Jared pulls his car over to the curb and turns to his “date,” struggling to smile without being too encouraging. The evening did not go well. Jared’s date was handsome, young, well-off, and an elf. Magic Dates had assured him there was a 99% chance of a successful connection between them.
Misha Collins is about as interesting as a rock. Nice enough, but dull to a fault beyond anything Jared could have imagined.
And clueless, which has made things very awkward. Misha has already offered to see him again, even suggesting they meet up the next day. Jared’s lukewarm responses were not correctly interpreted. Now that the date is ending with Jared dropping Misha off at his nice, dull suburban house, Jared is deathly afraid the man is about to kiss him goodnight.
When Misha leans forward, eyes on Jared’s mouth, Jared clutches the steering wheel and focuses his gaze on the street in front of him.
Fortunately, Misha seems to understand, although it’s entirely possible he assumes Jared’s just shy.
“Okay,” Misha says with a sigh and a slight shrug. “Well, goodnight. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
“Sure.” Jared glances over as Misha climbs out of the car, trying not to appear too eager to step on the gas and screech his way out of this horrible evening.
Unfortunately, Misha turns, leans down to look into the open passenger window, and gives Jared a smile that’s probably meant to be sexy and encouraging.
Jared fights the urge to hit the window-up control “by accident.”
“I had a good time,” Misha says in that fake-sincere way that seems to be his default tone of voice. “I’m looking forward to seeing you again, Jared.”
“Yep, me too. Bye!”
Obviously missing Jared’s dismissive tone, Misha sighs, smiles, and pats the door before straightening up so that Jared can get the hell out of Dodge.
He glances in the rearview mirror after he peels away from the curb. Misha’s still standing there, his hand up in a little wave. The guy obviously thinks he’ll get another chance at that kiss.
Not if they’re the last two people left alive on Earth. Not if Jared can help it.
“How did it go?” Danneel’s voice asks brightly as Jared accepts her call over the car’s speaker.
“I feel like a douche,” Jared answers.
“That bad, huh?”
“Why does this service keep setting me up with nice but boring types? Am I really that much of a drag, Dee?”
“No, you’re not,” Danneel insists. “The service just thinks you’re a nice person. You seriously need to give one of these guys a second chance. You might be surprised, once you get to know them a little better.”
“There is no way I’m going out with Mr. Tax Accountant the Elf again,” Jared declares. “Or that first guy — what was his name? The Centaur?”
“Matt,” Danneel provides helpfully. “And he was nice, Jare. Even I liked him.”
“He knits,” Jared sneers. “And crochets. Oh, and body-builds. Weird combination of hobbies, if you ask me.”
Danneel sighs. “You really need to give these guys a little more benefit of the doubt. Magic Dates is the best in the business. They have a 95% success rate matching lifelong couples.”
“Well, they’ve struck out three times with me,” Jared laments, shuddering as he remembers Mark Pellegrino the wise-cracking demi-god, Date Number Two. There was definitely something creepy about that guy. “I don’t think I can stand to go on another one of these horrible snooze-fests they call dates.”
“Just one more? For me?” Danneel makes a commission on each date she sets up, so they both understand what’s at stake here. When Jared first agreed to be a customer, Danneel was thrilled. She’s determined to make good on her promise to find Jared the perfect mate, and not just because the pay-off is a solid six-figures. Danneel and Jared have been friends for over three-hundred years, since shortly after she made a deal with the demon who turned her into the powerful witch she is today. They both know it’s time for Jared to mate. At a little under five-hundred years old, Jared’s time is running out.
Jared groans. “Sometimes I wish you weren’t my friend.”
“Jared, you know you need to find a mate eventually,” Danneel reminds him. “And frankly, you’re running out of time.”
Jared sighs. “Yeah, I know.”
Jared’s fire power has been a little erratic lately, bursting out of him at some rather awkward and inopportune moments. Mating is the only thing that can control it. Without a mate, every fire dragon eventually becomes a destructive, out-of-control nuclear weapon, capable of incinerating whole cities.
The Ministry of Magic cannot allow that to happen, for obvious reasons. If Jared doesn’t find a mate, he’ll be neutralized, sealed in a tomb deep underground somewhere he can’t escape, where he’ll eventually burn himself out and die.
Not a happy fate.
Jared sighs. “If I agree, will you give me fifty years off before you bring this whole mating thing up again?“
“Maybe.” Danneel hesitates. “It’s for your own good, Jay. You’ve been lonely, admit it.”
“I have friends,” Jared protests. “Lots of friends.”
“Not the same thing,” Danneel reminds him. “Come on. One more date.”
Jared sighs dramatically. “Do I have a choice?”
Danneel chuckles. “I’ll call you tomorrow.”
“Neutral ground,” Danneel says when she calls Jared to set up the meeting. “Dinner’s optional. Just talk, walk around, enjoy the beautiful outdoors. If you don’t want to take it further than that, you can cut it off after a couple of hours. No pressure.”
So Jared goes to the park, looks for a guy who’s supposed to be about six-feet tall, medium build, brown hair. Average. He’ll be near the playground. He’ll be on the look-out for Jared, knows Jared’s tall, so Jared expects the guy to find him first.
When he gets to the playground, Jared stands awkwardly on the border, hands in his pockets. It’s the middle of the afternoon, and there are at least a dozen kids running around, climbing on the monkey-bars, swinging, chasing each other up and down the slides. The benches surrounding the playground are occupied by women and a couple of men with babies in strollers. Two of the women share a bench, chatting away while trying to keep track of their active offspring. A man pushes a little girl on a swing while rocking a stroller with the other hand.
Most of the children and adults here read as human, which isn’t too surprising. Magical children tend to be a little too unpredictable, even dangerous. Most Magics keep their kids in protected environments with others of their own kind until they reach the Age of Reason, when they can be safely trained to share the world with other Magics and humans.
What a strange place for a Magic Dates meeting, Jared thinks in the split second before he catches the ball flying toward him from his left.
Jared turns, holding the ball. A beautiful man is jogging toward him, obviously the ball’s owner. A boy of about eight stands a few feet away, hands over his face in a gesture of embarrassment. The ball-thrower, apparently.
Jared stands perfectly still as the beautiful man stops in front of him, hand out.
“That’s my ball,” he says. Even his voice is beautiful. Deep and rich and smooth as honey.
When Beautiful Man’s eyebrows go up, Jared realizes he’s staring and blushes.
“Oh, sorry. Here you go.”
Jared tosses the ball to Beautiful Man, who catches it easily. He rocks back on his heels, frowning a little, squinting as he looks up at Jared.
“Are you Jared?”
Jared starts. No way.
Beautiful Man smiles wide and crow’s feet appear at the corners of his eyes. He sticks his hand out and Jared takes it reflexively. Strong handshake, smooth skin.
“This is my nephew, Jimmy,” Jensen introduces the boy, who shifts awkwardly from foot to foot from a couple of feet away. “We were just hanging out until you got here.”
Jimmy gives a little wave, catches the ball Jensen tosses to him with a catcher’s mitt, then runs off to leave the ball and mitt with one of the women on the bench on the far side of the playground.
“My sister-in-law,” Jensen tells Jared as he waves at the woman. She waves back before going back to her conversation.
Jared and Jensen watch as Jimmy jumps onto the hanging bars, pulls himself along them with ease.
“He just joined his Little League team,” Jensen explains. “I was giving him a few pointers.”
It’s been exactly nine point six seconds since Jared realized two things: one, he’s strongly attracted to Jensen. More than he’s ever been attracted to anyone he’s ever met. There’s obviously something magical about such an instant and intense connection with the man.
Two, Jensen’s human.
This is impossible. Jared’s not supposed to fall for a human. It’s an unmitigated disaster. Jensen’s mortal. He won’t live more than a hundred years. When he dies, Jared will continue to exist, lonely and miserable, until he, too, dies of a broken heart.
How could Danneel do this to him?
“So, you wanna take a walk?”
Jared blinks, forcing himself to focus on the vision of gorgeousness in front of him. He’s falling more in love with every word out of Jensen’s luscious mouth.
“I think there’s been some kind of mistake,” Jared says after opening and closing his mouth at least three times. He probably looks like a fish.
“Mistake?” Jensen frowns. “I thought...” He blushes furiously as a sudden thought occurs to him. “Oh my God, I got this wrong, didn’t I? You’re not here to... I mean, Magic Dates said... Oh shit.”
“No, that’s okay,” Jared insists, putting his hand on Jensen’s arm out of instinct.
He shouldn’t have done that. The man feels incredible.
He pulls his hand back violently, but it’s too late. He’ll never forget the feel of Jensen’s smooth, muscled arm beneath his fingers. Never.
“It’s okay,” Jared says again. “It’s my fault. I’m really sorry.”
“For what?” Jensen frowns, shaking his head a little.
“You’re human,” Jared blurts out, then cringes as Jensen’s eyes widen comically.
“You’re not?” he says in disbelief.
Jared shakes his head, unable to prevent the sorrow that wells up in his chest. Tears sting his vision, turning Jensen into a blurry vision of loveliness.
“Oh God,” Jensen breathes.
