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Angels on Ariels

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There was a girl locked in the bathroom at the coffeeshop.

That was the first thing Jensen learned when he showed up for work - that a girl had barricaded herself in the bathroom and this had come to the staff's attention courtesy of some poor customer who'd had to pee for half an hour.

"Alona's trying to talk to her," Justin said, as Jensen walked behind the counter to get to the back room.

"Who is it?" Jensen asked. "Wait, let me put my shit down." Not that he had that much to put down - just his jacket and a book for when things got slow. He'd be there until closing, and sometimes it got boring. There were only so many times you could wipe down the tables and run the dishwasher and straighten the straws and spoons and sweeteners and make sure you weren't running out of anything.

He dropped off his jacket and book in a cubby in the back room and came back out to the counter to discover that the guy who had apparently alerted Justin and Alona to the state of the locked bathroom was now asking if there was anywhere else he could pee. From the way he was standing, Jensen could guess the guy would be happy enough to just go behind the building into the alley and unzip.

Justin tried to give the guy directions and Jensen went back to the bathroom to ask Alona what was up.

"Zooey," she was saying to the door, "someone has to use the bathroom. Will you please come out?"

"No," said Zooey from the other side of the door. Jensen tried to remember who Zooey was, and if he should know her.

"She won't come out," Alona told Jensen, unnecessarily. "Not until Nicki comes to talk to her. They had a bad breakup. Zooey, honey," she said to the bathroom, "if Jensen calls her, will you unlock the door?"

"Doesn't she have her own phone in there?" he asked.

"Nicki won't answer it." Alona looked upset, but Jensen guessed that it was more sympathy for Nicki and Zooey's drama and less because it was disrupting business in the coffeeshop.

"Do you need me? Because otherwise I should help Justin out behind the counter."

"Will you call Nicki first? She'll probably answer if she sees it's you."

"Didn't you try to call from the store phone?"

"Justin did. She hung up when he told her what happened."

Jensen wanted to roll his eyes. This was high school shit.

"My phone's in - "

"So go get it. Jensen's going to call her, ok?" she told Zooey.

"I can hear you through the door," Zooey called. Jensen kind of doubted that. He'd been in that bathroom, and it was pretty soundproof once the door was closed, if the people on the other side were talking in low tones. Which he and Alona were.

But he obediently fetched his phone and called Nicki's number. She didn't answer - he wondered if she'd gotten wise to their tricks - so he left a message - "Zooey's still locked in the bathroom and she's going to stay there until you get down here". And then he squished past Justin at the counter again and reported back to Alona.

He whispered "I had to leave a message", assuming - correctly, it turns out - that if Zooey couldn't hear them, Alona might lie to her to get her out of the bathroom.

"She's on her way," Alona called through the door. Jensen congratulated himself on reading her right.

"So what happens when Nicki doesn't show?" he whispered.

Alona shrugged. "I think I can fake her voice." She composed herself and said "Hey, Zooey, what are you doing in the bathroom?" in a pretty good imitation of Nicki's voice.

"I know that's not her," Zooey called.

"Do you want me to talk to her?" Jensen asked Alona. She shook her head. "I'll be up front if you need me." He headed back to the counter, where a line had formed and Justin was looking a little harried.

Twenty minutes later Alona and Justin had switched places, the guy who had to pee had decamped for a place where he could actually get to the toilet, Nicki still hadn't shown up, and Zooey hadn't budged. Alona went into the burrito place next door to explain the problem and ask if she could send people in there to use their restroom, on the off-chance someone in the coffeeshop needed to use it before they got Zooey out. The folks in the burrito place very hesitatingly said ok, sure, which was a good thing because no sooner had Alona finished telling Jensen this story than a girl came up to the counter to inform them that she had to use the bathroom, and she couldn't because whoever was in it was still there.

Alona sent the girl next door, and she came back ten minutes later with a burrito wrapped in tinfoil.

"It's been an hour," Jensen said. "Should we break in?" Although he wasn't sure if you even could break into the bathroom. There was no lock on the outside that someone could pick, and it was entirely possible the only way to get in, if Zooey didn't want to come out, was to kick down the door. And he wasn't wearing his door-kicking boots.

Then the front door opened and Nicki appeared, looking pissed. Alona and Jensen both pointed towards the back of the coffeeshop, where the bathroom was. She stalked past them. Alona leaned over the counter to watch her go. Jensen opened a fresh bag of coffee beans without paying attention - he was listening for Nicki - and opened it with just a little too much force, spilling beans everywhere. He swore. Alona giggled.

"Shut up," he muttered. She fetched a broom, but as soon as he started sweeping up the beans she walked out from behind the counter to presumably see whether or not Nicki could get her ex out of the bathroom.

Five minutes later she reappeared with Justin, and five minutes after that, Nicki stalked back out of the coffeeshop with a girl who had to be Zooey in tow. She didn't look remotely familiar and Jensen wondered how long ago she and Nicki had broken up, and why Nicki never mentioned her in his hearing.

"When did they break up?" he asked Alona.

"Two months ago," Justin said. "Why are there coffee beans all over the counter back here?"

"Jensen had an accident," Alona told him, grinning at Jensen. He held up the dustpan. She just grinned brighter.

"I'm getting to it," he said.

Someone walked up to the counter and asked "Hey, can I get a coffee?" and Alona and Justin took care of him while Jensen swept the coffee beans off the back counter and into a trash can. The beans that hadn't spilled went into the grinder and then into one of the industrial-size coffeemakers. And just in time - a group of college students came into the coffeeshop as the fresh coffee was brewing, but they didn't mind waiting a couple of minutes if it meant a nice hot cup of new coffee.

Justin went home. Alona stayed. Jensen realized he was supposed to be closing with Genevieve, who'd been there longer than he had and who Nicki trusted to close up, but she hadn't shown.

"She called in sick this morning," Alona said. "You got me instead." She smiled brightly.

"Am I complaining?" He smiled back. It wasn't that he didn't like Genevieve - he did - but Alona was an aspiring singer/songwriter, just as he was, and if nothing else they could talk shop and commiserate on how commercial the business was and how they might not be cut out for it, at least not here.

When it was really slow in the coffeeshop, they'd turn up the music on the sound system and both sing along. Jensen didn't love karaoke because he didn't love getting up in front of an audience, but singing in the coffeeshop, that was ok. He could pretend it was just him and Alona, and there weren't five or ten or however many people sitting at tables and in armchairs listening to them sing.

Alona was taking a break and Jensen was singing some Jack Johnson song under his breath, his back to the counter, when he heard "Um, hi, can I get a regular decaf and a muffin?" He turned around and there was a tall, broad-shouldered guy at the counter, wearing a University of Texas t-shirt under a blue windbreaker.

"Go Longhorns," the guy said. "What campus?"

"Huh?" Jensen asked, stupidly.

"Did you go to UT?" The guy pointed at Jensen's chest and Jensen looked down and realized that he too was wearing a UT t-shirt. He'd forgotten that's what he'd put on that morning.

"Oh, yeah," he said. "Austin. You too?"

"No, my brother got me this shirt. He was at UT Dallas. But I gotta say hi to other Longhorns when I see 'em."

"Well, hi. You wanted a muffin?" He peered into the bakery case. "All we have left is blueberry."

"Guess I'll have a blueberry." The guy grinned. He had dimples. He was cute.

"Here or to go?"

"Uh, here, I guess."

Oh good, Jensen thought. He wasn't the most outgoing of people, but when cute guys - especially cute Texan guys - talked to him, he made a determined effort to be friendly, to keep them talking. And it helped when he knew neither of them would be rushing off any time soon.

Although sometimes it was really awkward.

Jensen poured the guy's coffee, put a muffin on a plate, took his money, and then they both just stood there, grinning goofily. Well, the guy was grinning goofily - Jensen didn't want to know what his face looked like.

"Where in Texas are you from?" he asked, finally hitting on a reasonable and non-creepy question. And if the guy was just going to stand there, and not make any move to sit down, Jensen might as well say something.

"San Antonio," the guy said. "I've been here for four years, though. I was just at a lecture at Vanderbilt." He waved in what Jensen assumed was the university's general direction. "What about you?"

"I'm originally from Dallas, but I moved here from Houston. Just eight months ago, though. I still get lost a lot."

"You have a GPS?"

"I don't trust them." Jensen felt stupid saying that, but it was true. He'd heard enough horror stories that he preferred to rely on his own ability to read a map rather than some little dashboard computer.

The guy nodded. "Fair enough. I've only been through Houston - my friend Chad and I drove through it on the way to New Orleans once. That interstate's pretty crazy." He sipped his coffee. He still hadn't made a move to sit down.

"I hated it," Jensen said. "Houston. I really needed a change, and a friend of mine is here, so this is where I came. I like it so far. It's a nice city."

"Not quite like home, though."

"Well, there's no place like - "

"Home."

" - home."

They both laughed.

"I'm Jared," the guy said, holding out his hand.

"Jensen." He shook and realized belatedly that he had coffee grounds on his hand. Jared didn't seem to mind.

They chatted amiably for another couple of minutes, until Alona got back from her break and gently suggested that Jensen maybe wipe down the tables and retrieve the tub where customers were supposed to put their empty cups. Jared's phone picked that time to ring, and after a really short conversation that from his end was mostly "Uh-huh" and "Ok" and "Right now?" he looked at Jensen ruefully (at least Jensen wanted to think it was a regretful expression) and said "I gotta go. Nice to meet you."

"It's always nice to meet a fellow Texan. Maybe I'll see you in here again."

"Yeah. Maybe." Jared grinned and waved and headed out.

"He was cute," Alona observed, after the door closed behind him. "Tall." She looked sideways at Jensen. "Were you flirting with him? Was he flirting with you?"

"You sound surprised." Were they flirting? Jensen didn't think he was doing it on purpose, if he was. He was just trying to be friendly.

"I didn't think you were the flirting type." She handed him a damp rag and pointed out into the room. "Tables."

"Yes'm."

As he wiped the tables and swept crumbs off the chairs he wondered what brought Jared to Nashville, and he hoped he hadn't sounded too stupid when they were talking. And then he reminded himself that he'd helped keep the conversation going, and Jared hadn't made any moves towards stopping it, and it didn't matter if he sounded stupid or not.

* * *

Jared's weekdays all started out pretty much the same way: He hit snooze no more than twice. (Three times if he knew for a fact that it was going to be a slow day.) Let the dogs out. Showered, shaved, let the dogs back in. Fed the beasts. Fed himself. Packed lunch and a couple of snacks. Got dressed. Made sure he had all his stuff if he had to be somewhere right after work. Made sure he had his phone. If he had an extra ten minutes he stopped at Jeff's house down the street to say hi.

Jeff had two dogs of his own and almost never left his house, and after Jared moved into his own place, he and Jeff made a deal that Jeff would come by at least once and ideally twice during the day to let Jared's dogs out and talk to them and make sure they weren't starving or dying of thirst, and just generally love up on them and remind them that they hadn't been abandoned. Jeff also had a really nice girlfriend named Hilarie who worked during the day, but sometimes she was still home when Jared stopped by in the morning, and they'd have a five-minute chat before he had to get going.

He clocked in when he got to the garage - Beaver Automotive, where he'd been happily rebuilding engines and replacing spark plugs and repairing air conditioners and realigning brakes for the last four years - changed into his coveralls, checked out what was on his list for the day, and prepared himself for a good solid nine hours (at least) getting his hands dirty - literally - and arguing over what music to listen to in the shop.

Jared loved his job.

He also loved his coworkers. Most of the time. Even when they all fucked off and left him in the shop alone for an hour. Although even that he didn't always mind, since it gave him time to think - if he had anything particularly knotty he needed to think about - or put on the music he liked and sing. (Jared couldn't sing, as anyone who had ever had to listen to him had pointed out. He didn't care. Besides, if you left him alone in the shop and happened to walk back in when he had the Gaslight Anthem on, well, what did you expect?)

Today among other things he had a six-year-old Buick LeSabre that needed a new fuel line, and after spending the entire morning helping Aldis with a 2007 Lincoln, he was kind of glad to be working on his own thing. Aldis had about a year's seniority on Jared, which meant he got to give the orders when they were both on the same car, and sometimes Jared had slightly different ideas about what they should be doing and who exactly should be doing it. So as much as he liked the guy - and he really did like the guy - he sometimes preferred to be working alongside him on something else, rather than with him on the same thing.

"Jared!" someone yelled.

Jared looked around the side of the Buick's hood to see Katie stomping across the shop floor from the front desk. He hadn't realized she was still there. "What's up?"

"Where is everyone?" she demanded.

"Tom's at lunch, Aldis is driving that Lincoln around that we had to completely rebuild the engine, and I don't know where Jim is. Why?"

"You gotta back me up. This dickwad doesn't think I know what I'm talking about. He wants to talk to the manager."

"Which dickwad?"

"Piven," she practically spat. "The Escalade with the snapped timing belt. Doesn't think girls know anything about cars. Fucking chauvinist."

He followed her out to the front, where the customer was waiting and looking annoyed. Jared hadn't worked on the guy's car but he trusted Katie to know what she was talking about, so when she repeated everything she apparently already told this guy, Jared just nodded and agreed with her. He knew, if nothing else, that they hadn't padded the guy's bill - they just fixed what was broken and charged a fair price for it.

Katie didn't bother to hide her anger at the fact that this Mr Piven didn't want to listen to her explain what she fixed in his car or why, but when he appealed to Jared, Jared just shrugged and said "She knows what she's talking about, but if you want to come back in a couple hours and talk to the owner...."

"He'll tell you the exact same thing," Katie finished. Jared made a "Yep, that's exactly what he'll do" face and Mr Piven huffed and gave Katie his credit card.

"Everything cool?" Jared asked both of them, and when Katie nodded, he went back to his Buick.

Jared had never in his life faced the kind of blatant discrimination Katie sometimes got for being a girl mechanic, especially being the only girl in the shop. He was a blue-collar worker from a white-collar family, having chosen mechanic's school instead of a four-year college as his parents had expected, but even that wasn't as unusual or worthy of comment as a girl mechanic.

After all, how often did you see girls working in garages or auto body shops? He could count the ones he knew on two fingers - Katie and his boss' niece, who did vintage restoration out in California.

When Tom came back from lunch, Jared took his break. Ten minutes in one direction was a pretty decent sub shop, and halfway back to his house was a really good (if really divey) BBQ place, but he tried to bring his lunch to save money and besides, it was a really nice day out and he didn't actually mind sitting in the bed of his truck eating his cold meatloaf sandwiches and reading. Today's book was The Killer Angels, historical fiction about the Civil War, which he'd found secondhand after his globetrotting friend Misha had sent him a postcard with an elephant on the front and "Sitting on the train to Varanasi reading a novel about the American Civil War. It's called Killer Angels, you'd like it" written on the back. Jared didn't always take Misha seriously - which was fine since Misha didn't always take himself seriously either - but he trusted the guy to give him good reading recommendations. He was only about fifty pages into the book, but so far he was enjoying it.

He was enjoying it so much that he didn't realize his lunch hour was up until Katie came outside and yelled his name again. That was twice today - maybe he should start paying better attention to the world around him.

Aldis' girlfriend Beth had his car that day since - ironically - hers was in the shop (she had an old Toyota, though, and Beaver Automotive only dealt in domestic cars) and she needed to be able to drive herself around, so after they closed up for the day Jared sat out front with Aldis waiting for her.

"What are you doing Sunday?" Aldis asked. "I think we're gonna have an afternoon barbecue. We'll eat meat, drink beer, shoot the shit, it'll be fun. I got a secondhand smoker I want to try out. Hey, is the Triumph road-ready yet? I wanna see it."

"It still needs some work," Jared said. "It's still sticking every time I try to change gears." He shrugged. "I'll ride the Harley."

"Someday you'll - " Aldis' phone rang and he interrupted himself to answer it. "Hey, girl, where are you?"

"Is that Beth?"

Aldis nodded. "We're waiting for you," he said into the phone. "Me and Jared. He's coming over Sunday.... Barbecue! I want to try my new smoker.... What? That's this weekend? Do I have to go?" He seemed kind of surprised and kind of disappointed about something. Jared made a "What's going on?" face. Aldis rolled his eyes. "Ok, ok, fine, I'll ask him. You ask him too, when you get here. I don't know how convincing I'm gonna be."

"What?" Jared asked.

"Barbecue's out. No, I'm talking to Jared," he told Beth. "No, it's good. We'll be here.... I love you too." He hung up.

"Did Beth make plans and not tell you?"

"One of her friends has a gallery opening on Sunday. He's her friend so she has to go, and I'm her boyfriend so I have to go, and you're my friend so you have to go." He grinned brightly. "They'll have wine and cute arty girls. It might be fun."

"So why don't you look convinced?"

"I've been to 'gallery openings'." Aldis made air quotes with his fingers. "It's great for Beth, it's her scene, sometimes she can network, she gets to gossip with her friends. It's not really my thing. But sometimes the art's kind of interesting. Look, Jared, if you go to this thing with us, I'll buy you a beer afterwards. And make you dinner next week."

"Is this going to be like the performance art installation thing?"

"I sure hope not. That was just... wow, that was terrible."

Beth was a photographer and had a lot of struggling-artist and artist-wannabe friends who she encouraged in all their artistic endeavors. Jared considered this a minor failing of hers when those endeavors fell well beyond the borders of what most people considered "art", and more into the realms of what both he and Aldis considered "self-indulgent crap".

"No, this guy does watercolors," Aldis continued. "Portraits and monsters and weird shit. I don't know him that well. It's Sunday afternoon, at least you can sleep in."

"Yeah, sure, I'll go," Jared said, "why not. I'm always up for expanding my horizons."

"That's what she said." Aldis snickered and Jared laughed.

Beth showed up about fifteen minutes later, and when she got out of the car so Aldis could drive, both guys told her that Jared agreed to go to her friend's gallery opening, and she squealed and gave Jared a hug.

"Aldis promised me dinner," he added.

"Whatever," she said, waving her hand airily. "It's Matthew's first solo show. We're trying to get as many people as we can to show up. Tell everybody else. Make Jim come."

"I don't think he does contemporary art, baby," Aldis said.

"Ask him anyway. For me." She batted her eyes. "Now we gotta go home, I have photos to process. Bye Jared. See you Sunday."

"Tomorrow," Aldis added.

"Tomorrow," Jared said. "Bye guys."

He watched them drive away, then got in his truck and headed home himself. He turned the radio up and sang along to the songs he knew, because he could.

* * *

Jensen was in the hardware store - the toilet in his and Chris' apartment kept running and they'd decided to try and fix it themselves - when Danneel called him and asked if he was interested in being set up with one of her friends. Although technically she didn't ask, but rather said "I'm going to set you up with my friend Matt - you're both cute, dorky, and single - when are you working so I can introduce you?" And Jensen was taken aback enough to tell her he was off today but was in tomorrow morning and afternoon, and ok, sure, he'd meet this guy.

It occurred to him as he waited for the cashier to ring up his (hopefully) toilet-fixing bits and pieces that he hadn't been on a real date since, well, since Danneel had asked him out. She later admitted she'd asked partly because she felt bad for him, being a new guy in an unfamiliar city, and partly because she thought he was hot and she wanted an excuse to spend time with him to see if he really was good boyfriend material. They'd only gone on the one date, but since Jensen hadn't been hugely emotionally invested in finding a partner at that point, and Danneel realized she didn't exactly have a lot of spare time to devote to a new relationship, they'd decided being friends was better.

("I might still think about you when I'm alone with Bob," Danneel had said, prompting Jensen to ask who Bob was, and when she told him - "Bob's my battery-operated boyfriend, DUH" - he'd blushed scarlet with embarrassment and she'd laughed. Even now, when she wanted to tease him, she'd whisper "Bob!" just to watch him turn red.)

He contemplated this potential date all the way home, but then he started right in on the running-toilet problem and forgot about it. An hour later the toilet was fixed and Jensen called Chris to let him know, and an hour after that Danneel called him again to ask if he was free on Saturday.

"Um," he said.

"You are now. How's your bowling arm?"

"My what?'

"Bowling arm! One of the nurses told me about Rock-n-Bowl and I told Matt and he thought it sounded fun. Did I mention he's a giant dork?"

"I haven't been bowling since high school. And you think I'm a giant dork." Which was probably because a lot of the time Jensen felt like a giant dork.

"That's because you are." He could practically hear her grinning on the other end of the phone. "I'm - shit, hold on." Jensen hummed the "Jeopardy" hold music while Danneel took care of whatever the problem was. "Ok, you can stop now," she told him when she got back on the phone. "I have to go. We'll come see you tomorrow. I'm off - well, I'm on call, but I don't have to come in otherwise. Matt's a grad student at Vandy, did I tell you that?"

"You just told me that he was cute, dorky, and single."

"And a grad student. I'm coming, I'm coming," she said to someone on her end. "What a glamorous life I lead. See you tomorrow," she told Jensen, and hung up.

Jensen made a mental note to prepare himself for meeting a stranger and potential date tomorrow. He hoped Danneel wouldn't have to go into the hospital. In the several months he'd known her she'd never had a consistent schedule, which meant that sometimes it was difficult to make plans with her. She was finishing her first year of an OB/GYN residency at Vanderbilt, and from what Jensen could gather, "residency" really meant "lots of work and no sleep", and was just a simple way for a hospital to tell all its unfortunate newly-graduated medical professional hopefuls "You're my bitch now".

She must have called him from the hospital. He wondered what exciting procedure she'd been called away to perform. Cleaning bedpans, probably.

He didn't mean to tell Chris that Danneel wanted to set him up, but later that night when Chris mentioned a girl he worked with (Chris worked at a music store to make the rent, because even though he was in a working band, it didn't exactly pay that well) who was in the market for a nice boy, it kind of slipped out.

"Who's she fixing you up with?" Chris asked, sounding unconvinced. "And why?"

"Because she was a matchmaker in a former life, I don't know. I think she still feels bad for me that I don't know a lot of people."

"Well, Jen, you're not exactly the most outgoing guy in the world." Chris pulled a two-liter bottle of Sprite out of the fridge and took a swig. "I wouldn't say you've been spending all your time trying to win friends and influence people. Oh, speaking of influencing people, I talked to Seth and he said come by tomorrow. There's a couple guys wanna hear you play, and then they can put you on their list to call you if they need you."

"I'm working tomorrow."

"This is work."

"No, coffeeshop work. Pays the bills work. Danneel bringing her friend by so I can meet him work."

Chris took a few more swallows of Sprite, put the cap back on, and stuck it in the fridge. "Huh," he said. "Give him a call in the morning anyway. Guy's pretty flexible. I thought Nicki was ok with you doing this shit."

"She is. But I can't just take off for two hours in the middle of my shift."

"So tell her one hour."

Deliberately lying to one's manager was never great advice, but Chris was offering him an opportunity. Granted, being on a small recording studio's list of people to maybe call if they needed a guitar on a random recording wasn't what Jensen had in mind when he decided he was going to give the music business a try, but it was a step. It might be a good way to network. And Seth was actually coming through for Jensen on something he'd promised probably a month ago. This wasn't really something Jensen could pass up. He sighed.

"You're such a bad influence," he told Chris. "And to think my mom and your sister thought we'd be good for each other."

"Are you kidding? We're great for each other." Chris grinned. "Well, I'm great for you, anyway. You'd never be able to feed yourself like I can."

Chris was a good cook. It was one of the reasons Jensen liked living with him. Chris was also a really good music cowriter and sounding board, and after dinner they kicked some ideas back and forth and Jensen ended up trashing pretty much all of a song he'd been working on for a while. He'd spent a lot of time on it, trying to get the melody right, and he was annoyed at having to give up on it, but at the same time it felt good to be able to look at it objectively and realize it just wasn't going to work.

"We got practice tomorrow," Chris said afterwards, clearly trying for distraction in an attempt to keep Jensen from kicking his ass at Madden 10. Sometimes the best way to follow up a songwriting discussion was a little videogame football. "You wanna come?"

"Maybe." Jensen shrugged.

"You can bring Danneel's friend."

Jensen peeled his attention away from the game to make at "You must be kidding me" face at Chris. Chris just grinned and sacked Jensen's quarterback.

"Oh, you suck," Jensen griped. Chris grinned brighter.

"Jen. I'm down 26-3. I deserve that."

"You deserve this." Jensen grabbed Chris' head to give him a noogie, but Chris shoved back hard enough to push them both off the couch. They wrestled on the floor for a good fifteen minutes until Chris managed to get Jensen on his stomach and sit on him. "You suck, Kane," Jensen muttered into the carpet.

"Don't you wish," Chris said almost gleefully. He stood and offered Jensen a hand up. "Oh, shit, other thing I forgot to mention - Aly's bar is starting an open-mike night. I told her you'd come sing."

Aly - technically Alyson - was the drummer in Chris' band. Just as Chris worked in a music store to pay the bills, she bartended. She was redhaired and cute and kind of crazy and kind of a flake and Jensen liked her. She didn't have much of a singing voice, but she did have a metronome sense of rhythm and a lot of energy, and sitting behind the drums as she was, no one really expected her to sing anyway. She could also mix a mean cocktail.

"What, not you?"

"We can duet," Chris said thoughtfully. "Could be fun."

"Yeah, we'll sing some hymns and confuse the hell out of everybody." Now it was Jensen's turn to grin. He and Chris had met in the church choir when they were both fourteen - Chris' family had just moved to Dallas and both his sister and Jensen's mother thought it would be a brilliant idea to get Chris into the choir (Jensen had been singing in church since he was tall enough to fit in a robe) and have the boys be friends. Chris' church singing career lasted all of five months, but his friendship with Jensen had been solid almost from the start.

"Ecclesiastical karaoke." Chris chuckled. "I gotta turn in - I'm opening tomorrow and I gotta be awake. Don't keep me up with your loud video games and shit." He shook his finger at Jensen like an old man might shake his cane at the kids cluttering up his lawn.

"Yeah, yeah." Jensen waved him off. He hated playing videogame football by himself. Instead, he went into his room, booted up his laptop, and surfed the web for a while. He checked his email, found a couple of old SNL sketches on YouTube, searched for a Rock-n-Bowl in Nashville, wondered idly what Danneel's friend Matt was like, besides cute, dorky, and single. Jensen still wasn't entirely sure he was ready for a boyfriend, but maybe if his last relationship had ended better, or hadn't ended at all.... He'd been with Michael two years when they split, and their breakup was one of the things that had made it easy for Jensen to come to Nashville. If they hadn't broken up, Jensen probably wouldn't have left Houston. And even if he had, either he would have left Michael there intending to conduct a long-distance relationship, or Michael would have come with him. And if Michael had come with him -

- they would have broken up in Nashville instead of in Houston. And then Michael would blame Jensen for making him move in the first place.

Face it, man, Jensen thought, you were doomed.

He shut off his laptop, went to pee and brush his teeth, made sure the front door was locked, got undressed, and went to bed. He needed his restorative sleep so he could make a good impression on Seth's studio tomorrow, and also hopefully on Danneel's cute and dorky friend.

* * *

When Jensen got up that morning to go running, Chris was just getting out of the shower, and by the time Jensen got back, Chris had left. There was a note stuck to the fridge - "Call Seth" with a phone number - Chris was probably worried that Jensen would flake out and neither call the guy nor bother to drive over to his studio to play for him. Jensen grabbed the note off the fridge as he was leaving the apartment and stuffed it in his pocket, and when he got to the coffeeshop a little early, he took that as a sign and ducked into the bank across the street to call.

Unfortunately, it turned out that neither Seth nor the other guys who wanted to hear Jensen play had time for it today, and could he come by tomorrow instead? Maybe around ten? Jensen said sure, no problem, what should he prepare, did they want him to sing too? Seth gave him details. Jensen thanked him. Seth said he trusted Chris, and then he had to go and hung up.

Jensen put it in the little calendar on his phone - "Seth studio 10am Fri" - and went in to the coffeeshop to start his shift.

(Seth had been the original bass player in Chris' band back in the day. He'd left long before Jensen moved to Nashville and had gotten more into the behind-the-scenes side of thing. He was, like a lot of Chris' music friends, kind of crazy, but he was also kind of connected and a good resource.)

In his first ten minutes at work, Jensen learned that Julie (the other manager) was leaving, Joe was replacing her, Genevieve was a little pissed off about it, Sam (the owner) had hired a new guy, and some artist friend of Joe's was showing his art in some gallery that was opening on Sunday, and Joe expected everyone who wasn't working to be there.

And Genevieve still wasn't feeling 100% well, but she'd come to work anyway because it beat hanging around her apartment, and at least she wasn't contagious any more.

"I don't think," she added under her breath, when Jensen asked how she was. "I should go breathe on Joe just in case." She glared at the door to the back room, which was covered with flyers for Joe's friend's art show. "Nicki likes me," she huffed. "Sam likes me. Nicki trusts me to close up for her."

"She trusts Alona too," Jensen pointed out. "She closed for you on Tuesday. You think Nicki was going to let me do that?"

"Still. I've been here as long as Joe has." She paused and seemed to think of something. "You think he slept with her?"

"Who, Julie?" Jensen snorted. "She has a boyfriend."

