The sand burns bright and hot under his naked feet, but he pays it no mind. The heat makes the air around him shiver with distorted images. Spectres of light that might lead travellers astray, flit by in the baking sun. While they are looking for the relief of an oasis their hope turns into ash every time they climb a dune.
They have led a traveller into peril indeed, as he can see some distance away. A figure on a camel, both animal and man slow and weak in their movements, hours, maybe minutes away from folding up and succumbing to exhaustion and thirst – soon to be a rattle of bleached bones ready to be covered by the ever wandering dunes of the desert.
He turns and watches the man for a time, considering his fate for a moment; the impact of his life, lost or gained, laid out before him in the blink of an eye. It is not a great destiny; an ordinary life, unremarkable and brief. Neither his descendants, spread out across the continents, nor he himself are going to cause a particular ripple in history with either their existence or obliteration.
He turns his back to the man, looking out towards the massive mountain range he’s been heading for and curls his toes in the sand for a moment, feeling the small grains trickle past his skin. Then he takes the next step down the side of the dune. His feet sink into the malleable sand, leaving tracks that will shift and smooth out with the next gust of wind. Still, he feels the vibrations travel down deeper into the earth, to places that are no longer hot and bone-dry, but humid and porous. Drops of water gather in answer to the clarion call from up above and slip through the minuscule spaces between the ground stone to rise to the surface. By the time he has reached the valley of the dune, his steps do no longer sink into the shifting sands, but leave distinct imprints in the packed desert soil, moisture gathering in the places where his heels leave the deepest tread.
In the lowest dip of the valley, a small reservoir has already formed when he crests the dune on the other side and he feels the seeds in the ground, having lain dry and dormant among the kernels of sand, waiting to soak up the water greedily. They will sprout and grow soon enough, forming a splendid haven around the spring for a time, but in the immediate future, there is the traveller clawing his way up on foot from the other side, no longer willing to burden his beast, lest it topple and crush him.
He looks back then, watching from afar as the traveller spots the pathetic little puddle that will save his life by chance. Watches him scramble down with an air of disbelief about him until he gets close enough to the shallow pool to bury his face in the water completely, coming up with little clumps of mud sticking to his eye lashes and beard, his tongue tasting the sweet water on his chapped lips.
He stays for a few more moments, observing the traveller cup the water in his hands to drink, drag down the reins of the mount to take his place and smiles. Then he turns once again towards the mountains behind which lies the sprawling city of Damghan, the place he actually has in his sights.
The sun has sunk and risen by the time he reaches the ridge, climbing the mountainside with ease. He lets his eyes wander over the fertile valley to the left, more and more signs of life and humanity appearing on the horizon, until he can see the entire bustling city from the top of the range. On the ground, it is a sprawling marketplace, made rich by the turnover of the Silk Road, merchants with their camel trains passing through almost daily on their way to trade with the Christian kingdoms in the West. It is filled with rowdy, random movement, sounds and smells challenging the senses, but from up above, there is direction to it, the flow of people in the streets like blood rushing through the veins of the settlement. The roofs are square and bare or covered in tents and rugs, colours washed out by the blistering sun.
He looks upon one of the beating hearts of humanity, a place wrested from the desert in daily struggle while his spirit wanders down into the cracks, beneath even the stone, were the face of the earth isn’t hard and unyielding, but ever changing and fluid, where masses beyond understanding meet and fight in an eternally slow dance. There is a rift here, two giants meeting with a clash hundreds of years in the making. Less a battle than a brush of shoulders between two unstoppable forces acting as the immovable object towards each other. He has been watching out for this moment, waiting for this time and place to meet, but for some reason he cannot wrench his gaze away from humanity, even as he steps on a flint in front of him, grinding it into the dust, sending another call down, way down, where the moment has come.
It takes a while for the giants’ brush to travel back up again, first fine tremors that the people down in the valley cannot feel, even if they were looking out for it. The animals sense it of course, the horses skittish and disobedient all of a sudden, unsettling their masters who cannot fathom what agitates their beasts until the tremor turns into a tremble at their feet, travelling up into buildings, shaking dust from the roofs. By the time they realize what is coming, it is too late, rifts are opening up that rip streets apart and swallow houses, even though to the giants, they are no more than what a split fault line of dry skin on your fingertip would be to you. He watches fear and anger and terror sweep the settlement, shaking the humans in their spirit as the quake shakes their bodies before they are consumed. Finally the cracks have travelled all the way back up to where he stands, the seemingly unmoving mountain no match for the echoes of the force way down below. It splits, stone and gravel giving way, slipping down into the valley with a thunderous roar. And in the blink of an eye, the earth has buried hundreds of thousands of its creatures in terrible silence. Standing above, his toes dug into the new-born edge of the precipice, this time, his smile has teeth.
Jared rolls down the window despite the hot air that blows instantly into the cab of the jeep, swallowing the full blast of the AC. He hangs his elbow out of the window and sucks in the unfiltered air that carries the scent of dust, manure and a whiff of diesel, before sliding the aviator sunglasses down onto his nose against the glare of the bleaching sun.
“You know, I really wouldn’t mind you being a regular American ready to experience heat only from behind half an inch of glass and a completely air conditioned atmosphere.”
Jared turns and pointedly looks at the dashboard over the rim of his glasses, where Nazan is already switching off the AC and turning on the mechanical fan as she talks. He deliberately lets some lilt seep into his voice when he answers: “You know I’m a Texan, born and bred. If there’s something I know how to handle, it’s heat. Besides, stepping from a cold car into hot desert air and back will shock your system and make you sick.”
“Hm, and you like to pretend you’re more authentic for denying yourself the civilised creature comforts while artfully creating that look of documentary filmmaker/hipster bum in the process.”
“Hey, I prefer to make my projects a full body experience, what’s wrong with that?”
Nazan shoots him a teasing look before turning her concentration back to the road and following up with a jab he’s come to expect and somewhat appreciate from the Kurdish woman. She has done an excellent job so far of acting as his guide, translator and assistant director in his endeavour to document the Middle Eastern refugee movement as well as becoming a good friend, so it’s her due.
“What’s wrong is you commemorating this trip with the annual rings of sweat. That shirt is in serious need of a wash, my friend.”
Jared squashes the instant reflex of lifting his arms to sniff check the places where he knows well enough that his perspiration really has crusted into salty rings under the pits to chronicle the various stages of his desert-dwelling work.
He spots Nazan grinning and shaking her head since she apparently caught the aborted movement just fine. Jared settles on just scowling at her for a moment for her teasing, before turning to defiantly stick his head out of the open window and into the breeze whipping around the car. He will think up a more witty repartee any second now for sure.
That particular project doesn’t get anywhere, though. His eyes snag on the tall figure of a man walking parallel to the road, but some ways out in the fields. Ash-blond and light-skinned – unmistakably Caucasian – he looks out of place, but somehow even more so than he should. Something in his walk, the single-mindedness of his steps feels off to Jared, incongruous in the landscape of farmland and rocky pasture. His silhouette swims in and out of focus too, as if he is surrounded by the flares of sunlight that forge the pretence of water in the desert, where there’s only dusty air and hot sand.
