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holding a gun aimed at nothing

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As sand whips up, Jensen blinks the sting out of his eyes. The March wind licks his face and sprinkles grains across the sketchpad on his lap. The charcoal has blackened his fingers and he knows he must have smoky smudges across his face from accidently rubbing it.

The brief gust of air passes, and the only real sound is the ocean, soft waves that shimmer in the cloud-speckled sun streaks.

To many this would be lonely, desolate, unwelcoming – but for Jensen the repetitive lapping sound settles in the space between his bones like a salve. It was always quiet in his mother’s home growing up. Loud voices were not acceptable. His mother didn’t say ‘inside voice’ to him, simply raised her eyebrow and settled her lips and Jensen knew he’d been too noisy.

Once when Donna was in an unusually quixotic mood, she’d told a very young Jensen that when it was silent you could hear the ocean no matter where you were. Jensen has never stopped listening for the waves since then.

Danni, she didn’t understand silence in the same way. She’d humor Jensen with it the way one might dangle catnip to a cat, leaving in a flurry to see friends, and sing-songing enjoy the peace with a smile. When they’d first started living together, Danni teased and challenged – sometimes still does – Your mom’s not here, Jense. You don’t have to follow her rules any longer. Make a little noise!

It’s frustrating to explain for the hundredth time that it is who Jensen is, it’s not about his mother.

Jared understood. Sure, he poked fun at Jensen for many things, but he respected Jensen’s need for space, for solitude, for the quiet that let Jensen breathe and just … be. Jared told Jensen that they were wired differently – Jensen introverted, Jared an extrovert – but that one wasn’t any better than the other. It merely meant they recharged differently.

Shutting his eyes, Jensen remembers the strength of the Southern California sun. How warm it felt caressing his skin, leaving specks of new freckles behind. They’ve long faded, those small marks from his day visiting Jared. Gold, like the color of Jared’s skin. Jensen reopens his eyes and studies the Atlantic. Even with the sun dipping in and out of clouds, its waves are threaded with silver. It reminds him of his mother’s eyes which are a bright blue upon first glance, but up close they are ringed in silver, mercurial and ever-changing. Like the ocean he loves … as lovely and inaccessible. Who could ever know the true reason behind a churning wave?

The beach is not empty. A few folks are running with their dogs along the shore. The boardwalk behind him has some pedestrians as well. Shops are mostly still shut up but restaurants and coffee shops are open and welcoming. Jensen, however, is alone on his beach, surrounded by tall sea grass as he sits upon a favorite rock. It’s secluded and sheltered and familiar. And solitary.

He’s let go of everyone.

Convinced himself of the purity of his actions because sometimes a hard decision is still the best one. Even Dot went with Danni to her parent’s home.

You don’t want her?

No. Why would I?

Danni had looked at him inscrutably. Her last words to him had been, Ask her.

Frankly, he is sick of that comment. He’s done nothing but replay it since Danni first mentioned it.

Ask her if making the decision for the three of you turned out like she wished. And ask if it was fair to you? 

Eyes returning to his drawing he’s not surprised to find a familiar shadowy figure lurking on the side of the landscape. Jared had thought that figure represented himself. Jensen had never corrected him. Why not let his boyfriend have that small fantasy?

The three of you.

Jensen can count on one hand what he knows about his father. His name is Adam. That always struck Jensen as perversely appropriate – the first man, cast out of Eden for knowing a woman who knew too much. That makes his mother Eve, sly and clever, willing to rebel against anyone that aimed to slight her.

As a teenager, he’d admired his mother’s rebelliousness, raising a child alone in a town that reinforced conformity. Donna’s own parents had been religious and rigid. While his grandmother had shown a greater degree of leniency toward Jensen than to her daughter – at least as it related to sweets and playtime – she was of the same narrow-minded stock.

He knows his father is about Jensen’s height and build. That he was handsome. Pretty face, his mother has said on various occasions, always implying that one can get away with a lot if one had one of those.

Brown hair and brown eyes. A sturdy, settled-upon color. Not the peaty green that are Jensen’s own. And the most important thing that Jensen knows about his father – the man wasn’t confused. He made a decision to pursue his own dreams, his own life, and leave Donna and yet-to-be-born Jensen behind.

Just as Donna made her own choice to stay in this town, near this beach, to give Jensen a home here, close to her parents, despite their censure. It’s possible Jensen would have been an artist no matter where he was raised. Except. He’s not sure he believes that. Not when everything he paints drips the salty blues, grays and frothy white of his ocean.

Unbidden thoughts of the California coast come to mind. Sparkling blue water, almost turquoise in intensity. Whitecaps like the foam of his mother’s bubble baths. He’d felt like laughing as he’d sat with Jared, surrounded by people traipsing in a swath of sunshine despite it being the middle of winter. Only it wasn’t exactly a funny kind of laugh. How to tell his golden boyfriend that he found it absurd?

Well, hardly a problem now that Jared is no longer his boyfriend.

Jensen thinks Jared surprised himself when he ultimately did accept the Dean’s offer and enrolled in the Santa Barbara graduate program. Jared didn’t believe Jensen would truly let him leave. But Jensen knows that the ability to be contrary is part of his DNA.

Maybe he’s still touched by the instincts of that long-ago Eve.

Even Danni couldn’t convince Jay to stay when Jensen remained adamant that he did not want to stand in Jared’s way, and Jensen is aware of how hard she tried. Two weeks ago she’d come by to get the last of her stuff.

“You’re a fucking idiot.“

It was easy to be silent, to just let her rant.

“I told Jay that, too, you know. Told him to his face I thought you were both being idiots.”

“Did he agree?" 

“You think this is funny?”

“No, I don’t. I think it’s necessary.”

“Why, Jense? There are so many other choices. You could compromise. Try long distance. You could move part-time – money isn’t a problem. You have advantages … Why take such a hard stance? Drive him the hell away like you don’t care?!”

“You have it wrong, Dan. One day you’ll see. Same with you. Best to have a clean break sometimes. Now you can concentrate on yourself. “

“It’s not the same with me. I told you that you had a point and I am going to see what kind of life I want for myself. But you love Jared and he loves you and the only reason you aren’t together is because you think you have to make this decision for him!”

She had it wrong. Jensen had made the decision for himself. Just like his mother had made a similar decision all those years ago.

Danni had stared hard at him when he didn’t reply. He hadn’t wanted to argue any longer, had just shook his head and made it clear it was pointless to continue. He hadn’t been able to face the fury in his friend’s eyes then, a maelstrom he chalked up to fear. It’s hard to start over.

And that’s when she’d said it one last time.

Ask her.

What was there to ask about? The story was history, locked in time and impenetrable. There was only so much Donna would ever say about the man she’d once loved and let go. Would someone hound him in the future with similar questions? Would the answer ever change?

Ask her.

A gull soars overhead, wings wide and tips angled as it curves gracefully, floating on the breeze. Jensen tips his head up and wonders at that ability to move through air, almost through time, with an effortless twitch. What if he could lift up right now and head west, fly inland and not stop until he reached the next shore?

Would Jared be pleased to see bird Jensen? Jensen imagines flying over that other beach. He looks down and sees the umbrellas, dozens of them in red and blue and green and yellow stripes. Tawny sand kissed by that eternal sunshine. Where would he find shade? So crowded it stiffens his imaginary feathers.

Where would he land?

“Why do you insist on making it impossible to love you?”

Is that all it takes to make someone stop loving you? Just tell them a truth they don’t want to hear?

“It’s your truth, Jensen, it’s not mine. Dammit. Can’t you even try to hear me?”

Jensen didn’t exactly stop listening then. But it was easier to return to his canvas and answer with pigments and textures and shadows.

The last time he saw Jared had been in Jensen’s studio.