"He didn't sleep with anybody," Justin commented, walking by them with a box of napkins. There was a lull in business and he was evidently taking advantage of it to refill the napkin dispensers. "Julie thinks you're gonna quit in a couple months," he said to Genevieve.

"What? Why would I quit?"

Justin shrugged. "I don't know. Ask Nicki. I overheard them last week. I don't know what else they were talking about besides that."

"Justin. Wait." Genevieve followed him, peppering him with questions, and Jensen watered some paper towels and attempted to clean the counter by the register. Sometimes coffee slopped over or crumbs dropped or people put their wet umbrellas on there, and it could get damp and sticky.

Genevieve eventually decided she really wasn't well enough to be working among food and drinks, and went home. Justin managed to spill a large iced mocha all over himself in the ten seconds it took to hand it off to the customer who'd ordered it - the customer herself stayed mocha-free - and Jensen sent him into the back to dry off and more importantly, to stay away from the drinks. When Justin returned with a clean and dry shirt, Jensen made him ring people up and at most get baked goods out of the case.

"No more drinks for you, Mr Long," he said, while Justin looked both contrite and annoyed.

Justin was taking his break - and hopefully not drinking anything in the back room - when Danneel came in with a guy who Jensen could only assume was Matt the Potential Date, because he was definitely cute. Wavy dark hair, green polo shirt, nice arms, sunglasses. Jensen noticed that Danneel hung back while Matt walked up to the counter.

"Hi," he said, smiling at Jensen. It was kind of a shy smile, but he showed some teeth, and Jensen liked that.

"Hi."

Danneel sidled up to Matt and elbowed him in the side. "Take your sunglasses off," she hissed.

"But then I can't see," he hissed back.

She gave him a "Don't talk back to me, young man, I'm doing this for your own good" look (which Jensen recognized because every time she turned it on him, she actually said the words) and Matt sheepishly pushed his sunglasses on top of his head. He had to squint at the chalkboard with all the drinks written on it, and Danneel elbowed him again to make him stop.

He had very blue eyes, Jensen noted. A little starey, but very blue, and kind of mesmerizing. Danneel sure could pick them.

"Jensen, Matt," she said. "Matt, Jensen. You boys talk, I'll go sit."

"This is a little awkward," Matt admitted.

"A little, yeah," Jensen said. "I'll make it easy - do you want something to drink?"

"Uh...." He squinted at the chalkboard again, and then looked over the bakery case. "A regular decaf and a muffin. It looks like all you have is blueberry, so I guess I'll have blueberry."

Jensen suddenly had the weirdest sense of deja-vu, and it took him a couple of minutes - long enough to put a muffin on a plate and pour the coffee - to place the feeling with the tall guy in the UT shirt who'd come in during his last shift two days ago.

"How do you feel about bowling?" Matt asked, while Jensen made change.

"I haven't been since high school."

"What about sushi?"

"Sushi's good."

"That was easy." Matt grinned, pleased. He was very cute. Jensen grinned back, although tentatively, because even though he was trying to make a good impression, he felt a bit on display and that made him feel shy.

"Smile!" Danneel yelled across the coffeeshop. Jensen could feel himself turning red. Matt covered his mouth with one hand, his face registering sympathetic embarrassment, shock, and amusement all at the same time. "You have a nice smile, Jensen, show it off!"

Oh Jesus Christ, he thought, if I survive this I am going to kill her dead.

"I'm sorry," Matt apologized. "I'm not laughing at you, I promise. She does this to me too."

"I hate her," Jensen muttered.

"You know you love me!" Danneel called. Now people were staring at them. Screw survival, Jensen was going to kill her now.

Fortunately Justin came back from his break right then, and Jensen asked if he could hold down the fort for about ten minutes.

"You said no more drinks for me," Justin said.

"Duties restored for good behavior," Jensen said, "and because I really need to get out of here for ten minutes."

Justin looked at Matt, who smiled a little sheepishly, and then at Jensen, who schooled his face into seriousness.

"Ok. Cool."

Jensen walked out from behind the counter, stalked up to where Danneel was sitting, and glared at her. She grinned like nothing had happened.

"You're so cute when you're embarrassed," she said.

"I hate you."

"Go talk to Matt for ten minutes." She waved at the door. "He's a nice guy. This is weird for him too."

Jensen tried to wipe off the bitchface, Danneel smiling sweetly at him the whole time, and then went back to where Matt was still standing by the counter, looking a little confused.

"If you don't want - " he started to say, but Jensen cut him off.

"No, it's ok. It's not you. You're - " He couldn't say You're really fucking cute or I haven't been out with a guy since I broke up with my ex or even I hope Danneel knows what she's doing, so he settled for "Do you have ten minutes to walk? Just up the block and back. I don't want to have a conversation around... her."

Matt nodded. "I get it. Let's go." He put the muffin plate on the counter - but kept the muffin - and walked out of the coffeeshop. Jensen studiously ignored Danneel and followed.

Ten minutes wasn't a lot of time to get to know someone in preparation for going out with them, but it was enough time to discuss what that going out entailed. Sushi, bowling, Matt would pick Jensen up since he knew where they were going and technically he'd done the asking. Jensen protested that Danneel had actually done the asking, but Matt said "Tomato, tomato", which made Jensen laugh, and then he suggested that if this one went well, Jensen could plan the next date.

Jensen half expected to freak out at the thought of planning a second date before they'd even gone on the first one - it had been a long time since he'd been on a first date - but all he really felt was a little bit of anticipation. He figured that was a good sign. He knew Danneel would think it was.

They walked back into the coffeeshop just as she was walking out.

"I got paged," she huffed. "I knew it was going to happen. One of the attendings has it in for me."

"That sucks," Jensen said sympathetically.

"The thing that kills me is that I can't even complain. I signed up for this." She sighed. "Did you chat? Is everything cool?"

"Everything's cool," Matt told her. "We have a plan."

"And no, we're not going to tell you all about it," Jensen added.

"Well don't tell me now," she said, "you haven't done anything. Yet." She waggled her eyebrows suggestively. Jensen took a deep breath. Danneel snickered. "You boys have fun. I'll be thinking of you when I'm running my ass off for pregnant moms and asshole OBs." She kissed each of them on the cheek and trotted off down the sidewalk.

There was no good way to ask Matt if he was the kind of guy who was likely to "do something" on a first date, so Jensen didn't. He himself wasn't really that kind of guy, anyway. Maybe on the second date, though.

"I should get back to work," he said, "before Justin breaks the espresso machine."

"He's kind of a klutz?" Matt suggested.

"He's kind of a klutz. Good guy, but not always the sharpest tool in the shed."

"We should probably exchange numbers, just in case. And I need to know where you live so I can come get you."

"My phone's locked in the back room," Jensen said. Not entirely accurate - the back room wasn't locked - but close enough. "You have to go back inside anyway" - he pointed to the coffee cup Matt was still carrying - "so you can drop that off."

"Do people walk out with them?"

"You'd be surprised. We lose silverware, mostly, if we lose anything. College students steal it. When I was in college we took shit from the cafeteria. I don't know why Vandy students can't do that too."

"They're probably not on the meal plan. I just finished my second year of grad school. I get it."

"Danneel said you were at Vanderbilt. What are you studying?"

"Art history. I kind of want to specialize in forgeries, but I don't know if that counts as a real specialization. Area of expertise, maybe."

They'd gone inside by then and because a line was forming at the counter, Justin looked kind of harried. Fortunately no one in line seemed to be in a big hurry, although sometimes it was hard to tell until a customer actually yelled at you to move your draggy ass.

"Imminent disaster?" Matt asked, gesturing to the line with his now-empty cup.

"Probably. Let me give you my number, hang on." Jensen reached over the counter, said "Just a sec" to Justin, grabbed a pen out of the cup by the register, and scribbled his phone number and address on the back of a frequent-drinker card. Matt handed him the coffee cup and took the card.

"I'll pick you up at seven, is that ok?" he said.

"Yeah, that's fine. Nice to meet you ahead of time." Jensen grinned a real grin this time, since he felt less exposed, less on display (since Danneel had left), and less nervous, and thus less shy.

"Same here. See you Saturday."

Jensen scurried behind the counter without even watching him leave, because customers were backing up and Justin seriously looked like he was about to drop something. At least he hadn't spilled a giant iced coffee on himself again, and so far everyone in line was being pretty patient.

"You said ten minutes!" Justin practically whined, as he dumped used espresso grounds and scooped fresh ones into the portafilter.

"It was ten minutes. I didn't expect a crowd to appear. You handle the customers, I'll make the drinks. What's this?"

"Double macchiato."

"Got it." He nudged Justin out of the way, pushed two little cups under the portafilter's spouts, and poured some milk for the foam while the espresso dripped.

Justin was really much better with customers than he was with coffee, at least when there were a lot of people in line, and Jensen was better with coffee. It worked well for them.

About an hour later Joe came in and things eased up considerably, and a couple hours after that, Jensen's shift was over and he could go home.

"Don't forget the gallery opening," Joe called to him as he walked out.

"I won't," Jensen called back, more out of reflex than anything else. He'd taken a flyer so he just had to remember to take it out of his pocket. He wondered if he could get Chris or someone to go with him, or if anyone else from the coffeeshop was going to show up. Justin had already said he couldn't go, and Genevieve was too ticked off at Joe for getting promoted to manager ahead of her. Maybe Alona would be there.

The next morning, on his way to Seth's studio, he dropped by the coffeeshop to ask her, but she apparently wasn't working until the afternoon. So he showed up at the studio early, which was good because it gave him some extra time to control his nerves. Jensen had been through auditions before - not just for session musician slots but for choirs and choruses and (twice) community theater productions - he had some faith in his abilities, but at the same time he liked having a few minutes beforehand to catch his breath and compose himself.

He played a little, sang a little, read some sheet music, talked to Seth and two other guys about music and Nashville and recording and the local scene, and when one of the guys asked where Jensen had gone to school and he answered "UT Austin," they chatted some about Texas. He filled out some paperwork, shook hands, thanked the guys for their time, wasn't quite sure how to respond when they thanked him for coming in.

"I'm gonna be honest," Seth said, walking him out. "The chances of you making big money off this are about zero right now. It's not a bad gig, though, and the chances of you getting called for something are pretty decent. It'll probably be just a day at first, but it's a stepping stone, you know?"

"Hey, I'll take almost anything right now," Jensen admitted. "It's something. Thanks for talking me up."

"No sweat, man, you're pretty good. And any buddy of Chris' is a buddy of mine."

They shook hands, Seth promised to call if he got any other good leads, and Jensen went on about his day.

* * *

Jensen had to work a few hours on Saturday (which meant he had to listen to Joe extol the virtues of his friend who had the gallery opening on Sunday, until Nicki pointed out that if he kept nagging, no one would go), but he managed to get home in time to shower, shave, change his clothes, and then change them again when Chris looked him over and asked "Are you really going to wear that?" Under other circumstances Jensen might have thought that was funny, since Chris had never been much of a fashion plate, but now he was just annoyed.

"You look like my grandfather going to play golf," Chris added. "Lose the sweater vest."

Jensen went into his room to find something else to wear. He thought he looked fine, but he didn't want to argue.

"Too bad you don't have a bowling shirt," Chris called from the other end of the apartment. He cackled. He was infinitely amused that Jensen's date included bowling. Jensen had a feeling the bowling alley was going to be painfully trendy and full of hipsters and teenagers looking for something ironically nostalgic to do, but it wouldn't be the first time he was the least hip guy in a place, and at least he'd get sushi out of it.

Chris wandered into the bedroom and started a running commentary while Jensen went through his closet, stopping only when Jensen threw a shirt at him.

"I just want you to make a good impression on your date," Chris protested, faking concern but really teasing. "You sure you don't want to come to Steve's show?"

"You just can't stand the thought of me in a bowling alley," Jensen said. "Besides, I think on a first date you should actually be with your date." He pulled on a green polo shirt, which his roommate's girlfriend back in Houston had made him buy because she thought it brought out the color of his eyes. Plus, it was clean and Chris wasn't giving him any grief about wearing it.

"Don't worry, I'll make myself scarce tonight so you can have some privacy."

Jensen was tempted to roll his eyes as Chris' presumption, but, well, it had been a long time. He obviously hadn't dated during the years he was with Michael, and he hadn't gone out with anyone in the eight months he'd been in Nashville either.

"Don't forget to cover it up," Chris added, cackling and dodging when Jensen threw a pillow at him.

"If it comes to that," Jensen said, "I know where you hide your Trojans. You can save me some money."

Matt turned up fifteen minutes late, apologizing because he got lost. He came to the door and so got to meet Chris, who very considerately did not say anything embarrassing and just told them to have a good time, and if they got tired of bowling, Steve was playing a gig.... Jensen hustled Matt out.

"He's stuck on the bowling," Jensen explained, once they were in the car. "It's not cool enough for him, which means it's not cool enough for me."

"We don't have to go," Matt said. "We can go to, uh, Steve's show. He's... a friend of Chris?"

"Yeah, they started the band together. Did I tell you Chris was in a band? They're called Oklahoma Ford. They're country/rock, really good. Chris and Steve and this guy Seth put it together about" - he counted on his fingers - "five years ago. Steve left to go solo probably three years ago. It was tough for a while - Chris felt kind of like he'd been betrayed - but now they're friends, they support each other, it's all good." He realized he'd just babbled about people Matt didn't know. "And you probably don't care about any of that."

"I don't mind. I know bowling's kind of a dweeby sport, but Rock-n-Bowls are fun. Music, black lights, high cheese factor." He glanced sideways and grinned at Jensen. "Danneel suggested we make fun of the hipsters."

"No, it's fine. I've seen Steve play a bunch of times. I never go bowling."

The restaurant Matt picked turned out to be a little hole-in-the-wall sushi bar with an almost entirely fish-based menu. There was really nothing for the non-sushi-eater, and Jensen was glad he'd developed a taste for the raw fish, otherwise it would've been a miserable start to the evening.

The place wasn't that exciting on the inside, but they were seated at a table by the wall, which Jensen could appreciate. Sometimes when you were a guy out on a first date with another guy, it was easier to have a date-type conversation if you weren't worried about people eavesdropping on all sides.

"I was thinking we could just get some rolls and split them," Matt said. "Don't let the ones with fruit turn you off."

"Fruit," Jensen repeated. "That's different. Kiwi and asparagus?"

"I've never had that one. I'm not a big asparagus eater."

"What about the Choo Choo Roll? There's a lot going on in that one."

"We can get that. How do you feel about eel? Roe? Spicy?"

"Never had it, don't mind it, yes please."

They ordered a big bottle of Kirin to split while they tried to decide what to order, and by the time their food arrived they'd almost finished it. Matt had ordered two pieces of eel nigiri, one for each of them, and his eyes almost popped out of his head as he watched Jensen plop a wodge of wasabi in his little dish of soy sauce and mix it together.

"Would you like some more soy sauce with your wasabi?" he asked, dumbfounded.

"Nope, this is good." Jensen liked mustard. He liked spicy. Wasabi was just up his alley.

"Can you even taste the fish?"

"Let me see." Jensen picked up a piece of eel nigiri, dipped an end in his wasabi soy sauce, and bit into it. He tasted wasabi and soy and what he guessed was the stuff they'd put on the eel. It was a little sweet and a little tangy, and the eel was flaky, and he liked it.

"Well?"

"Not bad."

Matt beamed. Damn, he was cute.

They worked their way through several rolls - one spicy, one with strawberry on top, none with asparagus - and another bottle of beer and talked and tried to get to know each other. Jensen learned that Matt had graduated from college with a degree in accounting and was doing that when he realized he didn't really like it, and he wanted to spend his life doing something else.

"So I took my undergrad debt and turned it into grad school debt," he said. "Probably not the smartest thing I've ever done. My parents were appalled, but I'm happier."

Jensen could relate. Although when he told his folks that he was going to give up his steady job to move to Nashville and be a musician, his dad agreed that now was the time to do it, before Jensen had a mortgage and a family. Better he do the ridiculous thing when he was young.

"Why art history?" he asked.

"I like art. I like what it says about the society in which it was made. I think forgers are fascinating. The really good ones are talented artists in their own right - it takes a lot of skill to be able to accurately copy a famous painting. Some of them become famous as forgers. But at the same time, if you're really that good - if you can convincingly fake the Mona Lisa, for example - no one will even know you exist, because they don't know they're looking at a fake da Vinci." He waved his chopsticks at an imaginary art viewer, or maybe at the theoretical forger who'd convincingly faked one of the most famous portraits in the world.

"The science behind finding forgeries is really interesting too," Matt continued. "You can put a painting through an MRI or an x-ray machine to see what was originally on the canvas. There's a copy of the Mona Lisa at the - this is really boring, isn't it."

Jensen had a piece of spicy crab roll in his mouth and had to shake his head while he chewed and swallowed, until he could assure Matt that no, it wasn't boring. He couldn't very well say that watching someone talk about something that turned them on - even intellectually - was itself a turn-on, but he could say that he could tell Matt really loved what he was talking about, and his enthusiasm was contagious.

"I promise I won't monopolize the whole night," Matt said. He smiled a little, apologetically, and Jensen had to smile back. "Just this one thing. The whole story's really interesting, but my main point is that the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore has a copy of the Mona Lisa that people used to think was the real painting, and the one hanging in the Louvre was a fake. It was stolen in 1911 or 1913. It was found and returned, but there was still a rumor that the Walters had the real one. So they x-rayed that one and found a painting underneath that had been painted after the original Mona Lisa. So... presto, the Walters had a forgery, and the one in the Louvre was real." He grinned in what looked like triumph and took a swallow of his beer. And Jensen could not get over how cute it was. "Ok. Now it's your turn to talk about yourself."

Matt's phone picked that time to ring. He looked surprised.

"You can answer it," Jensen told him. "At least see who it is." Matt shifted in his seat, pulled his phone out of his pocket, and looked at it. "Is it an emergency?"

"No." Matt chuckled. "It's my friend Tim. He was worried about me because I went out with someone I don't know. He thinks you could be a serial killer. I told him Danneel vetted you and I trusted her, but did he listen.... He said he was going to call and make sure I wasn't dead in a ditch somewhere. To be honest, I think it was really his wife's idea." He shook his head slightly, a fond look on his face. It was the expression of a man who loved his friends even when they said and did ridiculous things. Jensen directed it at Chris a lot.

"If you don't answer, is he going to think I strangled you or something?"

"I don't know. I should probably... just a second, I'll text." He tapped out a message, sent it, and put the phone back in his pocket. "Now where were we."

"I was going to tell you about myself. What do you want to know?"

"Well, I just told you almost more than you ever wanted to know about a Mona Lisa forgery, so tell me, I don't know, what makes you excited? What do you love? Why did you come to Nashville? What were you doing before?"

"I was a physical therapist. I lived in Houston. I had the same kind of epiphany you did - I decided it wasn't making me happy and I wanted to do something else." He shrugged. It sounded simple when he put it like that.

"Why music? Why Nashville and not LA or New York? Are you a country musician?"

"Chris was here, he had a band already, he knew some people. And his roommate was moving out, so I wouldn't even have to find a place to live. That was too coincidental to pass up.

"Did you always want to be a singer and a musician?"

"Yes and no." Matt looked at him quizzically and Jensen tried to think how to phrase what he wanted to say, and what did he want to say, anyway? "I sang in the church choir from when I seven to when I went to college, I sang in the chorus in middle and high school, I joined an a capella group in college.... I have a good voice and my grandma used to tell me when I was little that god had given me this gift, and it would be a sin not to use it." He shrugged. He'd believed in hell when he was seven, and his grandma's words were as threatening as they were encouraging. He didn't believe in hell any more, but part of him still thought he should take advantage of the fact that he'd been blessed with a good ear and a better voice.

"I met Chris my freshman year of high school," he went on, "when his family moved to Dallas. That's where I'm originally from."

"I guessed," Matt said, grinning a little.

"His sister got him to join the church choir too, because she and my mom thought we should be friends. He wanted to be a rock star. He wrote songs and played the guitar. He really liked being on a stage and singing to people, and I didn't. But I found out that I liked writing songs, and my parents had gotten me a guitar for my thirteenth birthday, so me and Chris kind of formed our own little band. I got stage fright" - he stopped to laugh at his teenage self, who had no idea that someday he'd deliberately seek out a career that involved a lot of standing on stages singing and playing for an audience - "so he kind of replaced me, but we'd still play together and try and write stuff, and it was fun and I really liked it. And I was pretty good at it."

"And it led you here."

"Eventually, yeah. Don't get me wrong, I didn't hate physical therapy - it was the track I chose in college - but after a few years I knew it wasn't what I wanted to do and it wasn't totally satisfying. My grandma would say it wasn't feeding my soul." His grandma would also say that only god could truly feed his soul, but that was a discussion for another time. "The thing is, about singing and playing the guitar or the piano or whatever, if you're good, you can take someone away from whatever's bothering them or pissing them off and you can make them happy. Or you can get someone to remember what it was like to be in love with their spouse, so they go home and apologize for being an ass. Or, I don't know, remind someone to call their mom or just... sit still for three minutes and... be. I can get up on stage at some club and play a song that I wrote, and if I'm on, it's like I'm just a conduit for the music, and it kind of works through me. I can be someone else and tell a story for a few minutes and get a room full of people to listen to me but not really see me - they see whatever the song conjures up for them. It's like a magic trick."

He drained his glass of beer. They'd killed both bottles, and while it wasn't enough to get him drunk, especially since he was eating at the same time, he wondered how buzzed he was, to have said this much about himself. He suddenly felt weirdly exposed.

"Wow," he said, almost under his breath. "I don't usually talk like that when I'm sober. You're looking at me weird. What?"

"Nothing," Matt said. He shook his head, smiling. "I feel that way about really good art, that it can transport you to another time and place, or maybe just another viewpoint, and show you another way to think about life. I can't make it, though, like you can write songs, I just study it. And write about it. And talk about it."

"It's such a pipe dream," Jensen went on, "to think I can go out there and get enough recognition to cut albums and go on tour and make a living making music. There are so many people out there who are at least as good as me, and a lot of them are better. But anything worth doing is worth doing well, right? And anything worth having is worth working for. This is what makes me happy, and if, I don't know, a hundred people listen to me sing and play my guitar - a hundred people my whole career - if I can make those people feel something they weren't feeling ten minutes earlier, or make them feel it more, that's what I want. I feel it in here" - he tapped his chest over his heart - "and I want to be able to make someone else feel it there too."

He stirred the remains of his soy sauce with a chopstick. "That was kind of heavy. Can we talk about something else?"

"Sure." Matt was still looking at him like - Jensen suddenly realized what it was. Affection. If he hadn't just embarrassed himself with his entirely unexpected flood of deep feeling and emotion, he might blush. "So... you're from Dallas and used to live in Houston?"

"Yep."

"I grew up in Spring."

"I used to drive through Spring!" It was just north of Houston off I-45. "Did you ever go down to Houston?"

"When I was in high school, yeah. But when I went away to college, I really went away. It was a little tough being out in high school in Texas."

Jensen nodded a little, non-committally. He hadn't come out until college, and even then he'd realized he was bisexual and not just gay. His parents hadn't understood it then and still didn't understand it now, but they still loved him and at least they'd accepted his 180º career change, and he couldn't complain.

Jensen didn't see any point in mentioning to Matt now that he was bi. On a scale of straight (1) to gay (10), he was probably a 7.5, anyway.

The conversation veered away from sex and towards high school and from there to football, and by that point they'd eaten everything in sight and decided maybe they should pay the bill and go on to the bowling alley. They split the check - Matt protested but not very much, since even though he'd done the date planning, really Danneel had done the date asking - and did not get lost on the way to the bowling alley. But they had to wait twenty minutes for a lane, so they sat at the bar and had a drink in the meantime.

Well, Jensen had a beer. Matt had a Coke, because he was driving and admitted that he'd never built up much of a tolerance for alcohol.

"It made parties in college very interesting," he said, "and by 'very interesting' I mean 'really painful'."

"Bad hangovers, huh?"

"Still drunk the next morning. More than once. And also some really bad hangovers. And some really bad decisions. I learned my limits."

Bowling under black light and neon and a disco ball was both fun and frustrating - sometimes it was a little difficult to see the ball and the pins - and it was hard to have an in-depth conversation with all the disco, so he and Matt kept it mostly light - some commentary on the decor, the other bowlers, and the music, and they talked about music in general and various kinds of places to go and things to see in Nashville, and it turned out Matt had heard of the gallery where Joe's friend was showing his art, although he hadn't heard of the friend.

And there was one good thing Jensen hadn't thought of - when Matt was throwing his ball, Jensen got a really nice view of his really nice ass.

Jensen got a strike in the third frame and followed it up with a lot of gutter balls, much to his embarrassment and Matt's amusement, and in retaliation he told a very deadpan joke that made Matt laugh so hard he dropped his bowling ball in the process of trying to throw it.

"You ass!" he yelled, grabbing at his ball before it could roll into the next lane. Jensen just smiled innocently.

He would not have guessed that bowling could make for a good date night, but it did. The self-consciousness he felt early in the game, and the awkwardness he felt early in the night, dissipated pretty much entirely after about four frames, and he could admit to himself that he was a little disappointed when they had to give up their lane and leave.

Matt drove him home and the good time they'd both had made it easy for Jensen to ask "Do you want to come in for some coffee or something? I have decaf."

"I can't," Matt said. "I really want to, believe me, but I have so much to do tomorrow I need to get an early start, which means I can't have a late night."

Jensen was a little crestfallen - didn't Matt have a good time with him? - and a little upset - was Matt not attracted to him? - and a little understanding - he'd had days like that - but he tried again anyway. "Are you sure?"

"Yeah, I'm sure." Matt sounded disappointed. Then he leaned across the seat, cupped the back of Jensen's neck, pulled him close, and kissed him. It was a deep, hungry kiss, the kind of kiss that seemed to say "I really want you and I need you to understand that". Jensen felt like the seat belt was choking him, but he couldn't get it off without moving away from Matt's mouth, and there was just no way he was going to break this kiss.

When they finally pulled apart they were both breathless. Jensen licked his lips as if trying to recapture the taste of Matt's mouth.

"Another time," Matt said.

"Another time. Thanks for driving."

"Thanks for letting me take you bowling." Matt grinned, his whole face lighting up, and Jensen unbuckled the seat belt so he could lean forward and kiss the guy again. "Jensen," Matt murmured against his lips, "I really have to go. I'm really sorry, I really want to stay, but I really can't."

"I know. Ok, I'm going." He opened the door and slid out. "Drive safe. I'll see you again."

"Yes you will."

Jensen shut the door, Matt drove off, and Jensen went upstairs and into the apartment. Chris wasn't home, unsurprisingly, which meant Jensen could take a lukewarm shower (he'd never been able to stand cold showers) and jerk off under the spray to thoughts of Matt's mouth and hands and ass.

It was a good night. He ate sushi, he bowled badly, he got to talk to a cute, interesting guy, he got a goodnight kiss - two - and he was pleased that he'd met someone he wanted to see again, who wanted to see him. He couldn't say whether or not a serious relationship would come out of it, or if he even wanted it to, but for now, Jensen was content to see where it went.

He knew he'd have to talk to Danneel in the morning, and he was pretty sure that she'd grill Matt as much as he knew she was going to grill him, so he'd get the lowdown on the cute grad student and if the kiss was anything to go by, they'd be seeing each other again.

* * *

Sundays, as far as Jared was concerned, were for two things: sleeping late and tinkering with his bikes. And sometime mowing the lawn. Or studying, if he was taking a class. Or running all the errands he didn't have time to run during the week or on Saturday. Or going to the grocery store. Or calling his mom.

(She checked her email regularly, as did Jared's dad, but she still liked for him to call. He'd put the dogs on the phone so she could say hi and they could bark at her and try to lick the receiver.)

This Sunday was apparently for sleeping late but also for waiting on Aldis and Beth to come get him and take him to Beth's friend's art show. He knew they were picking him up to guarantee that he actually went.

"Tom said he'd go," Aldis had said over the phone that morning, when he called to make sure Jared was actually awake. "He even said he'd bring Mike."

"Katie's gonna wish she came," Jared answered, yawning. Mike was one of Tom's housemates but Katie was convinced he was really Tom's boyfriend. She took great delight in teasing Tom about it, partly because it flustered him and partly because she really seemed to want it to be true. "Why aren't you picking him up? I want to ride my Harley."

"Blame Beth, man, not me. It's supposed to rain anyway."

Jared went into the back yard and looked up at the sky. It was hazy but not necessarily in an oncoming-rainstorm kind of way. "I can ride in the rain."

"Think of it as now we owe you a favor. We'll be there about twelve-thirty."

"Ok, ok. I'll be dressed."

He hung up, changed out of his pajamas, and took the dogs for a walk. He'd made a point to buy a house with a yard - the dogs were two of the reasons he needed a house in the first place - but he felt that he should still take them out into the world so that they'd learn to deal with new and exciting sounds and smells and people, so that they didn't freak out when strangers came to the house. He also thought if they were familiar with the neighborhood, they wouldn't disappear if they ever managed to get out of the house off a leash.

(His other reasons for needing a house were in the garage - the Triumph, which he'd named Elizabeth, and the shell of the Ariel, which he'd named Pearl.)