“Hey, can you believe this guy over there, just walking in the middle of the fields. I wonder what his deal is.”
Nazan cranes her head over his shoulder for a moment before turning back to the road ahead of them.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, I don’t see anyone out in the fields.”
“Of course there is, we just passed him, he’s right there!”
Jared’s points out of the window, but they’re travelling fast and in the rear-view mirror, the shape is already distorted beyond recognition, more of a shade than a person. He blinks fast, trying to make his eyes focus and sharpen the contours but they have outpaced the man so far already, there’s no chance to get a clear image anymore.
“I could have sworn…”
Nazan flicks her eyes up into the rearview mirror and back at Jared.
“Maybe you should get your head out of that sun, you sound like you took too much of a dose. There’s no one there.”
“Maybe it was a trick of the light after all. Weird, I thought you’d get Fata Morganas only out in the desert.”
Nazan responds with a snort and whacks him on the arm with the back of her hand.
“Get it together big guy, we’re almost there. You can hunt desert spectres in your free time.”
They arrive at the biggest refugee camp outside of the Turkish border city of Kilis a few minutes later. The container village houses thousands of people, even with schools and medical facilities beginning to crop up in thesemi-permanent habitation. But the influx of new arrivals is still strong enough to have washed a small shanty town of tents around the edges of the camp, which is exactly where Jared wants to go even though that area isn’t quite what his issued filming permit has in mind. He puts together his filming and photo equipment while Nazan is off dealing with the officials on site. She has proven herself to be a tough negotiator on his behalf, alternately charming or bowling over reticent public officials with her no-nonsense attitude and cemented his confidence in the decision to take on a female stringer in this milieu. Besides, the women react differently to her, giving him access to shots and stories he’s quite sure he wouldn’t have been able to get on his own, even if the language barrier didn’t exist.
He’s content to let Nazan take point on the introductions, unobtrusively filming the preliminary interviews once they’ve got permission and only supplementing his own questions once Nazan gives him a run-down of what she’s talked about with their participant. There are people who do speak English, from rudimentary to well-versed – and sometimes they address Jared directly, like Yara, a young woman who has been watching them mindfully for quite a while, before she comes over to introduce herself. Jared answers a couple of pointed questions about the purpose and theme of his work, but is able to satisfy her with his answers well enough that she agrees to mic up and tell of her experience. Jared is instantly taken with her, since she is a natural storyteller, an elementary teacher as it turns out. Yet, even though they’re conducting the interview in English, Jared takes a step back, letting Nazan take the lead. She is much better at directing the ebb and flow of the conversation, while avoiding communicational pitfalls and she knows which questions to ask to get the content Jared is looking for without striking a wrong note.
He concentrates on the camera, the framing of the shot, where to zoom in organically to follow Yara’s emotional journey and when to widen the shot again to capture a bit of background as well, illustrating the way people move about the camp, trying to develop routines and a semblance of daily life. He doesn’t mean to get side-tracked, considers it part of professional courtesy and respect to fully engage his mind with a contributor’s story. But as he concentrates on the small flip screen of the camera, he notices movement in a corner. A man drifts by in between the tent flaps, just another blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, but Jared is instantly sure that it must be the man he saw out in the fields. He wants to jump up and go after him immediately, confirm that it wasn’t just a figment of his imagination, but he still has a job to do here and it might ruin their footage if he just leaves the camera unattended now, never mind that it would interrupt the interview. Still, he can’t quell the nervous energy that suddenly crawls under his skin, making him fidget and fiddle with the equipment unnecessarily. It earns him a shrewd sideways glance from Nazan, who instantly picks up on his uncharacteristic disquiet. She starts winding the interview down from there, and he should be angry at himself for sending the wrong signal, because this young woman in front of them is clearly a spectacular find, but Jared can’t help and be grateful to his partner for taking her cues so seamlessly.
When they’ve arrived at the post-interview formalities, Jared barely hesitates another second before making his excuses. He heads for the opening between the tents, feeling vaguely guilty about leaving Nazan and Yara to their own devices so abruptly, but driven by an unsettling impulse. When he caught a second glimpse of him just now, the man stuck out to Jared with the same kind of incongruity, something he can’t really put his finger on. It piques his investigative instincts, though not quite in a suspicious way, not yet. After all there’s a good chance, the man has a perfectly good reason for being here, just like him and Nazan do. Still, it’s chafing against his senses in a way he can’t let go.
Of course the man is nowhere to be seen once Jared’s cleared the first row of tents and he curses internally, picking a direction at random, to see if he can catch sight of the mystery man again. He makes a couple of turns, trying to orient himself and then actually lucks out when he spots a flash of ash-blonde hair in the gap between two tents. The man moves swiftly and before he can even think to call out, Jared’s fingers have already closed around the photo camera he carries everywhere he goes. This might be his one chance to get lasting evidence that he’s not chasing after a ghost, slow down this moment to a snapshot he can make sense of later. He lifts the camera and focuses through the finder, zeroes in on the man who is walking diagonally away from him. The angle is inconvenient, against the sun and crowded with the tents, but the man turns mid-step and Jared just manages a series of rapid shutter shots of his profile, breath sticking in his lungs at the sheer presence that radiates from those features, thrown into stark contrast as they are.
He loses sight of the man again before he can pick his way through the sprawling, disorganized jumble of dwellings to the other side and by the time he ends up roughly where he saw the man walking just a minute ago, there is no trace of him either way. Jared picks a direction at random, but the uncanny sense that led him to this spot doesn’t seem to be working any longer. Instead he ends up remarkably close to where he left Nazan to wrap up their latest segment on her own. In fact, she finds him right there, flipping back and forth between the rapid fire shots he took.
“So, did you find your Fata Morgana?”
“What? Why would you…, how did you know?”
“A hunch. You’ve never before thrown an interview like that, even if it was just the tail-end and you had that look in your eye, like you were going after something.”
Jared nods and thrusts the camera into her hands by way of explanation. The images are surprisingly blurry, even though he is quite sure he had the focus placed well enough when he took them. Either way they’ve captured the man’s stature and give a basic idea of his features to prove at least that he was there. Nazan looks at the pictures for quite some time, slowly flicking through the series and pondering each one for a minute while Jared grows rather fidgety at her silence. Finally she looks up at him, opening her mouth, but stays silent for a beat or two, until Jared can’t bear it any longer.
“I… you know, Jared, those are beautiful pictures, the lighting is excellent and we should definitely work them into the documentary as stills somewhere, but… there’s no one in them.”
Jared takes an involuntary step back, then rushes forward to take the camera, looking frantically at the images, half-convinced that his mind is playing tricks on him. But there he is, the mysterious man, not clear enough to make out his individual features, true, as he’s turned away from the camera at an awkward angle, but very obviously a person.
“What… seriously, I can’t… look at this, he’s right here!”
Jared points at the screen, traces the silhouette with his fingertip, so Nazan can follow him. But she just frowns harder and flicks her eyes up at him dubiously.