“I’m a fire dragon,” Jared explains, since Jensen can’t possibly know that. “We’re basically immortal. And we... We mate for life.”
He’s not sure why he needed to tell Jensen that last part. Now Jensen will carry the guilt of Jared’s eternity of loneliness to his grave.
But Jensen doesn’t get it.
“Well, tragedy averted, then,” he says with an attempt at a smile that doesn’t quite reach his eyes. “At least we didn’t... You know.” He waves his hand between them.
Jared shakes his head. “Too late.”
Jensen raises his eyes to Jared’s, sees the terror and longing there, and swallows.
“Oh,” he says, so soft it’s almost a whisper.
Jared tears his eyes away, shakes his head. “You know what? It’s okay. It’s okay. I’ll be all right. You should just go on about your life, try to forget we ever met...”
“Would that make it easier?” Jensen asks. “For you, I mean.”
Jared huffs out a bitter laugh, tries to keep his gaze locked on his own feet. “Not even close,” he breathes.
Jensen takes a deep breath, clears his throat. “Then maybe we should take a chance,” he suggests. “Make the most of the time we have.”
Jared looks up, meets Jensen’s gaze, sees the hope there. Jensen can’t possibly understand what’s happened between them, but he’s determined to make the best of it. Jared admires his courage.
Jared needs to call Danneel, find out how this could have happened.
But for now, he finds himself nodding, agreeing with everything Jensen suggests because he simply can’t help himself. He follows as Jensen leads them down a trail, into the woods behind the playground. Jensen tells Jared about his life and Jared listens, storing away everything Jensen tells him in his perfect memory, storing away every moment in Jensen’s presence because the time is so fleeting.
“So, what do you do?” Jensen asks after Jared’s heard all about his life, his work, his family. His hopes and dreams. Jensen’s already falling for Jared. He’s already decided.
Jared tells him about his jewelry stores and his local apartment. “But I spend most of my time writing in my castle.”
“Your castle? Seriously? You have a castle.”
Jared nods. “I can show you,” he says. “I can take you there.”
Jensen’s eyes widen. “Okay,” he says, wary but intrigued. Jared can smell his desire.
They agree to meet later for dinner. It’s almost impossible for Jared to leave, but he forces himself. He promises to meet Jensen for dinner at seven, then turns away. It’s the hardest thing he’s ever done.
“How could this happen?” he demands when he gets Danneel on the phone.
Danneel is still reeling from the shock of Jared’s news, his accusation.
“I don’t know, Jare. I don’t see how it could. The human side of Magic Dates is completely separate. There’s virtually no way for the system to match up humans with non-humans. It just doesn’t happen.”
“Well, it did,” Jared growls. “It fucking did, Dee! And now I’m meeting him for dinner, and in sixty years he’ll be dead. I can’t do this. I fucking can’t.”
Danneel sucks in a breath, lets it out slow. “And you’re sure he’s the one?”
“Yes, I’m fucking sure!” Jared snaps. “He lit up every cell in my body. It felt like a fucking neutron bomb went off inside me!”
“Okay, okay, calm down. There’s got to be a way to deal with this. It can’t possibly be the first time this has ever happened. Somebody somewhere came up with a solution. I’ll just have to find it.”
“Better hurry!” Jared breathes. He’s hyperventilating. “He could get sick. He could get hit by a car. He’s mortal, Dee. Fragile. Oh fuck. I need to get him somewhere safe, like yesterday.”
“Jared, don’t take him to your cave,” Danneel warns. “It’ll freak him out. That place creeps me out, and I’m not even human anymore.”
Now there’s a thought. “What about what happened to you?” Jared asks. “Can’t we find a demon who can give him immortality like you did?”
“We could,” Danneel agrees. “But he’d have to give up his soul. Not sure he’d still be the one for you after that. And he’d have to want it. You can’t make the deal for him.”
Jared thinks about Jensen’s sister-in-law, his nephew, his parents. Jensen has a life. Whereas, from what he knows of Danneel’s human past, leaving that life behind wasn’t even a question for her. Jared doesn’t like to pry, but he gets the sense that Danneel’s human life had been a horrible one, filled with rape and torture and death. Nothing like Jensen’s.
“He must be protected!” Jared insists. “Get to work, Dee. You’ve got to find us a solution to this disaster, fast. You’ve only got fifty, sixty years, at best!”
He cuts off the call, bends over with his hands on his knees to get his breath back. He can feel his fire crackling under the surface of his skin, and when he straightens up again he sees red. Smoke drifts out of his nose and ears.
This day is shit.
“So what’s good here?” Jensen smiles up at him, and Jared sucks in a breath.
“The beef is good,” Jared says, forcing himself to smile back. “Very tender, as long as you order it rare. I like my beef bloody.”
Jensen’s eyebrows go up. “Ah.” He lowers his eyes to his menu, but not before Jared detects the slight shiver that runs through his body.
Jensen’s just as attracted to Jared as Jared is to Jensen. He’s imagining himself being held down by Jared, Jared’s big hands all over him. He’s imagining Jared pounding into him, taking him apart.
Their psychic connection is part of their bond, just as real as their physical attraction. Soon Jensen will feel it, too, if he hasn’t already. Jensen will receive flashes of Jared’s thoughts, his feelings; sometimes visual, sometimes just verbal impressions. The bond works to bring them together, to make them one. Being separated will become physically and psychically painful at a certain point.
“I think I’ll start with a martini,” Jensen says, finally lifting his intense green eyes to Jared’s again as he lays the menu down. “Maybe two.”
“Yeah, same,” Jared agrees.
“I feel like I know you,” Jensen says, shaking his head like he’s trying to shake the memory loose. “Like we met before.”
Jared nods miserably. “That’s how it works,” he agrees.
The waiter arrives to take their order. He’s a young human, so he doesn’t notice their bond, but Magics can. Jared catches the unicorn couple at the next table eyeing them suspiciously. Magics can tell they’re poorly matched. They can recognize the incongruity.
As the waiter leaves with their order, one of the unicorns gets up to make her way toward the restrooms. She lays her hand briefly on Jared’s shoulder as she passes.
“I’m sorry, honey,” she says, voice dripping with sympathy.
Jared rolls his eyes at her retreating back and huffs out a disgusted breath.
“What was that about?” Jensen’s cluelessness would be adorable if it wasn’t so tragic.
Jared shakes his head. “Some people need to mind their own business,” he snaps. “Unicorns.”
Jensen raises his eyebrows. “She’s a unicorn? How can you tell?”
Jared gives him a look of surprise. “Seriously? It’s in our DNA, the ability to recognize other Magics. It’s a survival mechanism. Unicorns are deadly.”
“And fire dragons aren’t?”
Jared grins. “We can be,” he admits. “But we’re also good at controlling our natures, at least after we’re mated.”
“After?” Jensen smirks. “So only unmated fire dragons are dangerous?”
Jared’s jaw clenches as he nods. “Which is why we’re required to mate by the time we reach the age of five-hundred,” he says with a nod.
Jensen sputters. “You’re five-hundred years old?”
“Almost,” Jared clarifies. “I’m 438. Young by fire dragon standards.”
Jensen stares. “How old do fire dragons grow to be?”
“The oldest of our kind live in China,” Jared says. “They’re over twenty-thousand years old.”
Jared looks up as the waiter arrives, places their drinks in front of them and takes their meal order before retreating again.
“So why haven’t you found a mate before now?” Jensen muses. “Four hundred thirty-some years is a long time to be alone.”
“I haven’t been alone,” Jared insists. “I have friends. Good friends. It’s only been the past few years that I’ve had to face the reality of my own biology. I never felt the need before.”
Jensen gazes at him thoughtfully. “You never wanted something more? Something special and unique? Something you can’t get with a friend?”
“Honestly? Until I saw you, I didn’t know I was missing anything.” Jared taps his fingers against his glass. “Of course, if I’d known this would happen, I would have started looking for a mate a long time ago.” He shakes his head. “If only I’d known, I could have met my mate before you were born. Then this never would’ve happened.”
Jensen raises an eyebrow. He doesn’t seem pleased by Jared’s words. “So every fire dragon has more than one potential mate,” he suggests carefully.
“Theoretically,” Jared says.
“Theoretically?” Jensen stares. “Don’t you know?”
“Well, when we meet our mate, that’s it,” Jared says. “There’s no possibility of mating again. It’s for life. So it’s not exactly a theory that ever gets tested.”
“Right, but how do you know your mate will be immortal? Or even the same species?”
“We don’t,” Jared admits. “We mate with a lot of different Magics. Always immortal, though. Never human. This is the first time I’ve ever heard of one of us finding a human mate. It shouldn’t be possible.”
Jensen quirks an eyebrow. “Except that it is. Obviously.”
Jared sighs dramatically. “If I’d known one of my potential mates was human, I would have avoided humans like the plague.”
“But you interact with humans all the time,” Jensen protests. “It’s not like you could avoid all of us. It’s pure chance that you and I haven’t met before. It could’ve happened by accident.”
This is true, which is why Jared’s trying hard not to blame Danneel for his current predicament. Jared could have run into Jensen at any moment over the past thirty years or so of Jensen’s existence. The city isn’t that big.
