"I mean, Jensen isn't doing lines off of some supermodel's stomach, if that's what you're thinking." Mostly under his breath, he continues, "Fuck, if that was the problem, I'd know how to handle it."

"If that was the problem, you'd probably be lining up to do it with him," Jared points out.

"Fair enough."

Chad's gotten them out of the garage and onto the freeway. He opens the window and lights up a cigarette, and the warm, dry Los Angeles air comes flooding in, pushes Jared's hair back from his face and revives him up better than the three-hour nap he'd had on the plane. Beyond the sound barriers, houses are stacked side-by-side, as crowded as the freeway. As they drive into the hills the homes start to space further out, hidden behind tall cypress. Privacy fences and remotely controlled gates are everywhere. So are those clay-tiled roofs that Jared likes so well. It's been a while since he's been out here, and he's never driven much, so he's kinda lost.

"I dunno, man." Chad steers them onto a road that climbs upward, heading away from the coast. "It's just….he gives so much and he needs to be reminded that there are people out there who don't want anything from him."

"You're qualified to do that," Jared tells him.

Jared and Jensen met Chad in high school, and he'd been a part of a lot of the stories from those days that are worth remembering and retelling. A year after Jensen moved out here, Chad followed, played a couple of parts that wound up on the cutting room floor, waited tables at a bunch of restaurants and was one shitty paycheck away from throwing in the towel when Jensen took him on as a go-fer. He sort of fell into the job. Between auditions, he runs errands and drives Jensen around, likes to think of himself as the chief bottle washer of Jensen's small entourage.

"I'm really not. Don't forget I'm on the payroll." In a moment of keen insight, Chad says, "Besides, I'm not part of the inner circle. For as long as I've known you guys, there's only been room for two of you in there. You're it for him. Always have been."

Jared hums, says quietly, mostly to himself, "Bloody knees and scuffed up palms."

"What was that?" Chad asks.

"Nothing. Nevermind."


"Hold still," Jensen says, and punctuates it with a squeeze to Jared's thigh. His touch doesn't help. Not at all. "Do you want me to take your eye out?"

They're in Jensen's room, sitting knee-to-knee on the floor, cross-legged and close. Bottles, brushes and compacts spread out in a rainbow-colored arc beside them, and Jensen's staring at Jared's left eye, his brows drawn together in concentration.

"It itches," Jared complains, scratching at the back of his neck, trying to brush off all the tiny stray hairs scattered on his skin and under the collar of his shirt.

And what a fresh piece of hell that had been, sitting backward on the toilet, straddling it while Jensen brushed his hair, apologized every time he ran across a tangle, then combed his fingers through it, checked and double checked the parts in his hair at the sides before tying the top half up in a scrunchie borrowed from his sister. Pink, with little silver hearts stamped onto the fabric, because of course it would be. Then there had been the weird sensation as the clippers vibrated close to his skull, of Jensen bending his ears forward and tilting his head this way and that to get everything even, and finally how the air against his closely cropped head had felt so cold.

"I told you. You should have taken a shower." Jensen had finished with the clippers only a few minutes earlier and Jared's hand keeps creeping up to the back of his head without him thinking about it. He can't stop running his fingernail along the edge where the hair goes from being a few millimeters to the longer stuff on top. Out of nowhere, Jensen palms the back of Jared's head, scuffs the short hair through his fingers, scrunches up his face and says, "Feels a little like mine after I've had it cut."

Now it's Jared's turn to touch Jensen, cup his palm against the curve of Jensen's skull. The moment stretches out long and slow. Like taffy. Jared lets himself touch Jensen longer than he should, probably. Jensen's hair feels like crushed velvet against his hand, and Jared shivers from it, something that Jensen is obviously able to feel in all the places where they're touching.

Jensen thinks it's another squirm, and Jared doesn't know if that's good or bad that he's reading it that way. Jensen sits back, cocks his head to the side, slumps some and gives Jared a look. Long-suffering and patiently fond all at the same time. His face is so expressive, part of what makes him a good actor. Jared ducks his head, mutters a soft, "Sorry. Sorry."

"So do you want smudgy or sharp?" Jensen asks him.

"What do you think?"

"How should I know?" Jensen reaches across Jared's lap, bending so far that his stomach brushes Jared's bent knee and his elbow nudges into Jared's ribs as he grabs a tiny pot of something and a very fine brush. It's nothing. It doesn't mean anything when Jensen does stuff like this. Not all the times he lets Jared carry the majority of his weight, when he uses Jared's body to push himself off of the ground or lands across his legs reaching for something. Not when he slides his cold feet under Jared's thighs to warm them up as they watch a movie on the sofa and not now, as he thoughtlessly brushes a few stray hairs out of Jared's face that have fallen from his ponytail.

Jensen's a theater kid, has told Jared about the trust exercises his acting coaches and drama teachers have made them do. Stuff that seems mostly about blindfolds and falling into each other. Jensen's body doesn't entirely belong to him. It's a basic fact of his life.

"You have more makeup than my mother and sister put together," Jared says, "that's how you should know." His tongue feels clumsy in his mouth. Too big and awkward.

Pausing half through unscrewing the lid on a tiny pot of something thick and shiny black like ink, Jensen glances at up at him, a sardonic twist to his mouth. "I'm a professional." Jared raises his eyebrows and Jensen goes on, "I've had to practice. Anyway, here."
He takes Jared's hand and places it on his own thigh, his worn flannel pajama pants incredibly soft under Jared's touch. He gathers some of the stuff on the thin brush and paints a snake-like line on the top of Jared's hand. "The liquid gives you a sharper line." Next he uncaps a pencil with his teeth, talks around it, "The pencil is softer." The other line he draws follows the contours of the first.

"That one, I think," Jared says, indicating the line Jensen had drawn with the pencil.

Jensen scrubs Jared's hand clean with a cotton ball. "You sure? 'Cause dude, I'm only doing this once."

"Yeah," Jared says, "it's more punk rock. Less drag queen." He keeps his hand resting on Jensen's thigh and it slides up some as Jensen inches in a little closer. Jared can feel the warmth radiating from Jensen's skin, the tense and release of his thigh muscles as he settles.

"Hey now," Jensen tells him, "don't knock drag queens. That shit is a lot of work."

Jared takes a quick inhale at Jensen's touch to the soft skin below his right eye.

"Grey." Jensen pulls Jared's eyelid taut, and Jared tries not to flinch at the first swipe of the eyeliner pencil to his lower lid. It's not the hardest thing he's ever done, but it ranks pretty high up there.

"What?" Jared says between his clenched teeth, trying not to move.

"Your eyes are grey right now. Sometimes they're blue. I've been looking at them my whole life and I've never been able to really figure them out."

Jensen's always saying things like this, tiny observations stated off-handedly. He has no idea how easily he can rock Jared sideways, make his heart crawl into his throat and his body tingle all over. When Jensen leans forward, his face only inches away from Jared's, his breath falls on Jared's mouth. It's warm, moist, tastes a little sweet as Jared breathes it in, wondering what would happen in if he dared to push forward. Just a tiny bit.

"I'm heavy handed with this stuff. I'm used to doing stage makeup, and you usually lay that on pretty thick. Look up." Jensen commands, and Jared complies. For some reason Jared's mouth falls open when he turns his gaze toward the ceiling. He really wishes that he was still looking at Jensen, that he still had an excuse to keep looking at him.

"Everyone always does that," Jensen says, humor woven through his voice. He anchors the side of his hand on Jared's cheekbone. It's steady and sure and Jared's sitting there, feeling like his bones are about to shake loose from his skin. Jensen tells him to look down, and Jared's proud that he doesn't flinch at all when the tugging sensation starts.

Jensen does something with his thumb along Jared's upper lid and it all feels so weird. Some of the eyeliner is smudged on Jensen's thumb, into the grooves of his fingerprint, patterned whorls pronounced, and Jared doesn't know why it sends a shock through him, only that it does.

"Hey. Why didn't you try out for the play?" Jensen asks.

"Too bigtime for me. And it's a fucking musical, too. Plus, there's dancing,"

It's a dinky high school production of West Side Story, and Jensen has the lead part. He's been doing commercials regularly, has flown to California a couple of times to play small parts in teen dramas, nothing huge yet. Getting there, though.

"You underestimate yourself." Jensen switches to the other eye. The tip of his tongue is trapped between his teeth, wet and sweetly pink and Jared gets preoccupied, thinking about what it might taste like.

"I skimmed your copy of the script," Jared tells him. "There wasn't a part written for the ocean. Not even a tree. Mighta tried out if there was a part for a tree."

Jensen pulls back, glares at Jared for a second, trying to keep his expression serious and failing miserably, ends up breaking with a snorting giggle. "You'd think you could at least play a dumpster or something. Maybe a clothesline. You're skinny enough for it."

He sits back to take a good look at his handiwork, stops Jared as he begins to stand up. After a quick lick to the pencil, he draws it lightly downward under each of Jared's eyes and smudges it for a second with his knuckle.

The entire time, Jared's hand has been resting on Jensen's thigh. He takes it back now, begins to touch his cheek and is pulled short with Jensen's fingers around his wrist. "Check it out before you fuck it up."

It takes a second before Jared recognizes himself in the mirror. The change in him is striking. The kohl around his eyes make them seem more pale and bright, and Jared really likes the skinny, smudged lines Jensen has drawn underneath them. The new cut and eyeliner makes him look grown-up somehow, his face more angular and defined now that it isn't lost under a sloppy mop of hair. Jensen finds a false clipon earring that he wore when he was playing a part in some play about pirates. He breaks off the clip and tells Jared to open up, hooks the ring over Jared's bottom lip, then grins at Jared's reflection. Jared grins back.

"I still think you should have tried out," Jensen says. "You're gonna come to rehearsals though, right?"

"Of course I am," Jared says, not skipping a beat.

Jensen touches the back of Jared's head again, scuffs his palm against his hair. "Good."


The car rocks to a stop in front of a locked gate and Chad leans out of the window to hit a series of buttons on a keypad. "Well, goddamn it," he says after he gets no response, and tries it again. The second time doesn't work any better than the first so he hits the speaker button. Nothing. Silence on the other end, and Chad resorts to hollering out of his window, then sitting back and chewing on his lips. "Someone changed my code. Probably Mike. He's always fucking with me."

"You could call him," Jared suggests.

"No one in that house ever picks up their phone."

"Do you know anyone else's?" Jared asks, smiling innocently into the withering look Chad directs at him.

Chad punches in another code and all the keys flash a menacing, threatening red.

"I can't believe you just tried Jensen's birthday. Jesus. Any stalker who would want to sneak in here would try that one first." On a hunch, Jared tells him, "Try mine."

"I'm about to choke on the narcissism," Chad says, which is fucking rich, coming from him.

"Big word." Jared gives him a punch to the shoulder.

"You're one to talk, college boy." Chad swats him back but tries the numbers anyway. After a beat, the gates swing open on silent hinges, and Chad mutters, "Motherfucker."

The brick driveway curves around some tall privacy hedges and the house comes into view. Jared doesn't think that Jensen knows a lot about real estate but can tell that the guy erred on the side of swanky. The place is Spanish inspired. The sun setting behind it gives the stucco a creamy glow and makes the mottled red tiled roof look like it's on fire.

The brickwork extends around a cluster of palm trees, the tiny garden dotted with a few boulders, and there are a half dozen cars parked around it. A big-ass Hummer is hulking over one of those tiny smart cars and as Chad walks between the two of them toward the front entrance, he waves at them and says, "Yep. That about sums things up nicely."

It fucks with Jared to think that Jensen lives in a place that he's never seen before. That there are too many things they don't know about each other and too many months since he and Jensen have breathed the same air.

A trippy chandelier hangs in the entranceway, made of hand blown glass, hundreds of squirmy components in different reds, magentas and oranges and it's as if the whole decor of the place has been based on those colors. A number of people are in one of the rooms toward the back, voices blended in an unintelligible drone and Jensen's isn't one of them. Jared could pick up his voice from a mile away.

The room has high ceilings, everything the same colors as the chandelier that greeted them. Natural colored leather sofas draped with expensive-looking throw blankets, tasteful decorations and a tiled fireplace that most likely never gets used. Not a speck of dust is given the time to fall on anything, and the whole place has some designer's fingerprint on it, somebody who very much knows what they're doing. There isn't a trace of Jensen anywhere. This place could belong to anyone.

"Nice digs," Jared says low, leaning toward Chad.

Chad sniffs, looking around like it's his first time seeing it too. "Yeah. Maybe. I liked the other place better."

The people in Jensen's living room are clearly used to folks coming in and out of the house, pay no attention at all to Jared and Chad as they pass through. Jared recognizes some of the faces, recognizes the dollar signs printed all over their designer wardrobes, the thin crystal stemware and the wine sloshing around inside of it.

Chad gives Jared the nickel tour of the lower level, and the rest of the house is more of the same. It's clear that Jensen doesn't spend a lot of time here, or if he does, he doesn't care much about it. One wall in the kitchen is made entirely of glass, a wide veranda outside of it and views of the canyon and a small lake beyond. The house is built into the side of a terraced hill. There's a pool and another landing with a gazebo constructed out of the same stucco and tile work as the house. Through another line of privacy shrubs is a smaller bungalow, and Chad tells him that's where he'll be staying. Smaller, but still swanky.

As they're staring out the window, Jensen comes stumbling down the stairs, heels of his palms pressed to his eyes, stops at the second to last step and stares at Jared. Blinks and stretches and acts like he might not be completely with it, as if he's trying to wake up. Jared stares back steadily, probably wouldn't be able to look away even if the roof was about to cave in on him.