“I can’t make you want to have a relationship with me. Danni is wrong about that. She’s also wrong about something else – you may have convinced yourself you’re doing this for me, but you’re not. You don’t want us … and just can’t face up to it.”

Hands flying over the canvas, Jensen hadn’t turned around. He welcomed the icy band gripping his chest as his heart felt small and lonely in the center of his ribcage.

“Maybe you’re right, Jay.”

He knew that Jared was still standing there, wouldn’t leave until Jensen turned around, wouldn’t believe it unless he saw it. Jensen put the brush down and wiped a hand over his face.

“Does your mom think this is a good idea?”

Odd question, given that Jared really didn’t like Donna. But then again Danni probably filled Jay’s head with some more nonsense about Donna being the evil behind everything.

“My mom believes in living one’s own life.”

“Danni … “

“What about her?”

“Nothing. Forget … forget what she said, Jensen. It won’t … it’ll only … Just. Never mind. Okay?”

Jared’s eyes were liquid but no tears spilled over. 

Jensen permitted himself one last good look. Such a beautiful man, inside and out. He steadied himself. He was doing the right thing. All those future kids enriched by a teacher like Jared would make the world a better place. Some things were worth the pain. Love doesn’t mean holding someone captive. His mother had to be right about that.

“I will always love you, Jen.”

He couldn’t look anymore after that and his silent goodbye was a spin back to the soothing slate grays of his canvas.

The gull he’s been watching swoops a final time before heading back out to sea. So lucky to be so free. Yet the ocean holds the gull in its thrall in the same way she holds Jensen...

The water at the shore’s edge creeps forward and back, ebbs and flows like the circular thoughts trapping Jensen as effectively as if seaweed was wrapped around his torso.

“Ask her.”

“Forget what Danni said.”

Eve risked it all for that one bite of the apple. How did she know she needed to know everything? Jensen stares once more at the shadow man in his sketch before rising and sweeping the sand from the back of his jeans. Above him the clouds shift to reveal the seagull once more, swooping in circles in an intricate dance with the receding waves.

~~

It’s Sunday and that means dinner with his mom. They’ve had several Sunday meals since his break up with Jared.

Donna brings the partially carved roast chicken over on a slate blue platter. Even with just the two of them presentation matters. Roast vegetables, edged in black and practically caramelized, ring the dish. Jensen smells the mixture of chicken and potatoes and carrots and licks his lips in anticipation. His mother doesn’t cook as often as she used to, they more often than not eat out when they share their Sunday meal. But today she said she was in the mood and Jensen looks forward to digging in to home-cooked goodness.

He’s set the table meticulously so that she will not complain. Her gaze roams the place settings and then lands back on Jensen with a small grin.

It’s silent at first as they serve themselves and Jensen takes a sip of water to clean his palate as she’s trained him.

“So … Dana tells me that Danneel is still living with them,” Donna begins.

Jensen knows his mother’s opinion of Danni’s actions and really doesn’t want to discuss it. He thinks of what he could say to distract her from that train of thought.

“Mmm. These carrots are really good, did the farmer’s market reopen yet?”

Donna frowns. “It’s only March. Of course not, Jensen.”

He swallows the carrot and spears a bite of chicken with his fork. Jared had loved his mother’s roast vegetables, Jensen’s traitorous mind remembers. Exclaimed they were the best he ever had.

Unfortunately, Donna is not distracted from her topic. “I was hoping when you finally realized the disservice you were doing her and urged her to give up on you that she’d do more than just mope around her parents’ home. I must say … I do feel sorry for that young woman.”

There appears to be no avoiding this conversation. “Danni is doing fine. She’s just looking over her options, figuring out what she wants to do next.”

“Well, I supposed she does have the luxury of time given how she has no responsibilities to speak of. First living off you, and now her parents.”

Jensen immediately gets defensive. “She never ‘lived off me,’ Mom. She paid her own way when we were roommates. And her parents are happy to give her this time.”

For a moment he entertains the idea of what would have happened if his art hadn’t taken off, if nobody wanted what he was offering. But the answer comes immediately … be it working at a gas station, Starbucks, or a boardwalk concession stand. Jensen would have been on his own. Of course, it’s not like his mother had much to spare. During Jensen’s early years they lived with her parents, and she worked part-time at a local doctor’s office for years. Still works a few hours there every week still. The doctor is a good twenty years older than Donna and Jensen has suspected for years that something has been going on between them.

It’s just another one of those things they never speak about.

As if reading Jensen’s mind, Donna brings up the office. “A new patient came in the other day.” She smiles at Jensen conspiratorially, placing her fork down to lift her glass. “Very handsome. And very gay.”

His mother isn’t the matchmaker type so Jensen knows this is her effort at being a good mother and acknowledging his heartbreak. He supposes he should be touched.

“I’m not interested,” he says, but keeps his voice soft.

She laughs boldly, the laugh that always made him think that the world couldn’t ever really harm her. “Nonsense. You haven’t seen this boy. Hair as yellow as the sun and eyes like warm brown pebbles.” She giggles again. “If he weren’t obviously queer I’d take him myself.”

“Brown eyes,” he says, not quite a question. His fingers squeeze around the fork’s handle.

“Yes,” she replies with a soft look.

“Like my father,” Jensen says.

Donna looks up sharply, glass returning to the table with a soft thump. A little water spills out and Jensen follows the droplet as it beads on the tablecloth.

Composing herself, his mother narrows her eyes. “I’d say your father’s eyes were a deeper brown, more masculine.”

Jensen hears the barb and bites back the flare of anger. “We come in different stripes,” he settles on finally. “Is that why you thought that patient was gay? Was he not butch enough?”

Wiping her mouth carefully with her napkin, Donna pushes the plate away from herself. “I believe I’ve had enough. Shall I make coffee or tea?”

Danni’s words keep tumbling in his mind. “Was he not straight?”

“I already told you … and, no, it’s not because he was effeminate … although … it was rather obvious … but he was out, Jensen. Out and proud as you are.” She gives him a warning look as she moves toward the doorway. “I don’t appreciate being attacked like that at my own dining table.”

Jensen tosses his napkin on the table and pushes his chair back. He asks what’s been burning in his mind because he doesn’t know what Danni meant … but maybe … “No. I meant my father. Was he not straight?”

His mother turns back and stares at him as if he’s grown a second head. “Jensen, dear, have you been inhaling too much paint again? You know that one time you almost passed out.”

Standing, he lifts his plate and starts toward the kitchen but stops at her side. “Answer me. Did he leave because he was … like me. Or bisexual? Was that it?”

Donna blinks once and glances back at the array of plates on the table. He hears her sigh softly. “Let’s clean up.”

“Are you really not going to answer me?!”

“Keep up that tone and you will be asked to leave. Remember yourself, Jensen.”

He tastes the apology on his tongue but swallows it back. He can’t keep replaying Danni’s words any longer. It’s frankly driving him to distraction and it’s ridiculous because his mother is many things but a liar isn’t one of them. If anything, she relishes giving out truth.

Neither of them speaks while the meal is being cleaned up. The only sounds are the clink of the dishes and the ping of the glasses. Donna rinses everything carefully before putting it in the dishwasher. He’d asked why once and she claimed to not trust the machine to really get it clean.

After Jensen helps load the dishwasher he leans against the granite counter and watches as she methodically dries her hand on the clean dishcloth. “OK,” she says spinning around. A loose curl has escaped her headband and is spinning near her temple. Her hair’s darker than usual, a honey blond rather than the platinum color she normally favors. He imagines her thirty years ago, hair a warm caramel, eyes as pure as a summer sky. Did his father find himself captivated by her beauty?

Donna is eyeing him carefully. She speaks slowly. “No, Jensen. Your father isn’t gay.” Her brows furrow. “Clearly, he … appreciated women … or how in the world would you explain, well, you?”

“Bisexual, then?”