“There’s a lot of shadows, that look kind of unusual in their angle, and might be person-shaped, but there’s definitely not an actual person in there”, she lets a small smile stretch her lips as a prelude for more good natured ribbing. “Are you sure it’s not your special eagle eyes?”
“I’m tetrachromatic, not Hawkeye. Just because I can see a couple of thousand more shades of colour than you do, doesn’t mean I have superhuman vision and can’t see things that aren’t there. And I’m telling you, he’s there in the picture and I saw him.”
Nazan fixes him with a stern look that softens after a moment. She doesn’t look convinced, but also clearly thinks this argument is going nowhere fast.
“Alright big guy, I believe we have to agree to disagree on that one. How about we go back to work and get some more B-Roll from the camp?”
Jared decides to let it lie for the moment, and follows her back to their previous spot.
He moves slowly past the boundaries of the camp and up a small incline that removes him from the immediate vicinity of the people while at the same time giving him a vantage point to look over the hastily cobbled-together settlement. He casts his mind’s eye further and further from this place, along the unmarked roads which have been tread into the earth by the feet of weary travellers. People like to ascribe borders where nature has made none and he ordinarily doesn’t pay much attention to them, but this is a movement of not only men and women, but culture, language, traditions, bloodlines that goes beyond the self-ascribed boundaries of humanity. The land is bleeding people, and those who stay bleed themselves for their audacity. He has been watching the shift for some time now, slow and incremental at first, when the structure of a failing giant was being held together by strongmen who for decades had no other interest than holding onto their power by resisting change. It’s a notion he sneers at in the privacy of his own mind, knowing how brittle and hollowed out their petty fiefdoms have become. Power itself is not prone to inertia, it flows this way and that, bucking those who would hold it tight all the harder for it. In the end, the old is turned over the new with no regard of those who would oppose it, and wherever that turning point happens to be, is where he finds himself.
But for all the misery and peril that chases so many away from their heartland, their livelihood, their roots, there is something new emerging here too. A new kind of bond, of community, of compassion and defiance in the face of adversity. It is what makes humanity so utterly fascinating: its two-faced nature of creating the greatest hope and comfort out of its relentless drive to possess or destroy. Some will ultimately go back, trying to reclaim and rebuild what they’ve lost; some will move on, striking out towards land and societies that hold the promise of freedom and security, no matter how tumultuous the journey and sobering the arrival. And some are already trying to put their lives back together right here in this ephemeral purgatory. The fates gathered here are as plentiful as the people, all laid out for him like a tapestry, threads weaving together into an image that is both history and future. He stands and takes in all at once the individual impacts these lives will have through their existence. There is one strand though, that doesn’t open up to him. A single, not quite discordant note among the cacophony. A future he can’t see. And it calls to him, like the struggle of a caught fly sends a shivery call along the gossamer threads of the web to summon the spider.
There is too much noise, too many people in one place for him to feel out where exactly this curious anomaly of a person is in the camp, but before he can think up a way to find out, they move closer on their own accord. The bright white comet’s trail of the unknown winds like a serpent through the patchwork blend of the many shades that make up the imprint of a human life. He follows it with his inner eye to the point where it separates from the boundaries of the camp, transfixed by its enigmatic grace. It hones in on him, closer and closer until it is so bright, it’s blinding. When he blinks rapidly, his vision clears, revealing a young man standing right in front of him. Not only that – his eyes don’t glance off, skittering past him the way human’s in his sights tend to, no, he’s looking boldly at him, catching his eye with a half raised eyebrow, as if that in itself wasn’t a momentous thing.
“So, you are real after all, huh.”
The young man studies his face as if he expects to find an answer in his features somewhere.
“You see me.”
There is equal part marvel and wariness in his response, but his new companion just lets out a small laugh.
“Believe me, I wasn’t so sure about that myself for a second. You seem to have a particular talent at escaping people’s notice. I’m Jared, by the way.”
The man, Jared, holds out his hand with his palm up and open, a gesture obviously inviting him to take it, so he does. Jared’s skin is warm and a little rough on this inside of his palm as their hands slide together until their thumbs hook into each other and their fingers reflexively close into a firm grip. That first moment of contact sends a jolt through his system, making the hair on his arm stand on end in the most peculiar way. This is the first time he has touched a human being in millennia and he savours the experience as something long forgotten, but mesmerizing.
“This is ordinarily the part where you say your name in return?”
The question throws him for a loop – it’s not that there isn’t a name. There are many choices, different sounds attached to different pleas depending on where they come from. Anann, for example, on that small green island in the Northern seas to beg her for harvest and children and her knowledge about portents of war. Xipe Totec far South in the treelands, called to keep cycle of life turning from death to birth and onwards. Kali in the rich, colourful temples in the East, Set in the desert surrounding the great river. Eris, the goddess of strife, to call on her mischievous ways. Khaos, the ever revolving force of creation. He has answered to all of them at some point, but neither they, nor any of the others he’s been called seem to fit in this instance. And Jared’s eyebrows have sunken down his forehead, giving him an expression of somewhat troubled confusion that indicates this contemplation has likely gone on too long. He casts around for a name that might be appropriate to call himself in this situation, and finds, almost worn away and faded, the memory of the name his body once went by.
Jared had begun to wonder whether he’d come on too strong, just strolling up and introducing himself, trying to strike up a conversation. But he couldn’t believe his luck when he had spotted a figure on the small hill that overlooked the camp that upon closer inspection had turned out to be the stranger. His feet were just heading in his direction of their own accord and in no time, he’d stood right in front of the man, suddenly at a loss of what to do next, feeling a bit like the dog who caught the bus. But, reading and establishing a rapport with people who aren’t particularly sure they want to talk to him in the first place is what he does for a living. So he is reasonably certain the open and honest approach would work with this man, he’s so desperately curious to find out more about.
“Wow, that’s an unusual name, where’s it come from?”
Jensen scrunches up his nose a little, as if he has to cast around for the memory, which gives Jared the chance to notice that their hands are still locked in the handshake that has gone on entirely too long by now not to be very awkward.
“The Danes, I believe. I can’t really recall for certain.”
Jared cringes at his utter lack of smoothness as he surreptitiously tries to disentangle their fingers. Jensen follows his movement like he’d rather not stop touching, but lets his arm sink after a few moments. Jared feels rather wrong-footed by the entire exchange so far. This isn’t going at all how he anticipated, but at the same time, there’s nothing inherently strange about it either. Just a weird vibe that hangs in the air between them, which is probably why Jared flees into the next best conversational cliché that pops into his mind.
“So what brings you here – if you don’t mind me asking? I’m here with my small crew to film a documentary on the refugee movement, by the way.”
“Oh, you mean like an impartial observer, making sure everyone gets treated OK. Like, are you working for a government or some kind of human rights organization?”
Jensen seems to earnestly ponder the question before answering: “Of a sort, I guess. It’s more of a… scholarly endeavour.”
Jared slowly feels like they’re balancing at regular small talk levels and he begins to relax into the exchange.