Jensen's hair is longer than the last time Jared saw him and is standing up in soft spikes and whorls, sleep-sloppy. His skin is pale, but sun-spotted with the freckles that Jensen hates and Jared could never get enough of. His lips are parted slightly, small flash of white teeth behind them like he can't figure out whether or not to smile. His t-shirt is rumpled and pulled out at the collar. Underneath the shirt it's plain that he's bulked up some, wide shoulders that taper down to his slender waist and hips, and the board shorts he's wearing are hanging crooked on him.

"Jared," he says, eyes wide, surprise through and through.

"Heya," Jared says. There's a catch in his throat and he's considering himself fortunate that at least that much came out. He keeps expecting that one day he'll get used to this. That a day will come when the sight of Jensen won't make his lungs freeze up and his stomach drop like a cannon ball has landed in it and his knees forget how to be knees. He keeps waiting for the shine to wear off, but for now it's still there. Brighter than ever.

"Jared," he repeats, stronger the second time, and he closes the space between them in a couple of huge strides. The force of it as he slams into Jared trips them both a couple of steps to the side. Jared has to widen his stance to keep them upright as Jensen throws all of his weight into him, arms flung tight around Jared's neck and his own feet barely on the floor. He buries his sleep-warmed face into the crook of Jared's neck for a short moment and Jared wishes it was longer. The muscles in Jensen's back bunch and shift under Jared's hands, more defined and leaner than they've ever been before. He still smells the same, though.

Jensen backs off, puts his hand to Jared's chest, precisely over his heart. He eyes the suitcase beside them, keeps his hand there. "I didn't...what are you doing here?"

Over Jensen's shoulder, Chad is glaring daggers at him, teeth bared and dragging a thumb over his throat.

"Thought you could use some company," Jared says, sure to keep it vague. It's not a lie. Okay, so it might be adjacent to one. Not like it matters. They've never needed excuses to be together. Never needed a reason. "Talked to Chad. Thanks for the airplane ticket, by the way."

Although it's clear that this is the first Jensen's heard of it, he waves it away. "Of course. No problem." He hugs Jared again, cheek pressed to Jared's ear and the rush of Jared's blood sounds like the ocean. "I missed you," he says, voice pitched low and soft. Something for only the two of them. "How long are you here?" Jensen asks, then shakes his head. "No. Don't tell me. I don't wanna know, 'cause then I'll be counting and I don't wanna do that."

It's a quirk, something so incredibly characteristic of Jensen and it makes Jared's heart speed up and bang in his chest, makes him smile no matter how hard he tries to fight it. "I'll let you know two days before I leave."

"Good. That's good."

The people in the other room have gone quiet, begin to filter into the kitchen when they hear Jensen's voice. Mike wanders in and he hasn't changed a bit since Jared first met him a couple of years ago. He's all grand Hollywood manager, talks too loud through a smile that's too big. Schmoozing is his default. He's been in the game so long that it's not even an act any longer.

Other folks begin to enter into the room, form a circle around the two of them, like they're in orbit and Jensen's the center of everyone's gravity.

"It's so good to finally meet you," a woman says. Her voice is warm and so are her dark eyes as Jensen introduces her as Sandy. She says, "Now I understand what all the fuss is about."

"The fuss?" Jared asks, distracted by the flush creeping up Jensen's cheeks and down his neck, how he turns away a little so he doesn't have to look Jared in the eye.

"Most of Jensen's stories start with 'This one time Jared and I.' It's good to lay eyes on the headliner."

Jared hums, feeling a prickle of regret that it doesn't go both ways. He might not talk about Jensen much, that doesn't mean that he thinks about him any less.

"Y'all hungry?" Jensen looks around at the ring of people surrounding him, and Mike gives him some crap about the slurred Texas coming out in his voice after just a few minutes with someone from back home.

The refrigerator is basically empty. A bunch of bottles of fancy vitamin water and a couple of open bottles of white wine. Jensen digs into his pocket, finds a credit card and throws it on the counter. "Order whatever you want," he says, then pushes Jared toward the living room to collapse on the couch, everyone following behind them like a well-dressed conga line.

Jensen is everyone's best friend. He used to just be Jared's.


"I don't actually care what you say. You're coming, and if you're coming, we're gonna do it right." Jensen's propped up on his kitchen counter, looking way too awake and perky for a guy Jared knows for a fact went to bed at about five in the morning.

"A premiere? It's not my scene." Jet lag has gotten one over on Jared, his sleep cycle set into a weird spiral of cat-naps. He's been awake and pacing around for about three hours, after only sleeping for two, waiting for the sun to catch up with him.

"It's not really mine either. Standing around getting my picture taken while the fashion police pick apart my suit. I mean, really. It's a suit. How much can you say about a fucking suit?" He steals Jared's coffee cup from his hand and takes a gulp of it before passing it back over. "If I have to suffer through it, so should you."

"I don't even have a suit for them to pick apart," Jared tells him. He holds up one foot, points out the worn, scuffed leather of his Doc Martens. "Besides, I brought exactly one pair of shoes with me." He'd unpacked this morning, shoved stuff into drawers in the bigger of the two bedrooms in the guesthouse and had discovered he really must have been half asleep and out of his mind when he'd packed. Only two pairs of underwear had made it into his suitcase, seven pairs of socks and innumerable t-shirts.

Sandy is curled up in one of the big, overstuffed chairs in the living room. Her painfully spiked shoes are on the floor and she has her legs tucked under her. Jared's not sure what she does, and when he'd asked Jensen about her last night, he'd described her as someone who's job is everything. Her phone is pressed to her ear and she's typing away on a tablet resting on her knee. She clears her throat pointedly and arches an eyebrow at them.

"Where's Chad?" Jensen says to no one in particular, and they both chuckle. It's an inside joke, provenance lost years ago. Jensen digs his phone out of his pocket, hits the screen a couple of times and makes a face. "No one ever picks up their phone in this house."

"You could always go knock on his door," Jared suggests and Jensen shoots him a dead-eyed look.

"No fucking way," Jensen says and they crack up again.

"Alright. Let's talk about mechanics." Sandy cuts in. She stands and does a graceful flamingo move to put her shoes on. Even with the boost, she still hardly comes up to Jared's shoulder. "The limo's rented for tomorrow evening. Walk the red carpet, smile smile smile, the movie is less than two hours long."

"Yeah, and I'm a barely more than a cameo. Might be in twenty minutes of it, and that's if half of it didn't get edited out," Jensen grumbles.

"Whatever. It's a memorable twenty minutes. Or ten. At least I bartered your way out of the press junket," Mike says as he enters the room. He's in Underarmor from head to toe, damn well a walking billboard for the stuff. Ear buds dangle over his neck and his phone is strapped to his arm. He's a stereotype of a stereotype. "And you don't have to fly to New York, and probably shouldn't be complaining about the paycheck."

"Anyway," Sandy talks right over him, "you have an appointment in…" she grabs Jared's wrist and turns it, "forty minutes at Battaglia. For both of you." Sandy gives Jared's arm a squeeze before letting it go.

The French door to the patio opens up and Chad comes limping in. He's wearing the same clothes he had on yesterday and is screwing with a new bend in his sunglasses, curses as he puts them on and finds one of the lenses cracked down the middle. He tosses them into the sink, goes into a drawer and pulls out an identical pair. "Who the fuck let me fall asleep on the ground last night?" He rubs at the small of his back. "My spine hurts. And so does my ass."

Jensen hooks him around the neck and pulls him in to scuff his knuckles into Chad's hair. "I'm not gonna get within a mile of that."

"Steve's cleared his book for you," Sandy says, glancing between them and her phone. "Head on over there after you're done getting suited up."

"We're going to Steve's?" Chad pipes up. He pats down his pockets, starts mumbling about his keys. "I'm gonna get a facial."

Jared wipes at his mouth, trying to hold back his grin. He meets Jensen's eyes and it's as if they latch onto each other, something which has been asleep for a while starting up again. It's like a heartbeat, thready and weak but still there. "I'm not gonna get within a mile of that one, either."


At the tailor's urging, Jared lifts his arms higher, holds them perpendicular to his body while the guy measures his wingspan from a third, or perhaps fourth angle, prattles off numbers to an assistant holding a clipboard. He and Jensen have been trussed up and trotted around, measured and remeasured.

Jared has tried on a dozen different combinations of waistcoats, button down shirts and suit jackets. There has been talk of clean lines, collars and lapels, and whether or not Jared is willing to wear a bowtie. For the record, the answer is no. He's also managed to talk everyone out of a morning jacket, no matter how well it would show off his height. It's a movie premiere, not a wedding or a funeral. And fuck no to the fedora.

Jensen's taken the whole thing in stride, the way he always does. Tells a few stories about wardrobe fittings and does some impersonations of directors and costume designers that make Jared laugh so hard his sides ache and he pisses off the poor guy who's job it is to bring him the next coat, belt, glass of wine or a virgin sacrifice as far as Jared can tell.

Finally, they settle on a pinstripe ordeal, with slim-fitting trousers and a waistcoat. He's not sure what Jensen ends up choosing, and really, Jensen's acting like he has a lot less invested in the whole thing, would much rather go to the event in a comfortable grandpa sweater and his favorite blue jeans. Maybe a pair of flip-flops to really pull the look together.

"Okay, so your life is literally a movie montage," Jared says through the fitting room door while Jensen changes back into his street clothes.

The door opens and Jensen comes out, his t-shirt rucked up under his arms and still fixing his belt, and that's another thing Jensen's lost all compunction over. To hear him talk of it, all notions of self-consciousness have been burned out of him during his years of theater productions, running back stage and stripping down to his underwear while a wardrobe assistant is standing there with his costume for the next scene.

"I guess that means I should postpone our trip to the park, then, huh? Cancel the double bicycle that I rented. It's a shame. I was really looking forward to sharing that ice cream cone with you."

"Fucker." Jared shoves his shoulder then pulls Jensen close, gets a thrill when Jensen melts against him for a moment, conforms to Jared's side.

"You know it."

The salon is a few doors away, up three flights of stairs. A big bouquet of flowers greets them and the whole place smells like spicy incense rather than chemicals and burned hair. The door hasn't had time to close before a guy is dashing from the back to greet them. His blonde hair is up in a sloppy bun and as far as Jared can tell, he hasn't bothered to finish buttoning up his striped pink and blue shirt, instead having thrown on no fewer than four scarves in various widths, lengths and colors. His smile is wide as he takes Jensen's face in his hands. All but two fingers are carrying huge turquoise rings, and more of the stuff dangles from his wrists, a big chunk of it nestled among all the scarves. He kisses each of Jensen's cheeks, then turns to Chad to give him the same treatment.

"Break out the cucumbers, Steve," Chad says and throws himself into one of the salon chairs. He finds the electronic controls, makes a pornographic noise as hits the button for the massage setting.

"Where on earth did you pick this one up?" Steve asks, forcing Jared to spin around and running his hands through Jared's tangled curls.

"He's Texas grown," Jensen says as Steve steers Jared toward one of the chairs and pushes him down into it.

Steve nods, says, "Must be why his skin is so dry." He bends down to kiss Jared's cheek. "Let's get you plumped up again, cactus."

They're the only people in the shop, and Steve is the only one working. He keeps making the rounds, puts some sorta gunk on Chad's face that's the color of seaweed, bitches about how he needs to exfoliate, moves on to a conditioning treatment for Jensen, sets his fingernails to soak before turning his attention back to Jared.

"You people must be swimming around in a hell of a gene pool down there," Steve says. He starts messing with Jared's hair again, scritching his fingernails along Jared's scalp. "Let's take just a little off of the front, get some of those sloppy curls out of those pretty eyes of yours."

The shop has a balcony, and Jared and Jensen wind up out there, sipping the cucumber water Steve got them as they wait for the stuff in their hair to percolate long enough.

"Hell of a flirt, isn't he?" Jared asks.

"Steve?" Jensen says, then laughs a little. "Don't take him seriously. He's the gayest straight guy I know."

Two days ago, Jared was running on three hours of sleep, sucking down coffee to stay awake through his early morning lectures. He was studying for the GRE, feeling confident about the math and shaky as hell on the verbal. Five years ago, Jared and Jensen were scrounging change out of the seat cushions and asking Jared's older brother to buy them six-packs of cheap beer. Now Jensen is sprawled in one of those fancy anti-gravity chairs on a balcony overlooking Rodeo Drive, with a mud mask on his face that probably costs about a hundred bucks an ounce. His life has turned into this strange wonderland while Jared has been spending his days and nights in the engineering lab or with his nose buried in a series of books.

"This is every single day for you, isn't it?" Jared says.

Jensen takes a second to answer. "Nowhere near it. Most days..."

"Most days I'm not here," Jared says when Jensen trails off, teasing.

Jensen's response is less sarcastic than Jared's expecting. "Yeah. Exactly." He kicks back and closes his eyes, fingers woven loosely over his stomach. If he feels Jared's gaze on him, he doesn't let on.

It's a lot different than when they were sitting on the floor of Jensen's bedroom and Jensen was putting eyeliner on him. Jared had been so in love with him back then. So in love. Maybe he shouldn't be thinking about this in the past tense.


They stop and pick up a couple of pizzas and Jensen makes Chad go through a drive-through for some donuts. The kind with the cream in the middle.

"What about your complexion?" Jared asks, dragging up an old memory. The entire day has been this way. Fuck, Jensen has been this way since Jared landed. The old and the new all blended together. One superimposed over the other, and Jared can't figure out which is the real one anymore.

"Eh," Jensen says and sniffs, knocks Jared's shoulder from his spot in the back seat of the car. "Screw my complexion."


"This guest house is at least twice the size of my apartment." Steve is putting the finishing touches on Jared's hair, tamed for the time being with enough goop in it that a tornado could hit and it wouldn't budge. He rubs his thumbs under Jared's eyes and says, "Pores are looking good. Shouldn't be telling you this, but a little sun would do wonders for your skin tone."

"I don't get out much," Jared says, explaining his full course load and how every spare second he has, which isn't many, is spent sleeping or working. Not a lot of time to spend outside.