“Not as far as I know. Why would this even matter?” She’s turned her back on him again and is filling the tea kettle with water. “I think tea tonight. It’s too late for coffee.”

Jensen nods absently. Clearly whatever Danni was driving at, that wasn’t it. He pulls his mother’s blue mugs from the cabinet. They are similar to ones he has at home. They both like blue. Opening the cupboard he finds the tea and places two peppermint bags into the cups. He doesn’t have to ask what kind of tea she wants.

His mother is wiping invisible stains off the countertops, a move he’s seen hundreds of times before. It should feel safe, calming. But his stomach is jittering.

Decision for the three of you.

“Mom?”

“Yes?”

He runs his hand over the back of his head. “I want to talk about something. Is that alright?”

Her hand brushes against his arm so fleetingly it might not have happened. “Is this about Jared? I know it was hard … but I am proud of you for doing the right thing.”

The kettle’s whistle breaks the awkward silence and Jensen stands motionless as she pours the steaming water into each cup. He carries the tray into the living room. Coasters are already set out on the coffee table. She settles in her favorite wingback chair and he takes the sofa. There’s a few moments of stirring sugar and blowing at the steam before sipping.

Unsure where to begin he starts with her last comment. “You said that letting Jared go, to free him to live his life was the right thing to do.”

His mother puts the cup down and crosses one leg over the other smoothly. She’s wearing black soft wool trousers and a cream silk blouse.

One always dresses for dinner.

The years have been nothing but kind to her, the artist in him can objectively see how beautiful she is. Yet … it wasn’t enough for his father, and he knows Danni and maybe even Jared would be able to think up many reasons why – but Jensen doesn’t. Never has.

“I believe that people should be free to make their own decisions. But sometimes they need a little push. You did right by that boy, Jensen.”

She bestows a closed-mouth smile before returning to her tea.

Jensen has heard those same words dozens of times. Before Jared left and afterward. He heard them about Danni as well. But suddenly … it’s like he’s hearing them for the first time and his heart skips. His hands start to tremble and he places his cup down before any tea can spill.

“Was it that way with my father?”

The surprise is betrayed by a flicker in her eyes before her countenance smooths over. “What do you mean?” Her eyes narrow as she stares at him. “Why all this sudden interest in your father? That was a long time ago, Jensen.”

His fingers close around the sofa cushion under his thighs, fingernails indenting the surface. “You said he wanted to pursue his dreams, and that you’d chosen to stay here … with me. You said, you made a choice.”

“Yes,” she replies nodding simultaneously. “Similar to yourself and Jared.”

Jensen’s heart is tight in his chest. It takes several tries to swallow as all the saliva in his mouth has dried up. “Jared accused me of making the decision for him. He said really, I wanted out of the relationship. Is that … did my father ever want to stay?”

The question lands and Jensen sees the tick in his mother’s cut jawline. Her eyes harden to a blue that borders on smoke in the incandescent light. “No. That much I can assure you. Adam made that very clear. Staying was not an option. This town was much too small for the likes of him.”

“But you could have … did he want you to go with him?”

Donna uncrosses her legs and takes another sip from her teacup. Jensen watches as the liquid, now much cooler, passes over the rim, past her lips. She shuts her eyes as she swallows. When the cup is returned to the coaster she rises. “I’m going to warm it up,” she says, and marches into the kitchen to return with the kettle.

A small dollop of hot water is poured into both their mugs.

She sits again, posture rigid and ignores the now warm tea. Her eyes lock with his. “This is all very strange. Why would you care about that now? It’s ancient history. Haven’t I dedicated myself to you? Haven’t my actions spoken for themselves? I don’t regret the decision I made, if that’s what you’re asking.”

Just a year ago that answer would have soothed Jensen down to his soul. Years of telling others his mother did, indeed, love him … and here she is practically saying it to him.

And ask her if it was it fair to you?

“Did he ask you to go with him?” Jensen knows his voice is arch and bitterness is creeping out. Maybe it’s unfair, maybe it’s just Danni’s cryptic question that he just can’t get out of his mind.

“I never said he didn’t, Jensen. He held out that second motorcycle helmet and told me the world was open to us.” She stops, composure shaken and Jensen looks at her as if he’s never truly seen her before. “Like I said, I felt … my place was to stay here and be a mother to you.”

Jensen’s face heats with guilt and he stands to pace the room absently. “So, it really was always my fault.”

Donna tracks his movements from her perch. “What are you talking about? Jensen, what’s come over you?”

“You could have been with a man you loved, but he couldn’t stay here. Just like Jared. Except … the decision you made was different. You didn’t choose to stay because you wanted to stay near your parents, stay in this town because you loved it. It was only because of me. Jay is right … I choose my art, my town, my beach. But you were pregnant. It feels like you didn’t really have a choice at all.”

He hadn’t seen her stand so it was a surprise when she was suddenly gripping his shoulder. “Jensen … don’t second guess the past. I don’t regret it. Adam could have chosen me. He didn’t. It is what it is.”

The pressure on his shoulder is suddenly lifted and Jensen feels the coolness in its wake. Danni’s question and his mother’s words are all spinning like someone threw them in a dryer’s tumble cycle.

Adam could have chosen me.

I made a decision. Simple as that.

He’s heard his mother say that all his life.

The words sound like they are coming from a foreign part of himself. “You mean, Adam could have chosen us. Right?”

She’d been about to sit and their eyes meet when he asks that, hers facing up at him and in that one moment before she can blink … the truth is there.

Ask her if making the decision for the three of you turned out like she wished. And ask if it was fair to you?

“Oh my god,” he gasps.

Silently, she slips back into the seat and doesn’t meet his eyes.

“My father didn’t … doesn’t know I exist, does he? He never knew.”

Donna’s gaze has hardened again. She crosses her legs at the ankles as she sits very straight in her chair. “Don’t loom over me like that. Sit like a person.”

It’s not a denial. Jensen feels sick.

“How … how could you lie to me all my life?”

“I never lied to you. Your father made his own decision and I respected it and made my own. I’d think you’d be more grateful. It was you I chose in the end.”

“But he never had a choice. Not a real one.”

“Yes, he did. If I wasn’t enough then he didn’t deserve—“

“What, Mom … he didn’t deserve to know he had a son?!”

It hurts to a staggering degree. So many years feeling unwanted, second best. Someone’s pathetic consolation prize.

Within minutes anger replaces the hurt. And then it compounds because, what the hell, Danni knew? All these fucking years she knew and never said anything?

“I can’t … I can’t even look at you right now.”

“Jensen. Be reasonable. What good is a man that felt forced to stay in a place he hated just to be a father? Think about that. I really did have your best interests at heart. I … “ Her voice cracks and Jensen cannot remember the last time that happened. She swipes angrily at her eyes. “I tried to be a good mother. Not like my own, all self-righteous. I didn’t force my parents’ religion down your throat like they did to me. I let you make your own decisions about faith. About life. It’s a good thing my parents died before you came out. Do you know what they would have said, would have called you?”

“Did it never cross your mind that my father might have wanted to know me?”

Donna looks down, face flushed from her outburst. Jensen watches her compose herself, like a curtain falling over a stage. But he’s hardly seeing her any longer. He sees Jared begging to be heard.

“Why can’t you believe I want us above all else? This decision … let it be ours … not just yours.”

He holds onto the back of the sofa as his legs weaken. “I did the same thing. I can’t even … “ He turns cold eyes in her direction. “I really am your son, Mom. You can be proud.”

~~

It’s 2,427 miles between New Jersey and California. Jensen’s been traveling for about ten hours straight. He’s spent nearly three hours in Los Angeles waiting for his connecting flight to Santa Barbara. He glances at the time on his phone, one p.m., Pacific Time. He managed to catch a flight out at six a.m. He slept fitfully on the plane and on a hard airport seat for maybe one hour total. He’s a mess, inside and out.