It’s just bad luck that Jared and Jensen happen to live in the same city, frequent the same restaurants, enjoy walks in the same park, all in the same time period.
It was probably just a matter of time before this happened, without Danneel’s intervention or Magic Dates’.
Almost like it was meant to be.
“That’s a depressing thought,” Jared says. “So I was always meant to meet the agent of my own demise, right here in this city, during this century. Almost like somebody up there really really doesn’t like me.”
Jensen flushes. His eyes flash. “It’s not all tragedy and despair, Jared. Good can come from this.”
“Oh, right,” Jared sneers. “Sixty years of mated bliss followed by an eternity of suffering, alleviated only by perfect, unfading memories of those sixty years. Can’t wait.” Jared knows he’s being a dick. His bitterness is getting the better of him again.
“You have a perfect memory?” Jensen’s eyebrow raises distractingly.
“You’re not gonna make me feel better about this,” Jared pouts.
“I can try,” Jensen says with a smirk. “I know a few things that might take your mind off it.”
Jared’s eyes widen. “Fuck, you don’t even know how perfect you are for me,” he breathes, trembling as a shiver goes up his spine and he adjusts himself in his chair.
“I have some idea,” Jensen murmurs, eyelashes fluttering. “What I don’t get is, how can you be so perfect for me?”
Jared reaches across the table, takes Jensen’s hand, gazes into his eyes. “We’re gonna figure this out, Jensen, I swear,” he promises. “I won’t let you die. Ever.”
The waiter takes that moment to arrive with their food. Jared lets Jensen’s hand go and leans back in his chair, waiting as patiently as possible for the man to finish and leave. He’s not hungry anymore, and the alcohol is giving him only a slight buzz. He wants to take Jensen away, gather him up in his arms and soar into the night sky. The need to protect Jensen is almost a physical drive, stronger than hunger, stronger than sex. The need to save Jensen from his own eventual death makes Jared’s pulse pound, makes his palms sweat.
“We have to find a way to fix this,” he says.
“Eat your food,” Jensen directs, making Jared shiver again. “The night’s young, and we need to make every minute count.”
“They’re mated from birth,” Jared hisses. “They grow up together in the same herd. Those two are practically siblings.”
“Oh!” Jensen gasps, eyebrows raised. He frowns as Jared’s words sink in. “That’s — Okay, that’s just not right.”
“Right?” Jared agrees excitedly. “It’s basically incest!”
The waiter arrives with the check, and Jared insists on paying.
“I’m richer than you,” he tells Jensen. “It’s just practical. Nothing to do with traditional mating roles.”
Jensen blushes and lowers his eyes. The corner of his mouth tilts up in a smirk. “Something tells me the power imbalance here kinda speaks for itself.”
Jared sucks in a breath. “Oh my God, I can’t believe you said that. I am so taking you home right now.”
“I thought you’d never ask.”
It’s chilly, so Jared puts an arm around Jensen, pulls him close as they walk across the parking lot. When they reach Jensen’s car, Jared’s mind is made up. He can’t bear the thought of letting Jensen get into that death trap ever again. Somebody might hit him on his way home, and that cannot happen.
“Hey.” Jared stops, turns Jensen toward him without looking at him. “You remember earlier, in the park, when you asked about my castle?”
“Yeah,” Jensen says. He’s wary, but turned on. Jared can smell him.
“I told you that I can show you,” Jared says. “I can take you there.”
Jared smells fear now, but Jensen’s arousal is stronger.
“Yeah,” Jensen says, breath hitching.
Jared stares intently into Jensen’s eyes. “Do you trust me?”
Jensen’s lips part, but no sound comes out at first. He’s too aroused. Jared can see it in his eyes, the way Jensen’s pupils have blown wide and black.
“Yeah,” he breathes finally.
Jared nods. “Okay. I’m gonna put my arms around you, and we’re going to fly, okay?”
“Okay,” Jensen whispers.
“It’ll be cold and windy, but I’ve got you,” Jared says. “Put your arms around me and hold on, okay? But don’t worry. I won’t let you go.”
Jensen wraps his arms around Jared, presses his face into Jared’s shoulder, and for a moment time seems to stand still. Jared feels Jensen’s heart pounding, hears his little gasp as Jared’s wings unfurl and their feet leave the ground. Jared feels Jensen’s hands clench as he tangles their legs together, holding Jensen tight as they soar into the night sky.
“Shhh, I’ve got you,” Jared murmurs into Jensen’s hair.
Jensen gives a small whimper, buries his face against Jared’s shoulder, eyes squeezed shut. He’s panting. Terrified. Jared flies up until the air becomes almost too cold to breathe. Then he dives, flying low over the ocean.
“Look, Jensen,” Jared coaxes softly. “Open your eyes.”
Jared can feel the effort it takes, but Jensen obeys. They’ve been in the air for almost five minutes and they’re already a mile from land. Jensen raises his head tentatively and opens his eyes.
“Wow,” he breathes as he takes in the scene. “It’s beautiful!”
Jared flips them, so he’s flying upside down, so that Jensen can get a better view. The moon shines a path on the water, dimming the starlight. Jared takes them along the path, seemingly straight out to sea, but he knows where he’s going. His cave is in a cliff wall overlooking the ocean, far from anything or anyone, completely isolated. He’ll take Jensen there, protect him and keep him safe until Danneel finds some way to fix things. It’s the only way.
An hour passes, then another, and still they fly on over the ocean. The land has disappeared behind them, but Jared knows where he is. Jensen dozes in his arms, lulled by the flap of Jared’s invisible wings and the warmth of his body. Jared might be sending soothing thoughts through their psychic bond, but that’s totally fair. He doesn’t need Jensen freaking out and giving himself a stroke or a heart-attack when they haven’t even reached safety.
It takes three-and-a-half hours to fly home to Jared’s cave. It’s not really a cave, more of a cavern cut deep into the cliff-face, filled with rooms built six stories high. The entryway is at the end of a long stone corridor, invisible from outside, unreachable by any means but flight. Jared supposes some enterprising mountain climber might be able to climb down from the cliff edge high above, but he’d have to know there was something there in the first place, and Jared’s confident that the entrance is well hidden.
As Jared sets down, lights come on inside. Torches attached to the corridor walls light up automatically.
“We’re here,” Jared murmurs softly into Jensen’s hair, setting the smaller man on his feet. He keeps one arm around Jensen to steady him as Jensen raises his head, blinks.
“Where are we?” He turns, staring down the corridor, remaining pressed to Jared’s side.
“Home.” Jared shrugs. He slides his arm across Jensen’s back, takes his hand. “Come on. I’ll show you.”
Jensen lets himself be led down the stone walkway, eyes wide. When the corridor opens up into the huge lighted cavern that serves as a courtyard, Jensen gives a tiny gasp. Jared can’t help smirking. He knows it’s an impressive sight. The front of a three-story castle is carved directly into the far wall of the cavern, complete with pillars, turrets, windows and an intricately carved front door. The family crest — two fire dragons holding a quartered shield, each section representing a corner of the Padalecki family territory — sits over the door. The rooms behind the windows light up as Jared approaches, firelight visible through the glass.
“This is —” Jensen’s mouth works but no sound comes out.
“Welcome to my home.” Jared bows low, making a sweeping gesture with one arm. The heavy front doors slide open with the sound of iron locks retracting. Their wood creaks as they part, revealing a huge open hall beyond. A staircase winds along the far wall, curved along the back of the cavern. Doors open on either side of the hall to reveal large, comfortable rooms, the one on the left furnished with couches and easy chairs. The one on the right is Jared’s study and library. The walls are lined floor to ceiling with bookcases.
Jared follows as Jensen explores, opens a door behind the living room to find the dining-room and kitchen, fully stocked, of course. A small lavatory completes the first floor rooms. A door under the stairs leads down, into the bowels of the cavern.
“It’s the dungeon,” Jared jokes. At Jensen’s wide-eyed stare he adds, “Where I keep my gold.”
“Really?” Jensen raises an eyebrow.
Jared laughs. “I’m a dragon, remember?”
Jensen scowls. “You’re making fun of me,” he accuses.
“I’m really not,” Jared says, schooling his features into a sincere expression. “I’m sharing my life with you. This is your home now, too.”
Jensen frowns. “Um...”
“Come on.” Jared starts up the stairs to the second floor. “Let me show you the rest. You’re gonna love the master bedroom.” He winks, and Jensen blushes all the way to the tips of his pointed elven ears.
The second floor contains six bedrooms, each with its own private bath. Jensen sticks his head into every doorway, nodding his approval, until they reach the end of the corridor, where Jared pauses in front of the large double doors that lead into the master bedroom. When he opens them, pushing them wide, he makes another sweeping gesture, grinning broadly.
Jensen rolls his eyes, strolls past him into the room, and gawks.
“Right?” Jared nods excitedly. “My favorite room in the house.”
Jensen takes in the palatial suite, from the sitting area with its roaring fireplace and giant bearskin rug to the huge picture window that looks out onto the ocean and the moonlit sky. A giant canopied four-poster bed sits in the middle of the room, piled high with blankets and pillows, surrounded by a white gauze curtain. Beyond the bed, the open bathroom door reveals a marble room with a giant bathtub and another picture window.