"All of this and smart, too. No wonder Jensen likes you." Steve holds out the slim-fitting suit jacket for Jared to slip into, inspects his handiwork one final time and pats his cheek, then steps back to take in the finished product. "Now get to your boy. He's waiting on you. Been pacing around the place like it's his wedding day."

Before Jared heads out the door, Steve stops him. "Here. Almost forgot." He unloops one of the three scarves he's wearing and wraps it around Jared's neck. "That's better. Knock 'em dead, kiddo."

A man is posted by the back door, his posture straight and bordering on formal. He's tall and big all over, and his conservative suit is nicely made, however after a few days of spending time around the people that spend time around Jensen, he can tell it isn't as expensive as the one he's standing in, trying not to squirm and tug at the collar.

"You're new," Jared says to him.

"So are you. Tom Welling," the guy says with an outstretched hand, and Jared doesn't need to look down to meet his eyes. Something that rarely happens. "Security," he finishes.

"My very own superman," Jensen says, pausing in the path he's been pacing down the center of the house.

The sight of him makes Jared's breath catch in his lungs. The suit he's wearing is a cut he recognizes from one Jensen tried on yesterday, but the color is a surprise. A deep maroon that pulls out the pale color of Jensen's skin. His shirt is grey, tiny pinstripe that matches the pattern of Jared's suit. The shocked expression he's got on his face makes Jared want to shrink away, run to his bedroom--the one in Texas--and change back into his cut-off cargo shorts and favorite Flogging Molly t-shirt, wash all the crap out of his hair and quite possibly crawl under his bed for the next decade or so.

"You look…" Jensen trails off.

"Like an asshole. Worse than an asshole. Like a poser asshole." Jared's finger inches up to pull at his priest-neck collar and he forces it back down again, shoves his hands into pockets that weren't actually designed to be pockets.

"I was going for amazing, but I guess asshole will do." Jensen crosses the room to him, gives him a light, skimming touch along his lapels.

"Should have gotten better shoes," Jared says. Jensen's are black-on-black wingtips, shiny and clean enough that you could eat a sandwich off of them. On the flip-side, Jared's wearing his Doc's, the black finish worn off of the leather in all of the stress spots. Steve had done a last-minute alteration on the pants for him, hemmed them a couple inches higher than the way they'd come, called it purposefully punk and had been satisfied.

"C'mere," Jensen says, and takes something out of his pocket. He holds Jared's wrist. "I got this for you. Doesn't count as much now that I know you're wearing your boots…" Jensen's doing that mumbling thing he does when he's feeling awkward. He uncoils a leather cuff, black and studded with silver rivets. "Thought you might like to have something that was more like you underneath all the rest of it."

He snaps it into place around Jared's wrist and Jared struggles to swallow past the thickness in his throat. He thinks about what Chad said before, about how Jensen gives so much.

"Here," Jared says. He slips his silver ring off of his thumb and pushes it onto Jensen's. It's somewhat loose on him, catches on his knuckle however. Well enough to keep it secure.

Jensen chews on his bottom lip and spins it around on his thumb a couple of times, the same move that Jared has done for years. Jared hopes that it'll give him the same sort of luck.

"But you've worn this forever," Jensen says.

"Whatever. I've known you forever. It counts." It doesn't make a lot of sense, but Jensen gets it. Nods and gives the ring another spin.

"Now that you two are going steady, we might wanna make dust." Chad is done up like a blues brother, skinny tie and fedora and those ever-present sunglasses. Real fancy get-up for a guy who's just gonna sit in the car and drink the complimentary champagne.


The experience is strange. Borders on surreal. Theoretically, Jared knows that Jensen has a fanbase, and that fanbase gets bigger and bigger with each movie release. It's one thing to know about it and another thing to see it in person. There are red-velvet ropes and hoards of camera flashes, people calling out Jensen's name, trying to get his attention, get him to turn their way for a better picture. Jared stays out of frame, watches his best friend paste a smile on his face that's as much of an act as his character in the movie. Thin spun and fragile as glass.

Tom and Jared stay on the periphery. Tom is mostly window dressing, a technicality insisted upon by Mike.

"They're like carnival hawkers, only skeevier." Jared says to Tom, who's standing close to him in bodyguard stance, arms folded behind his back and his feet spread wide.

"Your first time, I take it?" Tom asks.

"Yeah," Jared says. "I had no idea that it would be this loud."

"You get used to it."

"Not the first time you've done this?"

"I've lost count," Tom tells him. "Jensen's an easy detail, though. Doesn't make any oddball demands, sticks to the schedule pretty much." He tenses, takes a half-step forward and relaxes a moment later. "And there he goes."

Jensen's crossing to the far side of the red carpet, wading into a crowd of people yelling his name, their arms reaching out to dangle movie posters, headshots and permanent markers in Jensen's face.

A surge of protectiveness plants itself in Jared's chest, and when Jensen joins them again, Jared walks closely beside him, a hand pressed to the small of Jensen's back.

"You good?" Jared asks. After a few steps, Jared decides it's not good enough, wraps his arm around Jensen's shoulders, puts his other hand over Jensen's heart. It's a compromise. If he could figure out a way to carry him without it being too weird, he probably would, take him through some back alley route to get him into the theater and out again.

Jensen smiles at him, the first real one Jared's seen out of him since this horse and pony show started.

The movie is fun, a borderline ridiculous thing about a spy gone rogue, follows the accepted formula and happily ticks off car chases and helicopter stunts and unlikely feats of physical prowess from its forty-something lead. The stuff that makes summer blockbusters delivered a couple of months early. Jared might be biased, but the seventeen minutes that Jensen's onscreen, playing the part of a brilliant scientist who's still bitter about getting kicked out of MIT for fighting, are definitely the best part.

As the credits roll and everyone in the theater is busy applauding and patting each other on their backs, Jared leans over to Jensen and whispers, "Eh. You were alright, I guess."

"Fucker," Jensen says, completing the circuit. "And before I start to pick apart every little thing I did, let's go get drunk on the studio's dime."


"Heya," Jared says, closing the door behind him. Jensen's knocked out on the couch in the guest house, sleeping off the champagne and bourbon from the night before, twisted sideways in a position that's going to hurt whenever he wakes up. He's still wearing his suit pants and the dress shirt is crumpled over the arm of the couch, his tie still somehow around his neck. One arm is flung up over his eyes, exposing the pale underside of his arm and the dark shock of hair there. His mouth is open slightly and his lips look so soft. Jared wants to touch them, press his thumb between them.

"Hey, you," Matt says. His voice is close and intimate through the phone and Jared's never felt farther away from the guy, can't bring himself to miss him. It's not like he's attached to him in any significant way. He's aware that Matt thinks of him as a fun night out and a warm mouth after that fun night out. Still doesn't believe it's right to string him along. Matt's good-looking, funny, a body so hard you could sharpen a knife on it. He won't be lonely for long. He asks how things are going, and Jared gives him the greeting card answer.

When he asks how long Jared is going to be out there, Jared pauses. He cradles the phone between his ear and shoulder, spins the leather bracelet on his wrist the same way he used to spin the ring. The silence stretches out.

"It's okay," Matt tells him, and there's no regret in it. Just facts. "You don't have to lie to me if you don't know the truth. It really is okay."

Jared ends the call a few minutes later. He knows the truth, feels it in his gut with every unintentional brush of Jensen's skin on his, each time their gazes snag and linger.

He checks in with Sophia next, spends a few minutes talking about everything and nothing. About the premiere and how he's gonna ship her some of this exfoliant that Steve gave to him the other day.

Back in the house, Jensen is starting to wake up, rubbing his eyes and stretching, pulling the loose tie from his neck with a few irritated tugs.

"I should go," Jared says. "Jensen's getting up soon, so."

Her sigh is soft, sanded down. "It's coming back, isn't it?"

Below, the tiny lake glitters, desert hills rising sharply away from its shiny surface. Jared stares at it until spotty after images of sunlight have burned into his sight. Small, scattered holes in his vision.

"I don't know what you're talking about," he says. It's a lie and they both know it. If he could tell her the truth he would tell her that it never really went away. He can't figure out why he doesn't want to say it, and not for the first time, he curses her ability to see through the fog and straight into the heart of the matter.

"You do, babe. Just. Be careful, okay? Be safe."

By the time Jared gets inside, figures out the coffee machine and makes himself a cup, Jensen has made it into an upright position and is blinking against the light like it offends him on a molecular level.

"How's that bourbon looking?" Jared asks and flops down on the other end of the couch.

"It looked a lot better last night than it does this morning." Jensen's voice is a rough rasp, pitched a little deeper with sleep and has no business being as sexy as it is. He shoves his feet under Jared's thigh and wriggles his toes and it hits Jared like a punch to the jaw that he didn't see coming. Jared wraps his hand around Jensen's ankle, fits his fingers to the familiar bony protrusions and Jensen hums, settles further down into the sofa cushions.

They stay that way for a while, Jensen slipping into an on-again, off-again doze and Jared silently replays the conversation with Matt, and then the conversation with Sophia, bites his thumbnail down to the quick as he does it. Eventually, Jensen extracts one of his feet and nudges Jared's shoulder with it.

"Stop it," Jensen says, cracking one eye open a sliver.

"Gross. Foot," Jared mutters, elbowing Jensen off of him.

Jensen snorts. "You love my foot." He falls over Jared's lap reaching for the cup of coffee Jared's been ignoring. Stays mostly on top of him as he takes a few lukewarm sips.

It's true. Jared does, and everything else attached to it.

"More sugar than you used to take," Jensen observes, swallowing down another gulp. Jared hardly notices, too caught up in the warmth of him pressed shoulder to thigh, the faint, worn down traces of his cologne left over from last night, the goddamn freckles that dot the shell of his ear. "You're going soft."

"You're going soft," Jared says, distracted with how his fingers are becoming numb under the weight of Jensen on his arm and even that feels good.

"My teeth feel like they're wearing sweaters," Jensen says, smacking his lips. He pats Jared's thigh, then levers up off of the couch and fuck, Jared really needs to get a handle on himself, because Jensen standing a few feet in front of him and stretching is doing some unfair things to Jared's good intentions.

Jensen pushes his arms above his head and his shirt rides up to show a toned lower stomach, just a tease of skin and a sandy trail of hair dropping down from his belly button. More of it visible as he twists into the stretch and his pants slide down just a fraction. Jared wants to wrap his hands around Jensen's middle, let his touch drop into the dip of Jensen's spine. Find out if his skin is as warm as it looks.

"Alright," Jensen says on the end of a yawn. "I'm gonna get cleaned up and then we're going out to breakfast." Jensen's busy picking up the strewn components of his clothes from the night before, looking the part of the drunken love interest in every rom-com Jared's ever had to sit through, rumpled pants and the crushed wad of his shirt, looping his tie around his wrist. He throws his shoes on top of everything, kicks the socks under the couch rather than toppling the careful balance in his arms, as if Jared wouldn't notice.


"I know a place. It's a little off the map. You'll like it."

"Please tell me you're gonna take a shower first," Jared begs. He's used to the post-alcoholic reek when the stuff starts pouring out of Jensen's pores. Still doesn't mean that anyone else should be subjected to it.

"Ten minutes," Jensen tells him, half out the door and hissing at the first touch of unfiltered sunshine, like he's going method for some vampire flick.


Jensen pauses, and there's a slight drop to his shoulders that Jared wishes he hadn't noticed. Wishes that he hadn't somehow caused, no matter how unintentional. It's the first time since Jared has been here that the shell has cracked a little, the first dark spot to block out the sunshine.

"I could wake him up if…" Jensen trails off, but Jared is already talking over him.

"Forget it. Force of habit, I guess. It's always better when I have you all to myself." It comes out before Jared can shut it down, twist it into something that's a little less true.


On the surface, the place Jensen takes him to looks like a restaurant his grandmother would like. Plain building on the outside, simple and boxy, the awning over the front door a different shade of green than the roof, and the roof a different shade of green than the vinyl siding. There's no outside seating and absolutely everywhere in this city has outside seating.

After days of Jensen taking him to a few high-class spots in town, Jared's sorta shocked by this place. The interior is almost as worn as the exterior, dated wood paneling and threadbare carpets. There are only a few tables occupied, the people there concentrating on their breakfasts.

The lady who comes up to greet them barely makes it to five feet tall, speaks with a southern twang that makes Jared miss home, stand up a little straighter and pay closer attention to his manners. Jensen introduces her as Maria, and there's true affection threaded through the way she clucks and fusses over Jensen, pinches his middle and tells him he's gotten skinny again, kindly gives him a rough time for staying away so long.

Something hits Jared then, a thing that he's probably known on an intellectual level, and is now starting to really understand. Jensen has a life out here. He has friends that Jared doesn't know, places that he likes to go that Jared has never stepped foot inside, a lady who reminds Jared of his mother who worries about him and thinks about him when he's been too long gone. There are so many things that Jared knows nothing about.

There are years and miles between them and all of these things have been wearing away at that thin thread between them. The thought is staggering, mournful, makes Jared stand a little closer to Jensen.

Maria leads them toward a table next to a large open window and Jensen sits with his back to one of those big stone walls with water continually running down it that always make Jared need to take a piss. By the time he gets back from the bathroom, Jensen's already ordered for both of them and there's a cup of coffee waiting for him.

Jared reaches for the sugar and Jensen stops him, says, "Already took care of it."

It's a little thing, the tiniest thing, but Jared feels the thread grow stronger.

Maria serves them herself, sets two heaping bowls of pasta down in front of them and Jensen's eyes roll back for a moment as he takes the first bite.

"Pasta? For breakfast?" Jared says. He picks at it with his fork, smells garlic and olive oil, comes across bits of scrambled eggs and nearly every vegetable he knows how to name.