But he needs one thing, one person.

Trouble is, last time he saw Jared … well, they hadn’t spoken even once since. He doesn’t know if Jared will see him. So this is the craziest thing he’s ever done. But it wouldn’t work over the phone. Jared is worth so much more than a phone call.

Except now he realizes he doesn’t even know where Jared’s living. It’s highly unlikely that the apartment Jared had sublet during his summer fellowship is where he’s living now.

Jensen drags his tired body to a seat near the doors that lead to the taxi stand. Every time the electric door swishes he feels a warm breath of air.

It’s been weeks since he’s heard Jared’s voice. He can’t possibly know what Jared’s doing right now. He glances at the time again. Jared could be at lunch, more likely he’s in class. Should he leave a voice mail? What could he possibly say? He pulls out his phone and stares at the screen for a dumb moment before pulling his small carry-on behind him out the swishing doors.

A quick Google search and he’s shuffling into the lobby of the Courtyard Goleta, closest hotel to UC Santa Barbara he could locate. They’d had a cancellation and he feels lucky because they even offer a shuttle to the campus. He’s too tired to think about driving.

They tell him the room will be ready shortly, so he waits in a mustard yellow armchair in the lobby. His eyes roam over a tremendous landscape of the beach hanging over the check-in area. He allows himself a moment of conceit that his art is better. In his mind, he hears Jared chuckle and say, well, duh.

He’s never stopped missing Jared but now it feels like someone cut off his limbs and he can’t move another step without him. The cell phone feels like it burns in his hand as he clutches it. By the fifth ring he’s certain he’s going to reach voice mail but he hasn’t thought of what to say and if he hangs up it’ll seem …

“Jensen?”

The tone in Jared’s voice is concerned. Like the only reason Jensen can be calling is if something is wrong. Guilt stabs him because it’s true.

“Jay,” he says back, only his voice stutters and it sounds like Jay-Jay.

“You okay?” Jared asks.

“I’m here,” Jensen blurts and realizes immediately how odd that sounds when Jared nearly laughs.

“You been drinking?”

Jensen thinks one drink would render him immediately unconscious. “No. I … I mean, I flew … I’m at the Courtyard Goleta … it’s like—“

“Ten minutes from campus,” Jared interrupts and now there’s incredulity in his tone.

“Yeah. Except … I don’t have a car. Think it’s like a half hour walk.” But even as Jensen says that he knows how tired he is and imagines passing out in the middle of some sleepy palm-lined street.

“You want to walk here?”

There’s definitely teasing in Jared’s voice, only it’s tinged with something else … wariness, caution. Jensen doesn’t like it but he knows it’s his fault.

The silence must go on too long because Jared speaks up again. “Jen, what’s going on? Why are you here?”

“Did you know, too? Like Danni?”

He hears what sounds like Jared swallowing air, then there’s a rush of noise, like rustling and movement. “What room are you in?”

Jensen stares at the landscape. Too much white, bad proportions, no contrast. “I’m in the lobby.”

A lobby. A holding space. Filled with armchairs positioned like soldiers facing each other and a terrible portrayal of an ocean that deserves better. If he were to paint the Pacific, at least he’d do her justice.

“Are you checking in?” Jared asks, and now his voice has a tight edge.

“May I see you? I … I … “ And Jensen stops because his body begins trembling as if someone turned up the air conditioning full force. He fights to find his voice. “I painted it once,” he forces through a choked throat. His eyes sting with the pressure to keep back the tears. “The wilderness outside of Eden’s perfect garden. I was young … sixteen maybe. And it wasn’t like you’d think … wasn’t a wasteland. It was sunny and bright and I wanted to understand, because, you know, not everyone likes the beach in the winter. Maybe he just needed the sun all the time.”

“Jen. I’m going to my car. Stay there. Don’t move, okay?”

“There’s a painting. It’s got happy trees. Like that guy on TV. Except trees don’t … they don’t smile like that.”

“Okay. Yeah. Have you been … you didn’t sleep did you? This is how you get when you don’t … okay, I’m getting in my car now. Gonna hang up and see you in a few minutes. OK?”

The bellwoman interrupts and says the room is ready. Jensen stares at the phone. He takes the key card and tells Jared the room number before hanging up. It’s better this way because he can’t see Jared in this lobby, out in the open on a mustard-colored chair.

It’s only up one flight but the elevator seems to take a long time. The bellwoman stares at him for several long moments before Jensen remembers to pull out a five and hand it over. When she leaves, he stands at the doorway, holding on to the door frame. Finally, he manages to walk several steps into the room, leaving the door open. He sees it has a king-sized bed and windows overlooking the courtyard. Objectively, it’s a pretty room.

But Jensen turns back to stare at the shadow of the hallway outside the open door, wondering if he’s imagined that Jared has agreed to come to him.

~~

A man hovers, he’s wearing a newsboy cap that throws shadows over a straight, thin nose. Except that the shadows don’t stop at the man’s face and suddenly there is no body, only smoke and the man dissolves like someone poured acid on a black and white photograph, leaving a spiral trail of silver and pitch.

Jensen jolts when a hand nudges his shoulder and blinks fast. Jared’s faint grin comes into focus, his face floating above Jensen like the sun. Ah, he’s dreaming. He takes in the eyes that captivated him a year ago, glittering blue-gold in the sunlight. Could never capture their color when he tried on paper. He regrets now that he never shared those sketches with Jared, they were too private, too precious. He’d hoarded them, said he never drew people. Small creases form at the corners of Jared’s eye, tipping down in that adorable way.

Jensen smiles back instinctively but Jared’s face grows sad and Jensen wonders why this is? Usually dream Jared is happy, his natural state in life.

“Jen?”

“Yeah, Jay?”

“I’m here.”

He reaches up to tuck a long strand of Jared’s hair behind his ear. But Jared jerks back at the reach and Jensen blinks again.

Oh.

He realizes he’s on his back on the bedspread but doesn’t remember sitting, let alone lying, down. Face flushing he pushes up on his elbows. The soft mattress sinks beneath. How long was he out? Couldn’t have been long if the cyclone in his mind is any indication. Nothing can land, it’s all just spinning.

Forcing himself up, he flinches as Jared moves even farther away from him. Maybe this was a mistake. Why would Jared want anything to do with him after the way he …

“I’m sorry.” Jensen doesn’t think he’s ever poured his soul into any words like he just has. Of course, only a fool would think that is enough.

Jared doesn’t say anything, pushes his hair back from his forehead and squints his eyes in that concentrated way that Jensen knows means he’s thinking very hard about something. Taking a slow breath Jared replies, “What happened?”

He’s uncomfortable on the bed but doesn’t know if he can stand. He settles for swinging his legs around and resting them on the carpet. His shoes are off and he looks up at Jared wondering if Jared took them off him or if Jensen did it himself. He spots the worn running shoes near the window.

Jared perches on the bed an arm’s length away, looking like bolting is a likely possibility.

Jensen buries his face in his hands and rests his elbows on his legs. He’s so tired. And not just from travelling.

“Mommy. A boy laughed at me today.”

“Did you do something funny, Jensen?”

“No. He said I didn’t have a daddy and that I was … I think he used a bad word.”

“That boy was ignorant. We don’t care about boys like him. I hope you didn’t make it obvious he got to you. We’ve talked about being a cry baby.”

“Yes, Mommy. I mean, no, I didn’t … he didn’t see me cry ... Mommy?”

“Yes?”

“I have a daddy, right? I mean, teacher said every animal has a mother and a father.”

“Well, we aren’t animals. We are people. But, yes, of course. You know that. We talked about it before.”

“He left.”

