People talk about the journey. As if there is something magical about how you get to your final destination. That you should be learning something along the way from all the speed bumps and flat tires. But sometimes the trip takes you to places you didn’t want to go, dark places you didn’t want to see, and you can’t go back. And you wonder, ‘how did I get here’?
The fog was thick, and the road only showed up as far as the headlights would shine. Jared tracked how much time had passed by the ticking of the broken yellow line that wound back and forth through the mountain switchbacks, afraid to look away from the road.
The storm had passed and there wasn’t much snow sticking to the blacktop now, but every twist turned his stomach. His palms were slick against the steering wheel as he waited for the car to hit a patch of gravel or black ice and slide off the side into a ditch, or worse.
It happened once before; it could happen again.
The old Jeep Wagoneer leaned heavily into the curves, as it always did. Jared had been driving the SUV since his dad handed it over on his twenty-first birthday. It was one of the few things he kept of his dad’s after the divorce, a nostalgic reminder of better times. But at moments like this, he would give his right nut for something with anti-lock brakes. He made it this far, fueled by Starbucks and adrenaline, but that burst of energy had started to fade.
Google maps spoke up on his cell phone, letting him know that the turn-off was a quarter mile away, and the green exit sign for Purgatory popped up in his lights a few seconds later.
The town name rang a bell for him but after the accident, some of his memories were a little slippery. Not the big things, like how to tie his shoes or how to drive a car. It was the little details like his home phone number, or what type of toothpaste Jensen used, or what his boyfriend ate for breakfast the last time Jared saw him.
He turned left at the exit ramp and drove through the darkness towards the streetlights of the small downtown area. A strip of curb was open about half a block away from the only traffic signal that he could see on the main road, and he pulled into a parking spot, shutting off the engine and the headlights. As the old engine cooled down and clicked under the hood, Jared found himself staring at the traffic light overhead, swaying in the breeze, with its lonely loop of flashing yellow.
As he pulled the key from the ignition, he glanced over at the brown leather journal that sat like a silent passenger on the seat next to him. He ran his fingers over the cover and the engraved initials in the corner - JRA. A small strip of paper with familiar handwriting was tucked into its front cover and Jared tugged it free once more.
Two strings of numbers written in blue ink on a hospital notepad. Coordinates - not a business name or a street address, but numbers that indicated nothing more than a spot in the earth - these were his only clue about where his boyfriend might have gone.
While the coordinates made him uneasy, it was the last entry in Jensen’s journal that shook him up - I am helpless and there is only one thing to do.
Helpless. Huh. Jensen was a lot of things - smooth, controlling, smart, loving - but never helpless.
He placed the slip of paper back inside the front cover and stuck the journal into the chest pocket of his coat, patting it once.
Jared stepped outside the Jeep, snow crunching under his feet as he stretched his back. He looked up and down the street. Not a single car or person in sight. A glance at his watch showed the reason - 3 a.m. The winding drive up the mountain in the fog took three hours longer than he expected and he was wiped out.
A restaurant on the corner of the intersection caught his attention, and his exhaustion and anxiety subsided as he studied the brick building. Not because it was architecturally beautiful, but because he knew this place. He had been here before, in that building, and eaten inside that restaurant. Jared spun around to take in the rustic shops and cobblestone streets and the memories bubbled up and he was able to take hold of them.
All that time driving up here and the destination wasn't random at all.
It was one of Jensen’s surprise weekend getaways when they were first dating. Jensen would plan all the details meticulously, from the meals to the hotels, while Jared could care less where they went as long as they were together. Now, he wished that he paid more attention on those trips, looking out the car window instead of across the seat at his boyfriend.
There were plenty of jumbled memories of road trips and long weekends. But somehow this town, a place that they had visited over a year ago, was important to Jensen and Jared had no idea why.
He moved away from the car to look inside the dark restaurant and bar. As he stepped on the sidewalk, the small hairs on the back of his neck stood up. Some instinct told him he was being watched, that a predator was watching from the shadows. He stopped moving - because only prey runs - and listened for any movement, for someone or something to reveal themselves.
Jensen used to laugh at how much Jared listened to his gut. As a corporate lawyer, Jensen dealt in facts and arguments, confident in his ability to argue his way out of anything. Jared was a lawyer, too, but the cases he worked in Legal Aid and the clients he represented required a more empathetic touch.
But intuition seemed to fail him now as he stood like a deer at the side of the road, surrounded by nothing but silence. Finally, he chuffed out a laugh that hung in the air as a puff of white, before running a hand through his hair to push the messy strands away from his face. He was tired and letting his dark thoughts get on his nerves.
Jared walked over the plate-glass window of the restaurant, Lucy’s, and cupped his hands to look inside. Probably shut down an hour or two before Jared got there, Lucy’s was one of those upscale places that tried to masquerade as a dive, offering whiskey flights and small-batch organic vodka to patrons in their Bogner puffer coats. In the far back, a corner booth with its red leather bench seat caught his eye.
“C’mon, Jared, it’s not so bad. Try it for me.” Jensen lifted one of the shot glasses off the wooden board and brought it to Jared’s lips, forcing him to lean back against the bench seat.
He complied, laughing and drinking down the smooth whiskey, and then shrugged his shoulders. “It’s all right.”
“All right? Just all right? Sweetheart, they only make two hundred barrels of this stuff a year. Better than anything they serve in that hole you call a neighborhood bar.” Jensen’s eyes crinkled up in laughter despite the trash talk.