The effect is impressive. It’s like being in a giant stone bubble with spectacular views.
“Do you bring all your dates here?” Jensen asks as he explores the liquor cabinet, picks up a crystal decanter and sniffs the contents.
“Not all,” Jared admits with a shrug. “Now, just you.”
Jensen nods, pouring himself a glass of fine whiskey. He turns toward the fireplace, gestures at the bearskin rug.
“Have you tried that out?”
“Maybe,” Jared hedges. He never wants to think about any of his past lovers, ever again. Not that there have been that many anyway.
“When’s the last time you brought someone here?”
“About fifty years ago,” Jared hedges. He knows exactly how long ago it was, but he doesn’t want to think about it. Danneel wasn’t always just a platonic friend, but it’s been a while now.
Jensen gives a low whistle. “Before I was born,” he comments dryly. “That’s just a drop in the bucket for you, though, am I right?”
“I have a perfect memory,” Jared reminds him. “Everything feels like yesterday.” He holds Jensen’s gaze and closes the distance between them. “But I don’t want to think about that now. You are the only person in my life now. The only thing that matters.”
Jensen stares up at him, transfixed. Jared gently takes the glass from him, sets it down, then takes Jensen’s face in his hands, sweeping his thumbs carefully under Jensen’s eyes.
“I’ll always remember you just the way you are right now,” Jared murmurs. Jensen’s cheeks are flushed, his skin warm and glowing in the firelight. His parted lips are soft and full and so red they look rouged. His clear green eyes widen and his nostrils flare as Jared lifts his eyes from his mouth. He licks his bottom lip, leaving it wet and shiny.
Jared leans down, kisses Jensen softly, just to watch the way his eyes flutter closed. He pulls back to take in the dark, thick web of Jensen’s eyelashes fanning across his pale, freckled skin, the delicate, paper-thin skin of his eyelids, also freckled.
How can something so beautiful exist so briefly? How can the world bear to let such beauty leave it?
“You better do that again, or I want my money back,” Jensen growls, breaking into Jared’s mournful revery.
Jared grins, dips his head to kiss Jensen again, and Jensen kisses back, hungry and wanton, moaning as Jared pushes his tongue between his lips. Jensen’s hands slide into his hair, tugging, and Jared wraps one arm around Jensen’s waist as they explore each other’s mouths with their tongues, nip at each other’s lips.
Jensen trembles, pants against Jared’s mouth when he pulls back, tugging on Jared’s shirt. They keep their heads bent together as they undress, shoving offending clothing out of the way so they can touch, caress, grab possessively.
The word gets uttered between them over and over as they grab hold of each other’s bodies, as warm, naked skin tantalizes and glows in the firelight. Jared drops to his knees, takes Jensen’s cock into his mouth and suckles as Jensen runs his fingers through Jared’s hair and clutches almost painfully, legs trembling till Jared rises to his feet again. He sweeps Jensen into his arms, lays him out on the rug in front of the fire, kisses and mouths his way down Jensen’s body. He explores every inch of Jensen’s skin, pushing his legs back when he reaches his dick again, sucks at the juncture of his thigh and groin. He kisses down behind Jensen’s balls, licks into his hole, and Jensen bucks against his mouth, crying out as if he’s been stung. Jared grabs lube, works first his tongue, then his fingers inside Jensen’s body, drinking in every sound he makes, every shiver and tremor.
When he pushes his cock into Jensen’s waiting body, it’s almost too much for both of them. Jared can feel Jensen’s desire, can almost hear the litany of “perfect,” and “oh God yes” rambling on in his head as his body adjusts, closes up tight and hot around Jared’s dick. Jared pounds into him, feels the shivery jerks Jensen’s body makes as Jared hits his prostate, hits it every time until Jensen’s a helpless, gasping mess. When he comes and collapses on him, Jared finds Jensen’s already come, his belly and chest sticky with jizz.
Jared rolls them over, onto their sides, facing each other. He leaves Jensen dozing as he gets up to grab a washcloth from the bathroom, tenderly washes him off, then pulls a blanket and pillows from the bed. The rug is soft and lush, perfectly comfortable for sleeping. Jared spoons Jensen’s body against his as he settles down with him, pulling the blanket up to their waists. Jensen cuddles Jared’s arm against his chest, tangling their fingers together. Jared pushes his nose into the top of Jensen’s head, breathes deep. There’s still a hint of the sea in his hair, the sea salt mixing with Jensen’s sweat and the sweet, slight spiciness of his natural scent.
Jared hears the word in his head, knows he’s hearing Jensen’s thought echoed as his own. Their psychic bond is tighter now, more pronounced. Jensen’s probably receiving Jared’s thoughts already, thinks they’re his.
Safe. Jared projects. Home.
Jensen stirs in his arms, so Jared knows he’s heard, although he probably still thinks it’s his own thoughts.
Love. Jared thinks, presses Jensen tighter against him. Mate.
Jensen turns over then, blinks up at him. “Are you doing that?” His voice is rough with sleep.
Jared grins. “It’s our bond,” he says impishly. “We can hear each other’s thoughts now.”
Jensen frowns. “Not sure I’m comfortable with that,” he admits, and Jared laughs.
“Don’t worry,” he says playfully. “It only works when you want it to. You have to give me permission to hear your thoughts. I won’t try to read your mind when you don’t want me to.”
“Well, that’s a relief,” Jensen admits. He reaches up, cups Jared’s cheek. His eyes soften. “You look so good right now.”
“It’s the bond,” Jared says. “It’s an aphrodisiac.”
Jensen shakes his head. “I don’t think so,” he says. “You’re just extremely beautiful, that’s all. Perfect.”
Jared’s pretty sure he’s not. Jensen’s so beautiful and perfect and heartbreakingly mortal that Jared can’t even speak. He blinks back tears, but one slips down his cheek anyway. Jensen wipes it off with his thumb, pulls back his thumb and examines it.
“Your tears sparkle,” he breathes in awe.
Jared grins. “They’re diamonds, actually,” he says. “If you trapped them in a box you could live like a king for the rest of your life, immortal or not.”
“Dragon tears,” Jensen whispers.
“Very rare.” Jared nods. “Although I think you’ll be seeing more of them as your life ticks away.”
“Jared, I’m so sorry,” Jensen says. “I hate to see you in pain. It hurts to see you suffer.”
“That’s the bond,” Jared notes. “It’s working to bring us closer together, physically and psychically. One of these days, it’ll be hard to tell which of us is feeling or thinking what. It’ll all blend together.”
“That’s...” Jensen frowns as if he’s thinking hard, trying to concentrate.
Jared can feel it the moment Jensen sends him a complex rush of emotions. There’s fear, confusion, some genuine terror about what’s happening. But there’s love, too. Trust. Exhilaration. Jensen’s taking a leap off a cliff right now, and it’s awesome and scary at the same time.
“The thing is,” Jensen says finally, when he can see that Jared knows how he’s feeling, “this should all be overwhelming. And it is, but I feel like I can handle it. I feel like it’s something I can do, loving you.”
Jared nods. “I’ve been alone for a long time,” he says, swallowing the lump in his throat. He lets Jensen feel the depth of his former loneliness, the feelings he doesn’t even admit to himself.
Jensen’s eyes fill with tears. He cups Jared’s cheek again.
“Not alone anymore, sweetheart.”
At least for the next few, brief years.
Three days have passed, and Jensen’s asked to go home three times. Each time, Jared’s managed to evade the question with sex, but Jensen’s starting to catch on. Today he confronts Jared in his study, far from the master bedroom, and he wants answers.
“I can’t let you leave,” Jared says. “It’s too dangerous.”
He projects all his lustiest protective feelings, shows Jensen a vivid image of them in bed, and is rewarded by Jensen’s dick hardening, his face flushing.
But Jared can feel Jensen’s determination. He’s not letting himself get sidetracked, by sex or anything else. Not this time.
“No, no, no.” Jensen shakes his head. “It’s not dangerous. It’s normal. I have a job, Jared. I have a family. I need to call them, let them know I’m okay...”
“So call them!” Jared’s thrilled. Calling is fine. Calling is safe. “I’ll get you a phone...”
Jensen puts a hand up to stop him as Jared starts rifling through his desk.
“Jared, listen to me, I can’t stay here forever, do you understand? I have to live my life!”
“You are living your life,” Jared insists. “Right here. This is your home now. I’ll bring you anything you need, get you anything you want. You’ll be perfectly happy here, I promise!”
Jensen takes a deep breath. He puts his hand on Jared’s arm to get his attention, and Jared feels the thrill of their connection. Their bond.
“Listen to me, Jay.” Only three days, and Jensen already has a nickname for him. Jared would be the happiest man on Earth if he wasn’t the most tragic. “You can’t hold me prisoner here. You can’t take my life away from me like that.”
“You’re not my prisoner, Jensen,” Jared protests. He gives a chuckle, but it’s a nervous one. “You’re my mate.”
Jensen sighs. “I know this is hard for you to understand, but keeping me here against my will is not the best way to love me, or anyone. Mate or not.”