“Yes, Jensen. He did. But you have me. And we are all we need … right, my little man? “

“I always wished it was her fault.” The words are muffled by his hands. He lifts his head slowly, palms grazing his thighs. The denim is a soft watery blue, Jensen scratches his nails against the grain. “But, really, deep down, I knew it was mine.”

“Jen, you look beyond wiped. Why don’t you lie down again? I … I’ll go grab a cup of coffee or something and then ... I can come back.”

“No.” It comes out unusually sharp and a muscle on Jared’s jaw jumps. “Wait. I didn’t mean. Just. Please, don’t go. Not yet. Please.”

Jared looks ashen, like someone just landed a very hard punch. He fights his emotions with visible effort. “Jensen … I don’t know how many times I can let you rip my heart apart. I don’t think you even have a clue how dangerous you are to me.”

What can he say to that? He’s made so many mistakes. But he’s so weak. “Can you stay a little?” His voice is small and he knows his eyes are betraying him, they’ve become inverted mirrors. He feels exposed, as if his skin has become translucent.

“God,” Jared utters, voice guttural. “What did she do to you?”

The tears are so unwelcome but Jensen doesn’t know how to stop them and then, like a miracle, Jared is there. Arms like a vise, surrounding him and holding him up and giving him a respite from that cold, cavernous, empty space.

Jared murmurs nonsense words into Jensen’s ear. He hears, It’s okay and I got you and Jensen thinks thirty years of tears are flowing out of him at once, soaking Jared’s shoulder. His own arms tighten, pulling Jared closer, greedily absorbing apple spice scent and corded muscles.

Jensen’s not sure how long he shudders with pain-wracked sobs while Jared holds him, keeping his bones from imploding. Gentle fingers trail along his cheeks, massage his hairline. “Hey … talk to me. I’m here. I’m listening.”

Rubbing his stinging eyes, Jensen calms his breathing. He did come here to talk. “I had dinner with my mom.”

Jared keeps touching him, a palm, a finger, the connection never breaking though he pulls back a little to see Jensen’s face.

“And we got to talking about my father. About the choice she made.” Guilt grabs Jensen by the throat, choking him again. He looks Jared in the eye and confesses, “I did the same thing. I … like she did. I always wanted to believe that she was right, was good. That she loved me.”

“Of course you did,” Jared says, and his tone contains nothing but affirmation. Like somehow Jensen’s actions aren’t abhorrent. But Jensen knows better.

“My mother lied to me,” Jensen says. So did Danni. But he doesn’t bring her up. Not yet. Because part of him thinks, Jay, did you know?

Jared doesn’t say anything. Face staying remarkably blank and Jensen doesn’t know what it means.

“I asked about my father,” Jensen repeats. “I asked about his leaving and her decision to stay in town and raise me near my grandparents. At first it was the usual. What I’d heard all my life … and I thought at least there was that. I could deal with … all the rest … but I had that. She’d chosen me.”

Soft strokes up and down his arm momentarily draw his eyes downward. Jared’s skin is darker now, caramel, sprinkled with honey-gold hair.

“But I pushed. I asked if my father asked her to go with him. Because I thought … it was getting all mixed up … my actions and what she did and she kept saying I did the right thing with you. Except … I don’t know, what you’d said … and I knew … I know how I hurt you.”

Jensen looks up again and Jared’s gaze is steady, studying, assessing. In that moment he sees what an amazing teacher he will be … how he listens and responds and will learn from every student as much as he gives to them.

“Is there more?” Jared questions when Jensen’s silent stare lasts too long.

“Yes, I mean, we all are responsible for our own decisions. But my mother … she made a decision that was more than for herself. I asked her if she ever asked my father to stay with her and me.”

It’s hard to continue. The words trap themselves in a haze of pain and anger. Jensen realizes he’s been clenching his fists and consciously relaxes them. “That’s when I realized … the way she looked … I just knew. She never told him. My father never knew about me.” He drops his gaze again and thinks the thought that leaves him shaking. “Doesn’t know about me.”

Jared sighs wearily. “I’m so sorry, Jensen. That’s … a really shitty thing to discover.”

“She made the decision for all three of us.”

Nothing new about that statement, it’s been swirling in his mind for the past ten … now twelve hours. But saying it aloud is different, is concrete and permanent.

Fingers sweep his face again. Jared’s voice is soft. “That was very wrong of her.”

“It was,” Jensen agrees and brings his hand up to catch Jared’s against his cheek. “Just like it was when I did that.”

The words reach Jared’s eyes first, causing them to blink and glimmer with moisture. He shakes his head and Jensen isn’t sure if that’s Jared’s way of saying “no,” if he’s telling Jensen it’s too little, too late.

The soft, ironic chuckle surprises Jensen. “An hour ago I would have said you never knew how I felt. How that killed me inside.” Jared pauses and his unerring gaze takes his measure again. “Except now, I guess you do know.”

Jensen nods in affirmation.

Jared pulls away slowly and rises and Jensen’s heart skips a beat. So that’s that. How could it end any other way? He thinks of his own heart, how his mother shredded it in a way that feels irreparable. And Jensen did the same to this amazing man. Filled with burning shame, he watches Jared pace the space between the large window and the bed. Jensen silently lets tears track again.

“There’s a guy,” Jared says, facing the courtyard.

Well. Not expected but not shocking either. And the shame and regret make it easier to bear. It’s what Jensen deserves.

“Told me you were a fucking psycho. Personality disorder. Read me all the characteristics. Said it would take nothing short of your being hit by a truck to get you to view the world differently.”

Jensen folds his hands over his stomach in this odd attempt to hold himself together, like his guts might actually drip out if he lets go. He startles when Jared suddenly drops to his knees in front of him and Jensen has to look down at him. “If I were talking to him any longer, I guess he’d feel all smug and justified.”

Through the weariness, Jensen let the words penetrate, crinkles his forehead at Jared.

“I could never even casually hook up with someone who talks about mental illness, let alone, people, that way.” Jared stares at him hard. “Jen, those symptoms … that isn’t you. But it sounded a lot like your mother.”

“We’re the same,” Jensen mutters, head tipping down.

A finger lifts his chin up and Jared’s eyes do not let him go. “In many ways you are similar. You’re a product of her upbringing. But you aren’t her.”

“What difference does it make if in the end I make the same hideous choices?”

“When you confronted her … did your mom apologize? Express regret over her actions? Did she think she shouldn’t have done what she did?”

Jensen finds these questions astonishing. He can count on one hand the number of times his mother has apologized. And even if it happened, it’s always been about someone else’s feelings.

“I’m sorry you think that, Jensen. Still, it’s for the best.”

“No.”

“Did you mean your apology?”

Jensen’s fighting to resurface through a heaviness more viscous than oil. He feels the pull of air above him and knows he has to kick, has to push, has to reach it to live. “I’m sorry. Sorry I hurt you. Sorry I thought I had the right to decide things for you. Sorry I didn’t listen to you. Sorry you thought for one minute I didn’t love you.”

Jared smothers him in another hug, brings his lips to Jensen’s ear and mumbles, “You don’t know how much I wanted to hear you say that. It’s … “ A garbled, almost-giggle escapes. “Like those exact words were on a fantasy track in my head. And that jerk said it couldn’t happen. Said you weren’t capable.”

Jensen wraps his arms around Jared’s shoulders and squeezes him tight. “I’m so sorry, Jay. I don’t … I get if it’s too late. I do. But … “ Jensen swallows hard. “I still love you so much. You’re the best person I ever met. And your loving me has been a gift. One that I threw away.”

Self-loathing makes Jensen pull back but Jared won’t let go. “No, Jen, don’t … Your mom has a warped view of love. And you’ve been struggling with us because of that. I’ve known that, accepted it. I’ve never forgotten that.”

Jared stands again and Jensen wants to follow, desperately missing Jared’s arms around him. He tries to stand but his legs give way. But Jared sits next to him again. “It just about killed me when I thought that her way of thinking won out. When you embraced her notion of love. Believing it was about control rather than giving.”