That was the moment Jared knew. It was weird. It wasn’t particularly romantic - giggling over ridiculously expensive alcohol, surrounded by the kind of people Jared defended his clients against, with a guy that he had no business dating - but Jared thought to himself, this is it. I could spend the rest of my life talking to this guy.
They finished up their drinks and fell out the door, tripping over each other’s feet, reaching for the other’s hand. Jensen pulled him into a kiss, right in the middle of that snowy street, with only a blinking traffic signal to light the way. The night was sloppy and full of laughter, and they could care less who else might see them. He knew there was no turning back.
Jared pulled back from the restaurant window and stuck his hands, now balled into tight fists, into the pockets of his wool peacoat. He came here for answers, not to get lost in some feel-good memories.
So, why here? Why Purgatory? And why were these coordinates one of the last things that Jensen wrote down before he left six months ago? That they led to the very spot in the street where the two kissed that night, where Jared found himself falling in love, seemed particularly cruel.
He glanced up once more at the crossroad, its red cobblestones quaint and rough, before he turned to walk down the sidewalk, towards a sign that caught his eye. The building next to the restaurant was a local real estate office, its front window plastered with flyers of local houses, with their cheesy headlines and color photos, taped up on the glass window, each one competing with the other to draw the buyer’s attention. Jared stopped in front of the window, touching the cold glass, as another memory of that weekend surfaced and washed over him like a wave.
“Which one?” Jensen asked, as they walked up and down the main street the next day.
“Which one, what?” Jared looked away from a flyer for a five-thousand square foot “cozy cabin” in the surrounding hills. The price tag on that one could buy affordable housing for ten families.
“Which one do you want me to buy?”
Jared shook his head. “I don’t.”
“We could get away from the city. You could write that book you were talking about.” Jensen moved closer to the flyer plastered to the window, squinting his eyes to read the small type as he slid his arms around Jared’s waist. “Just you and me. Pick one.”
That was the thing, Jensen could buy any of these houses. His law firm was known for winning some big settlements, and Jared knew that Jensen wasn’t afraid to spend money.
“You’re serious? We’ve been dating two months, Jen. You don’t buy a house for a guy you’re dating. No matter how mind blowing the sex is.”
“No, but I’d buy one for the man I love.”
Did Jensen come back here? Maybe he grew tired of Jared’s indifference to his lifestyle and found someone who would jump at the chance to share a mountain cabin and craft beers with him every night. Someone who fit better with his friends and business partners. A person who appreciated tailored suits and designer sunglasses and custom snowboards.
Or maybe it was the wait. The uncertainty and antiseptic smell of the hospital had tipped Jensen over and he wanted his old life back. One without obligation. One without Jared.
Tears sprung up in Jared’s eyes and he swiped at them. He needed to find the hotel, which according to his vague memories, was somewhere across the street and down the block. He wasn’t in any shape to figure things out right now or to drive back home.
It had been six months since Jensen left. Jared could wait one more day to find out why.
He went back to the Wagoneer and grabbed a well-worn backpack off the back seat. Crossing the cobblestone intersection, Jared stumbled on an uneven stone, traitorously catching his boot. As he straightened up, he heard a voice that was clear and distinct in his ear.
It felt like someone was at his back and he spun around in concern, but there was no one in the street and no sound except for Jared’s ragged breathing. All of Jared’s earlier thoughts, his misery of being left behind, were washed clean with a shot of adrenaline. His heart beat hard against his ribs and he held his breath to see what would happen - but there was nothing but continued quiet.
The stressful day and long drive were getting to him - that was all. It started earlier in his apartment. An anniversary of sorts - marking the time since Jensen disappeared - and Jared spent it with a glass of wine and a box of Jensen’s things from the office. As he pawed through the framed photos and expensive trinkets, he discovered the journal at the bottom of the box.
There had been nothing else missing when Jensen left, no clothes or luggage. Just his car and the journal. Jared searched their apartment and Jensen’s office repeatedly but it never showed up. After forty eight hours, he reported Jensen missing to the police but there was no sign of foul play. Instead, there were plenty of indications that Jensen made arrangements before he left - the transfer of funds in his checking account to Jared, the deed to Jensen’s apartment signed off on, leaving the home they shared to Jared, and of course, the missing car and journal. It seemed that Jensen made a conscious decision to leave, and made sure Jared was taken care of whenever he left the hospital.
Finding that journal now, after searching for it frantically for months, and then reading these cryptic entries had sent Jared on this spontaneous drive through a snowstorm for answers.
He looked around once more before he finished crossing the street, and walked with his head down the rest of the block to the hotel.
The hotel, The Atman, had a sign on its front door that said someone was on staff 24/7, so he pushed the security button. A young guy walked out of a back office and turned on the lobby light, squinting at Jared through the door. Jared gave the guy a reassuring smile and wave, which must have worked because the guy threw the lock on the front door and leaned out.
“Can I help you?”
“Do you have any rooms available?”
“At three in the morning?”
“Yeah, well, the fog was awful and my drive was long.”
“The fog, huh?” The guy scratched behind his ear, then walked over to the reception counter. “Well, I need to charge you for a full night.”
“That’s fine. I’ll take it through tomorrow, too.”
The place was a classic mountain inn with its deer antler fixtures and a stone fireplace in the lobby. Rustic decor didn’t hide its upscale price tag. Jared pulled out his wallet, leafing through the few wrinkles bills inside. “Uh, guess I’ll need to use a credit card.”