Jared’s crestfallen. “Don’t you want me?” he asks plaintively.
“Of course I do,” Jensen says, shaking his head. “That’s got nothing to do with it. But I barely know you, Jared. And even if I did, even if we were courting and getting married in the normal way — usually after a year or so of really getting to know each other — I still wouldn’t want you to lock me up in your tower. Or cave. Or whatever. Taking my freedom away is not the way to win my heart.”
“But you already love me,” Jared insists. “I can tell.”
Jensen shakes his head. “I need to be the one to say that, Jay, not you. You promised you wouldn’t read my mind.”
“I didn’t!” Jared insists. “It’s the way you feel. I can feel that it’s true. Your feelings are like mine, but without the tragedy. Your feelings are more — organic.”
Jensen nods. “Yours are like fire,” he says. “I can feel you under my skin like lava.”
Jared closes the space between them, eyes locked to Jensen’s.
“You make me burn, Jensen. I’m so hot for you...”
“All right! All right!” Jensen puts his hands up, takes a step back. “Stop distracting me!”
He feigns annoyance, but Jared can feel his fondness. He’s not really scared that Jared would imprison him permanently. He still thinks Jared’s just being overly protective. He thinks it’s cute.
“Okay, okay, I’ll make you a deal,” Jensen says. “You come with me to visit my family, okay? You meet them, I get to spend some private time listening to them tell me what they think about our relationship, and you let me go to work.”
“Yes to all of that first part, no to going to work,” Jared bargains.
“Yes to all of it or no deal,” Jensen counters.
“You don’t need to work now,” Jared protests. “I’m rich.”
“I can’t let you be my sugar daddy, Jay,” Jensen says, shaking his head. “That won’t work for me. I need some independence. Besides, I get bored with nothing to do. I get grumpy.”
“I like you grumpy,” Jared insists with a smirk. “Grumpy you is one of my top five favorite flavors.”
Jensen frowns. “I mean it, Jay. You let me work, or no deal.”
“Okay to work as long as I can come with you,” Jared says.
“And do what? Sit in the waiting room twiddling your thumbs all day?” Jensen shakes his head. “No. You gotta let me go alone, man. Nothing’s gonna happen to me at my job, I promise. People come to me to get better. I help people, which helps me feel better about myself. My job helps me feel like I’m doing some good in the world. It’s important to me.”
Through their bond, Jared can feel what Jensen’s work means to him. It makes Jared doubt himself. He’s never helped anyone in his life. He’s been too busy. Too alone.
“Let me hire a bodyguard, at least,” Jared offers.
“Nope,” Jensen says curtly, shaking his head. “Not a chance.”
Jared sighs dramatically. “I just want to protect you,” he complains. “I need to protect you! I get anxious thinking about you out in the world without my protection. Just the idea of it makes me physically sick!”
Jensen steps closer, lays a hand flat against Jared’s chest, over his heart. “You’re just going to have to trust me, Jared,” he says firmly. “If you want us to be together, you have to learn to trust me to spend a few hours away from you every day.”
Jared takes Jensen’s hand in both of his, holds it as he shakes his head stubbornly. “I don’t like it,” he pouts. “Every hour is precious. Our total number of hours left is too small!”
Jensen sighs. “It’s not that small. From my point of view, it’s a long time. A lifetime. I’m only thirty.”
Jensen takes a deep breath, and Jared can feel his determination, his desire to help Jared understand.
“Jared, you have to understand something. I’m mortal. Mortals live every day of their lives understanding that they won’t live forever. That makes every day more precious, yes, but it also allows us a way to adjust to the idea of endings. Life is full of those. And endings are important because they teach us how to enjoy the time we have.”
Jensen reaches up to cup the back of Jared’s neck, tangles his fingers in Jared’s hair, and stares intently into his eyes.
“I need to live my life to the fullest, Jared,” he says softly. “I need you to let me do that.”
Jared swallows. His eyes brim with tears. Jensen’s so beautiful, so alive. But Jared can hear the clock ticking. He can’t help it.
“I’ll try,” he agrees, blinking.
Jensen gazes intently into Jared’s eyes for another moment, registering Jared’s emotions. Then he squeezes the back of Jared’s neck and nods.
“That’s my boy,” he says. He starts to let Jared go but Jared grabs him, pulls him in for a searing kiss.
“Not saying it’ll be easy,” Jared breathes against Jensen’s ear when he finally releases his mouth and hugs him close. “But I’ll try.”
He fully intends to keep that promise, really he does.
“So you live forever?” Jensen’s little sister asks. She’s got him cornered on the back porch about thirty minutes after his arrival, while Jensen’s off helping his dad get the barbecue going.
Jared’s anxiety kicks in, then he recalls Jensen’s soothing reassurances on their way in the car.
“Just relax,” Jensen had said. “They’ll love you, I promise.”
After his initial introduction, Jared took the first seat he could find on the porch, beer in hand. He doesn’t like towering over these humans. It makes him feel conspicuous. Dangerous.
He glances at Mackenzie. She’s cute, young. She’s obviously just curious, not being judgy, but the question puts Jared on edge anyway.
“Yeah, I guess,” he answers, going for an off-hand, no-big-deal response.
“So you’ll outlive Jensen,” Mackenzie clarifies.
Jared shrugs. “I guess.”
“Do you age?”
Jared nods. “Very slowly, but yes, I age.”
“And you hatched out of an egg?” Mackenzie presses. “You didn’t have a mom?”
“I had a mom,” Jared insists. “I was a child, just like you. Well, not just like you.”
“Did you go to school?”
Jared relaxes a little, now that they’re not talking about his immortality.
“Yes, I went to school,” he says, smiling at the memory. “I had to learn impulse control. So much impulse control.”
“Really?” Mackenzie’s intrigued. “What’s the worst thing you did before you learned impulse control?”
Jared grins. “I set the school on fire,” he says. “That got me sent to detention.”
Jared frowns as he realizes he’s setting a bad example to Jensen’s underage sister.
“No, no, no, it was bad. Totally bad. Never set things on fire. That was the lesson I learned.”
“I bet,” Mackenzie grins and slides up against him, obviously not terrified. “I like you.”
“Oh.” Jared thinks about that for a moment, then nods. “That’s a good thing. I think.”
“I think you’ll be good for Jensen,” she pronounces.
Jared blinks. They’re both staring at Jensen, who’s being dragged away from barbecue duty to play catch with his nephew.
“Because he’s so perfect and needs to be reminded that he’ll get old someday?”
Mackenzie sits back, stares at him with a frown. “Because he’s always been perfect,” she says. “He never faced any real challenges before now.”
Jared sucks in a breath. “Oh.”
“Everything always came easy for him,” Mackenzie goes on. “He’s my parents’ ‘easy kid’. The middle child often is, you know.”
“Right.” Jared has no idea what she’s talking about, but he’s happy to agree.
“But now, he’ll be the one who ages, right? He’s the one who’ll grow old. Become less perfect. While you stay just as you are right now.” Mackenzie shrugs, screws up her face. “Genetic justice, wouldn’t you say?”
Jared doesn’t know how to answer that. It sounds like a curse to him. Deeply unjust.
After supper, Jared helps Jensen and his dad wash the dishes and clean up, then they say their goodbyes and head home. In the car, Jared watches Jensen while he watches the road, until he finally calls him on it.
Jared grins. “Your sister thinks you deserve me.”
“What? I mean, she obviously likes you. They all do.”
Jared ducks his head, still grinning. “She thinks you deserve somebody who can show you up for being too perfect.”
“And she thinks that’s you?” Jensen chuckles. “She hasn’t seen you first thing in the morning, has she? Or drunk.”
Jared’s smile fades. “She means, you’ll get old and I’ll still be me.”
Jensen shrugs. “Well, she’s not wrong there.”
Jared takes a breath, lets it out slow, speculating. “You won’t mind? Being with someone who looks half your age, I mean.”
Jensen grins. “Are you kidding? Everybody will be totally jealous when I’m seventy-five and I’ve got hot young you on my arm. Now that you mention it, I’m kinda looking forward to it.”
Jensen glances over, reads the misery in Jared’s face, and clears his throat.
“That’s not for a long time yet, Jared,” he says. “Stay with me in the moment, buddy, remember?”
Jared nods, choking down the swell of emotion in his chest. He swallows thickly, wipes the back of his hand across his eyes.
He’s been on the phone with Danneel every day, pushing her to find a solution to their situation. He takes walks while he makes the calls so that Jensen doesn’t hear, but he can tell that Jensen knows. Jensen reads his desperation as if it was his own, no matter how Jared tries to hide it.
Jared’s trying to keep his promise, it’s just really challenging.
Jared decides he can let Jensen go to work by himself. He’ll be fine there. He’s helping people. Doing good in the world.
Jared’s proud of himself. He’s keeping his promise.
While Jensen’s at work, Jared occupies himself managing the chain of jewelry stores he’s owned for the past century. He cleans and organizes their apartment, does the grocery shopping and cooking for them, and plans and organizes their wedding.