The dogs were rescues, mostly mutts - Harley was a lot of Rhodesian Ridgeback and Sadie was at least partly German Shepherd - and Jared loved them a lot. The worst part of his first two years in Nashville, before he bought the house, was that it was two years living apart from them.

Now he just took them down the street for ten minutes, back to the house, and down the other way to Jeff's house, so they could say hi to Jeff and Hilarie and their dogs.

Hilarie had gone out for a run - "Crazy, I know," Jeff said - so Jared and his dogs hung out in the yard with Jeff and his dogs for a little while, and then he went back home to shower and have something to eat, just in case there wasn't anything good at the gallery opening. He had no idea what kind of food you might get at those things, and while he didn't think he still counted as a growing boy, he liked regular meals and lots of them.

Beth's first words when he came out of the house after her honk were "What are you wearing?"

"Uh... clothes?" he said, looking down at his t-shirt and jeans. "Flip-flops?"

"I like the t-shirt," Aldis said.

"Sandy got it for me. She saw it online and ordered it as a surprise." It was a plain white tee with a drawing of a guy in a Star Wars X-wing fighter holding a bunch of dogs by their leashes, and the words "Luke Dogwalker" underneath. Jared didn't think he really needed to dress up for an art gallery - it was some little random place in East Nashville, which was not exactly the high-rent district. Besides, this shirt was clean.

It didn't take them long to find a place to park, and the gallery when they walked in was already pretty full. Jared didn't see Tom or Mike anywhere, although he did see someone who looked a lot like Jim from the back, and he patiently let Beth introduce him to what felt like every single person in the place, none of whom seemed to be the artist they'd actually come to support.

"Where's Matthew?" she asked a red-haired woman wearing a blue polka-dotted dress with a crinoline under the skirt.

"Directing traffic, if you can imagine," the woman said. "Have you - Pauley!" She waved at someone in the crowd, said "Excuse me, I need to go say hi," and bounded off.

"Still not as bad as the performance art," Aldis said to Jared under his breath. Jared nodded. "We're gonna go look at the art," he told Beth. "You talk to your friends."

She quirked an eyebrow at him. "You're going to hide in a corner and make fun, you mean." But there was only fond and familiar frustration in her voice. "Just say hi to Matthew so he knows I brought you, ok? Someday this could be my work" - she waved at the paintings hanging on the walls - "and I'm going to want him to bring everyone he knows."

"So, like, half of Nashville, right?" Aldis grinned.

"Something like that." She grinned back, and then the red-haired woman reappeared, put her hand on Beth's arm, and gestured to the front door, where a guy in suspenders and a bad haircut (not that Jared could talk) was walking in. "Come on." Beth grabbed Aldis with one hand and Jared with the other and dragged them to meet the artist.

He gave Beth a hug, then Aldis, then Jared (much to Jared's surprise), said "I was just helping someone park her car", and then thanked them all for coming to his opening.

Jared didn't know the first thing about contemporary art, much less cartoony watercolor contemporary art, but he liked listening to artists talk about their work where he could actually see what they were talking about. Some of the creatures had names, which Jared thought was kind of cute, and some of the portraits were unrecognizable until Matthew explained who they were - Jared never would've guessed the painting of Beth was really her.

"Someone already wants to buy it," Matthew told her excitedly. She looked at Aldis, who shook his head. "I'll paint you another for your birthday."

After about ten minutes Matthew was pulled away by someone else and Beth left Aldis and Jared to their own devices. They found the refreshments - red wine, orange punch, goldfish crackers - but only got three minutes of peace before Beth reappeared and dragged Aldis off to talk to someone about watches or something Jared didn't quite catch. Which left him by himself with a handful of goldfish and a plastic cup of what tasted a lot like Kool-Aid.

They all drank the Kool-Aid, he thought, looking around at all the people chatting and apparently admiring the art. He chuckled.

"'Scuse me," someone said from his blind spot, "is that punch?" A stranger's hand was pointing to Jared's cup. He followed the hand up an arm and to a face that looked weirdly familiar.

"Nope," he said. "I think it's just Kool-Aid. Is that what people serve at art shows?"

"I have no idea," the stranger said. He tilted his head. "You look familiar."

"So do you." Jared thought. How could he know this guy? A class? A customer at the garage? A friend of a friend?

"Longhorns, right?"

"Huh?"

"Marietta's. The coffeeshop near Vanderbilt. You came in a few nights ago. You were wearing a Longhorns t-shirt. I made you a coffee. Uh. Shit. I can't remember your name."

"Jared," Jared said. "Now I remember. You're from Houston. UT Austin, right?"

"Yeah. Well, Dallas. I like the shirt you've got on now, too." He gestured at Jared's t-shirt.

"Thanks. I'm really more of a Han Solo kinda guy, but my friend got this for me and it's not like I was going to tell her that, y'know? I have two dogs, that's why she got it. Hey, I forgot your name too."

"Oh, sorry, Jensen. Nice to meet you again."

"Same here. Do you know, um, Matthew, that's his name. Or anyone here?"

"Sort of. A guy I work with is friends with him and he tried to get everyone from the coffeeshop to come. I don't know where he went, but the blonde girl over there" - he pointed - "that's Alona, and I'm pretty sure the woman who owns the place is here, and I think my manager said she was going to come. But I don't know anyone else. Besides you, now." He grinned. If Jared swung that way, he'd think the guy was actually kind of hot.

(There was in fact some thought that he might swing that way, but now really wasn't the time to examine his sexual preferences.)

"What about you?" Jensen asked. "I'm going to guess that if you're standing way back here by yourself, you don't really know anyone either."

"Yeah, not really. I came with a guy I work with and his girlfriend - she's a friend of Matthew's - she's a photographer and I guess she knows a lot of artists. At least it seems like she knows everyone here. I don't even know what to think about this stuff. I'm not really Mr Art Appreciation."

This wasn't Jared's scene, and everyone's apparent knowledge of current art trends was making him feel self-conscious and aware of how little he knew. At least Jensen didn't look incredibly comfortable either.

"Don't feel bad," Jensen said, "I don't get it either. I don't hate it, though. Some of the creature things are kind of interesting."

"They remind me of comic strip bugs or something, like they came from a cartoon. Like kids' art but... not. I probably would've loved this stuff when I was ten."

"It's too bad you're not ten."

"I don't know. The more I look at it, the more I kind of like it."

Jared's stomach rumbled. Apparently he hadn't had enough to eat before Beth and Aldis picked him up. Jensen looked a little surprised. Jared laughed at himself.

"I guess a handful of goldfish isn't enough of a lunch," Jensen said.

"I guess not. Do you wanna go get something to eat? I mean, you don't look like you're fully engaged with the art and I just... want to go somewhere else." He had to laugh at himself again for that phrasing and made a mental note to pay closer attention to the blogs he was reading. Misha must have sent him a link to whichever one had used "fully engaged".

Jensen looked a little surprised at his offer, but then shrugged and said agreeably "Yeah, sure, I could eat. Do you know anywhere to go, or should we just wing it?"

"Uh." Jared thought. He realized they couldn't go that far for lunch because eventually Beth and Aldis would have to take him home, but he'd noted some places to eat on the drive over and while Beth was trying to find a parking spot, so they could probably just walk in any direction and find something.

He looked around for Aldis or Beth, couldn't see either of them, and then decided he'd just call them in a little while to see if they were ready to leave. He had a sneaking suspicion that the answer would be "No".

He and Jensen left the gallery and wandered up the street, stopping when Jensen pointed to a restaurant called Mad Donna's and laughed.

"Donna's my mom's name," he said. "Let's go there."

The place was reasonably full but they ended up outside on the patio, and for a couple of minutes neither of them said anything as they looked over the menu.

"Cap'n Crunch french toast," Jared said, amazed and interested. He'd get a side of cheese grits and stuff his face and then he wouldn't be hungry until dinner. And if he was lucky, Aldis would make him dinner and he wouldn't even have to cook. All he was going to do today was eat.

Well, he was ok with that.

Jensen ordered the huevos rancheros and a giant coffee - "My morning caffeine's wearing off," he explained - and they started chatting like they hadn't just met twenty minutes ago. Jensen was an aspiring singer-songwriter as well as a barista, he liked classic noir movies, old westerns, Monty Python, murder mysteries, Star Wars but not really Star Trek, the Terminator movies, pretty much everything Jack White had ever done, rugby, Dave Eggers, William Gibson (from just the past ten or twelve years, though, not the early cyberpunk stuff), way too many bands and musicians to list, Tex-Mex ("I'm sure you're surprised," he said, grinning), sushi, football, and the kinds of books Jared considered snobby intellectual lit, although Jensen himself didn't seem like much of a snob.

And when Jared suggested he read The Dresden Files - which came out "You should totally read Jim Butcher, I think you'd really like him" - Jensen said he had.

Jensen talked about his music and Jared talked about his dogs and his bikes, and they both talked a little bit about home and how and why they'd come to Nashville and their meals and the weather and their phones (Jensen's rang once, Jared's twice) and a random but generally light collection of subjects. Jared liked to think he was easy to talk to, but he'd tried to chat with people who had all the spark and conversational skills of a blueberry muffin, so he was aware that it took two to carry on a conversation. And talking to Jensen was ridiculously easy.

Jared's first phone call was from Beth, wondering where he was. He thought it would be rude to take the call, but Jensen told him not to worry, what if it was an emergency?

"It's not an emergency," Jared said, "it's just Beth."

She wanted to know where he was, he told her, she said she and Aldis had gone to a friend's house to hang out and see the girl's photos, did he want to come over? He said no, he was still eating. (Which wasn't totally a lie - after all, he could still have dessert.)

"Give us a call when you're done," she told him, and then demanded "How did you do that?" of someone on her end of the phone, and hung up.

"My ride home," he explained to Jensen. "They haven't left me yet."

Jensen's one phone call was a friend of his, who was apparently calling to get the dirt on whatever he'd done the night before. His end of the conversation was very short - "I had a really good time, can I tell you about it later?" - and then because Jared must have looked very convincingly confused, he said "I went on a first date last night. My friend set us up - she just wanted to know how it went."

"How did it go?"

"We ate sushi and went bowling. It was fun. And then one of my date's friends called to make sure I wasn't a serial killer."

"Was she worried that you were?" Jared found that a little hard to believe.

"Who - my date or his friend? The friend was. The date, not so much."

Jared noted the "his" without comment. Obviously Jensen thought he wouldn't care, and he really didn't.

Jared's second phone call was from Aldis, begging Jared to come rescue him from hipsters and photographers. Jared said maybe later. This was more fun.

After a couple of hours he and Jensen realized they were probably monopolizing the table, so they paid the bill and left. But instead of heading right back to the gallery and wherever Jensen had parked his car, they wandered around for a little while until they found an ice cream shop, and because Jared was a bottomless pit they stopped for ice cream.

"This is kinda like a date," Jared commented, as they sat outside with their cones. "I mean. Um."

Jensen laughed. "Does that mean I'm going to get a goodnight kiss?" He grinned. Jared could tell he was teasing.

Their conversation moved onto cars, the weirdest ice cream flavors either of them had ever had, the Civil War, and The Killer Angels. They eventually made their way back to the gallery and then around the block to Jensen's car.

"Do you want to maybe hang out again some time?" Jensen asked, much to Jared's relief. He'd been trying to figure out how he could pursue a friendship with someone he knew was gay, without sounding like he was interested in a relationship. He'd decided it wasn't any different from pursuing a friendship with any other guy - he'd done it with Misha - but then Jensen beat him to the punch anyway. "I know a good coffeeshop."

"Yeah, that'd be cool. And now I can ask this without sounding like I'm asking you out - the Belcourt's showing a bunch of spaghetti westerns next week, and I can't get anyone to go with me. Nobody wants to see The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly or Fistful of Dollars. I don't get it."

"I'm not sure what nights I'm working, but I've gotta be free for at least one movie." Jensen dug his car keys out of his pocket. "I, uh, I haven't met a lot people since I moved here," he said, looking at his hands and suddenly sounding a little shy. "I mean people I could be friends with, not networking contacts or coworkers. I really - I'm glad we met."

"Me too." Jared couldn't help grinning. Jensen's sudden shyness was actually kind of cute, because he hadn't been at all quiet at any previous point in the afternoon. They'd started talking and just hadn't stopped. "I'm just glad there was someone besides me at the gallery who didn't really want to be there."

"It was the big blinking sign over my head, wasn't it."

"Dead giveaway."

Jensen unlocked his car. "I'll call you when - shit, I didn't get your number."

So they exchanged phone numbers, said goodbye again, and Jensen got in his car and pulled away.

"Cool," Jared said to himself. "I made a friend."

He called Aldis, Aldis asked where he'd been, he said he made a friend, Aldis tried to grill him, Jared said "Just tell me where you are", and Aldis gave him directions, saying he was really ready to get out of this house already.

In the car on the way home, Beth chattered about the art show and the girl whose house they'd gone to and the neighborhood was really cool and she kind of wanted to move out here - Aldis turned in his seat and shook his head at Jared, a gesture Jared knew meant "No fucking way", although Jared had to admit, parts of the area were kinda cute - and Aldis asked about this total stranger who was apparently more interesting to Jared than people he already knew. And Jared told him.

"If I didn't know better," Beth mused, "I'd think you had a crush on this guy."

Which was exactly what Aldis told Katie at work the next day.

"Now will you stop insinuating about me and Mike?" Tom said, aggrieved.

"'Insinuating'?" Katie repeated. "That's a big word for you, Tom."

"Fuck off."

* * *

On Wednesday Chris' band had a gig - the club wasn't a very big place, but Oklahoma Ford was headlining, which was something - and Jensen thought it might be fun to take Matt for their second date. Since Matt had made him go bowling, it seemed only fair for him to drag Matt to a show.

Besides, Jensen really liked the band and was trying to get more people interested in their music. And after the show, maybe they could go back to Matt's place or he could bring Matt to his. Chris would make himself scarce, Jensen knew.

Matt was up for it, although he wanted a chance to listen to some of the songs so he was at least a little bit prepared, so Jensen got his email address and sent him a couple of MP3s and a link to the band's web site.

"I don't know who's opening," Jensen said. "We can get something to eat first. Oklahoma Ford probably won't go on until ten. Chris said he'd put us on the list, so we won't have to worry about getting in." Not that Jensen - or the band - expected the show to sell out, but Chris liked being able to put people on a guest list, and Jensen liked being on it. He really wasn't much of a glory hound, but he still got a kick out of saying "I'm with the band" when club security tried to stop him.

Danneel was showing way too much interest in his new dating life, so Jensen didn't even bother to call and tell her about the second date. He knew she'd call him. He was at work when she did, though, and by the time he got a chance to call her back she was working, so their conversations for two days were confined to voice mail - Danneel wanting to hear details from Jensen and give details about Matt, and Jensen being only a little forthcoming and not wanting to know.

It was Jensen's turn to drive, which was fine because he could find his way to the club if he was driving, but he didn't trust himself to be able to give directions. He managed to not get lost on his way to pick Matt up, and continued to not get lost on the way to the club, and even found a decent parking spot.

They ate at a brewpub down the street from the club and talked about a random assortment of things that seemed both less personal and more intimate. There were only two awkward silences - one after Matt casually mentioned an ex-boyfriend, and one after Jensen said something snide about book critics - but overall it was a comfortable conversation.

Once or twice Jensen lost his train of thought because watching Matt sip his beer made Jensen want to lick the foam off his lips and kiss him breathless.

Hopefully later. He didn't have to be in the coffeeshop until two tomorrow. He could plan ahead.

The opening act was just getting off the stage by the time they made it to the club and Jensen got to say "I'm on the list" to the guy on the door. Jensen stopped at Oklahoma Ford's merch table to say hi to Chris' friend Brittany, who had started out as a fan and a groupie and webmistress of the best of the early fan sites. She'd dated Chris for a while, built the band's official site (which she now maintained along with their Facebook page), and ended up a genuine friend of the band and coincidentally the one person who was always, always ready to man the merch table if they couldn't get someone else to do it.

"Who's your friend?" she asked Jensen, not quite leering at Matt but almost.

"This is Matt," he said.

"Hi, Matt." She smiled winningly. Jensen didn't know how to tell her that even if Matt hadn't been there as his date, there was no way the guy was going to be interested in her. She leaned over the table and held out her hand to shake. "I'm Brittany. I'm one of their biggest fans and that's really not as creepy as it sounds."

"I believe you." Matt smiled back.

"Could you hear the opening band?" Jensen asked her, "Were they any good?"

"I couldn't tell," she said. "I don't think they were bad."

"We're gonna go in. I'll see you later."

He led Matt into the main area of the club, where people were milling around and trying to get closer to the stage while Oklahoma Ford set up. While they waited at the bar for a chance to order drinks, Jensen pointed out the various band members and gave Matt capsule biographies for everyone, including Aly's boyfriend, Jason-the-other-guitarist's wife, Seth (the original bass player), Steve (the original guitarist), and the two drummers they'd had before Aly.

"I think it just wasn't their kind of music," Jensen said. "It happens."

When the lights dimmed and the band came on stage, Jensen pulled Matt as close as they could get so he could better appreciate the music and Chris' skill as a front man. On days when Jensen wanted to be in a band, rather than a solo artist, Oklahoma Ford was the kind of band he wanted to be in. The current lineup had been together for a couple of years by now, and they were incredibly tight. They worked well together, they were friends off-stage, and they all clearly loved playing and loved being in the band.

Jensen knew all the songs and couldn't stop himself from singing along, and at one point he leaned in to Matt to say something and Matt kissed him on the cheek. It was very quick, no more than a peck, but Jensen forgot what he'd wanted to say, and Matt just grinned at him. Jensen thought he might be blushing.

"Are you having fun?" Jensen asked.

"What do you think?"

Ok, it was a stupid question. The guy had just planted a quick one on his face. You didn't do that if you weren't enjoying yourself.

"The music's good too," Matt added, grinning brightly. Jensen laughed.

After the show he wanted to take Matt backstage to meet the band, but Matt said he was kind of tired and maybe another time, but did Jensen want to go back to his place for coffee or a nightcap or something?

And Jensen said yes, thinking Oh hell yes, but can we skip the coffee and go right to the kissing and the fucking?

Not that he would ever say that out loud.

He made one wrong turn going back to Matt's place, although to be fair Matt was giving him directions. Jensen had turned off his phone while they were having dinner (Matt hadn't, but no one called so apparently his friend no longer thought Jensen was dangerous), and after he parked and got out of the car he turned it on just to make sure Danneel hadn't tried to call. But of course she had. It was a text this time - "HAVE FUN! WEAR PROTECTION!" - which made him laugh and annoyed him at the same time.

"What?" Matt asked, having heard the laugh.

"Just Danneel telling us to have a good time."

"You got that text too?" Matt grinned. "Don't worry, I'm prepared."

He lived by himself and didn't have a very big apartment - just two rooms, a small kitchen, and a bathroom. He made Jensen take off his shoes and leave them by the front door, and then Jensen had to excuse himself to take a leak. When he was done Matt was in the kitchen asking what he wanted to drink.

"I'll make coffee if you want," he said, "or I have iced. There's soda, orange juice, wine, beer, of course...." He turned away from the fridge, a bottle of Corona in one hand, and Jensen kissed him.

Really kissed him.

Matt wrapped both arms around Jensen's neck and kissed back. Jensen could feel the bottle of beer chilling his shoulder blade through his t-shirt, but he didn't care. When they finally pulled apart to breathe, Matt managed to get the bottle back in the fridge and kick the door shut before attacking Jensen's mouth.

Jensen backed him against the counter and kissed him back. It felt like a rainstorm after a long drought, Matt's tongue in his mouth and Matt's hands on his ass and Matt's leg pushing between his thighs. They ground together and Jensen could almost taste Matt's moans in the back of his throat.

"You don't know how badly I wanted you on Saturday," Matt said, breathless, when they finally separated.

"I can guess," Jensen answered. Guess, hell, he could feel.

"Come on." Matt took his hand and led him towards the bedroom and the neatly made bed, which they fell on fully clothed.

It was hard to get undressed when you didn't want to stop kissing your partner's mouth or licking your way across his jaw and down his throat, but they managed, and it seemed that in no time at all they were both naked and panting and hard, Matt flat on his back on top of the covers and Jensen sprawled on top of him.

Jensen sat up - he wanted to take a minute to just look, to admire Matt's nicely muscled chest and toned arms and strong-looking thighs and full cock, and he wanted to take more than a minute to lick every inch of Matt's fair skin and see how much of a blush he could bring to its surface, but it had been a long time and his body was eager to get on with it.

Matt stretched out his arm towards the drawer in the bedside table, but he couldn't reach, so Jensen leaned over, yanked the drawer open, and retrieved a small bottle of lube and a new box of condoms.

"Bought them Sunday," Matt said. "Don't make me wait any more."

Jensen ripped the box open and pulled out a little foil square. He settled himself between Matt's thighs and squirted lube on his fingers, and when Matt lifted his hips Jensen pushed first one and then two fingers inside his body. Matt's breathing grew shallow and his chest heaved as Jensen probed, and even though part of Jensen wanted to take his time and go slow and explore, most of him wanted to fuck Matt now.

He ripped open the condom, rolled it on, draped Matt's legs over his shoulder, and thrust deep inside his waiting ass.

"Nng," Matt groaned as Jensen started to move, hips pumping hard and driving deep. Matt's skin was flushed and he groaned again as he reached for his own cock and started to stroke.

Jensen bit his lip to hold back his moans - he didn't know how thick the apartment's walls were and he didn't want the neighbors to hear - and dug his fingers into Matt's thigh, leaning into it as he thrust faster and faster. He couldn't go any slower but he could hold back his orgasm for a while. He wanted to wait - he didn't want to come right away like an overeager teenager.

He leaned down to change the angle of his thrusts and Matt grabbed the back of his neck and yanked him down for a kiss, pushing against Jensen's body as his tongue pushed into Jensen's mouth. Jensen could feel his own orgasm building in his spine and his balls, and then Matt's back arched and his ass clenched hard around Jensen's cock as he groaned into Jensen's mouth. Jensen could feel Matt's come warm and sticky between their bodies. He kept going, fucking Matt through his orgasm, and when he thought Matt was done, he sat up and let himself go, pounding into Matt's body until he came as well.

He flopped forward, gasping for breath, relieved and exhausted and weirdly energized. He nuzzled against Matt's cheek until Matt turned his head and they shared a lazy, sated kiss.

"You don't have to go home, do you?" Matt asked. Jensen shook his head. "Good. It's late. You should stay here so you don't have to drive home exhausted. I'm just looking out for your welfare."

"That's good of you." Jensen smiled.

"I can make you breakfast."

"I think we should discuss it in the morning."

"I think you're right."

Jensen dropped another kiss on Matt's lips and said "I should probably, uh...." Matt nodded and Jensen felt stupid for having said something but relieved he didn't actually have to finish his sentence, and he pulled out, unrolled the condom, and took it into the bathroom to flush it and so he could splash some water on his face.

He looked at himself in the mirror, at his flushed, post-coital face, and had to grin. Eight months was a long time, but he was pretty sure this was worth it. He might have to thank Danneel after all.

He almost walked into Matt as he was walking back into the bedroom - Matt had put on a t-shirt and a pair of cotton shorts - and instead of a kiss Matt ruffled his hair and laughed at Jensen's no doubt annoyed expression. But Jensen couldn't be that annoyed, and it was a cute, affectionate gesture.

He pulled his boxer briefs back on, flipped the comforter around so neither of them would have to deal with the wet spot, and paused, feeling weird about getting into bed before Matt got back. Of all the times to get self-conscious.

But then Matt returned from whatever he'd been doing, saw Jensen just standing there without a clue, and said "I do expect you to sleep in the bed, you know. It's a lot more comfortable than the couch." He walked around Jensen, lifting his hand to brush the back of Jensen's neck as he did so, flipped the covers back, and climbed under them. "Come on in, the bed's already warm."

Jensen wasn't about to turn down the invitation. It just turned out that he really needed to hear it before he could do anything.

Matt shifted over to make room and Jensen followed him under the covers. The bed was warm with body heat, the mattress was comfortable, and when Matt rolled onto his stomach, threw his arm across Jensen's chest, and mumbled "You can make the coffee", that was comfortable too.

Comfortable was good. Jensen would take it.

* * *

Katie was still teasing Jared about his new "friend" - she even used the air quotes when she said it - on Friday, especially since Jared had let slip that they'd already talked on the phone and texted back and forth a bunch of times, and they were supposed to be seeing a movie together on Saturday. Jensen had the day off, and the Belcourt was showing For a Few Dollars More and High Plains Drifter, neither of which Jared had seen, and in fact Jared wasn't sure if Jensen was interested in both movies or just one.

So he called Jensen on his lunch break, got the voice mail, and left a message - "High Plains Drifter or For a Few Dollars More? They're both showing Saturday. Gimme a call when you get a chance." Katie overheard him and snickered. Jared grinned brightly. He could feed her imagination - she'd think what she wanted anyway.

Later that afternoon he started on a 2006 Chevy Impala, determining that he'd probably have to dismantle it in an attempt to figure out what was rattling around when you turned the air or the heat on. Tom was in the bay next to him realigning a Jeep Cherokee, and Katie was doing a state inspection on an old LeSabre when Aldis bounced through the garage, telling everyone "Go outside right now, you can thank me later."

"I can't stop an inspection," Katie protested.

He wasn't listening. Jared very carefully put down his tools and wiped his hands, and Tom crawled out from under the Jeep and they both followed Aldis outside, where they were confronted with Jim, his friend Kim, and one of the most beautiful classic cars Jared had ever seen.

"Wow," Tom said. "What is that?"

"This is Gillian," Kim told him.

"She's a 1924 Marmon Model 34C," Jim added. "Nice, huh?"

"Sweet," Tom said, running his hand over the hood. The car looked like it had just been painted, or at least just been washed - the paint job was shiny and slick and the chrome gleamed and the whitewall tires and cream-colored canvas roof were spotless.

"She spent the whole winter in the garage," Kim said. "She needed to run. Jim said I should bring her by."

"Holy shit," Katie exclaimed, coming out of the garage after having apparently finished her inspection. "Where did you get that car?"

"Kentucky. She'd been in a barn for thirty years, and it took me twelve to restore her properly. There's a rebuilt 1924 engine under the hood." He patted it fondly.

Jared leaned into the driver's side window to peer at the dashboard and what passed for driving controls ninety years ago. The interior looked just as pristine as the exterior.

"I note you didn't even put in an ashtray," Jim said.

"What kind of gas does she take?" Aldis asked.

"Unleaded. She doesn't even need high-test."

"It took you twelve years to find all the parts?" Jared asked, at the same time Katie wanted to know if they could take the car out now. She grinned hopefully. Jim laughed.

"No, but you can sit in her," Kim said.

"Ten minutes," Jim told them, "and then back to work."

Kim hung around answering questions and letting them look under the hood, and after ten minutes Jim shooed everyone back into the garage and he and Kim went into his office and shut the door. They'd been friends longer than the garage had been open, and while the mechanics knew Kim as a collector and restorer of classic cars, the 1924 Marmon was the first of his cars they'd ever seen. Normally he'd show up, sit in Jim's office shooting the shit, and leave without showing off any of his old cars or even much of himself. In the four years Jared had been working there, he'd actually seen Kim all of three times.

"So that's the Mysterious Mr Manners," Katie mused, after they'd all gone back to work. She'd heard about him and his cars, but never met him in person.

"That is indeed," Aldis said.

"It took him twelve years to restore that?" Tom repeated.

"Sometimes it's hard to find the right parts in the right condition," Jared told him. This he knew from experience. Whether or not he'd ever be able to take his motorcycles on the road depended entirely on how long it took to find parts he could afford. He'd bought the Triumph in reasonably decent condition, considering its age, and it wasn't too difficult to scrounge up the parts he needed, but Ariel effectively went out of business in 1970, and it was a British company to begin with, and he knew that fixing that one up would take him years.

"You think he'll bring it back and take us out in it?" Katie wondered.

"Maybe he'll let Beth photograph it," Aldis said.

"I didn't think cars were her thing," Jared said. She did a lot of arty black and white photography, and while she could probably take some really artistic shots of a '24 Marmon, she was more interested in oddly-angled pictures of people and unexpected, surreal little things. And snapshots. And weddings, because she had to pay the bills somehow. Her wedding pictures were actually very pretty.

Jared went back to his Impala, Tom climbed under the Jeep, and Aldis went to find Jim because he couldn't remember what was next on his list of things to do. And Katie went to the bathroom, which the boys knew because she had to announce it.

He checked his phone during his late-afternoon break and there was a message from Jensen - "Something came up - it's good, don't worry - and I can't make Saturday afternoon. What about night?" So Jared looked up the Belcourt on his phone and called Jensen back, got the voice mail again - was Jensen at work? Jared felt like he should know this - and texted instead: "Midnight showing of The Goonies, wanna go?"

And Jensen did, although Jared didn't actually talk to him until much later that night.

"Sorry about the phone tag," Jensen said, "but I was at the coffeeshop all day and we're not supposed to answer our phones unless we're on break."