The guy behind the counter looked skeptical for a moment, and Jared blushed. Most of their clientele probably had no problem whipping out their platinum cards. Didn’t think about where their rent money might come from. Despite the gift of Jensen’s cash sitting in his account, Jared didn’t plan to spend a dime.
“Listen, I’ll just charge you for the one night. I’m Osric.” He extended his hand over the counter and looked past his shoulder to the dark street beyond. “What were you doing out there this time of night? Nothing good happens here after midnight.”
Jared looked up to see if the guy was joking as he handed off his credit card, but Osric was watching his face with concern. “I know it’s late. I’m sorry for bothering you.”
“No bother at all.” Osric rang him up and then handed over the key card. “Breakfast starts at 6 a.m. but is available until 10 a.m. if you decide to sleep in.”
Jared grabbed his backpack and walked up the stairs to the second floor. As he walked down the hall, he found it difficult to swallow when he found himself standing in front of the same room he shared with Jensen on that trip so long ago.
He bit his lip and looked back down the hall, unsure if he should ask for another room. Osric would probably be nice enough to do it but Jared wasn’t ready for more strange looks tonight. Besides, he was here to face his ghosts and what better place to start than in the bed they shared.
Jensen was peppering his back with kisses. Jared started to roll over to face him in the dark, but his boyfriend murmured into his hairline. “Shhhh, it’s okay. Just need you.”
Jared sank back down into the pillows, tired from hiking all day and the whiskey they drank all night. Jensen was now nuzzling his hair, running a hand down his side. “You need it too, don’t ya, Jay? Need my cock inside you?”
“Jen,” he breathed out.
“Just let me take care of you. You don’t need to do anything.” Jensen’s hand ghosted past Jared’s hipbone and then with a light touch, trailed along the curve of his ass. He pushed a knee between Jared’s legs, spreading them wider as he settled on top and started to suck on Jared’s earlobe, hard enough to elicit a moan but soft enough not to break Jared’s sleepy daze.
“You’re so beautiful like this, waiting for me to fill you up.” Fingertips dipped in between Jared’s cheeks and rubbed against his hole, still slippery and sensitive from hours before. “Are you still wet enough? Could I slide right in, baby? Fuck you while you sleep?”
“God, yes.” Jared moved his knee up further to give Jensen room, and bunched up the pillow beneath his head with both hands. Jensen spooned behind him, dripping kisses and caresses down his neck and shoulders.
This was Jared’s favorite part, when Jensen’s thick cock first entered him. It was always on the edge of too much, even though he knew what to expect after a few months together. Jensen loved to sink in slowly and make him feel every inch of his dick, every time. Jared gasped and gripped the pillow tighter and his eyes filled with tears. He rode out the twin instincts to pull away and to push back harder and make Jensen go deeper. That was always the thing with Jensen - he filled Jared in every way and it was too much at times. Jared wondered if that’s what drowning felt like, some kind of ecstatic panic before your lungs filled and it all went dark.
Jensen began to thrust, his strong fingers hitching Jared’s knee higher. Held down against the bed, Jared’s cock was sliding back and forth in his own pool of slick on the flannel bedsheets. The soft friction was good but not enough, and he slid his hand down the sheet to take hold of himself but Jensen’s hand pushed him off, wrapping his own fingers around Jared. He groaned as Jensen smeared the precome at the tip around the head of his cock with his thumb.
“This is mine. You will always be mine, right, baby?”
“Yeah, always yours.” Jared’s groan became a high-pitched whine in the back of his throat as Jensen jacked him harder and pumped in and out with every breath, every kiss down his spine. That feeling of letting himself be taken wherever Jensen wanted to go was overwhelming. Jared felt heat start to coil in his belly, and gripped Jensen’s forearm, feeling the strong muscles underneath tense.
He came with his boyfriend’s voice in his ear. Jensen was a master of dirty talk but this time it was different, with whispers full of softness and love. “Love you, Jay. Do anything for you.”
Jared blinked against the sun as he lifted his head from the pillow. The alarm clock on the hotel’s nightstand read 8 a.m. Four hours of sleep was better than none. He started to snuggle back into the pillows, when his hand trailed across something cold and wet on his stomach. He yanked the sheets down.
Streaks of white, tacky where it started to dry, covered his abdomen and the sheets below, and he felt a moment of confusion, then remembered bits of his dream about Jensen.
Love you, Jay.
His last wet dream was when he was eighteen and still living at his parents’ house.
He wiped his hand on the sheet. A long, hot shower and a cup of coffee were all he needed to clear his mind and focus on getting answers, not revisiting old memories and dreams.
Gen, the owner of the flower shop on Main Street, set aside the yellow roses as she squinted at the photo. “Hmmm. Good looking guy - I’m sure I would remember him.” She glanced uneasily over the top of the picture at Jared. “You two make a cute couple.”
Jared flipped the photo around. It was from one of the fundraisers they attended a year ago. Jensen wore a tuxedo like it was a second skin and his smile put to shame all the charm and good looks of James Bond. Next to him, Jared looked deliriously happy and more than a little drunk. He slipped it back into Jensen’s leather journal. “Well, thanks for your help.”
The woman reached out and touched his hand. “You might try Chris, the bartender over at Lucy’s. He knows everyone and everything that goes on in this town.” She bit her lip before continuing. “Although, sometimes it’s better not to ask, you know?”