They’re getting married on the coast, of course, on a lawn overlooking the sea. The setting helps Jared relax, keeps his anxiety at bay. The sea always did that for him, even as a child. Somehow, being close to something that lasts longer than him is deeply reassuring. The sea was here before Jared existed, and it’ll be here long after Jared finally curls up to sleep for the last time.
The wedding is largely a human affair, with Jensen’s huge extended family, co-workers, and friends taking up most of the guest list. Danneel and a couple of managers from his stores are Jared’s only guests.
“What about your family? Don’t you want them to come?” Jensen had asked when they made up the guest list.
Jared shook his head. “I haven’t seen my parents in nearly four hundred years,” he says. “Dragons are loners. It’s kind of necessary, since we’re potentially so destructive. Mated dragons have to get permission from the Ministry of Magic before they can have kids, and they can only have one.”
At Jensen’s flabbergasted expression, Jared had shrugged. “Them’s the rules.”
“But don’t you miss them?” Jensen had asked. “I mean, they’re your parents.”
“Naw, it’s okay, really. I never saw much of them while I was growing up anyway. We’re just not that close.”
Jared could sense Jensen’s disbelief. His family means so much to him that he can’t imagine Jared’s perspective.
“It’s different for dragons,” Jared had insisted. “It’s just the way we’re made. The most important thing is finding a mate. That’s family. You’re my family.”
If Jared had had his way, there wouldn’t have been a wedding in the first place. Dragons don’t need rituals to announce to the world that they’ve found their mate. To Magics, it’s obvious.
But Jared could read how important the event marking their union would be to Jensen’s family, and therefore to Jensen, so he threw himself into planning and organizing the event of the century, with Jensen’s approval, of course.
“Nothing too extravagant,” Jensen had said, so Jared reigned in his flamboyance, spoke long and often on the phone with Jensen’s mother, and eventually got it right.
The wedding takes place exactly six months from the day they first met.
Immediately afterwards, the newlyweds retire to Jared’s cave for a weeklong honeymoon in which they rarely leave the bed. Jared stores every sound that falls from Jensen’s lips, every movement, the sight of him spread out on the bed or the rug, skin flushed in the firelight. Every moment with Jensen is precious, and Jared stores them all in his perfect memory, held as close and tight as any treasure.
“You’ll learn to go on without me, Jay,” he tells Jared. “Just like you did with your parents.”
Jared shakes his head. “It’s not the same at all. Nature makes us this way. We leave our parents as a natural part of our lives. Going on after our mate dies isn’t natural. It’s not something we do.”
Jensen sighs. “Then you’ll be the first one,” he says. “You’ll set a new precedent. Show other dragons how to do it so they don’t have to be miserable if it happens to them.”
“It can’t happen again,” Jared insists. “Once is unnatural enough!”
“You’re such a drama queen.” Jensen shakes his head. “Mortals deal with loss all the time. We lose our grandparents, our parents, our aunts and uncles, our siblings and friends. We learn to survive despite all the loss.”
“You also get old and forgetful,” Jared frets. “I’ll never forget a single moment of my life with you. It’ll drive me mad eventually.”
“Look, Jay, I’m sorry,” Jensen says. He sounds irritated. Exasperated. “I can’t solve this, okay? But you promised you were going to do your best to live in the moment, remember? Not to spend all of our lives together sulking and miserable.”
Jared nods, chastened. He doesn’t tell Jensen that he’s still got Danneel searching for a cure, looking for someone who might be able to help them.
He doubles his efforts to appreciate Jensen for the mortal that he is. He pushes aside his terror at the prospect of losing Jensen in favor of spending as much time as he can doing regular, boring, ordinary things with him and his family. He trains himself to stop watching the clock, counting down the days and weeks and months and years.
He’s a goddamn fire dragon, after all. He can do this.
“Do some good in the world,” Jensen urges. “It’ll make you feel better. Learn to have some empathy and compassion for creatures that are smaller and more helpless than you are.”
Jared doesn’t retort that humans are smaller and more helpless than he is, and he’s already spending most of his time with them. He does as Jensen asks because he can’t bear to say no to anything Jensen asks.
The moment he walks into the shelter, he’s hooked.
Caring for animals, whose lifespans are even shorter than humans’, is a revelation to Jared. They’re desperate for attention, depend on their caregivers for everything, and give love and devotion without reservation. Jared falls instantly for five of the dogs and two of the cats. He wants to adopt them all.
Jensen laughs at him. “We don’t have room for seven animals!”
They agree on a dog, a young shepherd mix which Jared names Heidi, and an adult long haired cat named Mr. Whiskers. Jared comes home from work every day to walk Heidi, works out babysitting arrangements with the teenager in the next apartment for the weekends when he and Jensen are out of town.
One day, after dinner and a long walk in the park with Heidi and Jensen, Jared turns to find Jensen looking at him, a fond smile playing gently across his lush lips.
Jensen shakes his head. “You,” he says, arching an eyebrow. “Happy. With mortals.”
Jared’s chest warms with emotion, and he shakes his head with a shy grin.
“She doesn’t say she has a cure,” Danneel warns. “She just says she’s heard of this happening before. Once.”
Jared’s beyond excited to meet this person, who turns out to be a reaper named Lisa.
It takes some convincing to get Jensen to come along to the meeting, though. His parents are aging, his sister has grown up and got married the previous year. His nephew is in college. Time marches on. Jared and Jensen live day to day, the comfortable life of an old married couple.
Jensen doesn’t look a day older than he did ten years ago, but Jared knows better.
“I thought we were past this, Jay,” Jensen complains.
“Just this one last time,” Jared pleads. “Come with me. Meet her. If she doesn’t have anything to tell us, I promise I won’t mention the whole thing ever again.” At least until Danneel turns up another lead as good as this one, he adds in his head.
“I heard that,” Jensen warns, then shakes his head, and Jared can feel him relent. “Okay. But this is the last time, okay? I hate the way this gets your hopes up, then disappoints you so that you won’t come out of the house for days. I hate that this whole thing makes you so sad.”
“I know.” Jared nods. “I just really think this Lisa might be able to help us. Help me, at least.”
Jensen agrees because he doesn’t like to see Jared sad and disappointed. Jared knows it’s manipulative of him, but his feelings are genuine. He really does want to understand why this has happened to him. It feels like a kind of curse, and if that’s what it is, he needs to know.
Lisa the Reaper is a beautiful dark-skinned woman with luminous brown eyes and gorgeous hair. Intimidating as all hell, but Jared likes her anyway. On principle, he decides, since she might have the answer to his big question.
Lisa takes one look at Jensen and rolls her eyes.
“So the good news? This human has an immortal soul,” she pronounces. “He’s not really human.”
Jensen’s eyes widen and Jared’s jaw drops.
“But — He’s mortal,” Jared chokes out. “I could tell that when I first met him. Everybody can tell.”
“Yes and no,” Lisa says with a bored sigh. “An immortal soul inhabiting a mortal body is extremely rare. I’ve only ever seen it one other time, and I’m not telling you about that.”
“So what can we do to fix it?”
Lisa raises an eyebrow. “You can’t,” she says dryly. “This is something Jensen asked for. He wanted this. This is the life Jensen chose for himself.”
Jared’s eyes widen in shock. “Why would any immortal ask to be born into a mortal body?” He asks. “That doesn’t make any sense!”
But Jensen nods. He looks relieved. “I think I always knew,” he says.
“Your mortal body will die at midnight on your eightieth birthday,” Lisa announces without preamble..
Jared gasps. “Then what?”
Lisa shrugs. “That’s up to Jensen.”
“Why?” he begs when they lie tangled and exhausted. “Why would you choose this?”
“Shhh,” Jensen soothes, smoothing Jared’s sweat-soaked hair back from his temple. “I don’t know, Jay. I can just feel that I did. Maybe I was lonely.”
“Of course you were lonely,” Jared says. “You hadn’t found me.”
Jensen chuckles. “You’re right about that.”
Jared sighs. “The irony of you becoming human so you could learn to love sounds so you,” he says sadly. “Sacrificing your immortality for love.”
“Maybe we never would have met otherwise,” Jensen suggests. “Maybe it was all meant to happen this way.”
Jared curls around Jensen, holding him close. Part of him wants to hold Jensen like this for the rest of his life, but he knows that’s not what Jensen wants. Jared will keep his promise, live out Jensen’s life with him. He knows now it’s what Jensen had hoped for, even before he was human.
“I wonder what you were, before you were human,” he muses.
Jensen shrugs. “Don’t know, don’t care,” he says. “This is who I am now. That’s what matters.”
Jared nods, presses his lips against Jensen’s bare shoulder, and tries to let it be enough. He really does.
“It’s time to let her go, Jay.”
After Heidi’s death, Jared refuses to get another dog, refuses to return to his work at the shelter.
“It’s okay to grieve, Jay,” Jensen assures him gently after a few weeks have passed. “But it’s also important to move on. There are animals who need your love. No other dog can ever replace Heidi, but there are so many who need a good home. Let me come with you tomorrow. We’ll find one together.”
Charlie is another shepherd mix, an adult dog whose previous owners couldn’t keep him. He’s boisterous and active instead of calm and steady like Heidi. Jared finds he has his hands full training him. It takes his mind off his grief, just as Jensen had said it would. He still misses Heidi every day, but Charlie won’t let Jared wallow. He’s too demanding.