“So you travel around a lot?”
“Constantly, I never stay in one place for too long.”
“I know that, believe me. I love my job, don’t get me wrong, getting around, meeting new people and hearing their stories. But starting fresh at every new location can be straining too, and sometimes lonely. And even with the technology these days where it feels like you can take your friends with you everywhere you go and they’re just a click away… it’s not the same as going out, getting a pint and slapping each other on the back from time to time.”
“Hmmm, I don’t really interact with people much. You’re the first in a long time to approach me, in fact.”
Jared didn’t read any hostility in that statement, but he became abruptly aware that he might have interrupted an important task by just bumbling up like he had.
“Oh, I … am so sorry, I promise I’ll bug out if I’m bothering you, just say the word. I didn’t mean to interrupt your day, it’s just… when I saw you around, you – caught my eye.”
“No, you don’t need to go. I don’t mind… actually, I find it a rather refreshing change of pace. It’s good to know that I can still hold a conversation with a human being. I’m just a little… out of practice.”
Jensen rewards him with a brilliant smile that lights up his features and stretches just a smidge too broadly. It gives the expression a touch of menace that Jared is sure, wasn’t intended, but proves all the same that Jensen’s interpersonal skills really aren’t quite up to snuff. It doesn’t detract from his appeal, on the contrary, Jared is more and more fascinated the longer they talk. He casts around for something to keep this strange man engaged, to get a chance to know him better, when an idea pops into his head.
“What would you say to taking a break from your observation and doing something more hands on for a change? I promise to deliver you back to your Ivory Tower in now time.”
“I don’t live in an Ivory Tower.”
“Oh, it’s… no, it’s a figure of speech, not an actual… you know what? Never mind, just follow me?”
Jared waits just long enough for Jensen to grab his outstretched hand, before hop-sliding down the incline towards the edge of the camp.
Jensen – and isn’t that strange, he hasn’t thought of himself with a proper name for years, decades, yet in the presence of this one man, who sees him, those syllables have attached themselves to him in a matter of minutes. As if Jared is creating a person solely out of random questions and the blanks he fills in himself while Jensen lets him. It’s easy to let himself be swept along with the exuberance and friendly energy. When they’re back at the camp, Jared first seeks out a young woman, to introduce him:
“Jensen, this is Nazan, my colleague and filming partner; Nazan, this is Jensen, not a figment of my imagination.”
“Hello Jensen, not a figment of Jared’s imagination. Nice to meet you.”
She shakes his hand with a suspicious glint in her eye, as if she can sense that his corporeal form, which he’s allowed to be visible to anyone right now, is just a thin layer of cells that form a precarious barrier between her and the kind of power the human mind is not equipped to handle in it’s raw, pure form.
“Nice to meet you too.”
“I invited Jensen to spend the afternoon with us, while we’re networking, I hope you don’t mind?”
“Why would I mind, one more pair of hands, that is, if you don’t have objections over getting a bit dirty?”
He looks at Jared in askance, who blushes slightly.
“Uhm, right, maybe I should have explained that – between doing interviews and shoots for the documentary, we like to donate our time and help around the camps, build housing and tents, help with distribution of goods, stuff like that. It’s also a good way to start talking to people, get to know them. Those people have been through a lot and they tend to open up much more if you’re working alongside them. Besides, it’s a way to actually make a difference right here on the ground, but it’s not photo-op ready or something, just… helping out. So, you up for it?”
Jensen turns it over in his head for a moment, before nodding.
Jared follows Nazan to a corner of the camp, where a couple of newly arrived families are clearly working on setting up one of those big party tents that isn’t really supposed to be lived in, but with so many people arriving daily still, there’s not much that doesn’t get repurposed in any way possible. They get wary glances at the beginning, but Nazan has become very adept at offering help in a way that doesn’t feel intrusive or condescending. And when Jared and Jensen share a look before stepping to opposite ends and using their considerable height to set up the flysheet over the frame in one fell swoop, they’re pretty much set. Jared has learned how to set up essential temporary housing of all sorts pretty well over the course of the filming process. He’s also become very attuned to figuring out who is most out of their depth, and it is people from all walks of life. In fact, Jared is often thrown by the number of well-educated academics that are among the refugees; people that were leading comfortable, successful lives as engineers, business owners, lawyers before their communities and cities were reduced to rabble. The people one would assume have the means to seek exile in a safer, faster way, once they decide leave. But these families have walked dozens of miles on their feet, with just the possessions they can carry with them comprising their entire life and often the packs are light.
War makes equals of people in the most terrifying way.
This time around though, their work has a different quality, as he falls into a rhythm with Jensen that is just companionable and easy. Especially when Jensen starts talking to people in their native tongues after staying silent at first and completely following Jared’s lead. Jared speaks some Arabic and understands a little more, but it’s by far not enough to follow Jensen’s conversations in terms of words. Still, he has spent a lot of time within communities with a language barrier and reading a lot of context from gestures and expressions is a part of his trade. He also notices Nazan listening with increasing interest, though she had clearly not quite been taken with Jensen in their first meeting.
When Jensen gets them invited to an evening meal in a corner of the camp where they haven’t really been welcome up to now by animatedly chatting with a stooped, wizened Jidda, Nazan tugs him aside.
“Jared, seriously, who the hell is this guy?”
Jared shrugs: “I honestly have no idea. I mean, I’ve honestly known him for a couple of hours, it shouldn’t feel this familiar and comfortable to just… hang out and tag along, should it?”
“No, it shouldn’t, but I’ve already set up three new interviews for tomorrow, three! I’m not above biting my tongue to keep from looking that gift horse in the mouth, but that is one peculiar fella.”
Jared knows this whole day has been peculiar, but when Jensen catches his eye across the camping stove and hands him a plate with a delicious smelling stew dish, Jared can’t find it in himself to care. He knows he should be more suspicious of Jensen’s murky background and supposedly rusty people skills, but there is something about the man that just, draws him in, like a moth to a flame. Only Jared feels that it is not mindless instinct that lets him forget all caution, it’s like he’ll take getting burnt over not getting to experience what the heart of the flame looks like, the deceptively cold blue mixed with bright brandished gold. It’s exhilarating and unsettling at the same time.
When the evening’s wound down and he and Nazan get ready to drive back to their hotel in the city, Jared offers Jensen to ride with them, while Nazan is busy packing the rest of their gear into the rental. But the other man just waves him off:
“Thanks, I’ll make my own way.”
“Yes, quite. This was a very instructive experience, I shall not leave it so long again, to actually talk to people and hear their stories from their own lips. Thank you again for that.”
“Really? Well, I’m glad I didn’t waste your time,“ Jared adds self-deprecatingly. “Alright, just, let me…”
He turns around to rummage through the pockets of his camera bag until he finds what he’s looking for and triumphantly brandishes a slightly worn and creased card.
“Here’s my contact info, if you… Jensen?”
Jared trails off with his hand outstretched when he realizes that there’s no one where Jensen was standing just a seconds ago. In fact he can’t even see him walking away even though they’re already outside the camp and there is a lot of free space all around them.