Jared wrinkled his brow at the comment but nodded at her and stepped out onto the street. He was so sure that the coordinates would provide a clue as to what happened to Jensen, yet he kept hitting a wall with everyone in this town.
His stomach gave an angry grumble, and he looked up in time to see a large wooden sign in the shape of a steaming coffee cup. Maybe all he needed was a boost of food and caffeine and to get off his feet for a bit.
The cafe was small but comfortable, overrun by a tangle of ferns and optimistically bright paintings on the wall. He made his way to a two-top in the corner, throwing his peacoat across the chair opposite him. A blonde woman, a little older than Jared, sauntered over to his table and handed him a menu.
“Hi, I’m Samantha. Can I get you some coffee to start?”
He opened his mouth but the fatigue from the long drive the night before and the fruitless interviews hit him at once, and he flopped it shut like a fish.
Samantha smiled and patted him on the shoulder. “Long day, huh? How about I get a latte and a fresh baked chocolate chip cookie?”
“How about a roast beef sandwich instead?” He returned her smile, feeling easier than he had with anyone else in the town.
“You got it.” She started to move back towards the counter. “We only have potato chips, no fries with that.” At Jared’s nod, she walked around the glass cases.
He scrubbed a hand over his face and opened up the journal one more time, laying the photo and the slip of paper with the coordinates side by side on the table. Last night, he found the framed picture of the two of them at the benefit in the same box as the journal along with awards, pen sets and paperweights. Amazing how all the long hours Jensen spent working in that office boiled down to one cardboard box of stuff.
Funny thing was that when Jared woke up in the hospital, confused about the car accident and what the doctors were calling a miraculous recovery, he assumed that Jensen was at work, probably at court and unable to answer. Jared called over the next day and got voicemail again and again, before the doctors agreed to arrange transportation home for him.
Jared flipped through the older pages of the journal and smiled. Dates they had together were marked as JT, a little joke on Jensen’s part when he found out how much Jared hated his middle name. Every Tuesday was crossed out for their pizza and movie night.
And there it was. Jared still couldn’t remember what he had done the morning of the accident, but apparently Jensen met with opposing counsel and his personal trainer, details written carefully in black ink. Jensen even made a note next to lunch with his old partner Mark as “douches eat too”. All of the meticulous notes had been scratched through with a red pen, and the hospital address written hastily at the bottom.
“Oh, are you a local, too?” Samantha stood next to the table, a sandwich plate in one hand and giant coffee cup in the other. When Jared looked up, she nodded at the photo of the two of them. “Do you live here or just coming to visit your friend?”
He stretched his fingers out, tapping the print on the corner near Jensen’s arm. “You mean this man?”
“Yeah.” She set the plate and cup down on the other side of the table. “I just moved here myself, so I’m always trying to meet new people. Some of the folks around here play it pretty close to the vest.” She blinked her eyes when she noticed Jared’s blank stare. “I’m sorry. Did I upset you?”
He shook his head and then jumped up to grab his coat off the chair, waving her to take a seat. “Can you talk for a minute?”
Samantha eased into the seat, looking around at the other empty tables. “I guess I could sit for a few minutes.”
“So, you’re new to town?”
She nodded. “Looking to make a clean break from my old life. Friend of mine set me up with this job two weeks ago.”
A clean break. These mountain towns were full of people walking away from their lives. He wanted to be polite and ask her a few personal questions, but couldn’t stop himself from getting right to the point. He pointed at the photo again. “And you’ve seen this man? Here in town?”
She shifted in her seat. “Yeah, a few times. Sometimes on Friday nights, I like to grab a glass of wine with my friend over at Lucy’s. He’s been there a few times. Kinda hard to miss.”
A sudden rush of blood to Jared’s head made him queasy. Jensen might still be here, somewhere in this town. It took every bit of control he had to remain seated. Samantha looked concerned when he lowered the photo to the table.
“Was he…” Jared cleared his throat, swallowing around a lump the size of a golfball. “Was he with anyone?”
“He talked to different people, but it was always somebody new each time.” She paused to reach across the table and clutch his fingers. He took the gesture, grateful for the comfort, even from a stranger. “You’re looking for him? He must be someone special to you.”
“He was my everything.” Jared hid behind his bangs as he pushed the tears down again, determined not to have a breakdown in front of a woman he didn’t know.
He looked up. “I don’t know. He just disappeared.”
Samantha stood up and with a gentle smile, she reached down to cup Jared’s cheek. “Well, I know what it’s like to be left behind. Tell you what. It’s Friday night. Why don’t I buy you a drink later tonight? Let’s see if we can find out about your guy.”
From where Jared sat at the bar, everything was the same as the first time he was here with Jensen. Couples huddled over tables around the edges of the restaurant, while a swirl of singles surged in and out of the bar area.
He and Samantha spent the first hour sitting on bar stools and chatting about family and friends over a local micro brew. He told her about his choice to become a lawyer for Legal Aid, and they laughed together about Samantha’s last boyfriend who was an amateur bodybuilder who saved all his affection for a teacup poodle named Precious.
“All I could think about when I saw that dog was Silence of the Lambs,” she said with a shudder.
Jared kept glancing at the door whenever someone walked in the restaurant, and was disappointed every time it was a snow bunny dressed like a model for Ralph Lauren Black Label. Samantha seemed unaware that she was a breath of fresh air surrounded by all that entitlement, dressed in jeans and a worn leather jacket, and it was nice to have someone who listened and returned his smiles.