"Not just pasta. It's pasta mama. This stuff kept me alive the first six months I was out here. Plus, it's the only surefire way to kick a hangover."

They shovel through their meal and Jared admits that it's one of the best things he's ever eaten. Full of fresh herbs and a little spicy, the vegetables in it crunchy and exactly the way that he likes them.

"How are you? Are you alright?" Jared asks. He's staring at Jensen as he says it, trying to pick up on any cues.

"I'm a lot better now," Jensen says, and it's so typical of him to hand Jared an answer that could be read in a few different ways.

"No, I mean. Are you really okay?"

"Busy today. I'll be in good shape after I've worked off this breakfast. We gotta get you some shorts for fuck's sake. Plus something else that I know I'm forgetting." He taps his finger to his mouth, waves when he realizes he's not gonna remember. "Anyway, early call time tomorrow, and I've got ten pages of dialogue to go through before I show up. It'll be pure luck if I memorize half of it before hitting the set. You're coming, by the way."

"Nah, man. I don't wanna get in the way. It's your work."

Jensen shrugs. "I don't know how long you're gonna be here, and there's no way I'm missing out on a whole day." He stands, shoves some folded money under his bowl and heads for the door, blowing a kiss in Maria's direction and a promise that he won't be such a stranger from here on out.

"Thanks, Jensen." Jared grabs his shoulder to stop him before Jensen can climb into the car.

"Don't mention it."

"No, really," Jared goes on, yanking Jensen in for a hug.

"Dude, it was just breakfast," Jensen says, muffled against Jared's shoulder.

"Not the breakfast. Thanks for that too, by the way, and yesterday, and the day before. And thanks for letting me spend the night, for handing me over a guest house that's almost the size of the one I grew up in."

"Why do you think I bought the place?" Jensen says, pulling back. "Besides. All of this. Everything I have doesn't mean anything to me unless I can give it to you."


The house is dark and Jared and Jensen muffle their giggling behind their hands as they stumble in through the back kitchen door. A creak sounds from above and that shuts them up quickly, makes them freeze and hold their breath. The last thing Jared wants is for one of his parents to come downstairs and smell them.

"We should have stopped drinking an hour ago," Jensen says. He grabs two glasses and fills them both up with water.

"We did," Jared points out. The universe is tilting to starboard and when he tries to focus on one spot it gets worse. He drains his glass and goes for a second.

"Then we should have stopped two hours ago." Jensen's face is flushed, covered with a thin layer of sweat that makes it shine. His eyes are glassy and wide and his lips are stained red from the slushy stuff they'd spent most of the night guzzling down. It had been dangerously sweet, liquor hidden under a taste like cherry lifesavers. Easy on the way down and Jared really doesn't want to find out how it might taste on the way back up again.

The staircase up to Jared's bedroom seems impossible, so they land at the kitchen table. It's dark, nothing but the dim kitchen light and they keep on chugging water until it turns into an uncomfortable slosh in Jared's stomach.

Jensen's fading some, blinks growing longer and he's swaying a bit in the chair, misses his mouth twice as he tries to drink his water and snorts laughter at himself.

They're closing in on their senior year, and tonight is the last big blowout under their belts before school starts again. The liquor has made Jared's lips numb and his tongue loose. It's really late and really early.

"What was that girl's name? Was she even from around here?"

"I dunno. Pretty sure that Chad imported some people for this one. Maybe her name was Mary. Marianne. Maribel? I think she's from state. Friend of a friend or something." Jared thinks about her, how she'd tasted like tequila and salt and how light she'd felt on his lap. The sure way she'd taken his wrist and guided his hand up under the hem her shirt. The lack of bra and the soft warmth of her skin. How none of it had felt right at all.

"Tell me you at least let her suck you off." Jensen presses his forehead to the table, rolls it around for a while.

Jared's spent the last couple of years convincing himself that a lie isn't really a lie. That a sin of omission isn't the sticking kind. Now, with the drunk wearing thin the truth comes very close to the surface. Right there. He's terrified. He's never been so scared of anything in his life.

"No," Jared says, "I didn't."

There's something in Jared's tone that catches Jensen, makes him sit up and peer at him. "Not really your thing." It's not a question. There's no accusation in Jensen's steady look. Nothing but earnest curiosity.

"Not my thing at all."

There are a lot of things Jared could do, and he's a breath away from making a joke out of it all, say something about how he's more into sobriety and not that big on bad decisions. It jams in his throat, doesn't make it past his teeth, because Jensen's still staring at him like he's willing to wait forever for an answer. And Jared's staring back, stuck on the one person who should know the truth. The one person who deserves it.

"Then what is?" Jensen asks.

Jared wants to say you. Only you. He wants to say a lot of stuff. He wants to tell Jensen that every time he sees him it feels like the best thing that's ever happened. To anyone. Anywhere. That it's not all fireworks and rainbows, but the lazy, slurred way Jensen says his name. It's Jensen's hand on the back of his neck to let him know that he's there. Every inside joke. Each stolen bite of food. It's the warm smell of him that Jared's never been able put his finger on, and it's the soft noises Jensen makes as he falls asleep. Those half-pronounced words that don't make any sense and will keep Jared up for an hour after Jensen's out cold trying to figure them out, insert meaning into places when his mind tells him there isn't any and his gut tells him there is.

He wants to tell Jensen that he loves him. Wants to say he's in love with him and he has been forever. At some point between limping around Jensen's backyard, watching him learn how to be Tiny Tim and now, sitting at the kitchen table, staring at Jensen with his face held up in his hands and waiting for the room to stop spinning, Jared started to fall. And he hasn't stopped yet.

"Just say it. It's okay." Jensen says. It's soft and gentle and Jared doesn't know what he's done in this life to get so lucky.

"I'm." Jared draws in a huge breath, lets it out nice and slow, forces himself to keep looking Jensen in the eye. "I'm gay. I've known it for a while and it's not gonna change anything and if you wanna leave and never see me again, I totally get it." This is a scene he's played out in his head a hundred times, his least favorite daydream, like a choose your own adventure book except the ending is left up to someone else entirely.

In a perfect world, Jared would tell Jensen this and Jensen would slide into his lap and kiss him breathless. The happily ever after ending that Jared would choose for himself. The world isn't perfect.

"I know. This isn't news."

"How?" Jared asks.

"I've known you my whole life, Jared." Jensen says it so simply and plain, like it explains everything. "I'm glad you finally told me. I just….I can't figure out why it took you so long."

"You're okay with it?" All the drunk has been knocked out of him. Jensen seems like he's still in the thick of it, slurring his words. He keeps looking Jared in the eye though, so that's something.

"Fuck, man. You're still you, and you're the only one that I have."

Jared sinks his head down to the table again, perspective all skewed now, with Jensen's fingers in the foreground and his face a blurry, indistinct shape behind it. Jared pushes his hand across the table, touches their fingertips together. They stay that way for the longest time.


There are lecture notes Jared's classmates have emailed him that he needs to weed through, messages from professors, and he's still gotta keep up with his internship applications. Most of the day has been wasted nursing his nagging hangover, staying out of the way as a woman from some lifestyle magazine interviewed Jensen for a spread about his house.

The night is clear, and a cool breeze has blown off the heat of the day. The house is too close to the city for stars, but the nearby glow of it has turned the sky faintly purple, pretty in its own right. It would be criminal to stay cooped up in the guest house.

Jensen's at a high top table on the patio. His white t-shirt stretches across his chest and around his arms, and Jared recognizes the soft-looking blue jeans from back home, streaky blue paint stains on the thighs from when they'd painted his bedroom the summer before he left for college and Jensen left for here. His bare feet are propped on the rung of the chair, one crossed atop the other and he's concentrating on the pages laid out on the table, absently chewing on the cap of his pen.

The night is warm and the breeze keeps the bugs away. A strong, not-unpleasant smell of citronella comes from the smoky torches that are scattered here and there. For once, the big house is quiet, only a faint light coming from a lamp in an interior room.

Laptop held across his chest like a shield, Jared says, "I can go somewhere else if you need to be alone."

"No. It's fine," Jensen tells him, pushes the chair across from him with his foot and turns back to his script.

A line has formed in the center of Jensen's brows and he keeps mouthing the words on the paper, underlining, scribbling stuff down here and there. Jared can't concentrate. His notes aren't sinking in and he reads the same email four times and still has no idea what it's about. His attention keeps turning toward Jensen, lingering over dog-eared daydreams. Half-baked scenarios where things could be like this forever. Where Jensen would never be too far away and they could spend every night this way. Close and quiet.

A couple of hours slip past while Jared spins tires on a cover letter, stares blankly into space and a little less blankly at Jensen. The third time he catches Jensen staring into the same spot of nothing, he says, "We should go to sleep. I'm totally pointless right now, and you gotta look like a movie star in the morning."

Jensen flips the script closed, rubs at his eyes, stands and follows Jared as he heads into the guest house. Jared doesn't ask why and Jensen doesn't offer an explanation, just leaves his script on the kitchen counter and pulls his shirt off as he disappears into the other bedroom.

Jared keeps his door open, dozes off to the sounds of Jensen across the hall. The creak of bedsprings, the rustle of blankets being arranged and rearranged. Jensen's muffled sniffling and the way he keeps clearing his throat. He's nearly out when he hears a soft footfall, the unmistakable pop of Jensen cracking his knuckles.

A flash of cool air hits Jared's bare back as Jensen lifts the blankets. The bed dips and then Jared's dealing with Jensen's cold feet against his ankles, the warmth of Jensen's spine pressed into his back.

"You okay?"

"Yeah. That mattress is well and truly fucked. Gotta remember to tell Chad to go out and get a new one," Jensen mutters. "You okay?"

Jared shifts closer to the wall, trying to give Jensen more room, and Jensen slides further into the middle of the bed, stays backed up against him.

"Yeah," Jared answers. He's immediately too hot, jammed between the wall and Jensen. The skin-on-skin feel of Jensen's body is making Jared's heartbeat sing and his dick push sticky at his boxers. If there's a way to make himself quit sweating, he needs to figure it out real quick before his clammy skin has a shot at driving Jensen away.

"You're a furnace," Jensen says, but he doesn't move, rather kicks at the covers until they're tangled around their legs.

"Good thing, since your feet are ice cubes," Jared tells him, and as Jensen pulls them out from under Jared's legs, he goes on, "I didn't say you should move them. Put 'em back."

Jensen makes a soft, happy sound, and it takes a while for Jared to fall asleep again, too busy counting Jensen's breaths, focused on the slow expansion of Jensen's ribs along his back, all those tiny sounds he makes.


"Hey. J-Pad."

Jared cracks an eye open. Something heavy is on his shoulder and his arm is dead weight from about the elbow down. He tries to wiggle the fingers of his left hand and can't.

Chad is stomping down the hallway, still hollering. "Hey, get your lazy, gay ass up. I thought maybe Jensen went for a run, but he's not answering his phone. Have you seen him? Christ, no one around here ever answers--" He stops in the doorway, does a double take. "Oh." Chad frowns, blinks, cocks his head to the side. "Oh."

"You could say that I've seen him, yeah," Jared says, trying to lever his arm out from underneath Jensen's shoulders.

Jensen growls, burrows into Jared's chest, the prickle of his stubble all scratchy and wonderful. He strengthens the grip he has on Jared's hip. His feet aren't cold anymore.

"Fuck," Jensen says, as he peels his face off of Jared's skin. "Hi. Good morning." He pats Jared's cheek before he rolls over and pushes himself into a sitting position.

Chad, who has found an interesting square foot of ceiling to examine, says, "Get up, movie star. This train leaves the station in twenty."

"Fuck," Jensen repeats, gets up and shoves past Chad. A second later, the bathroom door slams closed and the shower starts.

"You can use one of the bathrooms in the other house. There's like, four to choose from," Chad says.

"Dude. I'm gonna use your toothbrush," Jensen yells from the shower.

"Whatever," Jared yells back as he makes it to his feet and tries to shake the blood back into his hand. The pins and needles are legendary.

Chad glances between the closed bathroom door and Jared. "We're gonna have to talk about this later, aren't we?"

"What?" Jared spits out. "No."

"Goddamn it," Chad says as he shoves a hand into his hair, "we are."


"Because you said that we won't have to. It's what everyone says when they actually have something to talk about. Jesus. It's textbook. "


The sun is barely peeking out over the tops of the hills as they pass through security at the studio. They'd been quiet on the ride in, the three of them caffeinating themselves through the painfully early call time. The set is like an ant farm, everyone in a rush to get somewhere else, and Jared counts three golf carts and two Segways before Chad parks the car.

Mike is dashing over to them as they climb out, half of his face hidden behind sunglasses that aren't strictly necessary yet. He shoves a pen and some papers under Jensen's nose and Jensen signs them without bothering to read them.

"Have you seen the dailies from the end of last week?" Mike asks. He flips a couple of pages and points to another spot for Jensen to sign, then punches Jared in the arm. "Your boy is cracking it wide open. Buzz around town is saying this flick is Brokeback for the new decade."

"Delusions of grandeur, Mike," Jensen corrects him. "Right now it feels more like soft-core porn. Soft-core firefighter porn."

"And when you're accepting an Oscar for it, don't forget who got you there," Mike says as he walks away with a wave.

Jensen's carted off to wardrobe and makeup. Chad holds back so Jared does as well, not sure how any of this is supposed to work, what's off-limits, where he's allowed to go.

"So. This morning." Chad props himself up against the car, crosses his ankles and lights up a cigarette, like he's settling in for the long haul.

"That was nothing," Jared says. He messes with the leather bracelet, spins it twice. The dent on his thumb from his silver ring is still there, a band of skin more pale than the rest of his hand from years and years of never taking it off.

"Oh, yeah, sure it was." Chad takes a drag like punctuation, exhales through what he says next. "Because it really looked like a big pile of nothing, and like nothing spent the whole night drooling on you."