“Jared, are you all set?”
Nazan is already sitting behind the wheel, clearly ready to leave.
“I… We were just saying goodbye and I was going to give Jensen my card, but he’s just up and gone, like vanished into thin air.”
Nazan frowns a little.
“Huh, that is kinda rude. But hey, maybe he did have an appointment to get to, you did derail his day after all. Or he IS a ninja type person and has a reputation to uphold?” She finishes with a smile. “Well, he knows where to find us for the next three days anyway. I have a feeling, he’ll turn up.”
He doesn’t though. And not for the lack of Jared keeping a look out. He just can’t spot Jensen anywhere, whenever they go back to camp over the next few days. He’s half tempted to believe he dreamed up the whole encounter, if not for the many people who remember the bright, courteous young man to ask after him when they go in for their scheduled interviews the following day. It’s odd, really. They didn’t end up talking much past that initial ice breaking conversation, but Jared feels in working together to help the campers and watching Jensen interact with other people, he’s learned more about the other man than if he’d pelted him with questions all afternoon. He saw Jensen be kind and considerate, eloquent and animated in discussion; open to people’s stories and eager to learn about their customs and traditions. He saw him puzzled by things he didn’t understand, odd, unexpected things one would expect a person to know today and yet be knowledgeable about obscure details, like a specific dialect only spoken by one newly arrived family, who look at him with big, shining eyes when he answered their questions with the cadence of their little village in his voice.
“You’re mooning again, Jared.”
“You’ve been staring at the horizon for the last five minutes, undoubtedly pondering the many virtues and mysteries of your fickle beau.”
“He’s not my beau - and where did you even learn that word?”
“Pseudo-Victorian romance novels. And so you don’t deny that you’ve been pondering him then?”
“Pshhh, if you admit to reading trashy romance novels, you have waived your right to teasing me about shit.”
“They don’t need to be trashy there is a whole host of very high-brow Pseudo-Victorian romance novels, I’ll have you know.”
Jared looks sideways at Nazan with a raised brow.
“You’re not serious.”
She keeps her poker face for about three seconds before bursting out laughing.
“Of course I’m not serious, they’re all trashy and I love it that they are. Your face though, seriously.”
Jared slouches down in his seat while Nazan peels off towards the main road in a cloud of dust.
“I’m glad to provide an endless source of entertainment to you.”
“Oh, come on, you love getting teased. Don’t deny it. And I know for a fact that you’ve nicked a few of those novels from my bag, too.”
“Ha, keep telling yourself that.”
They both are smiling right now, the banter well-worn and familiar, when Nazan’s features clear with a more earnest expression.
“You know that we should think about moving on though.”
Jared fidgets a little and sighs under his breath. He’s had the same thought, they have half a dozen camp locations still to cover and they’d planned on giving about equal time to all of them. There’s been a lot of fascinating interactions and tons of great raw footage to be shot in this place, but diversity is still something they both agreed should be a big part of the documentary.
“I know, and I agree. We should take a day or two in the city to review the material we got from this run and then map out our next stop.”
There are people all around him, a busy city population moving around him like a school of fish flitting about between the corrals of a reef and he isn’t quite sure how he got here. After saying his goodbyes to Jared, he has walked, thinking, processing the eye-opening events of the day. He has spent so many days watching from afar, seen humanity grow from a barely pi-pedal ape into a swarm that covered the face of the earth, left their mark on the mother with awesome monuments and grandiose catastrophes both. But rarely has he bothered to step in from the great into the small, hear people’s stories from their own lips instead of woven out into the tapestry of fate – so intricate that the little details that enrich the fabric and give it life all but vanish in the grand design. But walking among them, talking to them has opened him to a whole host of experiences he hasn’t known in a long, long time. Partaking in food and drink, observing the old and the young together, one teaching the other to be patient and resourceful, and getting taught in return to be boisterous and open, it has given him a unique perspective. And it has apparently led his steps into the heart of one of their cities, following a finely spun thread…
That apparently leads to Jared, who’s standing right in front of him again, while the crowd parts and flows around them as if they’re rocks in a stream.
“I… what are the chances, huh, are you on leave in the city, or just passing through, and by the way, did we miss each other at camp, because if I haven’t seen you these past few days… and I’m seriously babbling, I’ll stop now.”
Jensen can barely follow the words that bubble out of Jared in a rapid pace, but one stands out.
“Uhm,… yes, it’s been three days since we met each other. Well, since you were just gone from one moment to the next. We haven’t seen you since then.”
He blinks slowly at the implication. Normally he doesn’t keep up with the days, noting the change from light to dark and back just peripherally, as nothing of great consequence. But, he abruptly realizes, that’s not how it works for most of the creatures in this world. They’re bound by time and the rhythms of nature in a much shorter vacillation than he is used to.
“I’m… sorry. I was thinking, I tend to lose track of time.”
“Oh, well, somehow I’m not surprised. Wait, have you eaten? I know this little café, just a few blocks that way, do you want to get some late breakfast? My treat.”
“I could eat. I guess.”
“Awesome, here, this way.”
Jared lays his hand on his shoulder blade to gently stir him in the right direction, the contact charged with another strange pulse between them, and Jensen feels the weight and heat down to his bones long after Jared lets his fingers slip away. He’s well aware that a simple touch should not leave such an impression, but he can’t help feeling the tremors it sends through him and he longs for it like a parched man can only think of water.
They sit down at a small iron-wrought table on the sidewalk and soon there’s an assortment of soft bread, cheeses, olives, tomatoes, cucumbers and two glasses of strongly aromatic tea laid out in front of them. He lets the different salty, earthy flavours burst on his tongue while Jared launches into an account of what he and Nazan have been up to these past couple of days, telling tales of the people they’d helped together, but also new folks that he got to know after. They’ve worked most of their way through the magnificent spread, when Jared catches his eye and asks: “So what have you been up to, really?”
“Well, walking. Thinking, like I said.”
“The whole three days? Are you sure this isn’t your version of the ‘I told you, I’d have to kill you’-speech?”
“What? No, why would I want to kill you?”
“It’s… you know, never mind. Walk with me?”
Jared pushes a couple of bills under one of the tea glasses and stands, motioning for Jensen to follow him.
“Have you been to Kilis before? I haven’t had much chance to explore, but I’ve found some nice spots near my hotel.”
“No, I don’t think I… well maybe, but it was a long time ago. Things looked much different then, I’m not quite sure.”
“Well, there’s this park, with a pond that is inhabited by the most hilarious raft of ducks you can imagine…”
Jensen walks with Jared as he perkily prattles on about the mischievous animals who find all sorts of ways to get people to feed them, even though it’s technically not allowed and shows him a video on his phone of a small brood who is being encouraged to bath in the shallows by momma duck that he took earlier. They spend the day dawdling away with the chattering ducks and discussing the architecture of the modern, growing city around them. They even play a few rounds of outdoor chess until Jared throws up his hands exaggerated disgust because he can’t get a leg up against Jensen in the game, who continues to tease him about his most amateurish moves. They don’t even notice how the sky is slowly turning mauve until the end up in front of a tall, glass-fronted building that turns out to be Jared’s hotel.