When she left to use the ladies room about an hour later, Jared took the time to study the bartender. Samantha has called him Chris earlier, so this must be the same guy Gen talked about. He was burly and good looking in a way, not Jared’s type, but someone who worked the crowd with practiced efficiency, smiling at the women and talking sports with the men. The guy’s eyes never relaxed as he tuned into one conversation after another. All that focus and attention looked exhausting to Jared.
“Want another one?” Chris made his way in front of Jared and nodded at the empty glass on the bar.
“Yeah, that would be great. You’re Chris, right?” Jared caught his eye, and the bartender looked him over.
“That’s me. Have we met before?” He wiped his hands on a towel, before throwing it over his shoulder.
“No, I don’t think so. But I think you know a friend of mine. Jensen Ackles.”
Chris paused for a second before pulling the towel back down to wipe the bar in front of Jared once more. “Ackles? Can’t say I know that name.”
A cold wind blew in from the side door. Jared glanced up at a figure walking in and held his breath. The person emerged from the shadows and the moment was suspended as the two stared at each other, on opposite sides of a sea of people.
I’d know that face, those lips, anywhere.
Jensen stood staring at Jared. He looked surprised, his lips parted on a deep breath, but he didn’t seem particularly upset and made no move to acknowledge his former boyfriend.
The moment hung in the air as Jared studied the man who meant everything to him. Jensen’s hair was longer than Jared was used to, brushed back from his face with a bit of gel instead of the usual short spikes. His thin, black leather jacket seemed out of place surrounded by goose down and cashmere. Jensen had always been stylish, effortlessly so, and yet in this moment, his style looked studied, like he was wearing a mask and costume.
Jensen turned to walk back out, and Jared pushed back from the bar violently, knocking over his stool. “Jensen!”
“Hey, jackass, I’m going to have to cut you off if you bust up the furniture,” Chris shouted, gesturing to the wooden stool on the ground.
“Sorry,” Jared shouted over his shoulder at the bartender as he watched Jensen step through the door. He grabbed his coat off a nearby hook and moved to the door, shoving aside patrons until he emerged on the cold dark street.
“Jensen!” His head swiveled left and right but there was no one there. “No!”
Samantha came running outside to follow him. “Jared, are you alright? What’s going on?”
He ran his fingers through his hair, and wanted to scream up at the sky. “This isn’t possible. He was right here.”
“Your boyfriend?” She walked out and went to lay a hand on Jared’s shoulder, which he shrugged off.
“I’m sorry, Sam, I just need to be alone for a few minutes.”
She smiled and went back inside. He wasn’t a violent person, but was itching to smash something. Instead, he dug out his car keys and walked to where the Wagoneer was parked on Main Street. He thought about what a bad idea this was but turned the key anyway.
There was no sign of Jensen anywhere. Over two hours later, after cruising up and down all the streets, Jared parked in the same spot as before. He slumped down in the driver’s seat, exhausted and cold. Maybe God was trying to tell him something, like go home, forget your ex-boyfriend, get on with your life.
Lucy’s was closed now, and it looked like the staff had made short work of cleanup. He imagined that Chris didn’t mess around when it came to closing time.
He buttoned up his peacoat and grabbed the journal off the passenger seat. The thing felt less like a guiding light, showing him the answers, and more like an albatross around his neck. Whatever game Jensen was playing now, Jared didn’t want to be part of it. He would head out of town in the morning. Go back to his home and just live with the Jensen-shaped hole in it.
Only a few steps from his car, he heard that voice again.
A shadow next to the light pole moved in his peripheral vision, and Jared froze. A man stepped out of the shadow and into the street, sticking his hands in his pockets in a very familiar way.
“So, you found me,” Jensen said. “Now what, Jared?”
Jared began to walk towards him, his movements small and careful as if he was afraid the other man would bolt into thin air again. The black leather of Jensen’s jacket shone dully under the streetlight, and the combination of light and shadow across his cheekbones made them look sharp enough to cut. Jensen didn’t move closer to Jared, but he also didn’t leave.
“Why are you here, Jared?”
Jared stopped halfway between them, and asked, “Why do you think I’m here?”
“You’re not going to find the answers you want in his town.” Jensen crossed his arms and it was another gesture Jared recognized. One of the tells that his boyfriend was nervous and it was comforting to him, because Jensen’s face betrayed nothing.
But that familiarity caused all his anger and uncertainty to surface, because this Jensen with his blank stare and disaffected attitude wasn’t his Jensen. “Oh, I’m pretty sure you have plenty of answers, Jensen, if you wanted to give them up. About why you left me. Slipped out of my life like a thief in the night.”
Jensen looked away. “I can’t tell you that, Jared.”
Jared blew out a breath in a frosty puff. He moved closer to the man who was once his future. He wanted to look Jensen in the eye when the other man told his lies, but now Jensen wasn’t even going to even give him that.
“I loved you and you walked out the door.” Tears that had been waiting inside him all day finally sprung to his eyes, and Jared swiped them away. “I needed you and you left me alone in the hospital. IN A COMA, Jensen. I woke up wondering where you were. Then I spent months trying to figure out what I did wrong, why you left. Now I track you down and you have nothing to say? Well, that’s not good enough.”
Jared stepped toward Jensen, wanting to shake that blank look off his face, but stumbled once again on the street pavers. Jensen caught him under the arms and pulled him upright, but Jared shook him off.
“Don’t. Touch. Me.”