Jensen looks up, “I’ve never felt more out of control.”

“I know. And it’s scary. Making decisions together.”

“Can we?” Jensen asks. “Is that … is that what happens next?”

Jared smiles at him and it feels like Jensen can see the sunshine pour out of him. “Well, the absolute next thing that needs to happen is for you to sleep.” His grin widens, teeth showing. “And after that, yeah, I think we should talk. No more unilateral decisions, okay?”

He doesn’t remember shutting his eyes but it’s dark and a warm hand is brushing his forehead. “Stay?” he gets out before the exhaustion takes him under.

The bed shakes and arms surround him. Jensen brings Jared’s knuckles up to his lips and kisses softly, there’s a shudder behind him but before he can utter the thanks he wants to offer, he lets go and there’s nothing.

~~

Sunlight produces bright spots behind his eye lids and Jensen squints awake with a yawn and cracking stretch. The deep voice startles him and that’s when it all floods back.

“Hey, sleepyhead.”

Jensen turns and spots Jared at the small round table. A paper bag sits in front of him and a Starbucks cup is in his hand. “Tell me there’s another.”

A tip of Jared’s head points Jensen to the nightstand where another Starbucks cup is perched. He moans as he swallows. Across the room, Jared chuckles darkly.

“I missed that.” Jensen eyes him curiously. “The pornographic way you drink coffee.” Jensen blushes and Jared laughs again.

“Whatimesit?” Jensen mumbles between sips.

“Almost seven. I left a note when I left that I’d be back in the morning before class, but you were still asleep when I got here. I stole your key.” Jared puts his cup down. “I also told the desk you were staying another night.”

Jensen hears the hesitation and wants to assure right away. “I’m staying until we—” Jensen lift his voice and repeats his last words. “Until we decide what we … How we … “

“Sounds good,” Jared replies, understanding. Jared stands and looks down at Jensen. “Let’s get the elephant out of the room.” He sucks in a deep breath. “I still want an us.”

Jensen pops up, his legs are amazingly still tired, despite having slept for nineteen hours. “Do you … I didn’t even imagine.” He meets Jared’s eyes. “I do, too.” And suddenly it feels too much again. His heart pounds. “I didn’t think … I thought it would be too late for you to forgive me.”

“I forgave you before I transferred schools. I’ve always understood, Jen. But I felt helpless … you wouldn’t even listen to me.”

“I’m listening now,” Jensen says fervently.

Jared looks at him and Jensen can’t make out what the gleam in his eyes means. “You weren’t all wrong,” Jared says in a way that feels confessional. “I do love it here. Love the program. I want to stay.” He studies Jensen and the tremor in his jaw jumps a little.

“Okay,” Jensen says. “And I love home. Love the beach, my studio … it’s in my blood, Jay.”

The déjà vu feels strong, but Jensen is not repeating his mistakes. He sees Jared is about to say something but beats him to it. “Jay … do you think you want to live here past your graduate degree?”

Jared’s eyes grow harder. “Is that the deal breaker?”

Jensen tenses. He can’t reply immediately because … his beach. It’s not just a location. “I want to say I can paint anywhere.”

“No … don’t say anything that’s not true.”

Jared is measuring him again, his eyes burning a bright gold in the glow pouring in through the open curtains. It feels like a test and the answer will color the rest of his days in either light or darkness. Except … no … that’s his mother – moonlight or sunshine – days reflecting all one, or all the other.

He searches for what he truly needs. “I need a certain amount of time on my beach. But … if you give me that … I’ll give you all the rest. Is that … can that be okay?”

It’s like a cloud lifts from Jared’s eyes, and his entire face brightens. “Oh, that can be so very okay.” He takes a step closer. “That’s all I wanted. To know you gave a damn. I’ll move back with you after I finish school. You’ve always had this notion that I belonged in California. Once I get my degree it’s about kids. Kids anywhere, everywhere. And it’s about you. God, it’s always been about you.”

The coffee is still on the nightstand and Jensen returns to it, takes a long swallow, turns to face Jared again. The burning question can’t wait any longer. “Jay … back to … the business with my father. Danni … I think she knew. And you … you told me to forget what she told me. Did you know?”

Jared flushes. “Danni did talk to me about she said to you. Jen, she didn’t know. Not really. She was a kid and she overheard her mom talking about your mom. Seems like Dana suspected the truth – that your mom never told your dad she was pregnant. But she didn’t know for sure. And she didn’t tell Danni about it – she’d been eavesdropping.

“It scared her, Jen. Knowing something so huge and being too young to process.”

“She didn’t stay a kid. She’s had years to tell me.” The anger flares and Jensen isn’t sure what to do with it. “And you … you left and didn’t say … Talk about making decisions for others!”

Jared pales. “It’s not like that. Danni was remembering hearsay from nearly twenty years ago. If she knew for sure it would be one thing, but she didn’t. Telling you is also making a decision for you and it didn’t seem right.”

“Wasn’t your choice.” Jensen is not without a sense of irony but can’t help it, this hurts. And he feels betrayal. More so with Danni, but Jay is not innocent.

“I guess I just didn’t think it could be true. I mean … who does that?”

“But you thought enough about it to tell me not to ask.”

Jared’s eyes don’t meet his. The silence settles like a blanket over sand.

“You’re right,” Jared says. “I thought I was protecting you. Couldn’t let myself believe a mother would do that, but didn’t trust that maybe she hadn’t either. I should have said something, should have told Danni to do so herself. She was so shaken by your asking her to move out I just … And I have to admit I was feeling pretty sorry for myself as well. And angry at what you said to me.”

That pierces through Jensen’s indignation. The guilt of his actions rises again. It’s not a contest. His actions don’t compare to Jared’s and he knows that. Doesn’t stop the hurt.

“Jensen,” Jared waits for Jensen’s attention to return to him. “I’m sorry.”

It startles to hear the words. Flying over here he’d imagined many things, most of them horrible. Never had he dreamt of Jared apologizing to him. Never having heard those words much, he’s not sure how to accept them. They feel weird traveling through his veins, like foreign objects, and his instinct tells him to reject.

But this is Jared, eyes open and reflecting nothing but concern and caring.

“I forgive you,” Jensen says, words tasting odd but not bad. Salty like ocean water.

Jared smiles at him again. “For a beginner, you are rocking this talking thing.”

The tease is gentle and familiar and warms Jensen to his toes. “Still have to talk through now,” Jensen says.

“Now?” Jared questions.

Jensen goes with it because this part he did think about. “I mean, you and me, now. While you’re here studying and how we can still be a we. I think we could just travel back and forth? I mean, direct flights would be better – no two hour stopovers in LA.” He smiles and hopes it reaches his eyes because he’s still so raw.

Taking another step closer Jared beams at him. “I think that could work. My next break is over Easter. And as much as it’s pretty out here, I find myself missing our beach.”

Our beach. Jensen feels his pulse accelerate. He takes a final step and there are only inches between them. He reaches up and touches Jared’s hair, soft and fine. “You have class, right?”

Jay looks at his watch. “In about an hour.” His eyes lower and he peers at Jensen’s lips through his lashes. The distance closes and finally their lips meet and Jensen thinks home and safe and yes as Jared parts his lips and breathes him in.

He hasn’t been with anyone but his right hand in weeks so it’s no surprise how quick it goes. Panting into Jared’s skin, words of adoration and thanks and silent begging for forgiveness at every pain he ever inflicted. He traces Jared’s skin with his fingers and lips and tongue, tasting sweetness and spice and bitter ecstasy coating them both. Jared’s heart is pounding under his ear, a sacred rhythm that he swears to forevermore cherish.

Catching Jared’s languid stare, he mouths, I love you. Then traces a heart over the skin covering that precious organ and, finally, whispers it directly into his ear.