Another ten years pass. Mackenzie has two active, lively children now. Jimmy marries his college sweetheart and moves across the country. Jensen’s brother and his wife stay close, so the family still gets together regularly for birthday parties and holidays. Jensen’s parents enjoy grand parenting and retirement.
When Charlie has a heart-attack one morning on the bathroom floor, Jared sits next to the body and cries, petting the coarse fur until Jensen gets up and comes in, then leaves to call the vet.
Mr. Whiskers dies the following year, neck broken when his old body isn’t quite agile enough to dash under the garage door in time.
Jared doesn’t want to get another pet, and Jensen doesn’t push him.
Nevertheless, within the next ten years they adopt a family of stray cats, and Jared brings home another dog from the shelter. Sam’s a Labrador mix with distinctive markings who had Jared’s number from day one, following him around the shelter with big mournful eyes while Jared did his best to ignore her until he couldn’t anymore.
“Sap,” Jensen accuses with a fond smile, the day he brings Sam home.
“Guilty,” Jared answers, putting his hands up in surrender.
In addition to being a total lovebug, Sam’s also pregnant, and within the month a litter of puppies are born. Jared’s never been so busy in his life. He watches the puppies as they grow and thinks he’s never experienced anything more magical. Finding good homes for them when they’re old enough is both traumatizing and satisfying, and Jensen has to practically force him to have Sam neutered so it doesn’t happen again.
“It’s better for her,” Jensen assures him as they drive Sam to the vet. “She’ll live longer if she doesn’t have to go into heat and give birth all the time.”
For the millionth time, Jared’s impressed by Jensen’s wisdom and steadiness. He’s getting used to Jensen being more mature than Jared could ever hope to be. He relies on Jensen to provide the solidity in his life that he never knew he lacked.
“Sometimes I feel like I wasn’t really living before you came along,” he tells Jensen one night. “I’ve learned so much since I’ve known you. Experienced so much. I never knew I could become a better person, never even knew what I was missing, but you’ve brought out the best in me. I like myself better with you.”
Jensen shrugs, takes a sip of his whiskey, and smiles his little, secret smile. “You always had it in you, Jay. You just needed a little push.”
Jared hands over control of his jewelry stores to a management company so he can devote himself full-time to his various volunteer positions. In addition to the animal shelter, he helps out at the local food pantry and soup kitchen, pays for and helps to build a new hospital and housing for homeless families. He contributes regularly to the library, homeless shelter, and various charities that help families in need. He helps found a school for underprivileged youth.
“Humans are so fragile,” he tells Jensen one night over dinner. “They suffer and struggle all their lives, and then it’s just over.” He shakes his head. “The least I can do is try to ease their suffering, for as long as they need me.”
Jensen reaches across the table, takes his hand, and squeezes it.
“I married a good man,” he tells Jared.
Jared blushes. “You made a good man out of a selfish, impatient immortal,” he says. “I owe it all to you. I’d never given humanity a second thought, before I met you.”
Jensen raises an eyebrow. “You’ve still got me on the calendar for tomorrow night, right?”
“Tomorrow night?” Jared frowns, momentarily confused.
“My retirement party?” Jensen says. “You didn’t forget, did you?”
Jared’s eyes widen in shock. He had forgotten. He’s been so busy lately the party completely slipped his mind.
Or maybe it’s a case of selective memory, a little voice at the back of his mind whispers. He reminds himself that Jensen’s sixty-five now. He’s taken Jared’s advice to retire early so he can work with Jared’s charities, leave the physical demands of his practice behind to do work that isn’t so taxing.
Jared hasn’t noticed Jensen’s slowing down, particularly, but he does take naps occasionally. He’s let his pick-up basketball game go, even though he still works out regularly at the gym. His muscles get sore a little more easily, maybe, but that’s what Jared and his amazing massage skills are for.
Jensen’s as beautiful as the day Jared met him, maybe more so. There might be a couple of extra lines around his eyes, a couple of extra gray hairs at his temples, but it all serves to make him look distinguished, not old.
Nevertheless, Jared can’t deny that time has passed too quickly. Jensen’s parents passed away the previous year, almost on the same day. His brother retired a few years ago to Arizona, and Mackenzie’s youngest child left for college last fall. Jensen’s spent the past six months organizing his post-retirement life, filling it with volunteer activity and travel plans. He wants to see the world, now that he has time, and Jared looks forward to showing it to him. It’s been over 100 years since Jared was out of the country. He can’t wait to show Jensen all of his favorite places.
They spend the next fifteen years traveling, working on Jared’s various charity ventures, and visiting family and friends. On the evening before Jensen’s 80th birthday, they eat dinner at the same restaurant where they had their first date, then Jared flies them to his cave to spend the night.
It’s been a while since they’ve been here. It was Jensen’s special request, so Jared can’t refuse, but if he’s honest with himself, he prefers their apartment these days. This place reminds him too much of the time before he met Jensen, not to mention the time to come, when he’ll be alone again. But Jared’s long ago stopped dwelling on that, for Jensen’s sake. He’s even gotten good at not thinking about it.
Returning to his cave makes that harder though.
They make love on the bed, and if Jared’s a little more careful, a little more tender than in the past, it’s not because he’s feeling Jensen’s impending loss more keenly. He’s already promised Jensen he’ll keep going, doing the charity work that they both loved, helping people who need it. Jared’s determined to keep that promise for as long as he’s able. He’s sworn to Jensen that he won’t curl up here in his cave and let himself die. He won’t.
In the afterglow, Jared runs his hands over Jensen’s body. His skin is as tight and smooth as it’s ever been, his muscles still toned after years of good habits of nutrition and exercise. Jensen enjoys good whiskey and fine wine, but otherwise doesn’t have a single vice that Jared knows of. As Mackenzie once said, Jensen’s too perfect for this world. His hair is fading, but it’s as thick as it ever was. The wrinkles on his face and neck just give him character. Wisdom.
Jensen rolls his eyes. “I swear, if you say one more time, ‘I’m going to remember you the way you are right now forever,’ I will tickle you.”
Jared huffs out a breath. “Well, it’s true.”
Jensen rolls over, grabs his glasses from the nightstand and puts them on, then rolls back and stares at Jared. “Yup, you still look exactly the same as you did fifty years ago. Happy now?”
Jared chuckles. “Maybe I should ask for my soul to be reborn human after I die, so I can learn how it felt to be you.”
They’ve talked about this. Jared did his research and learned that there might possibly be a way to tether their souls to each other, to make sure they end up together in some future life.
With Danneel’s help and with Jensen’s reluctant cooperation, Jared performed the spell years ago. Jared’s only consolation at that time was hoping that it meant that Jensen would come back to him somehow, or that Jared could be reborn after his dragon form faded away. Since nothing like this had ever happened before (except the one time that Lisa the Reaper won’t tell them about) they just have no way of knowing if the spell worked or not.
All Jared can do is hope.
“You’re not going to die, remember?” Jensen snaps. “We talked about this, Jay. You’re going to stay alive, get your work done, focus on doing good in the world, just like you’ve been doing. Look after my brother’s and sister’s descendants.”
Jared nods, fiddling with a loose string on the pillow next to Jensen’s head so he doesn’t have to look him in the eye.
“Jared.” Jensen grasps his wrist, waits for Jared to look up. “Promise me.”
Jared grimaces. “I’m going to do everything I can to hold to that promise, Jen. I just can’t be sure about my physiology. Fire dragons die if their mates do. That’s the way it is. I don’t make the rules.”
Jensen looks into his eyes for a moment, flinches as he feels Jared’s resignation, his fatalistic surrender to his own biology. Jared doesn’t bother to let it upset him much anymore. When Jensen goes, Jared goes. It’s almost a relief.
“Well, I need you to try, Jared, okay? We’ve managed to mix things up so far, right? We’re not like other couples.”
Jared scoffs. “That’s an understatement.”
“So we’ll make history again,” Jensen goes on. “We’ll do things our way. Again. Rules are made to be broken, right?”
The clock chimes, reminding them both that they’re running out of time. They’ve always been running out of time, from the moment they met.
But things have changed since that day, years ago. These last fifty years have been a revelation and a surprise to Jared. He’s learned more about humans than he ever thought he’d want to. He’s learned to appreciate their short, mortal lives, not just because they don’t go on forever. There’s dignity in facing your own death. Courage. Jared’s impressed in ways he doesn’t fully understand.
Living among humans these past fifty years has made him grow up.
None of it makes losing Jensen any easier, of course. But it helps.
As the clock continues to chime, Jared feels Jensen stir, feels him snuggle into Jared’s overheated body. He’s trembling. Jared feels his fear.
Jared puts his arms around his mate, pulls him close.
“Shhh,” he whispers into Jensen’s hair. “It’ll be okay.”
As the clock strikes twelve, Jensen looks up, meets Jared’s eyes with his own deep green pools that have always reminded Jared of the ocean. As the sound of the final chime fades, Jared feels a wild surge of hope. Maybe Lisa was wrong. Maybe Jensen doesn’t die tonight. Maybe they’ve got another ten years.