Jensen let go. Jared was wrong - Jensen didn’t look so good up close. He was paler than normal, his eyes dark in the shadows. In that moment, Jared wanted desperately to remember what they talked about that last morning, before the car accident, to give him some clue what to say next. He closed his eyes and once again, the memory drifted up and broke the surface. They were drinking coffee and arguing about what to eat for dinner - steak or fish - before kissing goodbye.
Jared thought he was going to throw up.
“All that time, I find you here, living it up on the ski slopes,” Jared sneered. “I knew you had a reputation before we were together, but I saw something different in you. Guess I was wrong. Because what you did, Jensen, when I needed you most, is cold, even for you.”
He turned away, shaking. All he could think was, just let me make it back to the car. If I can make it back to the car and drive away, I won’t fall to pieces.
Before he could get there, fingers gripped his bicep and spun him around, slamming his back into the old wood paneling on the side of the car. He tried to move away, but Jensen’s forearm came up to pin him down across the throat.
“Cold, huh? You have no idea what I had to do, what it took to leave you that night...” Jensen’s hand seized the back of Jared’s neck, and brought their lips together.
It was hard and fast, with Jensen’s tongue pushing in so quickly that Jared couldn’t catch his breath. The weight of their memories doing this, kissing in the street, in this very spot, choked him up. It was what he hoped for but not what he wanted. The familiar play for dominance, that push and pull of lips and limbs, made him give in. He always gave in when it was Jensen.
He groaned as Jensen pushed his thigh against Jared’s cock, and moved his arm around to hold Jared, his fingers threading through the hair at the base of Jared’s neck. Eyes watering, Jared finally pulled back to take a breath.
“Then why did you leave?”
Jared knew that he shouldn’t be here. The settlement conference with the developer’s attorney was finished, and the Garcias finally received what was due to them. No thanks to the high pressure, low ball tactics of Morgan Development. Jared fought efforts to rezone the property or have it declared worthless, when all the older couple had wanted was a fair share, to get the money their house was worth. Now, after months of meeting with the attorney for Morgan, the Garcias could retire in comfort, and Jared… well, he was sitting across from said attorney, having a beer and eating messy chicken wings.
Jensen ran a solo practice and Morgan was his biggest client. In addition to being a tough negotiator, he had a dry sense of humor, a closet full of thousand dollar suits and a lifetime supply of hair gel. When Jared got a call from Jensen asking him out for a drink two weeks after the settlement, he said yes. He still wasn’t sure why, but Jared went with his gut.
Three beers later, they were joking about sports and movies, and Jared was hooked on the sound of Jensen’s laughter like a fish on the end of a line. Unlike the attorney who chewed up nails and spit them out in the boardroom or the courtroom, this Jensen had green eyes that shined when he laughed.
A shadow fell across their table, and they both looked up as JD Morgan put a hand on Jensen’s shoulder. “And how are you boys doing tonight?”
Jared never met JD as part of the settlement but knew him from his picture on Google and from the stories his clients told. He went to stand and JD waved him back down.
“No need to be so formal. I should be buying you and Jensen drinks fo settling that Garcia matter. It may have cost me more than all of the other properties combined but at least, we can finally break ground on the building next week.”
Jared bristled at the thought of the other elderly homeowners in the area, who had sold out before, and wonder what ultimatums or lousy deals they had been given. He glanced at Jensen, who sat smiling under JD’s attention.
“Listen, I need to go. Why don’t you two finish up here?” Jared said, grabbing his jacket. He felt out of place next to the two of them. Whatever relationship the two of them had, it was tight. His eyes was drawn once more to the hand on Jensen’s shoulder before he bolted for the door. As he stepped outside, Jared took a deep breath of the cold air outside to calm his nerves.
“Wait, Jared!” Jensen jogged out of the bar behind him. He reached out to grabbed his coat sleeve, but Jared pulled away. “Don’t leave yet.”
“Jensen, you seem like a good guy. And I like spending time with you. In any other circumstances, I would be all over this…” Jared’s hand flopped back and forth between the two of them. “But that guy? And the company you represent--”
Jensen’s lips tightened but he didn’t back up. “I get why you don’t like what Jeff does with his company. And yeah, he can be a real bastard when he wants to be, but...” He paused and looked up at the stars before he continued. “Jared, you have to understand something. When my parents died, I was sixteen. JD raised me after that, sent me to law school. He’s much more than a client. I owe him everything - I would do anything for him.”
JD was the first person Jared called when he got home from the hospital. Jensen wasn’t returning his calls, and when Jared pulled up to their house, Jensen’s Mercedes was gone. Nothing was out of place, no clothes missing, no toiletries gone from the medicine cabinet, only the car. There was a note on the kitchen counter in Jensen’s handwriting - Love you, Jay.
To say that JD had nothing to say was an exaggeration. He hung up the first time Jared called. By the third time, JD barked back at the receiver.
“What do you want, Jared?”
“I need to know where Jensen is.”
“How the fuck would I know? And that’s no thanks to you.”
JD wasn’t happy when the two of them moved in together six months after that first date. That would have been alright, but then Jensen stopped taking cases for Morgan Development a few months after that. Jensen didn’t explain to Jared what triggered his decision to cut ties and Jared wasn’t about to argue it. When they ran into JD at a charity gala a few weeks later, the conversation blew up in a messy and public way.
But Jared wasn’t going to let that history stop him from finding Jensen. “I don’t know if you’re aware… I had an accident. When I woke up, Jensen had disappeared.”
“Sounds like he finally grew his balls back.”
The line went dead.