They stand in the entryway of the hotel in an awkward pause that Jared isn’t quite sure how to bridge. It hadn’t occurred to him until now that he’s taken Jensen basically on a date-like outing without so much as a ‘by your leave’. Still, while it didn’t feel like it during the day, Jared realizes that they’re basically at the point where there’s two ways to go: say goodbye and hope for a next time – and considering he basically stumbled upon Jensen by accident both times they spent time together, that’s a big If – or ask him up. Jared’s not sure how that invitation would be received, since Jensen’s shown himself to be very knowledgeable on many different topics they’d discussed during the afternoon, but he also continues to display a baffling lack of ability in picking up social cues. He did seem very receptive to Jared’s casual touches, but Jared’s instincts are pinging in all kinds of different directions here, so he just can’t be sure. Ultimately, the silence of the moment has stretched out into way-past-awkward territory and Jared decides that he cannot miss his chance, but scrapes together only just enough courage to go for the alibi cop-out version.
“So, I’ve been working on the segments from the other day, some preliminary sorting and editing – would you like to come up and see some of the dailies? We can even order something up, if you’re hungry, I didn’t even realize it was dinnertime already.”
Jensen looks privately pleased and relieved when he nods, as if he’d been looking for a way to prolong their excursion as well. Jared is heartened by the fact that doesn’t seem to have put his foot in it just yet. He beckons Jensen to follow him inside the busy lobby which is beautifully lit by the burnished light of the sinking sun that filters through the full glass front and tinges everything in reds, yellows, oranges.
When Jared opens the door to his room, he’s glad that he at least took the time today to send a bag down to laundry, or else his clothes would have been strewn all over. As it stands, the room is mid-sized, but airy, reasonably tidy and predictably utilitarian. He shoves his half-filled suitcase out of the way into a corner and offers Jensen a seat in front of a large screen laptop that’s paused on some raw material.
“I don’t have a full editing bay here, of course, that’s too much of a hassle to lug around and way too valuable to travel comfortably with it, but I still like to sweep and trim the footage a little on the go, just to get a sense of what we actually have in the can, how it might fit together and what we might want to go out and look for specifically.”
He leans over Jensen’s shoulder to flip through some shots and clips, selecting familiar segments from the afternoon they spent together. Though Jensen somehow managed to miraculously never end up in any of the shots in any way he might be recognizable – not that Jared had checked for that. They get surprisingly lost in the review, Jensen pointing out some people’s answers as particularly poignant or commenting on the great lighting of a shot that enhances the mood and draws the eye – something Jared is particularly proud of, since he basically uses none but natural light and it limits the scope of artistic choices in that direction, while on the other hand adding a certain brand of realism to the footage that makes it more immediate, more focused. The chance to display and discuss something he is so passionate about serves well to distract Jared from agonizing back and forth with himself on whether he should make a move or not.
It only works until he gets a beer for Jensen and himself by stupidly and decadently raiding the minibar. With his back turned, he takes a deep breath and tells himself not to be such a wuss before handing Jensen the bottle, their hands touching with that little spark of static electricity that they always seem to be trading back and forth between them. He leans against the counter and takes a deep draft, watching Jensen do the same as they trade glances. Follows the movement of Jensen’s throat with his eyes from the line of his jaw to the dip between his collarbones. Let’s Jensen see him looking. He doesn’t see aversion there when his gaze wanders back up, just open curiosity and a sliver of hesitance as tension rises between them. The moment stretches until Jensen breaks it by letting his eyes skitter away and getting up with a sudden burst of nervous energy that propels him towards the French windows leading out to the meagre excuse of a balcony. Jared recognizes in that instant that it’s really his move and he needs to do it now or miss his chance. Almost like an afterthought, his hand shoots out, catching Jensen’s elbow, turning his momentum into a pivot towards Jared that stops just short of their chests colliding. He doesn’t give Jensen the chance to regain his equilibrium before sliding his other hand along the nape of his neck, tilting up his mouth into the solid pressure of a kiss that stays almost unmoving for a long beat before Jensen opens up to him with a gasp of breath.
Jared presses in closer, just taking in Jensen’s exhaled breath for a moment before caressing his lips with small, tender kisses that map out Jensen’s mouth while he draws him fully between the V of his splayed thighs. It’s not a difficult thing at all to gauge the mutual interest when their hips bump, but this the very moment that breaks the spell, with Jensen suddenly drawing back and putting an arms’ length between them, though he doesn’t shrug of Jared’s hands. Instead he looks at Jared with big eyes and a stunned expression, chest rising and falling with rapid breaths. Jared instantly feels a guilty knot in his stomach for bowling Jensen over just like that instead of maybe opening his mouth first to communicate his desires to make sure they were welcomed, so he rushes to apologize:
“I’m so sorry, I… did I read this wrong? I felt like there was… Seriously, if I came on too strong or you’re not interested, it’s totally fine, you…”
Jensen’s expression morphs from surprise to confusion and then distress, while he steps closer again into Jared’s space.
“No, don’t… you did nothing wrong, I just…”
The penny drops pretty fast just then, when Jared guesses: “… haven’t been with a man before?”
“I never… I’d never thought of it.”
“It’s alright, I… we don’t have to do anything, we can totally stop and forget all about it.”
Jensen’s hands tighten painfully on his arms for a moment and he answers in a low, urgent tone: “But what if I want to go on?”
Jensen almost shies away from the sound of his own voice, the whisper barely containing the magnitude of heat and want Jared’s irreverent kiss has ignited in him. He is no stranger to the physical expression of human desire, it’s a fact of life that he has witnessed often enough to know the ins and outs and the sometimes rather sideways ideas people get when they come together in a maelstrom of passion. But he has always watched from a distance – no man or woman has ever seen him the way Jared did, or touched him that way. And he isn’t prepared for the storm of sensations that comes with it, another world of experience opened up by Jared like he has done with so many already in the short time they’ve spent together. And now Jared smiles brightly, obviously neither frightened, nor particularly hesitant anymore.
“Then we don’t stop. We can do whatever you like, you’re in charge, alright? Just tell me, what you want.”
“I want you to kiss me again, I want you to touch me so I can feel the heat of you down to my bones.”
The words have barely left his mouth when Jared draws him in again, and with permission granted, crashes their lips together again, open and fierce this time when he’d been tentative before, tongues and teeth and skin dancing to an old, old song and he feels the storm roar inside of him like Jared is laying a finger onto a raw nerve in his very core. Suddenly the barrier of clothing between them is too much, he needs skin, hands scrambling at the hem of Jared’s shirt, tugging, almost ripping the collar in an effort to get it off without really stopping their kiss and who invented shirts without buttons anyway, they should be punished.