He waits, but Jared doesn’t say anything. Jensen studies him. “That’s what you meant, isn’t it?” Jay’s brows furrow in question. “All those times you’d say it to me, and I couldn’t say it back and you said it was okay … You didn’t need to hear it because you knew I loved you?”

A soft nod is followed by Jared pulling him back in for a kiss that’s deep and intense and so very meant. “I love you with all that I am,” Jared whispers to him as they part to breathe.

“I love you, too,” Jensen says, because he owes Jared years of hearing it back.

It tickles as Jared nuzzles his head into Jensen’s neck and he bites back a giggle. Time is flying and Jensen knows he needs to let Jared get to class. “I threw some things in a bag but I’ll need to go shopping if this is going to be a proper visit.”

Jared turns them so they are face to face and he looks so happy it takes Jensen’s breath away. “Yeah? How long is a proper visit?”

Good question and Jensen didn’t get that far. He thinks forever is probably the right answer but knows that’s not possible. “Two weeks?”

“You asking?”

“Is that okay?”

Jared practically whoops. “Hell, yes.” Jared reluctantly starts to rise, he kisses Jensen softly again, but it turns deeper and they clutch each other hard. “I’ll be back around four,” Jared murmurs. “Better here, got too many roommates back home. Is that okay?”

Jensen nips at Jared’s jaw and slowly releases his hold. “Sure. I’ll go book the room and see if I can get a better rate with the longer stay.”

Jared eyes him suddenly concerned. “Shit, I didn’t think about that. This place is pricey.”

“No. It’s fine. I have … it’s fine.”

Jared beams again. “Hey, I do want you to meet my friends here. Wanna show off my gorgeous, super talented boyfriend.”

It comes out of nowhere but Jensen is suddenly certain of nothing else, because boyfriend isn’t forever. “No.”

Jay’s eyes get big. “I don’t under—“

“Introduce your … If you … will you … “ Jensen takes Jared’s hand between them, clasps it together with his. “I don’t want to ever picture a future without you again. So how about one more joint decision – I choose you, now and always. Jay, will you do the same? Will you marry me?”

A speechless Jared is a really great sight, Jensen realizes. And he’s staring at Jensen like he’s the sun and the moon and all the stars. Jared’s eyes brighten, glowing with an inner fire. “Yes,” he says, nearly breathless. Then he kisses Jensen, pouring his soul into it, a reverent triumph.

Jensen laughs as they part. “Okay. Nice talk.”

Jared slaps his shoulder and dives back in for another kiss. “Class?” Jensen mutters even as Jared’s tongue does things to him that’s heating his blood.

“I just got engaged. I’m due one skipped class. I’ll go in for my next.”

Jensen starts slipping his mouth down Jared’s long torso. “Or the one after that.”

~~

Jensen would be fine spending the entirety of his visit in bed but Jared is too social to allow that. So, the next day he’s introduced to Jared’s roommates, a guy and a girl that stare at Jensen long enough for Jensen’s face to heat up with the realization that previously he was probably only known as “the horrible ex that broke Jared’s heart.” And anyone spending five minutes in Jared’s presence would hate anyone that hurt him.

Upon introducing Jensen, Jared simply says that they’d worked things out. The woman’s eyes grow owlishly big while the guy’s narrow. But if Jared picks up on their weirdness he chooses to ignore it. Then Jared volunteers that they are now engaged, his voice gentle, with a hushed sort of reverence. Jensen is a little annoyed that these two strangers are the first to hear of this life-altering event. But it’s Jared and in some ways Jensen is surprised that I’m engaged hasn’t been spray painted on his forehead.

The guy, Carl, has a hard grip as he shakes Jensen’s hand. He and Miranda have lived together since their undergrad years. Not a couple, Jared had explained, best friends.

It had been gentle, like a tickle. And Jensen couldn’t say it felt bad. In fact, it had been sweet.

“Dan?”

“You said you never kissed, well, a girl … so I thought … well, now you have.”

“Yeah, but, I told you …”

She’d shuttered up as effectively as if she had pulled a shade over her eyes. They’d gleamed amber in the waning sunlight. Her hair was a new bright shade that she’d tried out just that morning – more fire than honey. He’d told her how pretty it looked. Guilt roiled in his gut and he heard his mother in his head telling him to stop leading her on.

“Jense, no big. Let’s go find Steve, okay? Football practice must be letting out about now.”

He’d looked at her with a wan smile. After a few moments her grin returned.

“Doofus,” she teased.

He let out a held in breath and swept a hand down the golden skin of her arm.

“You know, if I could feel like that toward a girl, it would be you.”

She smiled wider but it felt off, strained.

“Please, I’m out of your league.”

He didn’t really think she meant that, but he couldn’t help but honestly agree.

A gentle voice says, “Jensen.” Jared touches his shoulder and brings him back to the conversation, not that Jensen has any idea what’s been said in the last few minutes. He sees Carl and Miranda exchange a look and feels his face flush with embarrassment.

“I was saying how I’m going to pack a few things. I’m staying with Jensen until he has to head back east.”

The other two say that Jensen is welcome to stay with Jared in the apartment but Jared waves it away with a wink and a comment about privacy. Jensen knows he’s blushing again but stays quiet, only saying goodbye and nice meeting you at the door.

They pause on the balcony walkway outside the apartment. Jensen noticed that so many of the buildings have these outdoor corridors to take advantage of the consistently pleasant weather. He looks down at the communal pool, empty except for one young woman sun bathing on a lounger.

“Not too long at the beach today, Jensen, or those awful freckles will multiply. Be back in an hour.”

“Yes, Mom.”

After this long winter his skin is mostly fair, the markings on his skin faded to a muted tan. He contemplates Jared’s tawny complexion. Glowing like a bronze god, he thinks, and then smiles at his own inner hyperbole.

Jared catches him and asks, “What?”

Jensen chuckles and says, “Nothing.” At Jared’s continued puzzled stare he adds, “Was thinking it’s pretty here. This courtyard … “ Jensen points down. The pool is surrounded by a tall, gray stone wall and low succulents planted sporadically throughout.

They walk down the stairs that flank the building, heading toward where they parked out front. “Yeah. I was lucky to find a place so close to campus. And Carl and Miranda are great. Easygoing, you know?”

Jensen understands why Jared hadn’t wanted to have Jensen stay in the apartment. Jared’s bedroom is miniscule. It had likely been a closet originally, although it did have a narrow window. There is just enough room for a twin-sized bed and a desk with some shelves. It is hard to imagine Jared functioning in such a tiny space, so Jensen asks him about it.

Chortling, Jared replies, “That’s what I meant about them being easygoing. The sofa in the living room opens into a queen-sized bed. I mostly sleep out there. I use the bedroom when I’m studying. It’s a bit awkward and I’m constantly making and remaking the sofa bed, but it’s worth it for the extra space.” He laughs heartily. “When I lay down on the twin, my feet stick out like a foot.” The double-play on the word ‘foot’ makes Jared laugh harder and Jensen can’t help but join in.

Back at the hotel Jared shyly asks if he can use one of the drawers to which Jensen answers by kissing him until neither can breathe.

After settling a few tee-shirts and jeans into place, Jared sits on the room’s armchair by the window, elbows on his thighs, palms to his face. He looks pensive and Jensen wonders if he’s still upset with him.

“Jay?” he asks, perching on the bed facing Jared.

Swiping across his face, Jared looks straight at Jensen. “Don’t be mad.”

That’s not too ominous. “About what, Jay?”

His boyfriend, no fiancé, inhales once and then says, “I called Danni.” He continues before Jensen can say anything. “Earlier, when you were showering. Before we went to pick up my stuff.”

Jensen isn’t sure what to say. It’s not like he doesn’t know that Jared and Danni talk. The puzzlement must show.