"Yeah, us too. But then people just call the garage when they want to talk to someone. Tom's mom used to do it all the time. He's another one of the mechanics, did I tell you about him?"

"Kinda cute, kinda dumb, Katie thinks he's fucking his housemate." The way Jensen said it, like he was counting off on his fingers, made Jared laugh.

"Yeah, that's about it. He's a good guy, knows cars, but he's kinda one burger short of a Happy Meal, you know? So The Goonies is good?"

"Oh yeah. When I was little I had a babysitter who loved Josh Brolin. She'd bring the movie over and we'd watch it. I liked it a lot."

"I caught it on cable when I was, like, sixteen. I was probably too old for it but - agh, Harley, off the couch." Although he should really have said "Off me," because even though the dogs were allowed on the couch, Jared didn't always appreciate it when they decided that meant they were allowed on him. And Harley was not a small dog.

Jared shoved the dog's shoulder, but Harley just licked his face.

"Fine," Jared muttered, "you win."

"I did?" Jensen said on the other end of the phone. "What'd I win?"

"Not you, my dog. He's sitting on me. Oh, not you too," he told Sadie, who was now sitting practically on Jared's feet and looking at him longingly.

"Give 'em an inch and they'll take up the entire piece of furniture?" Jensen laughed.

"Something like that, yeah. It's really their house, I just pay the mortgage. So about tomorrow, I'll meet you at the theater about eleven, is that cool?"

"That's cool. I got directions, I'll be fine. And I don't have to be in until two on Sunday."

"So we can be out all night. Good to know."

They chatted for another few minutes, and then Jensen's roommate came home and announced they were going out - Jensen helpfully relayed this back to Jared - so they both got off the phone.

Saturday night, Jared reminded his dogs that he was going out late and would be home late and they should keep an eye out for any strangers, and they didn't have to wait up for him. They just cocked their heads, barked, and licked his face when he bent down to say goodbye.

Jared had no problem with the fact that he talked to his dogs like they were people, and sometimes treated them that way. Lots of dog owners did that. It beat talking to people - or treating them - like they were dogs.

He rode his Harley into town because he could and because it had been a while since he'd gotten a chance to take it out.

He'd wanted a motorcycle since he was thirteen and went to stay on his grandparents' ranch for the summer. One of the ranch hands had an old Harley chopper, and as soon as Jared could find a helmet (and someone could distract his grandmother), he made the guy take him out on it. The guy was a little worried about what might happen to him if he got his boss' grandson killed, but Jared reassured him that grandpa knew, everything was cool, see, he even had a helmet and had put on a jacket.

He thought it was the most amazing thing he'd ever experienced. Sitting pillion on the ranch hand's Harley, zooming down the road at seventy miles an hour, Jared felt fast and dangerous and grown-up, and like he could go anywhere at any time, without having to answer to anybody. He laughed in exhilaration and swallowed a bug, didn't care, and started pestering his parents for a motorcycle as soon as he got home at the end of the summer.

His parents both said no.

He managed to wear them down enough for them to get him a motorbike when he turned fifteen, which he was only allowed to ride after several lessons and even more lectures about safety. It made him - briefly - very popular, and he moved on from helping his dad and brother tinker with the car to tinkering with his own ride. When he graduated from high school, he sold the bike to buy his first car, a 1996 Chevy Blazer. Two years later, he traded it for an old Ford F-150 and two motorcycle lessons, and two years after that, he was in Nashville looking at Harleys.

Jared's bike was a Harley-Davidson Softail Custom painted Pacific Blue and black, with saddlebags to hold some tools and other stuff and a pillion seat with sissy bar because his friend Sandy had gone with him when he went to buy it, and she insisted that she be able to ride on the back. It was so far the only vehicle he'd ever bought new, and he loved it as if he'd built it himself. There were a couple of auto parts shops on Nolensville Road that he liked, as well as a motorcycle-parts place that was pretty good about trying to get weird bits for the Triumph and had actually found a starter for the Ariel. If he rode his bike out there, he was almost guaranteed a motorcycle-related conversation with someone. The shops he patronized were all owned and staffed by Hispanic guys, and his Spanish was pretty terrible, but they could communicate back and forth well enough to talk about their bikes and their cars.

It was a good way to meet people, showing off your bike. But it wasn't necessarily a surefire way to make friends. The guys on Nolensville Road would probably never be more than acquaintances, and Jared had met a bunch of people through the various online message boards he haunted, but the only motorcycle friend he'd actually made was a Scottish guy named Tony, who'd been a motorcycle racer in his younger years. Tony had moved to Nashville and opened a garage specializing in buying, selling, restoring, and rebuilding old bikes, and the same way that Jared had met and become friends with Misha when he took Misha's class, he met and became friends with Tony when Tony sold him the Triumph.

Tony had since closed his shop and moved away, although he still kept in touch, and when Jared couldn't tell if he'd found the right part for a fair price, he trusted Tony to tell him the truth.

Jared thought about motorcycles - his and other people's - a lot, but now as he cruised down the road on his Harley, headlamp lighting up the asphalt, the wind in his face and his saddlebags packed with surreptitious snacks, all he was really thinking about was who would get to the movie theater first.

He beat Jensen there, but maybe he shouldn't have been surprised. He knew where he was going, for one thing, and he liked to drive really fast. He found a parking spot, got in line to buy tickets, and found a text on his phone about karaoke that Sandy had apparently sent him earlier that day and that he'd completely missed. He sent her an apology - "Just saw your text about karaoke, sorry for not answering. Am at the movies. Will call you tomorrow." Sandy probably wouldn't tease him mercilessly about having a crush on Jensen, but he was comfortable sharing details of his evening with her anyway.

Jensen was fifteen minutes late, which gave Jared enough time to buy tickets and look for someone to play Words with Friends with on his phone.

"Sorry about that," Jensen said. "I had a hard time getting out of the apartment. Chris wouldn't shut up. Why are we here so early?"

"There's gonna be a crowd." Jared gestured to the growing line of people buying tickets. "The midnight movies sometimes get a lot of people. And I figured we could sit at the bar or get a hot dog or something."

"There's a bar?"

"Yep. There's a bar." Jared grinned. "Sometimes the concession stand has pizza, too."

"Well let's go in and check that out."

They had enough time for Jared to get a hot dog and a giant popcorn and for Jensen to get a box of Raisinets and admire the bar, before they figured maybe they should get in line with everyone else waiting to go in and sit.

"What did you have to do this afternoon?" Jared asked, while they waited.

"I got called in for some studio work." Jared must have looked confused, because Jensen explained "I know a guy who works for a recording studio, who got me on their list of potential studio musicians. You know, if they need a backing band for someone or for someone to fill in on a song or an album or something. He totally came through for me and got me a few hours laying down a guitar track."

"Cool."

"Very. It took a stupid amount of time to get my guitar tuned correctly, but I'm pretty sure that was their fault and not mine. I was there five hours but really only got to record for three and a half, but they paid me for the whole time so I'm not complaining. It's not the greatest job, I mean I want to play my stuff and not three hours of someone else's, but it got me out of the house."

"Are you gonna, I dunno, play somewhere I can listen to you?"

Jared wasn't sure, but he thought that made Jensen blush, maybe a little. He hadn't thought it was that embarrassing a question, but he'd already figured out that Jensen could be kind of a shy guy, especially when asked a direct question about a potential musical performance. He would probably be the wrong person to bring to karaoke, although maybe he liked to sit in the audience and watch. Jared couldn't carry a tune in a bucket so he usually just cheered people on, but it was always nice to have company

"Actually," Jensen said, "the drummer in Chris' band, her name's Aly, she's a bartender, and the bar where she works is starting open mike nights next week. The first one's in a week and a half, on Thursday. I, uh, I told her I'd sing. You can come, if you want."

Oh, now he was definitely blushing. It was kind of cute.

"Sounds like fun," Jared said. "Tell me where, I'll be there. I can even bring the guys from the garage. To bulk up the audience, you know." Sometimes Beth took pictures at these kinds of events and put them up on her Facebook page, but Jared thought maybe he shouldn't mention that in case it gave Jensen stage fright.

"I don't know how good it'll be, but - oh, hey, we're moving."

Jensen wanted to sit as close to the middle of the row as possible, but Jared had learned that not only was an aisle seat better for his long legs, but he was less likely to get someone sitting behind him bitching about how he was blocking their view. Sometimes it really sucked being tall.

Interestingly, though, he and Jensen were about the same height sitting down.

Jared had already finished his hot dog, and now he had to restrain himself from starting on his popcorn. Instead, he got the details about Jensen's open mike night thing and gave him the phone number for the garage, saying "If you need to get ahold of me during the day, call the garage. I can take like five minutes to talk."

He pointed out that the audience seemed to be mostly people who looked old enough to have seen The Goonies when it came out in theaters the first time, but there was a not-inconsiderable number of people who seemed to be Jared and Jensen's age or younger, people who could've only seen the movie on TV or on video or a DVD.

"Thank the babysitters," Jensen said, grinning.

"Have some popcorn," Jared offered. And then he remembered that he'd brought snacks to sneak into the theater - a bottle of water, a couple packs of Twizzlers, a big bag of sour gummy worms. "Well, shit," he muttered.

"What?"

"I got candy in my bike's saddlebags and I totally forgot."

Jensen snorted. "Doofus."

"Pretty much. I'd probably have gotten popcorn anyway, just a smaller bag."

"That is a giant tub of popcorn."

It took both of them most of the movie to finish it, too.

"I felt bad because I couldn't make it this afternoon," Jensen said, as they followed the crowd out after the final credits, "but I really liked that. If it wasn't so late I'd suggest we go somewhere else, but, well, it's almost two."

"And there really isn't anywhere to go around here," Jared said. "And if there is, I don't know where." He yawned. "I gotta go home and go to bed. I was up early this morning. You know what the world needs? Cat flaps big enough for my dogs. Although a cat flap big enough to fit Harley would take up half the door, so maybe not." He yawned again. "Someday you gotta come over and meet the dogs. They don't bite, I promise."

"Maybe, yeah. I'd kinda like that."

"What are you doing next weekend? Are you free Sunday?"

"I think so. Let me check." Jensen turned on his phone to apparently check his calendar. "Sunday's good, yeah."

"Cool. Now you can add 'Meet Jared's dogs' and 'Come by after eleven' to next Sunday."

So Jared gave Jensen his address, and Jensen updated his calendar, and Jared said "Now I can go to your open mike night thing next Thursday. I promise I won't heckle." He grinned.

"If you do, I'll tell Chris he can smack you upside the head." Now Jensen grinned too.

"My mom would be so embarrassed. Drive safe. See you next Sunday."

"I'm looking forward to it. 'Night."

Jensen waved as he walked up the sidewalk, presumably towards his car, and Jared went the other way to where his bike was parked. He dug into one of the saddlebags for the bottle of water, which was now lukewarm, and guzzled it down before straddling his bike, turning it on, and driving home.

* * *

A week later, Jared was working on the Triumph in the driveway when Jensen pulled up to the house. The garage door was open, as was the door into the house from the garage. Sadie was lying down on the garage floor, watching Jared and the great outdoors, and Harley was inside, probably sprawled all over the couch.

Jared had his dogs trained well enough that they weren't going to go running off while he was there, but he still had to yell "Sadie!" when Jensen parked his car in front of the house and got out, and Sadie jumped up and went running over to him. She stopped maybe a foot in front of him and started barking, and he backed against the car, clearly startled.

"Sadie!" Jared called again, jumping up to rescue Jensen. "Sit!"

"Uh... Jared?" Jensen said.

"She won't bite, she just needs to tell you she's glad to see you. Sadie, sit," he said again, and this time, aided by his hand on her butt, she sat. He skritched her ears. "This is Jensen," he told her, "he's a friend of mine. He's harmless."

Of course Harley picked that time to come running as well, having heard Sadie barking through the garage door and open windows. Jared's dogs had never met a stranger, but unlike Sadie, Harley expressed his joy at seeing you by jumping on you. Jared couldn't catch him in time but Jensen apparently had some experience with dogs, because he knew to put a knee out to push Harley back. Not that this stopped the dog, but at least it kept his claws from scratching Jensen's car.

"Sorry about that," Jared said, grabbing at Harley's collar. "This one's Harley, and the barky one is Sadie. Harley! Sit!" Harley whined, but sat.

Jared wanted to laugh at the sight of Jensen still pressed against his car, Harley and Sadie sitting on the ground in front of him, tails thumping the grass, tongues hanging out, both of them looking up at him expectantly.

"Um," Jensen said.

"Guys, come on." Jared tugged on both dogs' collars, just enough to get them to move so Jensen could step away from his car. They let him pass, then got up and followed him and Jared back to the driveway, the Triumph, the tools and various bike parts sitting on the asphalt, and Jared's old radio, which was tuned to NASCAR.

"What are you listening to?" Jensen asked. Trust the musician to ask his first question about what was on the radio.

"NASCAR." Jared laughed at Jensen's raised eyebrow. "I fix cars for a living, man, you think I don't like racing? It's background noise, mostly." Jared had grown up with NASCAR, and his mom had cried when Dale Earnhardt was killed, and any embarrassment about being caught enjoying what most people considered a redneck sport had long since been trained out of him. Besides, lots of well-educated, sophisticated people liked car racing, and he'd figured by now that Jensen didn't care what he listened to on the radio. Jensen knew he was kind of a dork and kind of a nerd, and hadn't run screaming and didn't seem to judge.

Sadie and Harley were still hanging around, following Jensen as he walked around the Triumph apparently checking out Jared's restoration.

"This is Elizabeth," Jared said. "Yes, I name my bikes. The other one is called Pearl." He gestured towards the garage, where the Ariel - still mostly a shell, but less rusty than when he bought her - leaned against a sawhorse.

"What'd you name the Harley?" Jensen asked. Jared's dog perked up his ears. "Not you," Jensen told him. Harley cocked his head. Jared laughed.

"I didn't. I don't know why - my truck doesn't have a name either. The guy I bought the Triumph from gives all his bikes names. He says it makes them run better. The Harley doesn't need any work, maybe that's why."

"We're confusing your dog." Jensen pointed. Harley was looking back and forth between them like he was watching a tennis match, listening for his name and no doubt expecting a treat.

"You wanna take them for a walk? I could use a break. Just help me bring this stuff into the garage."

They collected Jared's tools and miscellaneous parts and supplies and the radio, and after dropping it all in the garage Jared wheeled the Triumph in and pulled the garage door shut. The dogs had followed him and Jensen - they seemed to really like Jensen, which was a plus - and now they followed them into the house, where Jared washed his hands and changed his shirt and found their leashes.

He took Harley and Jensen took Sadie and they headed down the street, the opposite direction from Jeff's house, just walking and talking and once or twice letting the dogs run. (This necessitated running along with them, but Jared could always use the exercise and Jensen didn't seem to mind.) It was a nice day, hot but with a breeze, and the guys chatted about a random, wide-ranging assortment of things, as they usually did, while Harley and Sadie sniffed and pulled at their leashes and walked around each other and got tangled up.

Jensen told Jared stories about the people he worked with and Jared told Jensen stories about the people he worked with, and Jared talked about working on his dad's car with his dad and brother when he was little, and how his sister was never interested even when she got old enough to help, and Jensen talked about being in the church choir and how both his brother and sister utterly refused to join - much to his grandmother's annoyance - and Jared talked about this kung fu movie he'd caught on TV a couple of days ago and Jensen surprised him by not only knowing what movie it was, but filling Jared in on what happened in the first half hour, which Jared had missed.

Jensen talked about Danneel and Jared talked about Sandy and they talked about football and cars and music and comic books, and Jensen came down on the Batman side of the Superman vs Batman debate, because he thought Batman had depth, and while Superman could rely on his super strength to win a fight, Batman could outgun him with accessories.

"'Where does he get all those wonderful toys,'" Jared quoted, laughing. He was a Batman fan too, because Batman had gadgets. And Batman had minions, if you wanted to consider Robin a minion, and he had Alfred.

"Some of the stuff with Robin is a little weird," Jensen commented. "Like... we're supposed to think they're just mentor and mentee? Like there isn't something else going on there?"

"You sound like Katie."

Jensen snickered. He'd heard all about Katie. Jared had mentioned that she'd started teasing him about Jensen, and Jensen had just shrugged and said he didn't care.

"We went to see The Dark Knight and afterwards she kept talking about Bruce and the Joker," Jared went on. "But I think she was just doing it to freak Tom out."

They'd turned around and headed back by now, and this time Jared kept going past his house to Jeff's, hoping Jeff would be up for meeting a stranger. Jeff was apparently in the middle of baking, as he came to the door covered in flour. Harley and Sadie swarmed him and Jared apologized for interrupting.

"Five minutes," Jeff said, but his face and his tone were friendly. Jared understood - Jeff was reclusive and sometimes nervous about meeting new people and going new places, although mostly he was just nervous about leaving his house, and he had his reasons which meant Jared was always careful. Jeff had only been to his house once, not counting the days he came by to walk the dogs, and Jared wondered sometimes if Jeff didn't mind doing that because no one was home and he wouldn't have to talk to anyone.

"Jensen, Jeff. Jeff, Jensen."

"Nice to meet you," Jensen said, juggling Sadie's leash so he could hold out his hand for Jeff to shake. It took Jeff a minute to realize that was what he was doing, and take the hand. Jared schooled his face to not look as impressed as he actually was - Jeff was touch-sensitive, especially when it came to people he didn't know. Maybe he was just having a good day. And Jensen was walking Sadie, which probably helped.

"He wanted to meet the dogs," Jared explained to Jeff. Jeff nodded. "They like him."

Jeff bent down to scratch their ears. "They're really friendly," he said.

"We walked down that way for a while - " Jared gestured down the street, back the way they'd come " - so by the time we get home they should be ready for a nap."

"You'd be surprised. You like dogs?" Jeff asked Jensen.

"More than cats," Jensen said. Harley barked, as if to say "You damn well better like us more than cats," and Jared laughed.

"Sandy's roommate has a cat," Jared said. "She calls it the Queen Bitch. It doesn't like me."

"It probably knows you're a dog person. They can tell."

"That's what Sandy's roommate says too. We'll let you go back to your baking," he told Jeff. "What're you making?"

"Bread," Jeff said. "Cinnamon raisin. If it's good I'll make you a loaf."

"Thanks, man. Tell Hilarie I said hi. Come on, guys," he said to the dogs, "leave Jeff alone. He's not gonna feed you."

Jeff scratched the dogs one more time and then went inside and shut the door.

"Sometimes he's kind of weird around people he doesn't know," Jared told Jensen, to stave off any comments. They headed back towards the house. "He's a little... he was in the first Gulf War, and he came home kind of messed up. Hilarie says he's a lot better than he used to be - I mean, when she met him he wouldn't even open the door unless he was knew you were coming. He didn't used to leave the house."

"That sucks."

"Yeah. Having dogs really helps him, though. He's got two. He comes by during the day when I'm at work and lets the beasts out and makes sure they're not starving or dying of thirst. Not that you're gonna waste away in ten hours, right?" He bent over Harley and rubbed his ears. "His dogs like my dogs."

"I'm not surprised," Jensen said. "I like your dogs."

"Good thing, too. I couldn't be friends with you if you didn't." Jensen just rolled his eyes.

When they got back to the house, Harley and Sadie went into the kitchen, slobbered up the water in their dishes, and then wandered into the living room and flopped on the floor.

"Can I get something to drink?" Jensen asked. "I'm parched."

"Yeah, sure." Jared cracked open the fridge. "Are you hungry? I could eat."

"You can always eat."

"I have a lot of leftovers," Jared said, pulling things out of the fridge. Cold meatloaf (he loved meatloaf so he made it a lot), pizza, spaghetti left over from last night, a couple pieces of barbecued chicken, green beans (which he'd really bought for the dogs), half a head of lettuce, half a bag of baby carrots, English muffins, a little tub of hummus.... By the time he got to the two pieces of chocolate cake, Jensen was laughing at him. "What? I'm a growing boy."

"Growing into what?"

"A bigger boy." Jared grinned. "What do you want to drink?" He stepped away from the fridge so Jensen could see what he had.

"Soda's fine. Your meatloaf's looking kind of suspicious - maybe we should eat it before it achieves sentience."

So Jared cut the meatloaf into slices, got out some bread and the ketchup, found an onion, and they made meatloaf sandwiches and took the plates and their sodas into the back yard to eat. Jared had an old metal table and a couple of chairs, as well as two folding lounge chairs of the kind you usually found next to backyard pools. He liked sitting in one of the lounge chairs with a beer and a book and his dogs when the weather was nice - or late at night when it wasn't as hot - but for now they sat at the table.

"Someday I want a house with a yard," Jensen said. He pointed to the Weber grill. "Do you grill a lot?"

"All summer, yeah. I made myself burgers a couple nights ago. I'll probably have a Fourth of July thing and really give it a workout. You're invited."

Jensen ducked his head. Was he blushing? How weird and cute. "Thanks," he said.

They ate in silence, the first real silence since they'd met, but it was a good, comfortable silence, and Jared didn't mind. It felt good to share his house and his hospitality with Jensen, and it felt good to be able to just sit across the table from him in the back yard and not have to say anything.

After a while he noticed Jensen was watching him with a weird, half-affectionate, half-curious look on his face.

"What?" Jared asked around a mouthful of sandwich.

Jensen's lips twitched into a smile and he said "I didn't think you ever shut up."

"Hey, I let you talk too. Who babbled all over himself about Jack White?" But Jared felt himself smiling too.

Jensen made a non-committal noise, that look still on his face, and they lapsed back into silence.

"Jared..." he said, after they'd finished their sandwiches and were just sucking on the ice from their sodas.

"Yeah?"

"You know what I really want to do?"

"What?"

"Ride your Harley." He looked a little surprised at himself. "Oh wow, that came out more suggestive than it was in my head."

Jared laughed. "I have an extra helmet. We'll go for a ride. But be careful - that's how I fell in love with motorcycles. Someone took me out on his."

"Oh?" Jensen quirked an eyebrow.

"Yeah - this hand on my grandparents' ranch had an old Harley and I bugged him until he took me for a ride. My grandma hit the ceiling but it was so worth it. It was... well, you'll see. When I was thirteen I thought it was better than sex. I'd never had sex, but you know." He'd never forget what it felt like, to be thirteen years old and tasting real freedom for the first time. He realized Jensen was looking at him funny. "I'm kind of a dork, I know."

Jensen shrugged. "I like listening to people talk the things they love."

"Come on." He stood up, took his plate and glass into the kitchen - assuming Jensen would follow, which he did - and then got a jacket for himself and one for Jensen out of his closet. "Here," he said, handing the jacket over. "Protection. And it can get kind of cold."

Jensen shrugged into the jacket and followed Jared into the garage, where Jared handed him the spare helmet and put his own on. He opened the garage door, wheeled the Harley out, closed the garage door again, wheeled the Harley down to the street, and straddled it.

"Well?" he said, wanting to laugh at Jensen's dubious face. "You'll fit." Jensen swung a leg over the seat, making Jared duck, and settled himself in back. "You can hold on to me or the back of the seat. I might be more stable." Jensen wrapped his arms around Jared's waist. "You ready?" He turned his head. Jensen nodded. "When I turn, lean into it. Look at my inside shoulder, if that helps. Hang on."

He turned his key in the ignition, listened to the motor rumble, kicked up the kickstand, and headed down the street. At the first turn he felt Jensen's arms tighten around him but Jensen also leaned in the right direction, so Jared didn't worry. He cruised around the neighborhood for a little bit, just getting Jensen used to the bike, before turning onto a major road and heading out away from town.

There were few things Jared loved as much as riding his bike. There was nothing like the sight of the road running under your wheels, nothing like the rumble of the motor between your thighs, nothing like the landscape rolling past you. You could wave at folks in cars or along the side of the road. Every so often he'd pass people on horseback, and a couple of times they'd raced him, them on the grass and him on the road, all of them laughing.

This was one of the things that defined Jared to himself, and he was thrilled that Jensen wanted to share it without having to be coaxed into it.

They rode east, away from the sun, Jared thinking about where they could go and what he could show Jensen, and Jensen eventually relaxing his grip a little bit. Jared risked a look over his shoulder and Jensen was sitting up, looking around, and in that one quick glance Jared noticed he was smiling.

After about an hour Jared pulled off the road, slowing along the shoulder until he finally came to a stop. He put his feet down to steady the bike and waited for Jensen to get off. It took Jensen a minute before he slid off the seat, pulled off the helmet, and hung it on the top of the sissy bar so he could scrub his hands through his hair. It stuck up in funny angles. Jared grinned and pulled his helmet off as well.

"So what did you think?" he asked. Jensen shook his head, clearly speechless. "Pretty fucking cool, huh?"

Jensen just stood there, grinning like a fool, and Jared had the weirdest, weirdest twin sensations - one, that Jensen was going to kiss him, and two, that he wanted him to.

Jared shook his head to clear it.

"Jesus," Jensen finally managed.

"Better than sex?"

"Good for thinking."

"Yeah? What did you think?"

"Music. Life. Stuff." He still looked a little dazed.

"You ok?" Jared asked, starting to worry. "You want to take a break before we head back?"

"I just want to stretch my legs." Jensen bent over, did some knee bends, walked in a circle around Jared and the bike. Jared put down the kickstand and climbed off. He shrugged out of his jacket, hot now that he wasn't moving. Jensen did the same, and they draped both jackets over the bike's seat.

They walked a few minutes away from the Harley, then turned and walked back. A single car passed them going in the opposite direction. Jensen was quiet, apparently still thinking. Jared didn't see a reason to say anything either. He felt as if he'd just told Jensen something really revealing, something important, and Jensen was digesting it. But really all they'd done was go out on the bike - it wasn't as if Jared had shared some deep, dark secret.

But he had still shared something fundamental about himself, so maybe Jensen did have something to ponder.

Eventually they got back on the bike and went home. Jared stopped for gas and Jensen borrowed a dollar for a bottle of water, which they shared before continuing on.

"Thank you," Jensen said, after they got back to the house and had divested themselves of helmets and jackets.

"For what?"

"Indulging me, I guess."

"Thanks for wanting to go. Sometimes people are freaked out. It's really cool that you weren't."

"It's really important to you." Jensen shrugged. "And you're coming to see me for open mike night."

"It sounds like fun. Do you sing karaoke? You can come with me the next time Sandy makes me go. She's got this friend, Johnny, they go to karaoke together. He's kind of flamboyant and he gets really into it. He's a fun guy. I can call you."

"Maybe. I'm not the biggest karaoke fan." He cracked his neck. "I should probably go. I had a really, really great time today."

"I'm glad. Me too." Jared could tell he was grinning stupidly. "You can come by any time. Give me a call to make sure I'm home - I run errands a lot on weekends, because I can - but if I'm here you can totally come over."

"Thanks. Next time you should probably come to my house, though. How are your videogame football skills? I can kick your ass at Madden 10." He grinned.

"That's what you think. If you're gonna go, go, otherwise I'll start suggesting you stay for dinner, and then the dogs will sit on you and you'll never leave."

"I wouldn't hate that. But I gotta go. I'll call you. Take care."

"If you get lost, give me a call. You need a GPS, man."

"Still don't trust them." Jensen went out through the garage and Jared followed. He waved goodbye as Jensen got in his car and drove off, and then went back inside to tell Harley and Sadie that he'd taken Jensen out on his bike and Jensen had liked it.

* * *

A couple of days later, Jensen called the garage where Jared worked to see if he wanted to meet for dinner or something, and the guy who answered the phone said Jared had gone home sick. As soon as he hung up, Jensen Googlemapped Jared's address to refresh his memory, went to Kroger's for a carton of orange juice, and drove out to Jared's house.

Under other circumstances he'd think it was too much of an imposition on someone he really hadn't known that long, but Jensen already felt as if he knew Jared pretty well, and he realized as he walked through the grocery store that if he were home sick, Jared appearing at his front door would make him feel better.

It had been a long time since Jensen had felt this quick a connection to someone. It was a nice feeling.

He did have a moment of insecurity as he was standing on Jared's front steps, and it did not quite go away when Jared opened the door muttering to himself.

"Jensen," he said, sounding surprised. He looked terrible, washed out and unshaven and tired. "Um. What are you doing here?"

"I called the garage and they told me you were home sick. So I thought I'd bring you some juice." He held up the carton.

"Thank you? But I'm not really good company. I mean, I was sleeping."

"Maybe this wasn't a good idea. I can go, it's ok. I'll let you go back to sleep."

"No, you're here, come in." Jared stepped back so Jensen could come inside. "Thanks for the orange juice. Just put it in the fridge."

"It works for me when I'm sick," Jensen called, walking through the house to the kitchen. He felt a little better about having shown up, now that Jared had invited him in. Sadie followed him. "Hi, Sadie. Are you taking care of Jared?"

"She tried to lick my face when I was trying to sleep." Jensen heard Jared sneeze in the other room. "I'm really sorry, man, I don't think I can hold a conversation. You can stay, I mean it's not like I want you to leave, but just, I don't know, watch TV or something."

"I'll hang out in case you need anything." Jensen came back from the kitchen and sat down at one end of the couch. "Here. Lie down. You can use me as a pillow."