Jared doesn't reply, hoping that Chad will get bored and drop it. Last night is already beginning to take on an unreal quality in his head. A one hit wonder. A memory that he'll dig up and pick apart when he's back home again, shuttered away in a room that doesn't have Jensen in it, when the day or night gets too long or when a very particular brand of homesickness takes over.

"It's're so gone for him. Always have been," Chad says, and Jared doesn't like the sympathetic tone in his voice, the gentle way he says it.

"No I'm not," Jared says. It's a reflex, a well-aimed hammer-tap to a knee.

"You're also a shit actor. Can't tell a lie, not if your skinny ass depended on it. You're crazy about him." Chad shrugs. "I can see it. Jensen can see it. Might as well hang a sign around your neck, all lit up with one of those little battery pack things you can keep hidden in your pocket."

"Wait a minute," Jared says, a shock of ice water in his veins. "Has he said anything?"

"Naw, dude. He doesn't have to. Y'know how acting coaches are always going on about how actors are students of the human condition?" Chad makes a stabbing motion toward Jared with his cigarette. "Well, Jensen's a damn good actor, and you're his favorite human, so."

"That doesn't mean…" Jared starts before he realizes he doesn't know how to finish. There are question marks stamped all over this one. He likes concrete facts, problems with definite solutions. If he was into the hypothetical, he would have studied particle physics or something.

"It means that the nothing from last night probably isn't nothing." Chad's eyes lose their focus, and he breathes in deep through his nose. "Wait a second. Is that bacon?"

"Um, I think so?"

"Since we're getting nowhere, we might as well not do it on an empty stomach."

Chad pulls him along, follows his nose to the craft services tent, and that's where Jensen finds them a while later, each plowing past their second plate of food. He looks like he's actually walked through a fire. His face is filthy, his hair is tousled and the white undershirt he's wearing looks like it's been painted on him like a second skin. It's singed black in spots, has burn holes along the bottom hem. The lines of his toned chest are obvious and so are the muscles in his stomach.

"Glad I didn't have that extra donut the other day," Jensen says, a mild embarrassment coloring his cheeks under all the soot and manufactured sweat. The muck covering his face makes his lips that much more pink, his bright eyes even more green, and Jared's mouth dries up so fast he has trouble swallowing his last bite.

"Don't breathe too deep. That shirt might split wide open," Jared warns him.

Jensen pulls up a chair, turns it around to straddle it backward, picks through the fruit salad on Jared's plate and steals all of the citrus. Around them, conversations have turned quieter, people obviously not looking at them. Jensen doesn't seem to notice.

"The filming schedule got switched. Found out when I went in for wardrobe. It explains this." Jensen makes an all-encompassing motion.

"So those lines you memorized last night..." Jared says, leaving it open.

"I'll probably forget every single one of them before I actually have to use them. No big deal. Happens all the time."

"How about the stuff for today?" Jared asks.

Jensen pulls out some folded papers from his back pocket, touches them to his temple and won't quite meet Jared's eyes. "This scene isn't much of a speakie." He starts to dig his fingers into his hair, stops when he remembers how much work someone has put into it. "Talk about awkward."

Before Jared can ask why, a young man comes up to them, a headset looped around his neck. He clears his throat, has a distinct deer in the headlights look about him. Jared recognizes starstruck when he sees it. "Uh, Mr. Ackles?"

"Reggie," Jensen says as he stands. "Call me Jensen. Please. Mr. Ackles is my grandpa." He takes a few steps then spins around, slipping the silver ring from his thumb. "Almost forgot. I couldn't figure out a way to keep it on without the continuity department having my hide. This doesn't mean you're keeping it," he goes on, then quieter, "Funny how quickly you get used to something."


Being Jensen's guest on set earns Jared a lot of perks. The chair he's sitting in has Jensen's name on it, and so far assistants have asked him a half a dozen times if he needs anything to drink or eat, if he's comfortable, whether or not he needs a jacket. It's fascinating, watching everything that goes into shooting a scene that will take up maybe five or ten minutes onscreen. Electricians and cameramen are dodging each other and it would appear that there's someone whose job is to hold onto the director's binder and his coffee. To top it off, there's a whole hell of a lot of waiting around.

Everything's a lot smaller than Jared thought it would be, the soundstage designed to be built and broken down, turned into something else quickly and efficiently. Right now, it's two walls constructed to look like interior of a firehouse, a fire truck sitting in the center of it.

Jensen's standing on the stage near his co-star, a brick house of a man with a familiar face even though Jared can't put a finger on his name. It's not unusual. He doesn't have time to watch a lot of television, can't remember seeing a movie recently unless Jensen was in it. The two of them are talking with the director, and there is a swarm of lighting engineers and people doing last-minute touch-ups on makeup, photographers everywhere taking pictures of everything.

"Hey." Another assistant comes up to him. "You wanna plug in to the audio? They're miked, so you'll be able to hear better."

Jared follows the guy to the soundboard, accepts the headphones. A jumble of voices is piped into his ears, and he picks out Jensen's from the jump, even though it's only a low sound of agreement.

Jensen glances toward his chair, frowns slightly when he finds it empty, starts to scan the crew and Jared resists the impulse to wave his arms like some sorta proud soccer mom. The moment he sees Jared, the worried shape of his mouth melts into a grin.

"There you are," Jensen whispers, and it's transmitted directly into Jared's ears, strangely close for all the distance between them.

Do good, Jared mouths, since the connection only works one way, and Jensen offers up a small shrug before turning back to his castmate.

This isn't the first time Jensen's played a gay character. He went through a pretty-boy phase that was very well-documented at the time, and a couple of years ago, he played the flamboyant friend to the rom-com's heroine. The comic relief. His character had been flirty, egomaniacal, and Jared had gone to see the movie three times for Jensen's eyeliner and blue painted fingernails alone, but his sexuality had been a theoretical thing, something that happened off screen.

There's nothing theoretical about what's happening onstage right now. The dialogue is bitten-off, snappy, and Jared can't pay attention to what's being said, is too wrapped up in how Jensen's saying it. Every trace of the lazy Texas accent is gone, replaced by something more Southie, deeper vowels and non-existent r-sounds. His voice is quietly intense, full of regret and anger in equal doses.

He's aged ten years in seconds. It starts with the makeup but doesn't end there. It's in the exhausted slump of his shoulders and the drawn down shape of his mouth, the way every step he takes toward his co-star is like walking through quicksand. It's in the split-second hesitation when he reaches out to wrap his fingers in his costar's shirt that says he's been through this before and it's never ended well.

Jared realizes he's grinding his teeth, has to forcibly relax his jaw as Jensen pulls the guy in and the tension ratchets up to the breaking point. Jensen's trapped against the firetruck and the guy is between his legs, face buried in his neck. The sounds Jensen is making are so real, just like the clutch of his fingers into the meat of the guy's shoulders, the slow roll of their hips together. Jared's chest is burning and it sorta seems like he's been swallowing down battery acid, and his jealousy is as real and unfounded as the monster he was sure was living under his bed when he was five.

A camera slides in on silent tracks, blocks Jared's view and gives him the disconnect he needs to get his head on straight. Jensen is still panting in his ears, dialogue broken and stilted, but now Jared has to look at a nearby monitor to see what's happening. Only then can he appreciate what Jensen's really doing, his awareness of the cameras surrounding him, his decision to angle his head in a very specific direction so that his face is mostly hidden in shadows. Turns himself featureless, an anonymous body to rub up against, a dirty little secret.

The director hollers the cut and calls for a reset, dashes over to his actors and claps them both on the back. "You didn't go in for the kiss," he says, flipping through his binder, "good decision. Better if it happens later. You got ten minutes then we'll hit it from the other side."

Jensen rifles around in a basket of candy beside a light stand, pops a piece of gum in his mouth and approaches Jared in a cloud of spearmint.

"That was--" Jared starts, looping the headset around his neck.

"Awkward as fuck," Jensen finishes for him.

"I was gonna go for hot, but if you wanna go with awkward, then okay." Jared's face feels flushed, all the way to the tips of his ears. "Still hot, though."

"We'll see if you're still saying that after watching it all go down a dozen more times," Jensen points out.

Self-deprecation is one of Jensen's defense mechanisms. Willfully ignoring the fact that he wants to yank Jensen out of here and get him horizontal on the nearest available surface is one of Jared's. He lets them both slide.


In between takes, when Jared isn't studying his notes and trying to make up missed school work, he's studying Jensen. He learns that Jensen can fall asleep anywhere within seconds. In his chair on set, curled on the sofa in his trailer, with his head resting on his folded arms at a table in the food tent. Jensen loves his job, even if he's not into the hype that comes with being a young actor in Hollywood. More than that, he's good at it in a way that goes beyond learning his lines and hitting his mark. He understands camera angles, how to use the lighting to his advantage, how to give the director something a little different with each and every take.

Jensen moves into the guest house. He keeps forgetting to tell Chad to buy that mattress, and Jared keeps forgetting to remind him. The move happens so gradually that Jared doesn't much notice it at first, and when he does, he doesn't say anything. Jensen's clothes are left bit by bit in the room across the hall. An extra toothbrush appears in the bathroom. Jensen's laptop, a blanket he's had since he was a kid, various other flotsam of everyday life starts to show up. The kitchen gets stocked with food one afternoon while they're at the set. After a while, Jared realizes that Jensen hasn't set foot inside the big house in days, walks the stone pathway around the perimeter of it every time they come home.

It turns into a routine. A ritual. Jared spends his days watching Jensen put fiction on film, his evenings kicked back on Jensen's patio with his laptop tottering on a knee and Jensen's feet tucked cold under his legs. He falls asleep to Jensen's slurred mumbles. Bits of script he's memorized. Snatches of conversations they've had. Stuff that doesn't make sense and stuff that does.


The night is cooler than it has been recently, and Jensen's wearing one of Jared's long-sleeve t-shirts, Joy Division and the late great Ian Curtis stamped across it. He'd spent the day getting slammed into walls and over tables in a barfight scene, had jacked up the landing and earned himself a set of scraped knuckles and a jammed first finger for the effort. An hour had been wasted while medics clucked over him, threatening x-rays as Jensen insisted he was fine, that he wasn't made of bone china.

He keeps trying to pick at the gashes and Jared keeps trying to slap his hand away and make him stop.

"Family meeting." Sandy climbs onto one of the chairs at the table, snaps Jared's laptop closed and stacks everyone's phones face down on top of it.

"Huh. Okay," Jensen says.

"I take it you didn't talk to Mike. I swear, I'm the only one who ever picks up her phone around here." She ties her long hair into a knot on top of her head, steals Jared's pen and jabs it through her hair to keep it in place. Jared's taken a shine to her over the last week. She's kind, smart and fiercely loyal, and is one of the few people who isn't carrying around at least a baseline crush on Jensen, something that Jared can't say for himself.

"Uh, Houston," Mike says, striding into the patio. Missing is his constant, shark-like smile. He's got a few magazines in his hand, real gossip rags, and he throws them down on the table, flips through them. "You're a centerfold, babe," he says to Jared.

There are a couple of spreads with photos of Jared and Jensen. At the premiere, coming out of the breakfast joint, waiting in line together to pay for Jared's shorts from that boho thrift shop. The headlines are in big exaggerated font, proclaiming that Hollywood's leading man might have a new leading man of his own.

Jared's stomach jumps when he sees the photos of them from the red carpet. The way he's looking at Jensen like the rest of the world could burn and he wouldn't notice. Or if he noticed, then he wouldn't care. His eyes tipped down toward Jensen's mouth, the hand he has over his heart and the arm he has around his neck. The grin on Jensen's face is brighter than sunshine and so very real. It splinters Jared's heart to think that anyone in line at any grocery store anywhere could open up a magazine and see it.

As Jensen skims the articles, his expression darkens, lips pressed down into a thin line. He's edging his way into righteously pissed off. "The notoriously private star," he reads. "Just because I don't show up at every opening…" Under the table, Jared squeezes Jensen's knee, feels his leg jump.

Jensen picks up the next in the stack, and this one has a photo of Jared hugging him the day they'd had breakfast, his face planted in Jensen's neck. Jensen has his hand on Jared's hip, t-shirt tangled in his grasp, and although the photograph is grainy as hell and blown up past what its resolution can handle, Jensen's eyes are clearly closed.

The worst part about this, the most damning thing, is that Jared can sorta see where they're coming from.

"Are you okay?" Jared asks, can't help feeling like all of this is his fault.

Jensen ignores him, keeps on reading. "Is Jen into men?" he quotes, and his laughter has a cruel, sharp edge to it. "My name is two fucking syllables long. Surely whoever wrote this could have struggled to the end of it."

"Do I need to start running damage control?" All of Mike's typical Hollywood schmooze has disappeared. He's dead serious.

"It'll only get us more of the wrong kind of attention," Jensen says, shaking his head. He shoves the magazines away. "Sources say." Another rough bark of laughter. "Who the fuck are these sources?"

"I can find out," Sandy offers. "It's been too long since I've had to shove my Louis Vuittons up someone's ass. And not in a sexy way."

"Don't bother," Jensen says. He suddenly sounds tired.

Reaching across the table, Sandy takes Jensen's hand in both of hers. "What can we do for you? Name it."

"You can leave me alone for a while."

"Done," Mike says, and snags the magazines from the table. He rolls them up tightly, like he's trying to make them disappear.

Jared starts to slide off of his stool, but Jensen grabs his wrist. "I didn't mean you. I never mean you."


Two hours later, they're most of the way through a bottle of scotch that's older than the both of them put together, and Jared's given up on trying to get Jensen to quit picking at the scrapes on his knuckles.