“We were wrong, Danni and I. I told her that and, well, she said she wanted to talk to you. But we both agreed phone isn’t the way and I told her you were staying here with me for a couple of weeks. But she’s got plans to head back to Italy to stay with the friends she made out there. She’s leaving in a few days. So … “

Jared trails off and Jensen isn’t exactly sure what’s happening but he’s getting a bad feeling, a bit like walls are closing around him. “I know I need to talk to Danni. I’m just … it’s too soon, I’m still reeling over everything … Look, it’s best that she’s heading away for a while. When she gets back—“

“I knew you’d say that. I told her that.”

“So then we’re all on the same page … “

“No, we’re not. She’s flying out today.”

Jensen blinks. “What?”

Jared looks at his watch. “I’m picking her up from the airport at 6:30. In about three hours.”

The anger is swift and Jensen stands and sweeps wide with his arms. “No, dammit! Why can’t I ever have a say in my own life? I don’t want to see her.”

“I told her that … not that you didn’t want to see her but that she needed to give you time to process. That we’d just worked out us and it was too—“

Jensen tunes out because when in all their long years of friendship, more, because really she is a sister to him … when had Danni ever listened to him?

“Your mom won’t know. Hell, she probably doesn’t even know what it smells like.”

“Then why aren’t we trying this in your house?”

“Because my mom does know. She told me about her experiences, remember?”

The two joints sat between them and Jensen fought back the simultaneous thrill and terror.

“We should go outside. To the beach.”

“Are you nuts?! We’ll freeze to death.”

“Wait till summer?”

Danni arches a brow and picks up the lighter.

“The window is open … she doesn’t come in your room that much. C’mon, Jense, live a little.”

“What if we don’t like it?”

“It’s weed, what’s not to like?”

“How do you know? You’ve never done it either.”

“I know others … who do you think I got this from?”

He stares at his best friend. Danni’s hair is in two long braids, he doesn’t spot any makeup. She looks younger than her fifteen years.

“You got it from Chris."

Jensen doesn’t wait for confirmation. Their friends Chris and Steve are juniors and have been ahead of them in everything.

A short time later, Jensen doesn’t remember what he could possibly have been worried about. The world is blissful giggles and fuzzy hunger and Danni is suggesting they pull the sofa apart and make a fort like when they were young.

Smoke is rising from the opening they left as the large pillows lean into each other and Jensen thinks it’s like a tee-pee and this leads him to make a joke about peeing and once more this is the funniest thing he’s ever heard.

“We didn’t get caught,” Jensen utters. He laughs bitterly. “Well, not that time.”

Jared is looking at him warily and Jensen knows his expression has gone dark. “It’s not your fault,” he tells Jared, whose kicked puppy look is now getting on Jensen’s nerves. “She’s the pushiest woman on the planet. Always thinks she knows what’s best for me.”

“Where were you?” Jared questions.

Jensen debates answering but ultimately caves. “Remembering the first time Danni and I got stoned.”

He sees Jared fight back a smile, like he’s unsure he’s allowed to right now. “Was it a good experience?”

The question is odd given that Jensen has smoked with Jared and Chad a few times. Mostly that led to inappropriate PDA and Chad making gagging noises.

“Yeah,” he replies. “Although I had to Lysol the living room for hours and lie to Mom that I’d accidently tracked dog shit in the house. Let me tell you … she was not pleased over that notion.”

Jared visibly shudders. “Shoulda done it outside, man.”

Jensen smiles. “Yeah, I told Danni that. But it was January and she has this thing about frostbite.”

It’s quiet and Jensen senses Jared’s hesitation, like he’s biting back words. “Just say it,” Jensen urges.

“Did your mom ever find out?”

Of course, Jared would ask that … because it always circles back to his mother.

“Not that time,” he says again and leaves it there.

“If you want to fry your brain, that’s your business, but if this mess you left behind leads to bugs there will be hell to pay, Jensen.”

Jensen had stared at the potato chip crumbs and pizza crust that littered the low coffee table and trailed onto the floor like confetti.

Danni had been there that time, too. “We’ll clean it up, Mrs. A.”

“No. You will go home. I think you’ve done enough.”

“Don’t blame—“ But Jensen had stopped because the glare he received caused an icy chill up his spine. “Maybe you should go, Dan. I got this.”

“No. I’m going to help clean up.” Danni stared at his mother in a battle of will that was threatening to turn Jensen’s hair white. To his shock, his mom blinked first.

“Not one spot,” she uttered with disgust before swooping away.

“Danni never backs away from anything,” Jensen tells Jared now.

Strong arms surround him and draw him in. He leans his head into the crook of Jared’s shoulder and nuzzles his neck. “If you don’t want to talk to her I will send her home.” Jared pulls back and Jensen is forced to straighten his head. A finger lifts his chin to meet Jared’s gaze. Jared looks fierce in the bright afternoon light, chestnut hair glowing with amber streaks. “It is up to you,” Jared says. “I’ll back anything you want.”

There’s weirdness to needing to be protected from his best friend. But there’s an even greater feeling that comes from the level of Jared’s protectiveness. It somehow even surpasses the way Danni is with him, and it feels warmer than the sun that’s turning his fiancé’s eyes more blue than ever. His fingers twitch.

“I want to paint you,” he says.

If Jared is jarred by the sudden change in topic he hides it with a quick, broadening smile. “Yeah? But, you don’t do people.”

Jensen gives him a leering gaze and Jared laughs at his own choice of words. “Shut up, you know what I mean.”

This time Jensen gets sheepish. “That’s not exactly true.”

“But … I’ve never seen any portraits,” Jared protests.

“I sketch some people, sometimes. Rarely, really.” He steps back and runs his hand over the short hairs at the back of his nape. “You … I’ve drawn you before.”

“Why haven’t you ever shown me?”

How to explain? Jensen settles for the bare truth. “It’s private. I don’t do portraits that are particularly realistic. I don’t draw like that.”

“I know that,” Jared says. “It’s what you see.” He pauses, mouth a little open as he considers further. “You drew me.”

“Yes,” Jensen replies.

Jared doesn’t say anything else. He turns to glance out the window and doesn’t face Jensen when he says, “I don’t know what to say. I think I’m maybe a little afraid of you painting me.”

“Oh, Jay, no. My only concern is not being able to capture how beautiful you are.”

That’s not a particularly Jensen thing to say and Jared turns and locks eyes with him again. “That’s usually my line.” His voice is filled with gentle teasing. And it’s true, Jared has called Jensen beautiful before and Jensen has usually squirmed and denied and fought back the ridiculous thrill it always gave him.

Beautiful only ever really makes sense about you,” Jensen says honestly.

Jared smiles and puts both hands out for Jensen to take. “Do you want us to talk to Danni together?”

It’s a sweet offer and Jensen is very tempted because Jared is so good with people and he could basically have Danni just go away without it even being confrontational. Jensen could put this off longer.

Except that Danni lied to him about his father.

It’s so huge that when he lets it sink in, it feels like bees are attacking his heart, the slow pain of a thousand stings.

“I think I need to talk to her alone,” he tells Jared. “But, Jay, I … afterward … you’ll be here?”

“That’s the thing about this marriage thing, Jen, you’re stuck with me.” Jared laughs and his eyes crinkle and Jensen just loves him so much.

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

In an Abandoned Temple
By Suchoon Mo

I come here to pray
in an abandoned temple
seekers are long gone
the road stops here
no reason to look back
on a dusty stool
a fly is still and serene
a shaft of sunlight
I sit by the fly
just two of us
the end of the long road
why am I holding a gun
aiming at nothing?

I seek no answer
there is no need
no end to turmoil
being awake in silence
stench of the temple
life and death are alike
soul is empty
a grave yard outside
flowers and grass are all dead
so are the tombstones
here I am to stay
and rest