Jared blinked. "I don't - "

"Jared. You need to rest. It's ok. You won't get me sick."

So Jared lay down on the couch, which was a bit too short for him like this, and put his head on Jensen's thigh. Jensen brushed a hand over his hair to soothe him.

When Jensen was a baby and sick or tired or just fussy, his dad used to sing to him to quiet him down. Sitting on the couch with Jared's head on his leg made him feel kind of parental, but singing seemed too intimate. So he talked, keeping his voice low, telling Jared about the coffeeshop and the woman with the twin babies who'd come in that morning and Chris' band and a ridiculous news item he'd heard on the radio, and he tried to remember an accounting joke that Matt had emailed him, but it hadn't made much sense at the time and now he totally fluffed the punchline.

"You want to sleep, just let me know and I'll shut up," he said, to which Jared answered "No, it's nice."

Jared tried to contribute to the conversation, although all he really did was make the occasional encouraging noise to let Jensen know he was listening. They watched TV and Jensen talked, and then Jared fell asleep. And then Jensen watched TV and hoped the dogs weren't going to need anything, because he really liked sitting here with his hand now resting on Jared's arm, listening to him wheeze and sniffle as he slept.

Jensen was surprised to find himself wondering if Jared really was straight. He felt very close to him right now, like maybe in another life, or under other circumstances, maybe there could be something between them.

But that was stupid - he had Matt, he wasn't looking for a relationship. And he really did like that he and Jared were friends.

He watched TV for a while and thought in aimless circles, and then he realized what time it was and shook Jared gently to wake him.

"How long was I out?" Jared asked, his voice thick and fuzzy. He tried to cough the phlegm out of his throat.

"A couple hours," Jensen told him.

"Man, I'm sorry. You were talking to me."

"You did warn me." He knew he was smiling as Jared twisted around and looked up. He brushed Jared's hair back from his face. "I have to go. Jason can't make it to band practice and Chris wants me to fill in. I guess they need both guitars, and I know most of the songs."

"Ok. Thanks for coming over. Can you let the dogs out before you go? Just open the back door, let them do their thing, and call them back in. Please."

"No problem. Just sit up a sec so I can get out." Jared sat up just enough so that Jensen could get out from underneath him. He went back into the kitchen, calling to the dogs to follow, and opened the back door for them. He could still hear the TV in the other room.

By the time the dogs had finished their business, Jared was asleep again. Without even thinking, Jensen bent over the couch and kissed him on the forehead. He gently brushed Jared's hair back and Jared opened his eyes.

"Take care of yourself," Jensen said softly. "Sleep a lot."

"'Kay. Thanks." Jared smiled tiredly.

Jensen's hand lingered on his head, and then he said goodbye to the dogs and let himself out. He hoped Jared felt better, knowing that someone cared.

* * *

Aly had told Jensen and Chris and everyone else she knew about her bar's first open mike night, and Chris had volunteered to drive himself and Jensen in case Jensen needed to mentally prepare, or he needed someone to calm him down, or he needed a couple of beers before and another couple of beers after.

And also, apparently, so Chris could grill him about Matt.

"Is your boyfriend coming?" he asked at the first red light.

"He's not my boyfriend," Jensen said, "and I'm not sure. He said he'd try." They hadn't seen each other since the week before, when Jensen had gone to Matt's place for a couple of hours, but they'd talked on the phone once, chatted briefly a few times online, emailed sporadically, and Matt had dropped by the coffeeshop yesterday to say hi. But he was busy - he was teaching a summer class, doing a lot of reading and research and thinking about his future thesis, and working what amounted to a summer job as an accountant - and expected to stay that way for the foreseeable future.

"You've been out, what, twice? Three times?"

"Twice. And the one time I went to his place."

"When do you call him your boyfriend?"

"I don't know, Chris, when did you start calling Brittany your girlfriend?" It came out a little snarkier than Jensen planned.

"I don't think I ever did." He shrugged. "You know Aly and Gus don't think he exists."

"So?"

"I just want you to be happy, man. Michael was a douchebag and you deserve a better class of boyfriend, that's all."

"Can we talk about something else?" He'd left Houston partly to get away from Michael and didn't want the guy popping up in conversations now. And even though he liked Matt, he wasn't sure how he felt about their relationship progressing. He was starting to think he had a crush on Jared, for one thing.

"I'm working on getting us a tour, how's that?"

It was more interesting than Jensen's love life, that's how it was.

Aly's bar wasn't much more than a neighborhood dive, but it had a good jukebox and thanks to the manager's aborted efforts to get a karaoke night going, it had space for a microphone and speakers. Jason and Gus were already there holding down a table, and Aly was working. Having the entirety of Oklahoma Ford there to support him made Jensen feel a little less nervous. They'd all heard him before and he wouldn't have to worry about making a good first impression. And they'd clap for him, which was always a nice ego boost.

Someone came out to introduce the concept of open mike night and said signups were at the bar, everyone have fun, don't forget to tip the bartenders.

"We like tips!" Aly yelled from behind the bar. Five minutes later she appeared at the guys' table to tell Jensen that she'd put his name down and he was after some woman named Emily.

Emily was a hair off-key but full of enthusiasm and emotion, at least enough to garner some applause. Jensen took his guitar up to the microphone, pulled over a chair, moved the mike into a better position, and said "Hi".

"Hi!" someone called back.

He glanced around at the bar. It was decently full but only about half the patrons were paying any attention to him. Well, he'd sung at worse.

The song he'd chosen was one he and Chris had written a few years ago, when they were both back in Dallas for Thanksgiving. Oklahoma Ford played it sometimes, but it wasn't one of their better-known songs, and for all Jensen knew, everyone in the audience thought it was his.

About halfway through he realized people were listening to him, and as he finished he looked up and was surprised to see Jared and a pretty girl with brown hair in a ponytail edging along the wall. Jared waved. The girl jabbed him in the arm and he gave an embarrassed shrug. But at least he hadn't heckled, and in fact Jensen hadn't expected him to come at all, considering he was home sick just yesterday.

When Jensen was done, he went over to where Jared and the girl - who turned out to be his friend Sandy - were leaning against the wall sipping their drinks.

"You're really good," Sandy told him, before he could say anything to Jared. "Was that your song?"

"Half," Jensen said. "I helped my friend Chris write it."

"You should do another one."

"I might not have a choice. So what'd you think?" he asked Jared. "I didn't think you'd come. How're you feeling?"

"Better. I guess I just needed sleep and OJ." Jared grinned. "And I went in late today. Sandy's right - you're really good. You got a great voice. And you weren't nervous! He got all nervous when he mentioned this to me on the first time," he told Sandy.

"I had half a beer. And the whole band is here, and I'm less nervous singing for people I know. If the audience is full of strangers I panic a little bit."

"You'd never know," Sandy said.

"Can we meet the band?" Jared asked.

So Jensen led him and Sandy over to the table, where Gus and Chris were critiquing the couple of people now singing and Jason looked like he was texting someone. Jensen made introductions, Jared said hi, Chris said "So you're the dude from Texas", and Gus said "You're not the boyfriend?"

"He's not my boyfriend," Jensen repeated for what felt like the twentieth time, at the same time Jared said "I'm not the boyfriend".

"Y'all can sit," Jason said, gesturing to Sandy and Jared as he stood up. "I gotta go. You were really good," he told Jensen. "Liked the song too."

Jensen could see Chris puffing up a little bit.

"Don't forget Saturday afternoon," Gus called as Jason threaded his way through the crowd and out of the bar. "Band practice," he explained to Sandy and Jared.

"Fun," Sandy said.

"Usually." He grinned and stood up. "You guys want anything? I got this round."

"PBR?" Jared said. Sandy shook her head.

When Gus came back with the drinks, he told Jensen that Aly had signed him up again and she wanted him to sing an Oklahoma Ford song, she didn't care which one. This lead to a lively discussion as to which song he should sing, which lead to another lively discussion about how much of the band's current set could be played acoustic, which lead to another lively discussion about acoustic music in general, by which time it was Jensen's turn again.

Sandy had to leave - "I teach small children, I need to be awake," she explained - and at one point when Chris and Gus weren't paying attention, Jared leaned over and whispered "There's something I think I should tell you - Sandy told me to - but I can't tell you here" in Jensen's ear.

"What?" Jensen asked.

"I'll tell you outside. It's kinda private."

"Ok, sure."

Jared got up and headed out, and Jensen said "We're just gonna get some air, don't let Aly sign me up any more" to Chris and Gus before following him out.

"So what's so important you have to tell me in private?" he asked, once they were outside. Not that walking down the sidewalk on a Thursday night really counted as "private", but people - and by "people" he meant "Chris and Gus" - were less likely to eavesdrop.

"It's about Milo, the buddy I lived with when I first moved here," Jared explained. "I told you about him, right? And that we had kind of a falling-out? And I moved out."

"Yeah. What, he tried to kill you in your sleep or something?"

Jared took a deep breath. "He was gay, or he thought he was, and one night we... he kissed me and we fooled around."

"Ok." Was Jared about to come out to him? Jensen tried to prepare himself.

"Turned out he kind of had a thing for me. And that was cool, but I didn't really feel the same way about him. He was my friend and I loved him, but I didn't love him, you know?" He paused but didn't really wait for Jensen to respond, which was good because Jensen wasn't sure what to say. "But at the same time.... Shit, I can't tell you this."

"Jared." Jensen stopped walking and grabbed Jared's arm. "Are you coming out to me?"

"No? I mean, no, I'm not. But it was... I kinda liked it." He lowered his voice. "I didn't want to fuck him or anything, but we, you know, we messed around and... we both got off, and... yeah."

Huh. Jared hadn't quite pinged as gay, but Jensen had definitely felt some chemistry between them. He'd assumed it was platonic because he'd assumed Jared was straight, but maybe that wasn't entirely accurate.

"He wanted to be your boyfriend and you weren't ready," Jensen hazarded.

"Pretty much, yeah. And then he just didn't want to be friends any more either."

"Why did Sandy make you tell me?"

"She said the way I talk about you sounds like I have a thing for you, like I guess Milo had for me. And I told her you were gay."

"Well, bi, but so what? It doesn't change anything."

"What do you mean?" Jared asked.

"What do I mean about what? Bi? Bisexual? I like guys and girls."

"But you're seeing a guy."

"And before him I had a boyfriend and before him I had a girlfriend. It doesn't matter. What matters is that, I don't know, you're still the same guy you were ten minutes ago. We're still friends."

"Cool." Jared looked relieved. "Sandy thought it was important."

But why? Did she know something about Jared that Jensen didn't? Did she know something about Jared that Jared didn't? Was she trying to get them together?

Jensen wanted to know what she knew. He wanted to know what Jared felt. And he felt a twinge of guilt because he'd lied - knowing this about Jared did change something, and it did change Jensen's attitude towards him.

He now felt able to admit that he was developing a crush, because it seemed as if the sentiment was returned. But at the same time, he was seeing someone, although they hadn't physically seen each other very much and as far as Jensen knew they were still treating things kind of casually. He had no way of knowing if Jared's brief experience with Milo had any influence over who Jared might be attracted to now.

But it was as if this revelation about Jared gave Jensen license to think "What if", and he unexpectedly - and guiltily - found himself wishing Danneel had never set him and Matt up.

When Jensen was living in Houston and working as a physical therapist and trying to figure out if that was what he really wanted to do with his life and if not what did he want to do instead, he discussed it with four people: his dad, his roommate Kevin, Kevin's girlfriend, and Chris. (He did not, oddly enough, talk about it in any depth with his boyfriend, mostly because Michael didn't seem to care.) During the four days it took for him to make up his mind to move to Nashville and try for a music career, he just talked to Chris and Kevin.

He'd listened to their advice, and then gave up a sure thing to chase a pipe dream anyway.

After almost nine months he still couldn't say for sure whether or not he'd actually made the better choice, but he could say that he wasn't stagnating, he wasn't bored, and he was kind of enjoying himself.

He thought about that the whole way home from Aly's bar. Moving to Nashville and trying to break into an incredibly capricious and cliquish field, without any guarantee of success or advancement or even a single paycheck, was the biggest risk he'd ever taken. It hadn't yet knocked him flat, and that made him think about other risks he might take and other dreams he might chase and other lives he might lead.

And other relationships he might want.

Knowing what he now knew about Jared, he was turning over in his head the idea that Matt might be his Houston, his sure thing, and Jared might be his musician's insecure pipe dream.

Because what else could he be? A boy who'd never indicated he might like guys, who then admitted he'd "fooled around" with one of his best friends and liked it. A boy who might still run for the hills if Jensen made a move. But also a boy who liked him, liked spending time with him, liked teasing him, liked talking to him. A boy with things in common - not just where they'd both come from, because Matt was a Texas boy too, but movies they liked, books they'd read, jokes that made them laugh, music they listened to, people they admired.

Jensen liked Matt - he was smart, funny, interesting, cute, a great kisser, good in bed. He was nice, and being with him was nice, and Jensen was pretty sure that their casual dating would eventually turn into a real relationship, and both of them might be very happy. They'd never discussed it - they barely saw each other - but Jensen had a feeling he knew where it was going.

But as much as he liked Matt, there was something about Jared he liked more, and he wanted to push it to see where it went.

But in order to do that, Jensen needed to break it off with Matt. And before he did that, he needed advice. He needed to talk to Chris.

"You wanna do what?" Chris said, incredulous, after Jensen had laid out his dilemma. Although to be honest, it wasn't much of a dilemma, because he already knew what he had to do, he just needed some help figuring out how to do it. Jensen had never broken it off with someone when things seemed to be going well - all his past relationships had either dissolved by mutual agreement or he'd been broken up with. "Boy's straight, Jensen, come on."

"I don't know, Chris. He told me something in confidence - and no, I'm not going to tell you - "

"I know what 'in confidence' means, dumbass."

"Just... listen to me. I think he's kinda closeted. I think he's really bi, he just hasn't figured it out yet."

"I think you're projecting. I don't know what's gotten into you, but this is crazy. You wanna give up a guy who likes you, or at least likes to fuck you - and don't lie to me, Jen, I know you like getting laid - and you're gonna chase after some straight boy. You are lookin' to hit a brick wall, my friend."

"Jared's my Nashville. I want to do it."

"The hell are you talking about?"

Jensen rubbed the back of his neck. He loved Chris more than anyone he wasn't related to and he'd told Chris things he'd never told another human being - he came out to Chris first - but having to explain how he knew Jared was the better choice made him want to crawl under his bed. He didn't want to have to explain it because he wasn't sure he could.

"When I left Houston and came here, which you told me was the right decision, by the way, I left a sure thing. I had a pretty good job, I was working on a career, I had some friends, I had a life, I had a boyfriend, whatever. It was easy. Being a musician and a songwriter and doing that for a living is like a pipe dream. It's fucking hard - "

"I know that."

" - and there's no guarantee I'll ever be anything other than overworked and underappreciated and broke. But if I can do it, I can do something I really love. My grandma would say music feeds my soul. Physical therapy didn't. I liked it ok and I was good at it for the time I did it, but I didn't want to do it for the rest of my life. So I came here. And I don't know if I'm getting anywhere, but I'm actually kind of happy."

"So... you like Matt and you're pretty good at being with him, but - this sounds stupid - Jared feeds your soul?"

"Kind of. Not really. It sounded better in my head. I mean Jared's a huge fucking risk and I want to take it anyway. I clicked with him like that." He snapped his fingers. "We're alike in a lot of ways - the stuff we like, our families - there's something there. I know there is. I want to, I don't know, encourage it."

"I thought you clicked with Matt too. He's from Texas. You said the sex was good and you had a good time on your dates. How's this any different?"

"I can't explain it." Jensen sighed, frustrated, "I just... feel it."

"You do realize that if Jared panics and tells you to fuck off, you're not gonna be able to get back together with Matt, right?"

"Yeah, I know. I figure it hasn't been that long, it's not like we're picking out china patterns or anything. We never even see each other."

"I dunno, man. You don't really want my advice, do you."

"No, I do. Kind of. Look. Chris. I love you like a brother, and I trust you to tell me if you think I'm about to do something really moronic."

"You're about to do something really moronic."

"I know." Jensen sighed. "If it backfires, I'm fucked. And you're right, I don't really want your advice about Jared. But I do need your help figuring out what to say to Matt. I can't tell him I want to chase some guy who might not want me." He made a frustrated noise. "I like him. I want to stay friends with him. I need friends. Oh shit." Something just occurred to him. "Danneel's going to kill me."

"I think Danneel's the least of your worries here, Jen."

"You've met her. She'll kill me. Shit. Well, help me figure out what to tell Matt and then help me figure out what to tell her."

"I'm not getting between you and Danneel. You're on your own with that one."

"Coward."

Chris shrugged. "The going rate for assistance in breaking it off with one guy is two nights of karaoke, and I reserve the right to say 'I told you so' if it goes tits-up."

"Deal. Now what do I say, and where do I say it?"

"A public place that's not the coffeeshop. Just tell him you don't think it's going to work. He's too busy, you're too busy, you want different things, I don't know."

"That's not a lot of help."

"So tell him you met someone else." Chris smirked. Jensen smacked him on the arm. "What? It's true."

"I'll tell him I met a dorky, closeted mechanic. That'll go over well."

"Do you want my advice or not? You don't have to tell him the whole truth. Tell him you don't think it's gonna work out because you met someone else, but you still want to be friends. See where that takes you. Just don't lie to him - I know you well enough to know that'll give you guilt. And I don't wanna live with you if you're gonna be all emo and angsty."

"'Emo and angsty'?" Jensen cocked an eyebrow. "Do I look like - shit, who's the reigning King of Emo?"

"Beats me. Was that good enough advice for you? Can we play Madden now? I'm itching to kick your ass."

"Yeah, yeah. You talk big, but can you walk big."

"I can walk all over you, boy." Chris laughed at his horrible backwoods accent and then sobered. "Just tell me one thing."

"What?" Jensen said, as he found the game and switched the PlayStation on.

"You're not usually aggressive like this. I mean, you were always too shy to make the first move. So what's with the aggressive attack plan?"

Jensen sat back down on the couch and thought about it. "I don't know. Maybe being with Matt gave me some confidence. Maybe all the times you pushed me to network and get my name out there kind of got me out of my shell some."

"Yeah, but this is like how I work."

"So I'm channeling my inner Kane." Jensen chuckled. "It works for you, why not me?"

"Huh. Well, hell, maybe you won't crash and burn. I don't wanna hear you getting busy in the middle of the night, though. Got it?"

Jensen flushed slightly with embarrassment and laughed at the same time. "No noisy fucking, I promise. Now pick your team so I can start winning."

Breaking it off with Matt was not the most difficult conversation Jensen had had in the past eight months, but it was definitely one of the more awkward ones. Matt had seemed more baffled than upset - they weren't incompatible, things hadn't been going badly, how did Jensen know it wouldn't work? And Jensen couldn't really tell him "I know it won't work because I don't want it to, because I want someone else." Matt wasn't immediately interested in just staying friends, but he didn't want to discount Jensen entirely.

Jensen wanted to tell him that he was a great guy who would meet a great guy, and he deserved better than what Jensen had given him, but it sounded lame.

Matt kissed him goodbye, and to Jensen it felt like Matt was telling him "This is what you're turning down, and let me tell you, you're gonna miss it". Which wasn't entirely wrong. Matt was a great kisser. But for all Jensen knew, Jared was too.

So that was that. He was a little relieved after it was over, and a little hopeful - for the possibility of keeping Matt as a friend as well as for his wide open relationship potential. Now he just had to figure out how to convince Jared they'd make a great couple.

It was another two days before Danneel called to yell at him. She called his cell phone when he happened to be on shift at the coffeeshop, so he didn't even get the message until later. At the exact moment she was demanding of his voice what the hell was he thinking, he was wiping down the back counter and straightening the to-stay cups and saucers and the to-go cups and lids, alone up front because it was quiet and Alona was out taking her break.

He was trying to reorganize the baked goods in the case when two guys came in - one tall and blond, as tall as Jared but not as wide in the shoulders, and the other shorter and baby-faced. Tall-and-blond was holding his cell phone between himself and his friend, apparently so they could both hear what the person on the other end was saying, but with the height differential the end result was probably that neither of them could understand it.

"What's 'Askars'?" Tall-and-blond was asking the phone as the two of them got close to the counter. Babyface chuckled, probably at Tall-and-blond's expression. Tall-and-blond handed the phone over. "You make him make sense," he said. "I'll get the coffee."

"So who would you be?" Babyface asked the person on the other end of the phone as he wandered off towards the tables. "J-what?"

"What can I get you?" Jensen asked Tall-and-blond, who was staring at the chalkboard menu.

"One double espresso and one - "

"Don't get me decaf!" Babyface called from a cluster of chairs. Tall-and-blond's lips quirked in what might be considered half a smile.

"I'm getting you a double shot, relax. And a breve for me. Also not decaf."

So Jensen made the coffees and Tall-and-blond hummed along with the song playing over the PA and unbeknownst to either of them, Danneel decided that Jensen was a fickle, fickle human being who didn't deserve to be set up with a hot guy ever again.

He got the message later after he clocked out, and Danneel's blast of "WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU??" made him pull the phone away from his ear so as not to go temporarily deaf. He called her back. He felt pretty confident after what he considered a reasonably successful sort-of-breakup - it had helped that both he and Matt had a sense of perspective and realized they hadn't been together long enough, hadn't seen each other enough, and - bluntly - didn't love each other enough to make splitting up a big deal. Jensen felt up to the task of talking Danneel down from whatever torments she no doubt had planned.

"What is wrong with you??" she repeated, in a slightly quieter tone of voice, when he finally managed to get her on the phone. "What were you thinking?"

"I was thinking I met someone else," he said.

"You met someone else. Was this before or after you and Matt fucked each other's brains out?"

Jensen blushed. He was grateful she couldn't see him.

"He's such a nice guy, Jensen. He's so cute, he's smart, he's kind of a dork, he likes sushi, come on, he's got culture - "

"He's really nice, I know. I like him, I liked spending time with him - "

"You liked fucking him...."

"That too." He could feel his cheeks heat up. Was he doomed to turn red with embarrassment any time anyone brought up his sex life? Or was it just Danneel who brought this out of him? At least she hadn't mentioned Bob yet.

"You went bowling! Even you're not that dorky unless it's someone you really like."

Jensen sighed. "Danny. Look. I think he's a pretty cool guy. I still want to be friends. Guys can be friends. Even gay guys." Even gay guys who used to fuck, his brain helpfully added. "But. Jared - I know I told you about him - "

"Once or twice," she said, in a tone of voice that he knew really meant "Eight or ten million times".

"I like him more. You know sometimes you meet someone and you just kind of click with them? It's like that."

"Is he gay?"

"Yes," Jensen lied. Well, maybe it wasn't a complete lie.

"And you know this how?"

"I just do."

"That is the last time I try to set you up. Matt was so confused!" She huffed into the phone, annoyed. "Don't expect sympathy from me if Jared turns out to be a bust."

"Don't worry, I won't." Jensen wondered if she could see him grinning at the phone. "I knew you were going to yell at me."

"You're very smart sometimes. Other times, not so much. Are you free for dinner tomorrow? I promise not to get on your case about Matt, I just want to talk to someone who's not a medical professional, an admin, or an expectant mom. Or a med student. I need to be among civilians."

"I think so, yeah. But I don't want to talk about my love life, ok?"

"We can talk about mine. I could tell you about Bob." Jensen could hear her evil grin from the other end of the line.

"No. No Bob."

"Fine. No Bob. I'll call you tomorrow. Don't think about poor Matt pining away for your hot ass and your kissable lips and your - "

"Stop right there."

Danneel laughed. "You're so easy to rile up, Jensen. I love that about you. Even if you are a fickle boy who doesn't deserve my matchmaking ways."

"No talking about the love life, remember?"

"Whatever. I'll talk to you tomorrow. Bye."

And she hung up.

That didn't go too badly, he thought. It could've been worse, anyway. And now he could put the next part of his plan into action - the part where he tried to seduce a boy who might or might not appreciate being seduced by another guy. Going on the attack was a big enough change from Jensen's normal MO, but add to that the fact that he wasn't entirely sure how the object of his affection was going to react, and Chris was right, he really was looking to hit a brick wall.

Well, nothing ventured, nothing gained. He'd told Matt at the sushi restaurant on their first date that anything worth having was worth working for, and he really did think Jared was worth it.

* * *

The thing Jared didn't think he'd gotten across about Milo, because he wasn't entirely comfortable discussing the details in public, wasn't just that he wigged because he'd gotten (kind of) busy with a guy, but that he wigged because he'd gotten (kind of) busy with a purely platonic friend, from whom Jared had ever gotten a sexual attraction vibe. It would be as if he and Katie hooked up.

And to be honest, he'd wigged partly because he wasn't expecting to like it.

Since he'd mentioned Milo and Jensen had taken it in stride, Jared started turning it over in his head. Not what he'd done or how he'd reacted at the time, but how he might react now, and if it meant anything. He half wished Misha hadn't left town to traipse around the globe, because this seemed like the kind of thing Misha would understand and be able to talk to him about. They'd met in the first place when Jared took a class on historical attitudes towards sex and marriage that Misha taught through MTSU. Jared thought it would be more of a history class but it turned out to be more of a sociology and cultural studies class, and it got the two of them to be friends. It didn't hurt that Misha was tremendously easy to talk to and incredibly non-judgmental. But it also didn't help when he was halfway across the world right when Jared was starting to think he could maybe possibly a little bit perhaps be attracted to another guy, for more than a quick fumble in someone's room.

Maybe. Just a bit.

It wouldn't be the first time, but whenever he'd felt more-than-platonic interest in another guy, he'd brushed it off as kind of a guycrush. But getting to know Jensen, and talking to him, and spending time with him, stirred up something in Jared's hindbrain and made him look at himself a little closer, and made him wonder if he really was a little bit bisexual - if you could be a little bit bi - and had just never acknowledged it.

Maybe he'd reacted so badly to Milo because subconsciously he hadn't been ready to accept that he could be bisexual. But was he ready now, if that was the case? He'd always identified as straight, but he was only twenty-four - young enough to still be flexible about who and what he wanted, and who and what he liked. He didn't know how his friends or his family would take it, if he were to say "Hey, I have something to tell you, I'm bi".

Well, he knew Katie wouldn't mind. Beth wouldn't either. Beth thought he had a crush on Jensen, anyway. He didn't think Jim would care, which meant he doubted it would have any effect on his job, and his dogs would love him even if he decided he liked being spanked by older women who wanted him to call them Mommy.

He'd do some research. He'd think about it. He'd figure things out. He really liked Jensen and didn't want the specter of Milo to make things weird between them.

* * *

Jensen hadn't told anyone but Chris and Danneel about his interest in (and desire for) Jared, but somehow word seemed to have gotten around. By now everyone knew he was no longer seeing Matt, but how they'd figured out that he was trying to put the moves on someone else, he couldn't guess, and he wasn't going to ask.

He had to pick a weekend to make his move, though, because on the off-chance it worked and Jared was actually interested in him, he wanted the guy to be able to stay over. He wasn't entirely sure what he was going to do, or when, or how far exactly he wanted to push it on the first try, but he did want to make sure there would be enough time for them to play around, if Jared was into it. And he wanted to do it at his place, so Jared could leave if he freaked out.

Jensen was trying very hard not to think about what would happen if Jared freaked out.

He felt as if all he'd done the past week or so was think about Jared and what they might do together. He didn't want to come on too hard - he didn't think he had to worry about it, but you never knew, sometimes a person could get caught up in the moment, and in fact he'd gotten so caught up in riding Jared's motorcycle that when they stopped for a break, he'd really, really wanted to kiss Jared breathless. That was why he'd gone home as soon as he could - that was before the revelation about Milo, before Jensen even considered that Jared might not push him away.

Oklahoma Ford had gotten some time at a studio - they were trying to record some more material in advance of what Chris hoped would be a late-summer, early-autumn tour - they'd booked time late at night because it was cheaper and the studio was available, and Jensen called Jared to ask if he wanted to come over one night to hang out and play Madden, and maybe Jensen would play Jared some of his songs. Jared said sure, sounded fun, he'd bring the beer, it was kind of Jensen's turn to show off his house anyway.

Jared did not get lost. Jensen said nothing when Jared found the place on time.

"Ok, you probably don't necessarily need a GPS," Jared said, when Jensen opened the door. "Googlemaps got me here just fine." He held up his phone. "God bless smartphones."

"Well, come in," Jensen said. "Welcome to my humble abode." He gestured to the living room and the kitchen. "Bathroom's there, bedrooms back there, it's pretty simple." It was smaller than Jared's place, but Jared had a house.

"I got beer," Jared held up a six-pack of Lone Star. "Texas beer for good ol' Texas boys."

"You can come over any time." Jensen took it into the kitchen and unloaded the bottles into the fridge. "You're probably hungry, let me guess."

Jared grinned. "Bottomless pit, that's me."

"Unlike some people, I have, uh, ok, I have leftovers. Chris loves to cook more than two people can eat in a sitting."

"That probably depends on the two people."