Jared slowly steers them away from the counter and towards the bed, where they tumble down in a tangle of limbs and thankfully less and less clothing, every touch a new and dizzying revelation as they press ever closer. Heat and friction rise between them, gathering into an untameable surge that has Jensen for a grip across Jared’s arms, shoulders, chest, anywhere to find an anchor against the tide. And Jared reacts without being told, slows them down, gentling his wandering hands and kissing his temple as they lie chest to chest, nude and panting.
“It’s alright, alright, I don’t want you to miss this in the rush,” he says, turning around to rummage in the night stand for a small bottle that he snicks open to spread some kind of gel over his hand. He leans forward to taste the salty skin of Jensen’s chest, scraping his teeth lightly over the erect nipple creating a starburst of shivery gooseflesh around it, while his hand slips down between them. He kisses his way up Jensen’s neck in a move that does nothing to distract Jensen from the large, slick palm closing around them both in a firm grip.
Jensen barely manages to take in a sharp breath as the contrast between slightly callused and silky hard skin sets his mind ablaze. Jared’s hand moves slowly and surely between them, murmuring encouragements against Jensen’s cheek that he can only answer with breathy moans, while his heart feels like it might burst out of his chest. He feels the peak gather inwards from toes and fingers into a solid coil in the pit of his stomach, winding tighter with every stroke and he seeks out Jared’s mouth again as an anchor, to centre himself as the slow and steady rhythm grows a little more erratic, Jared’s fingers pressing them together in a way that is just this side of too much, until it all unravels like a wave washing outward from the place they’re connected to the very edges of his being. He lets himself drift away through the wild tangles of sensation, a small scale re-enactment of death and rebirth in which he recognizes the reflection of his divine soul.
Jared lets them catch their breath for a few moments, catching Jensen’s eyes to make sure how very much fine he is with what happened just now, before grinning broadly and hopping out of bed to fetch a wash cloth to clean them both up with. He then burrows into the comforter at Jensen’s side and tugs him against his chest with a small yawn.Listening to Jared’s steady, calming heartbeat Jensen lets himself drift down to sleep for the first time in millennia, his mind settled and quiet.
Jensen finds himself contemplating Jared’s sleep-slack features with no desire to move in order to disturb the peaceful serenity surrounding their little cocoon of warmth. Instead he lets his mind wander, marvelling at the way the short time spent with this inquisitive, passionate young man has enthralled him to the human condition. He ponders what they might discover together next, both in terms of physical pleasure, which is something he very much plans to explore in great detail very soon, and food for thought. The morning sun is slowly creeping through the curtains and Jared will probably rouse soon, but until then, Jensen is content to study his features, taking in the clean, handsome lines of his face along with the small imperfections that make it actually beautiful.
“What do you think you’re doing, brother mine?”
He just about manages to keep from flinching at the voice that shatters the silence out of nowhere and turns around very slowly to meet the piercing blue eyes of the petite blond woman that stands at the edge of the bed, clutching in her hands a heavy bound journal fitted with a gold cord that glints in the first light. The preppy librarian with the glasses is new, but he’d recognize her in an instant under any face.
“Atropos. What brings you here?”
She thrusts her chin out slightly and levels him with a look that could cut glass, then flicks her fingers dismissively at Jared.
“Why, this young man right here, of course, whose perfectly orderly fate you’ve thrown so thoroughly off track, I don’t even know where to begin to untangle that twisty, gnarly mess.”
“What are you talking about, I didn’t do anything. Sure, it’s puzzling that I can’t see his path from his past into his future, but it’s been that way since before I first laid eyes on him.”
Atropos rolls her eyes and stabs her finger in his direction, which he somehow feels like a poke in his chest even though she’s at least five feet away from him.
“Of course it has been, because of YOU, you ignorant, reckless twit.”
“What are you talking about?”
She huffs out an annoyed breath and with a curl of her lip asks: “Why don’t you put on some pants and follow me outside? It’s better if I show you anyway, and we wouldn’t want to disturb you beau, would we?”
Jensen thinks about blowing her off for a moment, but you don’t cross one of the Fates lightly if she comes to you. His little sisters have the uncanny ability to make life very frustrating for anyone they have on their shitlist, even family. So he tucks on his clothes and slips out the door behind Atropos, who marches towards the elevators with lengthy strides.
“So, what do you want to show me?”
“Will you be patient for a minute?”
“No, I want to know what is going on.”
They step into an elevator and Atropos presses the ground floor button, while heaving a put upon sigh. “I acknowledge that you might not have learned that lesson yet, what with being the primordial soup of change, the perpetual disruptor, the alpha and the omega, yadda, yadda, yadda, but you do realize that there’s a reason why we all stay in our corners and stick to our trades, don’t you? We walk among humanity, not with them, not because we’re so much more, but because we burn so much brighter and when they get to close, we start to lose sight of the balance. That’s when things usually go off the rails, and you know Mother, she tends to right them in her own way when that happens.”
They’ve made their way through the hotel lobby that is already busy with the morning rush for breakfast and step out onto the little plaza in front of the hotel.
“I do know that, but what does that have to do with me and Jared spending time together?”
Atropos holds his eyes while a sudden chilling wind whips some loose strands out of her bun and around her face. She slowly lifts her finger and points at the sky.
“You forget, my dear brother, you don’t only direct your steps to where the world is most changing and in flux – if you stay still long enough, chaos will find you.”
He looks up and sees only the lightening morning sky, dotted by stray, wispy clouds. But he knows that cannot be what Atropos is talking about, so he closes his eyes and looks again. On the spiritual plane, the space above them is far from calm and serene. Instead, a maelstrom of magnificent force is slowly churning over their heads, rolling in a stormy spiral as far as the eye can see. It looks ponderous in its enormity, but he knows as sure as it is part of himself, his nature, that it turns with unstoppable momentum that will raze anything that tries to brace against it to dust. And he is the eye of the storm, the focal point of a slowly narrowing spiral that will wrap tighter and tighter the longer he stays still. A vortex like this, once it’s formed, only has one kind of outlet. The violent kind.
“I’m not here to trample all over your happiness, or saying you don’t deserve your turn, but I need to set this to rights and I can’t do that without you.”
“So I don’t stay in one place with Jared, he’s moving around all the time anyway; I won’t neglect my duties or deny my nature. It can’t be as bad as that.”
Atropos’ face softens into a sad, resigned expression as she lays a hand lightly on his cheek.
“Oh dear, you know that is not how it works. This isn’t about a place or a time, it’s about a fulcrum. If your pull starts to revolve around him, everything in his path will start to unravel and he’s not made for this. And it’s already begun – he’s drawn to you, whenever you’re not there, you see?”
Atropos turns and he follows her gaze through the large window panes to the reception desk inside, where he can see Jared talking to one of the attendants, body language clearly questioning, as if he is looking for something, or someone – because he woke up and Jensen wasn’t there, again. He moves to walk towards the entrance without even thinking, but Atropos still stands firm in his path and her hand on his cheek turns his head slightly.
“Only, you shouldn’t be looking at him. You should really pay attention to that other young man, right there.”