The sun has set and taken the last traces of warmth with it. A couple of week-old, half-burned logs are still in the firepit on the lower terrace, and trying to get them lit is another thing that Jared's given up on, after Jensen suggested wasting some of the booze as accelerant. They're sitting on the ground, legs flung out in front of them like little kids. Jensen's heavy against Jared's side, head on Jared's shoulder, notched right in like it belongs there. He's toying with a thread at the bottom of Jared's thrift-store shorts. Casual affection that could easily be taken for granted, but Jared's never taken any of it for granted.

Jensen keeps opening his mouth like he's about to say something, then closing it again. What he says when he finally spits it out comes as a surprise.

"I almost came home once. That first fall. Y'know, when everyone was back for Thanksgiving? I almost stayed."

Jared doesn't remember a lot from that trip, outside of being exhausted after his first foray into college midterms. He remembers the two of them holing up in his room for two days straight, living off of junk food and watching Bruce Willis alternately blow shit up or save the world, or save the world by blowing shit up.

"Why?" Jared asks, then shifts some to sit across from Jensen, get a better look at him.

Jensen shrugs, chews on his bottom lip and cracks his knuckles, avoids answering the question. "I was living in that crap apartment in Studio City."

"The one you shared with Chris," Jared says, dragging up the memory. He'd visited Jensen there once, at the beginning of his first summer break. Everything has changed so much since then. "What happened to him?"

"Booked it to Oklahoma," Jensen tells him. "Said something about having to find his roots after no one out here wanted to listen to his demo. Last I heard, he was working as a personal chef or something." He makes a breathy sound, half-laugh and half-sigh. "So many parties back then. Like, if we were loud enough and never slowed down, we could convince ourselves that we were really having a good time."

"I think that's what you do when you're eighteen. It's hardwired into us. The only actual way to deal with turning legal."

"Maybe," Jensen says. "We used to come up here, Chris and I. Turn the headlights off and see how fast we could take the switchbacks down into the canyon. Chris never hit the brakes. Reckless motherfucker."

Jared laughs, buys himself some time to try and figure out what Jensen's really saying, all the stuff that's tucked between the lines. "You still didn't answer my question," he reminds Jensen. "Why did you almost move back? Were you homesick?"

"Ever think that homesickness isn't necessarily tied to a place?"

"I've missed you too, if that's what you're saying," Jared whispers. His tongue feels loose, his basic motor functions slippery, but it's still the truth. "And even if that's not what you're saying, I've still missed you." He watches Jensen's throat work as he swallows, studies the slight uptilt of his mouth, his small nod. With two fingers to Jensen's temple, he goes on, "Whatever's going on in there, you can tell me. You know that, right?"

Jensen places the bottle down, and the gritty clink of glass against tile sounds very loud. "I wanted it to count. That first day you came to set with me. It was in the script, but I didn't do it."

Jared's hands are palm up on his knees like some sorta inebriated yoga instructor. Jensen covers them with his own. The touch feels sweaty regardless of the cold. Shaky as hell.

"You're not making much sense," Jared says. "Try again."

Jensen wraps his fingers around Jared's wrists, so Jared does the same. They're knee-to-knee, both leaning in. Mirror images. "I didn't want it to be scripted. Not the first time."

It's dark. It doesn't matter. Jared can still imprint on the details. The freckles scattered on Jensen's cheekbones that makeup artists criminally try to cover up. The quirk in his nose. The sweet indent in his upper lip. The bright, glazed look in those impossibly green eyes as he inches closer. The smell of his skin everywhere, as warm as the breath that falls on Jared's skin. The way Jensen holds onto his wrists so tightly, pulls on them until Jared's hands find his hips. How neither of them closes their eyes when Jensen presses his lips to the corner of Jared's mouth. Jensen's soft sigh that comes after.

Jared freezes. Doesn't breathe. His heart feels like a landmine and Jensen's still kissing him, dry and featherlight and centering in on his mouth better than before, and the only thing he wants to do more than kiss Jensen back is to keep him safe and protected. From the outside world of paparazzi and an overbearing public, from reporters and critics and anonymous sources who somehow stumbled into the truth. He wants to protect Jensen from himself, from that bottle of scotch that they nearly cashed and the self-destructive inclination that has come along with it.

So he kisses Jensen, only once. He allows himself that. Close-mouthed and sincere, and for only a fraction of as long as he wants to. Then he backs away, smiles as big as he knows how.

"It's okay," Jared says when Jensen's expression shapes into a question. "You're drunk, and I'm not all that sober, and it's totally okay." It's hard to tell if Jensen leans forward on purpose or if it's a sway, but Jared catches him, palm flat on Jensen's chest. "I want it to count, too," he whispers, "I need it to, and right now it can't."

Hauling Jensen to his feet is a bit of a production, with their centers of gravity skewed in different directions. Their feet tangle, Jared's head is floating about ten feet above his body and one of Jensen's knuckles has mysteriously opened up again, leaving three bloody dots on the inside of Jared's forearm. He gets Jensen poured into bed, decides not to help as Jensen tugs his sweatshirt off after a few abortive attempts.

"The room's spinnin'," Jensen says, kicking at the blankets. He tries to pat Jared on the cheek. It's poorly aimed and lands somewhere in the vicinity of his ear instead.

"I know it is," Jared agrees.

"Are we good?" Jensen slurs. He sounds very young, suddenly. In over his head and unsure.

"Of course." Jared runs his hand through Jensen's hair, scratches at his scalp while Jensen burrows down into the pillow. He can't help it, doesn't like the idea of not touching him. "What are we doing?" he asks quietly. Jensen's already asleep.

He keeps the door open and the light on, goes into the hallway and leans against the wall. It's unmoving and cool at his back, two things he needs badly right now. He slides down it until he thumps to the floor, still able to see into the bedroom, the softly snoring lump of Jensen. The walls in the room are seafoam green, and a few minutes ago Jensen kissed him. It's not a color Jensen would have ever picked out for himself and a few minutes ago Jared backed away. Real seafoam isn't that color anyway, and none of Jared's fantasies ever ended like this, with him slumped on the floor and spun out on doubt with a hollow, scooped feeling in his chest. In a few hours, the sun is going to rise on the day after the night that Jensen kissed him, and he's probably going to be awake to see it happen.

Jared scrubs a tired hand over his eyes pulls out his phone.

"Time zones, Jared." Sophia's voice is muffled, cut through with the distinct sound of her creaky bedsprings.

"I know," Jared says. "I'm sorry. It's late here too." He licks his lips, wonders if the scotch he tastes is from him or someone else.

"What's wrong?" she asks, coming awake in increments. "Is everything alright?"

"Yeah," he answers quickly. Maybe too quickly. "I mean. I dunno. Just. Tell me something good that happened to you today."

Her chuckle is low and familiar. "No. You tell me."

Jared stretches his arm out, looks at the three dots of blood on his skin from Jensen's busted up knuckle. An ellipsis. To be continued. "Hey, I asked you first."


"Not yet. Not here." Jensen's jittery, squinting into the brutal, late summer sunlight. Behind him, his truck is idling, packed with all of the stuff from home that he can't stand to leave behind, a bright blue tarp strapped down on top of it. By the time he gets to Los Angeles, the thing will probably be shredded.

Jared keeps spinning the ring on his thumb. Jensen's not the only one whose nerves are close to the surface. He's got his own car packed. A bunch of stuff scratched off of a checklist carefully drawn up by his mother to distract herself from the fact that another kid is leaving home for school.

"Remember that one spot?" Jensen says, talking fast. "Outside of San Marcos?"

"The night of the four moron award? I'll never forget." Jared rubs at his mouth, swears he can taste the ghost of sour apple martinis and smell a hint of cheap cologne.

"Follow me there."

"But it's at least an hour in the wrong direction for you," Jared points out, and Jensen grins, big and beautiful, the smile that's gonna put him on movie billboards one day soon. And goddamnit, Jared misses him already, so much that it's hard to suck in air and Jensen's still right here.

Jensen shrugs, smirks slow and lazy as a Sunday afternoon. "I've got time, unless you don't."

"I'll see you there," Jared says, and turns to his folks to tell them there's gonna be a detour, give him an hour head start before following.

Late August and central Texas has taken on a strange lunar quality. Brown, dusty earth and sanded down hills dotted with scrub brush stretch out on either side of the highway after they drive past the city limits. Twenty minutes into the ride something breaks loose from the jigsaw puzzle of stuff crammed in Jared's car and begins clanking around in the back seat.

He sticks close to Jensen's bumper, turns the music up loud to cover the rattling behind him, tries to not count the minutes and miles until he continues north and Jensen points his headlights toward the west. For the first time in their lives they're going in different directions in a way that isn't temporary.

Jensen pulls off the interstate and onto a rarely-used two-lane highway, pavement crumbling away to a soft shoulder. A cloud of dust kicks up under his tires when he eases off of the road beside a stretch of split rail fencing. In the distance, a windmill is silhouetted against the bleached blue sky, the vague suggestion of a grain silo a good way past that. Unlikely red flowers are growing along the fenceline, bright splashes of color against the sun-browned grass.

"So, October is only a couple of months away," Jensen's saying as he spills out of his truck. His voice sounds off, like he's trying to swallow it instead of project. "It'll be here before we know it. Try and find some decent stuff for us to do by the time I get there."

The smile Jared offers him feels watery, not entirely real. "Don't work too hard."

"I never do," Jensen says, and they both know it's a lie. He takes whatever part anyone will give him, and studies constantly. Picks apart the great and not-so-great performances of every single movie or television show he watches, dissects camera angles, frames and scripts. Don't get him started on special effects.

Reaching out to scuff his palm against the back of Jared's head, Jensen says, "I should have shaved it again. It's getting long. I meant to, before..."

"Eh, I've been thinking about growing it out anyhow."

The both become quiet for a few moments as they stare at each other, Jared with his heart on his sleeve and Jensen with that cheshire smirk of his. A heavy pressure builds in Jared's throat and behind his eyes and he fights against both of those things, doesn't want to let them win, doesn't want the snotty, pathetic version of himself to be the last thing Jensen sees outta him for the next couple of months.

Finally Jensen clears his throat. "I knew we said we weren't gonna, but here. Chad said I should get you condoms and lube, but he's an asshole, so." He produces a couple of gift cards from his back pocket, hands them over. "Caffeine and food. Don't need you getting any skinnier."

Jared laughs. "He said I should get you the same thing. It's good neither of us listened to him. Thank you." He loops a bead chain necklace from around his neck, pulls the pendant from under his shirt where it has been resting against his skin. "It's not as practical as what you gave me…" he says as he hands it over.

Jensen holds the pendant in his hand. A piece of silver that's been hammered out into a thin medallion, Player One ready etched into one side, with Jensen's initials on the other. "Fuck, Jared. I love it. Thank you." He puts it on, looks at it once more before slipping it under his t-shirt, then slams into Jared. Arms wrapped tight around his waist and his face buried in his neck. He's breathing fast, ribs expanding and contracting against Jared's chest and Jared's not gonna cry. He's not.

"Do good." There isn't a soul around them for miles, and Jared whispers it anyway, directly into Jensen's ear, feels him shiver all over.

"You too." Jensen's mouth moves along Jared's skin as he says it, nose smashed into Jared's neck.

Pushing back from him is one of the hardest things Jared's ever done. "Nineteen hours. You better get going."

"Whole lotta flat nothing between here and there," Jensen says. "Betcha I make it in seventeen." He starts to turn away, spins back one last time and places his hand on Jared's cheek, fingers curled around his ear. "Goddamn. I'm gonna miss you."

Jared's tongue feels paralyzed. He barely croaks, "October."

"Yeah." Jensen manages a smile for Jared's benefit. "October."


Jared wakes up on the couch with no idea how he got there. The sunlight hurts and so does the phone in his pocket that's jabbing into his hip. He flips over, pulls it out and finds a message from Jensen.

You smelled like you needed to sleep for a few more hours. See you tonight.

One cup of coffee is missing from the pot and the rest has gone cold. A clean mug sits in front of it along with a bottle painkillers. Jared pours himself a cup and downs four aspirin with a big sip of black, room temperature coffee.

His body feels abused, the t-shirt he's wearing stinks like flop sweat and he's pretty sure not even pasta mama is gonna be able to fix this one. The bedroom is as empty as he expected it to be. Jensen's jeans from last night are on the floor and the bed is unmade, a Jensen-shaped nest of blankets in the middle of it. He had taken the time to neatly fold Jared's sweatshirt and leave it at the foot of the bed.

Jared collapses onto the mattress, buries his face into a pillow that smells like Jensen, and wakes up again three hours later when he gets another message. This time from Chad.

Fucking reporters everywhere. Two of them snuck onto set. Jensen is pissed.

Jensen picks up his phone on the second ring. That's a miracle in and of itself.

"Heya," Jared says. "Do you need me out there?"

Jensen's breathless and his voice sounds jostled, like he's walking very fast. "Naw, man. You stay put. Tom's here, and so is Mike. Sandy's about to eat someone alive. I'll be home soon." With that, he hangs up.

Jared swings his legs to the ground and takes inventory. His headache has dissolved into a vague ping in the back of his skull and his stomach has stabilized. The mid-afternoon sunlight isn't as much of an enemy. His mouth tastes like he's been chewing on tires and he's thirsty as hell.

He gets himself cleaned up, drinks water straight from the spray in the shower, finds a clean pair of shorts and his t-shirt from Depeche Mode's Violator tour. The one with the red flower on it that always makes him think of a particular late-August afternoon.

Too much pent up nervous energy and Jared doesn't know what to do with any of it. The kitchen has been stocked up and he spends some time opening and closing cabinets, finds some muffin tins and one of those boxes of cornbread mix, a can of jalapenos in a cupboard that'll have to do. Jack cheese is better, but cheddar is a decent substitute. The first batch is terrible. Jared has to scrape the muffins out with a spoon. He gets it right on the second try, and because there's one more box of mix, he goes for a third.