Jared threw his phone at the refrigerator, a chunk of black plastic flying across the counter. He slumped back against the refrigerator, sliding to sit on the ground. The doctors had warned him that he needed to be careful after the accident, not to get too excited or exert himself too much. His recovery from the car crash had amazed the ER doctors who had been on staff when he was brought in. They swore that Jared should never have survived. So, when he woke up on that third day and his broken bones were healed and his subdural hematoma mysteriously vanished, no one knew what to say. Jared included.
And that was the weird thing. He felt fine, even better than before the accident, except for some of his memories which seemed to go in and out.
The day after he left the hospital, Jared went down to Jensen’s office and looked around. Nothing had changed; the neatly labeled files and binders, the coffee mug on his desk. Only thing missing was the journal and a photo, this one from a winter vacation the year before. The two of them were bundled up, smiling and red-faced from the cold air, their heads leaning together close enough to touch.
“I did what I had to,” Jensen said. “Hoped you would move on with your life.”
“Wait. What do you mean you did what you had to?” Jared’s voice was hoarse, and his mind on edge. “You’re the one who left me behind with a post-it note and the lease to an apartment I don’t want. I would have done anything for you. Anything.”
Jensen’s laugh was bitter. “Well, see, that’s when bad things happen. When you’re willing to do anything for someone.”
With their arms still wrapped tight around each other, Jared dropped his forehead on Jensen’s shoulder. “Then tell me,” he whispered. “What did I do wrong?”
Jensen cupped the back of his head, pulling him in closer. “You were hurt, real bad, Jared. When I got to the hospital, they weren’t sure how long you were going to last. Your ribs were broken and one of your lungs was punctured, and your head injury... but you were a fighter. I sat by your bedside for two days wondering if you were going to finally come out of it. But that night, you started to struggle and the doctors…”
Jared pulled away from the embrace and blinked in confusion. Jensen had been there all along.
Jensen released him, and leaned back against the car He tore his eyes away to look up at the stars. “You know, all that money I made, all the things I had done? It meant nothing in the end. It couldn’t help you.” He shook his head, his lips pursed in disgust. “So, I left. I needed to find this bartender I met once, someone who made me an offer that I ignored at the time.”
“What kind of an offer?”
“He offered me a deal - he would fix my problems for a price. It’s what a lot of desperate people do - they make deals. And given some of the things I did for JD, before I met you, hell is where I was going anyway, Jared. With this deal, I just cashed in a few years early.”
“Wait? What does that mean?” Jared clutched at Jensen’s elbow, pulling him away from the car. “No, no, no. I don’t care what you did before. Come home now and we’ll figure it out. ”
“Yeah, that’s not gonna happen.” A new voice spoke up. “Jenny here made a commitment.”
Jensen’s hold on him froze, his eyes darkened to black, a trick of the streetlight that made Jared shiver. He turned toward the voice. Chris stood on the sidewalk, hands in his pockets, shit-eating grin on his face.
“What do you mean, a commitment? Who the fuck are you?” Jared said.
“Guess you say I’m Jenny’s new boss.”
“Don’t call him that.” Jared turned away from Chris to face Jensen. “What does he mean, he’s your boss?”
Jensen’s lips tightened in a sneer that was directed at Chris. When it became obvious that Jensen wasn’t going to answer, Chris continued.
“I helped him out with a problem: a dying boyfriend in a coma with no hope for recovery. Price was steep, but Jenny got what he wanted.” Chris smiled at Jared, all sharp teeth. “And look at you now, the picture of health. It’s not a trade I would have made but hey, that’s why business is always booming. There’s always a reason to sell your soul. Now, Jensen works for me - collecting souls.”
Chris stepped off the curb toward them, and Jensen moved in front of Jared, and it was like watching two sharks circling. That’s when Jared noticed it - Chris’s pitch-black eyes.
His reaction to step back was pure instinct. “What are you? What did you do to Jensen?”
“Oh, I didn’t do anything he didn’t want. He’s the one that came to me for a deal. Best deal I ever made it turns out - Jenny took over the crossroads for me. Now, I sit behind the bar and bait my hook for all those sad, pathetic people who are just itching to give up their soul. You could call it a team effort.”
Jared closed his fingers around Jensen’s arm, tugging him to turn around. “He’s crazy, right? This is crazy.”
Jensen looked back at Jared. In place of his green eyes, there was nothing but black - inky and iridescent, like an oil slick.
“This can’t be real,” Jared said.
“It is real.” Jensen let out a bitter laugh. “And I would do it all over again.”
Chris chose that moment to speak up. “It’s a good gig, Jared. Rather than going to hell, Jenny gets to spend his time in this town, pretending to be human. All he needs to stay topside is help me close a few deals a month with the tourists here.”
“Everyone wants something,” Jensen responded. “Money, power, love.” His lips twitched at the last. “For some people, it’s love.”
“But I didn’t want this. It doesn’t matter if I’m alive, not if you lost your soul.” Jared scanned Jensen’s face. “I’ll find a way to fix this. There’s got to be a way to undo this.”
“Doesn’t work that way, boy.” Chris’s voice now came from behind him, and when Jared turned around, Chris was almost close enough to touch. “You try to back out on his deal, you drop dead. It’s that simple.”
“There must be other options-” Jared was cut off when Jensen pushed him behind his back.
“Chris, leave him alone.”
“Just give me a minute and I’ll take care of this distraction for you, Jenny.” Chris raised his arm, and a smell hung in the air like the ionic charge after a lightning strike.