"Good point. Let's just say he loves to cook more than he and I can eat in a sitting."

So they ate - Jensen had bought pork chops, because he liked them and they were easy - and had a beer and talked about this and that, and Jensen explained about the band's potential tour and what was involved in making songs good enough to put up for download, never mind all the things that went into pressing a CD, and even though he thought he might be boring Jared, Jared seemed interested. Well, it wasn't much different from Jared going on about motorcycles or something, and Jensen listening.

They had another beer and Jared decided he wasn't into videogame football, maybe they could watch a movie or didn't Jensen say he'd play Jared some of his songs? And Jensen said yeah, he could do that, and he sat at one end of the couch while Jared sat at the other, and he tuned his guitar and thought about what he could play.

Halfway through the first song he realized how very intimate this was, or could be - singing and playing a song for someone he wanted. The second song was one he'd written about Austin, a city he really liked, and one about Jessica, his first girlfriend, although it was vague enough that he didn't feel weird playing it, and then one that wasn't about anything but was just an excuse for him to play around with minor chords, and that was four songs so he stopped to drink something and wet his throat, and Jared was just looking at him.

"Good? Bad?" Jensen asked.

"Good," Jared said. "Really good. I was just thinking. Your whole face changes when you sing - I couldn't tell when I went to your open mike night, but it's really obvious sitting right here. It's like, I don't know, like you're somewhere else. You're not sitting in your living room singing to me, you're in your own head, I don't know. You look kind of peaceful."

"You think so? When I get really involved in whatever I'm playing, I feel like it's working through me, like I'm just a conduit. So maybe I'm not really here. I can't think too hard about where I am and who's in my audience, or I can't do it. I used to get really bad stage fright."

"I've seen you in front of a bunch of people! You were totally fine."

"I kind of learned. But a room full of strangers still makes me a little nervous. I feel like I have to make a good first impression."

"So singing for me shouldn't be anything." Jared grinned.

It's everything, Jensen wanted to say. "Should I keep going?" he asked instead.

"Yeah. I like it. I don't listen to a lot of music that's just guitar. It's good stuff."

So Jensen played a song he'd written with Chris back in the day - an oldie but goodie, considering the rest of his repertoire wasn't that old - and then he had to stop because it felt too intimate for him to continue without doing something else.

Something like leaning over and planting a kiss on Jared's lips.

He put his guitar down, scooted over, and did just that.

It wasn't a long or deep kiss, nor was it intended to be, but Jared did not instantly pull away. And when Jensen sat back to get a read on Jared's reaction, Jared only looked a little confused.

"Sorry," Jensen said, almost reflexively.

"No, it's... it's ok," Jared said. "I think."

Jensen leaned in and kissed him again, and this time Jared seemed to at least start to kiss back. This also wasn't a long kiss - things were going ok so far but Jensen still didn't want to press it.

"I can stop," he said.

"Don't." Jared's voice was very quiet, but that was definitely encouragement.

And the third time, Jared did kiss back, and when Jensen lifted his hand to cup the side of Jared's face, Jared rested his hand on Jensen's thigh.

They stayed that way for a little while, just kissing, testing each other out, Jared's lips parting for Jensen's tongue, Jensen wanting desperately to push harder but holding back. He knew he wasn't the first guy Jared had ever kissed, but he also knew what had happened to the first guy, and he didn't want to be Milo. He didn't want Jared to freak out and run.

But Jared was not freaking out. In fact, Jared seemed to be enjoying it. So Jensen did push it, deepening the kiss, holding Jared's face with both hands now, and he wasn't sure but he thought Jared moaned softly into his mouth. They finally pulled apart, breathless.

"Jensen," Jared said, making it sound almost like a question.

"Yeah."

"I'm. Um."

"What?"

Jared just kissed him again. Maybe that was his answer.

Jensen shifted as close as he could, wanting to do more than just kiss, or wanting to kiss more than Jared's mouth, but still a little afraid of the next step. He was prepared, just in case, but now that he was in the moment, he wished he knew how Jared would react, what Jared would want, so he knew for sure what he should do.

And in the meantime, Jared's mouth was eager on his and Jared's hand was gripping his thigh and Jensen wished that hand would move up his leg, just a little bit, move up and inside to squeeze his cock because he was getting hard. He couldn't ask but oh, how he wanted to.

He found himself pushing against Jared, his own hand falling from Jared's face to his shoulder and then his arm, and just as Jensen was wondering what Jared would do if Jensen pulled him down the length of the couch and sprawled on top of him, Jared pushed him away.

"Jared?"

"What are we doing?" Jared asked, his voice a little shaky.

"We're kissing."

"What's next?"

I rip off your clothes and fuck you into the floor. "What do you want to do?"

Jared pushed Jensen off him just enough so he could sit up straight. They'd been sliding down the couch without either of them really realizing it. "When Milo and I... he went down on me. And I... I just jerked him off." Jensen felt himself flush with arousal - those two images, substituting himself for Milo, were too hot to ignore. "What else - "

"I want to fuck you," Jensen whispered.

Jared blinked. Licked his lips. Didn't seem to know how to react.

"I don't want to wig you out," Jensen went on. "We don't have to. I like kissing you, and I'm going to guess you like kissing me, but I know - I know. Whatever you want. It's ok."

"I don't know what I want."

"Do you trust me?" Jared nodded. "Tell me when to stop, and I'll stop. I promise. And if you don't tell me to stop, I'll just keep going. Ok?"

"Ok."

Jensen stroked the side of his face. Jared closed his eyes. Jensen leaned in and kissed him again, almost gently this time, wanting to start slow, now that it felt as if they were starting over.

So they kissed some more, Jensen pushing Jared into the corner of the couch almost unconsciously, until he couldn't think of anything else to do but slide a hand between the two of them and cup Jared's cock through his jeans. He squeezed. Jared moaned.

"Tell me to stop," Jensen murmured, sliding down and half off the couch to give himself better access to Jared's fly. He wasn't sure if he was asking Jared or just reminding him, but it didn't matter because Jared's breath hitched but he didn't say a word.

When Jensen got Jared's fly open Jared was hard, his cock practically springing into Jensen's hand. Jensen looked up and Jared was staring at him - eyes wide, pupils blown, lips parted. His chest heaved. He nodded, almost imperceptibly, breathed out a word that sounded like "Yes", and Jensen lowered his head and went to town.

He sucked strongly, looking up every so often to see Jared's face, listening to Jared's breathing and his bitten-off groans, noting that Jared had both arms flung over the couch and was gripping the cushions. But his eyes were on Jensen, arousal and surprise on his face, and he caught Jensen off-guard when he came.

Jensen licked and sucked gently until Jared relaxed, and then climbed back on the couch, settled between Jared's legs, and kissed his mouth.

"Jesus," Jared murmured, still breathless.

"I had to," Jensen replied. "Now it's your turn." He leaned back, pulling Jared with him until they were lying across the couch in the other direction, Jensen mostly on the bottom and Jared mostly on top of him. Jensen guided Jared's hand to his fly and Jared fumbled with the zipper, finally freeing Jensen's cock, wrapping his long fingers around it, and stroking. He was a little tentative at first, but quickly figured out Jensen liked it harder and so tightened his grip and stroked faster until Jensen groaned and came over his hand.

It was messy and the way they were sprawled on the couch was awkward, but they'd gotten this far and Jared was still here, still apparently enjoying it, and next to that, a little leg cramp was nothing.

"Come here," Jensen said, reaching for Jared, and Jared obediently ducked his head and let Jensen lick his way into his mouth. "Stay the night," he murmured.

But then Jared pushed himself up and said "I can't, I have to go home. The dogs - "

"What?"

"I have to let them out. And feed them. I can't stay. I can't believe I forgot about them." He sat up, lost his balance, and fell off the couch. Under other circumstances Jensen might have laughed.

"Jared. Calm down." He was disappointed but he didn't think this was just a ploy for Jared to get away from him. "Call Jeff and ask him to do it."

"It's too late now. Do you... want to come home with me?"

"You mean stay over?"

"Yeah. We could, uh, we could continue in the morning? Maybe?"

"You don't want to stop?" Jensen couldn't help the grin that spread across his face.

"Kind of? I mean, I don't think I'm ready to, to fuck you, but I like the other stuff. I like kissing you." He grinned and now Jensen blushed, but hopefully just a little. "I'm not freaking out. Much. So come home with me. Maybe it'll be ok."

"Let me clean up a little and get my toothbrush." Jensen hauled himself off the couch and went into the bathroom to wash off and fetch his toothbrush, and then into his bedroom to change his pants and get the condoms and lube he'd stashed in his bedside table just in case.

"I should follow you," he told Jared, "so you don't have to bring me home in the morning."

"I'll bring you back, don't worry about it. I don't want you to get lost going to my house."

Jensen wanted to argue - he hadn't gotten lost when Jared was sick and he brought over the juice - but it wasn't worth it. So Jared drove them back to his house, where he let the dogs out and back in and then sucked down a giant glass of water and told Jensen he was really tired, he was going to bed, Jensen should join him.

On the one hand, it was a little weird sleeping next to someone he hadn't had sex with yet, especially when that someone wasn't big on personal space, but on the other, this was one of the things Jensen wanted, and he had a reasonably good suspicion there was sex in his near future, and he absolutely was not going to complain.

He was unsurprised when he woke up first, but he was a little surprised to find Jared lying half on top of him, snoring into the back of his neck, and what felt like Jared's half-hard erection was pressing against Jensen's hip.

Well.

He wriggled around to face Jared and stared at him until Jared's eyes opened.

"Hey," he mumbled.

"Hey," Jensen said. "Pleasant dreams?"

"Yeah, actually, I think I dreamed about you." He rubbed his eyes. "What time is it? Did you let the dogs out?"

As if that had conjured them, Harley and then Sadie thundered into the room and jumped on the bed. Jensen squeaked in an incredibly embarrassing manner but Jared just laughed.

"Get off, get off," he said, shoving at Harley's shoulder as the big dog tried to lick his face. "Sadie, you too!" Sadie was trying to wriggle between the boys, determined enough that she was actually wedging between them.

"Go take care of them," Jensen said. "I'll be here when you get back."

After Jared coaxed the dogs off the bed and out of the room, Jensen got up to pee but then climbed right back into bed. He was thinking about how to approach sex with Jared when Jared came back and shut the door.

"I don't think they need to hear us," he said, crawling under the covers.

"Oh?" Jensen quirked an eyebrow.

"Yeah." He scooted close to Jensen and licked at his lips. Jensen's mouth opened to Jared's tongue and his fingers reached for Jared's skin and when he rolled over on top of Jared, Jared didn't protest.

Jared wrapped a long leg around Jensen's hip as they pushed against each other, Jared's hands roaming down Jensen's back to cup his ass and was he even paying attention to what he was doing? Jensen wasn't sure but he also didn't care.

Jensen had pulled off his t-shirt but Jared was still wearing the clothes he'd slept in, and Jensen had to stop kissing him to yank at his shirt, and had to roll half off him to tug on his boxers. Jared wriggled out of his shorts and pulled at Jensen's boxer briefs as well.

So they were both naked, Jared flat on his back, Jensen splayed on top of him, hips rubbing together, their kisses hard and deep and hungry, hands traveling restlessly over each other.

"I want to fuck you so badly," Jensen murmured. "Can you feel how badly?" He ground down. Jared groaned. "Are you ready? Do you want it?"

"Yeah," Jared panted. "I think."

"You think?" Jensen lifted his head. Jared nodded.

"Yeah. No. I want you."

Jensen grabbed Jared's head with both hands and kissed him deeply, full of gratitude and desire. Jared wrapped both legs around Jensen's waist and rocked up against him.

"Don't stop," he said, grinning.

"Don't worry." Jensen rolled over, reaching for the condoms and lube that he'd put on the bedside table, then rolled back to settle between Jared's thighs. Jared watched as Jensen squirted lube on his fingers, as he lifted Jared's hips, as he slid one finger inside Jared's ass. Jared sucked in a breath.

"Tell me if it gets too weird," Jensen said, adding another finger to slick Jared up and get him used to the sensation.

"Too late," Jared panted.

"Do you want me to stop?"

"No, no, keep going."

Jensen thought he could read nervousness on Jared's face, so he leaned up and brushed a kiss over his lips. "It'll be ok," he murmured. "It gets better. I promise."

"I trust you."

So Jensen pulled his hand away, knelt between Jared's legs, pumped his own cock a couple of times, and rolled the condom on. He watched Jared watch his hands. He tried to catch his breath and calm himself down - he'd never been anyone's first before. And even though he'd wanted this, had hoped for it, now that he had it he was a little nervous about the ways he could screw it up.

But he'd have to worry later. Now he needed to concentrate. He lifted Jared's hips and slowly pushed inside Jared's ass.

"Unh," Jared groaned, his back arching slightly. His fingers clenched in the bedsheets. "Jensen...."

"Are you ready?" Jensen asked. Jared nodded. "Are you sure?" Jared nodded again. "Good." Jared smiled. And Jensen started to move.

Jared groaned as Jensen thrust, as he pulled all the way out before slowly pushing all the way back in. The noises Jared made and the expressions on his face were incredibly hot, and Jensen had to make a conscious effort to hold back. He just wanted to let go and slam into Jared's body, fucking him hard enough to shake the mattress off the bed. But there would be time for that later, hopefully time enough for lots of things, and for now he thought he should take it slowly.

So he listened to his own heavy breathing, his own grunts and moans, and he watched Jared's flushed face, his eyes gone dark, his chest heaving, his lips parted as he gasped and groaned. He was amazingly hot like this, and a bigger turn-on than Jensen imagined.

"Jared," he moaned, "Jared...."

Jared reached for him, fingers brushing over Jensen's face before sliding down his chest as if Jared had no control over his own limbs.

"Give me your hand," Jensen said, panting, grabbing Jared's hand and guiding it to his straining cock. Jared took the hint, pulling strongly but not for very long before he shot over his fingers with a surprised, strangled groan.

He stared at Jensen, clearly unprepared for that, and now Jensen quickened his pace, thrusting faster and deeper, fucking Jared harder, while Jared tried to catch his breath and watched him.

And then it was Jensen's turn to groan at his own climax and fall forward onto Jared's chest.

"Are you ok?" he asked, when he could breathe again.

"Yeah," Jared said, his voice a little hoarse. "I'm ok. How're you?" He grinned.

"I'm good." Happy. Satisfied. Relieved. Hopeful. And kind of hungry.

"You know what I want?"

"To go again?"

Jared chuckled. "Perv. No. Pancakes," he said, at the same time Jensen said "IHOP". They both laughed.

"Breakfast," Jared went on. "I'm really hungry." As if on cue, his stomach rumbled. "You wanna grab a quick shower? Then we'll go eat and I can take you home. Or we can do something else."

"Like each other?" Now Jensen grinned, although he was pretty sure he had an afternoon shift at the coffeeshop. He should call the place and make sure.

"Maybe. We'll scare the dogs."

"You sure you're not going to panic?"

"No, not now. I'm ok." He sounded a little surprised. "But I don't want to talk about it. I want pancakes and sausage and grits and a giant cup of coffee."

"That works for me." Jensen kissed Jared quickly - it had to be quickly because otherwise they'd never make it out of bed - got up, and went into the bathroom to flush the condom and pee. He felt weird taking a shower in Jared's house, so he just splashed water on his face and combed his fingers through his hair and brushed his teeth, and then he let Jared shower while he got dressed and talked to the dogs, and then when Jared was ready they both got on his Harley and rode out to find breakfast.

* * *

They didn't see each other again until the following Saturday, when Jared made Beth and Aldis take him to Jensen's place after they'd been out drinking, and he knocked on Jensen's door late at night and woke him up.

Jared hadn't stopped thinking (or talking) about Jensen all week. He couldn't get over how it felt to kiss him, to have sex with him, even to ride his motorcycle with Jensen's arms tight around his waist. Beth kept teasing him good-naturedly at the bar, to the point even Aldis joined in, and it seemed like the easiest, most normal thing in the world for Jared to ask them to drop him off at Jensen's apartment instead of taking him home.

Besides, he had plans. And now seemed like a good time to put them into practice.

It was hard to be quiet while you were knocking on someone's door, but Jared tried. There was no reason to wake the neighbors just because he had a hard-on for a musician.

"What, I'm coming," Jensen was grumbling as he opened the door. Jared just stood there, grinning. "Jared? What are you doing here?"

"I went out with Beth and Aldis," Jared said. "They dropped me off."

"Are you drunk?"

"A little."

"Do you know what time it is?"

"Late?"

"What do you want?"

Jared leaned into Jensen and whispered "I want to fuck you bowlegged."

Jensen stepped back and ushered Jared inside, then closed the door behind him.

"We have to be quiet," he said. "I don't want to wake Chris."

"I can be quiet."

Jared had been staring at Jensen's mouth since Jensen opened the door. He couldn't get over how hot Jensen was in his t-shirt and boxer shorts. He was kinda drunk, that was true, but he wasn't beer-goggling. Jensen really was that hot, and now that he was here, Jared couldn't stop thinking about how badly he wanted to fuck him.

"Come here," Jensen said, maybe thinking the same thing. He pulled Jared close and kissed him. Jared relaxed into it, resting his hands on Jensen's hips and leaning into him, losing himself in Jensen's amazing mouth.

When they finally broke the kiss Jensen pulled Jared into his room, where Jared pushed him onto the bed, flopped down next to him, half on top of him, and there was a flurry of hands and mouths as Jared attacked Jensen with kisses while fumbling with both their clothes - Jensen's shorts and a t-shirt were easy, but Jared's jeans gave him some trouble - and Jensen had to stop for a second to get the condoms and lube from his bedside table. But before they could get to it he grabbed Jared's hands and asked "Are you sure?"

Jared was a little confused. "About what?"

"About this. Fucking me."

Oh. That. Why else did Jensen think he'd come over?

"Yeah. I did some research."

"Research?"

"Downloaded gay porn."

He couldn't think of a better, quicker way to try and figure out what he might like, and what he and Jensen could do, than to watch some porn. He'd taken notes at what got him hard (most of it) and what looked like fun (also most of it), and now he just hoped he remembered enough to get Jensen off.

He was buzzed and nervous and eager and turned on, so much so that his hands shook. Jensen took the lube, shifted onto his side a little, and tried to slick himself up. Jared stared, transfixed.

"Shit," he breathed.

"Well?" Jensen said. "Are you gonna fuck me or not?" His voice trembled a tiny bit but he grinned and Jared knew everything was cool, he was ready.

It was a little - ok, a lot - awkward - Jared was unsteady and couldn't figure out how to arrange himself or where to find his balance, and he couldn't get a good rhythm going, and he forgot pretty much every trick he'd planned to try. But they got there in the end and even if it was quicker than Jared might have liked and his technique lacked any finesse, it felt good being buried inside Jensen's ass, and neither of them had any trouble getting off, and Jared wouldn't mind practicing a lot until he got it right.

He pulled out and flopped down practically on top of Jensen, his mouth seeking Jensen's, until Jensen pushed at his shoulder and whispered "Go flush the condom and then get right back here." So Jared obediently rolled out of bed, stumbled into the bathroom and did so. He came back into the bedroom and lay down next to Jensen and they just kissed for a while, lazy, sated, sleepy kisses, both of them relaxed and maybe a little sweaty, hands in each other's hair or roaming slowly over each other's skin, until Jared's stomach rumbled.

"I'm kinda hungry," he said, a little sheepishly. He was sobering up, but the trade-off for that seemed to be increased hunger. "Can I raid your fridge?"

"Go ahead." Jared climbed out of bed and headed towards the kitchen still naked, stopping only because Jensen hissed "Jared! Pants!" Jared blinked, then obediently looked around for his underwear, pulled it on, and left the room.

He had his head in the fridge when Jensen walked into the kitchen.

"Dunno what I want," Jared said. He couldn't make his brain work enough to even focus on the contents of Jensen's fridge. Most of him was still thinking about sex.

"A sandwich?" Jensen suggested.

"Yeah, maybe. Sure."

After some discussion Jensen made him a peanutbutter and banana sandwich, and Jared ate it leaning against the kitchen counter and staring at Jensen's mouth. He had a glass of milk, Jensen had some orange juice, and then they put the glasses in the sink and went back into the bedroom.

"I wanna fuck you again," Jared said softly, when they were both spread out on the bed. "But go slower this time. I wanna get it right."

"You were fine before," Jensen told him.

Jared grinned and kissed him. And then kissed him some more. And then drew his lips across Jensen's jaw and down his throat and down some more, stopping to lick at his nipples before continuing down the length of his body. Jensen brushed his fingers through Jared's hair, and then Jared came to the base of Jensen's cock, which was already half-hard, and took the head in his mouth.

There was a lot of cocksucking in gay porn, and Jared had remembered both Milo and Jensen going down on him, and he wanted to know what Jensen's dick tasted like and how would Jensen react if Jared sucked him off.

Jensen tasted like heat and musk and sweat, the head of his cock leaking bitter drops, and his hands clenched in Jared's hair as Jared sucked. He knew he was sloppy and uncoordinated from lack of experience, but he was determined to get Jensen hard and maybe even get him off, and Jensen had to tug on his shoulders to get him to stop.

"Jared," he hissed. "Jared."

Jared looked up. He could really get into sucking Jensen's cock.

"Please stop. I'm gonna come. I don't want... just get up here." He pulled on Jared's shoulder again, and this time Jared got the hint, pulled off him, and slid up the bed.

"Was I ok?" he asked.

"I was this close to blowing, so yeah." Jensen brushed his hair back. "Your mouth, Jesus." Jared kissed him. Jensen reached down to grab Jared's cock. "I want you to fuck me with this," he murmured against Jared's mouth. "Nice and slow. Now."

Jared reached over him for the condoms and then sat up, straddling Jensen's thighs, and lazily, teasingly, stroked his cock before unwrapping a condom and rolling it on.

"Tease," Jensen whispered, grinning. Jared just grinned back, his mouth loose and lazy, then slid off Jensen's legs, spread his thighs, and squirted some lube on his fingers and pushed them in.

Jensen bit his lip, his eyes falling closed for half a minute. Jared breathed in deeply, concentrating, before slowly pushing into Jensen's body.

He still hadn't quite figured out the balance thing from the first try, probably because they were both tired and he had the added benefit of having been kind of drunk at the time, but he managed to position himself in such a way that he wasn't in danger of falling over or falling on Jensen - and this time Jensen gave him a few murmured directions and he went slower, actually finding a rhythm and more or less sticking to it, and it felt just as good, just as right.

Jared moaned and grunted softly as he thrust, reveling in the tight heat of Jensen's body and the sight of his own cock driving in and out of Jensen's ass. When Jensen reached up to stroke his cheek, Jared dropped his head and kissed the corner of Jensen's mouth, needy and distracted, and "Jensen," he murmured against Jensen's lips, "Jensen, Jensen," over and over until he lifted his head, sat up, and wrapped his hand around Jensen's cock, jerking him off.

Jensen's back arched and he bit back a groan as he shot over Jared's hand. Jared was a little stunned at how quickly he got Jensen off and how hot it looked when he did.

"Your turn," Jensen whispered, and now Jared let himself go, fucking Jensen faster, losing his rhythm, groaning as he came. He felt like he hung there, leaning over Jensen, for a long time before finally letting himself fall forward onto Jensen's chest.

"Wow," he mumbled into Jensen's shoulder.

"Yeah." Jensen brushed his hand over Jared's hair. "That was good. You're getting it. We'll practice."

"Practice." Jared chuckled. He'd been thinking the same thing.

"You think?" Jensen tilted his head. "Hey. Jared."

"Hmm?"

"Look at me for a sec."

Jared lifted his head and smiled sleepily. He felt sweaty and tired and well-fucked and satisfied. "That was good," he murmured. "And hot. You're hot."

"Are you still drunk?"

"No, no, I'm sober. Just really tired. Wore out." He kissed Jensen lightly, no more than a brush of lips against lips. "You wear me out."

"I think you'll find that you wore me out." Jensen yawned. "I think Chris is working tomorrow - after he leaves we can fuck some more."

"Yeah. I wanna be on the bottom, though. Wanna look up and see you." Jared's words were starting to slur together, he was that tired. He was distantly pleased to realize that fucking Jensen hadn't been anywhere near as weird as it could be. Maybe because he'd been drunk when he made the decision to come over. Maybe because they'd had sex already and it wasn't too weird then either.

And maybe because it was Jensen, and everything they did together made sense and felt right.

"I think we can do that." Jensen stroked the side of his face. "I love fucking you. I love kissing you. I can't believe you went down on me."

"I can."

"Jared...."

"Yeah?"

"I'm glad you came over."

"Me too." Jared snuggled against him. "I'm kinda cold."

"Shove over a minute." Jared rolled off the bed, instead of just to one side, and made a startled noise as he half hit the floor. He scrambled back onto the mattress and under the covers. "Better?"

Jared spooned up behind Jensen, rested his cheek against Jensen's shoulder, and closed his eyes as Jensen laced their fingers together. This was comfortable and cozy and in the morning maybe they'd have breakfast before fucking again, and that would be three times in less than a day. Jared guessed this meant he liked guys after all.

* * *

Jensen woke first, unsurprisingly, but he didn't want to wake Jared up - he needed to pee and he wanted some coffee - so he eased himself out from under Jared's arm, went to the bathroom, and then went into the kitchen, where coffee had already been made and Chris was sitting at the table drinking a cup and reading the neighbors' newspaper. He knew it was the neighbors' paper because he and Chris didn't have a subscription, and the neighbors were out of town.

"Your boy still asleep?" Chris asked, looking up and quirking a grin at Jensen.

Jensen flopped down into a chair. "He's not my boy."

"He came over at one-thirty just to fuck you, Jen. What else does that make him?"

"Oh shit, did we wake you up?"

"Nah. I just heard the knocking and then went back to sleep. Don't worry about it." Chris looked at him consideringly. "So you really think this is going to work? Guess you were right about one thing - he's not that straight after all."

"Can I say 'I told you so'? Because Chris, man, I told you so."

"You still owe me two nights of karaoke." Chris sipped his coffee serenely, then looked over the rim of the cup at Jensen. "I gotta go in about half an hour, and then you can make all the noise you want. Coffee should still be hot." He waved at the coffeemaker. Jensen got up and poured some for him and some for Jared, then added three spoonfuls of sugar and some milk to Jared's cup. He'd paid attention to how Jared took it.

"You're a good friend," he told Chris.

"I know," Chris said to his paper. "Go wake him up. Be a good host."

Jensen took the coffee into his room, where Jared was now lying on his stomach and snoring faintly into the pillow. Jensen put the cups on the bedside table and shook Jared's shoulder until he woke up.

"How do you feel?" he asked. "I brought you coffee." He handed Jared a cup. Jared yawned, scrubbed his fingers through his hair, and pushed himself up so he was sitting with his back to the wall. He sipped his coffee. "Ok?"

"Yeah, it's good."

Jensen took his cup and sat cross-legged on the other side of the bed. He couldn't help smiling at Jared, who looked really cute with his messy bedhead, hair in his face and his still-half-asleep expression. Jared yawned.

"Did you really download gay porn?" Jensen asked.

"Uh-huh. Some of it's really hot and some of it's really terrible. I had to turn the sound off so I couldn't hear the dialogue. I found some erotica, too. The written stuff."

"Was it any good?"

"Some of it is - well-written, good stories, really hot sex - and some of it's really bad. You wouldn't believe what gets published."

"I probably would. It doesn't surprise me you found hot reading material."

"I'm just a walking library." Jared grinned, then yawned again. "Jesus, I'm tired."

"How're you feeling otherwise?"

"You mean am I hung over? No, I'm good. Just tired. I could go back to sleep."

"Well, you did fuck me twice in less than an hour last night. That'll take it out of anyone."

"Yeah... it was pretty good, wasn't it." Jared grinned slowly, suggestively. "Did you say we could practice, or did I dream that? 'Cause that was right before I fell asleep."

"I said that." Now it was Jensen's turn to grin. "Do you remember telling me you wanted me to fuck you in the morning?" Jared nodded. "Chris is leaving in about twenty minutes - think you can hold out until then?"

"Can I go back to sleep and you can wake me up?"

"Not a fucking chance. Finish your coffee. I'll make you breakfast so you don't starve in the meantime."

So Jared put on some clothes and they took their coffee into the kitchen and Jensen made breakfast - Chris had gotten in the shower by this point - and then they waited for Chris to leave before spreading out on Jensen's bed and having sex again. Neither of them was a whole lot louder than they'd been the night before, because Jensen still had neighbors, but they kissed and touched and stroked and finally Jared spread his legs and Jensen fucked him nice and slow, and it was both easier and better than it had been the first time, and Jensen was pretty sure that yes, this was going to work.

He wondered idly if it was because they'd started out as friends, so Jared was already comfortable with him by the time Jensen made a move. He wondered if he'd just brought out Jared's latent queerness. He wondered if it really mattered. He figured it didn't.