Elbows on the counter, he's watching the timer in a dazed sorta way, oven mitts on his hands. The thing dings as Jensen busts through the door. He looks exhausted, blue-black smudges under his eyes, spine curved in a worn-out slump. He still takes the time to hip-check Jared on the way to the sink to throw water on his face.

"Goddamn circus," Jensen starts. "I had to fucking lay down in the backseat of the car, couldn't even leave work in peace. Took us an hour and a half to get here, because Chad was sure four cars were following us. He got us all turned around in Brentwood somehow. Brentwood. And the worst part is that it all started to go down during the best take of the day. I mean, who do they think they are? And the shot. Boom. Wasted. Now we're gonna have to start from the top when we've already done it more times than I care to count."

Jared listens to the tirade, tries to make sense of it all while he stands perfectly still, a hot pan of corn muffins balanced on his oven mitts.

Jensen stops. Blinks. "Wait a minute. Did you make cornbread?" He picks one up and takes a huge bite of it, groans better than a pornstar.

"Um. Yeah?" It comes out as a question. "I didn't know what else to do."

"You did the right thing." Jensen finishes one off, grabs two more and heads for the couch, kicking his shoes off as he walks.

"What's happening?" Jared asks.

Jensen's wiping crumbs off his mouth. Those same lips that kissed Jared so sweet and chaste last night. "Someone in security is about to get their ass handed to them, that's what, and it's probably not even their fault. Fucking hate it. And you know what else? Those reporters, they were asking about you. Where my friend was, your name, and I fucking hate that even more."

"Try not to worry about that. It doesn't matter what they say about me. They don't scare me, and anyway, people have the attention span of fruit flies." Jared tucks himself into a corner of the sofa, knees drawn up under his chin. "I'll go back to school, sink into the weeds and no one will care about any of it in a couple of months."

"It's not only that. It's," Jensen sucks in a deep breath and lets it out slow. "You're the one safe thing I have. The one person who hasn't been touched by any of this. I'm a product, have been all my life, and that's okay. I can watch what I say, the places I go. It's no big deal if the press thinks I look too skinny or not skinny enough, if I get a shit haircut, if I show up at a movie premiere, or conspicuously don't show up." He makes an all-encompassing gesture. "I belong to everybody, and I don't want that for you. I want you to--" Jensen cuts off abruptly.

"You want me to belong to you," Jared finishes for him.

"Well, it sounds godawful when you say it out loud like that."

"Trust me, it really, really doesn't. I get it." It's the heart of the matter. The reason Chad brought him here in the first place, and why Jensen had to be the one to actually tell him. It's so simple, had been tapping on Jared's shoulder all along.

"Then last night," Jensen continues, as if he's got his teeth set into it and isn't gonna give up now. "I know I screwed up, and I'm sorry. It was a mistake. Another in a long list of fuck-ups."

Anger flares up in Jared. A searing flash of it. "Look at you. Look at what you've accomplished. All of it, and if you think all of this was because of a long series of fuck-ups, and I'm your most recent, well…" Jared pauses, knows he's being meaner than perhaps he should be and still can't stop himself. "I'm not gonna feed your ego."

"Come with me."

Jensen doesn't wait for an answer, simply gets up and crosses the room, leaves the door open behind him. Jared follows. Because it's Jensen. Because he has to, and because the anger has disappated as fast as it showed up. Jensen leads him into the big house, past Sandy and Mike, Tom and Chad clustered around the center island in the kitchen. Sandy's on the phone and Chad's wearing an expression that could level cities.

An office is up the stairs and at the end of a hallway Jared's never been before. It's all sleek, modern furniture and warm colors like the rest of the house, and it's obvious that Jensen spends very little time in here.

When Jensen opens the closet door, Jared's heart drops. Stacks and stacks of scripts line the wall, some old enough that they're starting to go yellow, curl at the edges. Before Jensen opens his mouth, Jared knows what they mean.

"These are the parts I didn't get," Jensen tells him. "My failures."

He maintains his distance from the door, as if he thinks going in there could cause some sorta hoodoo. Jared has never bought into that brand of superstition, and he picks one up from the stack, a pilot for a show he's never even heard about. Flipping through it, he finds Jensen's notes on nearly every page. Underlines and arrows, his choppy handwriting with those funky shaped r's and capital e's at the ends of words.

"Where do you keep your successes?" Jared asks.

Jensen's laugh is bitter, self deprecating. "You can buy those for five bucks a piece out of a bin in any box store."

"Why do you hold onto them?" Jared gives in to the impulse to wrap an arm around Jensen's shoulders, keep a hand on him.

"Don't know. Not at this point. It was for reference at first, and now it's just this thing I do." He fits himself to Jared's side, hooks his thumb into Jared's waistband at his hip. It's the tiniest fucking thing, something he's done dozens of times before and it still makes Jared's stomach swoop.

"Step one, Chad and I are gonna go out and buy some lighter fluid. Step two, you're gonna drag all of these out to the patio. Step three, we're gonna burn them."

"Burn them?" Jensen asks. His smile is coming back. Thank god his smile is coming back.

"It's not like we can just throw them away."


"Best idea I ever had, bringing you out here." Chad tosses a few bottles of lighter fluid into the cart, grabs two small bundles of firewood and tops it off with a box of those chemical packets that turn fire weird colors. "If all of this had gone down two weeks ago, Jensen woulda disappeared into his room and not come out for days."

"If it had been two weeks ago, I wouldn't have been here. None of this would have happened," Jared points out, and steers the cart toward the front of the store.

Chad tips his sunglasses onto the top of his head and squints up at Jared. "That's where you're wrong, brother. It was always gonna be something, and he's always gonna need you, even if he's too chickenshit to say it." He slows down to inspect a table full of small cactus gardens. "See, most of us are too scared to call him on his bullshit. But not you, and you do it in a way that makes him smile. He gives us jobs and a place to live. I can't tell you how many times he's vouched for me, landed me auditions that I probably didn't deserve. He holds us all up, and you hold him up."

"I dunno," Jared says, "it's not like I do any of it on purpose. Not like I think about it."

"I'm just glad you're finally getting your head out of your ass. And putting it up Jensen's."

"Jerk-off." Jared elbows Chad in the side.



It's starting to get dark by the time Jared gets back, and Jensen's managed to drag all of the paper down to the lower patio. He doesn't tell Jensen about Chad's plans to trade the car in for something else, a new make and model and license plate number because yeah, it might be base-level paranoia, but they're both convinced they were followed for a while on the way home.

"Why am I so nervous? It makes no sense." Jensen hesitates, one of the scripts clutched tightly in his hand.

Jared thinks about what Chad said to him, about holding Jensen up and moves to stand behind him, his chest to Jensen's back. "It makes perfect sense." He takes a pack of matches from his pocket and says, "Now fire it up."

It starts out page-by-page, the scripts acting as kindling to set the logs on fire until the accelerant becomes unnecessary. Jensen's quiet the entire time, face all lit up and ruddy. Eventually he gets his land legs, loses his hesitation, and then he's tossing whole stacks on the fire, stepping back as sparks swirl upward. Small tendrils of wispy ash get caught in the warm updraft, flutter like moth wings.

The process doesn't take long. A half a decade to build the collection and less than an hour to burn it down. The logs are reduced to embers, and Jared and Jensen settle down close to the fire, watch the embers pulse. Dozens of syncopated heartbeats.

Jensen slides his hand across the tile floor, touches their fingertips together. Stays that way.

"Try again. It'll count this time," Jared says.

The kiss is light. Gentle. Years in the making. Jensen tips Jared's chin up with two fingers warmed from the fire, covers Jared's mouth with his own, lingers there while his touch wanders along the upswing of Jared's jaw, down his throat, back up to trace the shape of his cheekbone. The kiss breaks, but Jensen doesn't go far, keeps his nose alongside Jared's, their mouths a fraction of an inch apart.

"I never kissed a guy before," Jensen murmurs.

"You're not doing too shabby." Now it's Jared's turn to touch, outline Jensen's lower lip, learn the way his stubble catches against his palm, guide him in so he can kiss him again. He sighs at the first tentative slip of Jensen's tongue against his mouth, opens up, gives back.

A scrape of teeth on Jensen's lip will make him groan, suck on his tongue and he'll do the same. A kiss to the soft skin below his ear and he'll shiver, hold on even tighter. All of this new information to slot in next to the old, and Jared wants to learn every bit of it, figure Jensen out with his lips and tongue, his slow roving hands.

Jared takes Jensen's hand and kisses his palm, thrilled at how Jensen's fingers curl against his cheek, moves on to press his tongue to the thin skin at his wrist, continues down to kiss the bend at his elbow and Jensen chuckles, pulls back reflexively.

"Ticklish?" Jared asks, eyebrows raised.

"Apparently," Jensen says, and his voice is light, sounds happier than he's been in a while. "This is news to me. C'mon, let's go inside, okay?"

"Yeah," Jared says, with one more kiss for punctuation. Now that he's started, he doesn't want to stop.

They get to their feet and Jensen looks up at him, little kid grin on his face and it's like catching a glimpse of the old paint under the new. They're ten years old again, sneaking cookies before supper. They're fifteen, hiding behind the shed with a stolen bottle of hooch, trying—and failing—to learn how to smoke, and they're twenty-two, with their pinky fingers hooked together and the taste of each other on their lips.

Jensen turns on Jared the instant they get into the house, kissing him again as he walks backward, pulling him along toward the bedroom. It's hotter than before, wetter, desperation in the arms he slings around Jared and the slick push of his tongue, how he sucks and nibbles at Jared's mouth, the insistant press of their hips together. His breath is going rough, loud in Jared's ears, drowns out the thrum of Jared's pulse.

The bed is unmade. Jared had meant to do something about it before he'd gotten distracted over the short-lived cornbread incident. He offers an apologetic shrug and sinks down onto it, gazing up at Jensen. A flush stains Jensen's cheeks, extends down past the colllar of his shirt and up to the tips of his ears. His mouth is swollen from kissing and Jared thinks over and over on a continual loop that it's his fault it looks that way. Jensen's hair is corkscrewed from his restless fingers. Jensen's eyes are dark and heavy lidded, his cock an obvious line pressing against his pants, and it's all beause Jensen actually wants him.

"For years I've been playing this through in my head," Jensen says, solemn as a confession. "Years, Jared, and now I don't know where to start."

"You could try kissing me again." Jared reaches out for him with both arms as Jensen crawls into his lap and does what he's been told, using his momentum to ease Jared back onto the bed. He's being so careful. Not hesitant, just careful, avoids giving Jared the full measure of his weight, keeping himself propped up on one arm, his thighs strong on either side of Jared's hips. Jared proves a point, hugs Jensen close to him, forces Jensen to collapse against his chest, bucks his hips up and makes them both groan and shiver. "You're not gonna fuck me up. I can take it. I can take all of you, okay?"

"What if I wanna fuck you up?" Jensen rasps. He rips his shirt over his head and grapples with Jared's. Jared was holding it together before but now he's in real trouble, the good kinda trouble, what with the way Jensen winds up shifting in his lap, squirming against his cock.

"What if?" Jared asks, faint and breathless. He tips Jensen sideways, spreads out on top of him and takes control of their kisses. Sucks on Jensen's tongue and bites at his lips, gets off on the wide sprawl of Jensen's legs, the heat of his skin, how readily he opens himself up to Jared's curious hands and curious mouth.

Nothing in Jared's experience has prepared him for this. Nothing measures up to Jensen's cold feet digging into his thighs, the sudden arch and twist of his spine as Jared teases one of his nipples between his teeth, the taste of Jensen's sweat and the flutter of his stomach when Jared kisses a path down the center of it. He dips his tongue into Jensen's navel and finds another ticklish spot, slides lower and nuzzles against the fine hair leading into Jensen's waistband, snaps open the top button, then ticks his eyes up to get a read on Jensen.

Leaned up on an elbow, Jensen's staring down at Jared, eyes incredibly warm and shining, his lips slightly parted like he's surprised, like Jared is some impossible thing, a rare miracle or a last-minute save. No one's ever looked at him like this before, with this particular blend of familiarity and devotion, so much love floating to the top of it all. No one else ever could.

"C'mere." Jensen says it so low that it's more like a shared thought.

It slows Jared down, all the urgency from earlier bleeding out as he slides up to rest beside Jensen, both on their sides, facing each other. He presses his lips to Jensen's forehead, the corners of his mouth. There's no rush while they undo belts and buttons, slip shorts and boxers down and smile at each other over the awkward shimmies it takes to get it done.

Jensen hooks his leg around Jared's hip, his cock slotting alongside Jared's and trapped between their stomaches. They start in on a gradual rhythm, stilted at first, then smooth as they figure each other out in this brand new way. It's languid, lazy, Jared's orgasm building by degrees until it washes over him. Jensen's breath catches and he lets out a stuttery groan as he comes, his leg tightening around Jared to hold them both still, a small bite of pain when he digs his nails into the back of Jared's neck.

"Years, huh?" Jared says eventually. He allows Jensen to shove him onto his back and use his upper arm as a pillow.

"Yeah. Same goes for you, though."


False dawn is starting to break when Jared wakes up to Jensen pressed all along his back, his hair tickling between Jared's shoulder blades. It's no where near the first time they've shared a bed, just the first time they've both been naked for it. Jensen's come has dried on Jared's skin, and it pulls at his flesh all crusty and uncomfortable.

Jensen's arm is slung around Jared's middle, tucked into the dip of his waist, the skinny space between where his hipbone juts out and his ribs start. His hand is splayed wide and warm on Jared's stomach and Jared lines their fingers up, traces the network of delicate bones in Jensen's hand, careful to steer clear of the gashes in his knuckles.

While Jared waits for Jensen to wake up, he builds scenarios for Jensen's potential freak outs. There's the best friend possibility. The gay crisis. The fact that Jared had been a safe harbor in the middle of a couple of very shitty days.