Then Jensen gives a little shudder. His eyes go wide and his lips form a round “O,” but no sound comes out. His eyelids flutter closed and his body goes limp.
“Jensen?” Jared shakes his mate, but Jensen doesn’t stir. He can sense nothing from their bond. He bends his ear down to Jensen’s mouth, but no breath comes out. When he lays his fingers against Jensen’s throat he feels no pulse. “No, no, no, no.”
Jared’s not sure how long he stays there, holding his mate’s lifeless mortal body in his arms. But light is creeping into the room by the time he looks up. Jensen’s body has grown stiff and cold.
Finally, he forces himself to move. He wraps the body in bedsheets, flies back to the mainland, and calls Mackenzie from the apartment. The coroner comes and Jared stands in a corner of the bedroom, watches as they confirm Jensen’s cause and time of death. The coroner takes Jensen’s mortal remains away in an ambulance, siren silent as death.
Jared looks up to find Mackenzie crying in his arms. He goes through the motions of comforting her, calls her son and daughter for her. Jensen’s brother’s family calls. Jared and Mackenzie take calls all day, making funeral arrangements, talking to relatives and friends. Jensen had a lot of friends. Everybody liked him.
Nieces and nephews arrive with food. They make Jared eat, convince him to bathe, give him sleeping pills so he can sleep. He sleeps in the guest room, unable to sleep in the bed he shared with Jensen.
The next day passes much the same way. Jared’s dry-eyed and collected through the funeral, pausing only to touch the casket one final time before it’s lowered into the family cemetery plot.
“See you soon,” he murmurs, too softly for anyone to hear.
Jared returns to the apartment to clean it out, planning to remove all of Jensen’s clothes and personal items, but he finds himself collapsing on the floor next to the bed instead. He cries until the floor is covered with diamonds. They cut his palms when he finally pushes himself up and staggers into the bathroom. He gazes at himself in the mirror, looking for any remnant of the man who promised to try to go on without his mate. All he sees is red-rimmed despair. Defeat.
“I can’t do this, Jen,” he says to his reflection, to whatever piece of Jensen is still inside him.
He gets no response, of course. If Jensen’s immortal soul can hear him, it’s not answering.
Jared takes a shaky breath, nods. He knows now what he’ll do. “Okay,” he says. “Okay.”
It takes a week to get his affairs in order. Mackenzie comes over twice to check on him, and Jared’s good with her. He doesn’t break down, doesn’t let on about his plan. He holds her close on the last day, breathes in her scent, thinks maybe there’s a tiny bit of Jensen’s scent there, in her DNA.
“I’m going away,” he tells her. “I need to clear my head, process this whole thing. Here’s where you can reach me, if you need to.” He hands her his card with his other, other cell number on it, the one he keeps at the cave.
He knows she won’t call. Or maybe she will, one day when she’s feeling particularly nostalgic, when she’s missing Jensen and her parents and needs to talk to someone who remembers them.
Maybe he’ll still be coherent enough to answer, to laugh over yet another childhood memory she needs to share with someone who cares enough to listen.
Jared leaves the apartment on standby, mail suspended, utilities turned low or off until his return. It’s standard procedure, a series of steps followed a million times over the past fifteen years when he and Jensen have left the apartment to travel. Jared doesn’t even think about it as he does it.
Maybe he’ll follow up one of these days with the landlord, let the man know he’s not returning this time. Maybe he’ll just let it go. Rent’s set to be paid automatically from his bank account indefinitely, but Jared knows he won’t be back.
He’s a coward. He knows Jensen would be angry with him for dropping out of life this way. He’s going back on his promise.
But Jared can’t help it. Every fiber of his being wants to curl up and die. Without Jensen, without their bond, Jared can’t go on. Fighting that takes too much effort, feels impossible. He knows he’s letting Jensen down, but Jensen’s not here to see it. Jensen’s gone.
As he soars into the night sky, he takes one last look back at the human world, the world he shared with Jensen for fifty years. He hopes he did some good. He hopes Jensen will forgive him for bailing.
He’s halfway to his cave, flying on autopilot, trying not to think about what’s to come, when he hears it. At first, he assumes it’s a trick of the wind, but then he hears it again.
A male voice, rising in song, cresting on the wind like a wave.
Jared blinks, concentrates, and the voice rises again, unmistakable now. It’s coming from somewhere ahead, in the direction of Jared’s cave.
It sounds like Jensen.
For a moment, Jared thinks he’s hallucinating. There’s no way Jensen can be singing out here, for obvious reasons.
Then he feels a rush of hope.
Jared increases his wing-speed, soaring higher where the air is thinner. When he sees the beautiful naked man lounging on the rocks below Jared’s cave, he knows it’s Jensen. Jared dives down, hovers in the air above the man, torn between staring in awe and grabbing the man into his arms.
Jensen’s a merman. Jared wonders now how he never figured it out. With his sea-green eyes that always made Jared think of the ocean, his graceful, powerful limbs obviously made for swimming, and his pointed ears meant to turn into fins when he was underwater.
Jared can almost see the shape of Jensen’s large, powerful tail, outlining his bare legs on the rocks. Jensen leans back as a wave crashes over him, smiling his little secret smile as droplets of water glitter and shine on his pale skin in the moonlight. His fingers and toes are webbed, Jared observes, and Jared can see the hint of fins under his elbows, retracted now that he’s not swimming.
“Hey, sweetheart,” Jensen purrs, blinking up at Jared. Drops of water dangle enticingly from his eyelashes, and Jared wants to lick them off.
“Jensen.” The word slips like a prayer from Jared’s lips, like the gratitude Jared feels for Jensen being returned to him.
“Call me Jensen,” he tells Jared. “It’s better, anyway.”
After some particularly athletic reunion sex, during which Jensen proves to be much less fragile than he was in his human body, Jensen explains why he chose to become human.
“Honestly? I was lonely,” he tells Jared. They’re lying together on the rug in front of the fire, Jared tracing circles on Jensen’s bare chest. He’ll never stop touching him. “I was the last of my kind, Jay. I missed being part of a group. I missed belonging.”
“But why human? If you figured out a way to transfer your soul to another creature, couldn’t you choose to be... anything?”
Jensen smiles, reaches up to tuck an errant lock of hair behind Jared’s ear.
“The Sea Witch who performed the spell on me was a powerful psychic,” Jensen says. “She told me I would meet my true love if I took human form. She said I would never be lonely again, but I had to live out my life as a human first.”
“A Sea Witch,” Jared repeats thoughtfully. “I wonder if Danneel knows her.”
Jensen scoffs. “I doubt it,” he says. “Ruth is over a thousand years old. Like me.”
“A thousand years,” Jared muses. “Wow.”
Jensen nods. “The sea was teeming with Merpeople when I was a child,” he says. “Then about five hundred years ago, they started to fade. Merpeople left our city in groups and couples, never to return. My father sent out search teams, but those teams never returned. My father finally went out to search for the others, but he never came back, either. I lived alone in our empty city for another three hundred years before setting out on my own search. By the time I met Ruth, I had traveled thousands of miles without finding another living soul. She told me I was the last one. She didn’t know what had happened to the others, and I never found out.”
“Oh, Jensen, I’m so sorry,” Jared breathes. “You must have been so lonely.”
Jensen lifts his sea-green eyes to Jared and smiles. “Not lonely anymore,” he says softly.
Jared blushes, ducks his head, leans into Jensen’s warm hand as it slides across his cheek.
“I’m sorry to die on you, babe,” Jensen says. “I can’t imagine how awful that must’ve been. You didn’t know for sure that you’d ever see me again.” He shakes his head. “I never should have made you promise to go on living the way we did. You’re not human. You couldn’t go on pretending you were. It was unfair of me to expect that.”
Jared shakes his head, kisses Jensen’s palm. “You couldn’t know how it was for me,” Jared says. “Even with our bond, you couldn’t really know what it’s like to live forever.”
Jensen slides his thumb along Jared’s bottom lip. “You were so brave.”
Jared huffs out a breath. “Big old coward, more like,” he says. “I was coming back here to die.”
Jensen nods. “I know,” he says. “That’s why I was right here, waiting for you.”
Jensen leans up, captures Jared’s mouth in a long, deep kiss.
“What do you remember about your human life?” Jared asks when they finally come up for air.
“Everything,” Jensen says. “It was a good life.”
“It was,” Jared agrees.
They’ll fly back to the apartment eventually, check in on Jensen’s human relatives. Jensen will take Jared on an undersea voyage to visit his deserted home town, where Jensen’s immortal body lay entombed for eighty years while his soul was occupying his human body. Jared will hear stories about life there and the long, sad history of the merpeople. They’ll travel the world, always checking in on humanity, doing what good they can do.
But for now, Jared’s content to lie here with Jensen, watching the sun rise and set over the sea they both love, feeling Jensen’s love and contentment through their bond.
Living with Jensen’s impending loss has changed him, Jared thinks. He’ll never take anything for granted again. Even immortals can die or fade away, as he’s just learned about Jensen’s merpeople.
Jared pulls Jensen close, kisses the top of his head, and breathes deep.