* * *

After that it was like a dam breaking. They spent weekends together and every weeknight they could, allowing for Jensen having to be at the coffeeshop early and Chris being home and Jensen or Jared having something to do at night. They started learning about the things they liked to do with and to each other, and Jensen's favorite discovery turned out to be that Jared loved sucking his cock. Jensen learned that sex made Jared hungry. Jared learned that Jensen wasn't demonstrative in public. Jensen learned that Jared liked to cuddle. They tried different positions and locations, and after a few weeks of experimentation they'd had sex in both beds, of course, on both couches, in Jensen's shower, on Jared's kitchen floor and against the counter, on Jensen's living room floor, and even in Jared's bathtub, which was awkward and got water all over the floor, but at least they could say they'd done it.

Jared was a little surprised at how interested he was in fucking another guy, now that he'd done it, and it seemed to confirm his theory that he really was bi, but hadn't been ready to admit it to himself before now. After a couple of weeks spending time with Jensen - kissing and fucking and sucking and trying different things and not really talking about what it meant, but talking about almost everything else - it became more and more obvious that his theory had become practice, because he was really involved with another guy.

A couple weeks seemed too early to start calling Jensen his boyfriend, but he was starting to feel as if they were. They spent time together like boyfriends did, and of course they fooled around and had sex like boyfriends did, and part of him thought they could even fall in love like boyfriends did. It was too early for that, although Jared liked Jensen an awful lot, and was sure Jensen liked him an awful lot too.

The longer it went on, the less confused Jared became, although he still wished he could talk to Misha. Now that his previously theoretical relationship with a guy was a reality, he started to think maybe he'd have to tell people. He really wanted Jensen involved in his whole life. When Jared had a girlfriend, he wanted all his friends to meet her and like her as much as he did, and Jensen was no different.

He couldn't talk to Misha, as Misha seemed to be in Tibet somewhere, or maybe still in India, but in any case too far away for a long involved discussion. But he could broach the subject with someone else, and he thought he could trust Aldis to be his guinea pig. Jared didn't know any other gay boys, at least no one he knew well enough to talk to, but Aldis was a black guy with a white girlfriend, and while Jared didn't know if telling your folks about that was the same as coming out to them, it was the closest situation he could think of. And he was pretty sure Aldis wouldn't care who he liked to fuck.

"Can I talk to you about something when you get a break?" he asked Aldis at the garage one day, about three weeks after he and Jensen first got together.

"Sure, yeah, about what?" Aldis said.

"Stuff. Whenever you get a chance."

So when Aldis got a break, he leaned over Jared's shoulder where Jared was working on a Dodge Ram engine, and said "I got fifteen minutes, what's your need?"

There weren't a lot of places in the garage where they could really find some privacy - Jim's office was out, obviously, and the little break room where they kept their personal stuff was also home to drinks and snacks and sometimes things that people needed during the course of their day, and there was no guarantee that Tom or Katie wouldn't barge in while Jared was baring his soul.

But for fifteen minutes and with the door closed, he figured he could risk it. And if either one of them did come in, he'd either scar Tom for life or give Katie more fodder for teasing. He was pretty sure she had an idea about him and Jensen anyway.

"So... what?" Aldis asked. "Why did you have to close the door?"

"What did your parents say when you told them you were dating Beth?"

"My mom wanted to know if she could cook. Why?"

"I mean, how did they react when they found out she was white?"

"Mom wanted to know if she could cook. She was just concerned about me finding a nice girl who would put up with me. The color of the girl in question was less important. It took Dad longer to come around." Aldis quirked an eyebrow. "Are you dating a black girl?"

"No. I'mdatingaguy." He said it so quickly it sounded like one word. Aldis' eyebrow rose a little higher towards his hairline.

"You're what?"

"Datingaguy."

"Now that sounds like you said you're dating a guy."

"Iam."

"Jared, man, spit it out. Are you coming out of the closet?"

"Sort of. I guess." Aldis made a gesture that seemed to translate into "Well, come on, tell me the rest" and looked at Jared with an expression of utmost patience. Jared took a deep breath. "My friend Jensen. We're... I guess we're dating. I like him a lot. I mean, Aldis, I like him a lot. And I'm bi."

"That's it?" Aldis looked kind of unimpressed. Jared wasn't sure how to interpret that.

"That's not enough?"

"I don't care who you want to fuck. Whether I like you or not doesn't have anything to do with your sex life. Well, Beth knows this guy who says he blows goats, like literally, but I think he's just yanking my chain. I don't give a shit, man, seriously. Do you like the guy?"

"Yeah."

"Does he like you?"

"Yeah." It seemed a safe bet, what with all the time they'd spent together, and the fact that Jensen had come on to him first.

"So ok. You got a boyfriend." Well, Jared wouldn't necessarily call him that. "Welcome to the club of the romantically attached." He grabbed Jared's hand and shook it. "Nice to have ya."

That was a lot easier than Jared was expecting, although he really hadn't thought Aldis would have a huge problem. He still had no idea what to tell his parents, when the time came to tell them - because the time would come - but at least he felt a little better about telling his friends.

"Don't tell anyone, ok?" he asked Aldis. "It's my news, you know?"

"No problem." Aldis zipped his fingers across his lips and pretended to turn a key and toss it over his shoulder. "Lips sealed. Can I tell Beth? She thinks you have a crush on the guy anyway."

"I guess, yeah. Just don't tell Katie."

"Eh, she'll figure it out by osmosis."

She did not, in fact, figure it out by osmosis. Jared told her the next day. He was pretty sure her surprised and delighted shriek could be heard in Memphis. Tom didn't seem sure what to do with the information that Jared was involved with another guy, but he also didn't seem too bothered, so Jared considered it a win. And Jim just wanted to make sure it wouldn't affect his work.

Jared told Sandy in person, and some of his friends from home over the phone, and he emailed Misha, and he was completely clueless about how to tell his folks. He swore everyone he told to secrecy, so he wasn't worried about his parents or his brother or sister finding out from someone else. For once he was glad he lived so far away - he could lie or at least avoid the topic on the phone, and he wouldn't have to worry about his mom dropping by the house unannounced and catching him and Jensen together.

He'd tell them eventually. They were his parents and they loved and supported him, and the more he thought about it, the more he thought they'd be ok with it. He just needed to figure out the best way to approach it, and the best time.

Jensen wanted to know why Jared hadn't asked him for advice, because he'd been through this before, but Jared had no answer for him.

* * *

For the Fourth of July, Jared had a barbecue and used it to show Jensen off and introduce him in public as his boyfriend. This included apparently almost everyone he knew who was local, which Jensen thought was a lot of people when they were all packed into the yard.

Jensen had maybe a little more to drink than he would have planned on, but it helped him talk to all these people and made him less nervous about making a good impression. It helped that everyone was friendly enough. He even let Jared coax him into singing, although it was just "The Star-Spangled Banner" and half the guests joined in.

The plan was originally to go to Goodlettsville to see the fireworks, and at a little after seven o'clock some people peeled off to do just that, but everyone else seemed to be having too good a time at Jared's house. There were still burgers and hotdogs and the remains of potato salad and three-bean salad and cole slaw, and bottles of beer and chocolate-chip cookies and friendly dogs, and people stayed until all the food had been eaten and all the drinks had been drunk and even the dogs had collapsed in exhausted heaps on the living room floor.

Jensen and Jared made the barest effort at cleaning up and then went into the bedroom and closed the door and lay down on the bed and finally had a chance to kiss each other in ways that they'd been too nervous to do in front of all Jared's friends.

"Did you have a good time?" Jared asked, mouthing along Jensen's jaw.

"Yeah," Jensen said. "Lots of people, though. I think I liked all of them."

"You think?"

"I can't think." He pulled Jared's up to his and kissed him again. "Just wanna kiss you."

"You're drunk." Jared grinned at him.

"So're you." Jensen nodded agreeably. "You know what I did today? I talked to total strangers. All my boyfriend's friends. And 'cause I did that, I get him all to myself now."

"Your boyfriend's friends? You got someone else?" But Jared was still grinning, teasing. God, he was cute. Jensen wanted to kiss him some more.

"Yeah. Cute boy. Likes dogs. Grills a mean burger. Thinks I'm kinda hot." He rolled onto Jared's chest, brushed his fingers across Jared's face and tangled them in his hair. "Looks kinda like you. Weird, huh." He dipped his head to lick at Jared's lips, kiss his mouth, taste him. He tasted like chocolate-chip cookies and beer. "Good kisser. Great ass."

Jared smacked his hip, probably because he couldn't reach Jensen's ass. "Yours ain't bad either."

Jensen laughed. "I gotta tell you something," he said, like it was a secret. "I really like you."

"That is good news, 'cause I like you too." Jared lifted his head to meet Jensen's mouth and they kissed hungrily. "You wanna fuck me? Want me to fuck you?"

"Yeah." Jensen licked at his lips again. He loved how warm they were, how they tasted, how easily Jared responded. He loved kissing Jared's mouth and sucking on his tongue and just losing himself in a long slow kiss that turned into another and another and yet another.

"Which?"

"Don't care. Just wanna feel you. Do whatever you want to me."

"Think I'm just gonna kiss you some more, ok?"

So they kissed for a while, Jensen half on top of Jared, fingers brushing his face and combing through his hair, hips moving lazily against Jared's thigh until Jared rolled them both over so Jensen was on his back now and Jared lay half on top of him. Jared shifted just enough to reach down, nudge Jensen's thighs apart, and fondle his cock through his shorts. Jensen kissed him harder.

"Fuck me," he murmured against Jared's mouth.

"Don't worry," Jared murmured back. He pulled away and rearranged himself so he could get Jensen's shorts open and slide his hand inside his underwear. Jensen sighed in anticipatory pleasure and lifted his hips. Jared pulled his shorts and underwear down, freeing Jensen's cock, cupping his balls before lowering his head and sucking Jensen's erection into his mouth.

"Ahh," Jensen breathed out. He felt his eyes start to close - Jared's head bobbing up and down was mesmerizing, and he was pretty tired. Maybe he shouldn't have had all that beer.

He stroked Jared's hair and face and breathed in and out and felt like he was floating. It was so, so good.

Eventually Jared pulled off his cock, slid up the bed, and tugged at Jensen's shirt, and once Jensen was naked he stripped off as well.

"I love your body," Jensen murmured, trailing his hand up and down Jared's chest.

"Good to know," Jared said. "Considering I wasn't planning on taking it anywhere." Jensen's hand drifted down to Jared's cock, wrapped around it, and pulled. Jared sucked in a breath. "I'm gonna spread your legs and bury my dick in your ass and fuck you all. Damn. Night."

Jensen pulled Jared's head down with his free hand and kissed him hard, holding him there until they were both out of breath. And then Jared pushed himself away just long enough to find a condom and the lube, slick Jensen up, roll the condom on, and push slowly into Jensen's ass.

"Yes," Jensen breathed. He felt languid and lazy and he was just going to follow wherever Jared took him, whatever Jared wanted to do. He was relaxed. Loose. And really turned on.

Jared moved slowly inside him, taking his time, leaning over Jensen and just watching him. Jensen loved looking up and seeing Jared hanging over him, hair in his face, lips parted and the corners of his mouth turned up in a grin.

"So fucking good," Jensen said, the words slowly rolling off his tongue like honey.

"Yeah.... Yeah." Jared was smiling almost distractedly. What was he concentrating on? Jensen was easy, he didn't need anything fancy - just Jared's cock, Jared's hands, Jared's mouth, Jared's ass.

They moved together for what felt like hours, Jared's hips pumping in and out lazily, his head dropping every so often for a kiss, Jensen running his hands up and down Jared's chest and sides and down his back to cup his ass. Jared's skin was warm and a little damp with sweat, and the soft noises he made when Jensen touched him were exciting and arousing for all their quietness.

"God, Jensen..." Jared whispered.

And Jensen just flowed with it, rolling his hips against Jared's thrusts, listening to the both of them breathing, trying to swallow the scent of them, salty and sweaty and still touched with humid night air and the faintest taste of charcoal.

Jared was moaning softly now, pushing himself deep into Jensen's body, fucking him steadily, staring at his face as if watching for some sign. And what sign could Jensen give him? What could he say? I'm so turned on I can't imagine anything in this world worth more than the way you fuck me, and any mistakes I've made, I'd do them again just for the amazing way you feel.

"Uhh," Jared groaned. "Jesus, you feel good. I wanna do this to you all night. Wanna... uhn, fuck...."

Jensen moaned as well, and maybe a whimper escaped his lips but he couldn't say if it was him or Jared at this point. He felt as if they had been going all night, and the sun should be coming up and the dogs should be interrupting them and -

Jared closed his fingers around Jensen's cock and started to pull, and Jensen's breath stuttered.

"Gonna make you come," Jared panted, his hand moving faster, letting go of Jensen's cock to fondle his balls. He grinned. "Wanna see your O-face."

Jensen moaned encouragement as Jared's hand worked his cock and Jared's hips fucked his ass, and he could feel the slow tidal wave of his climax roll under his shoulders and down his spine to his hips, and he groaned when he came.

"Shit," Jared breathed. "That's so hot."

"So're you."

And he was - the flush on his skin, the faint sheen of sweat, his hair hanging in his eyes, his lower lip between his teeth, the muscles in his chest jumping under his skin as he picked up the pace and thrust faster and harder.

"Oh... fuck," he moaned, and even half-drunk and half-asleep Jensen felt him coming hard, could see it on Jared's face and in his posture, could hear it in his voice.

Jensen didn't think it would ever stop being amazing, the way Jared looked and sounded when he came. He hoped he never stopped being amazed and aroused.

Jared lowered himself down onto the mattress, dropped a slow kiss onto Jensen's lips, and rolled over and pulled out.

"Yeah, that was good," he said, a little breathlessly. "I love fucking my boyfriend."

"Weird," Jensen said, "because I love fucking my boyfriend too."

"Maybe we should get them together."

"Maybe." Christ, he was tired. Tired and sated and secure and unbelievably happy. He yawned.

Jared got up, presumably to throw out the condom, and Jensen wriggled under the covers, rolled onto his side, and closed his eyes. He felt Jared get back in bed and spoon up against him and lick his ear. His shoulder twitched. Jared chuckled, his breath warm against Jensen's neck.

"Let's do that again in the morning," Jared said.

"Mm," Jensen answered, but he wasn't really listening. He was falling asleep. And enjoying the comfort and heat of his boyfriend's body snugged against him, Jared's arm around his chest, legs twined with his. The A/C was on, so they could lie that close in the middle of the summer and not stick together with heat, but Jensen was at the point where he really didn't care either way. He had what he wanted, and he was content.

* * *

The moment Jensen's professional life changed, he was learning the fine art of drawing animals on cappuccino foam from the new kid at the coffeeshop. The new kid, whose name was Anton, had already been there a couple of months and was no longer technically new, just the most recent hire. Once the other baristas learned that he was actually pretty good at latte art, they pestered him to teach them.

Well, some of them did. Justin had no artistic talent and Joe just wanted to draw things with tentacles, but Genevieve and Alona and Jensen thought it was kind of a neat skill to learn. Nicki didn't care as long as they didn't waste milk or coffee, and as long as they kept up a certain quality of customer service and drinks-making.

So when Chris was leaving an incomprehensible and angry message on Jensen's voice mail, Jensen was watching Anton draw a hedgehog in the foam of a customer's decaf latte.

And when Chris was leaving a second, even more incomprehensible message, Jensen was making an espresso con panna for Matt, who was wearing his nerdy glasses and looked like he hadn't slept or even bothered to comb his hair or shave in three days, and was still - Jensen thought - incredibly cute.

(This was not as weird as it might have been - a week or so earlier, Jensen had emailed Matt a link to an online article he'd found about a woman who'd been busted for forging forgeries because he thought Matt would be able to appreciate it, and they'd made some steps towards being friends. It helped that some time had passed and Matt had recently met someone, and they had always liked each other.)

And when Anton was trying to explain to Alona that she'd just made a panda bear, not a teddy bear, there was totally a difference, Jensen was taking a break and listening to his messages.

"I'm gonna fucking kill him," Chris ranted on his voice mail. "Fucked up my band and my tour. You're gonna help me, Jen, and I'm not gonna wrap my hands around Steve's neck and fucking squeeze."

Jensen was tempted to call Chris back, because he sounded grim, but it seemed like the kind of conversation Jensen would need time to devote to. So he waited until he was off work before calling back.

"Poached my fucking guitarist," Chris spat over the phone. "Fucking Steve, not a fucking moral bone in his god-damned fucking body."

"Chris. Slow down. Back up. Tell me from the beginning."

"Steve. Stole. Jason. From. The band."

"What?"

"Offered him better money, he's gonna be on Steve's album, tour with him, songwriting credits, everything he's got with us but the bucks."

In the years since he'd gone solo, Steve had managed a pretty good career for himself, enough that he'd recently quit his day job to be a musician full-time. It was something everyone in Oklahoma Ford aspired to but hadn't quite reached yet. And as loyal as he felt to Chris, Jensen could understand why Jason might be swayed by the opportunity to make a full-time living making music. He had a wife, someday he'd have a family, and he wanted the bright lights as much as anyone.

"Tour starts in two weeks, Jen. Two weeks. Little less. I can't take the fucking time to find another guitarist who knows the songs and'll go with us. Steve fucking knew that. I could wring his fucking neck."

"Why aren't you pissed at Jason?" Jensen asked.

"He's got a wife and they want a baby and he's gonna have a fucking family to support. I know he wants the money. He told me when Steve asked him, he asked me what I thought he should do. Hadn't given his answer yet. He didn't wanna piss me off or leave us high and dry."

"And you told him to take it?" Jensen pulled the phone away from his ear and stared at it disbelievingly, although if he thought about it, that was something Chris would do. He'd tell you to take the offer that would net you better money and more exposure and greater creative input, and he'd respect you for asking his advice and letting him know your choices before making a decision.

Chris had known Steve longer - they'd started the band together - and no doubt felt more betrayed by him than by Jason. Besides, Steve had made the offer knowing he'd be putting Chris in a tight spot. Jensen wondered why Steve had to do it now.

"Fucker didn't even give Jason a lot of time to think it over," Chris was saying. "Told him if he went on tour with us, the offer'd be gone when we got back. He could take it now and fuck us over, or stay with us and lose it. Asshole." Chris made a strangled noise of frustration. "We were friends. We formed the band together. He fucking betrayed me, Jen. Next he'll steal Gus. Take you too."

"Not likely. I don't have anything he wants."

"Yeah you do. You're gonna be Jason's replacement."

"I am not."

"Don't you fucking argue with me, Jensen. You are coming with us because you know most of the songs already, you know us, we know you, and you need the damn experience. And we fucking need you."

"I have a job, Chris. I can't take off for, what, two weeks?"

"Three. So quit and let them hire you back. We're gonna talk about this when you get home. I need you to do this for me. If you ever fucking loved me, Jen, you will do this."

And because Jensen didn't know how to respond to that, he didn't. But when he got home, Chris sat him down and, in a calmer and more rational tone of voice than he'd had on the phone, explained all the pros and some of the cons of going on tour with the band. Jensen listened, asked questions, tried to argue in defense of staying home, and eventually had to agree that if he was thinking about his career, if he wanted exposure and experience, it would be stupid to pass this up.

"If your manager gives you shit," Chris said, "tell her you'll quit and reapply for your job when you get back."

"Is that what you're doing?"

"Don't have to. If I don't come back after three weeks they'll just hire someone else. But they'll give me the time. Don't worry about me, just talk to your manager. We got a bunch of rehearsals, you'll be ready when we leave, you'll be fine. This'll be good for you, Jen. Ok?"

It wasn't entirely ok, because three weeks of touring meant three weeks away from Jared. Jared was less than thrilled with this arrangement, although he was excited that it meant Jensen could be an actual paid professional musician on an actual paid professional tour. If that was what Jensen wanted, Jared wanted it for him, even if it meant being apart the whole time.

"We don't leave for another couple weeks," Jensen explained, trying to make it easier on both of them. "I have to brush up on the songs I know and learn the songs I don't, but that still leaves us some time together."

"I wish I could go see you," Jared said. "Too bad I can't tour with you as your driver or something. I'm really handy if the van breaks down."

"Yeah, I know how handy you are." Jensen grinned. "Don't worry, I'll steer all the groupies towards Chris."

"Even the guys?"

"Even the guys." Jensen chuckled, amused at the image of Chris, who was straight as they came, fending off hordes of male groupies.

"Nah, I trust you. Bring me back some souvenirs or something. Club napkins. Postcards."

"Other bands' stuff."

"Where are you going, anyway?"

"I'll get you the itinerary. We'll call, text, email, whatever. I'll send you some pictures if we go anywhere pretty."

"Just send me some pictures of you."

Jensen blushed. Jared kissed him.

"If it makes you happy," he said, "I want you to do it. I'll miss you a lot, but it's not like you're going to Europe for six months. The dogs'll keep me company. I'll think about you late at night when I'm lying in bed all alone with just the memory of my mouth on your dick, or your dick in my ass." Now his grin was wicked, and Jensen was embarrassed to realize he was blushing harder. He really liked the mental image that conjured up, Jared jerking off to thoughts of him, but you'd think he would have gotten over the blushing by now.

He talked to Nicki, she made him talk to Sam who owned the coffeeshop, and eventually Jensen won the right to have his job back when the band returned. Nicki grumbled about having to train a temp or give everyone extra shifts, and Anton piped up that he'd take more hours, he could use the money.

Jensen told everyone at the coffeeshop, he told Danneel, he even told Matt. He called home to tell his parents and his mom told him to be careful. He called Kevin and said they were going to be in Houston, and Kevin should come see them because Jensen wanted to see him. He rehearsed a lot, spent a lot of time learning the few new songs he didn't know at all, and by the time they were loading the van and he was calling Jared from the road to say they were on their way - they left late in the morning on a weekday, and Jared was at work - Jensen felt mostly prepared for the tour, a little nervous, and a lot excited.

By the time they got to the first venue, he was a lot nervous and only a little excited. His first show with Oklahoma Ford was not a resounding success on his part, but the rest of the band was tight enough to mostly make up for it, and once he had an actual show under his belt, he felt better prepared. The second show was better than the first, and Jensen started to think maybe this would be the amazing opportunity Chris sold it as, and he'd come out of it a better musician and a more experienced professional, and wasn't that why he'd come to Nashville in the first place?

He couldn't thank Steve for stealing Jason away - Chris didn't even want to hear Steve's name mentioned - but he thought maybe he could thank Jason for going.

* * *

Having Jensen gone wasn't quite the hardest thing Jared had ever had to put up with, but it certainly wasn't easy. But he had things to occupy his time - his job, his dogs, his friends, the night class he'd registered for at Belmont, his bikes. He very nervously came out to his parents as bi and told them he was dating a guy, and his mom asked how he knew, when did he know, had he told his friends and coworkers, were they ok with it, and when could she and his dad meet this boy? And his dad asked the kinds of questions about Jensen that a dad might ask about a boy who was dating his daughter - where was he from, what did he do, what was his family like, what was he like.... And neither of them gave Jared much grief or seemed too upset. He was relieved.

He wondered if they were ok with it for the same reason Jensen had said his parents were ok with it, because they'd latched on to the "I still like girls" part of the bisexuality equation, and were just waiting for the day he and Jensen broke up and he started dating girls again. But he didn't think so. He thought they were probably ok with it because they loved him and had accepted the choices he'd made in his life so far, and if that was who he was, they'd adjust.

And then Jared told his sister, who didn't seem fazed at all, and his brother, who didn't quite get it but also didn't really care, as long as Jared was happy. "If he breaks up with you, do I have permission to break his face?" he asked, which was exactly the same thing he'd asked their sister when she told them about her boyfriend. Jared said no, that was ok, he could probably find enough local people to do it, if it came to that.

Coming out to his family meant Jared could get some sympathy for being in Nashville alone while Jensen was on tour, and a little sympathy was always nice, but still, it was hard being without him. They talked on the phone sporadically - when Jensen had time, Jared was at work, and when Jared had time, Jensen was at a gig - emailed each other, sent silly little texts. Jensen drunk-dialed Jared twice late at night, both times when Jared was asleep, and left rambly, slurred messages about how much he missed Jared and wished he was there. Jared just drunk-texted once, which earned him a couple days of non-stop teasing for his incomprehensibility.

Jared learned that Oklahoma Ford was touring with one band for the first half of the tour (they were called Barnes and were more properly a singer and her backup band) and a different band for the second half of the tour (this one called Hollywoodland, and it turned out the fiddler and Aly were friends). On two of their stops, local bands were scheduled to open for them, putting three bands on the bill instead of two. Jensen was getting along with the rest of Oklahoma Ford and more or less with the bands they were touring with, although Barnes' singer, whose name was Traci (and whose last name, oddly enough, was not Barnes), put the moves on him and he hadn't figured out how to put her off without pissing her off.

"I kinda like her," he told Jared. "Not like her, but you know, she's a great singer, she's fun, other than this she's pretty professional, and I don't want to be rude. But I don't want to fuck her."

"Did you tell her that?"

"I said I was seeing someone. Didn't stop her."

"Tell her you have a boyfriend. That should work. Chris'll back you up if she gives you a hard time."

"Yeah, I know. We've only got another couple days with her, I think it'll be fine. And the next band, Aly's friends with the fiddle player and I don't expect any problems. Shit, I gotta go, I think we're about to get our sound check. I miss you, man. See you in a couple weeks. Thirteen days."

"Got 'em marked on the calendar. I miss you too. Go be brilliant."

One Monday they were a little short-staffed at Beaver Automotive - Tom had fallen off a ladder on Sunday and was temporarily laid up with a busted ankle (he'd been fixing some shingles on the roof of his garage, which information caused Katie to snort "But it's a rental" when Aldis filled her in), Jim left late in the morning for an eye appointment and lost the rest of the day to it, and Katie overslept and was two hours late because her alarm clock failed to wake her up and neither of her roommates thought to do it either. So things piled up for Jared and Aldis. There was a PT Cruiser with a persistent check engine light, a Ford F-150, like Jared's truck but much newer, which had been knocked out of alignment by - apparently - a giant pothole, a banana-yellow Corvette Stingray in for a 60,000-mile checkup, a Lincoln Town Car that would probably need a new radiator, a Chrysler minivan with a weird whine, and a fire-engine-red Mustang, circa 1966, that seemed to have been brought in just so the owner could show it off.

"Fuel pump needs work," Katie told Jared. "This one's mine."

Of course when the Mustang's owner came to claim it the next day, no one was around but Jared. Katie had already driven it around to the front for ease in picking up, but at least Jared got to fondle the keys and break the bill down for the owner, a tall lanky guy named Weller.

And then he got to watch the guy's long legs and nice ass and cowboy boots as he walked out of the office. Sometimes life did not suck.

That weekend Jared was finally able to take his Triumph out for a test run, but it was clearly not yet ready because it stalled twice and threw him both times. The first time he was more startled than anything, but the second time he fell left him a little bruised and a little scraped up, so when he got home he ran a nice hot bath to soak in. He wasn't seriously hurt - no broken bones, nothing twisted out of joint although his shoulder was sore, no major cuts or scrapes - but he felt banged up and didn't want to get too stiff, and he was tired. He took his phone into the bathroom, maybe intending to call Jensen or hoping Jensen would call him, but five minutes into settling into a tub full of hot, soapy water, he fell asleep.

His phone woke him up, and it took a minute for him to realize what the noise was and find the thing lying on a towel on the floor. It was Jensen. Jared smiled almost unconsciously as he answered the call.

"I'm hiding from Traci," Jensen said without preamble.

"Hi to you too," Jared said, grinning. "Wait - I thought you were touring with someone else now."

"We are. Our paths crossed. I told her about you, Jared. I said I was dating a guy. She set her drummer on me!" He sounded indignant. Jared snickered. "It's not funny, man! Chris can't stop teasing me about it, and now Aly's gotten into the act - Hollywoodland's guitarist, this guy named Kris - with a K, not like my Chris - she and Amber, the fiddler, think I'd be good for him. He's a cute kid but I don't think he's into me and, y'know, I got you. And music-wise, I dunno, I'm not a voice coach or anything but he sings just fine, and I can't teach him anything about the guitar he doesn't already know. I don't know. I love playing for audiences - it's a new audience every time and yeah, it makes me nervous, but the more I do it, the more I get used to it, and... I love playing live. I love it, Jared. But I miss you so much."

"I miss you too. I miss you a lot. Should we talk about something else? How long do you have before Traci's drummer comes looking for you?"

"Don't tease me. Tell me what you did today."

"I took the Triumph out - I thought she was ready for the road but no, not so much. She stalled a couple times and dumped me off. Well, I fell. I'm kind of ticked. And kinda sore."

"Jared." Jensen sounded a little worried.

"No, man, I'm fine, I wasn't hurt, I'm just a little banged up - like bruised, not bleeding or anything - so I'm sitting in the tub, just soaking. Hot water, feels good. Guess I got some work still to do, although I'm not sure what's wrong. I thought she was ready." He sighed. Jensen was quiet. Jared thought he might still be worried about the bike, and might need a distraction. "Remember when I tried to fuck you in the tub? Got water everywhere. Scared the dogs."

"Yeah," Jensen said, his voice softer now. "We figured you needed a bigger bath."