None of these happen. Jensen comes to, mutters, "Fuck," to greet the day, stretches and cracks his knuckles like he does every morning. Then he plants his nose into Jared's neck, drags his lips along Jared's jaw until he reaches his mouth. The kiss is bitter from morning breath, sloppy from the weird angle and Jared's never known better.

"We gotta beat Chad's wake up call," Jared points out.

Jensen picks at the dried spunk on his lower stomach. "We gotta take a shower, because gross."

The shower turns into Jensen sticking his toothpaste-flavored tongue down Jared's throat and a soapy handjob so good that Jared almost blacks out for a second, gets shampoo in his eye and also his mouth, somehow.

When they're drying off, Jared smacks Jensen's ass and Jensen proceeds to show him exactly why he should do that more often, rubbing off against him while Jared manages to stay balanced on the edge of the sink.

Swirling his finger through the new mess of come and sweat on his stomach, Jared says, "I keep waiting for it to get weird, but it doesn't."

Jensen's testing the water temperature for their second shower. "You and me, we shot past weird in the fourth grade, circled around it twice and kept on going."


Chad looks at each of them in turn, then does it again. "Oh god."

"What?" Jensen spits out.

Chad repeats the move, pulls a baseball cap from his back pocket and pulls it down so far over his eyes that Jared doesn't know how he's gonna be able to see to drive.

"You'd think he was watching Wimbeldon or something," Jared says to Jensen.

"Get in the car. Both of you in the back seat. Evasive manuvers this early in the morning aren't my thing."

Jensen's mood turns on a dime. "Is it bad out there?"

"There were a few of 'em hanging around the gate last night while you two were doing…whatever it was that you were doing," Chad informs them. "I told them to beat feet, but y'know, public street and all that."

A single car is parked on the otherwise empty road, and the sun flashes off of a camera lens as they drive past it.

"Straggler," Chad says.

"That's not skeevy at all." Jared doesn't understand the point of it. Not in the least. They're only trying to give Jensen a ride to work.

"Now you know why I don't go to certain restaurants, wouldn't be caught dead in a bar downtown." Jensen has his head down, not bothering to even look at the car. Jared's caught off guard by the graceful slope of his neck, the little quirk in the bridge of his nose, wants to kiss both of those things, and settles for covering Jensen's hand with his own instead.

More reporters are swarming near the studio entrance, a battalion of security holding them back from the gates.

Chad has his window cracked, doesn't get it up in time before Jared hears someone holler, "There's two of them back there."

"Jesus jumped-up Christ," Chad mutters, then stands on the brakes and makes a sharp left turn. "Hunker down for a minute. We'll circle around and I'll take you in through the south gate."

"I don't think that's really necessary," Jensen says, leaning into the space between the front seats.

"And what was that thing you were saying earlier about evasive maneuvers?" Jared pipes up.

"Whatever," Chad says, elbowing Jensen back. "I'm basically a well-paid errand boy. I should be allowed to act a little Marine recon if I want to."

"Betcha he's been mainlining Generation Kill again," Jensen says to Jared, loud enough for Chad to hear.

Chad glares at him in the rearview, makes a right and then another left. "Shut up."

"Sure thing, Iceman," Jensen says, and flattens himself on the seat, taking Jared down with him. Jensen's trying to hold his laughter in check, Jared feels it vibrating against his chest, in all the places they're touching.

Jared kisses Jensen, mostly because he can't come up with a decent enough reason not to. Jensen hums into it, crooks his arm around Jared's neck as Chad takes another stomach-churning turn.

"Holy shit, guys. I'm right here," Chad says.

"You don't have to look," Jensen counters.

"I can still hear you."

Jared toys with the silver ring on Jensen's finger, spins it around three times for luck. "I'm almost positive the radio still works."

Chad sighs, long and theatrical. "I'm surrounded by idiots."


Nothing really changes, and that's the part that Jared has trouble wrapping his head around. They're best friends, same as always. Jared still gives Jensen crap about everything. His questionable taste in music, because there are only so many times Jared can listen to Jensen wailing about how he saw the light. The weird wheatgrass diet Jensen's doing that makes him smell like somebody's front yard, because red-blooded American men are supposed to eat cows, not eat like cows. The fact that he always wears his socks inside out because he says the seams feel funny on his toes.

Jensen slings it back at him in equal doses, only now he does it while he's straddling Jared's hips, grinding down dirty and hot as he gives Jared shit about the fact that he's not once made it through a Kubrick film. Jensen pins Jared's hands over his head and won't even so much as look at his cock until Jared confesses he has no idea how to play poker, wouldn't know what five-card stud was even if it came up to him and introduced itself. He's strangely preoccupied with the hair on Jared's chest, although there isn't much of it, likes the way it catches in his stubble at the end of the day, but swears the only reason he has any is because of that five-alarm chili they used to eat at one of the all-night diners back home.

Jensen's cold feet are the same, tucked underneath Jared's thigh. So are the familiar touches to his shoulder and the shape of his smile. It's just that Jared knows how to read them better now.


"Couldn't you have hired someone to do this?" Jared nearly loses his footing as he climbs backward down the steps from the big house to the patio. The mattress he's holding begins to wobble like it's sentient, or at least in posession of some basic motor functions. Jensen tries to help and the thing overbalances in the other direction.

"I thought we should earn it," Jensen pants. "Besides, it's a good workout. Better than that tire-moving thing that everyone's doing nowadays. At least this has, like, measurable results."

"Measurable," Jared mutters. "I'll measure your ass." He gives a massive yank and the thing thumps down the last few stairs, Jensen rushing to keep up with it.

"Eh, it's already been measured. It has its own equation."

Jared stops dead. "No shit."

"Swear to god. You can look it up on the internet."

"I have wasted the last four years of my education."

Jensen pushes at the mattress to get Jared moving again. "Damn skippy."

By the time they get the mattress into the guesthouse and wrangle it onto the frame and box springs they'd already set up, the two of them are out of breath. Jared's hair hangs in sweaty strings and Jensen's face is flushed a deep pink. The bed takes up most of the smaller bedroom, leaves a fraction of space for them to walk around it, and now none of the dresser drawers can open all the way.

Jared flops down on it the second after they get the bottom sheet in place, then shuffles sideways and diagonal and discovers that he fits on it at every angle, head-to-toe. "Good ol' American overindulgence," he says.

"You're gonna thank me," Jensen tells him.


"Probably about now." Jensen ditches his shirt and leans over the bed. He brushes Jared's sweaty hair back from his face, kisses him sweet then kisses him dirty, pulls at the collar of Jared's shirt to nose at his neck.

"Okay, yeah, you're right," Jared says, sitting up and making a grab for Jensen, but Jensen holds steady.

"You should get rid of this." He plucks at Jared's shirt. "And these," he says, screwing around with Jared's belt and getting it loose before he takes care of his own. He kicks out of his shorts, lands them in the puddle of Jared's clothes and only then does he come close, step into the space between Jared's knees.

The sun is low on the horizon, angled through the blinds at the window, layers of sliced shadow and light on Jensen's skin and he's so beautiful Jared's heart threatens to stop. He's always been so beautiful, and everybody's always seen it, but Jared's the only one who's ever known it.

"The way your hair curls around your ears, and the way I have to tilt up to kiss you, and fuck, Jared, I—" His voice cracks some and he licks his lips. Tries again. "I've never."

Jared smiles, thinks about how so many of their most important conversations start half-way through the second paragraph and never actually reach the finish line. "I know. Me either." He buries his face in Jensen's stomach. "I want you so bad."

It's like something breaks loose. Jensen falls into him, uses his body to urge Jared's legs apart and lands heavily on top of him. He scrapes his teeth against Jared's throat, picks one particular spot where his neck meets his shoulder and worries the flesh there with strong sucks that make Jared so hard so fast he forgets to breathe for a while. Jared plants his heels into the backs of Jensen's thighs and bucks against him, makes them both hiss as their cocks line up and slide together. He spreads his fingers out on either side of Jensen's spine to feel the flex and give of his muscles, the softness of his skin, the slick sweat where it's gathered at the small of his back.

Jensen falls to his back just as it's getting good, jimmies the drawer open with one hand, something hollowly knocking around inside of it, finally gets his fingers around a slim bottle and presses it into Jared's chest.

"Are we gonna?" Jared asks, struck stupid. His face is too hot and his skin is too tight and suddenly it's as if he's fourteen years old again, confronted with his very first big boy crush, which he supposes is at least half true, in a way.

Without a word, Jensen arranges himself at the head of the bed, lays himself out with his knees bent and his feet spread far apart, his cock nestled in the cut of his thigh, as swollen and pink as his mouth. It's the prettiest and most irresistable invitation.

This is the first time anyone's ever touched Jensen this way. He's never felt a lube-slick finger circle his rim, stretch and pull and nudge inside. Jared feels as dismantled over the thought of it as he does over the heat inside of Jensen, the give of his body and all the work Jensen's putting into trying to relax into Jared's probing fingers. All the trust he sees in Jensen's eyes as they stare plainly at each other.

Gradually, the worried line between Jensen's brows smooths out, morphs into relief and then something hotter. Jensen begins to move, little experimental hitches of his hips punctuated by small groans when Jared drizzles more slick right onto his rim and sinks his fingers in deeper.

"C'mere," Jensen says, yanking Jared toward him, fumbling for the lube and using too much of it to slick up Jared's cock. He guides Jared on top of him. He's shaking some, or maybe they both are, Jared can't rightly tell, doesn't know if it matters because Jensen's fingers are notched alongside Jared's, lining his cock up, urging him to sink inside.

"Fuck, fuck, fuck," Jensen groans as Jared blankets him, pushes in just a little.

Everything in Jared's body freezes. His lungs, his heart, his mind.

"I didn't tell you to stop," Jensen says between gritted teeth.

"But you—" Jared cuts off on a groan as Jensen nudges his hips up, draws Jared further inside.

"I cuss all the time, and you goddamn well know that, now get in me. God, you feel fucking huge."

Jared knows from the jump that he's not gonna last long. Jensen's perfectly, incredibly tight, clenching so good around his cock, and the sounds he's making aren't doing a lot for Jared's stamina. Every single one of Jared's good or bad intentions dissolves into the warmth of Jensen's body as it opens up for him, the searing heat of his ass and the stretch of his rim, the splash of his spunk when Jensen comes from the skin-on-skin of friction of their stomachs.

"Don't pull out. Stay. Please." Jensen kisses him after he says it, clings to him, fingernails clawing into Jared's back and that's it. Jared's done, snaps his hips and fucks as deeply into Jensen as he can, balls drawing close to his body and flush against Jensen's ass when he comes, shoots over and over as he moans into Jensen's mouth.

They stay that way for a while, until their combined sweat and Jensen's come starts to grow cool and sticky between them. Jared pulls out, thinks about hauling Jensen into the shower to clean them up and decides that the energy expenditure isn't worth the reward. It's the most practicle application of physics he's used in a really long time.

"Thunderstorms in Texas," Jensen says, his voice a low rasp.

"Huh?" Jared says, brilliantly.

"The color of the sky. That strange gray-green. It's what your eyes look like right now."

They curl into each other, languid touches, loose tongues and Jensen takes the collar off of his southern accent the entire time, lets it wander.

They talk about Texas. Wide open spaces. Thunderstorms that you can see coming from miles away. All the times they rode out to meet those storms head on in that beat-up old truck Jensen used to drive. The way they ignored tornado warnings and tempted fate back then, sure of nothing except their own adolescent invincibility.

"I wanna go home," Jensen says after a while, when the edges of sleep begin creeping in on them.

"You are home." Jared takes one of Jensen's fingers into his mouth, sucks on it, rubs the ridges of Jensen's fingerprint against his teeth.

"This isn't home. It's more like some Hollywood subdivision of home."

"Then come home."

Jensen stretches out long beside him, drags out a sigh that sounds like it started somewhere deep inside of him. "It isn't easy."

"Sure it is," Jared says. "You just need to make it less hard."



The latch on the wooden gate has gone stubborn again, and Jared nearly spills the small stack of notebooks and textbooks he's carrying while he struggles to do the trick that gets the thing open. There's another trick to the lock on the front door, a certain jiggle Jared has to do with the key to get it to turn and he nails it on the first try, rushes to punch in the code on the security system before the thing starts to wail. A combination of his and Jensen's birthday. His month, Jensen's day.

The house is new to him, and after a month living here he still hasn't figured out the light switches, wonders what the neighbors think whenever he comes home at night and for a few minutes the place lights up like something outta Close Encounters.

Jensen's suitcase is sitting in the hallway where he dropped it, the tag that says LAX and AUS still attached to the handle, and Jared grins so wide it hurts.

Evidence of Jensen is all throughout the house. Family photos on endtables, his books on the shelves, a guitar signed by Hank Williams himself on prominent display in the living room. The warm, spicy smell of him is everywhere.

Jared can picture the path Jensen took on his way through the house. His shoes kicked to the side in the hallway, his jacket tossed over one of the stools in the kitchen. A half-full glass of water with a smudged chapstick print on the rim of it.

Jensen's in the back yard. There's potting soil all over their small porch and bright red flowers in pots scattered here and there and Jared's going to have to learn the names of them. Can't wait to learn the names of them.

"You're early," Jared says.

Jensen stands up to greet him, a grin on his face to match the one on Jared's. His hands are filthy, and rubbing them on his jeans doesn't help much. He still leaves muddy tracks on Jared's cheeks when he takes his face in his hands to kiss him. His chapstick tastes like cherries.

"I got four splinters in half an hour." Jensen tips his hand in Jared's direction, like a kid showing off his scars.

Jared takes him by the wrist and drags him inside. "C'mon. Lets get rid of 'em. There's a safety pin around here somewhere."

"Can you dig out the dirt while you're at it?"

"Maybe, but I kinda like you that way. A boy needs a little dirt under his fingernails."