Jensen shielded Jared, blocking him from view. He flicked his wrist, and Chris stumbled, reeling for a moment as if struck. When he straightened up, the other demon’s face clouded in confusion that turned to anger as thick as a thundercloud.
“If you touch him, Chris, I’ll bring you down,” Jensen said. “I’ll find a way to send you to the worst parts of hell and cause you pain like you’ve never felt before. Do you understand me?”
Chris held his hands up. “Not a problem, as long as your boy behaves.” He pointed at Jared and winked before vanishing into the night. They stood alone on the street once more.
The quiet of the next moment hung heavy with neither willing to break it. Jared breathed through his nose, inhales designed to calm and center him. When he spoke, his voice was steady.
“This is not what I wanted.”
“This is not what either of us wanted, but it’s what happened.”
In the dark street, in the shadow of the streetlight, Jared could almost pretend that he didn’t see the black of Jensen’s eyes. He could act like it was just them, talking like any other couple. He pushed away from the side of car and took Jensen’s face between his hands, kissing him gently.
“We can fix this. I don’t know how yet, but I will.”
Jensen took hold of his forearms, pulling them down. “Nothing to fix, Jared. Just go home. Forget about me.”
Soft as an exhale, Jensen disappeared. Jared stood alone in the empty street, the flush of their kiss still on his lips as he watched the yellow traffic light blink on and off over the intersection.
It didn’t matter what Chris or Jensen said. There must be a way for the two of them to be together again. There had to be a way. A terrible idea was already forming as he climbed into his Jeep to head back down the mountain.
Two weeks later
Samantha walked out of the back room of the cafe, carrying a bag of napkins under her arm. She had a love-hate thing with the cafe being open this late at night. It was nice to get a few extra hours on her paycheck, but there were lulls when it was deadly quiet. Mornings at the cafe were more her style, with the chatter of customers in the background, the clink of ceramic mugs. It was a feeling of being part of something, not apart from it, that gave her energy. At the very least, she could catch up on the cleaning and restocking.
As she came around the counter, she was surprised to see a man with his back to her at one of the tables, and hurried to snatch up her notepad. “I’ll be with you in a minute.”
Walking up to the table, she recognized the brown curls and broad shoulders from behind. “Jared?”
“How are you doing, Samantha?” Jared smiled up at her.
“I’m great, honey, but how are you? I was so worried when you ran out of Lucy’s a few weeks back.”
Jared ducked his head. “I’m so sorry about that. Didn’t mean to worry you.”
He looked better, healthier, less on edge than last time. His eyes sparkled, and she noticed for the first time the flecks of gold inside the green-blue iris. They were the kind of eyes you could get lost in, the kind of eyes that would get anyone to do anything for him. “So, you found your man? Did the two of you get everything straightened out?”
“Not yet. But we will.” His hand rested on a small metal box on the table, his finger tapping the top. “So, why are you open so late? Not that I’m complaining about it.”
“The owner wanted to try to catch some of the late night crowd coming out of the bar. Hey, I’m not complaining either - I can always use the hours. You want the same thing as last time?”
Jared’s forehead wrinkled up as he looked at the menu. “How about a slice of the chocolate cheesecake with whipped cream, and a vanilla latte?”
“Oh, someone has a sweet tooth tonight.”
“Eat each meal as if it were your last,” he said. “My grandma used to say that. Guess I never appreciated it until now.”
She threw off a nervous laugh at the comment, and set off to work behind the counter, adding a little foam heart to the top of his latte before dropping it off at his table. Sneaking peeks at Jared through the glass cases, she wondered about his comment, but couldn’t help but smile at the enthusiastic noises he made while eating the cheesecake.
He kept glancing at his watch and rubbing the top of the box where it sat, as if afraid he would lose it or forget it. She wondered what was in the box. A special gift for his boyfriend? She hadn’t ever spoken to the man, only seen him around at night, but how could anyone resist Jared? Such a sweet man, and she really hoped it worked out for him.
Samantha finished cleaning up for the close, and at five minutes to midnight, Jared stepped up to the counter, pulling bills from his wallet, and she waved him off.
“I owe you one for buying my drinks that night. Be careful on these streets this late. I know it looks like a harmless town, but a lot of strange things happen here at night.” She reached out and gave his hand a squeeze. “And good luck with your plan. Your boyfriend is lucky to have you.”
He hesitated for a moment longer before putting his wallet away, and tucked the small box under his arm. “Thanks, Sam. Hopefully, if this goes the way I think it will, I’ll be seeing you around town.”
She followed him to the door, and turned the deadbolt behind him. She left her hand on the lock as she watched Jared step off the sidewalk and walk across the cobblestones, coming to a stop under the yellow traffic light. The street was as quiet as a ghost town, the only motion being the sway of the blinking light above his head.
Samantha was wondering what Jared was waiting for, when a person stepped out of the shadows and join him in the street. The photo she’d seen of Jared’s boyfriend, Jensen, didn’t do the guy justice.
The scowl on his face had Samantha holding her breath for Jared, but she let it out as Jensen’s lips curled in a reluctant smile. He placed his hand on top of the metal box that Jared held out shyly. She couldn’t drag her eyes away from the exchange until Jensen reached up to cup the side of Jared’s face and lean in to whisper something in his ear. Such a gentle touch that shouldn’t be witnessed by others.
Samantha couldn’t resist a final look back at the two men and was surprised that they were nowhere in sight.