"But we both got off. It wasn't horrible." Jared's free hand dropped into the water and drifted between his legs. He rubbed his cock with the heel of his hand, remembering now what Jensen's face looked like hanging over his, his look of concentration and the way all his freckles stood out on his skin. "Next time we should find someone with a hot tub."

"Next time we should do it in the shower."

"Next time... yeah." He was getting hard now, enough to wrap his fingers around his dick and stroke. "Jensen... I'm thinking about you."

"What are you thinking?"

"I'm thinking about what your face looks like right before you come. You get all still. Calm. Like, no ripples on the pond. You look... you look really gorgeous, like that. Where are you hiding?"

"In the back of the van." Jensen chuckled.

"You don't think anyone's gonna come looking for you?"

"Just Traci's drummer. So you're thinking about my O-face, huh?"

"Yeah. And your mouth... how it tastes. How your dick feels inside me." He was panting a little now, the motion of his hand working his erection making ripples on the surface of the bathwater. "Jensen... Jensen...."

"I'm here." Jensen sounded a little breathless too.

"Are you... are you thinking about me?"

"You could say that."

Jared imagined Jensen sprawled in the back of the van, his hand down his pants, jerking himself off. He groaned in the back of his throat, hips pushing up into his fist. Not as good as having Jensen right here, but Jared could still hear his voice, could still talk to him.

"Say something," he panted.

"I think about you when I'm on stage," Jensen said quietly. "It grounds me, makes me less... the stage fright's not as bad."

"You think about me - hnn - after?"

"All the time. I miss you all the time."

"Me too. Oh... god...." His hand moved faster.

"Jared. Jared."

Jared wanted to say Jensen's name, wanted Jensen to hear it, but he was so close to climax that he was reduced to shapeless moans as his head fell back and his hand pumped his cock and he came with a loud groan. His phone fell out of his other hand and dropped on the floor.

It took a minute before he came back to himself enough to hear Jensen's voice - "Jared? Jared!" - and retrieve the phone from the floor.

"Dropped the phone," he said, his voice still a little breathless. "Sorry."

"It's ok. Talk to me. I want... I want you."

"Are you close?"

"Yeah." Jensen was breathing heavily. Jared was still a little turned on.

"Are you thinking about my ass or my dick? My hands on you? My mouth sucking you off?" Jensen groaned. "Come on, work that cock. Come for me, Jensen. Lemme hear you."

Jensen grunted as he jerked himself off, soft desperate noises that could almost get Jared hard again. Jared could tell when he came by the way the sounds cut off - that was the moment of stillness - and then Jensen started breathing again and made a vaguely disgusted noise.

"Ugh," he said, "I'm sticky."

"Christ, I miss you," Jared said. Jensen laughed.

"You miss my sticky self? Soon, Jared, soon. I miss you too. Every night. Every day." His voice dropped. "I can't wait to be home."

"Come right here. Don't go back to your place. Ask Jeff to borrow his key. I'll tell him it's ok. And when I get home from work, you'll be here."

"I'd like that."

"You should have your own key. I don't know why I never made you one. I'll do it tomorrow." Jared knew he was babbling now, but he felt relaxed and calm and Jensen should know these things.

"I'd like that too. I think I gotta go. I'll call you, I dunno, soon as I can. I hate that you don't get a lot of privacy on the road. A couple nights ago I heard Aly talking to her boyfriend and oh, god, talk about things I never wanted to know about someone."

"Is her phone sex better than ours?" Jared grinned.

"She doesn't have you on the other end, so no." There was a pause. "Jared...."

"Yeah?"

"I can't do this much longer. I love it but I hate it. It's harder than I thought it would be. Maybe I'm not cut out for touring."

"But you like playing with the band?"

"Yeah, I do. Just not on the road for this long. I miss my bed."

"You mean you miss me in your bed."

"That too. Look, I gotta go. I'll be home soon and this'll all be over. I miss you."

"I miss you too."

"I'll see you. Bye." And he hung up.

Jared stretched, sighed, figured he should get out of the tub and dry off. He wished he could've gone with the band - or Jensen was home already - but it wouldn't be that much longer before Jensen was back.

He climbed out of the tub, drained it, toweled off, and got dressed. He'd have to eat soon, but first he wanted a nap. He lay down on the bed, and Harley took the opportunity to jump on the mattress next to him. Sadie rested her chin near Jared's head and looked at him with big sad puppy-dog eyes. He scratched her ears.

"I know, girl, I miss him too."

* * *

Jensen hadn't lied to Jared on the phone - he really did love playing with the band, and he really did love playing for a live audience, and he really did love getting to meet other musicians and talk shop with them, and he hadn't mentioned it but he liked getting to see other parts of the country. But he also really hated being away from his bed and his own place and most especially he hated being away from his boyfriend. And talking to Jared on the phone, listening to him stroking himself off in the bathtub, knowing Jared was thinking about him as he did so - it didn't help. Jensen was a little surprised and a lot upset to discover that phone sex actually made the separation worse.

And he hadn't really mentioned it, because he'd rather make light of things on the phone so as not to make Jared worry, but he was getting tired of traveling and being away from home. He was getting tired of showering in motel showers, and sharing a bed with someone he wasn't dating, and sitting in the van trying to read the map or get directions on his phone when the GPS failed them, and sleeping in the van, and counting miles and gas money, and having to meet new people (club owners, promoters, sound guys, local fans, whoever) every damn night.

As much as he loved getting to sing and play his guitar on a regular basis, he was also really, really tired.

Which was how he found himself sitting at a table drinking with some local fans one night, the locals having convinced him to hang out with them at the bar after the bands had finished for the evening. Two girls and two guys, all music fans in general and Oklahoma Ford fans in particular, all kids who could talk about the local scene with passion and intelligence and humor. Jensen could talk music with anyone, and if he hadn't been so far into the tour and so god-damned tired of being on tour, he might have been able to really contribute to the conversation.

And if they hadn't kept buying him drinks, he might have been able to form enough coherent sentences to add to it.

One of the girls, a cute brunette in a pink spaghetti-strap top, sat next to him and couldn't stop touching him - his arm, his hand, his thigh - in ways that even he recognized as come-ons. She wasn't overly aggressive, she was sweet and friendly and excitable and a genuine fan of country music, not just some groupie who latched on to any musician who came through town. Her touch was light on his arm and her face lit up when she talked, and nothing about her did anything to ease the fact that Jensen was desperately tired and achingly lonely and now, as he realized when he stood up, pretty hammered.

Which was why he didn't protest when she took his arm - just to make sure he didn't fall over on his way to the bathroom, she said, laughing - and followed him to the back of the bar and into the men's room and down to the far stall.

He missed Jared so much, and wanted him here so badly, that when the cute music fan kissed him and squeezed his cock through his jeans, he didn't stop her, and when she unbuckled his belt and unzipped his fly and sank to her knees on the men's room floor, he didn't stop her, and when she pulled out his cock and pumped it with a surprisingly strong, small hand, he didn't stop her, and when she leaned in and swallowed him down, he closed his eyes and imagined she was someone else.

He thought maybe, just maybe, if he wished hard enough, he'd open his eyes and see Jared on the floor in front of him, Jared's head bobbing up and down on his cock, Jared's face upturned to his. He tried valiantly to pretend the mouth on his dick was Jared's, but drunk as he was, and even so lost in his own head, Jensen could tell. It wasn't, and it couldn't be.

Part of him wanted to tell the girl to stop, she wasn't who he wanted, but he couldn't. Because part of him wanted her to keep going, wanted her to get him off, wanted someone to touch him because his boyfriend couldn't.

He thought maybe he murmured Jared's name as she sucked him off. He leaned back against the wall of the bathroom stall, listening to the wet, determined noises of this cute, sweet, dedicated music fan sucking his dick, and he missed Jared so much it was like a hole opened in his chest.

And yet he didn't want to make the girl stop, even though she had to work to get him hard and make him come. He didn't care. He rested his hand on her head, moaned softly, pretended she was someone else. Any port in a storm, right? The seas had been very stormy of late, and he needed a rest.

He groaned in the back of his throat when he finally came, and after the girl had licked him clean and folded him back into his jeans, she stood up and kissed him on the mouth. Maybe it was the touch of her lips, so clearly a girl's lips, so clearly not Jared's, that finally snapped Jensen back to sense, because he pushed her away - gently, because he could be polite even when wasted - and muttered that he was sorry, he had to go, he wasn't that guy, he had to get back to the motel.

She looked both hurt and worried, and said she'd give him a ride - where was the band staying? He insisted that no, he'd get a cab, he had a boyfriend, he wasn't.... She steered him to a bouncer at the front of the bar, told the guy to call a cab, and sat there and waited with Jensen until it showed up.

He was weirdly grateful, and apologized to her again before she made him get in and go.

He was surprised he didn't pass out or puke in the cab, and when it got to the motel he couldn't remember what room they were in. The cabbie dropped him off, left him to his own devices, and Jensen called Chris for help.

Chris sounded grumpy and kinda pissed when he answered his phone - he'd been asleep - and Jensen apologized for waking him up and for forgetting what room they were in and for drinking so much and Chris told him to shut up, room 216, he'd be standing in the doorway so Jensen could find it.

And when Jensen finally did find the room, Chris leaning against the doorframe looking half-asleep, he apologized again and might have kept apologizing for every stupid, thoughtless thing he'd ever done, but Chris just pushed him into the bathroom, told him to pee and brush his teeth and drink a lot of water, and then crawled into bed.

Once relieved and brushed and watered - well, relieved and watered, since he didn't think he could handle toothpaste right now - Jensen climbed into bed next to Chris, and told him "Chris - I fucked up. I really. Really. I fucked up."

And "You're drunk, Jen," Chris said. "Go to sleep."

But Jensen had to confess his sin, had to unburden his soul, had to share his monumental mistake, so he told Chris everything, his words running together, the events out of sequence but hopefully enough for Chris to know, really know, what exactly Jensen had done.

In the morning he was sick with hangover and exhaustion and self-disgust, and an hour after the van drove away from the motel on the way to their next gig, he made Aly pull over - she was driving - so he could puke. He hated himself. He'd cheated on his boyfriend, had let a cute girl get him drunk and take advantage of him - but as soon as his brain started down that road it stopped, realizing that he hadn't been taken advantage of, he'd let it happen. He could've stopped her at any time, and he didn't. He let her go down on him. He wanted her to get him off. If she'd taken him home instead of just to the men's room, he would have fucked her.

And he had never, ever, in his entire life, not even in his wild college years when he was newly sexually awakened and eager to see what was on offer, ever been that kind of person. His whole dating life he'd been faithful to his partners. He'd never gone with someone wishing they were someone else. But that was exactly what he did, because he was so damn lonely and missed Jared so damn much. And if the cute music fan couldn't be Jared, maybe Jensen could still pretend.

The pretense had failed him but her mouth had not. And now he hated himself. And Gus was telling him not to say anything to Jared, and Chris was telling him to say something, and Aly was telling him not to go off with cute groupies unless he was prepared for them to ply him with beer so they could get him in a dark corner and have their way with him.

Jensen could not get his act together at the show that night, still hung-over and exhausted and so disgusted with himself and worried about how Jared would react, and after the gig Chris pulled him aside and told him "Look, you're my best friend and I love you and I appreciate that you've got this relationship problem, but you fucking well better get your head together because we're not done and you're not leaving. You wanna be a professional, Jensen, act like one."

So Jensen tried. He pushed the cute girl to the back of his mind and concentrated on the songs and the stage and the audience, and when they finished the tour and were finally on their way home, he asked Gus - who wanted to drive the last leg - to drop him off at Jared's house instead of his own.

"You sure?" Gus asked.

"I'm sure," Jensen told him.

"Your call. Just tell me how to get there."

So Jensen gave him directions, and when the van pulled up in front of Jared's house and he got out, Chris handed him his bag, said they'd take care of his gear, and if Jensen didn't come home later, Chris would take that as a good sign.

Jensen walked down to Jeff's house to borrow Jeff's spare key, as he and Jared had discussed, and he let himself into the house, said hi to the dogs - they both jumped on him and barked and licked his face and seemed to have really missed him - took a shower in Jared's bathroom, put on a different t-shirt and shorts, and lay down on Jared's bed. Sadie jumped on the bed right away, Harley following after, both of them turning in circles before lying down at Jensen's back.

He had no idea what he was going to say to Jared. He had no idea how to say it. He should have been kept awake by worry, but Jared's house was home to him now, as much as his own apartment was, and he fell asleep almost instantly and for the first time in three weeks, he slept hard and well.

The dogs jumping off the bed and running to the front door barking when Jared came home woke him up, and he rolled off the bed and met Jared at the bedroom door. Jared grabbed him in a crushing hug and then kissed him so hard he thought he'd stop breathing.

"You're here," he said, after they finally pulled apart.

Jensen shrugged. "You said I could."

"Well, yeah, but I know you get kind of weird about being in my house without me, so I wasn't sure you'd actually be here. It's so good to see you. It kind of feels like you just left."

"Not to me."

Jared pulled him back towards the bed and sat on the edge. "Tell me all about it," he said. "How were the shows? Are you officially part of the band now? Was touring really that horrible?"

"I don't want to talk about it yet." Jensen kind of nudged Jared out of the way and lay down. He was still really tired, and now that Jared was here, he was getting nervous about what to say. "I just... want to lie here next to you. Tell me what I missed."

So Jared kicked off his shoes and stretched out behind Jensen, spooning up against his back, his arm around Jensen's chest, and told him about work and customers and how Tom fell off a ladder trying to fix his garage roof and Misha was in Tibet and had posted the most gorgeous mountain landscape pictures Jared had ever seen - it took Jensen a few minutes to remember who exactly Misha was, and how Jared knew him - and Beth had gotten a show at some photography gallery and Jared's sister was dating some guy from California and this woman came into the garage a couple days ago because her car was making a weird noise....

"And it turned out someone had stolen all her wheel covers except one, and that was held on by just one lugnut. Jim looked at it, looked at her, pointed to the one lugnut holding her tire on, and said 'You're lucky you didn't get killed.' And she just turned white. It was pretty freaky. So the moral of the story is 'Make sure you have all your wheel covers before you get in the car.'"

"Shit," Jensen said. "What kind of car was it?"

"A Caddy. I didn't think the wheel covers were worth anything, but I guess they are."

"Guess you never know."

"Guess not." Jared nuzzled his shoulder. "It's so good to have you back." His teeth closed gently on Jensen's earlobe and tugged, and he hooked a leg over Jensen's knees. "You wanna fool around before dinner?" Jensen could practically hear Jared's grin. "Or we could eat now. I'm kinda hungry."

Jensen did not state the obvious, opting instead for "There's something I have to tell you."

"What?" It sounded as if Jared had picked up on the seriousness of his tone.

"I fucked up."

"What did you do?"

"I. Uh. There was a girl, a few nights ago - I stayed at the bar after the show and met her and some of her friends. They kept buying me drinks. She was.... I missed you so much, I was so...." Jared had gone very still at his back. "We... we went into - I had to pee, I think, and she came with me because I was so trashed - she went down on me. And I let her."

There was silence. Jensen could hear the dogs somewhere in the house, and then Sadie padded into the bedroom and sat on the floor and barked, just once, at the boys.

"Sadie," Jared said. "Go away."

"Jared?"

"You let a groupie blow you." It wasn't quite a question.

"She was just a local fan. She was nice. I wanted her to be you so fucking badly - I closed my eyes and tried to pretend she was, that her mouth was your mouth, and I thought if I pretended hard enough, I'd look down and you'd be there."

"But I was here," Jared said quietly.

"I know. I was wrong. I'm not that guy, Jared, the guy who goes on tour and cheats on his boyfriend. I'm not the guy who cheats on his boyfriend at all. I'm so fucking sorry."

"Was she better than me?"

"She wasn't you, so no."

"Did you fuck her?"

"Jesus, no."

"I don't know what to say to you."

"I can leave." He tried to ease out from under Jared's arm, but Jared apparently wasn't quite ready to let him go. "Jared - do you want me to stay?"

"I don't know. I don't - you missed me so much you let some total stranger suck you off. I don't get that. If you missed me, why didn't you just call me? I could think of some really filthy things to say to you and you could get yourself off."

"That just made it worse." Jensen sighed. "I know I fucked up. I can't tell you how much I hate myself. I was unbearable the last couple days. Ask Chris. I'm really, really sorry, Jared, I really am. I'll go. I'll call a cab or something." And this time, when he tried to disentangle himself and slide off the bed, Jared let him go.

Jensen collected his stuff and put on his shoes and went outside to call the cab. He waited at the end of the driveway, and after a few minutes Jared opened the front door and called his name.

"I have to think about this," he added. "Just... give me some time. Ok?"

Are you saying it's not over? Jensen wanted to ask. You're not kicking me to the curb? He hadn't quite thought Jared would break up with him, but there was no way to know for sure. This sounded like Jared just needed some space temporarily. It was better than nothing.

So Jensen went home, explained things very briefly to Chris - "I told him, I think he wants some time to think about it, I don't think we're breaking up" - and tried to go on with his life. He went to work, talked to Aly and Chris and Gus about staying with the band permanently, got a heads-up from Seth about another potential studio gig, managed to evade all coffeeshop gossip about himself and his boyfriend, was kind of tricked into giving Danneel an abbreviated version of events (she was sympathetic, even though she did call him a dumbass), practiced making latte art, played his guitar, tried and failed to write any music. Every time he called Jared, it went to voice mail. He moped around. He was miserable.

A couple nights after Jensen came clean to Jared about the girl, Chris and Gus took him to Aly's bar with the express intent of trying to get him to forget about Jared for at least one night, and to that end they got him blind drunk and Chris had to carry him home. But he was a miserable, maudlin drunk. He was almost certain that he cried on Chris's shoulder, but Chris, because he was a good friend and knew Jensen would be mortified, never mentioned it.

And still, he called Jared every couple of days, apologizing to the voice mail and asking Jared to please just talk to him.

"That's not giving him space to think things through," Danneel pointed out. Jensen elected to ignore her.

One afternoon he was almost run over by a skateboarder on his way into the coffeeshop - the kid was a blur of red hair and white t-shirt, and his "Sorry, man!" trailed behind him like a banner as he disappeared down the sidewalk - and walked in to find Jared had actually called the place and left him a message.

"Did you guys break up?" Genevieve asked.

"Not yet," he told her, ignoring the rest of her questions and concerns and concentrating determinedly on his job.

He was refilling one of the napkin dispensers in the back room when Alona stuck her head in the door and told him a really tall, really cute guy was looking for him. She'd met Jared and knew what he looked like, and Jensen didn't know why she had to be coy.

So he handed over the restocking, took a deep breath, and went to talk to his hopefully-still-boyfriend.

"Why'd you come here?" was the first thing he asked, though, which was not what he'd intended.

"Didn't I tell you I was taking an anthropology class at Belmont?" Jared answered.

"That's today?"

"That's today. Can we talk?"

Jensen glanced at Alona, who was looking at him expectantly.

"Well?" she said, waving him off like she was brushing dust out of the air. "Go talk."

They sat at a corner table. Jared had gotten a coffee, Jensen noted.

"You suck," Jared said. Sucking's what got us into this mess, Jensen thought. "Just to get that out there. But not enough for me to want to break up with you." Jensen waited. He didn't trust himself to say anything. "But if you're officially part of the band now, how do I know you won't do it again? I can't come on tour just to keep you from getting so lonely you start fucking groupies again."

Jensen winced. But he thought it almost was a fair shot. "So I won't go on tour."

"At all?"

"At all."

"Even if it hurts your career?"

"Even if it hurts my career. I'm not leaving the band. But I think you're more important than a tour." It occurred to him that Chris probably wouldn't let him do this, but Jensen could jump off that bridge when he got to it.

"Are you sure?"

"Am I sure? Jesus, Jared, what do you want me to say? If going away for three weeks made me do what I did, I just won't go away for that long again."

"I'm sorry," Jared said. "Sandy said I shouldn't apologize, but I kind of feel like I should." He sipped his coffee. "I told her what happened and asked her what I should do, and she said you were good for me and I shouldn't let you go." He shrugged. "It was a douchebaggy thing to do, cheat on me and then say it was my fault. But it's something you can fix. Y'know? And I can't just let you go."

Alona tiptoed up to the table and whispered "You can take off early if you want" to Jensen. "Be with your boyfriend."

"Thanks," he said.

"Genevieve thinks so too." She winked at Jared and headed back to the counter. He looked over at Genevieve, who gave him two thumbs-up.

"Let's go," Jared said. "I know you hate yourself, but I don't hate you any more. I miss you. Just don't fuck up like that again."

"I promise," Jensen said. He stood up. Jared stood up. Jensen walked around the table, took Jared's face in his hands, and kissed him. Someone applauded. He felt Jared grin under his lips.

"Let's go home," Jared murmured. "The dogs miss you too. I can't stand Sadie's sad puppyface any longer."

"I'm closer."

Jensen got his stuff from the back room and clocked out, and they went back to his place, which was home as long as Jared was with him.

* * *

If you had told Jared when he moved to Nashville with his three suitcases, his two boxes of books, and his old pickup, that in less than five years he'd own three motorcycles and his own house, and that he'd be throwing a Christmas party with his boyfriend, he'd have asked when did you lose your mind and how hard were you looking for it? And yet here he was in his own living room for which he paid a mortgage, his three motorcycles parked in the garage, his two dogs losing their shit in anticipation, and his boyfriend walking in the front door with a six-pack of Lone Star and a carton of rainbow sherbet.

He'd wanted to have a Christmas party, since he had a house to host it in and a boyfriend to help him. The best idea for how to do it came from his mom, who suggested he have an open house on Sunday, and then shared all the tips and tricks she knew for feeding a mob for an entire day.

The house wasn't exactly clean, although the boys had done a pretty decent job picking up after themselves, but Jared hoped everyone would be too interested in the food and drink and company - and his and Jensen's ridiculously-decorated tree - to care.

Because it was in fact a joint party, which meant not only everyone local who Jared knew, but everyone Jensen knew as well. A surprisingly high number of people were in town, and they started showing up at noon and kept a fairly steady flow in and out for pretty much the entire day. The invitations had said "Doors open at noon and close whenever we run out of food", after all, and if there was one thing Jared was comfortable with, it was lots of food.

Everyone from the garage made an appearance, even Tom's friend Mike. Jim brought his daughter, who was initially a little freaked out by the dogs but adjusted to them fairly quickly. Misha had returned from his world tour in November, and brought his wife - "When did you get married?" Jared asked, because last he knew, she was just Misha's girlfriend, and Misha laughed and said "Two weeks ago, it was crazy", and then proceeded to explain all the hoops you had to jump through to get married at the Grand Canyon at sunrise. Jared was pretty sure that most of the story was even true.

Sandy brought Johnny because they had tickets to see The Nutcracker that night, and she figured he could just squire her around as her date the whole day. And it turned out that Tony, Jared's friend who sold him the Triumph, had to be in Memphis on New Year's Eve for his niece's wedding, and when he mentioned he'd be in almost the same part of the state, Jared had invited him to the open house. He hadn't really expected Tony to come, and was kind of surprised when Tony did.

Tony brought a friend, a guy named Jason who could've been a business friend, a social friend, or (this occurred to Jared despite the fact that Tony had been married) a boyfriend, and in any case the two of them spent a lot of time in the garage examining the Triumph and the Ariel and talking to an Australian named Simon about bikes and Glasgow and, oddly enough, sailboating.

(Simon had come with Matt, who Jared would always think of as "the guy Jensen dumped for me". Jensen and Matt had become friends. And now Matt was dating a hot Aussie who liked old motorcycles. Jared was sure there was a cosmic joke in there somewhere.)

Almost everyone from Jensen's coffeeshop came by as their schedules allowed - his manager Nicki was out of town, and Joe (who Jared had met before) went straight home after his shift because he'd opened and was too tired to be social - and Jared actually got to meet Jensen's uberboss Sam, the woman who owned the place. Justin, who Jensen referred to as "the klutz", vanished for half an hour and was finally discovered in the back yard, chatting with his girlfriend on his phone. She lived in New York. They almost never got to see each other. Jared wondered what was the point. When he asked Jensen, Jensen just shrugged and said he'd always wondered that too.

Jared went into the bedroom for something and interrupted Alona, apparently the one blonde barista, who was talking on her phone in some language he couldn't immediately identify. ("Hebrew," Jensen told him later. And Jared admitted he didn't know her that well but he liked her - she was cute and bouncy, and because she was also a singer/songwriter and a musician, she and Jensen could talk shop and commiserate, and Jared was glad Jensen had friends who understood that part of his life.) The next time he saw her, she was standing with Sandy and Johnny, talking animatedly about something or other, and when she had to leave, she kissed both Jensen and Jared on the cheek.

Unsurprisingly, the dogs loved her. But in truth, the dogs loved pretty much everyone.

The rest of Oklahoma Ford showed up, plus Jason-who-Jensen-had-replaced and his wife, and a short guy named Seth who turned out to be the studio dude who still occasionally called Jensen up for a few hours of studio work, even though Jensen had been an official member of Oklahoma Ford since September, and didn't have tons of free time for random studio jobs.

Jared got to meet Jensen's friend Danneel for about the fifth time - every time they met she pretended not to know him, which confused him and annoyed Jensen but apparently kept her amused. Even Jeff and Hilarie came, although it would be more accurate to say that Jeff and the dogs walked Hilarie down the street to the house, and she went inside while he stayed on the sidewalk and talked to Jensen for ten minutes before going back home.

And Jared walked around his house, occasionally stepping outside to check the front or back yard or to stick his head in the garage, talking to everyone, being a good host, making sure everyone was eating and drinking and chatting and the dogs weren't pestering them too much, and just in general reveling in the fact that he had his own house where he could have all his friends over, and his boyfriend could have all his friends over, and everyone could just hang out and have a good time.

He even got a chance to try out his Schrödinger's Dick joke on Alona and another barista, a pretty girl named Genevieve who had been talking about a blind date she hadn't actually been on yet. Alona tried to reassure her by saying they didn't know if the guy was a dick or not, and when Jared interjected with "He's a Schrödinger's Dick!" Genevieve just looked at him like he was an idiot. He tried to explain Schrödinger's Cat - "It could be alive, it could be dead, you don't know" - failed miserably, felt like a huge nerd, and left the girls alone. The joke wasn't funny if you had to explain it, anyway.

He lost Jensen for over an hour at one point, although it wasn't that he lost him so much as he just let him wander off. Jared knew that Jensen didn't love huge crowds of people, even when he had at least met a lot of them, and he was happier standing in a corner, or on the sidewalk, or outside the back door, chatting with just a couple of people rather than a big group. Jared loved that there were all these folks he knew filling up his house, but he knew that Jensen didn't, and if it made Jensen feel better to hide in the garage and talk to Aldis about rock bands from the 70s, Jared wasn't going to bother him.

Jared was really amused to find himself trading nerdy babble with Matt, who bent Jared's ear for twenty minutes about art forgeries ("and that results in a climate in which there's money to be made from forging forgeries and selling them as authentic fakes") and in exchange let Jared bend his ear about Henry Ford ("the genius of his assembly line was also that it turned out identical cars made from identical and widely-sourced parts, which made Fords easy to fix and easy to modify").

(Jensen later reported that Matt had said, about Jared, "I can see why you wanted him. He's a smart guy. Cute, kinda dorky. You're off the hook for dumping me." And Jensen had laughed.)

The dogs were initially beside themselves with glee at all the people to sniff and beg treats from, but after a few hours of nonstop people in their house, they started getting cranky and Jared put them in the bedroom. They weren't best pleased with that either, but he petted them and talked to them and gave them both some cheese, and eventually they settled down. And then five minutes later he had to stop one of Jensen's fellow baristas - Jared thought the kid's name was Anton - from going into the room and undoing all his work.

It was a long day but a good one, and after everyone had left, and Jensen and Jared tried to clean up some, and after they'd walked Harley and Sadie down the street to drop off a late Christmas present for Jeff and Hilarie and Jeff's dogs, and after they came home and shed their clothes all over the house, and after they locked Sadie and Harley out of the bedroom and made each other gasp and moan and yell - after that, as they lay exhausted and sweaty and sated in the wreck they'd made of Jared's bed, Jared looked at his boyfriend, at this man who'd taught him more about who he was, this man he loved like crazy, and he whispered "Move in with me".

Jensen just blinked at him, smiled slowly, and said "I was with Michael for two years and he never asked me that."

"Guess he wasn't meant to be."

"Guess not." Jensen leaned in and dropped a kiss on Jared's lips. Jared's stomach growled. Jensen laughed. "Is there any food left?"

"Cookies. We still got some chips. I think there's an orange in the fridge. You haven't said yes yet."

"To what?" He was grinning. The corners of his eyes crinkled when he did that. It was incredibly hot.

"To moving in with me."

"Let me think about it."

"You wanna think about it?" Jared asked, incredulous. Jensen spent more time at Jared's house than in his own apartment. Chris had even commented that he was starting to like living alone, especially since he was still only paying half the rent.

"Yeah, I wanna think about it. Ask me in the morning." He kissed Jared again, and ten minutes later Jared had forgotten he'd asked Jensen anything at all.

He remembered the next morning, though. And he asked the day after that, and the day after that, and he kept asking until Jensen said yes.