His eyes land on one of the men in the lobby, who has stopped roughly in the middle of the room, and is glancing around furtively, fidgeting with the hem of his jacket and holding other hand across his stomach in a way that seems awkward and unnatural. Something doesn’t feel right about him.
“Remember, brother mine, this should not be happening to him.”
The words have barely registered with him when the young man thrusts his arm into the air and shouts at the top of his lungs before Jensen is engulfed by a ringing wall of silence, awash with blistering heat and splintering glass, followed by a thunderous roar that retreats into billowing smoke and flakes of ash that drift slowly down around them. Time slows almost to a halt as his legs give out from under him. His lungs fill with burned air that coalesces into a primal scream which echoes deep into the earth, travelling with the aftershocks into the bedrock.
Jensen wakes with a sharp gasp, hands fisting the light sheets while the scream still sits silent and burning in his throat, rendering him mute. He blinks into the dizzying light, disoriented and momentarily unable to parse where he is past the horrific sight that is burnt into his eyes – Jared right there and then gone between heartbeats. It takes him a couple of agonizing breaths to realize, he’s back in the hotel room, and that there is a body tucked next to him, sleep-warm and lifting the cover slightly with his calm breath. Jared sleeps, undisturbed and unaware of the horror whose claws has torn into Jensen’s very core which makes him scramble out of bed with the realization that Fate came to him in a vision, a portent of the future, not an actuality. Immense relief crashes into him when he truly grasps that Jared is whole and alive in front of him, but it is immediately followed by the weight of knowing what’s just around the corner. The fact that nothing has happened to Jared yet, doesn’t change the reality of what Atropos was trying to warn him about – he doesn’t really need to brush open the curtains and glance out at the morning sky to know what he’ll find there. It’s part of him after all, the true nature of his self that is too massive to be ever contained in a breakable, corporeal body churning the heavens above them with invisible gale force winds. The raw and most unbridled power in the universe. Looking at it now, he knows there is no way he can stay.
Predictably, this is also the moment when Jared stirs, probably roused by heat slipping away from his side and he turns around towards Jensen with a slow, contented smile that stays only as long as he needs to focus on Jensen.
“Jensen, what’s wrong, you look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Jensen feels any answer he might have stick in his closed up throat, which gives Jared time to sit up, sheets pooling down around his waist to reveal so much of his glorious skin that Jensen itches to reach for. He stays his hand, stays his legs and just drinks Jared in for a moment before the inevitable needs to happen.
“I … there was a message. I need to go.”
“Yes, I can’t stay, I’m so sorry. I can’t stay, it’s not safe.”
Jensen finally peels himself away from the window, casting around for his clothes to hastily tug them on. Jared frowns like he doesn’t really follow until his expression suddenly clears as if a thought occurred to him.
“You’re not really an impartial observer, are you?”
Jensen stills for a moment, savouring the fatal irony in that.
“Not anymore I’m not.”
Jared huffs a small laugh that somehow sounds like he’s breathing through crushed glass and it shouldn’t be this hard, this deep this feeling given how short the time was that they spent together, but there it is all the same. Still, Jared makes no move to get up and stop him, even if Jensen half wishes he would.
“So, are you allowed to tell me where you’re going at least?”
“I don’t know yet.”
Jared hesitates for a moment, but then voices the question that hangs between them like a fog.
“Will I see you again?”
Jensen can’t make his voice go above a mere whisper when he answers:
“I don’t know yet.”
Watching Jared nod to himself and somehow diminish when he lets his breath go, Jensen can’t hold himself back any longer. He is over by the bed with two long strides and gently, oh so carefully, cups Jared’s face between his hands. He wants to say ‘this is not how I wanted it to go’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘I won’t forget’ and when the words again refuse to come, he settles it with a kiss that is slow and tender and final. Then he lets himself look at Jared again for a lingering moment, before he lets go and turns to leave. From the quiet snick of the closing door, every step away is like lead dragging in his legs, but he also feels with every heartbeat the storm echoing inside him, the slow motion turn seeking an outlet, a place to go. He barely sees the people on his way out, passing them by in a haze of red that clouds his vision, except for one that stands out to him in a glaring brightness, fidgeting with the hem of his jacket and holding his arm across his chest in an awkward angle. Jensen brushes by him with barely a touch that instantly turns all the wires on his person to ash. He doesn’t look back when he hears a shout and nothing happens, too focused on continuing his path, away from this place, away from people and he walks and walks, blind to the world around him, as the storm rages inside of him and overhead. Walks until the energy is spent and the quiet has returned to his mind.
Eighteen months later
“…and I want to thank my wonderful colleague, Nazan Fatah, whose tireless and inspired work was the key to making this project a reality. I’m very grateful for the recognition our work got with this prize. But in the end, I need to credit all the strong, resilient, amazing people who let us hear their stories and share their sorrows and joy – it they who deserve our compassion, who need our help and who are living the most sacred values of our society: never let your spirit break, never give up, and never let your circumstance define, who you are. They are an example to humanity. Thank you.”
Jared doesn’t normally show up at after parties, indeed he doesn’t normally show up at awards at all, but if you’re a winner, you can’t really get out of it. And he is proud of all the critical acclaim and recognition the documentary has gathered, not in the least because part of the proceeds go to disaster relief organisations for the camps. His life has quite the whirlwind though, since the premiere and sometimes he longs for the easy rhythm of setting out to capture the great shot or record the most compelling story. And in the privacy of his own mind, he also longs for the man who crossed his path right when his life was at a turning point and left his fingerprints all over Jared’s heart and mind. He thinks of Jensen, still, more so again these past few weeks, when so much has changed so quickly, things really coming together and sometimes when his eyes catch on a set of broad shoulders or ash blond hair, he wonders.
Jared is unsuccessfully trying to mingle with the attending, star-studded public and is eternally grateful for Nazan saving him from the most vapid conversations all the while counting the minutes until he can feasibly beg off and get out of this monkey suit. It’s when he turns away to snatch another cocktail from a passing waiter’s tray when a familiar silhouette appears in his line of sight, which makes him fumble and almost drop the glass. He blinks rapidly, trying to make sure that his imagination isn’t playing tricks on him, but Jensen stays still and unmoving and right there in the crowd, holding his eyes in silent acknowledgement. Then he turns slightly and inclines his head towards the large doors that lead out onto the patio. Jared walks towards him as if pulled by a string and follows him outside until Jensen stops in a secluded corner and they are face to face for the first time in well over a year.
“Are you really here?”
“You can see, me can’t you?”
Jared is torn between wanting to take Jensen by the lapels of his suit to shake him for taking so long and then showing up just out of the blue and dragging him closer to kiss the living daylights out of him. He ends up somewhere in between, throwing his arms around Jensen in a desperate embrace, the mingling heat and close press of their bodies realigning something in him that has felt crooked and hollow for such a long time now. He just breathes against Jensen for a minute and then draws back a little to be able to look at Jensen and whisper, against his better judgement:
“Can you stay?”
Jensen’s eyes flick up over Jared’s head for a second, his expression unreadable, before he focuses back on Jared with a softening glance.
“For a little while.”